A CITY OF SPIVS AND SPECULATORS
London and is shocked by rocketing house prices and the blind pursuit of profit
MAX BEERBOHM once drew a carica- ture of George Bernard Shaw standing on his head, with Max himself looking on. The drawing was captioned: 'Mild sur- prise of one who, revisiting England after long absence, finds that the dear fellow has not moved.'
Bread and circuses are bestowed on the people with a prodigality that recalls the most decadent days of imperial Rome. The circuses are obvious enough — the Dome, Tate Modern, the bigger and better Wembley Stadi- um — and are mostly paid for by the people themselves when they buy tickets from the aptly named National Lottery. The bread is harder to explain, for the simple reason that most of it is illusory. Yet it seems real enough to the millions of home- owners who have seen the notional value of their properties rise to absurd lev- els. 'My house is now worth a million pounds,' a friend of mine remarked the other day, adding with a rueful smile that he could not lay his hands on the money as he wanted to go on living there. But the idea that his undistinguished Victorian ter- race house makes him a millionaire still bucks him up no end, instead of giving him, as it ought, a premonition of impending doom.
The difference between my friend and myself is that I do not own a house. If you think this colours my outlook, then you are right. It is not my heart or my head but my wallet that makes me wonder what has become of my own country; that and the unusual experience of seeing London through foreign eyes.
The Germans are profoundly suspicious of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. They see it as unstable, fixated on short-term gain, ruthless in its disregard of the weak, a casino where reckless gamblers make fortunes overnight and honest toil counts for nothing. For them a free marketeer is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Anarchic spivs and speculators rule the roost, people so blinded by the pursuit of profit that they are incapable of acknow- ledging any other obligation, whether to long-term employees and partners or to society and the environment.
The trouble with this caricature is that it can without much difficulty be made to fit the facts. In East Berlin my wife and I rent- ed a spacious flat for £500 a month from Mr Hans Wacker. His family had owned the house, which contained about 30 flats in all, ever since it was built in 1906, and he himself had decided to hang on to it through the East German period because he did not believe the communist economic system would last. He was also proud of the way his mother had extinguished the incendiary bombs that fell on the building during the second world war, when he was evacuated with his school to Zakopane in southern Poland. The East German regime did not expropriate him, but materials for repairs were almost impossible to obtain- and he was given tenants who would not pay the rent. In the ten years since German reunification he has completely renovated the building. It is his pride and joy.
It was embarrassing to admit to some °If our Berlin friends that we were paying as much as £500 a month: they had mostly found cheaper places. But this was notlung to the embarrassment of arriving in 1-•°n' don and saying we hoped to find scone- where to rent for the paltry sum of £1,200 a• month. We asked our friends in Lond°11 where to look, bearing in mind that We wanted to be within walking distance of .n, good primary school for our four-year-0111 daughter and, in due course, for our baby son. Several people who had already w moved to Wandsworth advised us to folio them, assuring us that there was a good school there. But we soon found that if we wanted a bargain we were several years too late to join that particular middle-class migration, and to pay £1,600 a month to live in Wandsworth went against the grain. The boom in that area is now so strong that property prices are said to have gone up by about 37 per cent in the last year. The next middle-class rush, or at least the one which several people quite inde- pendently advised us to join, was to Acton, said to be conveniently placed for Heathrow. We went to spend a night with friends there. As we walked away the next morning my wife said to me, 'I'm not going to live in a railwayman's cottage in Acton.' I am a man of simple tastes and would not Mind living in a railwayman's cottage in Acton as long as it was cheap, but the rents already seemed to be approaching Wandsworth levels.
