How the left went west

You thought Islington was the new Labour heartland? Wrong. Giles Corenexplains the lure of Notting H

On the day in 1997 that new Labour announced a clampdown on road tax evaders, and ceremoniously pulped an offending vehicle before an invited press audience, Philip Delves Broughton, then a young diarist on the Times and resident of Notting Hill's exclusive Northumberland Place, stepped out into the bright morning.

Turning right, and heading towards the Tube station, he passed the front door of the then Minister without Portfolio, Peter Mandelson, his next-door-neighbour-but-one. Glancing at Mandelson's green Rover, he noticed, to his delight, that the tax disc had expired. Naturally enough, he wrote the story up and it appeared next morning in the Times.

"About six o'clock," he recalled to me last week, "I got a phone call at work from Mandelson, who was standing on a train platform with Derek Draper and Robert Harris, saying that he was appalled by the story. He asked me if I thought it was neighbourly behaviour. He clearly felt that his Notting Hill address entitled him to special treatment from the press."

But now the west London home that Mandelson apparently saw as a force field has become the very hubristic flaw that brought about his fall. Notting Hill, like Excalibur, is the ally only of he who has truly earned it and understands its mystical power.

In the aftermath of Notting Hillgate - as the scandal has come to be known - the most shocking revelation for the general public was that Mandelson lived in west, rather than north, London. Those who had been led to believe that N1 was the political postcode of the decade were left goggle-eyed by talk of W2. And the question left quivering on a million lips was: whatever happened to Islington person?

As a feature writer on the Times whose career began only weeks before the death of John Smith, I spent most of 1994 in Islington. I was sent to Granita the night after what the paper called "The Night of the Long Fishknives" to find out what it was about the Upper Street restaurant that had led Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to play out their power struggle on its stripped pine floorboards. Glenda Jackson was in there, and Judi Dench. Islington, they said, was the centre of new Labour power. And it all seemed so right.

But did new Labour fit in? I was sent to Barnsbury Square dressed in Victorian clothes with a troupe of carol singers from St Bride's to see how much the Blairs would give compared to the rest of the street. It took a harassed-looking Cherie some time to open the door. Surrounded by children, she seemed incredibly relieved to discover that we were only carol singers and not journalists. She gave a pound. Most of the rest of the street had given a fiver. I felt terrible, and told my editor there had been nobody at home.

Now fashion, like new Labour, has moved on. While the foot soldiers of the revolution - the Chris Smiths, Harriet Harmans, Geoff Mulgans and Alan Rusbridgers - are still in Islington, the key figures in the government's maturity are being gobbled into the gravitational pull of the Westway. Was Islington a mere staging post? Can we reasonably characterise it as the Damascene spot where old Labour paused on its route down from the grimy North, learnt its focaccia from its Ferragamo and practised a few new vowel sounds before its final push on the seat of privilege?

It is true that very few of our elected representatives, on their £45,066 a year, can afford an area that is now, in pounds per square foot, more expensive than Chelsea. But what has happened is that, ensconced in office, the Labour Party has turned towards the new establishment (better off, in fact, than the old Knightsbridge Tories) to keep up momentum. Lord Jenkins is crucial to Blair's ideological life, but Roy's neighbour in Kensington Park Gardens, Elisabeth Murdoch, will be of more long-term use to the party. And they both live on the all-important south side of the street. Anyone who is anyone backs on to Ladbroke Square, darling.

Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, the 26-year-old special adviser credited with overhauling the Mandelson image, must have been delighted when his boss moved in. Round the corner in Palace Gardens Terrace, Wegg-Prosser is just the sort of dyed-in-the-wool Notting Hillbilly (or should that be Notting Hilltony?) on whom the future of the party looks to depend.

