MIPIM MY MIPIM
Spring is here. The birdies sing. Here, on the Riviera, Big Money gets up close and personal with prime real estate.
Here, in Cannes, picture-postcard-perfect French resort, blockbuster film set and setting, showcase for Players: High Lifers, Kings of the Earth, ancient and modern; movie stars, porn stars; the moneymen and their special advisers…
Cannes, Queen of Corporate Hospitality, Hostess With The Mostess to the Movers and Shakers, to the Film Festival and her slutty sister the Adult (Porn) Film Festival and – ‘if it’s March it must be…’
MIPIM – (le) Marche International des Professionnels de l’ImMobilier. (The International Market for Real Estate Professionals.)
Here in this Russian doll world of virtual cities within cities…
On the five-levels of the Palais de Festivals, and in the Riviera Hall joined by an umbilical walkway, in the chic shanties of Grand Pavilions and brutalist Bedouin tents and hangars and glorified sheds encamped between the Croisette and the bay…
The 21st century City States set out their stalls and pitches, their giant scale models, the CAD and CGI mirages, cities as yet only twinkles in the eyes of the Architects and Planners and prospective Investors. You recognise these cities from everywhere and nowhere, these unreal, deconstructed streetscapes – the photoshop trees give them away, too neat, too tidy. You just know the birdsong is recorded, modulated and that if you look too close you’ll read the programme code and shatter the illusion.
But hey, who’d want to do that? Here? In Funtown?
The Cities are competing to pull the delegates, the Agents, the representatives of global capital. They offer ingenious enticements – free coffees, juices, cakes and biscotti, mezes, tapas, name-your-national delicacies, free goody-bags to fill with free goodies and treats and trinkets…
Free mints and parma violets in slim stainless steel dispensers embossed with personalised logos, free pens and post-it pads and novelty colouring books and photo albums and maps and t-shirts and free promotional bags and bags and they all come with business cards and cards and yet more cards and here’s a free plastic wallet to store them.
For the enterprising blagger or dedicated Freegan, who can get the accreditation to get through gate security, this is Freebie Heaven. You can start your day with free fresh squeezed OJ, coffee and croissants (double-expresso if you need to be buzzing), then maybe a light free lunch – Sushi? Rosti? – before you hit the free bars.
The booze. Free booze. To oil the wheels. By late afternoon the punters are slipping off their barstools. The Russian and Polish hospitality teams seem to be competing on quantities of vodka dispensed, on the fitness of their barmaids – and on the itsy-bitsy teeny-weeniness of their polka dot bikinis.
The Poles win the set-design award for their sandpit, a microcosmic beach for pairs of fit girls to pose and flounce and cavort in their dot-bikinis with fixed smiles which – if you don’t look to closely – could be seductive.
Sex. It’s in the air. Well, this is ze south of France. Then there’s that team-building awayday office-party anything-goes vibe, that ‘what happens in Cannes…’ say no more- ness.
More than that – it’s the old adage, old Adman’s Knowledge of Good and Eve – Sex sells! From the demure PR’s strategic décolleté to the flaunting of the polka-dotted flounceuse,
wherever you look, eye-candy.
And darker deals. Sex sold. In hotel-rooms. On yachts. For money, power, influence. To open doors, grease the wheels, choose your own sleazy metaphor. Sex and drugs. Coke especially. Some speed. With a soft MDMA glow around the fringes. No psychedelics. Unless you’re Hunter S. Thompson, you wouldn’t want to be tripped out at a party like this. But most of all: ’Drink?’ ‘Don’t mind if I do.’
WARNING! This is not a metaphor. There’s a physicality to all this, a magical realism. The entire ground floor of the Carlton Hotel – all the lobbies and dining halls and ballrooms –
requisitioned for a post-modern Roman orgy replete with just-past-their-cutting-edge DJs and light-shows, with live acts, acrobats, aerialists, legions of cocktail shakers and stirrers and multicultural mixologists…
Chefs presiding over banks of oysters, crab, lobster thermidor, antipasti, tempura, nouvelle cuisine, ye olde English carvery, fish and fowl and all manner of red meats, roasts, spits and skewers, crème caramels and fruits of the forest, bruleed, compotted and cheesecaked and so much more more more more…
Violin quartet. All female – immaculate in strapless evening dresses – each on her own pedestal, encased in an inflated polythene bubble. Beyond satire.
Back to the Ancient Roman Future.
The purpose of all this is not merely to do deals; it’s to make the dealers feel important, all- powerful, centres of the Universe and makers of new worlds. Here, says the subtext, ‘Together we shall do such things, they shall be the wonder and terror of the Earth. We are here, my fellow VEEPS and benevolent co-conspirators, to transform the very Nature of Reality!’
