A TALE OF TWO CITIES

‘They thought they could snub the conventions of decent society when they seized the sixty-room mansion and transformed it into hippie house!’ No, not a Daily Mail leader, but the booming tones of the British Pathé News reporter covering the end of the celebrated squat at 144 Piccadilly in 1969. The film clip covering the Met’s raid on the property after it had been taken over by the London Street Commune, a loose collective of ‘hippies’ formed to highlight homelessness in the capital, is unsurprisingly one-sided in its perspective as what the narrator describes as ‘the spongers who call themselves hippies’ are evicted from the residence they’d occupied for a week. The commentary goes onto say ‘by their shameless actions, (they) disparage the plight of decent people who cannot find homes’. Decent as in those who regularly visit a barber, one wonders?

There’s no doubt what began as an admittedly ‘radical’ (in the jargon of the time) attempt to bring homelessness to the public’s attention worked as a PR campaign, and whilst there would have been deserving cases taking advantage of the operation, there would also have been a fair few rich kids slumming it and bumming around from one squat to another as they indulged in a bit of counter-cultural backpacking; the additional infiltration of Hell’s Angels and drug-dealers then made its dramatic ending inevitable. But the roots of many homeless charities we take for granted today were in such stunts and in that respect they served a purpose, even if the media coverage was more or less entirely from the viewpoint of the short-back-and-sides generation.

It’s interesting when watching the Pathé report to notice that virtually all of those being herded out of 144 Piccadilly look to be under 30. A good half-decade of Swinging London propaganda had attracted young people to the capital from across the globe, like monochrome moths drawn to a psychedelic flame, even though many of those arriving soon found themselves in a similar situation to the one that befell the lead character in Ken Loach’s landmark BBC TV play ‘Cathy Come Home’ in 1966. Today, London retains its attractiveness to the overseas eye, though there’s a glaring divide between those imported as a cheap labour force (with employers recycling the hackneyed excuse that ‘British workers won’t do these jobs’) and those with the big bucks to buy up huge chunks of the capital.

The tragedy that occurred at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington in the early hours of Wednesday morning has already been politicised, though not necessarily by politicians themselves. Whilst the cause of the appalling event would appear to have been an accident, the shoddy corner-cutting workmanship and lacklustre fire safety precautions that enabled the inferno to take hold of the tower block with such frightening speed seems to be symbolic of a vast chasm between rich and poor, not just in the capital as a whole, but in one specific corner of it, where the haves and have-nots sit cheek-by-jowl. London Mayor Sadiq Khan received a rough ride from residents when he attempted to give a media statement at the site, whereas Theresa May’s decision to avoid residents and speak to fire-fighters away from cameras and microphones was the latest PR own-goal of a PM giving Gordon Brown a run for his money in the ‘most unsuitable candidate for the job ever’ stakes.

Far be it from me to imply there’s any political mileage to be got out of this terrible disaster, but Jeremy Corbyn seems to have captured the mood of the moment in a completely natural manner that contrasts sharply with his awkward opposite number in Westminster. His ease with the general public has been demonstrated yet again in the wake of Wednesday’s events; of course it won’t do him any harm with the electorate, though it really would be churlish to suggest his visit to North Kensington and to the church where many of the survivors have congregated was some sort of points-scoring exercise. If it was, then he once again trounced Mrs May, who doesn’t seem capable of doing anything right at the moment.

During an emergency session of Parliament, briefly recalled to respond to the tragedy, Corbyn made a salient point about the housing crisis in London. ‘It can’t be acceptable that in London we have luxury buildings and luxury flats left empty as land banking for the future while the homeless and the poor look for somewhere to live,’ he said, and then added: ‘Kensington is a tale of two cities. The south part of Kensington is incredibly wealthy; it’s the wealthiest part of the whole country. The ward where this fire took place is, I think, the poorest ward in the whole country and properties must be found – requisitioned if necessary – to make sure those residents do get re-housed locally.’

