What Would You Give London for Christmas?

by Les Back

16 December 2019
Originally published in our Old Blog.

The way people celebrate Christmas conjures, what Jennifer Mason and Stuart Muir call, a ‘social atmosphere’. The city comes to life differently at this time of year.  Even the style of gift giving can be imbued with, and shaped by, subtle associations with social class, ethnicity and urban social divisions. The festive glow of the illuminated decorations on the homes of London’s citizens can reveal clues about the changing relationship between class, culture and the politics of housing.  Christmas seems more and more to be only for those who can afford it.  Many Londoners living on low incomes just try and ignore the expensive commercial pageant that Christmas has become.  In the ‘season of goodwill’ those hurtful divisions and exclusions can be most keenly felt.

In this festive edition of Street Signs podcast Les Back asks colleagues at Centre for Urban and Community Research: ‘what gift would you give a city like London Christmas?’   In many ways the economic life of the city takes on garish and exaggerated qualities during this time of year.  It is a carnival of consumerism from ‘black Friday’ bargains to the Christmas markets.   So often these purchased gifts are unwanted and destined to be quickly cast off and end up in a remote landfill.  What does a city like London need today? What resources have been lost and what kinds of values need need to fostered?

The podcast starts with Les Back strolling through Leicester Square’s Christmas Market in early December.  He discovers the secrets of ‘real fake snow’ and talks to an elf at Santa’s grotto about festive capitalism.  Returning to Goldsmiths he meets sociologist Nirmal Puwar and talks to her about seminar festivities the need for better urban public spaces.  He then speaks to Trevor Blair who works on the front desk at Goldsmiths about the atmosphere of the college at this time of year and to Chloe Nast, the Research Administrator in the Department of Sociology, about the need for more random acts of urban kindness.   The edition ends with a visit to the home of sociologist Emma Jackson. She has been on maternity leave this year and we meet her daughter Joanie who this December will be celebrating her first Christmas. Emma reflects on her experience of motherhood and how it has made her think differently about city life and the need for better resources and services for children and young people in London. 

Les Back is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, and Director of CUCR.