Our family lived in what used to be known as “gentlemen poverty”—the middle-class family that fell on hard times. My father, a literary translator, used to celebrate being granted an overdraft by buying several bottles of vintage bubbly. My mother was stinging pennies and managing a stream of lodgers.
But perhaps the most striking aspect of the constant threat of financial ruin was how it all played out in the heart of Kensington on Abingdon Road – just opposite where Biba, the legendary fashion store of Swinging Sixties London, opened its first shop. Not only that, the house we lived in actually belonged to us, or rather to my mother, since her parents had lent her the mortgage. She bought the house in 1960 for £5,000.
In today’s currency, that would be £100,000. In fact, the same house would now be worth between £5million and £10million. Poverty, posh or not, is no longer an option in this part of Kensington. In the areas where it exists in the north of the borough it can come with appalling risks, as the residents of Grenfell Tower have had to get their money’s worth.
Memories kept running through my mind as I read Caroline Knowles serious money for many of the houses, streets, parks and institutions she describes in her walks through “plutocratic London” provided the architecture of my childhood. And yet they are vastly different worlds, as Knowles makes clear in her portrait of a city awash with money, some of questionable origin, with damaging social and political implications.
All cities evolve, but London’s transformation in the 1990s and beyond was extreme. After the collapse of communism and the advance of market liberalization and the rise of globalization, the city entered a race with New York for the title of financial capital of the world. The result is paradoxical. London is richer, more populous, more cosmopolitan. But it’s also more corrupt and one of the most unequal and unforgiving cities in the world.
A big difference between then and now is the people; or rather, the unimaginable sums of money possessed by the people who now inhabit these streets. Our house had a dingy basement, euphemistically called the “kids room,” which my brother and I lived in, overlooking the coal shed. Today, “basement” means something different. Knowles describes the extraordinarily competitive economy of Kensington’s oligarchic “megabasements”.
Cellars today dig deep into the earth’s crust – two, three or even four stories deep. The construction takes two to three years and causes immense damage to surrounding properties. “In one, raw sewage flows through a neighbor’s apartment,” Knowles reports. Since there is a lack of light and ventilation, nobody actually lives in the cellars. Instead, they’re reserved for home theaters, swimming pools, gyms, and garages.
An old resident laments the arrival of the Gazillionaires and spends much of his time fighting to have planning permission blocked for these architectural tumors. But before the reader gets too bleary-eyed, the author reminds us that the money that funded the original construction of these magnificent Victorian homes came largely from the bloody legacy of colonialism. In the 1960s, the conscientiously polite lawyers, doctors, translators, and the occasional celebrity who graced its streets, like myself, benefited from a long tradition of plutocratic wealth.
True, today’s super-rich have taken the pursuit of wealth to unprecedented levels. My wife, an arts journalist, described a drink party she was invited to by a very wealthy Middle Eastern person at her Mayfair residence, which is two townhouses joined together. “You’re welcome to look around the house,” the host told guests. This was not a home, it was a place to display a huge collection of contemporary art including Damien Hirst and Jeff Koons. An entire double bedroom has been dedicated to a Cornelia Parker sculpture. The only forgeries in the building were the books that lined one of the many hallways.
Knowles quotes another sociologist, Elisabeth Schimpfössl, who has argued that “in Russia, arts funding is a way of converting financial resources into cultural recognition.” This is nothing new, and certainly not unique to Russians — the rich of many cultures and eras from Medici Florence to the “robber barons” of the United States have attempted just that. To this day, many Americans will take their first steps on the path to appreciating art through the legacy of Frick, Rockefeller, Carnegie et al.
Ironically, it was a Labor Prime Minister and his Chancellor – Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – who promoted the “light regulatory touch” that encouraged money to flow to London from around the world. The capital had real advantages over New York – it was much closer to the Middle East, Russia and of course the rest of Europe. It had a cultural life on par with its American rival, and it had plenty of glamorous, cheap real estate. Housing inflation drove the fashionable Englishmen out of Notting Hill, Kensington and St. John’s Wood and forced them further west, south and north (Shepherd’s Bush in my family’s case).
Understandably, Knowles begins her plutocracy forays into London’s financial district to get a closer look at the engine house behind much of the city’s wealth. Her role models include Virginia Woolf strolling London’s wintry streets, Walter Benjamin in Paris, Raja Shehadeh’s exploration of the Palestinian territories and, more recently, Iain Sinclair’s strolls in London.
It’s a worthwhile endeavor, but Knowles’ opening backfires because it also seeks to probe the shady networks of tax evasion, money laundering, and pension-seekers. Writers like Oliver Bullough (money country) and Nick Shaxson (Treasure Islands) and Tom Burgis of the FT (kleptopia) have been there with such forensic force that there are no new discoveries to be found.
Perseverance with the book is still rewarded, however, as the author’s gentle but perceptive observations quickly pile up as he seeks out a multitude of characters to unveil the day-to-day culture of plutocracy. Knowles names them after archetypes: Butler, Soviet, Banker, Bags (as in Prada), Sturgeon, Blazer and many more. It’s both frustrating (even if we don’t know them, we want them identified) and effective at the same time. Reduced in this way, the characters are easier to follow and understand.
The further we enter the world of the plutocrat, the more seedy, alienated and dying it becomes. In Mayfair and Belgravia, large areas get dark at night because these huge houses are uninhabited. They are either an investment with solid returns or, like the Middle East art gallery, they aim to project an image of wealth and prestige. Mayfair’s Isles of Light advertise the most exclusive nightclubs where terribly rich men in their 40’s and 50’s spend £10,000 a night to reserve a celebrity table.
As Knowles writes, “promoters” are roaming the nearby streets (and the internet) offering “girls” a chance to party for free. “Young women live on the ambiguous, slippery edge of the night, part guests, part offerings,” she adds. “You have to navigate the sliding scale between expensive drinks and conversation on the one hand and escort services, casual sex or even sophisticated prostitution duties for rich men on the other.”
The mega rich have the wherewithal to buy people. And they invariably keep large retainers who do everything from folding pants to sweeping hotel rooms for bugs. The astute assistant not only acts as a factotum for his boss Party. He also makes friends. It’s not a real friendship, of course, because Party, a billionaire, pays the assistant. But billionaires, Knowles proves, live in a world so sophisticated they never encounter it mob.
This leads to the author’s sad conclusion that the life of a plutocrat is desperately lonely. As the assistant says to Knowles: “[Staff] Become your surrogate family because they’re the people you spend all your time with.” Those relationships, the assistant adds, are “misaligned” because, ultimately, the wealthy want both service and companionship — and pay for it.
As described, it’s a sad lot. But it is difficult to pity them, as the influence of the global oligarchy born out of capitalism’s excesses bears a profound responsibility for the terrible chaos we all find ourselves in now.
serious money: Walking Plutocratic London by Caroline Knowles Allen Lane £25, 320 pages
Misha Glenny is Rector of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna
Join our online book group on Facebook FT Books Cafe