Matthew Freud, the young head of Freud Communications and central to the Dome project, recently bought a £2.5 million house round the corner in Ladbroke Road, before moving out when his relationship with his neighbour Elisabeth Murdoch became public. She it may have been who pointed Mandelson towards Lambton Place Health Club, where he is often seen on the treadmill chatting to Lady Antonia Fraser. She and her husband, Harold Pinter, new Labour's greatest literary grandee, live two minutes up the road in Campden Hill Square. Blair's favourite huntsman, John Mortimer, is but a "view-halloo" away. Also in Notting Hill, you will find Lord Hollick, Blairite proprietor of the Express, and David Sainsbury, generous new Labour donor.

When the sacked minister David Clark blamed the loss of his job on being "out of the loop" and "not part of the London social scene", complaining that as an outsider "you don't make the contacts, you are not invited to the soirees, the coffee mornings, the dinner parties", he presumably had in mind Carla Powell. She, since becoming friends with Mandelson, has become the first "society hostess" for some time to enter the sphere of political influence. She lives in Caroline Place, but a short trot down Queensway from Newton Road, where the columnist Paul Johnson, a Blair confidante, seems also to be making a comeback.

The Express editor, Rosie Boycott, in Chepstow Road, has her part to play. Michael Jackson of Channel 4 and John Birt are among the other on-message media mandarins in the heart of Trustafaria.

There are red herrings, too: it is said that Peter Mandelson offered to babysit for his neighbour Princess Charlotte of Luxembourg, a power alliance that is probably not too threatening. Norman Lamont can be found in Kensington Park Road, but then he surely bears as much responsibility as any Millbank spin-doctor for getting new Labour into power. It's more difficult to fit in Tony Benn, who has lived in the area for years. It is not impossible to imagine the Prime Minister strolling down Westbourne Grove on a Sunday morning on his way to chat to Lord Jenkins about the Third Way, waving merrily to the gawping Okay Yardies, only to spot Benn coming back from the newsagent, and having to dart into Cafi 206 to hide behind Mariella Frostrup.

Perhaps there is a natural affinity between Labour and Notting Hill. For years after the war it was the working class, the poor and the ethnic minorities who made it what it was. By the 1980s, however, the property boom caused an identity crisis to set in, leading to some years in the wilderness. From the early 1990s, however, money was embraced wholeheartedly, and the area is now dominated by right-thinking but style-silly media slaves. They may have gone to public school, but they pay lip service to the ideals of cultural diversity and salt-of-the-earth rootsiness they believe their postcode upholds.

All this could so easily have been old hat by now. In November 1995 the Evening Standard revealed that the Blairs had employed a "looker" to find them a "suitable residence in west London". They were forsaking the wilds of Islington, it was revealed, for this "paradise for upmarket lefties". It was only the events of May 1997, then, that kept them out of Notting Hill. But for one small landslide Tony might have had an address to be really proud of.

It is still his dream. If you ask him where he would most like to be living in five years' time, he will say "No 10". Watch his eyes very carefully and say, "is that on the north side of Kensington Park Gardens or the south?"

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?

Getty
Show Hide image

When heritage becomes hate: why my home town of Charlottesville needs to address its complex past

After an invasion of white supremacists, we need to see what our history means today.

Watching a tragedy happening in slow motion, without any way to stop it - that’s how it has felt to be from Charlottesville, Virginia in the summer of 2017. A city that used to always get voted “happiest town in the USA” when I was growing up was the target this weekend of an ugly white supremacist movement whose roots spread far from the city.

It was a huge surprise when we won the lottery of Nazi flags, with our stupid old statues that have become icons of international fascism, with a park named after a distantly forgotten old man becoming a site of struggle for an attempted racist coup of the United States. Our first reaction is: they aren´t from here. Our second: make them go away. Our third: a realisation we need to examine the way that our own ways of life, which we thought so harmless, have inspired such horrible feelings in strangers.

Maybe for my African-American classmates at high school the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee, and the park when it was still named after him rather than Emancipation Park, always meant violence. Pulling the statue down says no more about the historical Lee than tearing down Lenin in '89 says about socialism. We've been invaded by people pretending to protect us from invasion, and the symbols of our past will never matter as much as living people do.

