Down Dalston Lane

Neal Ascherson

  • A Journey through Ruins: The Last Days of London by Patrick Wright
    Radius, 294 pp, £16.99, May 1991, ISBN 0 09 173190 9

In the winter of 1941, so I have been told, there were nights when it was never dark at the fighter airfield at North Weald. You could walk up the shallow ridge at the southern perimeter and see, twenty miles away, the whole horizon as an arch of intolerable red and orange light: London burning.

In our time, the M11 cuts across a corner of the old Battle of Britain aerodrome to reach that ridge. By day, as you drive south, a lap of green fields and hills is revealed ahead, a glitter of stalled traffic on the M25 in the middle distance. The horizon hides the beginnings of London, but the line of that horizon is suddenly cut by a misty blue crayon-stroke. It might be close, a hilltop apartment block in urban Essex, or it might be very far off and so huge as to disable the eye’s distance-judgment. This is Canary Wharf, towering over England.

It isn’t so long ago that this was a persuasive image. In the Eighties, the accumulation of personal wealth and property and of individual purchasing power went into an almost vertical climb in London. It affected only a tiny proportion of the city’s population directly. Yet it threatened to bring about a barricaded super-class whose power would restore cliffs of social difference higher than those of Victorian London, at a time when the city’s relatively brief importance as a centre of big manufacture was ending, and when its democratic self-government had been abolished in a single monstrous stroke of political malevolence. Coupled with the traditional over-centralisation of British government, now suddenly accelerated by the Thatcher regime’s systematic destruction of local authority, it looked as if London itself was about to tower over the nation like a baron’s castle over feudal fields.

It was in that period that Patrick Wright published On Living in an Old Country, a book of essays which established him as the most interesting of the young cultural critics. He drew ideas from sources as diverse as Agnes Heller and Tom Nairn; in turn, his thought was rapidly and efficiently mined in the campaign against the ‘heritage industry’ which took shape in the later Eighties (I speak as one of the grateful miners). Now, though, an unexpected corner has been turned. The last Thatcher government lost control of the economy, interest rates went shooting up like distress rockets, the London property bubble burst in both private housing and the office sector, and the most savage recession in living memory settled over south-eastern England. London ceased to be a threat and became a crisis. The rhetoric of what Wright calls ‘Britain’s perestroika’ began to blow away and to reveal, once more, the endemic problems of the poor fish who have to swim in this clogging Aral Sea of brick and stained concrete.

Patrick Wright is a wandering, disestablished scholar whose method is to walk and talk. If the old Frankfurt School had developed a course for journalists, he might have been its graduate. The previous book included a chapter ‘The Ghosting of the Inner City’ in which he explored Stoke Newington for the inner meanings of ‘gentrification’; A Journey through Ruins relies almost entirely upon this method. The focus has moved slightly eastwards: Wright has adopted the dishevelled length of Dalston Lane and the surrounding borough of Hackney as a place from which to judge and measure the rest of London and England. Dalston Lane, to him, is a place where ‘reality still strikes back’ and ‘an open archaeological site in which the story of the nation’s post-war history can be traced out in unexpected detail’. His inventory of the street’s contents, its tatty shops and boarded-up churches, its struggling outposts of voluntary and community action, its posters and graffiti and communes, its long-suffering people at grips with broken-hearted administrators and horribly condescending tourists from the world of higher sensibility, is done with accuracy and evident enjoyment (if the two junk-dealers are not really called ‘Collins and McCabe’ and ‘Hewison’, the reader can enjoy a good concealed joke). But Wright is arguing that ‘London has become Dalston Lane writ large’; that from this sample of decay and neglect a wider future can be read – not all of it dark. ‘As for those curiously paired themes of the late Eighties, “Heritage” and entrepreneurial “Excellence”, from Dalston Lane there was never any doubt that both have arisen in reaction to the dishevelment and dereliction of the Welfare State. This failure is the central reality round here.’

As the times change, there are many layers of ruin to be seen in this setting. The ‘professional and intellectual culture of the Welfare State’ lies around in the junkyard, but also the windbaggery of Hackney’s Labour Council in the years before its new sobering-up: the ‘Nuclear-Free Zone’ signs, the Agitprop murals, the red banners which used to announce (inaccurately, Wright says) Hackney’s unemployment figures. Here, too, are the fragments of ‘gentrification’, now on very hard times, its balance-sheet between social disruption and the bringing of new skills and markets not yet added up. Following the archaeological image, one might expect to find on top the debris of Heritage and Excellence. But Wright found them still inhabited in Hackney, though refunctioned to suit different needs – like late-Roman buildings taken over by Saxons.

