I am a snob. It is a weakness. But on the whole property-envy has tended to be something that has mercifully left me alone. I am stuck in a mildly pretentious house with pillars in the front and too few rooms behind them on one of the fragrant boulevards of Shepherd’s Bush, west London – still I probably could not afford to buy it at today’s prices. Nevertheless I have just experienced one of the more salutary realisations of middle-aged life. Namely that when it comes to housing, this is it: le summum, the pinnacle, the acme, the top rung of my own personal property ladder.
Buying property scares me: the upheaval, the expense, but rather dangerously I have been allowing my eye to wander covetously in the direction of St Peter’s Square in Hammersmith, where the houses are, I would say, a good two or three times more than I could afford, even if I could find a lender crazy enough to put up the money.
St Peter’s Square stars in many TV shows and films. It plays a great supporting role to Peter Finch, Anne Bancroft and James Mason in the 1964 film The Pumpkin Eater, a cheery study of marital and nervous breakdown scripted by that master of light drawing-room comedy, Harold Pinter. It is one of those jewels of London domestic architecture: a little like Tredegar Square in the East End, Canonbury Square in Islington, Edwardes Square in Kensington and of course Belgrave Square in Belgravia.
All developed in the first half of the 19th century, they are perfect articulations of the truth that when embarking on a speculative development in Georgian and Victorian London, your best bet was to arrange your houses around a patch of grass and call it a square – that way you got the better punters. If you couldn’t quite run to a house in a square, then you made do with an address on a “Place” or “Crescent”, leaving the rest of us to scrap it out on mere roads and streets.
Dickens, of course, illustrates this hierarchy brilliantly in Nicholas Nickleby: “Cadogan Place is the one slight bond that joins two great extremes; it is the connecting link between the aristocratic pavements of Belgrave Square, and the barbarism of Chelsea. It is in Sloane Street, but not of it. The people in Cadogan Place look down upon Sloane Street, and think Brompton low. They affect fashion too, and wonder where the New Road is. Not that they claim to be on precisely the same footing as the high folks of Belgrave Square.”
Nickleby is the third of Dickens’s novels and finds the author still in the picaresque rather than Bildungsroman phase of his career, largely irrelevant until you consider that Nickleby began to appear in serial form in 1838, a mere 10 years after Belgrave Square was completed.
Up until then the area was a quasi-swamp known as the Five Fields. A locale only eclipsed in notoriety by New York’s Seven Points, it was the favourite resort of footpads, highwaymen and duellists. But by the time the then Lord Grosvenor had drained it and Thomas Cubitt had thrown up a few houses and it was renamed Belgrave Square, the rogues and robbers had to move on into the “barbarism of Chelsea”.
Gentrification is too pusillanimous a term for this remarkable transformation; noblification would be nearer the mark, especially as, from the list of residents during the 19th century, it seems that only those with aristocratic titles were allowed to buy a house in Belgrave Square.