Ian Martin accepts a commission to rework the whole of south London in the style of John Betjeman
MONDAY. It’s an ill wind that blows nobody a job. My friend Loaf, in his capacity as Cadbury’s Creme Egg Mayor of London, has just handed me an amazing commission. ‘Rework south London. All of it. In the style of John Betjeman…’
It’s part of his four-year plan to ‘literate’ the capital into distinct quadrants. The East End is to be redesigned as The Complete Dickens, featuring lots of characters. And bankruptcies. And poor houses. The Olympic site is exempt, obviously. No such thing as a Dickensian Olympics has ever taken place, so far. ‘We enjoyed Great Expectations of course,’ says Loaf, in Latin, ‘but now we are obliged to plough through Hard Times.’ Oh yeah, the Olympics, I’d forgotten. Let’s hope they don’t make a ‘complete Dickens’ of that. His giant egg suit gives a little shrug.
Meanwhile, the built environment of north London will be nudged gently into Shakespearian tragedy with some cathartic social housing and moveable trees. Loaf says he’s inclined to leave west London as it is, tightening the conservation regime to keep that ‘terrific, fizzing Martin Amisy feel’.
None of these quadrants has my budget though – enough to sink a small nationalised bank. I feel giddy with power. If we’re going the full Betjeman, can we bring back rationing, illicit sex, horse-drawn milk carts, telephone kiosks with big buttons and smoking on the top decks of buses?
Loaf considers for a second. ‘Look, let’s just keep it Betjemanesque, OK? I have no intention of alienating the gay community. Or the formidable cancer-fun-run women. Betjeman is simply a developmental theme. I have a Vision of the Future, chum, and it is to make south London the most dynamic, the most dazzling residential heritage zone in the whole of Cadbury’s Europe.’
Within that massive comedy egg there’s a demonstrably strong intellect at work.
TUESDAY. Redesign Yorkshire, expanding the borders slightly so it’s less full of itself.
WEDNESDAY. Sketch out some preliminary ideas for my Bath Drawing Board Museum.
I say ‘sketch’, though a) I’m using beta software developed by rocket scientists, and b) the heavy lifting’s being done by my nanofuturologist friend Beansy, who illegally downloaded Vectormatique 2.0 for me. ‘I didn’t realise Classical pastiche involved so much repetition,’ he says. ‘We’ll have this banged out by lunchtime. Not rocket science, is it?’
We’re soon done, and I email the drawings to a little workshop off Farringdon Road where they print it out on genuine antique paper. Oh shit, I’ve forgotten the design statement. No problem, says Beansy, and navigates to Reactionist, a random polemic generator.
After a couple of goes we get: ‘Architecture has entered a new virtual realm of discourse, stripped of the practical and pedagogical contexts that once defined its disciplinary core. That’s why it is vital to remember and honour the Paraffin Lamp…’ I change the last bit to Drawing Board and email it over for parchmenting.
THURSDAY. Lunch with my noble friend Richard, who whines on and on about how nobody listens to him any more. I tune out after a while. No wonder everyone’s calling him Mopey Dick.
FRIDAY. Draft my initial Five-Point Plan for the Betjemanisation of South London.
1. Comprehensive audit of apsidal chancels, Nonconformist spirelets and schools by E R Robson in the style of Norman Shaw.
2. River idealisation scheme to allow the waters of the Wandle to flow more lugubriously.
3. Replace ‘workers’ flats in fields of soya beans, towering up like silver pencils’ with ‘obedient, cheerful Cockney slums in terraced rows, their lavatories without’.
4. Restore faded Victorian grandeur of buildings now operating as nightclubs by revoking their nightclub licences.
5. Reach out to underclass with cultural education project, e.g. correct deployment of teddy bear is under arm of young poet, not amid cellophane pilings at ghastly roadside shrine.
SATURDAY. Bump into Andrew Lloyd Webber at a Baroque fundraiser. Result. He’s on board with Project Betjeman and has agreed to stimulate interest in Evensong among south Londoners, via the telly.
SUNDAY. In the recliner when Charles rings. He’s also fully behind the Betj-Up. Suddenly realise this project appeals to all the wrong people. Now I’ve talked myself into a depression. Go to pub to see if I can spend my way out of one.