Sutton House is an ancient building which now stands on Homerton High Street, a conglomerate of work from Tudor to Georgian. Wright uses its weird fate to illustrate the equally peculiar destiny of the heritage concept under the National Trust. George Lansbury was vice-chairman of the Trust when Sutton House was adopted in 1936, at a time when there seemed no conflict between conservation and public utility: the house was to be used for ‘public and social service’ purposes. But then came the ‘Brideshead’ era, in which the Trust was diverted not only into giving priority to the preservation of threatened and not-so-threatened ‘stately homes’, complete with original inhabitants, but into a grossly reactionary view of public-interest and post-war Welfare State Britain as a threat to the survival of the national soul. Sutton House was treated with disdain and fell into ghastly decay: a semi-ruin looted of its panelling and threatened with redevelopment. But in the last few years, and in some measure as a result of Wright’s own criticism, the Trust has changed its mind, and Sutton House is not only to be restored but given back to the sort of local use which Lansbury had in mind – to ‘citizenship’ as well as ‘ancestry’. And Wright, to his own astonishment, finds himself engaging a fierce defence of the Trust against its foes on the other political flank – against the ultras who now demand the re-privatisation of the country houses.

As for ‘Excellence’, it has reached Hackney Town Hall. Wright traces the concept from its launch in the United States as a hyper-achievement cult for executives to its odd mutations after reaching Britain (he observes, rudely and I think unfairly, that ‘it was also adopted by Marxism Today under the quaintly customised name of ‘Post-Fordism’). Much of the changed approach to public service at local level which is now reaching the centre, in the form of Labour and Conservative ideas about ‘consumer charters’ and ‘customer contracts’, dates back to a 1984 local government seminar on adapting the message of the book In Search of Excellence for council use. At Hackney, Patrick Wright found stout-hearted men of the Left breaking every dogma to grapple with the gigantic chaos into which the borough administration has fallen. They have refashioned the Excellence precepts into a code of reform in the public interest, taking on the Trotskyist Left of Hackney Labour with quotations from Lenin ‘which proved that the great leader himself had recognised the importance of getting your aims clear, defining the processes by which you achieve them, setting priorities and monitoring the results’.

Of the motifs which weave this book together, the most important is the image of Crichel Down. Here, in 1954, a famous enquiry forced the state to disgorge land unjustly withheld from its rightful owners. But the enquiry, ‘a mixture between a backroom kangaroo court and a stage-managed show trial with stooges and prejudged victims’, was also the beginning of the end ‘for the ideal of enlightened public administration which was so central to the reforming vision of the post-war Welfare State’. As Wright puts it, ‘a huge and spectral mill’ was raised on Crichel Down which still spews out hatred, not merely for planning and state intervention but for the professions in public duty, for Labour-dominated councils, and now – as we see – even for agencies like the National Trust.

This mill also produces one false version of history after another. A small example, raised by Patrick Wright’s visits to the dismal Holly Street high-rise estate, is the now almost universal assumption that the tower block is the precise expression of Labour’s municipal ethos, a combination of shoddy disregard for quality with a socialist planner’s disregard for the individual’s preference. The truth is that it was the Macmillan Government which introduced the irresistible inducement of ascending subsidies for higher storeys, and that the ideology behind the tower blocks was in many ways conservative: slum clearance plus urban containment – keeping the masses out of the countryside. Small wonder that rural magnates like Lord Hinchingbrooke supported the high-rise projects. And yet, as Wright complains, the famous campaigners against the tower block write as if this fashion were the direct outcome of Welfare State planning, ‘never mind the speculators, the profiteering construction companies, the deluded expertise of both architect and planner.’

