‘Which is the greatest city in Europe?’

‘Without doubt the capital of my country, London’

‘What a city! Why ‘tis Babylon! How rich the most honoured man must be there!… And Paris; who is the richest man in Paris?

‘The brother, I believe, of the richest man in London’

Benjamin Disraeli, in his 1847 novel Tancred concludes that ‘London is a Modern Babylon’. In this abridged exchange taken from that novel, Disraeli’s young aristocratic crusader Tancred and a mysterious Syrian lady with ‘almond-shaped nails’ and teeth like ‘the neighbouring pearls of Ormuz’ make light of the London of this era as a city of wealth and domination – it exuded a decadence and a hedonism that spread to the blue-blooded and respected men of the rest of England, and enforced itself on the rest of the world. Disraeli’s claim supplies the reference for Julien Temple’s archive documentary, London: The Modern Babylon, but Temple largely dismisses Disraeli’s vision of London as a centre of affluence and antiquity; preferring, optimistically, to depict a London that is accepting and tolerant of all cultures, and comfortable with its diversity.

Julien Temple’s film career began with his capturing of The Sex Pistols and the punk movement of the 1970s. He went on to direct music videos for David Bowie, Janet Jackson and just about anyone who was anyone in music in the 1980s, and since has made a number of documentaries about ageing punk rockers, who all happen to be his friends, and a few uncharacteristic documentaries on various topics, including the relationship between the Romantic poets, Wordsworth and Keats (Pandemonium, [2001]) and a look at the ruinous state of Henry Ford’s motor city, Detroit (Requiem for Detroit?, [2010]).

Unafraid to experiment, Temple fuses times and cultures together, sometimes with a deft hand, often not. I’m confident that Requiem for Detroit? will be the last time we hear Shelley’s Ozymandias read over an Eminem rap. Equally, from London: The Modern Babylon we can be sure that Underworld’s Born Slippy has made its last appearance as a soundtrack to the absolute poverty of the 1920s East End. It is a fetish of Temple’s to attempt to blend old and new, or as he aptly describes it; ‘to smash together times’. He is fixated in showing the cyclical history of a city and to reveal lessons unlearned. Yet, much of London: The Modern Babylon is an arbitrary selection of our capital’s history, and it might have benefited from being even more arbitrary and less reductionist.

Many of the film’s vignettes, composed of archive footage from the last century, parade unique and personal portrayals of city life in London. A Caribbean-born musician tells of being offered rich white men’s wives in the sexual freedom of underground 1950s London. In the 1970s, an eccentric elderly lady named Grace decorates her flat with nude photos and the royal family. A modern market trader gloriously choruses ‘One pound fish. Very very cheap’ to customers as they pass, smiles now in tow. These individualistic scenes of London make for compelling viewing.

Temple insists on making order of these rare and mercurial vignettes. Informed by his punk origins, he is convinced that London is a city of revolution, somehow including in the two hours the Siege of Sidney St in 1911, the pyromania of the suffragettes after being sent to prison for arson and then setting fire to the prison they were contained within, the Cable St riots of 1936, the Notting Hill race riots of 1958, the 1968 anti-Vietnam demonstrations outside the US embassy in Grosvenor Sq, the power strikes and the Three Day Week of 1974, the rubbish strikes of 1978, the 1981 Brixton riots, the IRA bombings of the 1980s and 90s, the 1990 Poll tax riots, the July 7th bombings in 2005, last year’s London riots, and the Occupy movement.

Temple invariably suggests an influence of the culture of music in creating this revolutionary spirit of London, of the bold statements and subversive significance of The Sex Pistols, The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, The Small Faces. However, it is well known that if you require a good uprising leave it to the French, the Iraqis and the Russians, all of whom have limited penchants for punk rock songs of monarchic noncompliance or rhythm-and-blues-inspired concept albums. With no mention of mutinous cultural figures from other disciplines, such as Francis Bacon or Vivienne Westwood, and little mention of Damien Hirst, one must wonder why music deserves such special preference.

London: The Modern Babylon’s most redeemable moments are the sensitive portrayals of the immutable humour and rationality of the British people when faced with adversity. A woman looking back at her childhood in the slums of 1920s East London remarks on her home as an over-occupied dirty and grimy pit, but insists that it was, nonetheless, home. A white man who has had his house burned down in the Notting Hill race riots is asked if he is now bitter towards his black neighbours, he replies soberly ‘no’.

The reference to Babylon takes on a second significance in the film’s careful examination of money and its influence on London. Temple undoubtedly makes reference to Babylon in its Rastafarian terminology, as an oppressive power or corrupt society. He emphasises the concentration of wealth in our city’s centre and the pushing of the poor to the suburbs, the ‘dormitories of death’; he goes to some length to show the uneven distribution of wealth that London has endured over the last century. He highlights the priceless contribution of Irish workmen in building our housing, our offices and our underground, and the little remuneration and respect they received in return. He shows the plight of the recently arrived black immigrants in the 1960s, struggling to find work and receiving prejudice from white landlords and employers. And he articulates the Thatcher legacy of privatisation and the gentrification of once public land – the private roads and gated communities for the rich that apportion London and disengage people from communal activity.

Temple’s penultimate message returns to the revolutionary flavour that is the leitmotif of this film. He means to ask who owns this city and who the city should be providing for, and by so doing dishes out sharp disapproval of London’s powers that be: Boris Johnson and the Tory cronies. Through images of Johnson, broom in hand, literally sweeping the dirt under the carpet during the London riots and David Cameron condemning all involved as criminal, Temple critiques what he sees as the ignorant and punitive Tory attitude.

Julien Temple tends to leave the stage optimistically however. And he manages to predict the current public sentiment in his portrayal of London as the diverse Babylon that his title implies. As the medals continue to be won by British sportsmen and women, London is showing the gusto of its open-armed nature – in these past two weeks race and ethnicity have seemed especially irrelevant in a society whose racial tensions can still be sparked. A firm feeling of union and accord, of Britishness, is in the air and Temple’s film typifies it.

Next for Temple is a similarly ambitious attempt to digest Rio, the next Olympic city. According to him, making documentary films is the only way to articulate himself, or as he says: ‘writing an essay and illustrating it is bullshit to me’.

Essay by Christo Hall
Illustration by Mina Milk