Suicide and the City

This week a gloomy statistic revealed what most of us already know – the UK’s capital city can be a lonely old place.

A Populus poll found that over a quarter of London’s residents suffer from loneliness on a regular basis, if not all of the time.

Walk through the capital’s murky streets on any given evening and you’ll see the proof in this particularly abject pudding; the ruff of hair poking out of an isolated sleeping bag in Charing Cross station, the bamboozled tourist being pushed and shoved by busy locals on Oxford Street, the mass of smart phones, MP3 players and earphones preserving Londoners’ personal bubble on public transport.

It’s a daunting environment, a perpetual machine powered by the constant buzz of its restless innards. It is also the fire engine of the UK’s dominant service industry, residence of countless cutting edge artisans and has just hosted one of the most successful and critically acclaimed Olympics of all time.

But success comes at a cost. The capital’s pervasive gold rush has been closely shadowed by rises in levels of depression and especially loneliness. A third of us don’t know who are neighbours are. A similar proportion of us feel there is little or no sense of community where we live. How can we be surrounded by so many people, from so many walks of life, and yet still feel this isolated?

This is where Ziggy Stardust rolls in. David Bowie’s androgynous creation rocked the western world in the early 70’s with a tragic story told in electrocet through the 1972 album Ziggy Stardust and the Spider’s from Mars. It was the tale of a creature whose career as a rockstar on a foreign planet brought limitless success, but who eventually “made it too far… and sucked up into his mind”.

It’s a classic tale of reaching dizzying heights, losing all sight of perspective and becoming trapped by your own success. Contemporary London teems with these people. Take the City workers, the cornerstone of the UK’s economy and the scapegoats of its recent collapse. They’re employed in a garish environment obsessed with electronically selling, buying and controlling unfathomable amounts of assets and capital. The bankers are paid well for their work, with six figure salaries being the norm (Barclays pay their investment bankers an average of £236,000 per year).

Unfortunately, suicides in the City’s ‘Square Mile’ are also the norm. Perhaps the most apt metaphor for tragedy is not Ziggy, but instead the spate of rooftop suicides that have gripped the City in recent years. The jumpers are people who have reached the pinnacle of their careers; they’ve the money to dine on extravagant rooftop restaurants and live any life they choose to. And yet they choose to take their lives by leaping from these great structures of capitalism – the Willis Building and the Coq d’Argent – vividly illustrating their distaste for the glitzy city lifestyle that they and their neighbours indulge in.

A lifestyle dominated by a philosophy pioneered by a curious American immigrant of the 20th century, Ayn Rand.

Rand believed in Objectivism and Rational Egoism. In layman’s terms, she put forward an argument that suggested that we should all look after ourselves. Not only this, she believed that if we were all self-serving then we’d create a better world for everybody.

Practically and therefore morally, she argued, we’d all be better off as Scrooges than charity cases.

Her works are now largely discredited and yet their content has shaped the western world to a greater extent than any other theorist of the modern era. For Capitalism rules our world, a system that promotes the freedom of the individual and is inherently Randian in its nature.

And London is right at the centre of modern day Capitalism. Towering over the rest of Europe as a shining example of the free market’s extraordinary power to cultivate wealth and push people and nations to dizzying heights. But the ‘look after yourself’ philosophy that created the City of London is also creating an insular society, characterised by a lack of understanding or care for anything outside. This is what is driving our loneliness.

We’re so self-occupied, so driven by shaping ourselves and knocking ourselves into our idyllic representation that we’ve forgotten the millions of people around us. As HuffPo journalist Ashleigh Brown succinctly puts it; “We stamp and scramble over one another, whilst pretending that there is nobody there.”

Like London’s ceaseless rush hour traffic, it’s difficult to see where this all ends.

But perhaps all we need to do to see where our path of rampant self-obsession will take us is to take a look at how Ayn Rand’s own life ended. In 1982 the moral enemy of altruism and compassion died aged 77, incredulous, widowed and alone.

Images courtesy of:

robertsharp & Herry Lawford  

This article was originally published on Westminster News Online

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