I was in London this week, and on Monday had a day all to myself. After a morning at the wonderful Paul Nash exhibition at the Tate Gallery, I mooched around the area where I grew up.
Here, just at the back of Tate Britain, is the Millbank Estate. There was a penitentiary here till 1890, and when it was cleared away, 17 blocks of flats were built as social housing between 1897 and 1902, housing 562 families. They must have seemed palaces to the former slum-dwellers who moved here. Each flat had its own kitchen and scullery, its own toilet. The streets were tree-lined, and there was a communal garden besides. Even now these barracks-like buildings have an air of quality, of being built to last. Sadly, many of these flats are now in the hands of private landlords, who charge their tenants up to four times more than those who are still in the social housing system have to pay.
About five minutes walk away are the flats where I lived between about the ages of seven and fifteen, St. Augustine’s Mansions. Those of us who lived there were ordinary types. There was the little old Irish lady in the flat below; the man who worked at Manbre and Garton, the sugar refiners, who once a year would take us and his wife to the wharf-side where he worked to watch the Oxford and Cambridge boat race.
There was the Liberal Party activist, who was disappointed when my mother wouldn’t let me take the afternoon off school one day in 1958. Our activist friend hoped I would lay a wreath at the recently relocated monument to Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst. My mother, an early beneficiary of education for girls, didn’t approve of suffragettes. But later, we’d often go to our friend’s flat on Saturday evenings to watch That Was The Week That Was. I was by then the only child in my class not to have a TV at home.
Briefly, before he made the comparative Big Time, a singer lived on the ground floor. Was it Billy Fury? I can’t remember.
These ordinary flats are now a gated community. Look on Zoopla, and you’ll find that the larger ones change hands at £1,500,000.
I wandered on to Tachbrook Street. Now, as then, there is a market. Then it sold everything you’d need in a weekly shop. Now it’s street food from every continent, sold to the large local working community at lunch time. I can recommend the sumac chicken from Lebanon.
And here is a residential street. There won’t be any local working folk living in these handsome terraces any more. Zoopla again. £1,750,000.
It’s rather lucky that I neither want nor need to move back into the area.