A balm for the soul of a Pope in a gilded cage

The Sistine Chapel Choir is launching the first album in its 500 year history. I went to hear it perform in a private concert under the frescoes of Michelangelo, and found that for the first time there is a British man among the Pope’s full time personal singers. The Vatican provokes complicated reactions in me, as this piece for the Independent on Sunday probably shows.

 

Thank you Ma’am: a republican writes on why we should all be grateful to Her Majesty

I don’t want a Queen. Hereditary monarchy is unfair, unjust and should have no place in a society that values every citizen equally. She owns all the dolphins in British inshore waters for one thing, and that can’t be right. Want one! But since we have to have a Queen, for now, we should be grateful for the dignity, grace and devotion to duty this one has shown. She is the best example of a wartime generation now almost passed, and has done us all a great favour by sticking around so long. My piece for the Independent on Sunday on the moment this coming Wednesday that Her Maj becomes the longest reigning British monarch of all time.

The very fine illustration is by Andre Carrilho, from the spread in the Independent on Sunday. See, buy and commission his work here. 

Gay marriage and God: what we need now is outrageous grace


Can you love and forgive someone who appears to hate you? That is a question many of us are having to answer right now, as explored in this piece for the
Independent on Sunday.

Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high … there’s a place where people live together peacefully, whatever their differences. That is what is represented by the six-colour flag that has become such a potent symbol in recent days. But how do we get there?

The Reverend Sally Hitchiner has an answer that is breathtakingly audacious. “We can’t move forward until lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people forgive their oppressors. That is the big challenge facing the LGBT community. We are never going to reach Utopia until we all get there.”

Forgive their oppressors? That is an outrageous thing for a priest to say, until you know more about her – and not just because the Church has officially condemned gay people for centuries.

Continue reading “Gay marriage and God: what we need now is outrageous grace”

Gallipoli – or why the hell do we bother to remember?

Please, take five minutes out with me to sit and think about things that matter. This was written for The Independent On Sunday yesterday.

They died in the dark, some of them. Young men, volunteers mostly, cut down by bullets and bombs, fire and fever. Australians, New Zealanders, Brits and Irishmen, Africans and Indians and many, many Turks were among those killed in the fighting at Gallipoli a century ago. On Saturday, they were remembered in the dark.

The other-worldly growl of a didgeridoo sounded out across Hyde Park Corner, calling people to assemble in their name. The long, pure, mournful sound of a Maori conch shell followed on at the start of the Anzac Day service, falling among the bright notes of the dawn chorus. The traffic had been stopped. Five thousand people stood, still and quiet, in the early morning rain. There may have been more.

“Why are we here? Because they were just like us,” said Craig, a Kiwi fitness coach in his early twenties. Many of those who died a century ago were young, strong and full of spark like his group of half a dozen who had come on from the pub to honour them. They were up all night but laughed it off, long since sober, as they waited for the ceremony to begin.

This was the time of day, in the murderous half-light, when the first of the boats began to land on the Gallipoli Peninsula on 25 April 1915. The Allies were trying to win their way through to Constantinople and knock Ottoman Turkey out of the war. They did not get far inland, and when they withdrew eight months later there had been nearly 400,000 casualties on all sides, including an estimated 131,000 deaths.

Continue reading “Gallipoli – or why the hell do we bother to remember?”

Inequality

 

Come with me on a walk that will ruin your life. It will trash your income and slash your life expectancy by decades, as we stroll from one part of London to another. But it will also demonstrate the gross inequality that is plaguing Britain and that ought to be making people mad at the start of this election campaign.

The Independent on Sunday 1 February 2015

We start just a short distance away from our ultimate destination, in one of the most privileged parts of the country, never mind London. This is Prince’s Gate, a grand Victorian terrace near the Royal Albert Hall, where planning permission has just been granted for what could become the most expensive private home in the capital.

As super-mansions go, this one looks pretty shabby. The first three houses in the terrace are yellow, like rotten teeth in a row. There is damp growing up the walls of homes that were magnificent when John F Kennedy lived here as the son of the US ambassador; but now they will be magnificent once again.

The Saudi owners want to knock all three through to create one enormous property, with an indoor swimming pool, wine cellar, gym, staff quarters and an underground car park.

With five storeys, an imposing stucco front and views overlooking Hyde Park it will be worth double what anyone has ever paid for a private home in London (at least on the record) – and all within walking distance of one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country.

“This is prime Knightsbridge,” says Becky Fatemi of the luxury estate agent Rokstone. “If the property was refurbished and converted into a single super-prime mansion, it could be worth anything from £200m to £290m which, at the upper valuation, would make it London’s most expensive home. The Gulf royals would have the money and a trophy property like this would interest them.”

The Qatari royal family must be in the market, having been turned down a few days ago for a similar project in Regent’s Park, where Westminster council said knocking two Regency homes into one was out of the question when there was already a shortage. However, permission has been granted for the Grade II-listed Prince’s Gate.

It sits right on the border with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, the richest council in Britain, which is even more keen to welcome kings, queens, moguls, tyrants, tycoons, oligarchs and anyone with extreme wealth. The council even offers a discount on council tax if a mansion is a second (third, fourth or hundredth) home.

Yet this is also a place of extreme inequality. There are damp, overcrowded flats not far away, in which mothers and fathers go hungry in order to feed their children. The poverty gap is widening across Britain in a way that should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign, and nowhere is it more visible than in this part of London.

The richest people living in this country now take a greater share of the total wealth than they did at the start of the century. The top 10 per cent of earners own 54 per cent of total assets, while the top 1 per cent have seen their incomes soar. Nothing demonstrates this better than a walk across Hyde Park from the most privileged neighbourhood in the capital to the poorest.

