The Null Device

The city that privatised itself to death

Upon seeing the title “The City That Privatised Itself To Death” in this morning's Guardian, I began wondering what gruesomely absurd edge-case of neoliberalism the piece would be about; some bankrupt municipality in the US, perhaps, reduced to selling its fire brigade to Uber-like privateers (who, subsequently, would elude prosecution after having been found actually setting fires) and flogging off tolling rights to its roads; or possibly some once-vibrant city in central America, cracked open like a ripe nut by corporate raiders armed with free-trade treaties and the IMF's full backing, bled dry and reduced to a fortified enclave and a sprawl of miserable shanty towns, their inhabitants busily dying of preventable diseases? But no, it turned out to be the latest Humorous Rant About London Privatisation/Gentrification (so bleak, you have to laugh), this time by a chap named Ian Martin (who, if I recall correctly, has stepped in for Charlie Brooker when he had a column):

Perhaps eminent historians will study London in the early 21st century, see how its poorer inhabitants were driven out, observe how its built environment was slowly boiled to death by privatisation. And they will wonder why people tolerated this transfer of collective wealth from taxpayers to shareholders. And they will perhaps turn their attention to Eduardo Paolozzi’s fabled mosaics at Tottenham Court Road underground station.

Paolozzi's mosaics' significance is, firstly, that they date back to the instance before the privatisation explosion and, more importantly, whatever their artistic merit, they take up space that could be otherwise monetised for advertising, as the owners of the city would will it to be.

You can’t paste an ad on to a wallful of public art. You can’t fix one of those irritating micromovies over it, telling a vacuous five-second story about investments or vitamins or hair. The Paolozzi mosaics went up as decorative art, just as privatisation was about to explode like a dirty bomb all over the public realm. What survives at Tottenham Court Road station is a brave, forlorn little seawall set against a stormtide of corporate advertising.
I say “we”, although the greatest trick Thatcherism ever pulled was this redefinition of “us and them”. Suddenly, people in your own family were voting Tory. Mrs Thatcher’s chief information officer, Rupert Murdoch, was telling us that the firemen and the dustmen were our enemies. That the women of the NUT and Nalgo were the mad, selfish defenders of a doomed elite. The Tory government went after the local authorities, telling us that government itself was our enemy. You were just going: “Hold on a minute, if you’re the government …” and then they shouted: “Oh, God, look! The Falklands!”, hired more expensive PR guys and carried on privatising.

Further on, Martin contrasts the Blatcherite moment of privatisation with the old world, the shards and pseudo-public spaces in the middle of ridiculous-looking postmodern vanity skyscrapers, with the heady, wholesome, if at times drab and unexciting-looking, not-quite-socialism of the post-war decades:

Let me tell you, little ones, about how popular music and the bright optimism of collective space came together long ago in London’s heady, soot-laden, pre-privatised air of 1967. Song of the summer was Waterloo Sunset by the Kinks, with its odd blend of keening melancholy and positivism. Nostalgia for a doomed postwar world, exhilaration for the coming of a new post-industrial one. Terry and Julie, facing the future unafraid. Wherever you went, it floated into earshot on a tide of treble from someone’s transistor radio.

(I have, as undoubtedly many who have heard Waterloo Sunset do, a particular image of Terry and Julie standing on the bridge; an image formed long before I heard that the song referred to Terence Stamp and Julie Christie. Terry, in my vision, wears a beige cashmere jumper, and his chestnut hair cascades voluminously over his ears, as the hair of men did in 1967; he has a gold ring on the middle finger of his right hand, which rests on Julie's shoulder. Julie, his dollybird, hangs on his arm; she is tall (though half a head shorter than him) and beanpole-thin, with long, straight bottle-blond hair and teeth slightly too large, giving her a somewhat horsey appearance. Both of their respective sets of parents toiled in menial jobs, but the increased social mobility has allowed them to raise their expectations of what life has to offer. They have a little apartment near the Thames, which they've done up fashionably, a Dansette which they've bought on hire-purchase, and half a dozen records which get played when they invite friends over for parties. Life is good, and can only get better.)

And if you were Terry and Julie gazing at a Waterloo sunset in the summer of 67, you’d have seen the Hayward Gallery under construction. The beautiful, brilliant, brutalist Hayward, part of a people’s South Bank that had started with the Festival Hall in 1951 and would end triumphantly with the National Theatre in the 1970s. And we did gaze at it, thinking: “This is us.” This is us, building something amazing, for us. Several eminent architects worked on the scheme, but oversight belonged to the GLC architects department. Imagine that. A time when most architects worked in the public sector, designing a world of public space and collective aspiration, a world of affordable housing with statutory space standards.

Martin outlines the Blatcherite big-bang which ended all that; the privatisation of architecture, the normalisation of privately-owned spaces, with actual public participation governed by conditions enforced by private security, the transformation of public ownership into a sin—socialism— and its abolition into a moral imperative, takes a few shots at the Shard, and then extrapolates the zeitgeist to a post-apocalyptic conclusion:

On the current track, maybe life does become unbearable in the future, when the last remaining cubic centimetre of public space – a trembling pocket of air perhaps, in a cellar at the Emirates British Library – is finally acquired by a friend of King Charles III. At some point, there’ll be no more space left to squeeze and monetise. The city’s overlords will own everything. Qatari, Saudi, Russian, Indian, Chinese, some UK hedge funds named after Shakespearian characters – all air will be their air.
Then – who knows? Maybe when London is pixellated into billions of stock-marketable units of sequestered air, boing! The world cracks and changes. Iceland acquires the north pole, discovers tons of diamonds and becomes the richest nation on earth. Ghana puts the first woman on Mars. Scientists announce they can convert rising sea levels into environmentally sustainable “brinergy”. The global petrochemical industry suffers a fatal prolapse. Its sheiks and warlords, the fawned-upon princes who once did as they wished – buying up most of Streatham in the morning, beheading someone for sorcery in the afternoon – well, they’re dust and shadow now. Maybe the global property market follows oil down the plughole. London’s last human inhabitants head north, their hovertransits stuffed with electronic belongings and omniplasma, to affordable housing, a temperate climate and a hopeful, collective future.
Also on the topic of spaces in the shadowy hinterland between public and private, the Guardian has a piece on the Thames Path, a public walking route running along the river's banks, considerable lengths of which (particularly in “regenerated” parts of London) have been surrounded with fences and gates, with the aim of intimidating the public into abrogating the right they have to use them, allowing them to finally be fully, legally taken out of the public realm.

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