The terrific 1958 Peter Sellers skit ‘Balham, Gateway to the South’, written by Frank Muir and Denis Norden, has lost some of its power these days. Sellers’s commentary — he plays a portentous American anchorman, singing the praises of ‘Bal-ham’ — depended for its humour on the ludicrous idea of Balham as one of London’s most fashionable spots. Not so ludicrous these days. A big house in Balham now goes for £4.5 million; a one-bedroom shoebox for £250,000.
As property prices soar, so the relatively well-heeled have been exiled further and further from their old west London heartlands. Only last month, it was revealed that London has become the billionaire capital of the world. But what if you aren’t a billionaire? Say goodbye to Chelsea, Kensington and Notting Hill, and embrace the charms of the new aspirational destinations, increasingly given nonsense nicknames by frantic estate agents.
Has any Londoner ever referred to Holborn and Bloomsbury as Midtown, the Americanised name promoted by a lobby group with the even sillier name of inmidtown? (No, refusing to use capital letters doesn’t make the whole idea any less silly.) Thank God the property developers the Candy brothers have dropped their attempts to give Fitzrovia the infuriating name Noho — as in ‘north of Soho Square’.
Desperate estate agents have also tried to rechristen Aldgate and Hoxton, in the East End, as CitySide, and Elephant & Castle as South City.
Surely we’ve got over the cultural cringe to America; to New York, in particular? After all, they nicked our names in the first place: Greenwich Village from our Greenwich; New Jersey from our Jersey; New York, in fact, from our York. Why on earth should we start borrowing from them?
Let New Yorkers go on renaming chunks of Manhattan: along with their SoHo, ‘South of Houston Street’, they’ve now got Tribeca (‘the Triangle below Canal Street’), Nolita (‘North of Little Italy’) and Dumbo (‘Down under the Manhattan Bridge’). But let’s keep our old names that have worked perfectly well since they were first applied to villages outside the City of London a thousand or so years ago.
Or even longer ago than that. Most ancient London settlements were by the Thames, and their names — as in Battersea, Chelsea and Putney — reflect the Anglo-Saxon term for island, ‘ea’ or ‘ey’. If those names were good enough for the Anglo-Saxons, they’re good enough for us. There’s no need for a property developer to tell us otherwise.
There used to be a tradition of giving newly fashionable areas silly names, though you don’t hear many people still calling Clapham ‘Cla’am’. Neither does anyone now sanitise Stockwell as the mock-genteel ‘St Ockwell’. Perhaps there’s still some mileage in the pleasant south London village name of St Reatham.
I’m amazed when west Londoners still refer to my childhood home, Islington, as ‘the People’s Republic of Islington’. Have they been there lately? Gone are the Sandalistas — replaced by the new international gazillionaire class. Over the past century, the green tide of cash has swept out of the city centre in ever-increasing circles. You can chart the tide table on the Tube map.
Zone Two — from Notting Hill in the west to Islington in the north, to Wandsworth’s Nappy Valley in the south — was colonised by the middle classes from the 1970s to the 1990s. Now the yummy mummies are encroaching on Zone Three, moving as far west as Acton, as far north as Finchley, and down into the south-eastern reaches of Woolwich. People can’t afford to look for the new Notting Hill or the new Islington any more — what they yearn for is the new Peckham, the new Kensal Rise.
And when the yummy mummies touch down, there are the property developers to meet them. At Woolwich, they’ll find ‘Vantage’ — Berkeley’s new addition to Royal Arsenal Riverside. In Stanmore, Middlesex, they can seek refuge in Barratt’s Bentley Priory development, next door to the site of the headquarters of RAF Fighter Command during the Battle of Britain.
Like Victorian district commissioners dressing for dinner in the Sudan, the new exiles keep up the old traditions minted in Sloane Square 30 years ago. ‘I was astonished to find myself at a Sloane dinner party recently on the Tooting-Balham borders,’ says Peter York, co-author of The Official Sloane Ranger Handbook.
If they’re not eating Eton mess and other staples of the Sloane diet in the new colonies, the new colonials are taking their favourite restaurants with them. I was amazed to see that my flat in once-scuzzy Kentish Town is now a stone’s throw from a branch of Pizza East, a chain set up by Nick Jones, who is also responsible for the Soho House empire and Babington House in Somerset.
Jones placed his new restaurant on a dusty, fly-blown strip of urban highway in the shadow of a light industrial estate. But if you build a Pizza East — along with a Chicken Shop and a Dirty Burger — then the middle classes will come. A concrete strip once frequented by devoted alcoholics intent on having prolonged fights with themselves is now given over to off-duty barristers and TV producers in floaty -dresses.
As the middle-class tribe move into smaller, more remote, more expensive houses, they compensate themselves with gilt-edged treats. So what if someone was accused of murdering their mother a few streets away — as happened near me recently in Kentish Town? Cheer up! The new Petite École Bilingue has opened up just down the road!
The Roman poet Juvenal said the middle classes could be pacified with bread and circuses. Artisan bread and local private schools will do the trick these days.
Harry Mount is the author of How England Made the English (Viking).