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6 August 2022

How the super-rich live

Wandering through the haunts favoured by London’s wealthiest residents reveals the gilded side of the capital hiding in plain sight.

By Matthew Beaumont

In London, walking through the streets of the city, as opposed to taking transport of one kind or another across it, has for centuries functioned as a self-consciously anti-plutocratic activity.

In the 18th century, when capitalism was in the ascendant and the British metropolis was becoming a centre of consumption, poets leading precarious lives on the margins of society insisted on walking partly because they could not afford to travel by coach and partly because it enabled them, in some literal sense, to embody their resentment of the ruling class. Going on foot, for these residents of Grub Street, was an assertion of solidarity with the poor and the disenfranchised.

It is this attitude that informs one of the finest poems ever to have been written about London, John Gay’s Trivia (1716). It is a militant affirmation of travelling on foot as a political, or proto-political, activity. There, the poet compares the righteous walker, whose modest walking-stick is constantly put to use because it directs his “cautious Tread aright”, to the idle aristocrats who, “loll[ing] at Ease” in “gilded Chariots”, carry their “Amber tipt” canes merely for the sake of fashionable appearance. Gay attacks the “griping Broker” who sits in an ostentatious chariot “and laughs at Honesty, and trudging Wits”.

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The brokers, hedge-fund managers and other ultra-rich elites the sociologist Caroline Knowles encounters in her fascinating investigation of plutocratic London glide about the capital in the 21st century equivalent of those “gilded Chariots” – chauffeur-driven limousines with blacked-out windows which both screen their incumbents from staring pedestrians, and also mean they never have to confront their comparatively impoverished lives. These billionaires have no reason to gripe, not least because of the ease with which their businesses evade tax in Britain. But they have plenty of reasons to laugh at Honesty.

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Knowles inherits a centuries-old tradition, then. This is pedestrianism as a demotic method for mapping the ways in which the city has been shaped or misshaped by the politics of inequality. In the prelude to her book, she identifies its project with a more recent iteration of this tradition invoking “Virginia Woolf’s descriptions of walking London’s wintry streets; Walter Benjamin’s wanderings of the Paris arcades; Iain Sinclair’s London ramblings; Teju Cole’s ruminations on New York City; and Raja Shehadeh’s walks in the Palestinian Territories.” These are her “guides”, she states, because they “show that walking exposes politics, like a sediment in the landscape”.

The politics of London are not perhaps as invisible as this geological simile implies since the city is teeming with corporate buildings and multimillion-pound private houses that are designed to be conspicuous as well as secretive. The plutocratic city, as Knowles understands, is hidden in plain sight. But, partly for this reason, she is surely right that crossing the city on foot is far more revealing of its shocking inequalities than travelling by other means. One of the reasons I avoid going on the Underground – aside from my residual fear of being infected by Covid in the close, if not fetid atmosphere of its poorly ventilated compartments – is that it makes it so easy to forget what is happening to the surface of the city.

Tracing the same route on foot to my office three or four times a week, a commute that takes roughly an hour, it’s impossible to ignore the cycle of creative destruction that is constantly reshaping the cityscape. Every month, it seems, another block of social housing, another care home, another pub, disappears behind hoardings laminated with images of sleek 30-somethings enjoying lattes as they socialise in sunlit piazzas. London’s civic space is being consumed by parasites – an international caste of the super-rich for whom the city’s real estate acts as a blue-chip investment asset. Perhaps, after all, it would be less depressing to travel by Tube.

The premise of Serious Money, as Knowles neatly puts it, is that “in London, money rises in the East and sets in the West” (she might have added that, hours before it rises in the City, it rises in Eastern Europe, especially Russia, and in the so-called Middle East). Her study of the plutocratic city, accordingly, “follows this arc”. Its first section centres on “London’s Financial Districts”, where hedge-fund managers devote themselves to further enriching the super-rich. Subsequent sections, all of which open with useful maps that pinpoint important locations, including hotels, restaurants and luxury apartment blocks, lead the reader through a series of hyper-affluent playgrounds: Mayfair, Notting Hill, Kensington, Chelsea, Regent’s Park, Richmond and, finally, Virginia Water and “the Surrey Fringe”.

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It is a journey, then, from the heart of darkness, in the City, to the exclusive golf clubs where Kurtz gets to cement his connections with other members of the ruling-class in a setting entirely insulated from the ordinary life of London. This also is one of the dark places of the earth, as Joseph Conrad’s narrator in Heart of Darkness reflected. Knowles, whose tone throughout the book is notably upbeat, despite the dystopian contours of the capital she has been mapping, can’t help but become slightly depressed when she reaches Virginia Water. She eloquently evokes its “eerie, unpeopled landscape of monster homes hidden from view on streets where [she is] liable to be apprehended by private security guards at any moment”. In a powerful moment, she observes that this fabulously wealthy suburb reminds her of the areas of post-apartheid Johannesburg in which rich white people fortify themselves from the rest of the city and its poor black inhabitants.

