Being a Londoner is very much part of my identity, although technically I’m not one. I was actually born in Cambridge and moved here at the age of 3, which means I’ve lived here 38 out of my 41 years. My ancestors (on my father’s side) were Londoners and my children definitely are – born only inches away from the Whittington stone on Highgate Hill, where the legendary Dick Whittington “turned back” (so they say) to become “thrice mayor of London”.
The spot is adjacent to the Whittington Hospital (a place I’ve visited MANY times over the past few years) and is marked by a very sad looking black cat.
You’d think the least they could do is mend the cat’s ear, though it does make him a kindred spirit of the many rufty tufty London moggies that roam the area.
Anyway, why am I thinking about London so much at the moment? Obviously the London elections are upon us – will we boot out Boris and restore Ken to his rightful role? Is he our modern day version of Dick Whittington? We shall see…
Although the London elections are a factor (I’ve been canvassing a bit in the past few weeks), my choice of reading matter has put London at the forefront of my thoughts.
In my last post I wrote about Leila Berg’s Just Kids; this week I read (or rather devoured) her famous book Risinghill: Death of a Comprehensive School.
I’ve also started reading John Lanchester’s “London novel” Capital.
Although they might appear to have very little in common – one a non fiction book, written in the late 60s, telling the story of an educational experiment in Islington, the other a work of fiction written over 40 years later that tells the story of the residents of a made-up street in Clapham – the two make fantastic companion texts. What both books reveal are the vast inequalities that exist in a city such as ours and also show the importance of housing to people of all classes.
In Berg’s book we have graphic descriptions of the rat infested slums inhabited by the Risinghill kids; the lucky ones live in council flats while the more unfortunate residents of the area (around Chapel Market – famous for its fruit and veg) live in crumbling old buildings that are owned by slum landlords. These are cheaper than the council properties – something that seems extraordinary to a contemporary reader – and cost the tenants about £3 a week. The wholesale gentrification of central London is hinted at – but only as a marginal, embryonic process in Islington, where the book is set. I have lived in Islington, and I agree that the glossy media image is only one side of the story – there are lots of very poor people in Islington and the rates of child poverty are shockingly high. However, you would find it hard to buy even the smallest, pokiest flat in Islington proper (ie near Upper Street or Angel) for under about £300,000 and would struggle to rent anything (even a studio) for under a grand a month.
Which makes the following passage even more piquant:
But there are not only these decaying dumps in Islington. Very occasionally, round Highbury or Canonbury, in a sudden secluded square that you might come on with a start in this district of murder, violence and prostitution, are cool, graceful, charming houses that might have been transported in a Heal’s van from Hampstead or Highgate, St John’s Wood or Chelsea, houses that have been bought up and given new and elegant life by writers, artists and actors with money to spend on them, houses that bizarrely have led to two restaurants in the antique market featuring in the Good Food Guide.
As I said, I lived in Islington for a while – in both a nice and very nasty place – the nice place I owned and the nasty place I rented from a very scary landlord. I also worked in Islington for years in a TV company literally round the corner from Risinghill (not that I was aware of the history at the time). I’ve always loved Chapel Market and the pubs and restaurants of Upper Street have always been a favourite Reese haunt. Reading this unfamiliar description of a familiar place that dates from the not so distant past – the book was written in 1968, two years before I was born – reminds me that what we accept as the status quo is often a temporary quirk. I’m not saying that the gentrification of Islington isn’t real – it is – but it is misguided to see anything as permanent.
This is probably why I’m such an avid consumer of history books – especially those relating to the recent past. They give me hope that today’s toxic world – of benefit caps that will drive poorer people out of areas they have lived in for generations, of telephone number sized bankers’ bonuses and of Boris Johnson – is just a historical glitch. If I’m being more realistic, I know it’s an eternal struggle (thank you, Karl) but whatever the case, what’s a done deal today, won’t be tomorrow.
Which brings us to Capital. I’m a huge fan of its author John Lanchester. I adored his book Whoops! which explains the sub-prime mortgage crisis, the credit crunch and the bank bailout of 2008/9 in fantastically simple language. I read most of it during one of my antenatal appointments – at the Whittington Hospital – and had a genuine “aha” moment. Lanchester’s conclusion (the book was published back in 2010) was that the crisis that followed the credit crunch was the ultimate missed opportunity for the world to turn its back on casino capitalism and work together to promote a fairer, less corrupt financial system. The man was right and the very title of Capital plays with the idea that London is now just all about money – the runaway cost of property is a constant theme in the book.
It’s set in a fictitious street in Clapham (I’ve lived there too and I’m pretty sure there isn’t a Pepys Road) and explains how the rising cost of property has changed the type of people who live in much of central London. In the 70s and 80s, you didn’t have to be rich to own a pretty large house in Clapham, or Islington, or Kentish Town or even Notting Hill. But as Capital shows, only rich people can afford a big house – enter financier Roger Yount and his family at number 42. They are a little bit of a stereotype; spending thousands on nannies, private education, holidays and pointless repairs to their home, but they do represent a real London trend.
There’s a side of me that thinks “fair enough, it takes all sorts”, but the problem with the banker classes is that their salaries insulate them (or should that be isolate them) from the rest of the community. They don’t really care if schools are failing or if local services are being shut down and aren’t really bothered if the estate across the road has become a no go area. Obviously, some wealthy people are active citizens – look at the amazing acts of philanthropy carried out in Victorian times that live on in the Peabody or Guinness Trust estates – but my fear is that a preponderance of people like Roger Yount and his family does not do wonders for a neighbourhood.
Reading both these books highlights my fear that London is becoming – or really has become – a very difficult place to make your home. Any decent housing has been snapped up by the wealthy, while poorer people – and even the middle classes – are trapped in either squalid estates or pokey flats that they can’t afford to move out of. At least in Berg’s book from the 60s, attempts were being made to clear the slums and provide decent, affordable homes. Yes, some of the council estates built in the 60s aren’t that great, but at least the vision was there. It was also possible for people other than the super rich to buy property in a relatively central location – I know that I wouldn’t have my place if I was ten years younger. I genuinely wonder what’s going to happen to our city is these trends continue, especially since there seem to be fewer and fewer job opportunities outside London and more and more people are coming here in search of work.
I’m a Londoner and I want this city to continue to be the place that I have loved for most of my life; a city that welcomes people from all over the world and allows them to be themselves. London is tolerant, it is diverse, it is fantastic. How sad it would be if it became nothing more than a theme park for the rich.