The Cosmopolitan Side of the Red Wall | Miles Bassett

Finally, the Conservative Party, like a predator and its prey, has caught the scent of a vote-winning societal problem. After winning the Hartlepool by-election in May, Boris Johnson reversed three decades worth of accepted social-mobility theory. He pledged, in typical Johnsonian soundbite, to ‘stop the brain drain to cities’ and ‘live local and prosper’ in the most determined attempt since the Second World War to relieve Britain’s geographical economic imbalance. However, and understandably, much focus is currently on the northern towns that are drained of their young talent due to the lack of jobs, industry and opportunities, creating the post-2016 caricature of the ageing, low-skilled and resentful ‘left behind’ population. However, little attention is paid to the metropolitan paradises where talent disproportionately pools, the inner London enclaves where communities are rapidly changed to make way for more and more 21–35-year-old professional renters, at the expense of the older population that may have lived in the area for decades previously. 

This is the story of my life growing up in Balham. A calm inner suburb of South London twenty minutes from the centre of the City on the London Underground, where highly-skilled graduates from across Britain, Ireland, Europe, or even as far away as Australia flock, ready to take advantage of a new life in the world’s capital. Its popularity isn’t based solely on hearsay, it was voted by a Sunday Times survey in 2013 and 2014 as one of the popular places to live in Britain and the second-best place to live in London after Clapham – Balham’s northern neighbour, by Time Out magazine in 2015. However, unlike the new young renters, I’ve lived here since I was born, still with my parents in my childhood home like many other young Londoners, shielding themselves from extortionate rent. Which makes, for me, Balham both a wonderful and somewhat depressing place to live.

The story of Balham’s development over the past 40 years can almost be an analogy for the development of post-war Britain. Old, post-war Balham has been featured and ridiculed many times in British media. The sub-plot of a 1976 episode of The Good Life-a sitcom set in middle-class suburban Surrey, centres around the comical and hierarchical relationship between Margot Leadbetter-the posh, snobby housewife and her typical, working-class caricature of a builder complete with cap and overalls that, being according to Margot, being from Balham “excuses [him] from even the most elementary forms of Latin” after not being aware of the Latin phrase ‘nota bene’. Shortly after, the 1979 short film by the late actor Mickey Dolenz, Balham, Gateway to the South, made in the style of a faux-tourist promotion film, depicts the stay of an American couple in a bizarre, decrepit 1970s Balham. Home to oddities such as a completely dysfunctional Hildreth Street fruit and vegetable market and a stay in an old-fashioned, comically rundown guest house. This type of Balham is dead and buried; Margot would be shocked that Latin was one of the many languages now spoken in Balham and Peter Sellars just wouldn’t believe the prices of the trendy brunch-cafes that are now largely the custom of Hildreth Street Market.

However, by the time my parents moved here in 1991, Balham had become blessed by Thatcher’s economic miracle. At that time, it was still a predominantly white-working class suburb, with high crime from the old-school cockney gangsters. The types you might see in Guy Ritchie films, but it was quietly on the up. A restaurant here or there, a few new, young couples along the road like my parents. So I would be painting an overly romantic image of Balham if I didn’t say there wasn’t a middle-class presence by the time I was growing up here in the 2000s. At one point, before the recession, Balham boasted both a Waitrose and a Marks & Spencer’s. Yet, fifteen years ago, the class spectrum in Balham was much broader. Yes, there were still restaurants and cafes, but fewer, obviously and not the typical brunch bar cafes you see today that have a very clear demographic as their intended customer base. One of Balham’s main restaurants, the much-loved Double Espresso, was an Italian restaurant opened for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Which served everyone from builders having their morning breakfasts to graduate couples enjoying a quiet evening dinner. Double Espresso closed over ten years ago but reopened on a much smaller scale under a different name, but the Balham where one restaurant buzzed on a Friday evening with all of Balham, not just all of a part of Balham, is sadly gone.

