Highgate high street in north London © Daniel Lynch/Evening Standard/eyevine
Years ago, I made the error of telling friends in a WhatsApp group that I was seeing someone in west London. “Never heard of it”, came one of the replies, in less time than it took you to read this sentence. Others included “Literally never been” and the almost profound “West London — where’s that?”
All rich cities have a zone like it: white or perhaps cream interiors, people who cite dogs as an interest, restaurants called things like Gianni’s. Think LA west of Doheny. Or the Upper East Side. There is no sin in living in these places. But if you do, it is good manners to hold fire on anyone else’s residential choices.
Instead, Rishi Sunak, who lives in Kensington, has become the latest UK premier to bash “north London”. In code, this means: smartypants liberals, righteous celebrities, state-school-for-thee-but-not-for-me types. At its geographic and spiritual core is Islington, a place that so aggravates people that I am trying to spend more time there.
For two reasons, the attacks on this quadrant of town should stop. One is the foul undertone. North London is not exceptionally rich, liberal or Remain-voting by the city’s standards. It isn’t more global than Kensington, much of whose naffness is the result of expats from the world over having to find a common aesthetic denominator. Nor is it hip. That is an east or increasingly south-east thing. What the north is — historically, at least — is Jewish. I don’t suggest that politicians and editors who invoke it disparagingly mean it in that way, or even understand the connotation. But parts of their audience understand all too well. Accidental blowing of a dog whistle is no safer than the wilful kind.
At north London’s geographic and spiritual core is Islington, a place that so aggravates people that I am trying to spend more time there
The other reason? Let me appeal to people’s self-interest. Nothing is more revealing of elite status than knocking north London. To delineate one swish part of the capital from others requires inside knowledge of the geo-cultural gradations within the top tier of society. I am reminded of that episode of The Simpsons where the townsfolk of Springfield turn on the local intellectuals. “Let’s make litter out of these litterati!”, says one of the mob, Carl, in a phrase that is suspect in its euphonic cleverness. It qualifies him as one of the eggheads. It earns him a beat-down.
Lots of people I know are at risk of meeting Carl’s fate. Over the past decade, in both America and Britain, the most interesting class war has been within the elite, not against it from below. The typical belligerent is a prosperous urbanite who relishes the outrage of more liberal peers. But they are peers. Having conservative politics in a left-leaning over-class doesn’t mark you out as a stout yeoman of the heartland. It is not “punching up” if you are as rich or richer than the people you are punching. Donald Trump and Boris Johnson have the reality-bending gumption to pull off this dangerous game. That isn’t true of most people who play it.
Some friendly advice, then, to the rightwing hedgies, the Palm Beach courtiers, the tabloid scribblers, the weekend golfers who vote Trump or Johnson to upset the more liberal kind of rich person: hope that your efforts to stir up anger at the elite aren’t successful. Because if the mob comes, it won’t know or care to distinguish between different groupuscules of the one per cent. It won’t storm Shoreditch House and leave 5 Hertford Street untouched. It won’t raid House of Koko and pass deferently by the Ned.
Is there a seething voter in a luckless mill town who thinks N1 is elitist, but SW3 is fine, or has the first idea what either of those things mean? Unlikely.
Out of self-preservation, then, more than good will, the elite-on-elite aggro has to stop. End the postcode wars. Each time north Londoners are mocked as snobs for — what? — owning a book that isn’t Sapiens, the damage is not to a district, but to a class entire. And at a fraught time for it. Look at the economic news. There is a non-trivial chance of civil unrest against the haves in the coming years. How sweet to think you will be spared because you are merely rich, rather than rich and interesting.
Email Janan at [email protected]
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