Nudge, nudge: Beware behaviourists

IT hasn’t gone unnoticed that the same Brexit-peddling politicians who told us not to trust experts are now telling us to put our faith in, er…experts.

It’s a pretty transparent wheeze. When the Johnson government is inevitably held to account over its handling of the coronavirus crisis, it can try to convince us it was the experts that got it wrong.

It depends, of course, on how you define an expert. In the present situation, most of us would think of doctors, virologists, even logisticians who know how to get the right kit to the right people.

These skills are indeed represented on the government’s semi-secret SAGE, the somewhat self-regarding acronym of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies.

A drip-drip of leaks reveals, however, that its membership includes a clutch of so-called behaviourists and that they were behind much of the guidance it initially delivered.

It will have been the behaviourists who advised that the public would not accept being shut up in their homes or would rebel after a fortnight if they did.

If you’re not familiar with behaviourism, it’s a pseudo-science that starts from the standpoint that we’re all idiots who act according to our emotions rather than logic – all of us except the behaviourists themselves, presumably. It’s replaced astrology as the science of the age.

Whereas previous regimes would have used the threat of the thumb-screw or the gallows to get the public to behave, modern governments rely on the behaviourists’ subtle, subliminal messaging to get us to fall into line.

In the same way that we’ve switched from beating the pet dog as a way of training it, the behaviourists offer the prospect of a rewarding sweet to get us to do what they think is good for us.

These are the people who put “drink responsibly” labels on perfectly good bottles of gin and print pictures of diseased lungs on cigarette packets. If that doesn’t work, how about featuring an impotence sufferer contemplating a limp dick?

It is no surprise that behaviourism plays such a role in modern advertising – think of the Dan Draper character in the Mad Men series. His talent was to get people to buy stuff that they’d never known they wanted.

Needless to say, the UK government is a big fan. When the Conservatives took over in 2010 at the head of a coalition government, one of their first acts, apart from slashing all other public spending, was to splash out on a Behavioural Insights Team, the so-called Nudge Unit.

Part-privatised four years later, it is still part-owned by the Cabinet Office but has moved round the corner from 10 Downing Street where it was founded with just a seven-member team.

It now employs hundreds of staff on hundreds of projects around the world, from the US to Singapore, on the promise to “generate and apply behavioural insights to inform policy, improve public services and deliver results for citizens and society”. At least we export something.

It has come up with some real humdingers. They discovered for example that, if official questionnaires are written in plain English, people are more likely to fill them in. Similarly, if you offer a £5,000 lottery prize to encourage people to register to vote, more people are likely to do so. Who knew?

It makes you wonder how society functioned before they came along.

Sadly, they still have to cope with a recalcitrant public that insists, in the present crisis, on making up its own mind on the basis of listening to the concerns of doctors and nurses and ambulance drivers before it makes a judgment.

They question how coronavirus testing can be the right answer one day and wrong the next. They refuse to accept that the government always gets it right, as the death toll heads towards a European record.

When this is all over, let’s just hope for the government’s sake that the behaviourists can nudge the public into believing that, at the end of the day, everything that was done was all for the best.

London noir: queue here for the torture tour

THE Marshalsea.

Even the name sounds sinister, a hint of stagnant shoreline or a half-forgotten memory of Dickensian distress.

The name of what was London’s most notorious prison for 500 years from the 14th century comes, though, from the Anglo-French mareschalcie, the seat of courts and tribunals in Medieval Europe.

The jail was immortalised in three of Charles Dickens’ novels, most notably in Little Dorrit, whose heroine is born there. The author’s father had been confined to the Marshalsea when it had become principally a debtors’ prison.

The routine torture of inmates had been abandoned by then. But it was still a fetid, crowded place, even if there was beer on tap for those who could rustle up a few coppers.

Debtors they might have been, but they were required to pay rent.

It struck me as an appropriate spot to escape briefly the confinement of lockdown London. Only one wall, with a Historic Southwark plaque, remains from the prison compound that was finally shut down in 1842. Tucked away in a narrow alley off the Borough, you could blink and miss it.

