Saturday, 14 June 2014

London twenty years after

Kensington And Chelsea Street, Egerton Crescent Named Most Expensive For Second Year Running

I just got back from London, which is the best place in the world to spend a holiday. It has comparatively cool weather in summer, intelligent people, churches, art galleries, the best museum in the world, good food, every attraction a holiday place can have except tranquillity. And, if you are lucky enough to belong to or have the use of a London club, their libraries are the calmest places on the face of the earth. And ringing a bell produces a toasted teacake. 

My enjoyment of London, though, is tinged by a constant sense of shock at how much time had passed since I lived there. I remember spending most of my life there but in fact it was just five years: 1985 to 1990. If William James is right about people becoming old fogeys around the age of 26 then is my now. In fact as a young fogey I am immune from becoming an old fogey.

London, so I read, has become very cosmopolitan. White British people are now a minority. This saddens me very much, but, though I am constantly meeting charming East Europeans, the West End and central London do not seem greatly changed and the biggest change one notices is how much more polite and friendly people are. And not just the Eastern Europeans. 

However this impression is misleading and London has changed and is changing - into a city for the very rich from all round the world. London is now very expensive, glamorous and careerist. It never was a calm place but it is much less so now. Alexander Chancellor, who must be getting on, since he was editing the Spectator when I read it as a schoolboy, writes interestingly about how London has become unbelievably expensive here. 

Clearly rising house prices are the biggest problem everywhere in the developed world and I presume they will kill London. Not only by stuffing the capital with dull people with good jobs (the rich themselves can be interesting but people with good jobs less often are) but by the materialism and money-obsession that expensive property prices engender. That's to say nothing of the atmosphere of greed and anxiety that are always found in casinos - property bubbles are, after all, a form of roulette.

I once rented a vast room in a vast old house off Cheyne Row for £50 a week, with a Kneller in it. But Chelsea by 1986 was considered much, much too expensive for anyone but the rich. Long gone and forgotten were the days when painters and writers lived there, though once Chelsea was working class and had Liberal MPs. (Like the meteoric Sir Charles Dilke whose name was ruined in the Three Beds Scandal). By 1985 Fulham had long been gentrified and much but not all of Islington.

I loved London but it wasn't at all glamorous, except perhaps in Chelsea, South Kensington and Belgravia. In the late 1980s one was very well aware that rent was far far higher than it had been a decade or two earlier and that consequently the city had lost much of its flavour, but people who had bought when things were affordable were still around. For a very happy year in 1989 I lived in Primrose Hill. Near me had settled famous writers and arts types like Kingsley Amis, Jonathan Miller, Ralph Miliband, Alan Bennett and the rest in the 60s when things were affordable but Primrose Hill still had a working class element. In around 1994 when I revisited the rather rough pubs had been replaced by women-friendly bars with large plate glass windows.


I went to a charity ball on Thursday at the Waldorf for a very good cause, the Casa Speranta hospice in Romania. I spent a lot of time in clubland and deplored the sight of women and, at the weekend,  men in open neck shirts and jeans. Brooks's where a friend took me to lunch was the only club that felt like a club.


A pagan friend of mine, a bachelor who is worth some millions, seemed happy in his calm flat off Kensington High St and quoted his favourite philosopher Epicurus to me:
The past is full of regrets, the future full of dangers. Instead, unpack what you have in the present.

A friend who is a Fleet Street journalist told me she did not let losing her money make her unhappy and that she has a happy disposition. 


I met a lot of old friends, had a great time, fitted in the British Museum and the National Gallery briefly, saw my niece and nephew confirmed, and ate a lot of wonderful meals, especially but not only breakfasts. 

Somerset Maugham said,
'You can eat better in England than in any other country in the world if you have breakfast three times a day. 
I ate well for lunch and supper too - what is better than game pie or roast beef and Yorkshire pudding or summer pudding? - but breakfasts are still England's glory.

Egyptian mummy painting from first century after Christ, in British Museum. These mummy paintings are the oldest realistic paintings in the world and one of the most interesting things in London.


  1. What a wonderful and nostalgic read. Ben

    1. NOSTALGIC -oh God is it?? The 1980s seem this morning and they were heavy laden with nostalgia, pickled in it. Can I be getting older?

    2. We all are.

  2. I agree with some of this but you should spend more time in London.