Letter from London: Mind the Gap

Photograph Source: Knar Bedian – CC BY 2.0

Two hundred meters away from where we rent here in London, two workmen were fitting a brand new window to a large residential property. The building had many windows. It gleamed like a palace of glass. The glass glinted diamond-like as the angle of this one window was readjusted.

You wouldn’t think we had a housing crisis. Families made homeless here are being sent regularly as far north as Manchester, ripped apart from their roots like flowers deemed not pretty enough. I happen to like Manchester. I like its mayor Andy Burnham. Following stints as Labour’s Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Culture Secretary and Health Secretary, Burnham now exudes the same kind of progressive civic pride as Manchester itself, a city for some still beating like a Hacienda dance-floor in the sweet aftermath of an Industrial Revolution.

That shouldn’t leave families with young children from here cast out of familiar schools and away from friends. Some say people offered homes anywhere are lucky. They say housing and immigration are the true battlegrounds of the coming election, anyway.

But what people insufficiently realise is that a lot of the problem is down to former prime minister Liz Truss having forced local authorities to take out crippling 50-year loans following her disastrous mini-budget — public housing was the first thing to go. This after she and Kwasi Kwarteng in a garden pub only a mile or so away from here came up with plans which in the end lost for the country £20bn through unfunded national insurance and stamp duty cuts, plus another £10bn through raised interest rates and borrowing costs. Okay, it is not quite up there with Putin trying to validate the war on Ukraine through last week’s genuinely horrific Moscow terror attack, but Truss’s depletion of local council reserves is calamitous.

One man unlikely to be homeless is Charles Spencer, the 9th Earl Spencer, who people will remember as the younger brother of Princess Diana who declared from a Westminster Abbey pulpit that ‘of all the ironies about Diana, perhaps the greatest was this — a girl given the name of the ancient goddess of hunting was, in the end, the most hunted person of the modern age.’ I am no fan of the aristocracy. Nor does this mean I have no sympathy for royals with cancer. However, as Alexis de Tocqueville once said, ‘aristocracy naturally leads the human mind to the contemplation of the past, and fixes it there.’ I wonder in this regard if Charles Spencer has now found a way through to the future.

His surprising new memoir A Very Private School speaks with such candour about the unmonitored nature of privilege, specifically the systematic sexual abuse and regular beatings, to the point of drawing blood, meted out by staff at Maidwell Hall prep school. ‘We had demons sewn into the linings of our souls,’ he writes. Spencer was sufficiently abused and groomed by one female assistant matron to incite a clearly indelible memory of a holiday in Spain aged 12 in which he paid for a prostitute ‘to finish the grooming’. He also said that in order to survive, a small but important part of you had to die. This is terrible, let alone in an institution originally created for boys to learn from the age of eight how to run an empire. Some cynics dismiss it now as a punishment of luxury, but it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

Of course, there will be those with scars who never speak out. Boarding school omertàs can last a lifetime. Schools by and large have improved greatly now, thanks to positively reforming headteachers. But certainly pupils in the past were exposed to sexual, physical, and emotional abuse at my school in Scotland, according to one recent finding. Though caned excessively, I was fortunate enough also to have one housemaster who preferred to tap boys gently, as if partaking in a secret pact against what we all knew he saw as the repugnance of corporal punishment being seen as morally legitimate. I admit that going away to school for me was different than to other boys. They had parents. Boarding school was useful for me because of an elderly grandmother tasked with bringing me up. But for those with parents, I never properly understood why they would send their children so far away for eight long months every year.

On a possibly lighter note, I see actor Timothy Chalamet is playing a young Bob Dylan. It was at my aforesaid school in Scotland that I first heard Dylan. Wordplay was news to me and I liked good causes. Favourite among earlier songs was A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall (‘I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children…’), The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll (‘William Zanzinger killed poor Hattie Carroll / With a cane that he twirled around his diamond ring finger…’), and ‘Chimes of Freedom (‘Tolling for the rebel / Tolling for the rake / Tolling for the luckless / The abandoned and forsaked / Tolling for the outcast / Burning constantly at stake…’). Only war poet Wilfred Owen came close to the man from Duluth.

I would probably turn down seeing him live today. Even by the late 80s, his shows were all over the place. Apart from moments on Time Out of Mind and Modern Times, I gave up largely on the fresh material until Rough and Rowdy Ways, in which I was taken especially by Key West (‘I played Gumbo Limbo spirituals / I know all the Hindu rituals / People tell me that I’m truly blessed…’), Mother of Muses (‘Sing of Sherman, Montgomery and Scott / And of Zhukov, and Patton, and the battles they fought / Who cleared the path for Presley to sing / Who carved the path for Martin Luther King / Who did what they did and they went on their way / Man, I could tell their stories all day…’), and assassin-savvy Murder Most Foul (‘You got me dizzy, Miss Lizzy / You filled me with lead / That magic bullet of yours has gone to my head…’). Just a shame so many Dylan fans booed Sinead O’Connor that time in 1992 at the 30th Anniversary tribute concert at Madison Square Gardens.

I have friends in London — and Dublin — who have worked with Jonathan Glazer. They will not hear a bad word said about him. As a UK filmmaker, he is braver than Nolan, more subtle than Scott. With over a thousand Jewish executives and Hollywood creatives signing an open letter in the US denouncing the Englishman’s Oscar speech, he was expected by one UK-based director I spoke to last week never to make a Hollywood movie again. Having just watched the new Al Jazeera Investigations documentary entitled simply ‘October 7’, I am still left wondering how on earth we got here. Glazer is a good man, a talented man, who in no way belittled the massacres of Israeli civilians on that terrible day. Glazer, who is Jewish, was simply reminding everyone of over 30,000 Palestinians killed since the attacks by Hamas in what UN secretary-general António Guterres calls the ‘nonstop nightmare’. Even director of the Auschwitz Memorial Piotr Cywiński said Glazer’s speech issued a universal moral warning against dehumanization: ‘His aim was not to descend to the level of political discourse.’ Interestingly, Glazer’s own government in the UK is now telling Netanyahu’s government that it could withhold weapons supplies if the Red Cross is not allowed to see imprisoned Hamas fighters.

This leaves one to wonder how neighbor Julian Assange is feeling now in nearby HMP Belmarsh following news this week that he will not be extradited immediately. The Court has officially given the Government of the United States three weeks to give satisfactory assurances: ‘that Mr Assange is permitted to rely on the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (which protects free speech), that he is not prejudiced at trial (including sentence) by reason of his nationality, that he is afforded the same First Amendment protections as a United States citizen and that the death penalty is not imposed.’ The US government had been mulling over a possible plea bargain in which the 52 year-old Australian could be freed without having to go to the United States, prompting people to wonder if there was some light at long last at the end of Assange’s long prison corridor. I don’t think I know a single Londoner who does not want to see this get resolved soon — for Assange’s young family as much as for Assange himself. The waiting, alas, continues.

They have completed work on the opposite windows. Scaffolding is coming down. Probably the insides were also ripped out and refurbished before putting it on the market again. Someone else may come along and do the same — rip it out again, replace the kitchen and bathrooms, before placing it once more on the market. Good luck to them. No wonder builders sit in vans rubbing their hands. Some even wait for the product of their labours to be dumped outside again. In this area, it is not unknown for some large properties to be turned around more than once a year. One house is presently going for £6,250,000 ($7,882,540). Not that former members of our community now dazed and confused with young children in Manchester will be worried about that.

Peter Bach lives in London.