London: I get wisty over you
When I visit London, I’m part-tourist, part-ghost, wholly wistful and ridiculously excited to see the old haunts again. The first in a two-part series about the capital's evolution over three decades
Thameside walk: Tower Bridge and City Hall, aka ‘the glass testicle’
Some thoughts from recent trips to the capital and my home town for 25 years. There is a lot to say, so this will have to go over two posts.
Tower Bridge, South Bank and ‘Northbank’
Two nights, one long meeting, one huge lunch, one book launch, drinks with one old buddy, more units of alcohol than one should admit to in these careful days. And I walked 16 miles in tight Jones boots.
Why? The Underground is unhealthy; and as for the black cabs, you pay a lot of money to not move anywhere very fast. Despite COVID and Brexit having kicked London in the goolies good and proper, the building doesn’t stop. London continues to cram an incredible intensity of new real estate into its medieval street patterns. That means blocked roads, filter systems and frustrations for the road user.
But for the user of pavements and alleys – the walker – London is better than it has perhaps ever been. I have to keep reminding myself, and anyone reading this, just what a pleasure it is to walk in London streets, streets that used to be so flyblown and dog-shitty, the air all diesel and nicotine, half of the city dead by dusk. And it will only get better as electric cars become the norm – and, after 70 years of tyranny, traffic finally, again, becomes subservient to people.
Tower Bridge Road to St Paul’s
I stayed in Bermond’s Locke (above). It’s one of those new hip hotels that doubles as a day care centre for freelancers and other lost souls. The ground floor is packed with people, every one of them attached to a laptop and a phone, every one serious-faced and silent. I’ve experienced noisier libraries. I guess the business model works, but I notice that there’s no queue at the coffee counter: and people sit there for hours.
Next door, there’s a Premier Inn; and if you want a snapshot of the past decade in budget hospitality, compare the two places. At 7.30am I went into the Premier Inn searching for a coffee (the lost souls and baristas don’t appear at Bermond’s until after 8am). It was dark, vaguely smelling of disinfectant and the restaurant was a place that has not seen a moment of joy since it opened. I passed on the coffee and did what I should have done in the first place: head to Bermondsey Street, as freewheeling and provenantial a row of bars and cafes in a regenerated old leatherworkers’ quarter as you’ll find anywhere..
Later that night, I walked past the Premier Inn to see a family of four, mum, dad and two teenagers dining there – the only diners. The agony. Down for a day in London and you get THIS?
I didn’t venture into the City over Tower Bridge. I used to live a mile from the Square Mile in Islington, but I didn’t work there and until recently, no normal person would come here for drinks and dinner.
Only once did I get a job interview in the City. I was at that difficult stage in a Humanities graduate’s life (pre-internet) where you’d apply for anything in the Guardian’s Creative and Media jobs section. So it was I found myself talking to Freddie Trash about a job selling small ads for a teacher’s newspaper. I am not kidding: Freddie Trash was his name, and I rather think he wore a bow tie. One of us, or possibly both, did not move forward with the application.
Instead, I walked along the river to Westminster. This isn’t something you could have done, even if you’d wanted to, which is doubtful, before this side of the Thames began to attract the developers in the 1990s.
A Londoner who deserves a statue
Terence Conran at Bidendum, another restaurant he rediscovered. His was also the go-to shade of blue shirt c1993-2000
Money is one thing, but you need a bit of vision too. One man who had that vision: Sir Terence Conran.
Conran first worked on the Festival of Britain, an optimistic post-war event designed to show that Great Britain, this empire of the past, had a stake in the future. Culturally, it was about a decade too early. Its architectural legacy is a collection of brutalist, tear-stained buildings which house the South Bank arts space. London has done its best with this little slice of Coventry in its midst; but Londoners will never love the South Bank.
After making his name and money in furniture and retail design, Conran was an early settler in Butler’s Wharf, to the east of Tower Bridge – a land that may as well have had a sign saying ‘Here by dragons’ before the 1980s. Having put his stamp on the regeneration movement, he then set about reforming Londoners’ dining habits. His spectacular series of big, theatrical restaurant openings beginning with the reborn Quaglino’s in 1993. The Evening Standard’s restaurant critic Fay Maschler wrote: “When I walked down that catwalk staircase at Conran's Quaglino's in 1993, I thought here is a kind of London glamour that has been missing since probably 1929”.
