Poet he may have been by trade, but John Betjeman’s other passion was for architecture; in post-war London, it was handy having someone with the kind of clout Betjeman possessed as the capital was consumed by a mania for finishing off a job the Luftwaffe had begun. Ironically, many of the historic buildings that survived the Blitz were obliterated from the London landscape within twenty years of VE Day and not a single German bomb was to blame. Horrified by the prevalence of the compulsory purchase order, Betjeman even penned a play in which Westminster Abbey was to be demolished by developers and replaced with a hideous shopping centre.
The disappearance of such notable landmarks as the Euston Arch and the Coal Exchange were condemned by Betjeman and the nascent Victorian Society in the media and the public were eventually brought on board when their own homes began to be swept away and replaced by Brutalist redevelopment schemes such as that in the Elephant and Castle. St Pancras was saved from the wrecking ball thanks to Betjeman’s passionate persistence, hence the statue of him that now stands inside the station, and the intended plans for Covent Garden that followed were scuppered by a movement that emanated from the residents themselves.
However, if the unpopular town planning facelifts of the 60s and 70s are looked back on with a shudder, the fact remains that the merciless march of the developers has continued to this day, albeit free from the negative publicity that plagued each successive scheme of forty and fifty years ago. Concrete is an especially unlovable building material, but concrete was not to blame for past mistakes; today’s redevelopers have learnt from the errors of their predecessors and prefer to coat their constructions in glass – glass, glass, endless bloody glass. When rules were laid down to prevent the vanishing view of St Paul’s dome from the skyline, the luxury of being able to see one of the capital’s great sites from various locations was not applied to similar historical edifices. The commercial pressure upon London Corporation to relax tough planning regulations that were instigated for good reasons has resulted in the dramatic aesthetic transformation of the city when seen from a distance.
According to the ‘Nooks and Corners’ section of ‘Private Eye’ (a column originally written by Betjeman), London Mayor Boris Johnson has used his position to intervene in disputes between developers and local authorities no less than 13 times, with each occasion seeing Bo-Jo favour the developers. While the first flowering of skyscrapers in the capital were congregated in the City of London and Canary Wharf, Johnson and his predecessor Red Ken consistently gave the green light to the erection of several glass hard-ons along the river that have sprung up with worrying regularity over the past decade, usually appearing quickly without much in the way of prior public consultation, and have altered the visual character of the city as a consequence.
The latest proposed carbuncle, coming in the wake of the Shard, is intended to tower 72 storeys above Paddington, even though buildings in the relatively low-level borough of the City of Westminster are supposedly limited to just 20 storeys. No prizes for guessing the identity of the exterior material or the additional features to what will apparently be a residential block – shops, cafes, restaurants, the odd cinema, anyone? London is a city suffering from a chronic housing crisis, though I suspect the product of a hotel-owning firm from Singapore will probably not be intended as social housing. It seems a consumerist society can cope with the constant defacing of its capital city as long as money can be spent. Most discredited buildings in the 60s were office blocks or housing schemes – another lesson learnt.
The common assumption today is that listing a building spares it from redevelopment, but sometimes the tactic is exploited; because a building is listed, nobody can touch it unless it is deliberately allowed to slide into dereliction. Then it becomes regarded as a threat to public safety, a fire often breaks out that does enough damage to leave demolition the cheaper option to renovation, and before you know it a brand new glass erection is earmarked for the site – one containing numerous chain-store retail outlets, naturally.
The world-famous Smithfield Market in Farringdon is not only the oldest surviving wholesale market site in the capital (having being in operation from the 10th century), but since the relocation of Billingsgate, Covent Garden and Spitalfields, it remains the last in central London. This vast Victorian complex has been threatened with redevelopment over the last couple of decades, mainly the General Market and Red House buildings, which have been empty for several years.
