From my study window in our seventh-floor flat, I can see: red tiled roofs into the distance, red chimney pots on which pigeons and squawking seagulls compete for space, a grid of urban streets far below and lines of trees now almost shorn of their yellowed leaves. Straight ahead, I can just catch the tip of a garden square, which is sometimes bathed in sunsets of Götterdämmerung intensity, and on the far horizon loom the familiar, but long-cold, towers of Battersea power station.
Oh yes, and I almost forgot. Right in the middle of my sightline is a flat roof with a two-storey brick tower in the centre. And by that tower hangs a tale.
I noticed it almost four years ago. One day the roof on the other side of the road was flat and boring as it had always been; the next, so it seemed, there was the tower. Then there was a little metal shack beside it, and then a sort-of lean-to as well. The building, a former telephone exchange, was being converted into flats, as so many such disused blocks were in boomtime London. Which is when I realised that this tower was no innocent outcrop, but designed to house a lift shaft. The disused telephone exchange was going to rise another two storeys.
Now Westminster Council, probably not alone, keeps a list of planning applications that anyone may consult. And it transpired that the owners had supplemented their original plan for a residential conversion to include a basement, and – weaselled into the final clause of small print – another two floors on top.
I submitted an objection, not only on the grounds that the upper extension would interfere with an established view, but because the new plans had, to my mind, been framed in such a way as to disguise the true intent, and because the whole proportion of the original building would be ruined. All right, it was no beauty; but it had pleasing proportions and an interesting asymmetry that were about to be utterly lost.
The amended planning application was heard two years ago in public just before Christmas – I suspected the worst from the timing. There were more objections, including from people who stood to lose most of their natural light. The application was turned down. The developers appealed, right up to the Secretary of State. At each stage we repeated our strictures, lest non-intervention be seen as a change of heart. The final appeal was turned down six months ago, with the developer given until September to comply. By now, the tower had become so permanent that it was richly adorned with graffiti.
With no sign of work commencing, I called the planning department, to hear a sad litany of the council's reluctance to "enforce" because of the high legal costs and the tiny penalty likely to be imposed on the offender. They still hoped for "voluntary compliance". They may well have been right; scaffolding now wreathes the tower.
But consider: it is now more than three years since an application for an addition that violated almost every planning provision in the book. Yet even when the appeals process was exhausted, the council still had little sensible alternative to persuasion.
Developers might argue that ponderous and uncertain procedures encourage them to build first and ask questions later. But on this we can surely agree. The planning laws are inefficient, slow and expensive – even when they work. I may not like the way the Government has given itself the right to fast-track infrastructure projects, such as nuclear power stations, but why on earth should a lift shaft – the advance guard for a small, greedy, and wishful application for two extra storeys – have taken more than three years to reach the point of demolition? If it has.
The star who – like him or loathe him – plays only himself
Matt Damon, I'm delighted to find, has several new films in the pipeline, starting with The Informant! which goes on general release in this country shortly, to be followed by Invictus – about Nelson Mandela – another Bourne film, and goodness knows what else. But my pleasure in Damon's on-screen multi-tasking is not because I find him, as designated by People magazine two years ago, the Sexiest Man Alive, or even the slightest bit appealing.
It is, on the contrary, because it means there will be fewer films competing for my attention in coming months. You see, I can't stand Matt Damon. That's right: I can't stand Matt Damon. Not as a human being, let me hasten to say. Everything I've read about him suggests a fine upstanding individual, an accomplished professional in the film world, a good husband and father. He is also someone socially engaged, with admirably, but not aggressively, liberal views, who donates generously to charity.
But oh dear, as an actor! Good Will Hunting, the 1997 film with which Damon made his name, as star and screenwriter, I found an almost unwatchable combination of didacticism and self-satisfaction, worthy beyond belief, while masquerading as something pioneering. C S Lewis for young-ish male Americans. In the subsequent films I have seen – in what I hope you will regard as a selfless effort to understand why he is so lionised – Damon produces ever more of his same infuriating self. Different costume, different period, different location, different story, but the same ultra-smooth narcissism. Doubtless the cinemas will be full of his many ardent admirers, so I will not be missed.
History that mustn't be forgotten
As anyone who has seen the news in the past week must know, Europe has been in the throes not only of commemorating the fallen of two world wars, but of celebrating 20 years since the end of the Cold War, as embodied in the fall of the Berlin Wall. Strictly speaking, the Cold War was not truly, irrevocably, over until the Soviet Union disintegrated into its separate republics on 25 December 1991. Whatever date you choose, however, I am exercised by the premature flight of so much memory. Not only has a whole generation grown to adulthood without knowing what those times were like, but those who experienced them have little desire to revisit the numbing deprivation and debilitating fear of those years. This is why I was delighted to contribute to a project, devised by the Imperial War Museum, to communicate in words, voices and pictures what the Cold War really felt like and meant to Britons who brushed against it. You can sample the result – What Lies Beneath, British experiences of the Cold War – at www.whatliesbeneath.org.uk. Please do.Reuse content