“The large corporations pay no tax yet they expect to use our services.”
Standing on the stage of the Union Chapel, Jeremy Corbyn’s hands grasped the lectern and his soft, quiet voice spread out over the several hundred assembled faithful.
“This will end.”
The scene played out, for this correspondent, through a megaphone mounted on some hipster’s head, as it did for the hundreds who couldn’t get into the building, the Union Chapel in Islington, scene of Labour’s last stand.
With 16 hours until the polls open, Jeremy Corbyn has come back to Islington for his and Labour’s campaign’s final hours. He will be criticised for this no doubt. There are few places more insider than Islington, a neighbourhood whose changing fortunes can be observed by its position on the Monopoly board; the “Angel”, its heart is on trash row, just above Whitechapel.
For hundreds of years a separate town, with its churches, and almshouses, its streets following Saxon cow tracks, by the 19th century it was middle class. By the middle-20th, its long terraces had become bedsits and boarding houses, its upper street, scruffy and dowdy, its narrow market alleys a little dangerous. But by the 1960s, something was happening. Jonathan Raban captured it in his 1974 book Soft City, an essential study of what has happened to cities and to us over the last half-century.
Raban, a young novelist, getting by on reviews and opinion “middles”, moved to Islington with his young family, because there was simply nowhere else they could afford. They were not the only ones of their kind to do so. Raban noted that the square to which he had moved was becoming a place for young families of a certain type. Their presence was having a rapid effect on the surroundings. A caff became a trattoria, a “tratt”, an Italian restaurant with check tablecloths and wax-mottled chianti bottles, a health food store opened, a bookshop. Someone turned the dying local cinema into what was not yet called an arthouse, the “Screen on the Green” (and what a ’70s name that is).
The locals bristled at first, but not much. Many were Irish immigrants themselves, hardly able to make a claim on the place. Raban’s insight was that the very identity of cities, their neighbourhoods was starting to bend, become more pliable, transformable, as were the people in it. Such “soft cities” are what we have thought of as the inner city for forty years, a culture, a way of life that relied on a certain ensemble of working class and bohemia/knowledge class, the latter set within the former, an enervating minority.
This is the era when traditional celebrations withered, church festivals and big funerals, wedding receptions spilling out from pubs, and new “festivals” sprang up. Routine now, part of neighbourhood branding, the idea of such a place being enlivened by a carnival was new then. Islington, dirt poor, with new pockets of boho prosperity appearing, became the red base of London, a place where Labour Left, Marxists and centrists fought it out, tried new things. By the ’80s, it was already on the turn, students, artists, etc, moving to Dalston further up the road. By the time I moved to Hackney in 1997, Islington was the home of the prime minister Tony Blair, and the most dynamic Tory public figure, Boris Johnson.
They lived among a place still poor, the ratty bars, egg-and-chips caffs — Alfredo’s a dingy art deco hang of blessed memory — and such people seemed no more than a layer on top of it all. No-one recognised the paradoxical process that would occur: that in pursuit of the meaning and authenticity, the sheer life that “soft cities” generated, the rich would wholly invade, and inevitably, petrify them. That can be exaggerated, but not by much. The streets of Islington are lined with nitro ice-cream stores, gastro pubs and so on, and the many poor public housing tenants still here have nowhere to publicly be. Jeremy Corbyn was coming back to an Islington of memory, a place where the British left made and remade itself over the ’70s to ’90s.
But hell, everyone came back with him. The crowd around the Union Chapel — a non-conformist church, its tower looming over the borough, pretty much Jeremy Corbyn in red brick — thousands of them, sprawling across the roads, every hipster, freak, old hack and many, many just plain folk turning out from the dull terraces, the ticky tack old housing. Women with yoga mats, lads from ad agencies in suits and black T-shirts, joshing, Trots everywhere — how lovely to hear that cry again, “coooopy of the soooocialist … buy the soooocialist”, anarchists in denim jackets and tatts. Man, this was a gathering of the tribe, a last hurrah for some.
I saw people I hadn’t seen in 20 years, from the late ’90s, the last of cool Britannia, the days of Hackney Police Watch, of Clinker, a scratch spoken-word, free-jazz club in basement where Throbbing Gristle used to play, a dude whose wife I’d tried and almost succeeded in stealing — he was a recovering junkie; both she and I, terrible people, decided we weren’t that terrible — now Maori-tattoed all over his face, skin-muscle shrink-wrapped back-to-the-bone. He strode along with a new girl, who was five in ’97; he laughed heartily; he had a Corbyn Labour sticker on; I don’t think he is the base for a 40%-plus majority.
Corbyn was in his element. YouTube footage from inside the chapel showed him speaking forcefully, and outside I’d heard it, that voice, quiet yet determined, coming out of a megaphone mounted on some wanker’s head. Nevertheless … But as later footage would show, the element was a little too much the element. Stone church, raw arches, Jeremy quoting Shelley “for the many not the few”. OK, OK, we are the grand tradition of the left. We can win Islington. Now what?