Letter from London: Duke Box Fury

Hugh Algernon Percy, Duke of Northumberland.

It was during one of those special early summers in Northumberland — winters were spent in Scotland — that I first heard mention of the Duke of Northumberland. I must have been about four or five years old, winningly ignorant, far more interested in running into the sea than into the aristocracy. The quaintness, or absurdity, of these islands are never better expressed than through our continuedly grinding reverence for the upper crust.

Probably, as I stared out from the dunes to sea, the picture of the Duke I had in mind was of a red-cheeked man on horseback in over-tight armour. This of course was ridiculous — the Duke of Northumberland never looked like that — but I guess even to me the concept of Dukes, all Dukes, was already ridiculous. In my childish imagination, they really were these funny-looking men with crazy headware and lots and lots of vast homes with stuffed animals and shafted weapons with pointed heads on all the walls. The women of these strongholds were just as bizarre. They wore hats like giant handbags.

The Duke of Northumberland at the time was Hugh Algernon Percy, officially the 10th Duke, and styled as Lord Hugh Percy. Later — at school in Scotland — I would study his ancestor Sir Henry Percy, otherwise known as Harry Hotspur, in Shakespeare’s cracking Henry IV, Part 1. (Sir Henry Percy’s family brought King Henry IV to power but felt forgotten by the king.) Later on, though still in my teens, my Percy antennae extended to a kindly, intuitive girlfriend who lived on the Duke’s estate, and a naturally rebellious tenant sheep farmer’s son whose father’s landlord was the Duke.

My own feelings remained ambivalent, unimpressed, soon seriously long-distance. It was in Washington DC that I discovered the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum, had in fact been founded by the illegitimate son of the 1st Duke of Northumberland.

But I grew tired over time of Percy heads popping up and down during publicity shoots on all those Harry Potter films made with money-printing urgency at the Percy family’s beloved Alnwick Castle. For me, it was not unlike the Middletons before their royal mugs business went south.

Not only are we still encouraged to look up to the aristocracy here, it seems, they are still just as likely to charge us for the pleasure. People today still complain about the cost of a family ticket with entry to both the castle and garden at Alnwick. ‘This is blatant profiteering,’ wrote someone on Trip Advisor.

Imagine my surprise then last week when the present Duke, the 12th, Ralph Percy, hit the London news wires, so to speak, as he sought to replace a number of people’s adored allotment spaces on part of his Grade I-listed Syon Park estate in west London with 80 smart new apartments. Already refused permission on his first attempt, here he was having another crack.

In the UK, it should probably be noted for American readers, an allotment is basically a plot of land rented by individuals just for growing vegetables or flowers; only in the US are they pieces of land made over by the government to Native Americans.

Labour councillor Salman Shaheen was reported as saying at the most recent hearing that ‘a man richer than the king has shown no evidence to prove that the only way to fund the repairs to one historic asset is by destroying another historic asset’. In other words, it is as though joy should be trampled, and profit erected. The BBC interviewed one woman in her 80s called Grace Gray who was saying she would be nowhere near as healthy without her allotment: ‘The exercise, the fresh air, the produce.’ Another member of the community described it as a way of life for them all.

These particular allotments were originally leased by the Percys for soldiers returning from the First World War. Even the public inquiry stated that this latest move was simply an effort to line already deep pockets. Family pockets seemingly so deep that Queen guitarist Sir Brian May was only a few days earlier showing interest in buying land from the Duke’s youngest child, Lord Max Percy, who is selling a 9,500-acre estate for a mere £35 million. This land hasn’t been on the market since 1332. That’s nearly 450 years before the American Revolutionary War. The Percys give every impression of being what some might call ‘loaded’.

The people who grow giant marrows in these allotments are not ‘loaded’. The Duke’s representatives in this continued inquiry argue disingenuously that housing in the area is sorely needed. But one local councillor has said there are ample brownfield sites in the area on disused industrial land. Green spaces like this should be preserved, it is said. Especially when they bring so much private joy to individuals who often live for their tiny allotments.

Elsewhere in London of course we have a growing number of ghost office buildings — spectral splashes. This is the flip side to the Duke’s expansionist plans. However we put it, many previously busy areas of London are now beginning to take a turn for the worse. This relates in part to a dramatically falling need for office space as more and more Londoners work from home.