Today, there were just two homeless men lounging in the small churchyard nearby, one chugging on a family-size plastic bottle of some indeterminate liquor.

Much as I love London, there is a dark streak at the heart of its psychogeography, from the remnants of the Malshalsea, to Newgate and the Bloody Tower.

And what other city would boast among its top visitor attractions an equivalent of the Jack the Ripper tours that follow the trail of the unknown serial killer who eviscerated his women victims around Whitechapel.

Not far from the Marshalsea is the Clink, the site of another prison, dating from the 12th century, whose name entered the London vernacular, as in: “Ain’t seen Bill lately.” “He’s in clink.”

The old warehouse that replaced the jail is now the Clink Museum, a long-running tourist attraction dedicated to torture and imprisonment. There is even a mouldering skeleton in an iron cage above the door.

Then there is the pub at Tower Hill, once a regular spot for executions. The Hung, Drawn and Quartered has a sign outside on which the words of the 17th century diarist, Samuel Pepys, celebrate one of those who died there.

“I went to see Major General Harrison hung drawn and quartered,” Pepys wrote. “He was looking as cheerful as any man could in that condition.”

Another tourist venue, the London Dungeon, a kitsch compendium of fake blood and gore, has mercifully been shut down by the pandemic.

And then there’s Scotland Yard’s Black Museum, and the pathology museum at Guy’s Hospital, where some exhibits are so gross only registered medics are allowed to see them.

Now, don’t let me put you off visiting London. There’s plenty of other more cheerful stuff. But, beware a dark night down by the river, or getting lost in some back street in the East End, or straying into Angel Lane towards remnants of the Marshalsea…

The London Museum has a gallery dedicated to War, Plague and Fire. Let’s just hope they don’t add a coronavirus wing.

CoronaV: Where’s Fleet Street when you need it?

FLEET Street is a pale reminder of its former newspaper-era glory. Nowadays it’s just another street, with the City at one end and the West End at the other. Under the coronavirus lockdown it’s more lifeless than usual.

The glass-fronted art deco building at number 120, formerly the Daily Express’s “Black Lubyanka”, today looked not so much shut as abandoned.

There was a time when the front door never closed. Ditto at the Reuters building opposite, or at The Telegraph up the road, or all the other news organisations that had lined London’s Inky Way since the scribblers first moved there more than 300 years ago.

Until the 1980s, there was a 24/7 jostle of journalists, printers, copyboys, messengers. Newsprint trucks and paper delivery vans choked the side streets and buildings shook from the rumble of the presses.

That Fleet Street has been dead for a generation. And it wasn’t a virus that killed it, unless you count Rupert Murdoch. He started the exodus from Fleet Street in 1986 when he moved his Sun and Times titles east to Wapping to end an epic battle with the print unions. The printers were all sacked.

Other owners followed the trend and newspaper offices were scattered around the capital. It took another 30 years for Fleet Street to be officially declared dead when Scotland’s Sunday Post closed its London office in 2016.

I remember walking past the Express building when I was about 14. A film crew had pasted masking tape across the Streamline Moderne frontage to simulate cracks. It was the location for the 1961 film drama, The Day the Earth Caught Fire, in which the Express’s archetypal Fleet Street editor, Arthur Chistiansen, played himself.

Arthur assigns two of his top men to investigate the crisis provoked by the earth being knocked off its axis, threatening to incinerate the planet.

They did what any self-respecting hacks of the time would have done. They went straight to the pub.

Pub culture was very much part of the old Fleet Street. Four pints and a sausage roll was the usual fare for lunch and a livener or three would lubricate consultations into the evening and beyond.

It only occasionally got out of hand. My friend and colleague the late, legendary Ron Thomson, used to boast that he was once fined a tenner by the Bow Street magistrates for an offence described by the arresting constable as “staggerin’ in the Strand”.

Each outfit had its favoured bolthole. In my Reuters days, it was a cellar bar we nicknamed Mrs Moon’s after the slight but intimidating harridan who ran it. The bar had somehow been overlooked when the developers shut the Falstaff pub upstairs.

