Many of us can remember the day when the credit crunch became real for us. Most of us will also remember the day that it ended. The end of my own personal recession was February 21st.
I rose at four. Life has been grim for many months now and yet it has been surprisingly rewarding. Western liberals have a great horror of poverty because they have never experienced it. Life for the poorest of the world consists of work, authentic human contact and small pleasures. This is quite bearable provided one is not told every day that one is poor. Suicide rates are lower in the third world than in many wealthy nations- possibly because they do not have their poverty rubbed in their faces every day by the advertisers. Happiness is a subjective state after all.
I arrive in London around half past five which is before dawn. Even though I have been working in London for many years London is still an event for me. I feel a quickening of the blood, a sense of possibility and adventure and believe that anything is possible. This is never more true than the hour before dawn when the city prepares for the coming day. Unlike the majority of passengers I do not take the tube train but walk to work in order to save money. It is my favorite part of the day.
There is no better way to study the economy and life in general than to travel in this way. It is possible to overhear conversations on the train about family dramas and economic insecurities. For this reason I generally know which economic sectors are sinking and which are floating long before the economic data is released and can predict consumer confidence from the feel of a train.
My job involves traveling around London and visiting many different kinds of company. I can experience different work cultures and work alongside people from all over the world. Above all- I can simply walk around and observe how much capital investment is going on. Which building projects are progressing? Which have stalled? Are the coffee shops advertising for new staff?
Each area of London has its own economic story to tell. My train arrives at Fenchurch Street in the City and so this is the area I see most often. The City is an extraordinary place. It is only one square mile in size and yet it is one of the three great money centers of the world. One way of thinking about it would be a sort of Vatican devoted to Mammon rather than God. It has its own police force and its own bizarre and theatrical form of government which combines the constitution of a medieval city state with the energy of capitalism. This makes it a good place to check the health of the financial sector which is at the heart of the current crisis.
Five years ago the City was a rather dowdy place. A huge rebuilding programme was started prior to the credit crunch and has continued at breakneck speed. There are literally hundreds of new shops and cafes as well as a brave attempt to create a Parisian street cafe feel in a cold climate. Many construction workers are hard at work by 6am and the place feels like a boom town. The most encouraging thing of all is not the number of new cafes but the fact that so many of them are from chains that did not exist before the crunch.
I walked through Bloomsbury which is the more restrained area that surrounds the British Museum. This is an area populated by obscure scientific and cultural institutes that hardly anyone knows exist. Increasingly it is the home of hotels with discrete brass nameplates. This is the market working its magic once again. Britain has become a much cheaper place to holiday and this creating a hotel boom. Finally I arrived at Regents Park which is where I was to work that day. Most of the buildings overlooking this park are listed and therefore cannot be changed easily. Despite this I was surprised to find that my destination was undergoing its own renovations- including a hotel wing. I walked into the reception with a huge grin and waving at the receptionsits like a madman. "Good Morning! Good Morning!! Good Morning!!! The recession is over!!!!"