Because of course the true Players, the real Big Cheeses, the Über-investors, they are nowhere to be seen. They got bigger fish to fry, better places to be. What you got here are their agents, representatives, intermediaries…
Let’s take… (Shall we? Let’s!) The Property Porn paradigm. Or, more precisely, that twin branch of the Sex Industry, that Oldest Game. The Real Johns, you never get to meet. They send out proxies to do their screwing for them. Likewise, in this model, the sex workers, from high-class escorts to crack whores – i.e. the people who live in these cities, the ones who’re all set to get well and truly shafted and then discreetly removed so as not to spoil the penthouse views – they’re not here either. They weren’t invited.
So who is here? Well, not to put too fine a point on it, diverse classes of people living off immoral earnings. The Festival of Pimps. The low-level famous. The bankers and developers? Big shots, but not that big, super-pimps to the super-rich. The local authority officers and councillors, the regeneration teams? Small time, trying to punch above their weight, pimping their cities, their “communities”…
And in their wake, as with all occupying powers, the baggage trade: hoteliers and restaurateurs, maitre d’s and chefs and cocktail barmen, and yes too the polka dot barmaids and high-class hostesses and violin girls in bubbles, the set- and lighting- designers, the sound men, the IT techies and geeks and gophers, desk clerks and maids and taxi-drivers, good-time-with-a-naughty boys and girls, all grades, the real actual sex industry alive and well and at work in the yachts and hotel-rooms…
Well, you don’t think I’m about to dish the dirt on the ultimate ‘better than sex’ property trade fair, without getting down and dirty? I was there – under deep cover – in 2006, engaged to speak at the ‘Southwark Brunch’.
I’m not exactly sure who I represented, in the Porn or Sex Work models. The comedian telling off-colour jokes between strip acts? The fluffer warming-up the gang? For a bang? Whores can’t be too choosy about their Johns, and mine was paying well: I’d earn more for my fifteen minute talk than I could for several poetry gigs.
Some nations – think Russia – and cities – London, Paris – have their own pavilions. In 2006, Southwark was out to steal the show, to make a bigger splash than Sochi or Kiev, to leave the Cinderella London Boroughs with sand in their eyes, as she kicked off down the beach with her muscle-packed developer.
Ken Livingstone graced the Southwark stand with a brief visit. He took care not to get too close – Southwark was then a Lib-Dem Council – although it was clear that their grand designs – for the Elephant and Castle, Canada Water, Bermondsey Square – chimed with the then Mayor’s vision of a 21st century London.
I was there with Southwark Council’s Regeneration Team. ‘The performance poet…’ As a writer inspired by the history of my south London neighbourhood, I’d been invited to give a keynote speech at the brunch – with free-range bangers supplied by Peter the Borough Market trader, another colourful local character on a jolly.
As an activist – I’d already been engaged for more than a decade in a fight to protect Cross Bones, the outcasts’ burial ground, from redevelopment – I knew I was supping with the
Devil. As a Southwark ratepayer for twenty years and more, I believed I’d earned my fee, and felt justified in having my travel, no frills accommodation and reasonable expenses paid for by Council rates. I was here to witness, on behalf of my fellow citizens, what was being done in our name in the belly of the beast.
Southwark Council had already funded many of my community drama productions, talks, walks and workshops, and would go on to support the production of my play The Southwark Mysteries in Southwark Cathedral in 2010.
I’d taken this speaking engagement on the understanding that I was free to talk about the Cross Bones campaign and of Southwark as a refuge for outsiders. And so I did, joking about our disreputable past, telling tales of our ‘Winchester Geese’, those working girls licensed by the Bishop of Winchester to ply their honest trades in Southwark’s medieval Liberty of the Clink under Ordinances signed in 1161AD by Thomas Becket, before he was saintly.
I told of our outlaws and outcasts, and of the working-class culture that gave birth to the South London Palace and the other great music halls clustered around the pre-war Elephant and Castle. I told my audience that respectable ladies and gents like themselves would be well advised to steer well clear of such places.
Everyone laughed. They thought I was joking.
I got away with it because my entire presentation had the ring of you-couldn’t-make-this- stuff-up, and because, as a professional performer, I enjoy playing myself.
What I didn’t want to see was how perfectly pitched my little piece was, for the true purpose of our mission. My fifteen minutes of MIPIM fame, not despite but precisely because of its subversive subtext, served the same purpose as Peter’s organic British bangers: to put human faces on the sale of our neighbourhood.
Specifically, the “Regeneration” of the Elephant and Castle, just down the road from where I’d lived for twenty years in an unfurnished writer’s garret with an affordable rent. During that time I’d grown to love the tatty vibrancy of the Shopping Centre so disparaged by those who only ever see it from their car on the Elephant roundabout. Even cutting
through the Heygate Estate, I’d never felt threatened by gang-violence or by those other symptoms of a dysfunctional society that lazy journalism and TV shock-horror docu- dramas stereotyped here.