Mrs M ran a tight ship alongside son Billy, a tall, bespectacled and intimidating Millwall fan, Bill the barman, an ex-merchant seaman, and the lunch lady Armpit Lil who would wipe away the sweat with the kitchen teatowel if she got overheated.

(Today’s picture is of closing time in the mid-‘80s. I’m centre-left, looking towards the camera as I make an important point. Ron is the Scottish slaphead at bottom second right.)

It’s easy to romanticise the good old days before the era of clickbait and Twitter in which everyone seems to think he or she is a journalist or influencer or whatever. People who would have trouble composing a coherent thank you letter to their granny daily denounce the Mainstream Media.

Journalism has certainly changed. In the old days, before the advent of media studies, kids would enter straight from school and do an underpaid three-year apprenticeship before being let loose on the reading public.

That said, the modern generation still try to keep up traditional standards of accuracy and sourcing.

In that tradition, the Sunday Times and Financial Times recently exposed some of the ineptitude of the government in its tackling of the coronavirus crisis. Whitehall responded, using rather more words than the offending articles, with obfuscating replies. PR Week judged the government’s response “long and rambling”.

Some of the usual suspects in the Twittersphere think the media should now be standing foursquare behind the government as it confronts its own version of the D-Day landings.

But, as in Christiansen’s and Thomson’s day, the role of the press is not to pat officials on the shoulder for a job well done but to constantly press them for straight answers.

The old Fleet Street may have gone, but the principles that guided the best of it hopefully live on.

The London skyline: What did the foreigners ever do for us?

RIGHT! Quiz time!

Question one: Where is the only thatched roof in London? (The picture is a bit of a giveaway for anyone who knows Bankside). Answer: Shakespeare’s Globe.

Question two: Who was the tireless campaigner who defeated municipal naysayers to recreate the theatre just yards from its original site. Answer: Sam Wanamaker.

Question three: And what was Wanamaker’s nationality? Answer: he was an American.

That’s right. It took a foreigner to seize the opportunity to embellish London with this tribute to England’s bard when the locals were all saying it wasn’t feasible. “What has Shakespeare ever done for Southwark?” the leader of the local council once asked Wanamaker.

The former actor turned theatre director, chased out of the US in the McCarthy witch hunts, didn’t quite live to see his vision realised in 1996. But he posthumously got his Tudor-style theatre, and he even got the thatch, otherwise banned in London since the 1666 Great Fire.

We Londoners like to think we cherish our architectural glories and culture, but it often takes an outsider to visualise the possibility of a city so little committed to a uniform style.

For sure there are familiar elements, like London bricks, that add to its overall character. But it took 18th century French Huguenot silk-weavers to fashion them into some of the city’s finest houses that still survive in Spitalfields.

In more recent times, architects such as the Hungarian-born adopted Londoner Ernö Goldfinger stamped their mark on post-war London with their Modernist, Brutalist towers.

Not everyone was a fan. The prickly Marxist was furious when Ian Fleming appropriated his name, and some say his character traits, for his Bond villain Auric Goldfinger.

Later still came Zaha Hadid, Iraqi-born and another adopted Londoner, who gave us the Serpentine Gallery and the London Aquatics Centre used for the 2012 Olympics.

London is a jackdaw of a city when it comes to design. We’ve borrowed the baroque and the classical, the modern and the brutal. Behind the Tower of London, built by a Norman, we’ve got the Gherkin and the Cheesegrater and the Walkie Talkie, and right opposite is the Qatari-owned Shard, designed by an Italian, Renzo Piano.

It’s unlikely he would have got to plonk it in the middle of his native Genoa but then London has always been more mix than match.

A French friend recently noted that in the average terrace in the City of London there are rarely two buildings in the same style. He sort of liked it.

The Globe, of course, is a one-off, not least because of the thatch. In 2008, a bunch of thatchers turned up with 800 bundles of sedge from the Norfolk Broads and 10,000 English hazel spars to repair it.

