Opinion

John Bird: Marylebone's wealth is obscuring the diversity of its past

The gentrification of Marylebone has turned it into a Utopia for those who can afford it, but at what cost?

I used to live in Marylebone in what is now one of the most expensive parts of London. My landlord was a family estate that had accrued wealth and property over the centuries. Once Marylebone was farm and garden country, before that it was wood and forest in the days before the Romans. But sometime in the 18th century as the family estate that now exists was being put together they chanced their arm.

Instead of harvesting the fields and its fruit, they decided to dig it all up and lay down houses, streets, shops and inns. It probably didn’t bring them in the income that they desired straight away. But soon they were harvesting the income to a much, much more formidable level than anything got from crops of wheat and barley, or whatever else they grew.

By the time that the imaginary Sherlock Holmes was living on the edge of the family estate this was decidedly urban London. And it had its problems. It had its slums. The champion of the poor and social housing innovator Octavia Hill started her movement in the slums that existed off the Marylebone High Street. And Dickens helped a hostel for fallen women start up around the corner from Marylebone’s main streets.

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The harvesting went on and on through the centuries and the family estate is worth an absolute fortune now. Cutting down trees and putting riverlets into culverts proved a wise move for the family, digging up fields of fecund land likewise.

But there was a coming and going of fortunes. When I moved in in the early years of this century they had more houses and flats to let than they could fill. The flats were not cheap but they were not outrageously expensive. The high street had many empty shops. The pubs were pubs. Cafes for working men in dusty overalls and cab drivers abounded. Marylebone was socially mixed.

But then chances of making bigger harvests, or bigger returns on harvests came about. Madonna for a while seemed to live there, or was seen walking the high street. Shops of the most useless and rarefied kind started to fill the main streets. Selling expensive clothes, bags, cooking utensils that looked like modern sculptures. The poshest bookshop in London, imitating how bookshops used to be before the Second World War, sprang up. Harry Potter first came to my eye filling the bookshop’s window as the bookseller made a prophecy: that this first Potter book was what the world had long waited for.

The chains came, looking as if the cappuccino years had finally arrived. Pubs became places to eat and meet, not to drink and ruck.

This is Utopia now for the chosen few. And it is completely and utterly unsustainable

Those nature movers, back then in the 18th century, when they put their estate together were wise to do so and tear up nature and provide serious money for generation after generation. Even if it meant eventually socially sterilising the streets and shops and making them into a kind of Rodeo Drive experience. Even if it meant turning culture into philistine culture.

I loved and do love Marylebone. I love the fact that the Tyburn stream starts there; that flowed on down towards what is now Marble Arch to the Tyburn Tree. The Tyburn Tree which was the scene of the state killing of all manner of robbers and murderers and assumed robbers and murderers; the killing fields of London.

If only we could haunt the streets of Marylebone with the memory of the murdered and killed and starved and driven out. But alas it is not possible to see that vital history; only the posh frock shops and the posh restaurants and the posh saucepans and kitchen knife shops exist to obliterate memory.

There’s not a Brexiteer in sight, other than those driving a van or dropping off a parcel, or mending a drain, or digging a hole, or sweeping a street. This is Utopia now, on tap for the chosen few. And it is completely and utterly unsustainable.

My flat and the house it was in was gutted and made completely different, although keeping its fascia; just so it could look like the house it has been since 1908. The harvest carries on, bringing in more than when donkeys and peasants, and farmhands and drovers passed that way.

I love the posh bookshop and go there at times to buy. I love that the Rajdoot where I have eaten Indian food for decades is still there by the Paddington Street Graveyard which is now a fine public park.

I am not happy though that itinerant men are ill provided for, wanderers, lost in a sea of wealth. Opposite where I lived was a place for homeless people to go to get fed and nurtured, alas now out-priced and sold up. Interestingly it was the very Catholic Order who rescued me and my fellow brothers from the streets 60 years ago and put us in a well-supplied orphanage.

How high will outrageous wealth climb before it brings down us all?

But if you go there to Marylebone to savour the dumb cultural death of the place, replenish your cultural batteries by going free into the neighbouring Wallace Collection. There you will see the wealthy trinkets and jewels of old, and the paintings of naked cherubs and women. And the Laughing Cavalier and one of the finest rainbow scenes by Rubens. Now that’s worth preserving! Not the highly expensive trash shops that are nearby and around it.

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