Books: A Point of View: London Underground |
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London Underground : on how the wealthy are improving their homes

(S05E06, broadcast 1st and 3rd May 2009)

"Lifestyles of the rich and famous"
— bunker mentality

London is not the whole of Britain and sometimes the rest of Britain has reasons to be grateful, because there are things that happen to London that shouldn’t have happened to Sodom and Gomorrah. Elsewhere in the country, if you have any money left after recent developments in the world financial market, you might have some hope of building your house higher if you want to, or even adding a bit on to it. In London that’s harder, but it’s still possible to build downwards. You can put some extra floors under your house instead of on top.

In the past week I was startled to find out not only that this could be done, but that there were people still wealthy enough to do it. They don’t want to sell their houses because the property market is so depressed that there is nobody to buy their houses. But they do want to improve their houses, as a sure-fire investment against the day when the international financial market recovers the buoyancy which the rest of us once found such a source of inspiration that we believed the previous Chancellor of the Exchequer when he said London was where it was all happening. Then he was promoted to the position of Prime Minister and it all happened. But just how big a disaster has it been, when so many of the wealthy still have enough cash to improve their houses?

They find it hard, however, to improve their houses by building them higher, or by adding bits on to them. They could do that more easily in, say, Aberdeen. But in London they can improve their houses with least trouble to themselves by adding bits underneath: by, that is, sinking extra levels into the earth, building basements under basements, and extending these subterranean levels sideways under their back garden, if they happen to own one, or under the house next door, if they happen to own that too.

Some of these guys own the whole block, so we are talking about hidden developments on a vast scale, leaving the house itself, lavishly appointed though it may be, a mere pergola on top of an invisible palace. They’re not just building swimming pools down there. One character is building a diving pool. How can you build a diving pool underground? Well, how can you build an indoor ski slope in Dubai? You do it with money.

The applications for planning permission to build downwards are a tip-off that not all the rich have suddenly got poor. The latest Sunday newspaper rich-list supplement, an annual pornographic round-up in which men with large amounts of money perform the same emblematic function as women with large breasts, reveals that the steel mogul Lakshmi Mittal has indeed lost almost two-thirds of his money since he stopped going out with Salman Rushdie. My secretarial staff has just passed me a note saying that I have got Lakshmi Mittal mixed up with Padma Lakshmi but my figures are correct.

Mr Lakshmi Mittal has indeed lost more than sixteen billion pounds. But since he has almost eleven billion pounds left, he is only relatively impoverished, and there are other men of untold wealth, such as Mr Mohamed Al-Fayed, who have actually got richer in the past year. All of the Duke of Edinburgh’s schemes to render Mr Fayed penniless having failed, Mr Fayed has gained in wealth by seventeen per cent. Strangely enough, he is not yet among those who have applied for permission to build downwards. There has been no application to build extra floors under Harrods, perhaps because the Egyptian tradition is to build upwards, with the building coming to a point, instead of downwards, with a secret chamber below the Food Hall, the secret chamber joined by a tunnel to Buckingham Palace so that ninja-clad operatives of Mr Fayed’s elite security staff can place listening devices in order to be apprised in time of the Duke of Edinburgh’s plans to release moths in the menswear department.

But not very far away from Harrods there is a startling application for subterranean construction from Mr Jon Hunt, who founded the Foxtons estate agency and made three hundred and seventy million pounds when he sold it in 2007, which, in retrospect, was a good year to sell. Indeed, in retrospect, 1066 would have been a good year to sell, or any other year except late last year, when suddenly there was nobody to sell anything to. But Mr Hunt sold at the right time, which is the whole art of getting rich, and now he wants to improve his property in Kensington Palace Gardens, that exclusive part of London in which members of the British royal family, if they have the right credentials, are allowed to live among people from all over the world who have more money than the entire populations of the countries they come from.

Mr Hunt wants to improve his already very large property by going downwards. Among the many other rooms and galleries he wants to build down there, he wants to build a museum in which he can display his collection of classic sports cars. On his planning application it says that the museum will provide an ideal display space for these treasures, but it doesn’t say that the public will be invited in to see them.

I suspect the public will not be invited. The display of classic cars will be for the delectation of Mr Hunt’s dinner guests. But on the whole it is wise to avoid invitations from the kind of host who wants to impress his guests with what he owns. I myself, on the few occasions when I am invited as a guest to the dinner party of a rich host, do not find it impressive if — when the easy banter is flowing like the wine on the subject of, say, the later poetry of W. B. Yeats or Joanna Lumley’s obvious qualifications to be the next Prime Minister — I do not find it impressive if the host breaks into the conversation to insist that all his guests accompany him three flights downwards towards the centre of the earth so that he can show them his collection of classic sports cars. Especially if, when we all get down there and are looking with feigned interest at a Ferrari Testiculone upholstered in tiger skin for the Shah of Persia, the host suddenly holds up his hand and says, ‘Hear that rumble? It’s the Bakerloo Line.’

