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City Without Brakes: A Conversation About London With Julien Temple

British historians have probably enjoyed 2012. Two big set pieces, the Olympic Games and Diamond Jubilee, proved the ideal invitation to reflect on where we have come from, who we are now, and where we are going

British historians have probably enjoyed 2012. Two big set pieces, the Olympic Games and Diamond Jubilee, proved the ideal invitation to reflect on where we have come from, who we are now, and where we are going. If would be a shame if this largely London-centric orgy of celebration - all the exhibitions, talks and cultural initiatives - put anyone off Julien Temple's latest documentary London: The Modern Babylon.

Given a limited cinema release and shown on the BBC in August, the film is now available on DVD and undoubtedly stands as one of the year's creative highlights - a thrilling, kaleidoscopic portrait of the unruly, unquiet capital. Having raided the BFI archives, Temple throws together moments, music and voices of ordinary Londoners to suggest a city never at rest, endlessly able to renew itself. The director, famed for Absolute Beginners, The Great Rock and Roll Swindle and three decades' worth of music videos, explained why London is "permanently in a state of crisis" when I spoke to him last week.

As a newcomer to London, what struck me most about the film was the recurring pattern of immigrants meeting resistance, before being assimilated and allowed to contribute something to the city. As Suggs says, "London doesn't belong to anybody, it's just whoever is on the go at any given moment."

Yes, back in the fifties immigrants were seen as strange, seen as threatening jobs, houses and so on. But there's been what I consider to be an inspiring journey, from the rejection of whatever seems alien to accepting it and even being proud of it. It's a journey that hasn't finished yet, will probably never finish. It gives the city a creative energy. It's one of the great things about London that it has been able to accommodate all sorts of cultures, something that many other cities around the world haven't done yet. It defines London. The city is about change. It never stays the same, right from the time it was a city that was speaking Latin, not Cockney.

A few months back Ed Miliband felt the need to apologise for "getting it wrong" on immigration during the New Labour years.

That bandwagon always stinks of hypocrisy. Governments and political parties try to make it a vote-winning issue when they know immigrants are vital to the economy. They have no real intention of stopping it because the whole country would seize up. A lot of these people employ them as their maids.

The term multicultural might seem an apt way of describing London, but it's probably not quite accurate in describing the rest of the country. Is London increasingly cut off from the rest of the Britain?

I think so. It's not just to do with immigration. It's partly to do with London losing all of its industrial economy and being turned into a financial economy. With the explosion of the City in the late eighties, the deregulation of the financial City, it brought a new level of wealth and that attracted people from all over the world.

For lots of people the London dream doesn't always work out as planned.

Yes, there are often a lot of illusions involved to get here. If you take a long perspective...if you think of the expansion of wealth at the height of the Victorian global empire, when London seemed the centre of the world, people from parts of the (British) empire then came to roost here, in search of some of the money that the colonies had helped bring to London, almost as though they've been looking for the wealth that was lost.

You seem to view London as a city that's always moving through various cycles. A year on from the riots, what kind of cycle is going on? Which stage are we caught up in?

You do begin to see London almost like a time lapse of some mutant organism, like a Triffid that grows tentacles, then withers, then grows again. London is almost permanently in a state of crisis under the surface. There is a fine line between what seems normal and things breaking down, like they did during the riots last year. There are cycles of extremes of inequality between rich and poor, like an elastic band, and when it stretches too far, it snaps back.

And the band is getting stretched at the moment?

Well, we're in a strange kind of phony period in between the decisions and the consequences really hitting. People are feeling the squeeze, but I don't think it's anything compared to what's coming down the pipe. As things get closer to a Spanish situation, there will be more problems on the streets, I would have thought. The image of Boris Johnson trying to sweep it under the carpet with the brooms is a sad one because if you don't learn from events like the riots, or are too scared to understand the deeper underlying problems, then they will be repeated.

Does the pace of change here ever worry you?

London is certainly more deregulated and less preserved in aspic than cities like Paris. Here you can rip down down this, or build that. In London, if you've got money, you can pretty much do what you like. There are no brakes in London...The values of greed, of treading on other people to get what you want, values that were established in the eighties are kind of enshrined now in Canary Wharf and in those yuppie riverside monstrosities.

It's strange how everyone is on the look-out for gentrification in their area. I've just moved to Hackney and everyone tells me it's changed a lot, and clearly it's still changing very quickly. But the outcome is never settled; money, aspiration, speculation - these things can always move elsewhere. You notice shops open up and close down a few weeks later.

Well, I lived in Notting Hill back when it did not have the associations it does now, and in the seventies, you would not have believed what has happened in the area could ever happen. So I suppose anything can happen almost anywhere in London. There are lots of pressures pushing people out of the centre of London, and that's been going on for a while. Places like Leytonstone are going to become the hippest areas of London and ten years ago that would have seemed absurd. It's just very bizarre.

London: The Modern Babylon is available October 29 on DVD, a BFI release.

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