Every day, I peer across Old Father Thames at Canary Wharf, and it is impossible not to think of that growing number of empty rental spaces showing few signs of being re-filled. Some of these tall buildings remind me of empty pint glasses on the counter of a no longer popular bar. Like HSBC, Barclays and Credit Suisse, the credit ratings agency Moody’s also plan to move out of the area. (Who checks the credit of a credit agency? We all know the US was stripped last week of its top-tier sovereign credit rating by Fitch Ratings. Who does Fitch’s credit rating?)

Maybe Canary Wharf will surprise us and improve with age, as it slips into a kind of surreal netherworld. A UK defence intelligence report last week wrote of undergrowth regrowing across the battlefields of Southern Ukraine — one of the reasons for ‘the generally slow progress’ in the area, especially with all those mines now harder to spot. I was being serious when hinting that Canary Wharf could return one day to weed and shrubs and undergrowth around its tall buildings. I used to resent the word ‘dystopian’, thinking of it as a flight of fancy peculiar to the blander side of the science-fiction genre — something without any true lingering investment in reality. Now, there are so many things in the capital that can relate to an imagined society where there is great suffering or injustice.

During the weekend at Canary Wharf, the place is particularly empty, like a giant film set. Instead of a futuristic world of Piaget watch-wearing financiers, it really is beginning to look ‘dystopian’. Naturally, how to stem this slide into darkness remains the truly interesting challenge.

One fantastic outcome might be to see all of the empty offices flooded one day with artists. I saw this happen in the East Village in New York some 40 years ago. It was transformational. Or how about different musical genres on each floor of the high-rises?

My son is touring Europe right now with his band. In Poland last week he saw tanks — ‘loads of them’ — being delivered by French convoys on the motorways. Anything is better than those kinds of threatening moves and a growing hopelessness at home. I no longer consider it zany or over-idealistic to posit the idea of mass creativity everywhere, because the entire city here is showing such signs of strain it needs to do something.

Take sections of Oxford Street in the heart of London’s West End, some of it like the ring of migrants last week cleared off the sidewalk around the 1,000-room Roosevelt Hotel on Manhattan, where they were unable to get a space inside the repurposed processing centre. On Oxford Street right now, a visibly unhappy thoroughfare these days, not just because of Covid and the increase in online shopping, either, we see ever-growing lines of people sleeping rough shoulder-to-shoulder each night.

Hence the uptick in campaigners urging the government to fight what they call the ‘root causes’. One not necessarily unfeeling shop owner has described it as ‘a national embarrassment’. Cardboard boxes and upturned shopping trolleys rusting in the rain are what we get there. Heads long since disappeared inside sleeping bags must be wondering how much worse it can get for them. What hell it must be.

I have mentioned these types of situation in London before. Basically, rents and UK mortgage rates have been growing so fast — ever since decades-high inflation began to feed the darkest cost-of-living crisis in a generation. What we are seeing on the pavements of London are basically some of its consequences.

There has been a twelve per cent increase in homelessness in London compared to this same period last year. The latest Big Issue magazine in London has Alicia Walker, director of policy, research and campaign at youth homeless charity Centrepoint, describing government action on homelessness since 2019 as little more than ‘sporadic policy announcements and piecemeal funding’.

Okay, this is not peculiar to London. As well as New York, I have seen exactly the same at one time or another in Rome, Berlin, Amman, Split, Prague, Vilnius, Lashkar Gah, Muzaffarabad, Yamoussoukro, Johannesburg, the American Midwest. Besides, storm clouds may represent darkness but they can also anticipate clear skies.

When I was that little boy in Northumberland, whenever the seagulls gathered inland we were taught that a storm was brewing out to sea. I can actually remember thinking with my nose pinned against the window pane that not all storms when they hit land need to disrupt. Some could clear people’s paths, I rationalised.

Despite shrinking availability, there are a remarkable 741 vegetable-growing allotment sites in London. The paths through the Duke’s allotments maybe have been muddied but they are not gone yet. 741 means roughly 40,000 individual plots. Let us hope the inquiry can see sense and not make it 740. Let us hope the Duke ceases to disrupt.

Peter Bach lives in London.