Anyone who examines my own application to further excavate under my office building in London will soon conclude that I won’t be trying to impress my dinner guests. I have a larger and more humanitarian aim in mind. I wasn’t on the recent rich list because I knew who to pay off so that I could preserve my anonymity, but I feel that I can reveal here, among friends, that on the day before Lehmann Brothers crashed and the world economic crisis got irreversibly under way, I just happened to sell my Costa Terribla mass luxury housing complex in Spain for a train-load of American dollars to a consortium of foreign ministers from sub-Saharan Africa who had diverted the economies of their own countries through a Russian money laundry in the Cayman Islands. A certain amount of capital accrued which I have since been putting to constructive use. On levels minus one to minus four of my underground complex will be an assembly shop for a space vehicle designed to leave the solar system looking like a dot in the distance and travel to a planet beyond the reach of reality television. For a suitable fee, anyone can book a seat on the first flight. Anyone, that is, who shares my belief that civilization might be coming to an end.

The chief evidence for this is that people with enough money are starting to dig. It is always an interesting psychological turning point when people with power develop a bunker mentality. Hitler began tunnelling only a few days after World War II started; during the course of the war he had dug-outs all over Europe; and by the time the war ended he was occupying more floors under the Reich Chancellery in Berlin than there had even been above ground before it was bombed to rubble. He was down there with his Wagner records, the musical equivalent of a sports car collection.

And as with the bad guys, so with the good guys. In the USA, the CIA started to go south as an intelligence-gathering organization when it began digging new levels under its headquarters at Langley, Virginia, and finally there was far more of Langley below ground than above. Can anyone doubt that the world is being manipulated from this international network of underground hideouts? It’s no use looking for the men behind the men in power. We should be looking for the men below the men in power.

In my testament, which I’m currently dictating to my secretarial staff, deep beneath the earth, I explain it all. Signals from below the soil have corrupted the world’s media to the point where you can’t believe anything any more. How can we believe that man-made global warming is going to raise the level of the sea by thirty feet if the people who own the newspapers that say so are digging holes under their houses instead of heading for the hills? It’s just been revealed that in a recent advertisement for the province of Alberta in Canada they used a picture of people on a beach in Northumberland in the UK because Alberta doesn’t have a coastline. How could anyone have paid for that advertisement or run that advertisement or even looked at that advertisement and still believed that anything in any publication might be true? What can we be sure of except that nothing we read about or even hear about is certain? Except for one thing, and to this belief I cling, and so should you. If anyone is rich enough to build himself a bunker under London, he’s got enough money to pay his taxes.


Public disgust with the big money was intense, but it was notable that there was scarcely any attempt on the part of left-wing thinkers to denounce capitalism, although you would have thought that here was their moment. Why were they silent? Perhaps one of the reasons was that there were scarcely any left-wing thinkers in the old sense still operating. The left, such as it was, was more concerned with pronouncing the imminent collapse of Western society through Climate Change than through systemic economic failure. Another reason could have been that the economic failure just wasn’t spectacular enough. There were no marching jobless as in the 1930s; few strong men pretended to sell matches and apples; and on the whole the crisis didn’t photograph very well. Meanwhile the new rich got on with their opulent lives, often making extensions in the basement to give the opulence more room. It was a repellent but effective demonstration of the awkward truth that someone with a hundred million pounds can lose fifty million pounds overnight and still not be obliged to limit his outgoings by fifty per cent, or even one per cent. The rest of us have to cut our clothes according to our cloth, but the rich have cloth to spare. I could go on with the analogies, and they would all be equally trite. The facts of inequality seem so brutally obvious. So why not rise up, expropriate the expropriators, and redistribute their wealth among the poor? Yes, but first we must ensure that nobody is using a light bulb rated higher than sixty watts.

In any belief system, it is a fine study to identify the spots at which doubt starts to creep in. With the belief system of the classic left, the key spot was the apparently solid conviction that a planned economy must be able to produce a more rationally distributed abundance than a free market. While Karl Marx was still alive, Lassalle tried to tell him that the development of capitalism had already disproved that idea. It took another hundred years before the general opinion of intelligent mankind caught up with Lassalle, but when it did, that was the point around which the catching up took place. Similarly, in the belief system that we still call Climate Change, there was a key point at which doubt entered before it entered at all the other points. The key point was the belief that sea levels would inexorably rise to catastrophic levels. The idea of sea levels rising a lot would have had more force if sea levels had recently risen even a little. But in the Maldives — a tiny nation which had hopes of supplementing its income from international concern with the supposedly incontrovertible fact that Climate Change threatened its existence — the level of the ocean, at the time this script was written, had still not risen back to the level from which it retreated in the 1970s. On the whole it was dangerous to joke about Climate Change, and on the BBC is was virtually impossible to mention it in any context except one of universal apocalypse, but I got away with making the occasional jest about sea levels because somehow, on that one point, it was acceptable to be not wholly solemn. In other words — this was never said — doubts were creeping in.