Islington Person: After Essex Man, could he/she be next? Cal McCrystal reports on Tony Blair's distinctive north London neighbours
Sunday 17 July 1994
These days in Islington you can overhear the middle classes adjusting to a new and rather attractive idea. It can be heard at restaurant tables, at the children's playgroup, at barbecues in the (usually cramped) back gardens of Islington's Georgian and Victorian terraces. It is never aggressively expressed - partly because it is still a hope, partly because middle-class Islington is a mild and polite society - but the burden of it is: Perhaps our time has come.
Tony Blair lives in Islington. Many of Mr Blair's friends and colleagues live in Islington or in adjacent parts of north London. Mr Blair could be the next prime minister, heading a government with policies and ideas culled, at least in part, from many years of Islington conversation. Islington has enjoyed two decades of fashion (and mockery). It is, after all, the home of that great Conservative bogy 'the chattering classes' - bien pensants, liberals, humbugs, 'the socially-concerned', the people who, more than any other section of the middle-class outside Scotland, could not stand That Woman. But it has never enjoyed the feeling that its thoughts might influence a government - in the way that those of (say) Hampstead and its Garden Suburb did during the Wilson years or the Thames Valley did under Mrs Thatcher.
Just as Essex Man, the distinctive lager-swilling Tory entrepreneur, represented the 1980s, Islington Man - more properly Islington Person - may turn out to be the most potent composite of the late 1990s.
Islington Person is not so much a geographical as a socio- political concept. Not all Essex Men lived in Essex; likewise, not all Islington Persons dwell in Islington. Nor can all inhabitants of this north London borough be labelled in this way. Sixty per cent of the borough lives in council housing. Only about half its residents have a car. Nearly a quarter are 'economically inactive'. Of those who possess their own houses, cars and jobs, some are a long way from the Left: the Social Security Minister, Peter Lilley; the head of MI5, Stella Rimington; the right-wing Tory MP, Lady Olga Maitland, to mention but three.
However, it is in and around Islington (there are enclaves in neighbouring Hackney, Camden and Haringey) that one finds an unusual concentration of people with a distinct cast of mind: a persona that inspired Charter 88, the constitutional reform pressure- group, and more recently Demos, the think-tank which seeks to move policy-makers out of their ruts. Demos was co- founded by Geoff Mulgan and Martin Jacques, the former editor of the non-Marxist (and now defunct) Marxism Today. Jacques lives in Islington. Mulgan is a North London academic.
How does a typical Islington Man dress? Unstructured suits are still a favourite (Martin Jacques is thought to favour Armani), worn over a collarless 'grandfather' shirt and boxer shorts (possibly Marks & Spencer). The aim is to contrast the formal and informal aspects of the Islington personality. Ties have been out for some time, though Paul Smith is acceptable and ties in general may be coming back. Hair is short, with the grey bits either artificially highlighted or darkened.
And Islington Woman? Certainly not Laura Ashley - instead something severe in beige, indigo and (for the moment) black; in silk, linen and cotton. 'You're never quite certain what clothes to wear when invited to an Islington gathering,' says Professor Laurie Taylor. 'It's either very opulent or rather squalid.'
Islington Person frequently eats out, either in modest Chinese, Thai or Indian joints, or - for that special occasion - the kind of Italian or 'Mediterranean' restaurant where penile pepper mills have been banished and every dish swims in estate-bottled olive oil. The most famous Islington restaurant right now is probably the Granita (salmon in soya sauce, corn-fed chicken, uncomfortable steel chairs) in Upper Street, where Tony Blair and Gordon Brown dined together in May to hammer out the pact for the leadership stakes where Brown stood down in favour of Blair.
Home cooking is not neglected. The informal supper party has been a feature of Islington life since the time when French beans were still a rarity. A good guide to the kind of thing you might expect is The Islington Cook Book, published last year in aid of charity, in which eminent Islingtonians record their favourite recipes. They include Tony Blair's recipe for pasta with sun-dried tomatoes. 'Cook the pasta in boiling water with a spot of oil to prevent sticking,' he begins.
A lot of pasta gets eaten in Islington: Pasta in aubergine sauce (Guido Pontecorvo, former professor of genetics), squid salad with pasta (Annie Williams, artist), fish pasta (Susan - Mrs Michael - Ignatieff, film critic), four cheeses pasta (Simon Rattle, conductor), pesto alla Genovese (Robert Fox, Daily Telegraph). This newspaper's own Alan Watkins is here with his extremely thorough recipe for home-made baked-beans, as is Neal Ascherson (something Scottish and simple with haddock) and Stephen Fry (apple cheesecake).
These names give you a pretty fair idea of how Islington Persons earn their money - in journalism, television, theatre, the law, academia and in jobs well paid enough to afford mortgages on houses which cost anything from pounds 150,000 to half a million. Blair's house is near the top end of this range; flat- fronted Georgian or early Victorian are more expensive than bow-windowed Edwardian, even though the latter tends to be closer to trees and parks, of which Islington has a notorious shortage. The days when an Islington home was distinguished by its decor have disappeared. The shops in Upper Street still sell scrubbed pine, but Islington Person, passing by, wonders exactly to whom? Instead, most homes contain the usual collection of old bric-a-brac enlivened by an expensive new item from the Conran shop (troublesomely far away in west London) which is the style of many middle-class interiors throughout Britain.
Books, however, are a big feature. Books in the bathroom, books on the stairs and in the kitchen, books beside and underneath the bed. Islington Person likes to read, or to imagine that he is reading. Time is the problem. One constant question at the supper table, after the usual debates on the best schools and the worst doctors, is: 'When did you last get the time to read a book properly?' Sighs, and shakes of the head, mutterings about not since Midnight's Children (written by another former Islington resident) or the last holiday spent in a cottage in Suffolk.
