How Heseltine invented the hipster

The once desolate East London is now a hub for creatives and hipsters, which sprung from the seed planted by Michael Heseltine. Paul Burke investigates.

"Lord Michael Ray Dibdin Heseltine, you are charged with causing the proliferation of check shirts, skinny jeans and facial hair across a whole generation of young men in this country, so that most people in most creative departments are now completely interchangeable. 

"You are further charged with facilitating the surfeit of artisan coffee shops throughout Hackney, Hoxton and Haggerston. It’s because of you that gastropubs in these areas now serve craft beers from Viking horns and sustainable squid from Edwardian roof tiles. 

"And finally, you are the reason that Mother is housed in a former Shoreditch bacon factory and MullenLowe finds itself in a weird white cube just off the Old Street roundabout.  Lord Heseltine, how do you plead?" 

The answer would have to be "guilty".  Though I’d contend that "guilty" is not the right word.  Far from it and, to find out why, let’s take a look at the east London of the not so distant past.

London’s latitude means that the East End was always its most horrible part. Most of its winds blow to the east, bringing the stench of the city with them. London’s waste was also transported east along the Thames to the docks which, in any city, are seldom the most fragrant or salubrious of places. The only people who lived in the East End were those too poor to live anywhere else.  

By 1981, the place had reached its nadir. The docks may have been dirty, noisy and smelly but at least they’d been alive. Now they lay silent, desolate and redundant. I used to DJ on riverboat parties along the Thames, and beyond Tower Bridge was just a deathly wasteland of derelict wharves and tumbleweed. Old episodes of The Sweeney will never do justice to the scale and bleakness of those vast, dystopian docks.  And nothing like it will ever be seen in London again. Practically every spare inch of land has now been re-developed. And that all started with Michael Heseltine. 

He set up the London Docklands Development Corporation, which transformed the docks with an effect that was to ripple out across the whole of East London. At the time, this seemed unthinkable. Comedian Micky Flanagan, brought up in Bethnal Green, described it as "A dump with the worst of everything. The worst housing, the worst schools and the worst facilities." 

And he’s right. When I wasn’t playing records on riverboats, I was Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO’s delivery boy, making regular trips to the old Watney’s Brewery in Brick Lane. Places like Bethnal Green and Shoreditch were grim. There were few moribund printworks but very little else. There were cafés but they stank of stewed tea and Woodbines. The fried food was revolting and the cholesterol measured in hectolitres. There were no cool bars, just seedy old boozers frequented by seedy old boozers. Anyone with any sense had left long ago for Essex and the whole place resembled a grizzled old gangster dying in jail. 

But slowly, Heseltine’s labours began to bear fruit. The first sign was the completion of Canary Wharf and gradually, as the banks and major financial institutions moved there, London’s axis began to shift east.  Then the City, unshackled by the Big Bang, embarked upon a major makeover. Shops, bars and shiny steel and glass towers sprouted up to accommodate a new breed of unstuffy employee who wore neither suit nor tie. 

The East End, so long derided and neglected, now found itself the object of attention. Its proximity to a re-vitalised City and to Europe’s new financial hub made it increasingly fashionable. Creative people moved in and the hipster sprung from the seed planted by Michael Heseltine. When you’re served your skinny cortado in that Clapton coffee shop, chances are the man behind the counter will be bearded and beanied.  But Heseltine is the man behind the man behind the counter. He’s the man behind the regeneration of not just East London but of the seamy side of cities all over the world. This urban renewal has been replicated across the globe. Think of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, Fitzroy in Melbourne or Kreuzkolln in Berlin. Lord H can take the credit for all that. 

Or the blame. East London has become a victim of its own success. Or rather its indigenous residents have. They’ve been priced out of the neighbourhoods in which they grew up. And there’s something obscene about flats around Arnold Circus, London’s first council estate, now changing hands for a million pounds. That famous fanzine Shoreditch Twat was popular for a reason. But however wrong this all seems, it’s still preferable to the impotent despair of empty, crumbling wharves. 

So whatever your politics – red, blue or that peculiar hue known as "advertising pink" – can you think of a politician whose legacy has been more socially significant?  Michael Heseltine quite literally changed the world. And isn’t that what we want (said the writer, obsequiously over-compensating for his opening paragraph) from the proprietor of Campaign?


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