The theatre was sadly shuttered today. Just a few people were jogging past – no! don’t start me on that again!

The annual Shakespeare season is threatened but, if you’re interested, you can catch up with past productions online.

Lockdown London: Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide

I DON’T want to sound like a broken record, but we’ve got to do something about the joggers.

I’m not among those who are now petitioning that they should be interned without trial. I wouldn’t even fine them. I propose instead that they should be sent on compulsory spatial awareness courses. What part of ‘six feet’ don’t they understand?

Since I complained that joggers had replaced seagulls as the new feral menace in lockdown London, some have suggested I am confusing joggers with runners. I fear I have yet to appreciate the subtle distinction.

An example. I turned round for a second the other day as a white van driver managed, in an otherwise deserted lockdowned street, to crash into the kerb. Silly him and silly me. Before either of us had a chance to recover, Miss Lycra zoomed round the corner and right up my arse. Self-distancing it wasn’t.

Now, was she a jogger or a runner? Understandably, she was in too much of a hurry to either explain or apologise.

If you’re a London stroller, even in normal times, you get used to these pests. You’ll be ambling down the river path, enjoying a fag or looking forward to a rewarding pint at the end of your jaunt, and suddenly behind you there’s an aggressive, crowlike screech of “ ‘scuse me, ‘scuse me!” as one – or worse, a murder of them – elbows past.

I mean, seriously…just because you have go-faster Nike stripes on your plimsolls doesn’t give you right of way.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I would die in a ditch for anyone’s right to wheeze pathogens into my face as they head out for their half-hour of mandated exercise. Social-distancing is a recommendation, not a diktat.

That said, it’s not all about you, guys! Give the rest of us a bit of space. I know the iPhone app says ‘straight ahead’ but taking a detour to skirt walkers is unlikely to dent your Olympic prospects.

I could do a whole spiel about the selfish few versus the self-sacrificing many. But joggers/runners are people too.

Forgive me, however, if I speculate that some of these power exercisers – exiles from their usual fetid gyms – might also be part of that self-righteous cohort who usually love telling the rest of us what to do.

“No meat, less booze, put out that cigarette!” they like to tell us. They’re probably right, but no one likes being lectured to.

So, in our defence, I’d just like to suggest: “Walk, don’t run.”

Dirty doings down by the riverside

OUR gay florist hasn’t been seen for almost a month and I’m hoping he managed to make it down to Brighton before the lockdown.

I only mention that he’s gay because he plays it up as part of the semi-aggressive camp shtick he uses to deal with his customers. “Get your hands off my blooms,” is one of his favourites if a potential buyer dares to fondle the merchandise.

From the doorstep of his cupboard-sized shop in Shad Thames, he’s perfectly placed to follow the intimate inner lives of the locals. “That’s the last time I give HIM a blowjob!” he heard one elegant 30-something complain to her friend as she swanned past one day.

He’s thinking of writing a neighbourhood memoir on the basis of such encounters. His provisional title is “Shag Thames”.

The narrow cobbled street runs between converted warehouses that overlook the Pool of London. Dockers once rolled barrels across the overhead walkways that connect the two sides. They would be bemused to know the street now figures in the “most photogenic” list in London guides.

I think the florist may be on to something with his book if he manages to capture the slightly louche edge to the place, the expense account, hedge fundy feel of its restaurants, and the cool people, hot money breath that exudes from the riverside balconies.

The last working warehouse shut down in the early 1970s after the London docks closed. For much of the next decade, the empty buildings provided studio space for the likes of David Hockney and the filmmaker Derek Jarman.

Jarman lived for a while in one of the near-derelict warehouses during the area’s short-lived existence as an artists’ colony. He’s now got a blue plaque at Butler’s Wharf.

Then, in 1981, the big money moved in. A consortium led by Terence Conran won a bid to redevelop the warehouses for mixed use, which basically meant luxury flats upstairs and his expensive restaurants on the ground floor. The artists were squeezed out.

