Photo: Joe Dyer/CC.

Empty Highrises: Culture and Public Space in London

A conversation with The White Review’s Jacques Testard


Jacques Testard is co-founder of The White Review, an arts and literature quarterly, and the publisher of Fitzcarraldo Editions, which has brought out the likes of Svetlana Alexievich, Ben Lerner, Alejandro Zambra, Mathias Enard, Jean Philippe Toussaint. Both projects are gorgeously curated.

Francesco Pacifico: Your ventures (publishing The White Review and, later, Fitzcarraldo editions) each convey the sense that you are trying to transform publishing into an art. Unlike other publishers, you put craft before business. Correct me if I’m wrong.
Jacques Testard:
It’s true. We set up Fitzcarraldo because British publishing is incredibly conservative and British publishers don’t take risks — translating what I consider ambitious, innovative writing from other languages. They’re reactive, rather than taking initiative. They wait for an agent’s submission instead of looking for authors in the way that I am forced to do because I am publishing from the margins. A case in point is the extraordinary luck I had in buying the rights for Svetlana Alexievich’s new book before she won the Nobel Prize. And I was the only English language publisher interested in that book, the only one to make an offer. And then she went and won the Nobel Prize and then of course everyone tried to buy the rights from me. That’s the kind of thing that happens in British publishing — people have no idea what’s going on and then suddenly a prize happens and they all try to get involved.

But to get back to publishing as an art form — you probably read this as well, but Roberto Calasso’s book, The Art of the Publisher came out in English quite recently, and he writes about [his Italian publishing house] Adelphi, and about the idea that a catalogue is one big artwork and each new book makes sense in relation to the rest and contributes to this bigger picture. That’s totally something that I buy into and I guess it’s what I’m trying to do with Fitzcarraldo. I wouldn’t say that I’m changing things; I’m actually following quite a classical model that seems radical now because it’s so unusual in Britain where people have forgotten that this is how you used to publish.

I remember when we first met, you told me that you founded The White Review because there were virtually no platforms for young writers and artists in London. Everything was pretty much commodified and agent-driven, and that sounds a lot like everything else that I’ve heard about London in this past decade — that it’s a very corporate city, full of real estate developments for Russian oligarchs who don’t actually live there. Are those two things connected?
Maybe. When we set up The White Review, we felt like there were no interesting publications in London and it was very difficult for young writers or young critics to find anyone that would be willing to publish them. That, I guess, is linked to the wider issue that London is becoming an increasingly hostile city to people who aren’t earning enough money. People we heinously call ‘young creative types,’ people who work in the arts, people who work in publishing, people who are designers, are being forced out from the center of London and moving further and further out. In the six years since I’ve come back to live here — I spent some time away in Dublin and Oxford, and then in New York, studying and doing internships — it’s become tougher and tougher as the conservatives have been in power and have invited this international elite in, or continued to host them after Ken Livingstone’s mayoralty.

British publishing is incredibly conservative and British publishers don’t take risks — translating what I consider ambitious, innovative writing from other languages. They’re reactive, rather than taking initiative.

What is happening in other UK cities in terms of culture?
Interesting things are happening in other cities, but obviously on a much smaller scale. For example, in Brighton there is a really interesting kind of avant-garde poetry scene. In Glasgow, there’s a big arts scene because there are a couple of art schools there. Newcastle has become known for its art and theatre scenes because it’s so cheap to live there; people in the North who are interested in carving out a career for themselves in performance art are moving there — there are lots of studio spaces. But, yeah, London is the hub, not just for culture but for everything in the UK; it’s the only global city and the only really truly multicultural and diverse city.

Are people you know leaving London for good to re-arrange their priorities, moving to a different place and trying to find a new scene?
Yeah, definitely. It’s becoming harder and harder to make it work here. It’s difficult to be a writer anywhere, but it’s basically impossible to live in London if you’re earning less than 18,000 pounds a year, unless you’re sharing a flat or house with three other people, or living in the outer zones. I know plenty of people who have left London, who live nearby and come into town once in a while. I also know of plenty of people who are in their early to mid-thirties and still sharing flats, still living like students, essentially, because they want to be in London or they need to be in London for their artistic practice, or because they write reviews for magazines and need to go to all the gallery openings. But I think that as people settle down and have kids, or whatever, leaving London becomes the only option. It’s not going to get any better, either, because of the political situation. I mean, the EU referendum is dominating conversation at the moment, and it looks like Britain will leave because the message for Brexit is so simple compared to the message against it.

