London's Golden Geese
Mayfair Times 00-10-1988
By Christopher Long
Cast your mind back to January 1981. In retrospect it was a remarkable year for well-heeled Londoners and all those bored to death with dinner-party chat about property prices and, by implication, the property killings everyone is supposed to have made in Central London.
It is to January 1981 that we should now look for the source of two significant influences on post-war London life a property boom of unprecedented proportions and a specialist publishing industry that both fuelled and fed upon it, and which has ultimately transformed both property and publishing. Seven years later, as the over-mortgaged and the under-paid grit their teeth and toss sleeplessly at night, we would do well to reflect that every silver lining comes cloud-attached.
Many will remember the heady days of 1981 when, we were told, dowager duchesses beat each other up in mansion block foyers in their anxiety to acquire copies of a free, glossy, property-based magazine called London Portrait. As much by luck as by judgement, this new, free-distribution monthly happened to thud through letter-boxes at just the same time as houses and flats began to build towards a dizzying annual price inflation of up to 30 per cent per annum by the mid-Eighties.
More by judgement than by luck, however, the original 50,000 copies of London Portrait were strictly rationed to only the smartest residential areas of London, skipping any street, mews or square which didn't consist of solid, blue-chip 'AB' householders. This only made the favoured few feel even more pleased with themselves while those who were 'skipped' filled their unfavoured streets with skips of their own and set about improving and gentrifying their neighbourhoods to earn vast paper profits and the accolade of being included in London Portrait's growing distribution area. Thus did the empire grow.
Needless to say, Portrait was not unique. There was Monocle. Not long after that came The Magazine, Boardroom, Property & Investment, London Gentleman and London Property News. On glass-topped coffee tables throughout SW1, SW3, SW5, SW7, W1 and every other fashionable postal district, glossy freebies vied with Harpers, Vogue, The Tatler and Country Life. They provided an intoxicating mixture: financial fantasy in the form of the first colour pictures of the properties you might just want to buy and tempting indications of what your own property might now be worth, judged by other people's asking prices. Month by month one saw oneself 'earning' £3,000 with each new issue. The estate agents were falling over each other to get their names and logos through our front doors and into our designer-designed drawing-rooms. Pretty soon fags, booze, make-up and the rag trade were filling another third of the pages, safe in the knowledge that their ads were directly targeted at only the lushest and most lucrative of Londoners. Londoners with endless property-backed credit.
It wasn't long, of course, before nearly every town in England could boast its own free-distribution local paper. The fact that among them a boy scout wouldn't have found two worth-while journalists to rub together to start a fire scarcely mattered. Shallow editorial, crass advertorial and yet another feature on Blissful Bathrooms came free, looked good and brought news of yet another unearned, tax-free £3,000 per month on the value of one's home.
So long as the property market boomed a whole new industry boomed with it. A vast army of editorial, advertising and production staff were backed by cohorts of typesetters, colour processors, printers and distributors. The advertisers got quite used to the idea of knowing precisely where their ads were being seen a concept unknown in radio, television, posters and paid-for publications. "If seven maids with seven brooms..." how many millions could they sweep off London's streets?
Seven years on it's interesting to speculate on the future. Rising interest rates and shifts in Britain's geopolitical economics make London's property just a little less like El Dorado these days. People will still buy and sell property whatever happens and the estate agents will still do well. Relatively speaking it makes little difference what our houses are worth except to our heirs when we die. But already the allure and cachet of glossy freebies has died a little. Dowager duchesses no longer squabble in foyers and instead are prepared to pay for copies of the unending new titles on the news-stands. Perhaps the umpteenth feature on Blissful Bathrooms is beginning to pall. In a static property market only the best of the estate agents will survive and not feel obliged to pay 3,000 pounds per colour page. Perhaps good journalism and a stimulating read will fill the fantasy gap when our bricks and mortar stop earning us more each year than we earn by going out to work.
Perhaps too, seven years on, the property-price culture which has dominated so many people's lives for so long will seem less satisfying in a static or falling market and many of those glossy freebies which based their profitability on property will fade away. As always in economics, only those who spread their investments more widely will survive property-owners and publishers alike.
Nevertheless the property boom has transformed all our lives. The face and demography of London, from Docklands to Chelsea Harbour, has changed and the effects will be seen for decades to come. Out of it too has developed a new concept in advertising and selling. It's not us individually that they want to reach but our houses.
Soon after this article appeared London was devastated by a collapse in the property market. Along with this came a deep economic recession resulting in widespread unemployment, redundancy and property repossessions which lasted about five years. Catastrophic for many, this transformed most people's attitudes to their personal finances and investments. A culture of self-centred and unbounded faith in an ever-expanding golden future was replaced by more sober caution from 1995 onwards.
© (1988) Christopher Long. Copyright, Syndication & All Rights Reserved Worldwide.
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