The new MP for Kensington, Emma Dent Coad, is (lest we forget) Labour, though it has emerged she was actually on the board of the discredited quango running the flats on behalf of Kensington and Chelsea Council, the one that gave the green light to the fatal refurbishment of the block last year. That naturally doesn’t look good, though this fact has been overshadowed by the predictably hysterical headlines from the likes of the Mail claiming Jezza has called for private property to be ‘seized’ for the benefit of those made homeless by what happened at Grenfell Tower. This isn’t another example of his so-called ‘Robin Hood’ policies, but seems to me a genuine attempt to once more underline the social inequalities of life in the capital.

It goes without saying that these social inequalities have been part of London life for centuries; after all, what better chronicler of the capital than Dickens, who documented the disparity between rich and poor in fictional form over 150 years ago? Yet, the nightmarish scenario in North Kensington now looks like something that was a long time coming, just as the collapse of the Savar sweatshop in Bangladesh was in 2013. Jeremy Corbyn has managed to articulate the anger arising from Grenfell Tower better than any other politician, but people are angry. And they’ve every bloody right to be. That’s why they stormed Kensington Town Hall today. This could prove to be a crucial turning point in the way this country is run as much as Hillsborough was for the way our national sport is run. Time will tell.

© The Editor

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CLAD IN BLACK

I suppose there’s a genuinely valid point to be made about the manner in which Central London has descended into a shameless, superficial whore exclusively opening her legs for every disgustingly wealthy, greedy, grasping Oligarch and Arab to buy her favours and own her outright. Maybe. The appalling inferno that consumed Grenfell Tower in North Kensington in the wee small hours has led to a loss of life that we’ve yet to be told the extent of; but the suggestion that the spread of the fire may have been caused by the cladding recently installed around the tower’s exterior in order to make a characteristically ugly 70s council block more aesthetically easy on the eyes of the building’s luxury apartment neighbours could be summarised as the story of our capital city over the last twenty-five years in a nutshell.

The shocking extent of the blaze, engulfing what appeared to be the entire building, was reminiscent of a similarly horrific fire that destroyed the Summerland entertainment centre on the Isle of Man in 1973. Summerland had been opened for just two years, boasting swimming pools, games rooms, restaurants and dance halls all under one roof; it was intended to increase tourism by appealing to families, but the untested modern materials used in the building’s design proved to be fatal for those trapped inside when a fire broke out on 2 August 1973. The fact the fire exits were locked and bolted to prevent people sneaking-in without paying exacerbated the tragedy that unfolded, one that eventually claimed up to 53 lives – at the time, the worst loss of life via fire since the Blitz.

Images of the gruesome Summerland carcass were echoed in North Kensington today; the charred remains of Grenfell Tower even resemble a hideous evocation of HMS Sheffield during the Falklands War, whilst the horror of a tower block going so badly wrong is reminiscent of the Ronan Point disaster in Newham, East London, in 1968. And if the insulation wrapped around the building was indeed to blame for the speed with which flames swamped the building, there’s a hell of a lot of questions requiring answers.

Part of a social housing complex of the kind we will probably never see erected again – certainly not in Central London – Grenfell Tower has stood for 43 years. It was only last year that an £8.6 million refurbishment under the guise of ‘regeneration’ came to that corner of the capital, motivated in part by a desire to upgrade the appearance of the building, surrounded as it is by the architectural hallmarks of the mega-rich that have indulged in a ghastly game of Monopoly in recent decades. Planning documents for the regeneration of Grenfell Tower claimed the changes, little more than cheap cladding suggesting ‘gentrification’ of the shallowest order, was clearly intended to improve the view seen from apartments of a different nature in the nearby neighbourhoods.

It’s emerged in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire that residents had repeatedly aired fears of the block’s safety relating to fire, and it’s not too far-fetched to speculate that the materials used to insulate the tower were not necessarily the expensive variety proven to be non-flammable; such cladding is apparently commonplace when it comes to representatives of an unfashionable architectural era and corners are undeniably cut, especially when the residents of such residences are amongst the poorest in London. Fires have broken out in other London tower blocks in the last few years, few of which actually contain sprinklers; but it would seem potential dangers have been overlooked and ignored. And look at where that has got us.

