The battle for the soul of Outer London

Our city centre is ossifying into private fiefdoms populated largely by oligarchs and hedgies

In ‘Prick up Your Ears’, a film about the life and death of playwright Joe Orton, Joe and his lover Kenneth Halliwell are contemplating moving to Islington. It’s 1959 and they are being shown around a tiny, dingy bedsit on the second floor of 25 Noel Road, all cheerless wallpaper and foetid candlewick. Sensing their unease, the landlady trumpets the manifold delights of an up-and-coming Islington. ‘The greengrocer is now an antiques shop’, she says. ‘And the pub does salad’. 

Though inherently resistant to these early intimations of gentrification, Joe and Ken ended up taking the bedsit, infamously plastering it with images snipped out of filched art books. More infamously, it was to become the setting for a dreadful denouement in the summer of 1967 when Halliwell bludgeoned Orton senseless and then overdosed on barbiturates. After a decent interval, Islington Council erected a memorial plaque to Joe on a Noel Road that was becoming increasingly unrecognisable from Orton and Halliwell’s tenure. Today, its former slum terraces are now primped and buffed ‘luxury period homes’, the objects of pornographic titillation in the vitrines of N1 estate agents that compete ruthlessly for custom in nearby Upper Street. If you were in the market for a culturally significant bedsit with a ghoulish history, you wouldn’t get much change out of half a million.

Joe Orton looking sultry in ungentrified Noel Road

Joe Orton looking sultry in ungentrified Noel Road

The pub salad is a familiar harbinger of more profound structural change. These days, young, bohemian and impecunious Joe and Ken wouldn’t stand a chance of living in Islington let alone Noel Road. Much has been written about the dismaying unaffordability of private sector housing and the equally dismaying inaccessibility of its shrinking public sector counterpart, and how an essentially greed-driven dynamic is coarsening the social fabric of London. The historic template of a mixed nougat, with people from different stratas amiably mucking along, is now being usurped by the Parisian model of a sanitised core surrounded by Alphaville-style banlieus. Most of Zone 1 and swathes of Zone 2 are ossifying into private fiefdoms populated largely by oligarchs and hedgies. And despite Mayor Boris’s protestations of ‘no Kosovo-style social cleansing’ there is a growing groundswell of evidence to suggest otherwise, with poorer families being displaced as a consequence of the welfare cap, cuts to housing benefit and plans to flog off social housing. According to leaked government data 50,000 families have been moved ‘out of borough’ within the last five years and the decline in free school meal eligibility across inner London tells its own story of diaspora and the reversal of social mobility.

The battle for the soul of housing has become the battle for the soul of the city. And in this apparently irresistible conflation of politics and market forces, architects are reduced to impotent onlookers, hired to supinely service the demands of clients and capital. The Stirling Prize shortlisting of Neo Bankside’s silos of non-dom accom is emblematic; a gormless extrusion of bling that adds nothing to the city, its empty flats commodified and traded like poker chips. In the context of London’s escalating housing crisis the phenomenon of ‘buy-to-leave’ is an especially excruciating twist. Though hard to quantify exactly it’s estimated that there are around 22,000 long term unoccupied homes in the capital. 

Back to Islington, which recently announced it was adopting measures requiring new properties to be regularly occupied. James Murray, Islington Council's executive member for housing and development, said: ‘It's wrong if new homes are sold off-plan to investors who don't even rent the properties out. It's truly galling for Londoners who are desperately trying to find somewhere to live. Our new measures make it clear that buy-to-leave is unacceptable. They make clear that new homes have to, at the very least, be lived in. I think that's a pretty reasonable thing to ask.’

Today you’d probably find young Joe and Ken muddling along in Walthamstow or Streatham, or even further afield in London’s peripheral suptopian burbs. Usually seen as places to escape from (Orton himself fled from suburban Leicester) they tend to be unsung and overlooked, but are now evolving into topographies of transformation, the subject of  the AF’s imminent Doughnut Festival, presided over by the literary princes of subtopia Will Self and Hanif Kureshi. London’s edgy edges are fertile terrain for all sorts of goings on and Orton’s scabrous imagination found much to savour in the conformity and absurdity of suburban life. ‘The kind people who always go on about whether a thing is in good taste, invariably have very bad taste’, he once observed. In this, architects and their corporate chain pullers are sadly far from exempt.


Doughnut: The Outer London Festival

This one day event, on September 5th, will bring together writers, historians, architects and economists to discuss the development of London's peripheral boroughs.  Doughnut will be the first event of its kind – an adventurous celebration of all things Outer London and a critical reflection on the rapid transformation that the city's periphery is currently experiencing.

For more information about the festival and to get your ticket visit click here.


Tickets area available for indivudal sessions or for the full day's programme

General festival pass - free!
Access to all outdoor festival activities including the market, workshops and music perfomances is free.

Main stage day ticket
First three sessions in the theatre

Session One
Outer London Landscapes and the Future of the Green Belt

Session Two
Suburbia and the Essexodus + Housing in the Periphery 

Session Three
Will Self and Hanif Kureishi in conversation

Session Four
The Inbetweeners + discussion

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