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The RIBA President is no Wolf of Wall Street

Paul Finch

The kerfuffle at Portland Place is a presidential-sized fuss over nothing, says Paul Finch

The story in The Times this week, giving more details about the alleged circumstances surrounding the temporary departure from office of the RIBA president, begs almost as many questions as it answers.

This is how it runs: a female Midlands architectural assistant seeks help from the RIBA president (Ben Derbyshire) to combat sexism and racism in a practice for which she is working. He refers her to Alan Jones, then vice-president for education, now absentee president.

He pledges to help her find work in a London practice. A relationship develops. She may or may not have spent time in the presidential flat in Portland Place. At some point Jones goes to the police complaining that he is being blackmailed, and reports himself to the institute. The secretariat goes into overdrive, dragging in the Charities Commission and launching a legal inquiry into the president’s conduct, about which there has been no complaint by any RIBA member or, indeed, anybody else. General chaos.

On the basis of what we have been told, the president scarcely qualifies as an architectural Wolf of Wall Street.

The original Times report, quickly corrected, said that the unsuccessful presidential election candidate, Elsie Owusu, would step in to take over in the event of Alan Jones resigning. In fact, it would be a decision for RIBA Council, the obvious candidates being one of the senior officers (the honorary secretary or the honorary treasurer), or potentially some other suitable candidate co-opted onto Council for the purpose.

The paper repeated its favourite quote from Elsie about the presidential election, where she said that the RIBA was a ‘one-party state’ where ‘one white, middle-aged male oligarch hands on power to another’. Although funny, the quote would have come as a surprise to three women who have been institute presidents over the past decade: Ruth Reed, Angela Brady and Jane Duncan. And I don’t think Sunand Prasad would regard himself as white.

As for presidents being oligarchs, a very light scrutiny of the Sunday Times Rich Lists suggests otherwise.

We are not living in ‘unprecedented times’

I am indebted to Jay Merrick for sending me what follows: a section of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year, published decades after the 1665 outbreak of bubonic plague in London, but based on what appears to have been extensive research and first-hand accounts. It goes to show that some things (restrictions on travel, exponential increases in deaths) don’t seem to change.

The exodus of London architects to their second homes in Suffolk and Norfolk certainly rings bells. I have amended some spellings and have capitalised the City of London for clarity.

Till this week the City continued free, there having never any died, except that one Frenchman whom I mentioned before, within the whole ninety-seven parishes. Now there died four within the City, one in Wood Street, one in Fenchurch Street, and two in Crooked Lane. Southwark was entirely free, having not one yet died on that side of the water.

I lived without Aldgate, about midway between Aldgate Church and Whitechapel Bars, on the left-hand or north side of the street; and as the distemper had not reached to that side of the City, our neighbourhood continued very easy.

But at the other end of the town their consternation was very great: and the richer sort of people, especially the nobility and gentry from the west part of the city, thronged out of town with their families and servants in an unusual manner; and this was more particularly seen in Whitechapel; that is to say, the Broad Street where I lived; indeed, nothing was to be seen but wagons and carts, with goods, women, servants, children, &c.; coaches filled with people of the better sort and horsemen attending them, and all hurrying away; then empty wagons and carts appeared, and spare horses with servants, who, it was apparent, were returning or sent from the countries to fetch more people; besides innumerable numbers of men on horseback, some alone, others with servants, and, generally speaking, all loaded with baggage and fitted out for travelling, as anyone might perceive by their appearance.

This was a very terrible and melancholy thing to see, and as it was a sight which I could not but look on from morning to night (for indeed there was nothing else of moment to be seen), it filled me with very serious thoughts of the misery that was coming upon the City, and the unhappy condition of those that would be left in it.

This hurry of the people was such for some weeks that there was no getting at the Lord Mayor’s door without exceeding difficulty; there were such pressing and crowding there to get passes and certificates of health for such as travelled abroad, for without these there was no being admitted to pass through the towns upon the road, or to lodge in any inn.

Now, as there had none died in the City for all this time, my Lord Mayor gave certificates of health without any difficulty to all those who lived in the ninety-seven parishes, and to those within the liberties too for a while. 

This hurry, I say, continued some weeks, that is to say, all the month of May and June, and the more because it was rumoured that an order of the Government was to be issued out to place turnpikes and barriers on the road to prevent people travelling, and that the towns on the road would not suffer people from London to pass for fear of bringing the infection along with them, though neither of these rumours had any foundation but in the imagination, especially at-first.

I now began to consider seriously with myself concerning my own case, and how I should dispose of myself; that is to say, whether I should resolve to stay in London or shut up my house and flee, as many of my neighbours did.


Readers' comments (27)

  • Some opinions shouldn't be offered a platform in a reputable professional publication. Making light of sexually inappropriate behaviour and abuse of power in connection with it is not a position that any such publication should deem appropriate. History will look harshly on anyone publishing this sort of thing, in much the same way it has done with other issues such as race, gender and religious oppression.

    I don't feel informed enough to say whether the AJ has been covering the matter effectively from a journalistic point of view or not, I think what is at issue is the tone with which it has been covering it. If the editorial team aims at any sort of balance, then presumably an opinion piece from someone who isn't a middle aged white man will be forthcoming?

    Perhaps a young female architect could tell us how this story feels to them, and give insight into the ways the profession makes it harder for them to progress if they can't play with the full deck of privilege we enjoy. If you think there isn't a story there, then perhaps check your genitals before expressing that opinion publicly...

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  • I don’t mind the columns or the story but I do mind Paul Finch’s response to the comment underneath. It was ungracious unnecessarily personal and rude. It is perfectly understandable why someone would remain anonymous in a national magazine and making judgements about that in a hypercritical fashion looks silly.

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  • The Trial by iReckon continues...

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  • For Crawford Wright - why, exactly, is it 'perfectly understandable why someone would remain anonymous in a national magazine'?
    The AJ is surely not just another 'national magazine' in that it's quite a specialist publication - even if you can sometimes find it on general sale in a bookstall (or, at least, used to be able to), and I wonder what sort of world it is that readers inhabit if - like 'recently qualified' - they apparently think that they've been muzzled by their employers.
    This sounds very much like the medical professionals reported by the BBC in the last couple of days being threatened with the sack for speaking up about being ignored after warning of serious inadequacies in their health authorities.
    It's not that many years since the 'secret blacklist' scandal was exposed in the construction industry, and the idea that anyone working in the architectural profession, with genuine comment to air on these pages, should have real cause to hide their identity is completely unacceptable - and should be attracting the attention of the RIBA and ARB.

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  • Alan Jones has confessed to his crimes and must now bear the full weight of the law.

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  • What 'crimes'?

    Time to end this conversation, I feel.

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  • Re: Sean Walsh's comment. I am open to offers!

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