An early and somewhat unlikely story of the fire starting via a tenant’s exploding fridge appeared to be one of those that are usually circulated, especially in the 24/7 news age, before facts have been established. But it’s seeming more and more likely that the materials used for the cladding of the building played a large part in the terrible disaster that has reduced what was home to hundreds of people to a charcoal skeleton akin to those we’re familiar with seeing in archive film of the Blitz. An outsourced private company running the flats on behalf of Kensington and Chelsea Council had been criticised by residents associations online long before what happened last night, but ears have been deaf to such protests until now. And now it’s too late.

ANITA PALLENBERG (1944-2017)

A Swinging 60s It Girl and one of many women whose immersion in the unhealthy circle of The Rolling Stones both made her and came close to claiming her, Anita Pallenberg was one of her era’s most exotic and alluring butterflies. Of Italian and German descent, she’d been amongst the hangers-on at Andy Warhol’s Factory until leaving New York for London; she then became the woman on the arm of the Stones’ most stylish member, Brian Jones, with the couple morphing into the stunning Siamese Twins of what Twiggy’s mentor and manager Justin de Villeneuve referred to as ‘the new social aristocracy’.

However, Jones was a troubled soul and it would seem the pair weren’t exactly well-suited; an ill-fated trip to Morocco with Brian and Keith in 1968 saw Pallenberg swap partners; she and Keith were partners in both the romantic and narcotic sense for the best part of a decade, though she bore him three children. Early on in their relationship, she played one of Mick Jagger’s two female companions in the sublimely dark ‘Performance’, a part that Keith remains convinced wasn’t entirely acted.

Anita Pallenberg had a few more notable movie roles, including a deliciously sexy villainess in Roger Vadim’s ‘Barbarella’, but her reputation as a Swinging 60s survivor in the decades thereafter was largely based on ‘Performance’. I pen this brief obituary because that film, as disturbing as it occasionally is, remains one of the most unforgettable and irresistible cinematic temptations I’ve ever been seduced by. Part of me still wants to be Turner Purple and still wants to inhabit that malevolently erotic household; Anita Pallenberg sold a dream that was also a nightmare, but I can’t see anyone today opening such a lascivious portal to such a divinely decadent world; and our world is all the blander for it.

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A BRIDGE TOO FAR

Viewed now almost as an appendage to Parliament, Westminster Bridge was once a tourist attraction for all the right reasons. During the construction of the original in the 1740s, the fact it was only the second major bridge erected in central London since Roman times provoked both excitement and opposition. The latter came from the Thames watermen, whose taxi service ferrying people from one side of the river to the other was perceived to be under threat; for centuries, old London Bridge, that marvellous medieval bottleneck crammed with houses and shops and permanently congested with traffic, had been the sole man-made edifice enabling the Thames to be crossed without the need for hailing a boat.

The sudden appearance of a new bridge was so novel a sight that during one of the periodical winters when the Thames froze over and a frost-fair was held on the river, the incomplete piers of Westminster Bridge served as part of the entertainment as visitors paid to stand atop them for a unique view of the city. This version of Westminster Bridge survived for just over a century before the current model replaced it, but it remains the oldest working bridge still in use in the capital.

Moving on, say the words Westminster Bridge to TV viewers of a certain age and chances are they’ll think of that iconic shot of the Daleks from the 1964 ‘Doctor Who’ story, ‘The Dalek Invasion of Earth’; the Time Lord’s arch-enemies gliding along the bridge with Big Ben behind them seemed to enhance their menace. A Surrey quarry masquerading as an alien landscape was one thing, but the natives of Skaro intruding on home territory convinced children they could turn a corner and run into a Dalek on their own high-street.

Of course, Westminster Bridge has now been added to the annals of infamous London locations on account of events that took place there yesterday, effectively erasing all past associations from the popular imagination. The Daleks are the kind of fantasy embodiment of evil we can understand and be excited by, just as we can Dracula or Darth Vader; but the greatest evil, as always, is harboured within man himself, not the creatures he creates. Patrick McGoohan got that when he revealed Number One in the controversial climax of ‘The Prisoner’ as being Number Six all along.