***

The invaders picked our town, probably, because Virginia was a confederate state, and was in fact where the southern gentry used to live. Lee exemplified this tradition. He was son of Lighthorse Harry Lee, a hero of the revolutionary war and governor of Virginia, and is a descendant of one of “Virginia’s first families,” the aristocratic Englishmen who emigrated to Virginia when it was a British colony. He is part of Charlottesville's heritage, and perhaps not even all that shameful a part. He opposed the secession of the confederacy, supported the reconstruction after the war, including giving rights to recently freed slaves. Not exactly woke, but for a confederate general, not as bad as some.

We were taught at Venable Elementary School that he fought only reluctantly, to defend his land, not slavery. In the version we learned, one would imagine Lee being very opposed to people from the Midwest coming to Virginia in cars with Ohio license plates to murder Virginians. Many non-racist Virginians, including quite a few friends, respect Lee deeply - the same is true in towns like New Orleans where other Lee statues are being taken down. Yet if once we could fool ourselves into thinking that the statue didn't represent hatred and racial hierarchies, we can't anymore. The discussion of local history has turned into one of national identity. The statue should be gone by Christmas. 

***

The real hero of Charlottesville is the town’s founder, Thomas Jefferson, who was among the most enigmatic of the founding fathers, idealistic and hypocritical - a real American, in other words. His idea of the gentleman farmer is also part of our heritage. It was an alternative to Hamiltonian industrial capitalism, but lost out in the tustle to shape American history. Much like English contemporaries such as William Cobbett, Jefferson believed in a rural ideal, reading poetry by morning, farming by afternoon, playing the harpsichord by night. His thought is also present in our beautiful "academical village" of the University of Virginia which he also founded. It is one of UNESCO’s few world heritage sites in the United States, so I guess it is part fo the globe's heritage as well, and it is also where the white supremacists stomped around with their tiki torches.

It’s time for us to stop being romantic about Jefferson, too. The statue in our minds needs to come down. We can recognize the great parts of his work, of his thought, in Charlottesville today, but we can also recognise that he allowed himself to use violence to dominate others, that he owned slaves and raped them. And we can recognise that equivalent scenarios continue to play out today, and will continue to play out until we are willing to face the truth.

There can be no more excuses. It’s not about Jefferson, or Lee, after all. We use monuments, statues, heroes, to inspire ourselves. In the end, the “truth” about Jefferson or Lee is a matter of trivia and history. Today, for every white male in America, we need to deconstruct the parts of our identity built on the graves of others. It’s not easy.

***

Jefferson's gentleman farmer was the forerunner of the people who populate the gentrified Charlottesville that exists today of expensive coffee-shops and celebrity-filled suburbs. This romantic idea, much like the lifestyles of the American and English elite today, seems to engender a lot of resentment from those who can only watch helplessly, and are often gentrified out. It’s not only immigrants or, in the United States, African-Americans, who are denied access to America's Williamsburgs and Charlottesvilles, London's Shoreditches and Oxfords. In Charlottesville, descendants of white sharecroppers and black slaves alike are unable to afford $15 glasses of local Virginia wine.

The paradox implicit in Jefferson’s beautiful idea is that in the end, it’s impossible to sustain this chilled-out and happy lifestyle without the labor being done by others, be they slaves, sharecroppers, or factory workers in China. If America is in trouble now, the conflict comes precisely from the fact that our universalist ideas of freedom, equality, and liberty correspond to an economy that is anything but universal. We actually did it, keep doing it, and unless we can use these ridiculous men dancing through our streets iin Halloween costumes as a funhouse mirror to make us see ourselves as we are, we’ll probably keep doing it.

I resent Jefferson for his hypocrisy, because in truth, I would love it if America looked more like Charlottesville than the industrialized and nasty-looking Interstate 95 highway that leads up the East Coast, the aftermath of Hamiltonian industrial-revolution factory America. The New Jersey towns, the gas stations, what we contemptuously call “McMansions,” suburban Northern Virginia... none of it is really authentic enough. Parallel to the rich and ugly suburbs, are poor and ugly towns, the sort of places with unemployment and discounts on cereal that tastes like sugary trash in the supermarket.

