In 2012, after many raised voices and desperate pleas, my ex-partner and I decided to accept a housing transfer to a bigger property. With one baby and his two teenage children, we had outgrown his two-bedroom, fifth floor flat on the Loughborough Park estate with no lift. Begrudgingly, my ex-partner signed for the keys to a three-bed Victorian flat that would take us out of our beloved South London abode. It was newly renovated, had a lift and much more space. It was also in Sloane Square. In a signature, we had gone from living in the Coldharbour ward of Brixton, one of the countries most deprived areas, to Belgravia, one of the richest in the world. And so, like the black, female David Attenborough, armed only with my toddler, I began my trek into the unknown wilderness of SW3, otherwise known as Kensington and Chelsea.
Firstly, I should point out that we were still living on an estate, so despite the swathes of Henrys and Indias, we were still living with what I considered 'regular people'. The only difference being that the flats opposite ours cost £4.5 million, so needless to say our block didn’t look much like a typical estate. (It must be really annoying to spend £4.5 million on a property only to overlook working class people who rent for £500-£700 a month.)
My ex hated the move and that quickly translated into hating me. He pretty much refused to move in, camping out in our previous flat in Brixton, which left me, age twenty-nine with a two-year-old and eighteen-year-old, setting up our new life in RBKC.
First stop was finding a nursery. I choose an open air children’s centre which was run by the borough at the end of Glebe Place, a picturesque road, lined with lovely (multi-million pound) houses owned by Russian Oligarchs. The nursery had an outdoor amphitheatre, trees to climb, and a child-centred approach. Needless to say, I loved it. And so did many of the mums of Chelsea, often opting for it over a place at the many private, bilingual (always French) nurseries. So, there we all were, mums from estates and mums who own estates, huddled around the Harry Potter-esque door at pick up.
We slowly began to settle into our new habitat. Weekly walks to nursery would include my son’s favourite game of ‘Spot the Ferrari’, which, to be honest, would have been very dull in SW9, or pretty much anywhere else in the country. I noticed very quickly the difference between the life of a parent on and off the estate. Ironically the coveted outdoor freedom that made parents scramble for a place at Chelsea Open Air nursery was in some ways mirrored on the estate. The children would play in the communal garden, riding bikes, scooters and tricycles round the car park, playing ball (illegally – No Ball Games Allowed) in the outdoor washing area. Parents stood chatting, some would bring their chairs onto the outdoor corridor and sit, cigarette in hand, as they caught up with their neighbours and watched their children play. The children would play across ages, genders and races. Kyan and Asif, aged eight and nine, would come and play with my son, now aged four, climbing through my ground floor window to get drinks and snacks.
This was in stark contrast to the play dates, activities and structured lives that the children outside the estate (and outside most estates) lived. Beyond our gated entrance, children had carefully managed timetables and agendas, and were transported, in Porsche Cayennes, to swimming, Spanish, climbing centres and restaurants. Even play was structured – and a playdate became a new noun in my evolving vocabulary. Would xxxx be free to come on a playdate with yyyy next Monday after nursery? became the new norm. Playdates took us to seven-bedroom houses in South Kensington and swimming at the Hurlingham. I quickly realised that a playdate needed careful deciphering. (These are the days before Motherland, after all.) Mostly, it was understood that a first-time playdate was to include you, the parent, for mutual risk assessment, I assume. Following that, it was a minefield. For some parents, playdates meant child only. Drop and run. Of course, in Chelsea, some playdates didn’t involve meeting another parent at all. You dropped your child to be greeted by a (usually foreign) nanny. I also learned that some Chelsea playdates were not actually for the children, and after drinking wine at 4.30pm and learning about messy divorces whilst occasionally approving a Lego construction, I understood that I was actually the one on the playdate. I discovered that money seemed to make people’s lives much more comfortable. Holidays, large homes, good food, nannies and long brunches at Bluebirds definitely made for ease. But it didn’t actually help at all when it came to happiness. These new mums were still plagued by all the life-stuff that the rest of us face. Relationship problems, friendship dilemmas, concerns about their children or their own childhood trauma. Having copious amounts of money doesn’t necessarily eradicate that modern-Western-new-mum-special-feeling of inadequacy, purposelessness and anxiety. They just seemed to have more time to think about these things and less justification to be ‘unhappy’. Some of them also seemed to be more alone.