Any individual who can deliberately drive a car into a random selection of pedestrians and then stab a man to death either because he was wearing a particular uniform or simply because he got in the way inhabits a different league altogether, one that provokes repulsion and bewilderment because it bears so little relation to the evil of fiction that we’ve been familiar with ever since being told the story of the Big Bad Wolf’s encounter with Little Red Riding Hood as children. The real bogeyman isn’t a comfortable caricature, but too close to the realities of the dark side in all of us. Just make sure you get his name right.

Yes, it seems apt, considering the topic of the previous post, that the rush to be first with the facts following yesterday’s incident resulted in a catastrophic faux-pas on the part of ‘cool’ Channel 4 News, which tries so hard to be the ‘Magpie’ to Newsnight’s ‘Blue Peter’. With veteran host Jon Snow at the helm, a man who seeks to combine the broadcasting gravitas of David Dimbleby with the wacky tie wardrobe of Richard Whiteley, ably assisted by both Cathy Newman (a woman whose serious news presenter credentials have often been undermined by the occasional glimpse of stocking-top – check YouTube for evidence) and Krishnan Guru-Murthy (a man whose fat neck seems in constant danger of absorbing his entire head), the programme was caught out as it jumped the gun far too early in the aftermath of the afternoon’s confusion by naming the assailant.

Unfortunately, the man they named – Trevor Brooks AKA Abu Izadeen, a disciple of fellow jail-bird Anjem Choudary – happens to be serving a prison sentence at the moment and therefore couldn’t have been behind the wheel on Westminster Bridge. But he’s a fat ‘coloured’ bloke with a big beard, so the cock-up is understandable, eh? Sacrificing fact-checking and journalistic integrity in order to be first off the blocks in the perennial battle with Sky and the Beeb, Channel 4 News blew it big time and became a Twitter laughing-stock last night, even removing the offending section from the sixty-minute delay of the Channel 4 +1 service so their glaring error couldn’t be watched again. But the damage was already done.

As expected, the trickle of misinformation that occupied the hours following yesterday’s events was eventually superseded by a clearer picture of what happened and who was actually involved. The dead have been named, as has the perpetrator of the incident, and his name isn’t either Trevor Brooks or Abu Izadeen, surprisingly. It should serve as a warning to rolling news channels and all media outlets that deal with the news to make sure they get their facts right before broadcasting them, though I doubt they’ll take heed of the warning; the competition is too intense and the self-inflicted pressure to get a scoop to the public before the competitors do so precludes any old-school attention to detail.

© The Editor

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SPECULATE TO ILLUMINATE

Rolling news channels tend to break big stories in a melodramatic manner that invariably recalls the ‘War!’ episode of ‘The Day Today’ because rolling news channels for most of the time are about as thrilling a viewing experience as the test card – so many hours need filling and there’s often so little to work with. Therefore, when A Major Incident occurs, they can barely contain their excitement. At last, something to justify their existence! The first rule in the Major Incident manual is that the anchors abruptly disappear from the screen and effectively become radio presenters, as though seeing their perma-tanned countenances and lacquered coiffures will somehow belittle the gravitas of the news story.

The second rule in the Major Incident manual is to cut to a reporter on the spot, often one fairly low in the reporter pecking order, but the nearest on hand. Conscious this could be their Kate Adie-in-Tiananmen Square moment, their lack of experience is evident in the way they can’t keep a lid on the hyperbole by describing events in terms of ‘nothing like this has ever happened before’; there are also usually awkward-on-camera eyewitnesses shoved into shot for said reporter to quiz, ones whose accounts climax with the reporter asking them ‘how they feel’, as though they’ve just spoken to the Queen on a royal walkabout.

The visual lexicon of rolling news clichés roll on – there’s mobile phone footage shot in the wrong aspect ratio; there’s an expert in the studio the presenter can interview; there’s another expert down the line; there’s the distracting Sky Sports ‘Soccer Saturday’-style info blazing a trail along the bottom of the screen, basically repeating what we’ve already been told; there’s a ‘greatest hits’ compilation of images lasting around three minutes – aerial shots, people running away from whatever happened, police and ambulance crews doing for real what they’ve been though in endless hours of training, general panic and confusion – and it’s played out on a loop as speculation reigns. Throw in the phrase ‘Terror Incident’ to hammer home how serious this all is for good measure. As a means of finding out precisely what the hell is going on, one might as well consult the entrails of a sheep.

