Winter is gathering on the perfect street. It’s a clear morning, bright and brisk, as I exit the kitchen with its marble-top island and four ovens, spear the fork into the lawn, and scan the beds to assess what needs to be done.
Menial tasks first. There are children’s toys everywhere, remnants of the weekend’s play, which I will arrange in orderly ranks on top of the climbing frame. The litter that has blown in from the street will need to be clawed out from the undergrowth and binned, and the leaves tumbling in such profusion from the London planes must be raked into piles and bagged.
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Next, I will prune the wisteria by hand — a pleasant job for the morning, as the wall where it clambers is burnished by the early sun — then fire up the hedge-cutter to reshape the more robust escallonia. Chop down the geraniums, the crocosmia, the withered foliage of the peonies and hellebores. And all the while I’m snipping and raking and digging, I will be thinking, “Damn these people with this beautiful garden. They don’t know they’re born.”
For the past eight years, I’ve supplemented my precarious writing career by working as a gardener. The work suits me well, in that the physical labour keeps me healthy, the cash keeps me solvent, and the break from the keyboard keeps me sane. In modern London, it feels like a relatively secure form of employment, in part because the robotics industry has thus far failed to invent a machine that can effectively prune a box hedge. But more because there is a glut of wealth in my area of south London, and where there is asset-money, there are people with money to spend on prettifying the home, inside and out.
I suppose it was inevitable, given that labour relations are so often the basis of a person’s politics, that this work would become my prism for how power and money shape this city. Given where I work, at the point where the high-rise city reclines into the residential precincts of its inner boroughs, my average client is a certain type of person; this is a milieu whose habits and preoccupations are in many ways crucial to an understanding of modern Britain. I work for London’s rich, liberal middle class. In 21st-century London, these are the victors, and these streets represent their spoils.
It is 8.30am on the perfect street, and the man of the house is nowhere to be seen. He works in the city, so is either there, or more probably, during Covid, upstairs, “taking calls”. Sometimes, he will switch banks, which involves taking “gardening leave”, a misleading designation for a paid sabbatical as he seems strangely reluctant to wield a trowel. More likely, he will mooch around the house in flip-flops, where his presence will provoke exasperation from his wife or partner, because he gets in the way of the million things she has to do.
You see, the woman of the house is also busy. She isn’t at work per se. Since having babies, she has developed more flexible pet projects at home. Now, she takes photographs and dabbles in interior design; one woman used to come outside asking us to taste the sticky, hair-gel like prototypes of her nascent marshmallow business. Last I heard, they were stocking them in a luxury hotel chain.
Sometimes, my clients want to talk, and it is over the course of hundreds of such conversations that a certain boilerplate biography emerges. Where did they come from? Rarely London. In most cases, they gravitated to the capital after university, chasing, like millions before them, the outsider’s burnished idea of the great metropolis. Maybe they fell into a graduate scheme, or, just as likely, someone rang around. Many of them will still own their first London flat, bought with parental help or when the banks were handing out mortgages like candy, which they will now rent out at strict market rates to someone younger who doesn’t have the deposit to buy.
Even as they accumulate pieces of its real estate, it’s hard to escape the sense that the city doesn’t fit them. I mean, sure, they like the Sunday farmer’s market and the sourdough pizza place. But this London is a simulacrum of the real city, one without the grime and rage.
Given time, their disproportionate spending power transforms the social and commercial landscape around them. Prone to homophily, they are London’s agents of what Kevin Baker, writing about New York in Harper’s Magazine, described as the “urban crisis of affluence”. Community identity, once embalmed in generations-old family businesses, soon vanishes under an assault of displaced patronage and rising rents. Soon, it will be supplanted by whatever on-trend, franchisable business models are currently attracting the most city seed-funding. One person gets plantation shutters, then everyone does. Before long, these predilections engineer a Stepford enclave of homogenous respectability.
That’s why I’m here: to manicure the ersatz London of their own imagining with flowers and greenery. To help keep the outside world, with its food-banks and knife crime, over there, in the next postcode. With my mower and spade, I furnish a Potemkin village. Now that the inner-city diversions are shut, remote-working in vogue, you can hear them thinking: “Do we really need to stay?”
There is building work going on all along the roads, always. The original dimensions of a property are never enough. They must knock through and up and outwards. Rip out the old innards until all that remains is the surface, a varnish of heritage. The rest ends up in the skip, and with it go the house’s unloved ghosts. Usually, when a client commissions a big face-lift, the garden vanishes beneath rubble and portaloos. But only until the builders pack up and leave, and we return to disinter the anaemic tendrils of the plants that have survived, to dust them down and see what can be salvaged.
I work the front gardens; I watch the comings and goings. There are personal trainers, dog-walkers, delivery drivers, battalions of cleaners. One of the most popular cleaners in my catchment is an irrepressible lady from Warsaw. In Poland, she is a professional midwife with two degrees. Here, on the perfect street, she is someone who does ironing and steam-cleans the terrazzo tiles. We share an unspoken kinship, the cleaners and the gardeners, because we are the competent ones, maintaining the households, stewarding the land.
