Dave Widgery

Monumental folly

(June 1992)

From Socialist Review, No.154, June 1992, pp.18-19.
Transcribed & marked upmarked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

David Widgery, a long standing socialist, has lived and worked as a doctor in East London for over 20 years. He now practises in the shadow of Canary Wharf. His book Some Lives! is a moving account of the deprivation and neglect endured by ordinary East Enders while the developers are let loose on their neighbourhood

I wrote the book in ten weeks flat in the late 1980s when Thatcher was still in command, the poll tax in place and the economy said to be booming for ever. It seems like a very long time ago.

Going to work each day in Limehouse, the silver phallus of Canary Wharf rose up like some mysterious UFO (Unidentified Fiscal Object). Although it had no purpose except to make money for the developers (Richard Rogers called it ‘a monument to human greed’), it became the object of cult worship.

Motorways were built underground to it. Tube extensions were tunnelled. Money became mysteriously available to buy off the locals whose homes were demolished. Neighbourhoods were destroyed to make way for it.

I wanted to argue that the creation of things like Canary Wharf was part of the same process which was shrinking the NHS, creating homelessness and increasing poverty only a few hundred yards away. And the ripping asunder of Limehouse by the LDDC was part of the same system that created Cardboard City and emptied County Hall, and was destroying that sense of neighbourhood, community and mutual solidarity which had given proletarian London its special character.

The publishers who first read it were scathing. The general attitude was that you lefties may not like it but it’s progress. Yet exactly the same people say to me three years later that the book’s a classic and that Canary Wharf is a symbol of everything that went wrong in the 1980s. So much for liberals.

But the collapse of Olympia and York does represent the completion of a cycle which began with Heseltine’s invention of UDCs as vast government funded estate agents to give away inner city land to speculators. It is a microcosm, a rather large one, of the follies of the Thatcher years.

Canary Wharf was, after all, where Mrs T started her most successful election campaign and it’s virtually in the hands of the receivers. Even if Heseltine can persuade his minions in the DOE to go and work there, the impression will be of neo-colonial government rather than economic regeneration.

David Widgery

I pass a council flat where I was called out one Easter as an emergency. It was the first contact with his doctor for 14 years, made by an ex-docker who lived on his own. ‘Fags help unclog me a bit, Doc. You will have to speak up, I’m a bit mutton.’ On examination he was grossly emaciated, had a collapsed lung, a knobbly enlarged liver and about three weeks to live. His apologetic face will always stick in my mind. ‘Don’t want to be a nuisance, Doc,’ he insisted. ‘Don’t want to be a trouble.’ (Excerpt from Chap.1, p.9)

What is remarkable is how well East End mothers do themselves in conditions which would tax better-off and better educated mothers. But how much better things would be if they and their children were allowed to flourish without the incessant erosion of economic and social deprivation. We have progressed in absolute terms but those advances have not been made available equitably across the board. ‘When one knows of the condition of life,’ wrote John Scurr [a working class socialist and campaigner for women’s rights], in 1924 ‘one stands in admiration of the struggle which is put up against their environment by thousands of men and women... What chance have they or their children?... Our society passes them by and abuses them for [what] our social system has thrust upon them.’ (Excerpt from Chap.5, p.89)

London has undergone a dramatic change in both its physical appearance and its economic character. Now enduring its inevitable downside of economic recession and property slump, we are only slowly realising the social costs and consequences of Thatcher’s sado-monetarism. The 1980s, a decade office market ‘liberalism’, privatisation and remorselessly rising property prices, generated a commercial building boom to house the Big Bang of deregulated dealing and screen-based trading. ‘Si monumentum requiris’ look round from the monumental folly of Canary Wharf and see the humiliation of ordinary Londoners by the triumphal obelisks of commerce.

And with the decline of existing council housing and the virtual halt on new public housing starts, traditional working class residential areas like Fulham, Battersea, Islington and parts of the East End were recolonised by the middle classes. This process is highly unpopular but has proved impossible to resist. The abolition of the Greater London Council and the under financing and undermining of inner London councils, together with the general decline in the NHS, education and welfare services, makes it very difficult for working class London effectively to oppose the process. Halting London’s loss of manufacture or reversing land ownership patterns is a tall order when you are struggling to stump up the poll tax, waiting in pain for an elusive hospital bed, or looking after the children at short notice because there are not enough teachers that day.

So the reshaping of our metropolis is experienced passively in odd disjointed glimpses: the grimness of a once excellent public transport service stuck in semi-permanent traffic jams, the thundering skip lorries, helmets, grit and strange shantytown feeling of ubiquitous rebuilding, being begged from by fit young people in theatre doorways, the sudden flash of riot among Nelson’s lions. But in a way it’s not surprising that the price of a recreation of ‘Victorian values’ to our most Victorian of cities should be a dirty, lawless, polluted capital where the very rich spend much of their time protecting their wealth from an increasingly disaffected and disenfranchised working class. And the respectable middle class despair of both and concentrate on the struggle to keep the aspidistra flying by paying up their credit cards promptly. This sort of polarisation has after all happened before and led, in London, to the upsurges in the mid-nineteenth century which brought about the Reform Bill, to the post First World War agitation (known as ‘Poplarism’) which led to the richer boroughs assisting the poor in housing and welfare, and to the work of the interwar LCC and the postwar Labour government’s ‘Welfare State.’

But late 20th century restructuring of inner London means something more fundamental than a lot of Lego-like office blocks and the return of the braying classes to Soho dining rooms. It requires the ejection of the urban proletariat and tradespeople from the city centre. The traditional London pattern of flat residential villages arranged on centuries-old road and river networks, a topography retained in this century by the emplacements and groynes of low-rent council housing which shielded the human heart of the city, is changing rapidly. Canary Wharf and the LDDC are only the most ostentatious example of a process by which multinational commercial developers, largely financed and controlled from outside Britain, will have been allowed to create a new ‘free market’ metropolis

‘The inner cities next,’ announced Mrs Thatcher in her paroxysm of third-term triumph in 1987: what she meant was the recolonisation of the old proletarian-bohemian, artisanal-shopkeeping, Labour-voting areas of the city centre by the values and the personnel of the Home Counties. In that process the proletarians, especially those among them who are poor, socially unattractive, sick or mentally ill are debarred from both production and consumption. There are jobs, minus tiresome, old-fashioned things like unions, closing times and safety regulations, as cooks and nannies, waiters and drivers, cleaners and guards, entertainers and prostitutes: jobs Londoners have always done by choice but are now expected, like cheerful imbeciles, to delight in or else. But very little production in the great manufacturing districts which once shaped London’s industrial physiognomy: the light engineering of North-West London, the newspaper printing of Fleet Street, the docks- and river-related industries of the East End, the furniture and shoe workplaces of Hackney and Shoreditch. Ordinary Londoners, whose parents and grandparents built the capital and created its wealth, are increasingly in the way. Expensively in the way, consumers of the wrong things: not high-priced leisure products but hospitals, schools and social services.

Bernard Shaw, who was turned into a socialist by the social and economic chaos and cruelty of late nineteenth-century London, wrote over a hundred years ago that what the city needed was ‘the development of individual greed into civic spirit; of the extension of the laissez-faire principle to public as well as private enterprise; of bringing all the citizens to a common date in civilisation.’ Architectural facelifts would be of no value ‘until London belongs to, and is governed by, the people who use it.’ (Opening paragraphs from Chap.13: Unhappy City, pp.229-233)


Last updated on 29.11.2004