An ancestor of Wright’s was Thomas Fowell Buxton, ally of Wilberforce against slavery. He was a director of Truman’s Brewery in Brick Lane, and in 1816 he made a tremendous speech to City businessmen about hunger and destitution in Spitalfields which raised ‘the huge sum’, for those times, of £43,000. Patrick Wright followed his tracks, and the outcome is a subtle essay around the history of the Spitalfields Trust. Founded in 1977, the Trust began as a daring, commando-like operation to save 18th-century Spitalfields by squatting and protesting. Its members settled in and restored the old houses, but never meant to ‘gentrify’: they dreamed instead of reviving a lively, mixed, colourful community like Spitalfields of old, with the Bangladeshi immigrants taking the role of the Huguenot weavers. Wright remarks grudgingly that this was a gentrification which did not pretend to ‘upgrade’ an area but instead re-established ‘the visible signs of what used to be deplored as inequality ... as cultural exotica – a diverting performance in the retinal theatre of the incoming flâneur’. But he does not blame the Trust for what followed in the property boom: soaring house prices, and a deepening chasm between Spitalfields rich and poor which ceased to be picturesque. Alexandra Artley, a writer who has changed her mind on these things, told him recently that ‘if you cannot feel the suffering and the need of human beings around you, well, then your connoisseurship is an empty thing and a wicked thing in my view.’ Patrick Wright puts it like this: ‘The country-house interior had landed in the middle of the city.’

The book is full of sub-plots. There are two fine set-pieces about paradoxes of ‘heritage’. In ‘The Vandalised Telephone Box’, Wright describes the campaign to save the old red Gilbert Scott kiosk: a campaign which started from immaculately right-wing, anti-bureaucratic sentiments but ended in the discovery that the real heritage here was a public telephone service which served – rather than a privatised monopoly which lied and postured as its network broke down. ‘The Man with the Metal Detector’ is a quite different story. Here the ‘detectorists’, a populist and aggressive lobby, identified heritage in the form of official archaeology as a Gestapo which wanted to take away their right to history and reduce them to the slaves of ‘a totalitarian theme park’. In his long study of ‘The Bow Quarter’, Wright pads about the courtyards, apartments and offices of the development on the site of the Bryant & May match factory in the East End, and chronicles its decline from megalomaniac promises about ‘the ultimate in Metropolitan Lifestyles’ to a half-built muddle crippled by ballooning costs and interest rates: a lesson for its prospective tenants about ‘rhetoric, reality and the disreputable nature of the contract between them’.

Wright has been criticised by Michael Ignatieff for wanting to restore Herbert Morrison’s London of municipal socialism. This underestimates the subtlety of his plea for a restored sense of the public interest, and his understanding that there is no way back; to expose the dishonesty and vapidity of the attack on the post-war settlement which began at Crichel Down is not to argue for a simple restoration of the old Welfare State. This independence of mind emerges in his discussion of ‘Refounding the City with Prince Charles’. For Wright, there is much to like about the Prince, and much to detest and despise about his critics. ‘He has shown that the periphery is where the disorders of the centre are most manifest ... there is scarcely one of his chosen themes that does not imply a critical indictment of the centre.’ He wants to represent ordinary, uncomplicated human beings: ‘Charles has set up his stall as prince of all the obstructed human “potential” in the land.’ The difficulty is not precisely his taste for a certain architecture, but the ‘revivalist fable’ at the heart of it. Wright renders the fable like this. First there was the war, and a purification by fire – St Paul’s, in Herbert Mason’s great photograph, rising above the smoke. ‘Then came the peace, which quickly betrayed the promises of war and degenerated into a forty-year period of destructive modernisation.’ Now there comes a second chance, a miraculous moment in which we could return to true values.

As Patrick Wright says, this fable is not just the Prince’s, but is ‘widely dispersed throughout our culture’. Betjeman said these things long ago. I would guess, personally, that most Londoners still believe it in some version. The fable ‘articulates truly vital cultural themes’, but it submits them to ‘a morbid process of simplification’. The metaphor has become confused with the subject, and we are left with a mere argument about architectural style. When London was burning – and Wright has talked to a good many people who remember it burning – the Mason photograph had a very much bigger meaning. The cathedral’s survival was about ‘Britain’, obviously, but also about ‘enduring civilian courage, social idealism, reason and evolution’. If the fable tends to represent the Welfare State as a betrayal of the Blitz spirit, ‘the architects of post-war social policy saw it as the post-war embodiment of that same spirit.’

Saatchi and Saatchi’s posters for Charles’s ‘Vision of Britain’ exhibition told us: ‘In 1945, the Luftwaffe stopped bombing London. Two years later the Blitz began.’ But the film-maker Humphrey Jennings, in a letter to his wife in October 1940, wrote this: ‘Maybe by the time you get this one or two more 18th-century churches will be smashed up in London: some civilians killed: some personal loves and treasures wrecked, but it means nothing – a curious kind of unselfishness is developing which can stand all that and more. We have found ourselves on the right track at last!’