Under the Regeneration Plan, all that would go, to be replaced by glass and chrome towers overlooking new estates with tidy courtyard gardens, with new luxury flats alongside social housing, new homes for the former Heygate Residents.
The good news was that the Elephant and Castle roundabout, that huge unwieldy gyratory traffic system, that brutal monument to post-war planning and the tyranny of the automobile, forcing pedestrian life down into a labyrinth of disorientating and sometimes downright dangerous subways – that too would go, to be replaced by a Plaza, a Piazza, a town square with lawns and trees and places to sit, with the cars consigned to underground tunnels. The new plans spoke lovingly of restoring the Elephant to its former glory, with more public space and a spanking new market-place.
The thing is, the people who conceived and sought to implement this Master Plan – the architects and surveyors, the Councillors and Council officers, the special advisers and public relations and community development workers – they didn’t set out to destroy our communities. We’re a long way from ‘the Banality of Evil’. And yet… How seductive, this sense of being at the Centre, how delicious even a taste – a morsel, the merest whiff – of Power… Agency… Influence… How insidious the delusion.
I remember having dinner with the Southwark Regeneration Team – as I recall, this one wasn’t on the ratepayers; we all chipped in. They were a self-deprecating bunch, especially when it came to their desire to make this world a better place, but idealists for all that. They cycled to work. They envisioned brave new green worlds on rooftops and terraces, solar panels, wind-mills, zero-emission buildings, self-regulating ecologies…
The thing was, the whole shebang was set up to make believe you could make those dreams come true, that you could just evacuate vast swathes of the urban landscape, raze them, raise new cities of light and energy, literate ‘re-generate’, ferry out the dead and then decant in a whole new better class of citizen, invent new (gated) communities where absent landlords and virtual tenants exist only in the lawyer’s deeds and…
… shed-loads of digits.
That was 2006. Blink and eight years’ve passed. If it’s March, it must be…
MIPIM, 2014, the 25th anniversary edition. The current Mayor Boris Johnson is there, in the London Pavilion.
Southwark isn’t. Her deal her been done, her assets sold – in what are now seen as tawdry, arguably corrupt, certainly incompetent deals with private developers.
The promised Green developer, on whom the Council had heaped such well-intentioned environmental conditions, withdrew.
The contracts with the new developer, Lend Leese, are covered by commercial confidentiality. The (now Labour) Council has spent huge amounts of rate-payers’ money serving injunctions to prevent the public disclosure of just how bad a deal was struck. But not before a carelessly redacted report had been leaked showing that receipts from property sales to the developers have scarcely covered the cost of translocating the residents of the Heygate, many of whom didn’t want to be moved and resisted their evictions.
In the last days of the Heygate the Council shut up the estate, but people easily found ways to graffiti or do site specific performances or cultivate guerrilla gardens or just go walkabout for the sheer spooky end-of-the-world-ness of it. So then the Council erected huge grills and fences with anti-climb paint and CCTV and shut everyone out. At the time of writing, it’s scaffed and wrapped, in process of demolition. Beside it, in what used to be Elephant Park, where Latin American families would play with their kids and assemble for the Carnaval de Pueblo, is now a a big hole in the ground.
The new luxury flats are for sale before they’re built – in Singapore, Hong Kong, Qatar, Russia, you name it. For sure, the locals won’t be able to afford them. The social housing provided is a fraction of what was promised, far less than what has already been lost to make way for this new global ghetto for the rich and rootless. The very concept of ’social housing’ has already been displaced by the mealy-mouthed ‘affordable housing’. Affordable? By who?
Your undercover reporter wonders how long he can hang in here before he too gets priced out of the inner city wasteland.
And our Grand Plaza, our Piazza, our Village Green forever? All that went the way of all mock-ups. Transport for London was not about to allow a major disruption to its vital gyratory traffic roundabout. The traffic has been ‘quieted’ – with lights and above-ground pedestrian crossings – but the Elephant Regeneration’s unique selling point, its green credential, was quietly dropped.
It may be too late to stop it. But we can resist it. People in the Aylesbury Estate, and in estates all over London, England, Europe, the World, are fighting against attempts to evict them, to disrupt communities built up over generations, or vibrant new communities born of the clash and fusion of disparate cultures. The kind of community that can’t be bought.
Because maybe there’s still time to ask: who or what is all this for? To take back the power to create living communities – from the inside out.
Even if it’s too late, if I inadvertently played my sad little fluffer’s part in the destruction of a community I hold dear, even then I can bear witness to some of those little ways in which I saw it happen. To this…
The Way the world ends. Here…
Where the Playboys (and girls) of Property meet To sell the Earth from under unborn feet…
Not with a bang. >><<
John Constable aka John Crow
No commercially sensitive material was harmed in the writing of this report.