Friday 20 September 2013

The Life, the Heart, the Elephant

In his 1967 novel, Towards the End of the Morning, Michael Frayn describes the house-hunting strategy (hopelessly optimistic, as it turns out) of John and Jannie Dyson:

They decided to find a cheap Georgian or Regency house in some down-at-heel district near the centre. However depressed the district, if it was Georgian or Regency and reasonably central, it would soon be colonized by the middles classes. In this way they would secure an attractive and potentially fashionable house in the heart of London, at a price they could afford; be given credit by their friends for going to live among the working classes; acquire very shortly congenial middle-class neighbours of a similarly adventurous and intellectual outlook; and see their investment undergo a satisfactory and reassuring rise in value in the process

In the end they settle for a Victorian house in an unfashionable district, which remains, to their disappointment, stubbornly ungentrified. 

Kingsley Amis takes a sharper crack at the self-congratulatory attitudes of the Dyson class in his 1971 novel, Girl, 20, when his narrator, Douglas Yandell, visits Islington:

I had been rather expecting to find the streets deserted, the buildings uninhabited, having been quite recently told by a left-wing bassoonist friend and his left-wing harpist wife that they were among the first people to have moved into the area. 

It was in Islington that my parents began their married life and had their first five children (I came along later). But they left in the 50s before it was smartened up. Forty years on, when Tony Blair and Gordon Brown made their alleged pact in an Islington restaurant to take turns at being Prime Minister, Islington was already well established as a yuppie enclave. The descendants of Amis’s left-wing musicians had shifted their attention to Notting Hill and the East End.

Among ‘down-at-heel districts’ near the heart of London, our own neighbourhood, the Elephant and Castle, has been relatively neglected by the colonizing middle classes. In contrast with Islington, where old buildings cluster around a village green, the heart of our neighbourhood is a frenetic figure-of-eight road junction, and a shopping centre whose main floor, both inside and out, is at a subterranean level to allow convenient access through concrete underpasses. This probably looked stylish in an architecture’s drawing in 1960. Now its Bladerunner grimness is redeemed only by the people who inhabit it – market traders, shoppers, commuters, mothers with pushchairs, old people sitting on the bench outside the hardware shop as though this really was a village green – as cheerfully diverse a crowd as you could hope to meet anywhere on the planet.

In the immediate vicinity, the kind of terraced housing the Dysons were looking at is in short supply. This was always an ill-favoured area. In Shakespeare’s day, the suburbs south of the river had more than their share of prisons, brothels and slums, and were a natural home for the disreputable theatre business, beyond the puritanical jurisdiction of the City of London.  In George Gissing’s 1894 novel, In the Year of the Jubilee, Nancy Lord is overwhelmed by the place. ‘It was a district unfamiliar to her, and repulsive. By the Elephant and Castle she stood watching the tumultuous traffic which whirls and roars at this confluence of six highways.’

After the war, an extensive area of Victorian back-to-back housing, of the kind that now – damp-proofed and fixed up with indoor plumbing – would change hands for upward of half a million, was marked for slum clearance. The houses were demolished in the 60s to make way for the massive council blocks of the Heygate estate. The nearby Pullens estate, an area of tenement flats named after their enterprising Victorian builder, narrowly escaped demolition in the 70s and is now a local landmark, with its cobbled yards leading to purpose-built workshops that are still rented by the council to jewellery makers, potters, photographers, architects, web-designers and other creative types.

With terraced housing now out of the reach of most first-time London buyers – even reasonably affluent professionals – the new trend is for apartment-living. Recent private developments, each with its allocation of social and affordable housing, have filled industrial spaces on either side of the railway line that runs southward from Elephant and Castle station. Not far away, our own new building stands on the site of the Victorian workhouse that was, some believe, Charlie Chaplin’s childhood home.

Such developments offer rich pickings, for the developers themselves and for global investors seeking trouble-free rentable units. The 22 acres of the Heygate estate, whose unfashionably Corbusian buildings have been allowed to fall into neglect, has proved irresistibly attractive. And in the current political climate, which favours economic brutalism over the architectural kind, requirements for affordable homes are being squeezed. After a war of attrition between Southwark Council and the remaining lease-holders, the whole estate is ready for demolition. Like Islington before it, the Elephant and Castle seems destined to go up in the world.

And as in Islington, there will be winners and losers. The winners in Islington included existing home-owners who lived through a boom in house prices, those who had the good luck to move in early, and the estate agents who rode the wave. Losers included the renting class, people living in bedsits and boarding houses who had to make other arrangements when their private landlords sold to owner-occupiers. The story at the Elephant is more stark: a community of 3,000 people broken up, council tenants dispersed to outlying areas, lease-holders bought out, some with compulsory purchase orders, at prices equivalent to a one-third down-payment on a new apartment on the same site.

