Farrukh Dhondy | How the British love their ‘lists’: The richest, the best and worst…

The Asian Age.  | Farrukh Dhondy

Opinion, Columnists

Urban Evolution: From Neglect to Prosperity in City Neighborhoods

Gentrification is happening today all over the cities of Britain. (AFP Representational Image)

“The bird in hand fluttered

And flew off into the bush;

The beast of burden muttered

When shove came to push!

They say Humpty was proud

And thus deserved to fall

The crack of the massive egg was loud

Louder than a magpie’s cackling call….”

From Vun Bhai Vun -- A Jungle Odyssey, by Bachchoo

British newspapers are fond of lists. The Sunday Times publishes each year a list of the hundred richest citizens. Do they assume that the rest of us, the sixty-something million, are interested being envious?

Perhaps the Indian newspapers ought to do the same, but for the thousand richest. The most useful purpose such a list would serve is to feature detailed investigations into how these thousand got onto the list. Diligent journalism could tell us a lot about the growth of capitalism and perhaps some other things that have made contemporary India. Of course, the newspapers can’t take that on -- it’ll be a few thousand pages if all the deals, personalities, politicians, licences and various dodges are rigorously checked out.

Rich lists are one thing. The better public service that the national and local papers offer is a listing of the best restaurants of this or that sort. And now the Times features, for some reason, the best and worst places to live in Britain. For the best it chooses Clapham in South London. It could have mentioned Notting Hill and South Kensington, which are in a sense “richer” -- but these are now bought up by Arabs, Russians and black-moneyed Asians.

I must confess that I have in my short and happy life lived in all three of these localities. Way back in time, gentle reader, I rented bed-sitters in South Kensington and then in Notting Hill. They were single rooms in Victorian houses with shared bathrooms and kitchens in partitioned corridors. Me and my then partner were moved on from these -- not for any misdemeanour or arrears in rent, but because the landlords had been offered huge sums to sell the undivided buildings at massive prices to millionaire owners. I’ve always maintained that we -- and that included the other “roomers” -- were “ethnically cleansed”.

And yes, now this piece about the best places to live lists the area of Clapham, where I had bought a flat in more prosperous years, as the brightest star in the firmament of the residential sky. It explores at length a very upmarket street called Northcote Road, with its fancy restaurants, bars and exclusive (not popular-snob-branded) fashion shops.

In the years I spent frequenting the street it was not as grand -- or at all grand. My mother once came from India to visit and I prepared for her arrival by going down to Northcote Road to a junk shop which sold second-hand furniture to buy a mattress to place on the spare bed where mum was to stay.

I made up the bed with self-laundered sheets and pillow-cases before I fetched her from the airport. That night I woke up to the sound of someone shifting about and found my mother awake with the lights turned on. Rubbing my eyes, I went to her room and asked what the matter was. Jet lag? No, she said, the mattress is crawling with bed bugs. She’d been bitten.

She slept in my bed and I was comfortable on the couch; but the next morning I dragged the offending mattress down, loaded it on the top of my car and drove down to Northcote Road to return the mattress and demand a refund.

The junk shop owner refused to refund the money in not very polite terms. I dumped the mattress on the pavement outside his shop and drove to the offices of a political publication called Race Today for which I used to write. I was in fact a prominent member of the “collective” that ran the mag. The editor, my close friend, one Darcus Howe, and two of his intrepid Trinidadian mates were sitting around in the office and when I told them about my Northcote Road adventure, one of them said “Le’we go!”

I said: “There’s a big guy who told me to f… off”.

“How big? Big a’ de ‘ouse?” asked the wiry friend we called Doctor Rat.

We drove to Northcote, alighted from the car and accosted the shop owner.

“Dis refund”, the “doctor” said.

The man didn’t argue. He gave me the money, protesting that he always intended to and there was no problem.

And yes, Clapham has changed and Northcote no longer has junk shops with bugged mattresses. The houses around there, according to the article, change hands for millions -- alas not my hands as I moved out-and-on decades ago.

This transformation of previously working-class or poor areas of cities into inhabitations of the rich is known as “gentrification”. It’s happening today all over the cities of Britain and, no doubt, in other countries of the West. In Britain, a sure sign that an area has been thus transformed is when a supermarket called Waitrose decides to set up a branch there.

In India, of course, the borders between slums and prosperous areas seem, for the present, immutable. The slums are predominantly the domain of rural populations who have moved through desperation to the cities. The rich areas belong to permanent urbanites. For now, there will be no slum-transformation, no “sahibification”.