On Thursday (24 June 2010), I had breakfast with Ken Livingstone. Meeting one of your heroes can be a daunting experience, and even more so if you’re not a morning person, you haven’t had much sleep, and the temperature’s already on a steep, sticky climb through the 20s. I never expected to be sitting at the same table as the legendary ex-Mayor of London in the first place. How does one address the great man, who has recently thrown his hat in the ring to be Labour’s candidate for the next London Mayoral election in 2012? Eight million Londoners- well, slightly less, if you exclude wee children- call him Ken, so I did the same.
The occasion was the first of this year’s Big Breakfasts, hosted by Blueprint magazine to tie in with the London Festival of Architecture. The venue was Smiths of Smithfield, a four-level bar and restaurant in a stunning conversion of a nineteenth century warehouse which feels more like TriBeCa than Farringdon. Smiths had laid on bottles of beer, the first time I’ve seen alcohol at a breakfast table this millennium, but wisely no-one touched them. Ken looked tanned in an open shirt, his hair had that kind of buzz-cut plaining on top that a US army barber knows how to give, and unlike me, he was entirely awake and on the case. Blueprint editor Peter Kelly was being the discrete host, talking to Ken with a quiet, focused reverence that some may remember ‘Whispering’ Bob Harris used to bestow on OGWT rock star guests. I was a couple of places further away, but my goodness here was my chance to get in some big questions before Ken’s address. Like, do you and Boris (Johnson) like each other, really? Was Hugo Chavez or Tony Blair easier to deal with, and aren’t they similarly blindly messiahnic? Why not force British Waterways to light London’s canals at night? Could Brighton be invited to be a London borough? What happened to the newts? Ah, if only my brain had been working…
Like Stephen Hawking, Ken talks in a flat machine monotone, and manages to instil trust with it and slip jokes in. Also like Hawking, he takes on black holes, even if they sometimes get the better of him, like Brown’s disastrously expensive PPP scheme for upgrading the tube. He said he’s a workaholic and thinks about things like Crossrail 3 even when he’s gardening. Crossrail 3, I asked, what’s that? Big train tunnels to connect Euston and Waterloo main lines. ‘Well, that would take the need away for your tram that Boris scrapped’ I suggested. ‘No, that’s local, surface transport’ he said. Are you pissed off that Boris takes the credit for projects that you instigated, I asked. ‘No-one thinks it took just two years to build the East London Line’ he replies. When I asked if he’d run as an independent if Oona King gets the Labour nomination as mayoral candidate for the 2012 London election, he said ‘that won’t happen’, meaning he dismisses Oona’s chances in the first place. Later, he said his plan to defeat her was ‘let her get on the radio as much as possible’.
Like Hogwarts schoolchildren eating on the headmaster’s table, all of us- Pete, Blueprint’s award-winning art director Patrick Myles and rising Welsh wizard writer Owen Pritchard plus Jocelyn Bailey of the Associate Parliamentary design & innovation Group- sat on best behaviour over breakfast. I didn’t make notes during the meal, it would have been too indiscrete. Luckily, I didn’t need to, because Ken’s talk basically recycled the breakfast conversation topics. Standing up, one can’t help notice that his girth has increased quite a bit since his fighting days leading the Greater London Council in Mrs Thatcher’s time. The breakfast was big- but that big? His fighting talk has transmuted into a sort of hybrid of sage’s wisdom and instant statistics (example: ‘In the recession, China increased its investment from 43% to 46%- we’re in the teens’), but he retains the common touch. ‘If it was up to me, I would declare independence (for London)’, he said. ‘We’d be in the G20… (perhaps) G18 above Turkey… Most of the rest of England hate us anyway’. Ken certainly would like more power if he got back. Effectively, London’s mayor controls transport and police- why not health and education? ‘The mayor should run everything… but not defence. I’m mainly on the side of our enemies in most wars!’ Ken’s wicked humour just can’t help popping out…
He confided that Prince Charles had never tried to bend his ear about architecture, President Lula wanted a partnership between London and Rio and that Ed Balls was totally solid man when they talked Crossrail funding face-to-face without the yes/no cloud of advisors to frustrate the imperativeness of the issue. He’s a great name-dropper. Of his erstwhile rival, he said: ‘Boris (Johnson) doesn’t in believe anything except that people like Boris should run everything and people should be grateful’.
When Ken’s eight-year tenure as London Mayor ended with this year’s election of Boris, Londoners probably didn’t realise what they were losing. Yes, he can charm presidents and pensioners with equal ease, and his pro-London stance is a green, trans-racial, pro-people stance as well. But he’s also perhaps one of the great urban minds of our times. He understands how global cities compete and network. He gets it that densification, transport, sustainability and the public realm are city-boosting necessities that make life better for its ordinary citizens, and he’ll deal with the devil- be it the government or the developers- to get that agenda financed. An economic boom may have helped London bloom in the last decade, but the fruits of Ken’s single-handed mission to make London number one again are so distinctive- a congestion charge to turn back the tyranny of the car, buses everywhere, new trains snaking around London, affordable housing pushed into the most luxurious of developments, skyscrapers like the Shard and Pinnacle on the rise as visible beacons to match anything in the Pacific Rim. It’s hard not to like Boris, but Ken is in a different league. London needs him back- he got us level with New York and he’ll match the future Shanghai if we give him the chance.
And as he said after breakfast, ‘I’d be better at being able to control the machine’. Plus we’ll get some madcap entertainment every bit as good as Boris’ florid words, if not a little dryer.