Southwark council looks like a loser too, having spent almost as much money emptying the flats as it got for the land. Truth also loses out. Along the way, Heygate acquired an undeserved reputation for crime, partly because, in its neglected condition, it became a popular location for TV series, including Luther and Top Boy, and for films such as Harry Brown. After filming there, Michael Caine called for its demolition, describing it as a place where children ‘grew into animals’. The crime figures for the estate, which were, in fact, relatively low, suggest that he was mistaking fiction for reality.

Winners include the developers, a global corporation based in Australia, who have no investment in the social fabric of the neighbourhood, only in its property values. The change to Islington was made up of thousands of private decisions. Here the whole thing is being managed on a monolithic scale and proclaimed on hoardings and banners like a new gospel.

Change is here.
Transformation starts now.
Be a part of it.
The Life. The Heart. The Elephant

Kingsley Amis generally reserved his scorn for left-wing pieties, but I like to think these exhortations from the Church of Capitalism would have provoked him to comic paroxysms of rage. 

So where do we stand, Leni and I? Are we, like the Dysons, roughing it in the hope of future profit? Hardly. Our motive for living here is probably typical of most home buyers: we found the best compromise we could between location and living space, and settled for what we could afford. And what are our hopes for the neighbourhood? Mainly this: that the developers don’t go bankrupt before they’ve finished the job and that, for as long as there’s profit in it, they take good care of the goose that’s laying their golden egg. 

Thursday 5 September 2013

Syria – special case or old compulsion?

One of the challenges for the recovering alcoholic, I assume, is to resist the special circumstance, the one-off occasion. It’s my daughter’s wedding, my best friend died, my wife just gave birth. Surely one drink will be okay. I’m entitled to that at least. In fact, it would unconscionable not to toast her future happiness, not to see the old boy off, not to wet the baby’s head. It won’t be like last time, I promise. No more benders. This time I’ll know when to stop.

I think of this whenever I see America gearing up for another war. Just one little drink. One little surgically targeted strike. It won’t be like Iraq – which wasn’t going to be like Vietnam. This time it’s different.

And it is different. For one thing, the internal political scene in America has changed radically since the invasion of Iraq. Then there was Bush and his cabal of hawks, for whom the non-Islamist world was divided into the willing and the weasels. Now there’s Obama with his professorial tendency to mull things over and seek consensus. Bush had the Democrats backed into a corner and, in Blair, had a sidekick with the messianic self-belief and the political authority to drag Britain unwillingly into war. Obama won’t be helped by our own faltering coalition government and faces such visceral opposition from many in the Republican party that their desire to humiliate him might yet trump every other consideration.

And the external prompt is different. Saddam Hussein was a horrible tyrant, but his infamous attack on the Kurds with poison gas was already old news, and one could legitimately ask, why the sudden urgency? Assad’s chemical weapons attack is part of an unfolding humanitarian disaster. Bush’s audacious ambition for Iraq was to overthrow the regime and build a democracy in its place. Obama promises a highly curtailed aerial action – no boots, as they say, on the ground, and no decisive interference in the civil war.

Different and yet strangely the same. First in the tendency for reasons to proliferate: we must punish Assad, we must send a message to Iran, we must prevent chemical weapons falling into the hands of terrorists….

Secondly, in the way these multiplying reasons circle round to create a new meta-reason: America can’t be seen to back down. Which is another way of saying that once the President has officially raised the question of whether to attack, the only possible answer is yes. In America they don’t call this saving face – the sort of private concern that afflicts elderly Chinese leaders – but maintaining US credibility, a phrase which elevates pride to a level of strategic importance.

Thirdly, in that very claim of difference: this time it’s special – but isn’t it always? And one effect of that emphasis on the uniqueness of this case is to keep everyone myopically focused, once again, on the ad hoc question – to go in or not to go in – and to distract from any analysis of principles: on what grounds may one country legitimately launch a one-sided attack on another, and is the USA alone entitled to take such unilateral action? And I know it’s a long time ago now but should America have been punished for napalm and agent orange, and in what form, and by whom, and would that have helped?  

And what about approaching the question from the other end? American leaders are concerned about tyranny and human suffering. They have these billions to spend. So how might they spend them most effectively – in offering additional help to refugees, for example, or in boosting global programmes of education and healthcare? Or to a man with a cruise missile must everything look like a target?

What’s happening in Syria is horrific. The handwashing of the isolationist right, in America or Britain, is not attractive. Liberal handwringing isn’t much to look at either. But it isn’t really about how we look or how we feel. It isn’t really about us at all. A century of meddling in the Middle East might encourage us to take the long view and hold back from one more violent intervention. Because a desire to fix something doesn’t equate to a power to fix it.

As the American commentator Chris Hayes has put it, the enthusiasts for war present us with a syllogism: Something must be done. This is something. Therefore this must be done. The logic is not very convincing.