It’s no picnic being Middle Class

Echo and Narcissus. In it for themselves. And why not? All benefit. The Middle Class in Antiquity

It’s no picnic, being middle class. We belong to what is the most envied and despised subculture on the planet. While economists often attribute political instability to the developing world, particularly South America, to the failure of the middle class to become established, the left are inclined to blame the same people, the ‘bourgeoisie’, for all the ills of society. Former Ofsted chief examiner Sir Michael Wilshaw insisted recently that our few remaining grammar schools must be eradicated. because they ‘are stuffed full of middle-class kids’.

If we abandon an urban neighbourhood which has become uncongenial, this constitutes middle class ‘flight’ depriving the area of material and human resources. An even greater sin is to move into a community which might not otherwise be prospering, sociologist Ruth Glass defined the latter as gentrification.

Urban renewal has been contentious since at least the 1930s, although Herbert Morrison never admitted that the real objective of his scheme was to ‘build the Tories out of London’. The political left has few doubts of what should be done. It must be funded through ruinous taxation and mediated by technocrats. We should be grateful for what we’re given, even though the result is often a miserable and impractical architectural banality or a fiscal black hole.

In November the council-owned company Homes for Lambeth, having built a total of 65 residences in five years, at an overall cost of £30 million, was shut down. Last year, its top 25 employees were paid more than two million pounds between them having completed just 20 dwellings. Over 38,000 people are waiting for accommodation in the borough, including 4,500 children. The company was supposed to run at a profit as were similar schemes too numerous to catalogue … Merton … Newham … Cambridgeshire … and not forgetting Croydon Council’s celebrated Brick by Brick, which has accumulated debts of £229 million on behalf of local taxpayers, £25 million in its most recent year.

Even worthwhile projects managed by competent developers can be defeated by civic fashions. Few regretted the late 1960s clearance of Victorian slums from the St Ann’s district of Nottingham. The first residents were reported to be very pleased with the modern, low-rise homes that were built on the site by Wimpey. But the faddish ‘Redburn’ lay-out of the estate, with the backs of houses facing the street and the fronts facing each other, soon proved a nightmare of social isolation and crime. Philip Cox, the architect responsible for introducing the concept in Australia, eventually admitted: ‘Everything that could go wrong in a society went wrong …. It became the centre of drugs, of violence and eventually the police refused to go into it.’ His Rose Meadow estate has been demolished.

Violence was endemic in the streets and alleys of St Ann’s by the late 1980s, when self-proclaimed anarchist Lisa McKenzie decided to live there. She would go on to be a sociology research student at Nottingham University at the beginning of this century and set about compiling an account of the place and found that almost anyone who could leave had done so, including people in any kind of lawful employment. Many of the properties were derelict while the remaining population was of mixed ethnicity. The women often found worthwhile activities, particularly around childcare, but the men were listless and with few prospects. When not engaged in various forms of crime, they spent their time devising conspiracy theories to account for the misery of their circumstances.

One might expect McKenzie to welcome an injection of enterprise and investment into such moribund districts but she insists, contrary to the popular understanding of anarchism, ‘I hate individualism’. The anarchist group ‘Class War’, having organised a number of ‘bash the rich’ demonstrations in the 1980s, was revived as a political party around 2015. McKenzie, by then a fellow at the LSE, stood as one of seven Class War candidates in the parliamentary election that year. They garnered 526 votes fewer than the Monster Raving Loonies. Their demonstrations were now called ‘F*** Parades’ and were aimed more at the middle classes than the rich.

For some reason, they took exception to the Cereal Killer Cafe, opened by twin brothers in a vacant shop in Shoreditch. McKenzie was joined by several hundred supporters to give this hated symbol of gentrification a whiff of the kind of society that anarchy has to offer. They sported pigs’ heads and Nazi-style burning torches. Riot police intervened as they began throwing smoke bombs, daubing graffiti, and terrorising the customers. The latter included children, who were forced to take cover in the basement. Later, Mackenzie lamented the cafe had derived more benefit from the publicity than the anarchists. Her bizarre analyses of society, its dynamics, and her implausible strategies for its improvement, have been no obstacle to her ascent through the echelons of sociology.

While Dr Charmaine Brown, a sociologist at the University of Greenwich, certainly proposes nothing of a violent nature, her response to renewal in the Afro-Caribbean south London district of Peckham is not encouraging. Conditions vary within the borough, but privation on the North Peckham Estate, where Damilola Taylor was murdered, was estimated to be among the worst in western Europe. The appropriately named brutalist style of the estate became an epicentre of crime.

