WE CAN ALL GO BACK TO BEING SHABBY'
. . . Petronella Wyatt was told by the
woman in the Islington launderette who hopes Mr Blair will be moving out of the area
TONY Blair is supposed to be Islington Man, or at least it is said that Islington Man has supported him in the way that Essex Man is supposed to have helped Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s. Accordingly, I decided to go to Islington to find out whether this was really true, and what Islington, if anything, thought of Mr Blair.
The Blair's house is in Barnsbury, a Labour ward. Labour leaders in the past often used to live in Tory wards because the houses were bigger. But there are practically no Tory wards in Islington. The 52- strong council is dominated by its 37 Labour mem- bers. The number of Tories? One.
In the event, the houses in Mr Blair's street were just as big as most Tory houses, if not bigger. In fact the only difference was that they had 'Vote Labour' stickers in the windows (though lately this has been true of Tory ones as well). The street was quiet, except for a shabby old man who looked like a tramp.
I stopped him. 'Are you a tramp?' I asked. `No,' he answered crossly. 'I'm a window cleaner. I do this street.' Did he do the Blairs' windows? 'That's the only one I don't do. I spoke to Cherry [sic] and she said she already had someone.' But he was a Labour voter? 'Isiah. I quite liked the Tories.'
The window cleaner was one of the most loquacious men in the ward. It was difficult to ascertain people's views of Mr Blair because they were strangely nervous of speaking. The owner of Angelo's Motors across the road saw me approach and hid under a car. The door of the house next to the Blairs was opened by a young woman. `What is Mr Blair like as a neighbour?' I asked. She looked terrified, whispering, I'm sorry.'
The silence was almost reverential, like that which usually surrounds the election of a new pope, not a mere British prime minis- ter. 'They're like Trappist monks round here,' commented a former SDP councillor, David Hyams. I asked a local policeman whether he thought Mr Blair's neighbours were unusually supportive or just scared of him. 'Oh, they're very supportive. I'm sure they like him. He's very pleasant.'
Away from Mr Blair's street the atmo- sphere changed. It was not only that the houses became smaller and shabbier but the people in them were less constrained. In a street near Thornhill Square a man was walking his dog. 'We never see Mr Blair, or Cherie,' he said. 'She is never seen shopping and he doesn't stroll about being friendly. He keeps to himself. I support him, though, to the core.' Did he see himself as the archetypal Islington Man, then? He looked at me strangely. 'Of course I'm a man.' Islington is a borough suffering from schizophrenia. On the one hand more and more middle-class professionals have moved here. House prices, in certain areas, have risen by 50 per cent. 'It has partly to do with the media attention,' said a local estate agent. Upper Street is now as expensive as a shopping street in Kens- ington. A think tank has even been given a grant to study local eating habits. Mr Blair's favourite restaurant used to be Granita, where he dined with Gordon Brown the night they decided who should stand for the leadership. But Mrs Blair had her last birthday party in a French restaurant called Frederick's.
Frederick's is as phony as Jeremy Irons playing a Parisian gigolo. It has fake antique tapestries and neo-classical columns. The prices are, as one local put it, 'high enough to keep out hoi polloi. What the media calls Islington Man doesn't apply at all to most people here — just to a small proportion, the New Labour set.'
The New Labour set are not so much champagne socialists as sauvignon stake- holders. Given the choice, its members prefer anything foreign to English (unlike their professed hero Hugh Gaitskell, to whom Mr Blair is most often compared.
Another poor devil who doesn't know the election is over ' Gaitskell always insisted on eating British food). Every café has a Spanish, Italian or French name emblazoned outside. But it is a faux foreignness — an unreal, pretentious Europe seen through the eyes of the British bien peasant. Granita serves things like courgette and basil soup.
Away from Upper Street things are very different — the Islington that the Blairites would prefer neither to see nor to acknowl- edge. For the poorer residents of the bor- ough, the cafés and restaurants of Upper Street have become virtual no-go areas. Such people are less aware of New than of old Labour. Islington council is still very old Labour. It is responsible for the highest council tax rates in London, the worst edu- cational results and a debt higher than the national debt of Albania.
`If Islington is Blair's blueprint for Britain it's a poor lookout,' said a rare Tory. Tony Blair will say nothing about the council, and the local Labour MP, Chris Smith, will only speak to attack it. Accord- ing to David Hyams, 'Blair distances him- self from Islington really. He is not Islington Man in the literal sense.' Indeed, last week the Highbury and Islington Express invited both Mr Major and Mr Blair to contribute to its pages. Mr Major obliged; Mr Blair said he was too busy.
New Labour is far from popular on the council estates. There is a lot of anger that Mr Blair sent his son Euan away to school in Kensington. 'There is a perfectly good Roman Catholic school here,' said a woman in a local launderette. 'He just thinks it's grander to go elsewhere.' I sug- gested that perhaps Mr Blair was being a good father and she snorted. 'The media thinks he takes the children to school. That's not true. The nanny does it.'
I asked the woman how she felt about Islington's alleged new chicness. 'That's bollocks. Away from Upper Street most of us aren't chic. Look at the people on the council. They all have long beards.' Even the council, though, is changing — at least on the surface. Apparently, it is offering `undesirable' people money to vacate their council flats. There are no longer any flags outside the town hall and the bust of Lenin that once stood inside has disappeared.
Still, Islington may have already had its finest hour. 'I wouldn't be surprised if Mrs Blair wanted to move to Kensington or Chelsea,' said a local police spokesman. 'The security is better and it's near their son's school.' So was it a case of Cherie and the last of Cherie? 'They all move to that part of town in the end.' New Labour seems to be tiring of Islington in any case. At a recent party, on hearing that someone lived there, a Millbank worker murmured, 'Poor you.' New Labour now aspires more to Notting Hill. The Blairite media magnifico Lord Hol- lick lives there. Recently he was joined by Peter Mandelson. 'Perhaps the courgette and basil soup is better in Notting Hill,' said the launderette woman, hopefully. 'Then we can all go back to being shabby.'