Watching ‘Capital’ and Researching the Middle Classes in London

‘For the first time in history, the people who lived on the street were, by global and even by local standards, rich.’ Prologue to ‘Capital’ John Lanchester (2012)

In 2010, I began work as a researcher on the project ‘The Middle Classes and the City’ as part of a team of nine. Four of us were studying London, the others Paris. We were seeking to explore the questions ‘what does the city do to the middle classes and what do the middle classes do to the city?’ We approached this by studying a range of neighbourhood types ‘a gentrifying inner city neighbourhood’, ‘a gentrified neighbourhood’, ‘a suburb’, ‘a gated community’ and an ‘ex-urban neighbourhood’ in both cities and carrying out interviews with middle class people living in those neighbourhoods. Towards the end of the project in 2012, the novel ‘Capital’ by John Lanchester came out. And all of the London research team promptly read it.

On reading the book’s prologue, I was convinced that Lanchester was writing about a particular street in one of our research neighbourhoods, part of Balham. The stories I had been told about the changing landscape of the street chimed perfectly with Lanchester’s opening description of Pepys Road. Even the details of its architectural quirks were the same. He was not. He was writing about neighbouring Clapham at the time of the financial crisis but, interestingly, when adapting the book for television in 2015 the programme makers have set the story around Balham and Tooting. The processes of an incoming, predominantly white, upper middle class from the financial sector and of massive house remodelling and the gradual displacement of an ethnically mixed population of working class and lower middle class residents described in the novel in Clapham in 2008 were unfolding in Balham in 2010.

The novel has serious flaws. Lanchester is better on class and finance than everyday multiculturalism and there is some clunky and two-dimensional characterisation based around archetypes – for example, the British Pakistani family who run the corner shop and have a plotline involving extremism – that have been rounded out by some of the talented actors in the TV adaptation. However, the prologue to the book remains an insightful piece of sociology. It captures the churn and the remaking of houses in the image of the incomers, and the labour that these projects require. ‘If they’re not going up, they’re going down’ said one research participant about the boom in basement excavations. It captures what rising house prices are doing to London and to class formation. In the TV programme this rise in house prices is represented by a graphic that shows time passing alongside house prices ticking upwards. It is a reminder that the street is shifting ground. The capital in the bricks and beneath the characters feet is rising.

When we were choosing our neighbourhoods for the study, our French colleagues were utterly bemused by the house prices in the areas we were suggesting were middle class. How could it be ‘middle class’ if some of the houses cost a million pounds? Surely this was upper class? This is partly to do with differences in what being middle class means in the two countries. In France, to be ‘ classe moyenne’ is to be in a narrower band between the working class and the dominant class (of lawyers, business people) whereas in the UK it is anything between working class and the landed gentry. But it is also about the bizarre and distorting world of London property prices.

Let us take an example. There were teachers in every neighbourhood we studied, according to an occupation-based model of class they were of roughly the same class. However, if you were a teacher who bought a house in Balham in the 1980s you are positioned very differently financially to a younger teacher struggling to afford the rent in an equivalent neighbourhood now[1]. As well as this generational difference within the middle classes, the prohibitive prices in the area of Balham that we studied meant that the only people who could afford to move in were those working in the finance sector and the rich. We heard distinctions being made among existing middle class residents (such as teachers) who worked in other sectors about the incoming ‘city people’. One resident referred to her more affluent neighbours as occupying ‘a parallel world where everything is private.’

Housing wealth, or the lack of it, structures middle class experience in London. As John Lanchester points out in the prologue, having a house in a street like Pepys Road is like being in ‘a casino in which you are guaranteed to be a winner’. To be excluded from property ownership is to be pushed into the precarious and expensive world of private rental. To point this out is not just to bemoan the fate of the ‘squeezed middle’. Shifts in the middle also have an impact on the next people down the housing ladder, increasing the pressure in the private rental market. Meanwhile, the concentration of sameness (of profession, age, class background) among those who were ‘in’ in the gentrified area of our study seemed to produce a highly-pressurised and competitive environment. While the characters of Roger and Arabella (played by Toby Jones and Rachel Sterling) are more extreme than the people we interviewed, we did find a narrowly defined perception of success that people judged themselves and their families against.

I followed Twitter commentary as Capital aired last night and there were more Tweets about the unlikelihood of leaves being on the trees at Christmas than about house prices. However, the series taps into pertinent questions about class, co-existence and, of course, capital that continue to impact on everyday life in London and are never far from the surface.

[1] Michaela Benson and I have explored this further in ‘Making middle class identities on shifting grounds? Housing, capitals and assets’ at ‘A Tale of Two Cities? Class and Space in Paris and London’ Goldsmiths (2014).


1 thought on “Watching ‘Capital’ and Researching the Middle Classes in London

  1. Pingback: Watching ‘Capital’ Part 2: : Everyday encounters, multiculture and racism | Emma Jackson

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