So, about that Nike advert, which was greeted with widespread ecstasy on social media when it was released last week. Some might say it was “just a commercial” – and, in one sense, it was. From one perspective, it was merely a three-minute celebration of some of the capital’s finest artists and athletes, a uniquely emotive seduction of the wallets of London’s young. From another point of view, though, it was particularly powerful. So many young Londoners, when watching this short film, reacted with an online euphoria that I hadn’t witnessed since the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympics. So many of them felt seen, and understood. Notwithstanding the passionate critiques made by several on Twitter – namely, that people of South Asian heritage were underrepresented in this commercial – it was a piece of work that struck a cultural touchstone.
At this stage, I had to take a step back and ask myself what was happening here. After all, we’d seen this before, this arrival of an optimistic new dawn and a brutal aftermath. Collective joy about the brilliance of the 2012 Paralympics didn’t stop the British Government from driving through a series of severe benefits cuts for people with disabilities. Nike has given us a timely reminder of how much young Londoners love their city – but, in truth, how much does their city love them back?
I don’t mean to be a party pooper. Really, I don’t. I’m based in Germany now, but having lived for many years in Hackney, Finsbury Park, Leyton, Brick Lane, Walthamstow, the Isle of Dogs and Croydon, this city and its surroundings are in my soul. It’s just that, overall, I think that London takes its young people for granted. In her recent report, “London’s lost youth services”, the Green Party politician Sian Berry observed that between 2011/12 and 2016/17 “the average council in London has cut its youth service budget by nearly £1 million – an average of 36 per cent”. Moreover, she notes that cuts of an average of 25 per cent are planned for the following year.
Elsewhere, the outlook seems equally grim. By the start of 2016, it was estimated that around 40 per cent of London’s live music venues, many of them important places for young people not only to go out but to cut their teeth as performers, had closed down. Seeing Giggs in that Nike advert, too, I was reminded that many of London’s rappers and grime artists have not only survived but thrived despite the city’s authorities, not because of them. Just a few ago, we saw the removal of the infamous Form 696, a police risk assessment procedure which for twelve years was used to cancel countless shows across London’s black – sorry, urban – music scene.
I think that Nike advert is significant because it shows us how much young Londoners have made a fightback against such considerable odds. Look how many of them, typified by the magnificent Little Simz, have looked at the difficulty of their circumstances and somehow made a huge success of them. But not everyone – in fact, almost no-one – is as gifted as Little Simz. The grind is brutal, and it shouldn’t be. Travelling around Europe, I am frequently struck by how much cheaper other cities are by comparison. London is a town where house prices are seemingly rising at the speed of sea levels, and where most young people can only look to home ownership as the vainest of dreams. (On bleak days, I wonder if some wealthy developers would be happiest if the city were one giant and pristine high-rise estate, surrounded by an immaculate lawn marked “NO BALL GAMES”.)
If London truly wants to encourage the youthful creativity so lauded by Nike, then it needs to subsidise it. It needs to provide a generation with far cheaper housing and robust contracts to protect them from rapacious private landlords. It needs to ensure that a simple journey from Zone 3 to Zone 1 isn’t financially daunting. It needs to prove to young Londoners from working-class backgrounds that they will be utterly welcome not only in its brochures and on its billboards but in its boardrooms.
Every week, it seems, I see a new article bemoaning the laziness of millennials – how they don’t work hard enough, don’t save enough, how they are ungrateful for what they have. How they are far too demanding. As I write this, though, I am preparing to teach a week of creative writing to a class of wonderful young Londoners – a group as nervous as they are determined, as gentle as they are inventive – and I am reminded that they are not nearly demanding enough. London must demonstrate that it deserves these people. I only hope that it accepts the challenge.