Philp Hensher: A few more ruins is just what we need

Share
Related Topics

David Cameron launched his party's manifesto at Battersea Power Station the other day. The implication was that the vast, decaying bulk of the famous building was an example of the sort of neglect and abandonment which his government would put right.

It seems a little unfair. The power station was closed down in October 1983, which means that it has subsequently suffered 13 and a half years of neglect under a Conservative administration, and then 13 under a Labour one. Initially, the CEGB wanted to demolish the station and sell the land; but it is a famous, preserved building with an exterior by Giles Gilbert Scott, and a much-loved one, too.

Over the last 26 and a half years, plans to convert the thing have come and gone. At first, a consortium including Alton Towers wanted to build a theme park there with an industrial-history flavour. Costs escalated, and a subsequent proposal to turn it into a mixture of shops, offices and hotels also came to nothing.

By the 1990s, a Hong Kong company was proceeding with a Nicholas Grimshaw-designed renovation, in the face of strong local opposition. In 2006 it was sold again, and the current project hopes to get underway by next year. For the first time, it includes a Tube extension, which will also stop at the new American embassy in Nine Elms. It will be finished in 2020. That is 37 years after it last performed any useful function, apart from hosting Conservative party manifesto launches. And a brief period in the 1990s when it hosted a riverside bungee jump.

I go past Battersea Power Station pretty well every day of my life, and though of course it's a scandal that so large a stretch of central London land has been left like this, I actually don't find the spectacle of decay depressing at all. In fact, it's rather wonderfully picturesque. The lowering thing is not the building, but the acres of grubby wasteland around it. I wonder whether, in fact, we really and truly want an energy museum, a vast shopping complex and huge quantities of new housing. I expect that, like many hideous new housing blocks in London, they would all be snapped up by buy-to-let merchants anyway, doing nothing whatever to provide affordable housing to those who need it.

The 19th century was so keen on picturesque ruins that they often commissioned architects like Karl Friedrich Schinkel to build entirely new ones, just for the hell of it. We have the luxury of having almost incredible amounts of splendid industrial architecture which seems ripe to recreate this abstruse taste. Frankly, I don't believe there are enough magnificent ruins in central London, and there seem to me far too many rubbishy shopping centres. Do we really want to go to all that effort, just to allow the Body Shop, Caffe Nero, Marks and Spencer and Miuccia Prada to sell us stuff that's on sale north of the river anyway?

Let's just commission one of our excellent garden designers to make a grand new London park on the 38-acre site, with the picturesque detail of a giant, ruined power station at the centre of it, occasionally shedding bricks in excitingly unpredictable ways on the heads of picnickers.

Londoners love their parks, and it's been quite a while since anyone had the opportunity to create one in so central a place. Go on, Dave: you know it makes sense.

So what if the Tories appropriate your music?

At the Tories' manifesto launch, Mr Cameron used a song by a rock band called Keane, entitled "Everybody's Changing". Subsequently, a drummer for this band (Richard Hughes, far left), which I had never heard of, shared his disgust on discovering his song had been used by a political party which he does not vote for. "Am told the Tories played Keane at their manifesto launch," he wrote. "Am horrified."

Or, in Twitterspeak, "Sir, It has been drawn to my attention..." When did rock stars get so appallingly pompous? It's a song. It gets used and liked by all sorts of people, not all of whom subscribe to a millionaire-socialist ideal, or indeed, aspire to it. The Nazis were fond of the Eroica Symphony. Elgar has been used for any number of political purposes.

Of course, rock stars these days never get to meet ordinary people, but are shuttled around in a dreamlike bubble, only encountering those who agree with their every utterance. Naturally they would be astonished to discover that someone of a different political persuasion enjoys and hears a meaning in their music. It comes to something when the Conservative party seems more in touch, less pompous, more groovy and more culturally diverse than the attitudes of a rock star.

The problem with being called David Mitchell

David Mitchell is writing a memoir and a novel, to be published by Harper Collins in 2012 and 2013 respectively. And David Mitchell is publishing a novel next month, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, with Sceptre.

Nicholas Pearson, who will be publishing David Mitchell's novel, and who is also my editor, said the novel would mark "the start of a successful career as a novelist" for David Mitchell. On the other hand, David Mitchell's novel is his fifth, his previous novels including two shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.

Confusion between the highly literate comedian and the extremely popular experimental novelist is already rife, but when they both start publishing novels, anarchy may break out. Indeed what hope, in a hundred years' time, of critics succeeding in disentangling one David Mitchell from the other? They have both established their names, and probably both consider, with justice, they have a right to use their own name without modification, or the addition of a middle initial.

At least there seems no prospect yet of David Mitchell (the non-Peep Show novelist) following his colleague A.L. Kennedy on to the comedy stage, at which point we might as well give up.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron faces the press as he arrives in Brussels for the EU leaders summit on Thursday reuters  

On the Tusk of a dilemma: Cameron's latest EU renegotiation foe

Andrew Grice
John Profumo and his wife Valerie Robson in 1959  

Stephen Ward’s trial was disgraceful. There can be no justification for it

Geoffrey Robertson QC
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

The Interview movie review

You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

How podcasts became mainstream

People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

A memorable year for science – if not for mice

The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

Christmas cocktails to make you merry

Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
5 best activity trackers

Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

Paul Scholes column

It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas