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London Calling: The Middle Classes and the Re-making of Inner London
Tim Butler with Garry Robson
Oxford & New York: Berg, 2003.
£15.99, 215 pages, ISBN: 1-85973-628-9 (paperback).

Detlev Mares
Technische Universität Darmstadt

Do you consider yourself “middle-class?” Do you live in a large city, a sort of urban centre? Do you have children, two perhaps, of school age? If your answer to any or all of these questions is “yes,” do take a deep breath before starting to read this book. It is a book in which your story is being told, and you will find that your story is one of constant struggle to square the vicious circle between personal aspiration and the preconditions of living in a globalised and fast-moving world.

First and foremost, of course, this is a book about London. And it is far from flimsily treating the particular London experience as a representative example for the situation of the middle classes in other cities in Western or Westernized countries. The whole argument is firmly based on substantial empirical research in six selected fieldwork areas in inner London, all of them carefully described throughout the book. A considerable number of interviews with middle-class residents from these areas were conducted, and liberal quotes from the replies offer fascinating first-hand accounts of the concerns of London citizens at the beginning of the twenty-first century. Still, despite the particular metropolitan context of the research, the results transcend the confines of inner London and point to fundamental experiences of “urban middle-class” people in many countries.

The authors' starting point is the argument in Richard Sennett's book The Corrosion of Character (1999) positing that globalisation breeds anxiety and insecurity for the very groups of people who are usually seen as the main beneficiaries of a flexible, spatially and socially mobile life-style. The authors primarily deal with managerial and professional middle classes in several London areas, the lawyers, accountants and financial service personnel who form the main reservoir for the flexible economy that constitutes the bedrock for worldwide globalisation. With Sennett, they find that globalisation offers an expansion of opportunities, but at the same time exposes many people to an environment very different from the one in which they were raised in their youth. Attractive jobs lure people into cities such as London which are a far cry from the small-town backgrounds many of the young urban professionals originate from. Butler and Robson encounter people moving into unfamiliar neighbourhoods where they struggle to regain a feeling of control over their own lives. This, in turn, means they become involved—purposely or by default—in processes of gentrification. Living in London in recent years has become prohibitively expensive; newcomers arriving with limited resources usually have little chance to settle in established, traditional middle-class neighbourhoods. Instead, they enter other areas of the metropolis, altering both the social composition and the “atmosphere” of those places. In the areas selected for Butler and Robson's research, the gentrifying middle classes usually don't form the majority of the population. Yet with their commitment to influencing the character of their neighbourhoods, they become highly visible and exert a crucial impact on processes of local change.

Observation of the fieldwork areas yields a variety of strategies to cope with the challenges of metropolitan life at the centre of globalised developments. Barnsbury, for example, turns out to be an area attracting well-educated professionals who enjoy the “material and cultural infrastructure of consumption” [p. 79] and profess a high degree of satisfaction at living in an environment with a strong sense of community. Newcomers are committed to making their neighbourhood function properly, although the authors note signs of weakening cohesion in recent years. Middle-class residents in Brixton, on the other hand, identify with the diversity and multiculturalism of the place but a real “mix” or closeness of people from different cultural backgrounds is rare. Yet another coping strategy may be found in the Docklands area—it seems to attract people with no particular interest in getting involved in their community. Instead, they prefer to be close to their place of work but often leave their London residence over the weekends, a strong sign of limited integration in the neighbourhood.

At first sight, we seem to be dealing with conscious choices made by self-determined agents. But high costs of living, especially housing prices, force people to make compromises with respect to their place of residence, which often is dictated by purse more than by preference. The biggest challenge is experienced by families with children. It is they, Butler and Robson point out, who are particularly driven from one place of residence to another in search of the best education they can find for their children. The opportunity to choose highly-rated and recommended schools for their children entails moving into the catchment areas of desirable institutions, or—failing to do so—means investing a great amount of labour into the available schools in the neighbourhood to raise their standards (at least as far as the education prospects of one’s own children are concerned). Thus, parents take part in school activities, establish additional classes for interested youngsters and organise homework assistance for their children.

In order to unearth the roots of these processes, the authors expand on the sociological theories of Pierre Bourdieu. For example, his differentiation of various forms of capital allows the authors to single out the respective combinations of economic, cultural and social capital at work in the establishment of middle-class networks in their different fieldwork areas. The overarching theme of their study is the uncovering of a “metropolitan habitus” which, despite local variations, shows the middle classes coming to terms with the strains placed upon them by economic and cultural globalisation. In dealing with their respondents' attitudes, the authors find a remarkable degree of reflection and self-criticism in the replies to their questions. Many respondents are entangled in almost dialectical contortions with respect to the impact they have on the communities they settle in. On the one hand, they express enjoyment of the amenities and cultural attractions of their neighbourhoods, on the other hand, they sense that it is their presence that changes the face of their environment, which, by becoming streamlined to “global” influences, loses its former character and typical flair. Little shops disappear, chains, supermarkets and fashionable new restaurants move in. Pondering the influx of growing numbers of people like himself, one respondent from Barnsbury observes

[…] an absence of communal mateyness of the old working class type […] this was replaced by a more middle class kind of social life, based on meetings and so on, and for a long time this was good. But even this is changing now—the people coming in now are not joiners, so we don't know who they are. [p. 168]

All this points to a feeling of something being irretrievably lost in the process of “gentrification.” Following the engaging and persuasive argument of the book, the reader might keep in mind some limitations inherent in the authors' approach. For example, most respondents were white people. Moreover, it is mainly the middle classes themselves that were covered in the survey on which the argument is based. Thus in assessing the impact of “gentrification” on the social and spatial topography of London, we don't hear the voices of the people who might feel dislodged by the newcomers. We also only get few hints on the contribution of non-white sections of the population to “gentrification” and on recent trends characterised by one journalist as a “shuffling of ethnic groups,” for example by an “accelerating drift of middle-class Indians to more distant leafy suburbs.” [The Economist, 7 February 2004, p. 38] Such aspects surely deserve to be integrated into a more general estimate of “gentrification” processes in the metropolis.

However, this observation must not detract from the overall impressive argument of this book. It offers both a theoretically highly reflected, sophisticated application of sociological theories to the London case and a highly readable, though vexing account of the insecurities experienced by the very middle class that is often too narrowly presented as victorious, self-confident and blessed with excellent opportunities in life. Especially the “almost frenzied continual activity concerning children” causes anxieties described by the authors as “similar in some ways to Max Weber's description of the anxiety created by the Protestant Ethic” [p. 12]. Now, this hardly is the story to make you sleep much better at night if you consider yourself to be “'middle-class.”

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