Magazine article The Spectator

A City of Spivs and Speculators

Magazine article The Spectator

A City of Spivs and Speculators

Article excerpt

MAX BEERBOHM once drew a caricature of George Bernard Shaw standing on his head, with Max himself looking on. The drawing was captioned: `Mild surprise of one who, revisiting England after long absence, finds that the dear fellow has not moved.'

My own emotions on returning to London after six years in Berlin are more violent. I find our capital city in the grip of a mad speculative boom, with otherwise astute people unable to see that the crash must shortly come. Mr Gordon Brown says he has abolished boom and bust, yet a tidal wave of spending sweeps through every corner of London and beyond. The Brown boom surpasses even the Lawson boom, and can be expected to have the same fatal impact on the prime minister of the day once it bursts.

Bread and circuses are bestowed on the people with a prodigality that recalls the most decadent days of imperial Rome: The circuses are obvious enough - the Dome, Tate Modem, the bigger and better Wembley Stadium - and are mostly paid for by the people themselves when they buy tickets from the aptly named National Lottery. The bread is harder to explain, for the simple reason that most of it is illusory. Yet it seems real enough to the millions of home- owners who have seen the notional value of their properties rise to absurd levels. `My house is now worth a million pounds,' a friend of mine remarked the other day, adding with a rueful smile that he could not lay his hands on the money as he wanted to go on living there. But the idea that his undistinguished Victorian terrace house makes him a millionaire still bucks him up no end, instead of giving him, as it ought, a premonition of impending doom.

The difference between my friend and myself is that I do not own a house. If you think this colours my outlook, then you are right. It is not my heart or my head but my wallet that makes me wonder what has become of my own country; that and the unusual experience of seeing London through foreign eyes.

The Germans are profoundly suspicious of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. They see it as unstable, fixated on short-term gain, ruthless in its disregard of the weak, a casino where reckless gamblers make fortunes overnight and honest toil counts for nothing. For them a free marketeer is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing. Anarchic spies and speculators rule the roost, people so blinded by the pursuit of profit that they are incapable of acknowledging any other obligation, whether to long-term employees and partners or to society and the environment.

The trouble with this caricature is that it can without much difficulty be made to fit the facts. In East Berlin my wife and I rented a spacious flat for 500 a month from Mr Hans Wacker. His family had owned the house, which contained about 30 flats in all, ever since it was built in 1906, and he himself had decided to hang on to it through the East German period because he did not believe the communist economic system would last. He was also proud of the way his mother had extinguished the incendiary bombs that fell on the building during the second world war, when he was evacuated with his school to Zakopane in southern Poland. The East German regime did not expropriate him, but materials for repairs were almost impossible to obtain and he was given tenants who would not pay the rent. In the ten years since German reunification he has completely renovated the building. It is his pride and joy.

We never signed a contract with Hen Wacker: a handshake was enough. Whenever anything needed mending, he came in person to deal with it. My campaign to deal with the rats which got in one winter through the bathroom was fought in close alliance with him (The Spectator, 1 June 1996). One evening each month I climbed the stairs to his flat and paid him the rent in cash. He suggested this system, rather than a bank transfer, because apart from the advantages of cash it was more menschlich, or human. He would put aside his stamp collection, enter the rent in an old-fashioned ledger and we would talk for a while. …

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