Brown acknowledges that street crime has decreased in gentrified areas, but she describes the horrors resulting from the process. Some of the gentry are painting their houses tastefully. Newcomers pushing prams often pause to chat, something the long-term residents seem to find unsettling. Since the pavements have been widened, this can hardly be impeding commerce, but its psychological impact should not, she advises, be underestimated.

The older West Indian residents have regaled her with tales of the Empire Windrush, and of the struggle to become established. By this I assume they mean the displacing of the earlier inhabitants of Peckham. They complain that the High Street is acquiring new aromas, such as coffee and pizza, as well as the once ubiquitous odour of jerk spice. They lament Afro-Caribbean pop music no longer pounds out of every doorway. It all has an eerie familiarity.

Her comments reminded me of a TV programme, fronted by the sometime Labour MP Brian Walden, who was concerned about the stresses that mass immigration was causing in his Birmingham Ladywood constituency. Following an interview with an elderly white resident, he concluded:

The man isn’t a racist. He doesn’t hate his new neighbours. He’s just bewildered that, in a street where he’s lived all his life, nobody speaks the same language or plays the same music. The cooking smells are different, and the local shops no longer stock the products he grew up with.

Suppose a sociologist back then had spotted a Balti restaurant and feared that it presaged social change. If he had organised a riot, intending to terrorise any child with the temerity to munch a poppadom in public, would he have been as fêted by his colleagues as McKenzie? The line between political activism and hate crime is indeed a fine one.

So, should we welcome free enterprise and individual initiative into neighbourhood renewal, as New Labour once did with its ‘urban task force’? Or should we remain at the mercy of decay and the vagaries of official fashion? Developers have been accused of introducing a degree of blandness and uniformity as they seek to maximise the appeal of their projects. A few years ago, I suggested this might be a case of ‘convergent evolution’ rather than evil neoliberal conspiracy. Just as unrelated creatures – dolphins, tuna, and ichthyosaurs, for example – may evolve almost identical physical characteristics in response to parallel environmental influences, so individuals and businesses may adopt similar lifestyles and strategies spontaneously. If these are more successful than the various ingrained cultures, then the latter will be superseded. I was surprised to find that this expression is not unknown to sociology.

A sociologist at the University of London told me: I actually pose ‘convergent evolution’ to my third-year students as an alternative to the wildly popular ‘global gentrification’ thesis (I do a whole metaphor with river dolphins… it makes sense in my head). It’s a thesis that is massively under-explored in critical geography.’

Since it doesn’t involve the Marxist excoriation of a wicked capitalist cabal, few sociologists would want to undertake such a study.

So called ‘gentrification’, at the very least, leaves run-down neighbourhoods in better physical condition. It may be disconcerting to some residents but probably no more so than any other form of renovation. And, while settler enclaves, be they in the highlands of Kenya or in Peckham, often try to remain aloof, this is bound to eventually founder.

Here in Birmingham, our indigenous heritage faces a greater challenge than gentrification. Mass immigration has continued apace and reduced the white population to a minority within the city that we created not so very long ago. (48.6 percent according to the 2021 Census) But, despite the dislocation and continuing frictions, most of us learned to enjoy king prawn Madras eventually. It wouldn’t hurt the denizens of Peckham to give Hawaiian pizza a try.

Dr Iain Salisbury is a retired physicist living in Edgbaston

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3 Comments on It’s no picnic being Middle Class

  1. It is curious that an area like Walthamstow with its numerous mosques and criminal gangs of Somali and Caribbean ethnicity has recently gentrified areas which attract well-off white couples.
    The definition of “class” however varies – social, cultural, economic? There are bad apples at every level: financial fraudsters at the “top”, woke bureaucrats in the “middle” and welfare scroungers at the “bottom”, with police corruption, porn profiteering and imported criminality alongside.
    A real clean-up is needed. And not only the streets.
    Who can do it? Lee Anderson?

    • Old fogeys like me remember Patrick Hutber calling for the middle class to fight for survival nearly 50 years ago. Deaf ears, as usual.

      • More than 70 years ago C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien were deploring the destruction of the middle class by the Attlee régime. The middle class as they knew it is indeed extinct now. The old-fashioned doctors, solicitors and curates have been replaced by a bunch of spivs.