Hot money from China, India, Russia and Singapore is pouring into London; hotter money from the same countries is flooding into the Bagel. London has become unaffordable for the average Joe around Kensington and Chelsea, as has the West Village in downtown New York. Well, unaffordable is relative. There is a delicate social ecology system pointing in the wrong direction in both metropolises, but — like a stock market gone haywire, as at times markets tend to do — when the correction comes there will be lots and lots of empty luxury lots the poor can move into.
London is now essentially a tax haven, and New York is where the smart money is invested in high-end real estate, which benefits from tax breaks for the very, very rich. The whole southern end of Central Park will soon be blocked off by giant glass towers of empty super-luxurious apartments bought by small men from the East with very large bank accounts. Some of them can even be described as honest, although I wouldn’t go as far as that. On Park Avenue and 56th street, a man by the name of Harry Macklowe is putting up one of the tallest buildings in the city, as outrageous an act as sticking a McDonald’s next to St Paul’s Cathedral. He got permission to do it from the Bloomberg administration, a bit like asking Ali Baba’s 40 thieves permission to steal a camel.
More than 50 years ago Macklowe used to get on my nerves because he was big but would not go out to play sports when we were at boarding school. In fact, he was a wiseguy,smart in class, quick with his mouth, but cowardly on the field. He has gone broke a few times — which does not mean he ever lost money — and is now doing to Park Avenue what that other horror, Charles Clore, did to it a long time ago when he put up what used to be called the Pan Am colossus over Grand Central and closed the beautiful vista one had all the way down to the Statue of Liberty from uptown.
Well, ugly people build ugly things and, as I said recently, there are some very ugly buildings going up as I write. Mind you, the people who will be living in them are even uglier, but at least they don’t speak English, which always helps. I lived in Cadogan Square for a lifetime until it felt like a rainy Beirut. Myriad gofers would stand around the stoops smoking, talking in Arabic and spitting. Cars with idling engines lined the square, their drivers playing with their beads and looking suspiciously at anyone dressed in tennis whites and going into the gardens. When I stopped a team of Turkish servants playing eight-a-side football inside the garden square, I became the most hated man of the Cadogan empire. Even that conman Halabi, whatever his first name is, lived in Cadogan Square while conning the Anglo-Americans to invade Iraq. At one time there were at least 50 men in black hanging about outside his flat packing heat. If that’s living, I’m Barbra Streisand. The only Englishman who still lives there is Sir Christopher Lee, 92 years old, as lucid as they come and a member of Pugs, the world’s most exclusive club, which allows no Russians or Chinese of recent vintage.
Last week, on my way to karate training, I saw a good-looking gentleman dressed impeccably whose eyes were fixed on some building on 72nd and Park. I stopped and said hello. It was Sir Tom Stoppard, not only our greatest living playwright but, along with Sir Terence Rattigan, the greatest the 20th and 21st centuries have produced. Sir Tom has the ease of manner of the real aristo, friendly and always curious. He didn’t interrupt my soliloquy on how the city’s being destroyed, but looked amused at how angry it made me. The irony was that ten minutes before that I had been writing about him and Terence Rattigan. And in a city of 12 million people I had run into him gazing at some edifice.
The Winslow Boy was splendidly revived over here a couple of weeks ago, and I enjoyed it as much as I always have. Rattigan set his plays in the languid manner of the time. A critic for the New York Times praised it, but wrote that the pace at times was slow. On the contrary. Woody Allen’s jokes need pace, Rattigan’s art does not. The other thing that got on my nerves was the critic’s objection to the ‘postal order’ and to the ‘five shillings’. Was the failed playwright (which all critics are) trying to establish his anti-imperial credentials by pleading ignorance to what a postal order and to what five shillings are? No, I don’t think so; even a New York Times employee must have heard of them, but it’s not a cool thing to know. Cricket and all that, when dark people were called darkies, white people ordered them around, and we knew what was good for them. Better plead ignorance and all that.
Stoppard and Rattigan, our two greatest, both knights, one heterosexual the other homosexual, only one still with us. For me Arcadia is the most flawless play ever. I remember seeing Travesties back in 1974 or so, and thinking, now why didn’t I think of that? Well, that’s an easy one. Wit and comedy and philosophy need rare talent to mix successfully — none of that kitchen-sink crap. Give me Rattigan and Stoppard and I’ll even take the new horrors of London and New York.
Subscribe to The Spectator Australia today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Subscribe – Try a month free