The residents of these towns don’t hate the residents of more gentrified towns for our organic granola, they hate the world for the structures of oppression that they can’t escape, even as an international class, an educated class, a well-meaning class, escapes without even needing to. We coexisted in the same place but not the same set of opportunities, and we glided on to new and bigger worlds of possibility, ones denied to those of different class backgrounds, regardless of their ethnicity.

***

Some of my African-American classmates at Charlottesville High School were likely descendants of Jefferson’s slaves, coming from poorer neighbourhoods and housing projects and taking "standard" level classes, with honors and AP classes for students whose parents worked in the University (very liberal, of course), a genteel place where every year, some kid wears blackface or a Nazi outfit to a party - as a joke, of course. While my classmates in AP and Honors classes got help from our teachers in applying to Ivy League schools, the general level classes saw black and white students who shared poorer backgrounds acting out to get attention from harried teachers. This was public school, but Charlottesville’s many excellent private schools, of course, didn’t even have the general level students at all.

Despite some southerners such as Lee supporting the post-war “reconstruction,” white resistance to racial equality led to a Jim Crow system that wasn’t much better than slavery, and an American South which dozed in sweaty decline while the rest of the country industrialised and modernized. From 1865 to 1965, not much happened in the South. True, there were intellectual movements like the Agrarians, whose 1920s manifesto “I’ll Take My Stand” I found one high school afternoon in the local bookstore, we had our Faulkners, our occasional geniuses. But as a society, it was stagnant. 

It was only when the civil rights movement began that the south began to actually rise again. UVa went from being a minor regional school to being a world-class one. Charlottesville went from being a mediocre gentleman’s club to a place that people of all backgrounds could make lives for themselves in the public service. And we, the public, gained so much - that’s why my family chose to live there.

I remember as a child strolling the beautiful downtown mall to go to dinner al fresco with my parents, my father pointed out a man in a turban; it was Satyendra Huja, a Sikh professor at the university who had planned the downtown mall, and made a useless street into one of the nicest places to congregate in town. In 2012, Huja became the mayor. I guess the former mayor of Charlottesville who single-handedly made Charlottesville one of the most charming towns in the country often gets told to “go home,” as if that's somewhere else.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday is a national holiday in the United States, but in Virginia it used to be “Lee/King/Jackson” day, with two confederate officers added in just as a reminder. That’s not really our heritage, and as students, we were grateful for the day but always laughed at how immature it was that the powers that be needed to block out Dr. King’s achievements so much.

***

Charlottesville is a southern town true to and even obsessed with our heritage - a place filled with museums, historians, bookstores - which wants to dissect that heritage to remove the parts of our forefathers (and mothers) lives that we can’t accept, like a sandwich that you open up, take the pickles out of, and then keep on eating. We love our heritage in Virginia. We read about it, celebrate it, live it every day. But heritage isn’t a static thing, fixed in time, and the walls between myth and history are thin. In fact, perhaps knowing about your heritage is the ultimate form of privilege. I doubt that either the descendants of slaves I went to high school  with, or the “redneck” (so-called because they got sunburned by working in the fields - “redneck” is a class slur) descendants of the illiterate sharecroppers of rural Maryland, do. 

What happened this weekend to Charlottesville could happen to any town as long as we those who are deprived of their history and who don’t feel at home in their hometown. But the Charlottesville I remember, and the one it is now, proves that you can go from war and conflict and institutionalised racism to one where people of all races and identities can coexist, for the most part, peacefully and happily. We can, if we try, honor Jefferson for his achievements without forgetting the slaves his beautiful buildings were built by. A “Memorial to Enslaved Laborers” is being built on the campus he founded.

For the first time, every one of my old friends is thinking about racism, white privilege, the origins of violence, and what we can do about it. We can honor Jefferson and General Lee’s memory best by trying to learn from their mistakes. Maybe, if it seems like we are able to solve these problems, I’ll have a child myself. I hope she goes to Venable Elementary School, and I’ll take her to Emancipation Park afterwards.

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?