Knowles is a sort of gumshoe sociologist, and this book is often as gripping as a pulp detective novel in which we glimpse the slimy, far from slummy lives of the morally corrupt. She patrols London’s elite enclaves with a sharp eye for telling social and architectural details. Walking through Kensington, for instance, she notes the fashion for house renovations that involve building vast basements designed to contain gyms, swimming pools or carports containing multiple luxury vehicles. She speaks to builders who confirm that the diggers used for these excavations are often simply left underground because it isn’t cost-effective to retrieve a them: “dozens of them are buried in the foundations of houses in the area.” How, we are left wondering, will the archaeologists of the future judge our civilization?   

Knowles combines cunning and charm in gaining the confidence of the handful of super-rich people whom – thanks to assiduously establishing links with contacts and the contacts of contacts – she interviews over the course of her travels through the capital, though the precise origins of these plutocrats remain somewhat mysterious. Serious Money starts, for example, in a bar in Shoreditch appropriately called the Looking Glass (the book might have been titled “Caroline in Wonderland”). There, she meets, first, the “Boy”, a flashy young fixer who proves extremely useful to her. Second, she meets “Quant”, a veteran of the financial crisis of 2008 who, rather than merely surviving in its aftermath, cunningly thrived in the structured finance markets. The latter, whose mistrust she skilfully allays, explains the mechanics of plutocratic finance, describing how fund managers are paid a flat fee for overseeing their clients’ investments: “So, if they manage $1bn of assets, they’ll be paid, say, 2 per cent just as a flat fee.”

In part perhaps because the super-rich often prove inaccessible except via their retainers or intermediaries, Knowles also likes to listen in on their conversations in bars, cafés and restaurants. In the chapter on private members’ clubs in St. James’s, for example, she hears snatches of conversation about fashion, TV production and other lucrative cultural-industrial ventures in which, either for narcissistic or purely commercial reasons, the social elite have a stake. Sometimes this catches a sense of their social entitlement even more effectively than talking to them directly. On the streets of Kensington, meanwhile, she tunes into a phone conversation in which a woman in Jimmy Choo shoes tells a friend about the previous night’s cocktails: “I was soooo tharsty.” Knowles remarks laconically that she is reminded of Gatsby’s comment, in F Scott Fitzgerald’s famous novel, that Daisy’s voice is “full of money”.

Knowles also gains insights into the lives of London’s plutocrats and kleptocrats by talking to their wives and servants. This too is a type of eavesdropping. The repulsive carelessness and callousness of these men – and they are almost exclusively men – becomes especially apparent when she talks to the resentful managers of their domestic or professional affairs. “Butler”, for example, provides her with “a glimpse of realities behind a lavish Kensington door”. He reports that people in his position, who routinely work 16-hour days, are responsible for policing their paranoid employers’ endless possessions. If something is misplaced, they are either abused or dismissed. “He gives the example of a man with 150 suits,” Knowles writes, “who will one day notice when a suit that he wasn’t worn for three years has gone missing.”      

The super-rich fuss about missing suits while London burns. In a sobering chapter entitled “The Burning Tower”, Knowles walks past Grenfell Tower en route to the precincts of the super-rich in Notting Hill, adding, a little apologetically, that “because these walks follow the money, my focus is on Notting Hill’s wealthiest residents, and not the low-income community that lived in and around Grenfell.” This seems reasonable enough. But I missed a sense of the London that lies around the opulent islands between which Knowles hops. She tends to get the bus or tube to the places in which she walks the streets, and I couldn’t help wishing that, like those Grub-Street poets, she’d walked from one to the other, telling us about what lies in the interstices of the plutocratic city.

Indeed, perhaps it is finally misleading to think in terms of the “plutocratic city”. Oddly, Knowles almost never refers to “capitalism” in Serious Money. Capitalism is the book’s unspoken premise, no doubt, but she does not offer a theory, even a perfunctory one, of the system through which the plutocrats on whom she focuses operate. A theory of this sort might have illuminated the way in which the “extreme housing inequalities, shortages, exploitation and neglect” that led, for example, to the lethal fire at Grenfell, are the direct consequence of an economic system, managed by the billionaire elite portrayed in this book, that expropriates the poor. To conceptualise London explicitly as a capitalist city is to start seeing the connections between the affluent streets of Notting Hill she explores and Grenfell; between Notting Hill and Hell.

Serious Money: Walking Plutocratic London

Caroline Knowles

Allen Lane, 320pp, £25

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