What is the simple message for Brexit?
The simple message is “keep the immigrants out” and it’s astonishing how many people buy into that. This is a ridiculous anecdote, but they did a survey of British expats in Spain, asking them their thoughts on Brexit, and the majority said they wanted to vote out because of immigration.

What’s it like living in London in the age of high-rise buildings for the international super-rich? As a tourist, I come to London often, less often recently, and  I enjoy the wealth it exudes, but what’s it actually been like living there over the past 5 years?
High-rise London has happened really, really quickly and I guess it’s happened alongside this massive influx of wealth from the Middle East and Russia. To be quite honest, London’s such a big city that you can live your entire life there without ever going into the City. I see the sky-scrapers from a distance, but I never ever go into that part of town. Over the past 5 to 10 years, along the South Bank of the river, basically from Vauxhall, which is right in the center of town, near Parliament, all the way down to Putney, they’ve built luxury condos, kind of high-rise developments like the ones on the banks of Williamsburg facing Manhattan. It’s kind of terrifying—there’s no character anymore. It’s just shiny glass and steel. I have no idea who lives in these places. It’s just an international elite, a world so far removed from what I know.

In Canary Wharf, for example there’s now a whole part of that neighborhood which is privately policed. They have barriers, they have security guards, they have people with guns, who aren’t regular police, in that neighborhood.

It’s frequently reported that public land is being privatized by the companies that own the skyscrapers. In Canary Wharf, for example there’s now a whole part of that neighborhood, which is where HSBC and UBS and Credit Swisse have their headquarters, which is privately policed. They have barriers, they have security guards, they have people with guns, who aren’t regular police, in that neighborhood. There was a terrorism scare a couple of years ago in Canary Wharf, and it wasn’t the Metropolitan Police who stepped in to arrest this person, it was these private investigators, mercenaries who are paid by a union of the banks, who work in that neighborhood.

A friend of mine lives in one of Berlusconi’s real estate developments, a compound outside Milan called ‘Milano 3’ that’s far away, suburban and completely abstract. People there have become accustomed to only living among people like themselves. They want the space not to be public because public means the other and the other is scary. These are the main problems we are facing: the end of work and the loss of public space.
Yeah, to cite a really simple example, about 300 meters from where I work in Knightsbridge, there’s an incredibly expensive luxury apartment building, and the other day, I was waiting for a friend — we were going to go for a drink, and I sat down on this little wall. I was just sitting on the wall and two porters came and said ’You can’t sit there, this is private land.’ It’s the middle of the city— had I been sitting 10 cm forward I would have been sitting on the pavement which is public land, but the fact that they would tell you not to sit there, that it’s somehow tarnishing the property and the brand or whatever, is terrifying.

You’re watching the city become a megalopolis. And this brings us back to Brexit: maybe London is following more of a Far Eastern model for cities than a European model. As a base of financial power, with clients from Russia and East Asia, that seems like a natural orientation. Aesthetically speaking, you’re less European than you used to be, because European capitals are not changing as fast, so you’re looking to Singapore, Shanghai, Hangzhou for inspiration. Does that ring true to you?
That’s fairly terrifying, but should be tempered a little bit. London is essentially a collection of villages, and outside the center, people live in their neighborhoods and stay there. There are still nice places to live, though it’s getting more expensive. I live in a neighborhood which has also changed a lot since I moved here six years ago — Peckham, in South-East London. It’s the classic gentrification story, where artists started squatting here 10 years ago and then the gallerists moved in, and then people like me moved in after. Now there’s a baby cafe on my street and a trendy Italian restaurant, whereas before it was just artists and Ghanaian and Nigerian communities. I suppose that might be similar to things you are seeing in China or in Singapore, where the poor are being pushed out by rising house prices, but these things happen in France, as well. In Paris, the city is so segregated and so stuck in its ways, it’s so difficult for people from the suburbs to move into the city. The class and social distinctions between the different neighborhoods are so strong. London is more integrated in that the social housing was always built in the center of well-to-do or wealthy neighborhoods. In Notting Hill, for example, you have Portobello Road and the incredibly wealthy streets around it with these massive mansions, and then 300 meters down the road, you have estates, social housing on Ladbroke Grove, tower blocks with 30 floors of cheap housing, and it’s still poorer people living there. Their children will, so long as they go to state schools, grow up with the children down the road. So, there is still cultural diversity in London that you don’t necessarily get in European cities like Paris.

But yes, we have seen the development of a more financially-minded city, a city dominated by these steel and glass constructions, these anonymous corporations. I guess that’s an obvious accompaniment to the governing ideology.