Following a phone-call, I stuck BBC1 on this afternoon and found it had turned into the BBC News Channel. From what I could gather, some nutter had driven his car into pedestrians on Westminster Bridge, exited his vehicle brandishing a knife, stabbed a copper, ran towards the Palace of Westminster, stabbed another copper, and was then cut down by an armed copper before he could get anywhere near Parliament. There was a report one member of the public was dead as a result of what happened on Westminster Bridge and an equally grim report that there was a body in the Thames. It would seem this was classified as a ‘terror incident’ rather than a knife crime on account of the incident’s location. I don’t know if there’s some sort of invisible demarcation line in London whereby, depending what side of it you’re on, the distinction is evident.

At the time of writing, the assailant’s identity has not been revealed. If he’s called Mohammed, I would guess that fits the terrorist bill; but as with any story of this gruesome nature, I wouldn’t expect to know many details so early after it taking place. Tuning into a rolling news channel in the thick of it is probably the worst way of trying to find out; the dazzling recycling of the same images over and over again intensifies rather than eases the viewer’s sense of bewilderment, while reporters not much more informed than the members of the public surrounding them are trying their best to give the impression they are. It’s like they’ve bragged they can recite a particularly lengthy poem, but when they get the chance to do so they don’t actually know it word-for-word.

JG Ballard famously opined that, for him, sensationalistic reportage of violent events began with the JFK assassination, which may well be true, though he lived most of his adult life in a pre-24 hour news TV age. Bar the old-school newsflash, which would interrupt a scheduled programme for a few minutes to report a breaking news story and then announce more details would follow on ‘The Nine O’Clock News’ a few hours later, the first time I remember a live event taking over the telly was the climax of the Iranian Embassy Siege in 1980, when the dramatic actions of the SAS in rescuing the hostages were just about Bond-like enough to vindicate the interruption and keep viewers watching. But it was a hardly a regular occurrence, more of an aberration in the way stories were covered.

As far as I can recall, the inaugural moment when the style of presentation viewers were again served up today gate-crashed mainstream television was 9/11; since then, any sign of an incident that can have ‘terror’ attached to it has warranted the same treatment. The problem is that nobody really knows what’s going on, certainly not in the first couple of hours following it, anyway. Sometimes, a degree of distance is required to provide a more measured response, but competing rolling news channels can’t afford to do that, so they have to keep showing the same images, repeating the same unconfirmed reports and indulging in speculative guess-work based on what they have so far. It’s not a very satisfactory source of information, to say the least.

It’s pointless me joining in the speculation with this post because I’m no more clued-up than you (if you’re reading it not long after I posted it, of course); I wrote it because I just find the reporting of these events in the immediate aftermath of them taking place incredibly frustrating and liable to induce the feeling of how the world is going to hell in a handcart, something I might not necessarily feel a few hours later when a clearer picture emerges. But the sad fact is we’re now all programmed to reach for the TV remote when we hear A Major Incident has happened, even if doing so leaves us none the wiser.

© The Editor

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MR. GREEDY

When newspapers were king, it was only natural the country’s capital had two competing titles. The Evening News was London’s long-standing rival to the Evening Standard for decades; many might still recall its memorable masthead, a red sun setting over a silhouetted skyline of prominent London landmarks (including the dome of St Paul’s); but the rivalry ended in 1980 when the Evening News was forced to merge with the paper it had comprehensively outsold during the 60s. Since then, short-lived rivals, such as Robert Maxwell’s ill-fated London Daily News, have failed to challenge the supremacy of the Standard.

