Prince Harry and Meghan Markle during a Royal visit to Nottingham. Photo: M6027D/EMPICS Entertainment

What Harry and Meghan’s cake tells us about east London’s hipster takeover

The relationship between privation and poshness has reached a royal climax
April 12, 2018

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s choice of an east London small business to make their wedding cake brings a long-term relationship between poshness and privation to a kind of royal climax. When the betrothed picked Violet, a café and bakery on a fairly quiet street at the edge of Dalston in Hackney to produce the star patisserie for their big day, it was a symbolic consummation of what some see as wholesome progress and others as wholesale colonisation.

Could there be a more complete manifestation of the wave of gentrification rippling across the inner city than Violet, and the values it represents? Not on the face of it. A part of the city that not so long ago was (unfairly) synonymous only with poverty and crime, has for some time had the word “fashionable” attached as a prefix, confirming Dalston in particular as a hotspot of hipsterism and all that follows in its wake, where a distinctively London working-class and an archetypally insurgent middle-class meet with an array of juxtapositions and effects.

You don’t need to sample Violet founder Claire Ptak’s winning ways with a Madagascan vanilla pod or melted Valrhona dark chocolate—look them up, I know I had to—in order to appreciate the skill with which she and her creations speak to certain metropolitan appetites that are as much about aesthetics as food.

Violet HQ is a rather cramped, isolated premises amid residential terraces and opposite a council-owned housing block. But it scrubs up well for the beguiling Violet website: the bare whiteness of the frontage wall (a bicycle leans against it, naturally); the emphasis on organic ingredients; the blend of the traditional and the exotic, where Victoria sponge and almond “stone ground” polenta cheesecake co-exist on the shared doily of home kitchen-style authenticity. All these things are catnip to the sorts who’ve been moving in to more and more of east London for decades now, as next-door Islington became too expensive for artists, young and older professionals, who have now reshaped the demographics.

The transformation of Hackney in general, where I have lived since the early 1980s, has been astounding and enthralling. Much of it has been a blessing. The borough, its schools and its reputation were once a mess. Today, its council is pretty much a model of progressive efficiency, many of its schools are very good and its streets, residential and retail, are more prosperous and perhaps even more diverse than before. Dalston Junction station has re-opened, bringing more employment options within reach.

In such ways do the state—at local, regional and national level—and market forces together upgrade neighbourhoods. But the benefits bring drawbacks too. When a place becomes more desirable, more people are attracted to it. Private sector rents and the cost of first-time buying rise. Fancier shops and restaurants do not cater to the tastes or incomes of the less well-off. The sheer pace and scale of change in parts of London has spawned tensions, few of them easy to resolve.

Such is the context in which Violet—indeed, an entire species of cupcake café for the sourdough and gluten-free class—has flourished. It sometimes seems to go too far. An acquaintance became a Violet refusenik after learning to his shock that a few salad leaves to accompany his slice of quiche meant paying an extra £6 on top of the £7 he was coughing up already. Yet if Violet’s prices were too high no one local would pay them and its daily clientele do not resemble plutocrats or toffs.

At the same time—contrary to the vacuous “social cleansing” activist chorus, so encouraged by the rise of Jeremy Corbyn—the poor have not been expunged en masse. Hackney’s poverty rate is a high 35 per cent and around 45 per cent of its residential properties are for social rent. Neither has violent crime been expunged, as recent acid attacks and stabbings have shown. For plenty, it is still a rough, tough place.

Does all this damn “gentrification” and “regeneration” as helping only the few? The issue is too complex for “yes” or “no.” Gentrification happens because the supply of land and housing fails to keep pace with demand for them when cities are growing fast and when an area’s transport, its schools and parks—its public amenities—improve. Should they be made worse? Regeneration is often an attempt to help meet that demand and make those improvements, sometimes in the face of opposition.

An irony in all this is that some of those most opposed to those companion phenomena are often its drivers and beneficiaries—see them in your local artisan bread shop, copy of the Guardian in hand. Another is that Harry and Meghan’s choice of cake-maker is maybe not quite as unconventional as it seems. For modern, liberal, inter-racial couples like them, Hackney could almost be a home-from-home.