Once, my son was invited to a birthday party at a children’s soft play called Purple Dragon. Of course, I pictured a loud, brightly (purple) coloured indoor assault course serving chips and slushies with toilets that always had piss on the seats, so when the mother offered to transfer the children via black cab so that parents could just ‘pick up’ I jumped at the chance. Little did I know that when I went to collect my pint sized off-spring I’d be met by valet parking. Purple Dragon was indeed a £2000 per annum member’s club for children, consisting of soft play for the children and a Michelin star restaurant and beauty parlour for the parents. Resting actors are ‘Dragon Tamers’, who, rather than resting, help keep the children happy (away from their parents). I saw a Japanese businessman typing on his laptop while his daughter kept running up to him to show a bright coloured ball, and an out of tune six-year-old Arabic girl making her own album in the recording studio. I cursed myself for not coming sooner and ate as many of Michelin star canopies as I could. The father of the birthday boy, a businessman I had never seen before, was playing awkwardly with his two sons. The mother, an impeccably dressed American, mentioned that they spend most weekends at their house in the country and how really Gloucestershire isn’t that far, and where else can you go for a weekend hunt? I remember laughing at the ‘hunt’ joke. Only to realise it wasn’t one.
As you can imagine reciprocating some of these play dates was interesting. I wondered what some of these parents thought entering the estate and seeing drunk Pat asking me for her weekly loan before her dole money came through, or the strong and consistent smell of high grade that wafted from my Moroccan neighbour’s door. Or at birthday parties where we served stew and rice and my girlfriends sat in the gardens drinking prosecco and cussing someone’s man. The invited party guests always blurred with the neighbours on the small estate, the older children would help me set up and of course the end time would always get pushed back several hours. But, for the most part, I never felt judgement. In a sense, many of the Chelsea parents were so secure in their position in society that they tended not to bat an eye lid, enjoyed the chat and asked for second helping of that delicious chickpea curry.
I also learned that hard work and money were not as related as society has led us to believe.
In both Brixton and Chelsea, I saw the same thing. People who work three jobs, raise children, help out in church and are poor, and people who sit, smoke weed all day and are poor. And people who work incredibly hard and have immense responsibility and are rich, and people who do nothing but live off inherited family money and are rich. The myth was exposed. Hard work didn’t necessarily make you money. Money made you money. Attributing qualities such as skill, intellect and tenacity to financial achievement is a racket if ever I heard one.
But perhaps the most shocking thing of all during my residency in Chelsea was returning to Brixton. Each time I would frequent my old neighbourhood I would be met with more changes, more middle-class people working in media, more eateries, more coffee shops, bars, and more money. Simultaneously I’d be met with more social issues, more friends getting evicted, more locals priced out, shop closures, job losses, poverty and mental health issues. The old Black man who strode about shouting at people outside the tube with his robe and wooden rod, stood out even more against the ‘new Brixton’ backdrop. I no longer recognised the area, or perhaps I no longer recognised myself within it.
In a strange way there seemed a simplicity to living behind Peter Jones in Sloane Square. It was multinational, yet undeniably English. Some people had lots of money and some had very little. There wasn’t much in between.
Whereas Brixton, like many parts of London, was in flux. At war with itself over ownership and identity. The gulf between the haves and the have nots was considerably more, and yet considerably less than areas like Chelsea. Which was exactly why the lines had to be even more clearly drawn.
Why that artisan café is for you but that greasy spoon cafe is not.
Why you had to buy a house within a 500m proximity to get into a ‘good (code for white middle-class) school’.
Why you can live in one of the most diverse areas in the country and still only socialize with people that look like you.
Why you move further out when the kids get to secondary school age.
My mum always said it’s the middle classes that do the most.
When I had to run back to Brixton to escape my relationship and collect myself, the tipping point had passed. Gentrification was in full swing. I remember knowing this implicitly when my son was invited to another child’s birthday party at his new nursery and we were the only people of colour there. And the only single parent family. In Brixton, SW2. It was a nice Victorian terrace with the classic kitchen extension with the slate grey bi-folding doors that led onto a small, landscaped garden. They weren’t mega rich. There were no Russian Oligarchs. Or Filipino nannies. No one spoke about divorce. Only about house prices, which schools to get into and how to do it. (Becoming a parent can make you burst wide open with love and see the world anew, but it can also make you a cunt.) The kids were noisy and messy and badly behaved in a way that only white middle-class children can be without being judged or feared by society. And it felt perhaps more alien than ever.
I thought back to SW3 and the boozy brunches and the 4 by 4’s and the dogs in handbags. I thought back to the estate with drunk Pat and kids shouting and the pigeons that invaded the communal garden. I glanced up at my son playing in SW2, now surrounded by a sea of blonde tangled hair and Cath Kidston, and I sipped my prosecco. What I came back for had gone. A father holding a boy in a princess dress upside down asked me what I thought about the dreaded school dilemma. He smiled broadly. I wanted to smash my glass of prosecco on his slightly sweaty, generous, friendly forehead. But I didn’t. Instead, I said,
‘Yes, it’s a dilemma.’
A dilemma indeed.