Illustration by Cei Willis
The news is not good. For the last few years, Britain's richest citizens have been turning into mole-men. All through Chelsea, the streets are alive with the sound of diggers, as the super-ultra-mega-rich build massive basements beneath their existing homes. With over 800 new cellar permission applications now lodged, certain parts of Kensington are becoming little, inverse Manhattans, as the people at the top go down, down, down. Squillionaires who can't stand being cooped up in ten-bedroom Georgian mansions are calling in the builders to get them enough space for the private cinema, the bowling alley and some servants' quarters for the nanny's masseuse. It's only a matter of time before Made In Chelsea features an earth-moving comic sub-plot.
It seems this trend was originally set in motion by the nice man who founded Foxtons, Jon Hunt. Hunt sparked the boom in basement-building in 2008, when he decided that he would build an underground lair that befitted his status as the true Bond villain of the Blair years. As Bond villains go, Hunt had already executed a scheme that pisses on Xavier Bardem's torturous train-derailings. Invoke the greed of the populace, hypnotise them into a massive asset bubble, then piss off into your space capsule just minutes before it goes pop. Which he duly did. With exquisite timing, Hunt sold his share of Foxtons in May 2007 for £375m. Almost like he knew?
The plans for the cavern he was building 22-metres beneath his house on Kensington's most exclusive street included a tennis court, a swimming pool and a showroom for his collection of vintage Ferraris. He needed it because otherwise he'd have had to keep his vintage Ferraris in the public vintage Ferrari display rooms, and you get all sorts there – and I understand that logic completely, it's for those exact same reasons that I refuse to oin Caledonian Road Leisure Centre.
Of course, those meddling pricks at the council kicked up a stink. But Hunt had already calculated that there was nothing anyone could do. Planning legislation only ever covered the above-ground stuff. Plainly, the law had no mandate on what sat beneath. The council still tried to stop him. “We were really taking the piss,” an insider noted, “But we had a barrister. And the policy would not cover their reasons for refusal, so in the end they had to grant permission.”
It's a special sort of tactic. Doing something farcical to a conservation area? No bother. Just blast it with the barrister and the massive legal loophole. It makes you realise just why Hunt managed to amass a £375m personal fortune. If he found a legal loophole that allowed him to strangle babies in the fresh produce aisle of Harrods without the Old Bill being able to lay a finger on him, it seems likely he'd take it up with gusto. He'd probably get through the contents of a creche in a morning before he got bored, and retired to his underground Xanadu to look at some vintage Ferraris and have a private Zumba session.
The plans for Jon Hunt's cavern
Yet in spite of their baby-strangling tendencies, I still feel a certain pity for Hunt and his type. What sort of a life can it be for Mr Super-Rich, cooped up in his palace, thinking his boring thoughts about Premier League football, doing endless laps of his underground infinity pool, dialling out for yet another Khazakstani prostitute? It's as existential as they come. There's something that grows in a man's soul after he gets the first £50m, a kind of spiritual vertigo that can't be even slightly fun. The worrying sense that everything you have is just an illusion, a quirk in the banking system, that all those zeroes you keep checking on your iPhone Coutts app are for nothing and the ordinary population out beyond the gates would happily see your head on a pike if they could just find a way.
That is why he needs to build downwards. It strikes at a primal human need to be safe. To make sure you can't be attacked from behind. You can't buy health. And you can't buy people not raping you with a shotgun in a Tripoli market-place, as Colonel Gaddafi found out to his peril.
The rich have it for now, but given enough time, this will surely go the way of most building fads and end up adapted to the tastes of the aspirational lower classes. It can't be too long until we see the equivalent of 80s double-glazing salesmen or 90s conservatory vultures coming to your door with a thick catalogue and a whiff of the Essex golf club to them, offering to transform your whole existence simply by transforming your home into something twice the size.
“Of course, it's just 107 easy monthly payments of £109.90,” they'll grin. “All you need to do is sign here and I can have the boys round on Monday. Now, would you prefer Model One – this is our family option – see, Dad's got his snooker room here. Mum's got her tanning salon and hydrotherapy unit here. And then we offer a room for the kids over here – one of those ones where you just have lots of coloured balls. In fact, we've based it off of an exact replica of a good-sized McDonald's. Or perhaps Madam would prefer the porn dungeon? Comes with state of the art security features: the kids will never get within a country mile of it. Here's the rack. And here, here and here, are the screws.”
Either way, I don't hold out much hope for the country. Not now that George Entwistle has resigned, the fall of the BBC and consequent retreat towards anarchy and barbarism is very much underway, and we're all basically marking the days until we find ourselves eating the charred hind quarters of an Alsatian over a bonfire of telephone directories. Then, our porn dungeons will all come in very handy, as the last place on Earth we can retreat to after the lights go out, after the water mains are cut and the tin opener becomes society's highest form of magic. There, we can all make John Frum-style godheads of Jon "Rhymes With Really Cool Guy" Hunt, and stand around the last working dildo praying that the man who lead us to this place will once again lead us away with another of his pieces of asset bubble sorcery.
Follow Gavin on Twitter: @hurtgavinhaynes
Previously: The World Is Full of Pinheaded Weasels