Prosperity and private healthcare mean that a man living in the lovely terraces around Prince’s Gate can expect to live to 91. Cross the road into Kensington and Chelsea, and the average wage is a staggering £101,000. That’s the median, allowing for extremes of wealth, while the mean is £36,000. But, a walk away to the north, lies Golborne, the most deprived ward in London, according to one measure. Here, the mean average wage is £18,500 and life expectancy for a man is just 72.

Among the Moroccan community, that figure drops to 63. “Their health is tragic,” says Emma Dent Coad, who represents Golborne on the council. “I am furious at the inequality here. There is no excuse. The council has reserves of £283m. We have the money to tackle inequality if we want to, but we just don’t want to.”

She talks of seeing parents go without food until they faint, so that their children can eat. She is seeing four-year-olds whose teeth drop out because of vitamin D deficiency. “They arrive at school tiny because they were malnourished in the womb, because the mother could not afford to eat properly. Some of the homes here are Dickensian. These people have nothing.”

Two-thirds of the children in Golborne live in overcrowded homes. Meanwhile, to the south, near the Royal Albert Hall, numbers 13, 14 and 15 Prince’s Gate stand empty. Eight US ambassadors lived here, which explains the Beaux Arts façade, so beloved in Washington, and the stone faces of Native Americans looking down from the window arches.

The three houses were bought for £36m in 2010 by Viridis Real Estate, the property division belonging to the Jameel family of Saudi Arabia (said to be worth £3.3bn). It was a smart move, as property prices here have soared by 65 per cent since then. Such deals are often about keeping money safe rather than finding a place to live.

The best examples of that can be seen as you walk to Golborne, through Hyde Park and past the armed guards on sentry duty at Kensington Palace, to the road that faces the home of the future king. Kensington Palace Gardens is known as Billionaire’s Row. The mansions are immaculate and supercars wait behind huge iron gates. Residents are said to include the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal and the Sultan of Brunei, who controls a fortune worth £40bn.

According to Bloomberg, with a discount for second-home status, the Sultan paid £1,942 a year in council tax for his house here in 2012: just £32 a month more than the council tax paid by the Braithwaites, a pensioner couple living with their daughter and grandchildren in a rented home in Golborne.

Billionaire’s Row feels very distant, like a different country – but then you exit through the checkpoint and emerge in Notting Hill, once bohemian but now synonymous with gentrification and the films of Richard Curtis, made when this was Cool Britannia and we were promised that “things can only get better”.

That was certainly true for Tony Blair, who is now a multimillionaire. So is the architect of New Labour, Peter Mandelson, who famously said that he was “intensely relaxed about the filthy rich” as long as they paid their taxes. But the trouble with the new filthy rich in London is that they do not pay their taxes here, if at all.

“Trickle-down is a fallacy,” says Emma Dent Coad in a café beyond the Westway, on the edge of Golborne. “We have gone with that for how many years now? The property bubble started way before this government came to power. Property prices have gone through the roof, as these plutocrats have come from all over the world to live here, but our population is poorer.”

She accuses the Conservative council of spending money on making the streets look nice to attract wealthy incomers, rather than tackling the poverty hiding behind closed doors. “They have sanitised poverty. Disneyfied it. That is not regeneration, they are just displacing the community. It is deliberate.”

There are pockets of resistance. Many of the original tenants still live in Trellick Tower, which looms above Golborne. Designed by Modernist architect Erno Goldfinger, it is either a high-rise monstrosity or a modern marvel, depending on who you believe. “The people who live there love it because the building works,” says Dent Coad, who writes about architecture and planning as well as being a Labour councillor. “I was made in Chelsea. I know there is pride in this community. People may be poor but many of them keep their homes immaculate.”

Not every block of flats is as good as the Trellick; many are a disaster. “Come and look at the stairwell,” says Theresa, a 47-year-old woman I meet on the street. She takes me to a damp, dark and, frankly, nasty place. “Look. When it rains, the water comes through the ceiling, the paint is all blistered there. You walk under it, you get wet.”

The Sultan of Brunei, who controls a fortune worth £40bn, owns property on Billionaire’s Row in Kensington (Getty)

Her friend Frances, 57, says her neighbours are being moved early because black mould has invaded their flat. “Their children are all sick.” Both women have been waiting for years to be rehoused, which is why they don’t want their surnames to be used. “If you say anything against them, they won’t give you a flat.”

There is similar secrecy among the men standing outside a café on the street corner, waiting for Friday prayers. Mo wants to remain anonymous because he is frightened of losing his job as a night guard at a finance firm. I want to ask him something that has been on my mind a lot during today’s walk. Why are there not more riots? Why don’t the people who have nothing get angry and just go and grab something from the people who have too much? “I have thought about this,” he says warily. “The poor always go to jail. The rich people, never.”

Dent Coad is appalled to find that gentrification is creeping north. “There were Bentleys outside the new pub yesterday. What are they doing here?”

But the trouble with all this righteous anger from a Labour councillor is that some would say it was New Labour that got us into this mess, encouraging foreign billionaires to come here in the belief that that would lead to wider prosperity. Ed Miliband was a key part of an administration that unashamedly cosied up to the super-rich, which may be why he has failed to speak up clearly against inequality so far in this election campaign.

“I’m not New Labour and never have been,” Dent Coad says. “What motivates me, drives me to a fury, is social injustice. If something is wrong, we have to fight it.” Even if there is little chance of success, in a city seemingly besotted by super-wealth? “You’ve got to have a dream, mate.”

The poverty gap is wide and getting wider. Anyone who takes a walk can see that. The question now, as an election looms, is who dares to do something about it?