It is one of the more curious idiosyncrasies of contemporary British life that, when people speak of the country’s elite, they no longer mean the haute bourgeoisie. They mean the people I work for: this new financial caste. The people who were like them once, and who now, through some alchemy we barely understand, reap the new economy’s elusive harvest.
This isn’t something we discuss that much, historically acculturated as we Brits are to deference and class stratification. However, they have come to occupy a unique place in the national tectonics in that they are unpopular with both the Left (for their privilege) and the Right (for their faux-liberalism). You hear it most explicitly on those rare occasions when the journalists deign to leave the city. When they head north, to vox-pop pallid, scowling people against a backdrop of some bleak, dilapidated shopping street. “Those people down in London…”; “All those politicians in London…”; “They might think that in London, but up here…”
Behind the acrimony is an allegation that goes something like this: the keepers of the liberal flame promised us all a piece of their covenant. But its perks have all coalesced in their own streets, where it is least needed. Perhaps, in an earlier, less cynical era, they would have been viewed as those with the education and talent to make good in the City. Now, they are the metropolitan elite, sole beneficiaries of the stable jobs, flexible working, generous leave and gold-plated pensions that we were all promised a piece of yet never received.
Hypocrisy clings to this constituency like their floral athleisure pants. Their politics tend to lean progressive, and ostensibly egalitarian, but it prescribes a society that they seem reluctant to live in. During the summer’s BLM marches, the parents sat down with their kids to do homework projects about slavery, Windrush, and the fight for race equality. But few dark-skinned people actually live on these streets; “strangers” are viewed with suspicion. The families trumpet diversity, yet send their children to private school. They lament the dismemberment of the NHS, but the corporations they work for offer private family health insurance. They sigh about climate change but take three long-haul holidays a year and drive gas-guzzling SUVs. The Guardian lies neatly folded on the kitchen worktop, undisturbed.
They have so much stuff. Plastic stuff and metal stuff, antique stuff and state-of-the-art stuff. Also: organic stuff. Each November, we enter one house to find boxes ordered from on-line horticulturists filled with two to three thousand bulbs. Yet every plunge of the spade excavates the hundreds we planted one, two, three years before, and we stand there muddy and bewildered, figuring out which to discard.
It’s raining today on the perfect street, and my boots are heavy with mud. On one hand, it is possible to feel ennobled by the hardship and exposure of this hands-and-knees work: the communion with the earth, the soil beneath my nails. This job, which permits me to escape the city’s artifice, to notice the spiders setting webs in the hedgerows, the robins toiling for worms. But it can also breed resentment. And so being a gardener comes to mould a conflicted identity. The skin peeling from my hands is at once a testament to honest graft and an indictment of an economy that demands I strain my muscles while others stay indoors, obsessing over trivialities, or in the shiny totems at the horizon, conjuring wealth out of thin air.
Sometimes, between the yoga and the online painting class, a client will come outside to extemporise on the latest news. Mostly, it’s incomprehension. “Why are they doing this?” they say, when talk turns to Brexit, because there is no escaping Brexit if you live on these islands. “What could they possibly be getting out of it?”
I just shrug, feign ambivalence. They wouldn’t like the answer. For whatever deceits and nostalgias underpin Britain’s culture war, this is what really animates the national rage: the theory that the people holding the reins inflated huge bubbles in the financial and property markets, colluded in sustaining them for as long as possible to the detriment of everyone else. The obstinacy with which many cleave to the Brexit cause is rooted in the suspicion that Europe was somehow an apparatus of this hegemony, and, by association, of their dispossession. That behind the liberal establishment’s horror of Brexit is the fear that it might immiserate these gleaming streets. That it might drag us all, poor and rich alike, back into the primordial clay.
Perhaps one day I will tell them: “Because it will hurt you, too.”
I wouldn’t claim to be a voice of Britain’s disaffected working classes. The product of a middle-class upbringing myself, and conscious that the ability to scrape by in London betrays a certain privilege, I am culturally closer to my clientele than I might care to admit. But in cynical moments, when I’m kneeling on the wet ground, using a trowel to spoon cat shit into a bag for someone who has never offered us tea, I think: “No wonder.” As unfair as it is to taxonomise people this way, I get it, I feel it, the proletarian wrath.
“You’re so lucky, working outside,” they often say, when the sun is shining, and the work is genteel, an hour spent dead-heading the climbing roses. Who is having the better day?
For the second year running, the clematis has grown leggy. It doesn’t thrive in that spot near the French doors, so perhaps I will cut it back hard, transplant it to a sunnier position, and hope for its resurrection next spring. I will chop down the anemones, as their flowers, the last of the summer colour, have already surrendered to the changing season.
I will till the London soil, as my city sinks deeper into a mire of its own furies. And all the while I’m snipping and raking and digging, I will be thinking, “I hope they never see this essay. I need the money.”