We changed tack. Nauseated by the idea 0f competing with a lot of other people like ourselves in order to rent a small ter- race house in some dismal tract of south or west London, we decided instead to swim against the tide and look in Hamp- stead, hoping everyone except us would think even the cheapest places there must be too expensive. The schools are excel- lent, many of the buildings are beautiful and there is a long-established educated middle class. We decided we would accept somewhere very small as long as it was Within a few minutes' walk of the Heath. After ten days we agreed to rent the attic of the house near Hampstead police sta- tion where William Empson, author of Seven Types of Ambiguity, used to live, for £1,776 a month. It has a pointy-ceilinged living-room, three tiny bedrooms and extensive views. By this stage my niggardly instincts had Worn off and I was prepared to contem- plate Paying an even higher rent. The spirit of the boom had invaded my mind. I was in a strange mood where the more I paid, the More I felt I had succeeded. The preposter- ousness of spending £21,312 a year to live an attic, albeit one of considerable charm, escaped me. We shall probably never meet the Chinese lady who owns it: she lives in Hong Kong, and if she wants Last can have us out next March and sell up. IA, St week she sent an estate agent round to value the property, which is looked after b a firm of managing agents in Docklands fwIth whom we communicate by fax. It is a „ar„More global set-up than in Berlin, and i'ainlY a much less stable one. MY friend Mr Thomas Kielinger, recently -grrived in London from Bonn as core- spondent for Die Welt, chose the Acton iii2tlt3n. 'This was an area of London which 2t,11 recently people wouldn't even consid- er,' he has heard people say, but he counts himself lucky to have found a semi- ,e ached four-bedroom house there which ts renting for a mere £1600 a month. "le other half of the house, has just gone on the market for £650,000. At 5.30 on the morning before Christmas Eve he found a burglar removing everything of any value from his house: 'He had just begun to help himself to the Christmas presents and to some of my finest wine.' Kielinger is a brave and energetic man. He gave chase and broke two of his toes without catching the burglar.
It doesn't in the slightest bit matter if Kielinger and I find ourselves in middle age living in what might once have been considered reduced circumstances. We are lucky enough to be able to pay these ridicu- lous rents, and I would rather pay rent than a mortgage on a place that will soon plum- met in value. But what of nurses, police officers, bus drivers and schoolteachers? How, unless they inherit a house, do they get by? Nor is it just property that is expen- sive. Alcohol is atrociously expensive. Kielinger confirms my impression that a pound in London often has no greater pur- chasing power than a mark in Germany, despite an exchange rate of one pound to more than three marks. He is a tremen- dous Anglophile, who when he lived in Bonn often described Britain as a shining example of the entrepreneurial spirit, but now he says darkly, 'Look beneath the sur- face and ask yourself what is the amount of money you pay for ordinary pleasures like an ice-cream.' He has told the readers of Die Welt that London is 'in intensive care' because the working classes can no longer afford anywhere to live. Judging by the utterly exhausted fathers one sees spending a few hours with their children on Hampstead Heath at week- ends, the professional classes suffer too. These men shuffle like zombies round the edge of the playground. Nobody has a job for life in the City any more: everybody must fill the unforgiving minute with 60 seconds' worth of distance run. The most successful bankers and lawyers earn enough money to buy a decent house, but often at a horrible cost to themselves. The rest look as if they are struggling just to keep afloat.
The election of Mr Ken Livingstone as Mayor of London was not merely a protest against Mr Tony Blair. It was also a vote for a man prepared to challenge the dogma that the free market, or what passes for the free market, is necessarily a good thing. As far as the Establishment was concerned, Mr Livingstone's hostility to capitalism was one reason why he needed to be stopped. As far as many Londoners were concerned it was one reason to back him. He alone seemed to give some expression, however confused, to the emotions which surfaced in the Seattle riots last year.
If capitalism means welcoming to Lon- don a lot of foreign bankers who make the place uninhabitable for the rest of us, sending waves of intolerable expense as far afield as Acton, then many people would be quite happy to see Frankfurt become the financial centre of Europe. I remember going to Aberdeen after the oil boom had bust: ordinary Aberdonians were greatly relieved that they could once more afford to buy houses. The same emotion will be felt in London after the forthcoming crash. The press will report the event as a disaster, and so it will be for Mr Blair. But it will be the one moment when anyone with modest savings, not to mention incompetent or feckless charac- ters like myself, will have the chance to buy a house.
Andrew Gimson is foreign editor of The Spectator.
`Hi, my name's James and I'm addicted to Pokemon cards.'