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Antipodean fingerprints smear UK


Sydney Morning Herald columnist, author, architecture critic and essayist

View more articles from Elizabeth Farrelly

<i>Illustration: Edd Aragon</i>

Illustration: Edd Aragon

''It's funny,'' muses the girl on the Tube to her non-English-speaking friend. ''It's called the British Museum but, when you go there, with the Rosetta Stone and Rameses II and the Elgin Marbles . . . there's almost nothing British in the place.''

The friend seems mystified but I'm thinking ''yep, motto for empire'': take care whom you dominate, for they will come home to roost.

It's not just the Egyptians and Greeks (who will be having their revenge on Europe momentarily). Not just the Americans, Jamaicans, Indians and Pakistanis, whose influence on London has long been evident. It's also us.

Everywhere you look, London is going Australian. Antipodeans are, almost by definition, familiar with the tug of empire. For us, separation anxiety is born in, shaping us as profoundly and invisibly as gravity. If someone miraculously deemed Terra Australis the centre of the world, we would feel all peculiar and lopsided.

Sure, we declare ourselves part of Asia, strive to appease the US, grope towards republicanism and are now barely two-thirds Anglo-Celtic. Yet, still, Britain is the keeping house.

At one level, it is simply filial. We've grown up and left home but London is still the parental attic. It is where the memories are stashed: Westminster, the Magna Carta, Drury Lane and Bow Street, the Tower of London, Karl Marx's tomb and every book ever written in English. Thrash as we may, in the end, it's still home.

But tugs of war are always two-way. Every Australian knows not just the centripetal urge but also the countermanding tug to warmth and home. Snuggling up to the centre demands a readiness to trade metaphysical pluses - culture, closeness, history, ideas - for physical minuses such as cold, congestion, damp and dirt. Not to mention the stonewall snobbery of the class system.

But still that's not the sum of it. The more you explore London, the more you notice the perceptual schizophrenia it demands.

British culture follows a clear bell curve, from the meagreness of post-Roman mediaevalism, swelling to full-on Victorian pomposity, then the inevitable slow decline.

It will surprise no one that I prefer the lower slopes - plain Anglo-Saxon and shabby decline - to the peak. But still, peak is peak, and its finest flowers - Whitehall, Fleet Street, Mayfair - are the blossoms of empire.

However lovely, they were stolen from us as surely as the Elgin Marbles from Athens and the mummies from Egypt. They were built with our blood. So for us, as for the abused child, resentment and love entwine. Weird stuff.

Yet the relationship is changing, as change it must. Reverse colonisation is, sooner or later, inevitable and in London, now, the signs are there. Australianness is spreading.

There are the household names. Rupert Murdoch. Julian Assange. Russell Crowe. Nicole Kidman. Geoffrey Robertson. Kylie. Mia Wasikowska staring from every second Tube poster.

There's also chav culture, flooding English manners with Ugg boots and hoodies, baristas and bar girls and tracksuited faux-cockney vowels.

Of course, it is the mark of the colonial to notice these things - even to think they signify. Empire just takes the successful children, ipso facto, as her own.

But there's also bricks and mortar infiltration. Between them, Lend Lease, Westfield, student housing developer Urbanest and glassy modernisation is making London feel increasingly like Darling Harbour or Green Park on steroids. Why are the Brits OK with this?

London's characteristic tangle of damp and down-at-heel high streets has always made it a city in a minor key, an endurance test of sorts, all the more lovely for it. These days, it is like a face whose energy has gone but whose beauty, as a tracery, remains.

Yet a striking thing about the view from Piano's new Shard is just how much of London's fabric is not old at all but distinctly post-war.

Even in central London, the 20th century owns at least a third of London's footprint, more if you're talking volume. And most of it is bad, recalling Prince Charles's words about modernism doing more damage than the Luftwaffe. So bad, in fact - so soulless, windswept, hostile - as to self-nominate for redevelopment.

Add brownfields such as the Lee Valley Olympic site and Kings Cross railway lands and suddenly it's no surprise that, even in recession, London is busy with cranes.

It's not just the new towers. Billions of pounds are being poured into massive re-modernisation programs. The surprise is how much of the intellectual property - if intellectual is quite the word - is Australian.

Debate, which in London is (thank god) incessant, pivots on two issues. One is the provision of affordable housing, in a time of desperate shortage. The other is how far new London should mimic the old.

Lend Lease's $2.3 billion, nine-hectare Elephant and Castle redevelopment made news last week and not in a good way. After years of argument, Lend Lease gained approval to demolish the ultra-modernist and now largely empty Heygate Estate. But a secret deal with Southwark Council gave Lend Lease the land for a mere $75 million and let them skimp on the affordable housing offer - 25 per cent of the 2500 homes, instead of 35 per cent, as promised. Phrases such as ''social cleansing'' figured prominently in headlines.

