Where have all the prune-eaters gone?

'"Suet?' said the shelfstacker, incredulously. I could have been asking him for cobra venom'

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It was on the
Today programme last week, so it must be true. Rocketing food, transport and housing costs, said the presenter, have left many people in the capital with some of the lowest standards of living in the UK, according to a report by the Centre for Economic and Business Research. I wondered if my friend's sister, who lives in Notting Hill, was listening. No, of course she wasn't. I forgot. She and her husband, sorry partner, have gone to live in Bali for a year with their two children and the nanny. To recharge their batteries. Well, that's what Sarah Jane told everyone before they left, but it's obvious now that the real reason they upped sticks was simply that they couldn't afford to live in London any more.

It was on the Today programme last week, so it must be true. Rocketing food, transport and housing costs, said the presenter, have left many people in the capital with some of the lowest standards of living in the UK, according to a report by the Centre for Economic and Business Research. I wondered if my friend's sister, who lives in Notting Hill, was listening. No, of course she wasn't. I forgot. She and her husband, sorry partner, have gone to live in Bali for a year with their two children and the nanny. To recharge their batteries. Well, that's what Sarah Jane told everyone before they left, but it's obvious now that the real reason they upped sticks was simply that they couldn't afford to live in London any more.

I'm not sure if they managed to rent their house while they are away. Mind you, a double-fronted, nine-bedroomed villa with a private communal garden at the back and a swimming pool in the basement isn't everyone's cup of tea. When they bought it two years ago it didn't have a swimming pool. It had a self-contained flat for a live-in couple - the usual housekeeper/chauffeur arrangement. But Sarah Jane hated the idea of staff living in ("why can't they just come in every morning like Brian's secretary?") and had the whole thing converted into a Roman pool with marble pillars.

It's undoubtedly true that housing, transport and food are more expensive in London than anywhere else in the country - anywhere else in the world probably - but there are still plenty of people around who can afford them. Looking out of my window on to the King's Road, I sometimes feel I'm the only ordinary person left in Chelsea - "ordinary" meaning that I put leftovers in the fridge for tomorrow's supper and save string.

"How can you be ordinary and still afford to live in Chelsea?" scoffed a friend up from Bristol for the day for a teachers' conference. Because we're still living in the fourth-floor flat without a lift up 85 stairs that we rented 30 years ago for £9 a week, that's why. It's gone up since then of course but it's still just about affordable if I buy neck of lamb and take in washing. If they put in a lift and rented it to a Swiss banker or an American record producer or a Lebanese arms dealer like all the other fourth-floor flats around here it would cost nearer £9 an hour.

Trouble is you can't buy neck of lamb in Chelsea any more. Since 99 per cent of the residents are now rich foreigners, the supermarkets no longer stock homely fare. I spent hours the other day searching in vain for prunes and suet. "Suet?" said the shelf stacker incredulously. I could have been asking him for cobra venom. "I can't remember the last time we had suet on these shelves. Or dried prunes. But I think we've still got some of the French ones stuffed with marron glacé."

As for transport, except in the rush hour, most of the buses ploughing through the King's Road traffic are empty because all children in Chelsea is driven to school by their mother in a designer jeep the size of a house with 18 wheels and kangaroo bars that uses as much petrol between Sloane Square and Cheyne Row as a French farmer gets through in a week.

The latest example of conspicuous consumption is fireworks. In the old days, fireworks were limited to once a year - 5 November - which in our case meant a packet of sparklers and a Catherine wheel on the roof. Any old party now, birthday, cocktail, wedding anniversary, retirement, ends with a firework display. There was one last night somewhere along the embankment (with Battersea Power Station glowing in the background), which woke me up at midnight to a cacophony of bangs and fizzes. It lasted a full 15 minutes which, I am reliably informed by a friend in the party planning business, could easily have cost £5,000. More if it had a personalised greeting to end with such as "Happy Birthday Sarah Jane". There's a thought. Fireworks are probably cheaper in Bali too.

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