Conran and his mates wanted to seal off the riverfront for private use but thanks to a campaign led by the local activist Maggie Blake it remained open to the public.

Thanks to Maggie, who has a narrow alleyway to the river named after her, you can still walk past the restaurants and gawk at the suits on the terraces.

In its 90s’ heyday, Conran’s Pont de la Tour was one of London’s top dining spots. Tony Blair took Bill Clinton there once. The story goes that as they were about to leave, Tower Bridge was raised to let a tall barge through. Clinton’s Secret Service guys went nuts when they were told his convoy would have to wait: river traffic takes precedent over road.

It’s all a bit mournful these days. The restaurants are shut. It looks as if some of the city slickers may have headed off to their second homes or have maybe skipped bail to Spain.

Worst of all, though, there’s no florist, so we’re starved for local gossip until he makes it back from the coast.

Worried? French philosophers don’t always help

IF you’re feeling down, you can always rely on a French philosopher to cheer you up.

Take, for example, André Comte-Sponville, who this week advised his public not to worry too much about catching Covid-19 because eventually they’ll all be dead anyway.

For a French penseur, he was actually pretty upbeat, saying he’s decided to stay happy because it’s good for his health.

That reminds me of the great English philosopher Monty Python who counselled: “Always look on the bright side of life,” a dictum which, set to music, is apparently top of the pops as the sign-off at British funerals.

Comte-Sponville is certainly more upbeat than some of his philosophical predecessors, such as Jean-Paul Sartre with his wrist-slashingly gloomy “Nausea”, or the great Albert Camus, who suggested the only thing a sane man could do in the face of the absurdity of existence was to top himself.

Neither of the latter were particularly anglophile. They may even have been slightly irritated by the mundane practicality of their English counterparts and their more workaday vision of la condition humaine.

Some French thinkers, however, were among their countrymen who developed an affinity for England, and for London in particular.

There has always been a two-way traffic between the great cities of Paris and London. While English escaping their country’s stifling moral strictures headed for Gay Paree, French radicals were fleeing to London. It was the safest European haven in the 19th century as no foreigner was expelled from Britain between 1823 and 1905.

There were so many of them, the French police ran an undercover operation to keep an eye on the exiled agitators in London.

Voltaire lived in Maiden Lane, off the Strand, in the 1720s when he came to London to promote his epic poem “La Henriade”, censored in France, and to have the local French Huguenot community print it for him.

He used to go to Drury Lane Theatre and met Pope and Swift and took Isaac Newton’s theories back home to France.

In his “Letters on the English,” Voltaire expresses admiration for the Anglican religion but finds hard-line protestants overly strict. “No operas, plays, or concerts are allowed in London on Sundays, and even cards are so expressly forbidden that none but persons of quality, and those we call the genteel, play on that day.” Sounds like the average English Sunday in the 1950s or a day in lockdown.

“The rest of the nation,” wrote Voltaire, “go either to church, to the tavern, or to see their mistresses.”

Madame d’Avot, who wrote her “Letters on England” after spending 1817-1818 in London, wasn’t a total convert. “The English show greater fairness to other peoples than they do to us,” she wrote, “because those others are behind in the march of civilisation and excite less understandable jealousy than between two rival nations.”

Napoleon III lived just outside London at Chislehurst after the French kicked him out (see today’s picture).

Later, the writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline worked in London in the early part of the First World War. He even wrote a novel called “London Bridge”, set among the city’s underworld during the conflict.

Céline rather lost it in later years, churning out virulent anti-Semitic tracts before signing up as an active collaborator of the Nazis. So he wouldn’t really have fitted in with the Free French who were based in London in World War II.

Anyway, enough of that. Let’s leave the last uplifting word to André Comte-Sponville. “Today, on our TV screens, we see about 20 doctors for every economist,” he says. “It’s a health crisis, not the end of the world.”

Holy moly! Is Johnson a nanny state convert?

NO jokes today, as the topic is the National Health Service. As we all acknowledge, the NHS is like a religion in Britain, so I want no giggling in the back pews.

Like conventional religion, we tend to turn to it at times of trial and tribulation and pledge to put another fiver in the collection plate.

There is no doubting Boris Johnson’s sincerity after he rose Lazarus-like from intensive care, praising his bedside watchers Saint Jenny and Saint Luis and the host of ministering angels.

Unlike the taciturn Lazarus, born-again Boris rose from the near-dead to volubly proclaim: “We are making progress in this national battle because the British public formed a human shield around this country’s greatest national asset – our National Health Service.”

Funny, that. For the last decade, successive governments have been gnawing away at the NHS like woodworm in a cathedral roof. The rot in the rafters set in well before that on the back of Margaret Thatcher’s “no such thing as society” nonsense.

Her disciples preach that we should learn to stand on our own two feet, until the day they break an ankle and then it’s straight round to the state-funded A&E.

It’s not just the NHS that has suffered in four decades of market forces, “rationalisation” and creeping privatisation. Many of the welfare state reforms brought in by Labour’s near-skint post-war government have fallen by the wayside.

The journalist Stuart Maconie provides a catalogue of what’s been whittled down in his new book “The Nanny State Made Me” – public libraries and youth clubs, concert halls and council housing, parks and public transport, local authority schools and free college tuition, even municipal golf courses. And, of course, the NHS.

Some health services have been “consolidated”. The A&E at Guy’s (see today’s picture) has moved to St Thomas’s, where Johnson was treated. The hospital at Lewisham was saved only after a lengthy public campaign backed by Millwall fans (see Idle Thoughts passim).

Maconie’s book came out in that narrow window between Johnson’s election victory in December and the emergence of coronavirus.

He notes that the dismissive “Nanny state” label is a particular favourite among that tiny minority, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, who actually had a nanny!

“Working class people, in fact most people,” he writes, “the many not the few, have neither sneering contempt nor quivering fear of the nanny state.”

Maconie’s subtitle is: “A story of Britain and how to save it,” particularly relevant right now as we hunker at home, with many worrying how they will survive a looming recession in which their jobs may be gone forever.

Johnson’s government has pledged gazillions to keep everyone going as we confront the crisis, although many complain that the promised dosh is taking a while to come through.

On the day after, will the government replenish the NHS’s collection plate? Now that the scales have fallen from Johnson’s eyes, will he and his big-spender cabinet converts attempt to turn back the clock on government cuts to the nanny state that made us?

Don’t hold your breath.

Viral art lesson: Come and see the naked nymphs

THE fountain below my window features a group of seemingly timeless naked bronze water nymphs relaxing around a pond.

Timeless, until you take a closer look at the objects they placed at the pond’s edge while they took their dip. There’s a bronze harmonica, a cassette player, a camera and a pile of books, even a box of paints and brushes. What? No smart phone, or iPad or wireless earbuds?

Antony Donaldson’s sculpture, put there in 1991, is just so 20th century! The Pop Art era artist’s predilection for portraying youthful, sexually confident women striking flirtatious poses also seems to belong to a bygone age – unless you count Instagram.

Donaldson’s work is evidence that life unfolds in tiny increments, which is hard to recall at a time when our lives seem to have changed overnight.

There was no single day on which cassette players disappeared or mouth organs and water colours went out of fashion. But in the less than 30 years since Donaldson created his fountain, our lives have been transformed by technology and the poolside scene now looks almost as quaint as a Victorian oil painting.

A younger generation marvels at how people survived past pandemics without broadband, Zoom and permanent contact with absent friends via Facebook and Twitter. In those days, there would have been no broadcasting from the kitchen table for either TV anchors or their interviewees.

There have been other changes in the intervening years. Round the corner they built City Hall, where Boris Johnson lorded it as mayor before he became prime minister, further proof that progress doesn’t necessarily travel in a straight line.

The old wino pubs in nearby Tooley Street were shut down or transformed as the developers cashed in on riverside London in a former industrial part of town.

A bunch of chancers took over the freehold of our block a few years back before selling out to Southwark Council at a profit. I forget their name but it ended in “Jersey LLP”, never a good sign.

