1500 Around John Islip Street, Pimlico, London, 30 November 2011. Notes written on Finnair.
I arrived in London on the day of the national general strike, the scale of which no-one could seem to agree on: it was somehow both the largest strike since the 1970s “winter of discontent” as well being as “a damp squib”, according to the Prime Minster. Even this disagreement is a manifestation of the deep schisms running through Britain at the moment.
I’m in town for 24 hours, for a meeting of neuroscientists and urbanists (notes on that here), at Lord North’s offices in the shadow of Westminster, and so I’m heading for a hotel in adjacent Pimlico. Despite gruesome warnings (media in disaster junky-mode) the strike certainly had no effect on Heathrow border control. I’ve never been through there so quickly; there were more staff on duty than usual (overtime increases in real terms in an age of austerity), and they were more or less waiving people through. A good day to be an illegal immigrant, not that I was. Anyway, it was a surprisingly efficient journey from plane to train to cab to hotel.
As I’ve pointed out before, London seems to have its own malevolent momentum, and so it’s sometimes difficult to trace the effects of the Great Recession here, at least on the surface. As the capital of capital it just keeps rolling on. It’s too big to fail, to re-coin a phrase. It’s been doing all this for a millennium and shows no sign of stopping any time soon. You can see evidence of the Great Recession of course, but you also see its counterpoint everywhere (though this may partly be due to Britain’s extraordinary facility with entrepreneurship in service industries like food and retail, and its exemplary media and marketing businesses, which are still perhaps the best in the world.)
Moving outside of Central London, you’d see more breakdown, of course (as was all too horribly clear in August's unprecedented urban and suburban riots) but overall the capital is performing as it has done for centuries. 'Tis but a scratch, a flesh wound. The rest of the UK—where most people live, after all—is not so fortunate, and so it is often bleak up north. And east and west. And south-west.
But London steamrollers along. I lived here for a decade or so, and it retains a pull on me. Even somewhere like Millbank and Pimlico—two dormitory suburbs in microcosm, caught in the gravitational pull of Westminster’s political capital—feel charming. This despite the blankness of the permacast sky overhead, the cold and damp of light mizzle (that’s a Northern sub-genre of drizzle, just so you know), monochrome avenues of pollarded trees, and the relative lack of activity on these perfectly scaled streets at the heart of the 10m+ person city.
The built fabric round here is very appealing: what look like unusually successful modernist housing blocks (squashed ziggurat-style streets of modular dark brown brick) sit alongside elegant, tall early 20th century public housing, improving on Shoreditch’s Arnold Circus prototypes of a few years earlier, and this all cheek-by-jowl with Georgian terraces such as those tucked around the back of the Tate Britain. This is all good, achieving a density of high potential energy at an easy human scale. (Not that I like the term "human scale"; it’s a little subjective, ironically. However.)
The problem is how these things hit the ground plane, or the street in layman's terms. The early 20th century stuff has no room for services, amenities and shops. Round the back there is a fascinating sunken gully for washing lines—you can imagine kids doing a BMX-based re-enactment in miniature of the Terminator truck race along the LA River down here—but little else.
The latter 20th century stuff has some built-in, which is good (although you get those awkward faux-English ye-olde-pub trappings screwed into the modernist brickwork that you see all over the country eg Park Hill), but no real critical mass.
So Pimlico lacks an obvious sense of activity—it may also suffer from the largely-empty-second-home renting pattern common to many areas surrounding parliaments and similar institutions—and so it fails to present an identity, at least obviously. There will be fascinating histories within all these spaces and places—this is London, after all—but strolling through you struggle to identify any there, there.Yet it still appeals. Save for the horrific bypass surgery imposed by things like Vauxhall Bridge Road, the streets are nice and tight, and easily claimable by people and bikes, and there is life around—just not quite enough of it, given the possibility the fabric affords.
The issue is probably those second-homes, as it is in all major cities (including Helsinki, where for Pimlico read Töölö.) I cannot see any justification for allowing second-home-ownership on any scale, particularly from an urban policy point-of-view. It completely undermines cities, and as cities are the lifeblood of virtually everything now, that’s not very smart. It merely views cities as potential pieces on a Monopoly board, which is the thinnest, meanest and dumbest slice possible through the layers of productive activity that a city enables. (Oddly Pimlico is even absent from the Monopoly board, by the way, despite its propinquity with London’s various centres.)
From a fiscal policy point-of-view, I’m sure preventing second-home-ownership on any scale wouldn’t be a strong proposal; but again, any good urban policy is essentially a fiscal policy, and the increased business and capital of all kinds generated by people actually inhabiting areas like this in the numbers the built infrastructure affords, means this urban policy scores as fiscal policy too. Just not one based on property value.
