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Times Literary Supplement: Whose London is it anyway?

Tucked away between office buildings by Euston station is where I found the Camden People’s Theatre. It’s a little place with colourful bunting, a cheerful selection of chairs and flowery plastic tablecloths. It’s the kind of theatre where you can buy a packet of crisps in the interval, rather than wasabi peas.

I went to see a talk and two plays that were part of Whose London is it anyway?. The theatre was packed with people, young and old, who came to see a festival dedicated to London’s housing crisis. Instead of tickets, we received playing cards.

At the talk entitled “Bland reform: Losing London’s subcultures”, panellists lamented the gentrification of London. The journalist and former sex worker Frankie Mullin spoke about the destruction of the “coral reef” of cultures in Soho, which took hundreds of years to grow. Queer spaces have been closed down. Artists can’t afford the rent. While sex workers have been pushed to work in places that are far less safe, developers capitalize on the area’s seedy reputation. Now “there’s a bar with a red light outside and cocktails named after famous prostitutes”.

“What’s happened to Soho?” has been a question for years, and it remains a pressing one. In 2014, a group of artists including Benedict Cumberbatch and Stephen Fry wrote a letter decrying the closure of the infamous nightclub Madame Jojo’s. In the same year, London’s street dance community lost its most important training ground in the Trocadero. Meanwhile, more and more street art is removed from the street to be put into museums. From Brixton to Hampstead, high streets are becoming indistinguishable – a desert of cultural sameness.

I was glad to hear another panellist, Mary-Ann Lewis, Euston’s Programme Manager at Camden Council, say that Westminster has special policies to protect the character of certain areas. She mentioned Savile Row, which is protected for its “special skill”, and a cluster of antique shops in Mayfair. But in policy planning, “character” seems to extend only to those who can afford to lobby for themselves.

A cabaret artist called Scottee talked about the closing down of council housing in the Camden borough, where a property developer, Christian Candy (whose children are called Cayman and Monaco), is converting seven listed buildings by Regents Park into a mega-mansion. Scottee lamented the displacement of working-class communities from central London. The theatre employees themselves currently face eviction from the council apartments above the theatre premises.

The highlight of the evening was an extraordinary performance called “Cuncrete” written by Rachael Clerke. The central character was Archibald Tactful, a middle-aged architect, dressed in a grey suit and a grey shirt, who was also the lead singer of a band called The Great White Males. The other band members included a property developer on the drums, a banker and a cabinet minister without trousers on the bass.

“Right to buy – nothing’s left to buy”, they sang. Interspersed was David Cameron’s voice intoning: “I want everyone to have their own home”. They sang about their achievements: “we split the atom – you take it for granted; we beat the Germans, we fucked the natives. The economy? One of ours”, and their vision for society: “art for everyone – on the Southbank”, while mixing concrete with champagne.

“We’re not archetypes, we’re as real as you are”, they said. It took some time for us to realize that all of the four band members were women dressed as men. Unlike drag queens with their hyper-feminine moves, this band of drag kings moved with a masculinity that felt natural, even though the characters they were playing were grotesque.

The final show of the evening “This is private property”, told the story of Ruth, a single mother, who is decanted from her council flat. She and her baby son go on to live in a homeless hostel, where she is forced to collect points (for such issues as hardship and mental illness) to qualify for a new place in council housing. In surprisingly humorous ways, the play explored how London’s property became bitcoin for the rich. 61 per cent of new-builds are bought as an investment. There are 80,000 empty homes in London. 85 per cent of homes sold in central London are sold to foreigners. “Dubai, Shanghai and goodbye”, they sang on stage.

At the end of the play, one character solved the housing crisis in thirty seconds, by suggesting rent controls, a ban on foreign ownership of London properties or at the very least a high enforceable tax on that ownership, and a land value tax to confront land-banking – the making of money by hoarding valuable land that has been earmarked for home-building. Another one suggested: “We let the housing crisis run its course. What do these people – the politicians, the developers, the super-rich – what do they actually want for London? Clear out all the poor people and anyone who can’t afford million-pound homes. They are going to wake up one day and wonder where’s all the fun gone, where’s the variety?”.

Cities in which talent and ideas thrive tend to be characterized by a melange of cultures, classes and ethnic groups. In The Geography of Genius, Eric Weiner explored the golden ages of cities such as ancient Athens, Renaissance Florence and Silicon Valley. Their downfall, he wrote, came with creeping vanity, when “bling has reared its shiny head”. London, I fear for you.


This article was originally published in the TLS on 10 February 2016:

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