The difference between Balham fifteen years ago and Balham now, is that the area was unapologetically itself, catering for those who lived there. Now, after being first kissed by the neoliberal project in the early 90s, Balham quickly became smothered by it by the mid-2010s. Thanks to London’s unbreakable magnet-pull on the rest of Britain for new talent, places like Balham become stuck in a societal tail spin with an incredibly young population and ever-increasing property prices. Meaning unchecked market forces and the wider socio-economic policy begins to dictate incredibly efficiently who the type of people that can live in places like Balham. From the previous national census in 2011, the average age of a Balham resident was 34. An age I can only expect the decrease following the results of the 2021 census. Whilst, according to Rightmove, the online property listing site, one four-bedroom property in the heart of Balham, was sold in 2001 for £217,500 – eight times the median UK national income. The national income according to the Office of National Statistics, was £25,477 at the time. Affordable if purchasing as a couple. The same property was last sold in 2020 for an eye-watering £810,000-a staggering 26 times the national income. This means not only is it impossible for people like me and my friends to stay in the area we grew up in, where your friends and family are, it also means only a particular kind of person can afford to live here. Which means Balham stops becoming a place, but a state of mind – an image to keep up with. Where all the people become similar and all the amenities are similar. A Balham which caters solely for the young and monied and not for all its residents as it did fifteen years ago.

This ‘image’ of the Balham young professional is slowly becoming apparent to popular culture. The online magazine, TheTab-a kind of British Buzzfeed, portrays the typical millennial of Balham’s northern neighbour, Clapham as a rugby-playing, graduate alpha male, a stereotype that seems to be reinforced by Hinge, where I often see profiles of women making disparaging comments about people renting in Clapham- ‘living in Clapham is not a personality type,’ said one girl on her profile.  Maybe it shouldn’t be, but closer inspection of this review in the South London Press for the new upmarket pub on Balham High Street, The Cyclist, suggests otherwise. The Cyclist opened on Balham High Street in 2019 and replaced an old Wetherspoons called The Moon Under Water, which was damningly criticised in the review as ‘the one mass-market chain pub that didn’t quite fit in with the rest.’

The only reason why I think the author of the article wouldn’t think it fit in because of its large working-class clientele; local builders would find partners for jobs whilst watching the football or rugby, that had probably been in Balham since the days when being from Balham meant you had no hope in learning Latin. As one life-long Balham resident sadly lamented to me, “you could see all types in there-from the highest of the high to the lowest of the low”. A melting pot for class so to speak. So, if it “didn’t quite fit in”, it shines a light on the latent classism in London’s society if its previous clientele is now seen as virtually unwelcome in modern Balham. Inevitably, The Cyclist on its first day of opening became packed with a young, well-off clientele no older than their mid-30s. It’s original clientele now disappeared from the High-Street.  

Nevertheless, The Cyclist is only one example where of the growing, classist segregation of the London High Street. If you spend a day travelling around South London, you’ll see upmarket bakery and café chains like The Blackbird Bakery, or Gail’s – which can be found in places like Hampstead and Notting Hill. Whilst it would be unfair to deny their food is delicious, if not fattening, they now cause my heart to sink when I see a new one has opened in less trendy parts of South London, like Streatham or Peckham, the places that aren’t on the Northern Line. It almost feels as if these small, trendy chains, almost terraform the area, like futuristic drones on Mars, making it habitable for their human settlers that come later. “We have a branch in Balham”, they seem to say, “you’re with your own people here”. It’s a conversation I’ve had with many of my friends who, like me, are native South Londoners and also wince when they see a new bakery chain open up in their local areas. Balham, Battersea, Clapham and even the once-notorious backwater Peckham, simply turn into monocultural, frivolous play areas for a young and transient population. So, it’s not surprising that, when Hurley’s, an office supply shop on Balham High Street and one of the few old shops along the High-Street still remaining, closed due to high rents, my Dad sadly mused there were no longer enough shops for everyday things anymore in Balham.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not railing against wealth and middle classism per se, that would make me a communist. What I am against, is the image and air of arrogance that London is quickly adopting in becoming a home solely for the young and highly-skilled. I’m not saying I want the old Balham back; with high crime and little amenities, no one can deny that Balham today is a spectacular place to live. It’s only a spectacular place to live because it’s a carefully designed utopia, where anything that didn’t fit in with the faux-egalitarian world of the monied, millennial graduate is replaced. It’s a place where, despite being spectacular, doesn’t deserve to be.

So, if there are any Red Wallers out there from the North East, the Midlands or Yorkshire reading this – I hear you. We’re not all drowning in a sea of flat white coffee down here in London, this disproportionate balance of wealth and talent affects our communities too. It’s not enough for Conservatives to caw that the societal changes in places like Balham are the unstoppable, unquestionable forces of the free market at work. That era is now over, after all, how can the Conservatives live by their name if they fail to actually conserve? Yes, people want wealth, talent and opportunities, but they also want a balance. If we had more areas in the UK, more cities capable of attracting young talent like Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds, more British industrial capitalism that can vigorously compete with the juggernaut of London’s service sector economy, then perhaps Balham and her neighbouring areas, would be spared such relentless and unforgiving societal change. 

Photo Credit.

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