London throws all this at you, even when you’re just wandering around largely empty streets. The devaluing of genuine value that the city (and City) has often stood for can’t be ignored on its empty streets (it’s why they’re empty) or its busy streets (it’s why they’re full.) The streets that are full today, here and now at 1600, are full because of the strike, and in particular, an entertaining little skirmish on Panton Street ostensibly between the CEO of Xstrata (which in actuality turns out to manifest itself as police) and what are reported as various Occupy offshoots.
The idea of austerity underpins and drives all this at the moment, as the government attempts to drive through radical reform with little mandate (arguably). I’ve been reading the late historian Tony Judt’s memoirs recently—‘The Memory Chalet, (2010)—which are a wonderful read in many ways. With the perspective of a long life well-lived (albeit one tragically cut short by Lou Gehrig’s disease, which he also writes about movingly), I found Judt particularly interesting on austerity, in comparing what it used to mean, in those years following the end of World War II (remember Ballard saying it was as if Britain lost the war), to what it means now. A taxi driver I spoke with earlier reminds me how it feels when “the benefits of austerity” are being extolled by Old Etonians.
“I don’t think I fully appreciated the impact of those early childhood years until quite recently. Looking back from our present vantage point, one sees more clearly the virtues of that bare-bones age. No one would welcome its return. But austerity was not just an economic condition: it aspired to a public ethic …. In politics (now), (the) ceaseless chatter and grandiloquent rhetoric mask a yawning emptiness. The opposite of austerity is not prosperity but luxe et volupté. We have substituted endless commerce for public purpose, and expect no higher aspirations from our leaders. Sixty years after Churchill could offer only “blood, toil, tears and sweat,” our very own war president—notwithstanding the hyperventilated moralism of his rhetoric—could think of nothing more to ask of us in the wake of September 11, 2001, than to continue shopping. This impoverished view of community—the “togetherness” of consumption—is all we deserve from those who now govern us. If we want better rulers, we must learn to ask more from them and less for ourselves. A little austerity might be in order.” (Judt, 2011)
But note that Judt's austerity is very different to that on offer now. By the way, Judt is also good on the merits of meritocracy, what he describes as “the incoherence of meritocracy: giving everyone a chance and then privileging the talented”, as well as his comfort with his own socially-informed and socially democratic ‘elitism’.
“Universities are elitist: they are about selecting the most able cohort of a generation and educating them to their ability—breaking open the elite and making it consistently anew. Equality of opportunity and equality of outcome are not the same thing. A society divided by wealth and inheritance cannot redress this injustice by camouflaging it in educational institutions—by denying distinctions of ability or by restricting selective opportunity—while favoring a steadily widening income gap in the name of the free market …” (Judt, 2011)
Note the idea that an elite can be remade anew through elitism, albeit one diversifying through a productive "incoherence", and also the idea that education cannot be a sticking plaster over an increasingly unequal market-based organisation of society.
But I also read Michael Young, who actually invented the word ‘meritocracy’ in his novel of 1958, as a warning more than anything, and in particular his 2001 article on what had happened since, written during the Blair government. Young was an interesting man, and also lived a life full of genuine achievement. (Unfortunately, the lustre of his achievements have been tarnished a little, as he also begat Toby Young.)
His warning as to meritocracy was that it just doesn’t work in practice; the ladder is drawn up behind those who benefit, through systematised testing and selection at too early an age, in too heavy-handed a way, which intrinsically reproduces and reinforces the existing distribution of power, rather than build in the diversity and broader representation that Judt sees the possibility of.
“The new class has the means at hand, and largely under its control, by which it reproduces itself. The more controversial prediction and the warning followed from the historical analysis. I expected that the poor and the disadvantaged would be done down, and in fact they have been. If branded at school they are more vulnerable for later unemployment. They can easily become demoralised by being looked down on so woundingly by people who have done well for themselves. It is hard indeed in a society that makes so much of merit to be judged as having none. No underclass has ever been left as morally naked as that. As a result, general inequality has been becoming more grievous with every year that passes, and without a bleat from the leaders of the party who once spoke up so trenchantly and characteristically for greater equality.” (Young, 2001)
This was written a decade ago. In his article, Young compares the Atlee and Blair cabinets, in particular looking at the achievements of those such as Herbert Morrison and Ernest Bevin. Imagine if he’d had to compare it with Cameron’s coalition? (This Telegraph article is telling in oh-so-many ways, but perhaps only if you're English.)
Pimlico’s proximity to Westminster is felt even when those gilded palaces slide out of sight due to the deceptive curves of the River Thames. With the sight of police on street corners all around, and the sound of police and media helicopters beating out their incessant drumming overhead, it’s difficult to stop thinking about Young’s warnings over meritocracy reproducing the same elites over again, or Judt’s understanding of the importance of morality and ethics underpinning austerity. For all the value in Occupy Everywhere (which is significant) and in reforming public service (which is also significant, if it was done another way), the deeper, essentially English cultural systems still pervading Pimlico’s empty and darkening streets are not being addressed in either these skirmishes or these reforms.