They almost trashed the place during their short tenure, changing the colour scheme, extending the elegant columned shopfronts by architects Wickham van Eyck, and building a white elephant pavilion next to the fountain.

They also renamed the development from the ritzy 90s’ Tower Bridge Piazza to the more solid Courage Yard, after the Courage Brewery that previously occupied the site.

They wanted to move the nymphs and the fountain to a more obscure corner but faced a rebellion by tenants and leaseholders that saw off that particular threat.

The ugly glass pavilion has been occupied pro tem by Zoopla, the real estate tracking company that is headquartered off the square. I assume the 400 staff have been sent home where they continue to beaver away on that vital house price sector.

“The closure of estate agency branches and general uncertainty has resulted in far fewer sales agreed in the last two weeks, with less new supply coming to the market,” its research director lamented last week.

But, eager to prove that every cloud has a silver lining, Zoopla later recorded a 215 per cent increase in potential buyers viewing new-build homes virtually. Customers view the home on a mobile phone or computer from various vantage points and can click for more information. Apparently remote rich foreign buyers have been using the system for years.

Personally, I think it would be no bad thing if prices came down a bit as the economy slows down. I moved in at the height of the the property crash of the early 90s’, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this next to the nymphs right now.

Easter lockdown: It’s gonna be a Long Good Friday

I SAW the day in by rewatching The Long Good Friday, which seemed appropriate on a Good Friday that is likely to seem longer than usual while we’re all stuck at home.

The 1980 London-based thriller regularly features among Britain’s 100 best films. I would put it squarely in the top 10.

The late Bob Hoskins stars as the cockney mobster Harold Shand, with Helen Mirren as his upper-class gangster moll. Harold is top dog in London’s East End and wants to go legit by redeveloping the city’s docklands with the help of American mafia investment.

In a film that gives supporting roles to crooked city councillors and dodgy coppers, Shand’s project flounders after his minions cross the Irish Republican Army at the time it was waging a bombing campaign in mainland Britain.

I won’t spoil it if you haven’t seen it yet, but it doesn’t end well.

It’s a bit of a period piece now. When Harold returns from a trip to New York, it’s aboard a Concorde.

Filmed in 1979, the year Margaret Thatcher came to power, it touches on Britain’s then aspiration to be at the heart of Europe.

“I’m not a politician,” Harold tells his guests aboard his yacht near Tower Bridge. “I’m a businessman. I’m a Londoner. Our country’s not an island anymore. We’re a leading European state.”

Sounds like a Remoaner to me.

The script was written by Barrie Keeffe who, like me, started out as a journalist in the East End. We lived in the same street in Greenwich around the time he did the film. In those days the view north from Greenwich Park was towards the abandoned docks before the era of the skyscrapers that would replace them.

Harold Shand’s fictional project never got under way. But, in real life, the docklands were indeed redeveloped. After the docks closed, the government adopted policies to stimulate redevelopment of the area, including the creation of the London Docklands Development Corporation.

That rather shadowy outfit had carte blanche to redraw the map of a vast swathe of the East End and Thamesside south London outside the usual planning restraints.

The Canary Wharf complex initially looked like a white elephant – who wanted to move out to the Isle of Dogs? – but eventually became the focus of European finance. Now, it even has a local international airport.

As Harold told his prospective mafia partners: “We’re in the Common Market now. Our future’s in Europe!”

In the four decades since Keeffe’s screenplay hit the screens, docklands has been transformed into a mega-modern outpost of the City of London, largely on the back of being part of Europe. The indigenous locals have been mostly squeezed out.

Many still believe it was an opportunity wasted. Too many luxury riverside penthouses and not enough housing for the majority, they would argue.

Post-Brexit, the future was already looking dodgy as the international bankocracy pondered moving out of London. Given the current crisis, prospects may be even worse.

Britain – well, not all of us – turned its back on Europe before Covid-19 struck. Brexiters tell us we’ll be better off on our own.

I don’t buy it. Come back, Harold!…All is forgiven!