Islington Man and Woman keep trying to turn the pages, however, in that short span after The Late Show and before oblivion. Just now they are reading, or pretending to read, that book about the limits to the free market by the Oxford academic, John Gray, and Professor Linda Colley's study of 18th century Britain, Britons. Books that cast new light on how British society was made and shaped are popular, because they help Islington Person understand how it might be remade and reshaped, which is the motif of Blairism.
As with books, so with ideas. 'We never have enough time to think,' Blair was recently heard to complain to Melvyn Bragg, adding: 'We need to make the time to think.' What they tend to think about, when time allows, is how to get Josh into a good state primary (or do they need, can they afford, to go private?) and by extension the 'socialist realism' associated with Mr Blair. Are there limits to private enterprise and internal markets? What about the idea of community? Do we need to pay more tax? Isn't it a shock to discover the number 19 bus actually gives a better service now that it has been franchised and is no longer painted red? Why has my house been burgled for the 10th time in two years? Does the Labour Party have any proper answers to these pressing questions?
Such questions are pondered not just in homes but in restaurants, at the school gate (while waiting to collect the children), at regular weekend salons or during the intermissions at Islington's 10 theatres. During the long years in the political cold, Islington Person has taken comfort from these networks of like-minded folk. The Education Reform Group, for example, including teachers, local education officers, professors and journalists of liberal disposition, dines five or six times a year at Brasserie Julius in Upper Street, lamenting the damage inflicted on schools and universities by Thatcherite change and pondering what to do about it. Its founders in the early 1980s were teachers, parents and governors at Islington Green comprehensive, known as a 'sink school' before Islington Person adopted it, to show that he and she were brave enough to let their children take the rough with the smooth in state education.
Question-asking is in among such people - for example, what is the meaning of full employment? how do you spell bresaola? - and the certainties of the old Dave Spart radicalism are out. Those were the days when the nuclear-free People's Republic of Islington was dominated by the local Labour Party's 'loony Left'. Nowadays, Islington Persons tell each other, life is too complicated and changing too fast (enter at this point the global market and the Berlin Wall, and, if you are especially unlucky, the dreaded 'information super- highway').
Lenin and Trotsky may both have lived for a time in the borough, but they are about as fashionable today as they would be in, say, Wisconsin. Islington Person shines instead with a mild political effulgence, placing high value on what Professor A. H. Halsey calls koinonia, the fellowship of sharing. It is what Mr Blair would call the philosophy of enlightened self- interest: if you don't want your car nicked, start thinking about ways of shortening that dole queue.
Like John Wesley, another former resident, Islington Person is anxious to raise humanity from its heavy slumber; but, unlike Wesley's flock, does not demand a missionary fervour which makes people cry out or fall down. According to Paul Barker, a former editor of New Society (now absorbed into the New Statesman), 'the key to Islington Man is that he is a - two words - gentle man'.
Mr Blair is influenced by the kind of people with whom Islington Person feels comfortable: distinguished academics, such as David Marquand, the Sheffield University professor of politics who sits on Labour's Social Justice Commission; journalists, such as Alastair Campbell of Today and Philip Bassett of The Times, not to mention the several Blair enthusiasts who can be found on The Independent and the Guardian, whose offices are on the fringes of the borough.
Lawyers also play their part: barristering, after all, is what Mr Blair did for a living, as his wife Cherie still does. They include Henry Hodge, the solicitor husband of Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP and former Islington council leader, both neighbours of Mr Blair, and Geoffrey Robertson, the libertarian barrister and husband of the novelist Kathy Lette.
When he first moved into the borough (from Hackney), Mr Blair bought a house in Stavordale Road from Peter Stothard, currently editor of The Times. At his present address, his neighbours include David Lloyd, Channel 4's senior commissioning editor for news and current affairs, John Makinson, a Financial Times man, and Donald Trelford, a former Observer editor. Mr Blair occasionally entertains such near-neighbours as Clive Anderson, the barrister and showman, and such ex-neighbours as Stephen Fry, the comedian and novelist, who recently fled the borough for reasons undivulged. (Occasionally, Islington Person does not see eye-to-eye with what appears, to outsiders, to be his own reflection. On learning that Mr Anderson had graced the Blair table, Professor Ben Pimlott, another Islington Person, said: 'Really? I find that a bit alarming.')
Like Mr Blair, many of these friends and devotees are, in the words of Martin Jacques, 'possessed of a deep hostility towards labourism - towards the culture of class, the block vote, conservatism, certainty and insularity - which is now, at last, in headlong retreat'.
So we know what they are against. What are they for? Paul Barker, from his home 80 yards beyond the Islington borough boundary, pauses at the question, then wonders whether Islington Person is 'Acas writ large - someone who believes that everybody can get around a table to see if a solution can be worked out or people be made to see the error of their ways'.
We should not mock. Islington Person exemplifies the great well-meaning British middle-class, now unsteadied by a difficult present and an uncertain future. Islington is at the cutting edge. Jobs for life may be going: for many in journalism and broadcasting they have gone already. Schools aren't what they used to be: your Islington mother is an expert. Car crime, smack-dealers on the corner, beggars in the streets? Their growth in Devon may be alarming news: Islington has learned to cope with them.
In other words, the concerns of Islington are becoming the concerns of the middle class at large. If answers can accompany just some of the questions, Islington Man, Mr Blair, could win the next election.
(Photographs and map omitted)
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