A sign of changing times in the capital came in 2009 when ex-KGB oligarch Alexander Lebedev and his son Evgeny (who already owned The Independent) purchased the paper and within a matter of months relaunched it as a freebie. Previously, free newspapers had been cheap rags along the lines of Metro; that a paper with as long a history as the Standard could join the ranks of the giveaway titles seemed to suggest a demise was imminent, though the combined wealth of Lebedev and son could afford to keep the Standard as a non-profit making venture without any initial noticeable decline in journalistic content.

The Standard’s blatant cheerleading for the Conservative Party has certainly increased during the reign of Lebedev Junior (or ‘Two Beards’ as Private Eye is fond of calling him), culminating in far-from balanced coverage of last year’s London Mayoral Election; granted, it’s fairly customary for a paper to nail its political colours to the mast, but with the capital only boasting the one local paper, Londoners were presented with a rather lopsided view of the contest between Khan and Goldsmith. Lebedev also has a distinct appetite for advertising his famous friends, and his capacity for self-promotion has extended to endless plugs in the Standard for his vanity project, the London Live TV channel.

However, Lebedev’s latest move where the Evening Standard is concerned has surprised even his staunchest critics – the appointment of a serving Tory MP as editor of the paper, a man who up until last summer was Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. Gideon’s appointment has raised several issues. Whilst it’s not unusual for MPs to pen columns for Fleet Street titles or to have been editors of papers or magazines prior to ascending to the Cabinet, it is fairly unprecedented to have such a prominent politician at the helm of a paper, especially one whose demotion to the backbenches hasn’t exactly dented his income.

Osborne has earned £771,000 from public speaking since leaving the Cabinet – including £85,396 for just one speech last November; it lasted three hours, but I suppose anyone forced to sit and listen to it would probably have gladly trebled the fee to shorten the speech to three minutes. He has an annual salary of £650,000 as an adviser to Black Rock Investments – working one day a week (nice work if you can get it). He also receives £120,000 from being a ‘Kissinger Fellow’ at the McCain Institute, a think-tank based in Washington; that’s on top of his MP’s salary of £74,000 and whatever it is he’ll be paid for ‘editing’ the Evening Standard, a job Gideon seems to believe he can tackle first thing on a morning before breezing off to the Commons in the afternoon.

Losing one’s seat in Parliament, whether voluntarily or being voted out by the electorate, isn’t exactly the end of the world for most MPs. Labour’s Tristram Hunt recently stepped down from his Stoke-on-Trent Central constituency and walked straight into a lucrative job as Director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, and many MPs already have extremely well-paid directorships of numerous companies long before they exit Westminster for good. Therefore, it shouldn’t come as a great shock to discover George Osborne has managed to supplement his Parliamentary income with various sideline projects for a long time.

When it comes to a conflict of interests with his new appointment, the imagined impartiality of a newspaper editor is perhaps more wishful thinking on the part of the public when one considers how biased in favour of one particular political party most papers are, though Gideon’s Remainer stance when it comes to Brexit doesn’t suggest he’ll give the woman who sacked him last year an easy ride.

I would presume many journalists feel Osborne has been parachuted in by Lebedev as a celebrity editor – another of his well-publicised famous friends – over the heads of more qualified candidates, and their grievances are understandable. Fellow MPs are worried that Gideon’s greed in accepting payment for so many different jobs intensifies the public’s perception that most Parliamentarians aren’t necessarily committed to their roles as public servants and are more concerned with making as much as possible from their outside interests. Osborne’s constituents in Tatton, Cheshire probably wonder how much time he can devote to them and their town when his heart (or whatever stone-based object circulates the cold blood around his body) is so clearly in the capital. And with Osborne’s contemptuous attitude towards the sick and the poor in society from his time as Chancellor still fresh in the memory, this latest promotion paints him even more as a self-centred archangel of avarice.

A free newspaper with a serving MP as its editor – one with zero experience of what he’s been hired to do – might seem like a storm in a teacup, and in some respects it is; rich people handing posts to other rich people for the benefit of nobody but rich people. Why should we even care? But I suppose it’s hard not to get wound-up when confronted by another nauseating example of how the other half live and how we’re all in it together, with the exception of Evgeny Lebedev and his famous friends.

© The Editor

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DUBAI-BY-THE THAMES

UntitledPoet 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

TrumpTrump 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

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