As things stand, the future of Smithfield remains in the balance as competing interests jostle for the attention of London Corporation; one scheme proposed in 2012 involved the replacement of the vacant buildings with a predictable package boasting all the usual leisure facilities, whereas an alternative use for the General Market building was put forward by the Museum of London, vacating their site at the Barbican if they can raise the funds by 2021.
While the more famous London locations facing an uncertain future understandably grab the headlines, there are dozens of less celebrated sites that are poised to vanish as the go-ahead is quietly given with the minimum amount of pre-publicity – neglected Georgian and Victorian leftovers alike, situated in unfashionable neighbourhoods and discreetly off the beaten path. It is such odd, cockeyed constructions that have always helped give London its distinctive character, something it has retained against all odds. The Blitz not only saw the loss of thousands of homes, but several notable public buildings; yet, the battle that has raged since 1945, one of commerce Vs heritage, big bucks Vs beauty, The Man Vs the public, has changed the capital in ways even Goering could never have imagined. Our unique and eccentric little London could well be indistinguishable from Brasilia before we know it.
OF MOUNTAINS AND MOLEHILLS
Trump fails to turn hype into votes during US Presidential nominations! Cameron hails EU negotiations as major success! English football’s transfer deadline day sees no major signings by Premier League clubs! Google pays its taxes – or does it? Dakota Johnson and Leslie Mann (who?) hit on male interviewer in a way that two male Hollywood ‘stars’ hitting on female interviewer would lead to online assassination and public apology! The big question is do you give a shit?
Unless you’re an American citizen, the tedious marathon of a Presidential circus that makes a UK General Election resemble a one-minute mile means bugger all at this moment in time. You have no say, no vote, no influence; it’s the political equivalent of a prick-teasing lap-dancer and you’re the hapless punter who can look but not touch. Not that coverage over here makes that clear, however. It may have escaped your attention, but there was recently an election in Canada, where the son of a former celebrated Canadian Prime Minister was elected as the country’s leader for the first time; yes, America’s neighbours actually voted a new man into office rather than choosing which candidate is going to run for office at the end of the year. Not that the historical triumph of Justin Trudeau received much notice in Blighty, despite Canada’s Commonwealth connection to the Mother Country, something America severed 240 years ago.
Naturally, it goes without saying that the USA’s superpower status ensures its every political move will generate international headlines; but there does seem to be an obsession with US politics on this side of the pond that far outweighs the significance they have here. The ludicrous campaign to ban Donald Trump from setting foot on British soil attributed an importance to the loutish egomaniac with the silly hair that he really doesn’t deserve when he hasn’t even been nominated as the Republican Party’s Presidential candidate; those who launched the initial online petition to ban him were simply unknowing participants in his own PR machine. But we have a full year of similar headlines to look forward to as all of Britain’s media outlets allocate their political coverage to every twist and turn of a race that the British public can only watch from afar.
The non-event of the US Presidential saga, along with the non-event of Cameron’s EU ‘victory’, the non-event of football transfer deadline day, the non-event of the tax-avoiding juggling of a mega-corporation and the non-event of every showbiz story involving people few under 25 have even heard of perhaps demonstrates why this year’s remarkable run of famous deaths has dominated front pages and bulletins. The opportunity to wallow in a little nostalgia for past eras in which colossal figures bestrode a cultural landscape that was crowded with heavyweights whose impact still resonate serves as a welcome distraction from the here today/gone tomorrow teacups gently rattling courtesy of Storm Henry.
The need to sensationalise by elevating minor incidents to major events and thus engineering interest in them is a tactic that the newsprint media in particular has excelled at in recent years. Online competition has also led to TV news adopting similar hysteria when it isn’t warranted by using the methods of the advertising industry; just as the Mad Men can apply psychological trickery to persuade the people they desperately need something they actually don’t, news agencies now sell us stories that our lives would apparently be empty without knowledge of. I don’t know about you, but God knows how I would’ve got through the last 24 hours without them…
© The Editor