Meanwhile, over at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, Lend Lease's 10-storey athletes' village is being transformed by a Qatari-led consortium into East Village; 5300 homes with their own postcode, E20. Next to it, Lend Lease's $2 billion International Quarter will deliver a nine-hectare mixed-use development, opening next year.

The local Westfield, London's second, is the ''biggest urban shopping centre in Europe'' but feels like Nowra on a bad day, which may bode ill for the third Westfield, the just-signed, $1.5 billion Croydon Town Centre in London's south.

Noticeably classier, with a more textured, London feel, is the massive Kings Cross redevelopment, by British developer Argent (and including Stanton Williams's fabulous granary adaptation for the Central Saint Martins school of art).

This may be because it's less Australian. Certainly it would seem reasonable revenge for Aussies to pock London with anonymous urban environments. After all, the Brits have been sending us their B-team for centuries.

But the differential may be something else entirely: the presence and embrace of history. From the evidence, all cultures are now equally bad at producing distinctive and pleasurable urban quarters from scratch. London yearns for a facelift but by far the best urban places, from Chur to Shoreditch to Surry Hills, are those where at least half the built fabric is old.

Urban ageism is as nasty and blinkered as its social counterpart. Analyse that.

Twitter: @emfarrelly

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  • England is still the spiritual home for australians ?
    What a load of rubbish.
    AS someone whos fore-bears arrived from the UK during the 1800's , I feel nothing but Australian., with no spiritual / emotional connection of any type with "The Olde Country".

    Date and time
    February 21, 2013, 7:04AM
    • I agree. I'm also descended from British/Irish immigrants from the 1800s and I feel no innate connection to the place in terms of a spiritual homeland. I was born here. I have an Australia accent, an Australian identity, an Australian passport. Britain is a foreign country on the other side of the world.

      Date and time
      February 21, 2013, 12:17PM
  • I don't know about all this 'Australianess' stuff. In todays letters section I read ' I could care less' ( American) when the writer actually meant he couldn't care less. In weeks past ' ankle biters' ( American) rather than nippers.

    The end is listless.

    Australia is fast becoming Little America. Look out London, the Revolutionaries are coming!

    Francis Allen
    Date and time
    February 21, 2013, 7:34AM
    • There was very little in this article which justifies Elizabeth's case that England is being overrun by all things Australian............a poor supposition and article.

      Date and time
      February 21, 2013, 7:59AM
      • Agreed. A shambolic, moronic piece contributing very little of substance. I have absolutely no idea what the author means by recolonization. I don't think this is a real thing. Presumably there are many non-British things in the British museum because its a good museum! And much art /history is created outside of Britain - or is that too simplistic a view?

        There is scant evidence that Australians are taking over Britain or anywhere else for that matter. As a free, open and tolerant society, I would hope Britain would accept anybody with a good idea regardless of where they are from. All that matters is the quality of the idea (content of character).

        As for the class system comment - it is highly naive to believe in a paradise Australia that has no class system. Tell her she's dreamin.

        Date and time
        February 21, 2013, 12:56PM
      • Well said Patrick!

        Date and time
        February 21, 2013, 1:18PM
    • The hot money being pumped into the UK should be a wake up call to Australia. We are a bit scared of this type of investment where as the UK government welcomes everybody with a suitcase full of cash. The gulf states seem to have huge amounts of money looking for a home and real estate development in London is the favorite safe haven. If their oil money dried up a major down turn in the UK construction industury would be the result. London is booming because the capital has to find a home in a stable country.

      Date and time
      February 21, 2013, 8:20AM
      • Schizophrenia is a real medical condition the sufferers of which and the understanding of are not helped by the continuing ignorant use of the term to mean 'containing opposite or coflicting traits' such as in Farrelly's, "The more you explore London, the more you notice the perceptual schizophrenia it demands. British culture follows a clear bell curve, from the meagreness of post-Roman mediaevalism, swelling to full-on Victorian pomposity, then the inevitable slow decline."

        Does Farrelly in fact by using the term 'schizophrenia' mean understanding British culture requires hallucinations and dellusions and a percetion of reality not shared by others, coupled with a decreased abilty to concentrate and connect one idea with the next? Probably not.

        Schizophrenia sufferers do not have 'split' or dual personalities that hold contradictory beliefs and ideas. In the future let's hope that Farrelly informs herself instead on 'cognitive dissonance' - a condition currently to the fore in our political 'leaders' and their opponents which the electorate should be more appraised of instead of being misled about a mental illness.

        Michael Rogers
        Wagga Wagga
        Date and time
        February 21, 2013, 8:41AM
        • I don't think the word was being used in the medical sense. Which should be obvious given cities can't suffer from such a condition.

          Date and time
          February 21, 2013, 11:17AM
        • There's always got to be one - talk about nailing the essence. It's not being used as a medical term but in its accepted metaphorical way. Still, good luck in chasing shadows and purging the media of such incorrect thinking.

          The Green Flash
          Date and time
          February 21, 2013, 12:10PM

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