This was a time when property prices began to race ahead of salaries. A journalist born a decade after me could in no way contemplate buying a flat in Islington, as I had. One economic side-effect: people spent more dosh on eating out. One interesting social side effect: the dinner party died out. In our 30s, every weekend, we were either hosting a dinner party or going to someone’s house (in Notting Hill, Shepherd's Bush, Marylebone, Clapham– all affordable on normal London Dinky money then). I doubt if today’s London thirtysomethings do that once a year. Flats are too small, distances between them too great.
Some of Conran’s gastro-empire has disappeared. But I’m delighted that Le Point de la Tour survives.
Tony and Cherie and Bill and Hillary
Ruling the free world from a Thameside tower restaurant
If I were to choose a list of Highly Significant but Largely Forgotten Events in Recent London History, it'd be 29 May, 1997.
Labour’s young Prime Minister, Tony Blair, had just been elected. US president Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary hopped over very soon afterwards to see him. The Queen invited the Clintons to tea at 5pm – which they politely declined, saying they wanted to ‘be tourists’.
Instead, they and the Blairs, Tony and Cherie, had dinner like any other successful young lawyer couples, at Conran’s Le Pont de la Tour. It was a very deliberate turning away from protocol and tradition. A few months later, the Queen was to hear from Blair about the limits of protocol and tradition again – only this time the very monarchy was at stake. It’s all recorded here.
The Blair/Clinton bill is in the National Archives in Kew. We talk about inflation: but it was still £20 for a plate of salmon 25 years ago!
It’s quite right this important document should be preserved for the nation.
This was historic: the high summer of moderate, liberal, ever-so-slightly left politics, the high point of ‘sofa’ government, where our leaders eschewed the state rooms, white gloves and silver service of traditional statecraft. In 1997, it seemed their way would last forever.
A wobble in time
I hadn’t walked across the Millenium Bridge (above) before. It neither wobbled nor wibbled, which was a shame. Here’s another one for my Highly Significant but Largely Forgotten events.
The date is 12 June, 2000. That wasn’t the opening date, but two days later, when they closed the bridge because of ‘unexpected lateral vibration due to resonant structural response’. In other words, it wobbled a lot.
It is the perfect British story. We create a new thing of great beauty. We feel proud, but somehow uneasy. Then it goes wrong. We breathe easily. The universe is again functioning normally.
My journey in no-man’s land
My super wistful mood (wisteria?) grew as I wandered from St Paul’s to Fleet St. Once there was a fine viaduct here. But London (apart from Hong Kong, maybe) is the least architecturally sentimental city in the world: all that ornate Victorian wrought iron was carted away in 1990. Victor Sebestyen and I used to play snooker and drink Guinness in a gloomy club under those iron arches during lunchtime (yes, that’d be lunchtime) breaks from our jobs at the Standard. Then the Standard went to Kensington, the Telegraph to Canary Wharf, the Times to Wapping: and Fleet Street became a figurative term as opposed to an economic cluster of tradespeople.
Even ghosts like me find the Fleet Street of 2022 a bit of a dull place to haunt.
As the Aldwych becomes the Strand, eager young people in blue-ribboned bowler hats give out leaflets. They are representing Northbank, a persistently unsuccessful attempt to give this stretch of London a ‘brand’.
It doesn’t work, because the road that dominates ‘Northbank’, The Strand, is a nothing. Don’t be fooled by Roxy Music. This is, and always has been, an in-between place, a utilitarian thoroughfare which, with one very notable exception, has never attracted any shops or theatres or people of any great note. I (also un-notable) worked here for several years in what, in retrospect, was also an inbetweeny point in my career.
But every great city, or most of them, has its Strand, its breather from the big, important stuff.
What the Strand has lots of is homeless people; and no number of eager young folk in bowler hats can make you see past that particular affront to the London brand.
In fact, they are here because of one of the best things there is about London: the St-Martin’s-in-the-Field Charity. For this is one problem the Blairs and the Clintons didn’t manage to solve. Mind, today’s politicians aren’t even interested in solving it.
Let’s end with a little London swagger
I finished my walks with a glass of champagne at The Corinthia, a very new five star hotel by London standards. But it’s got a swagger and an allure many of its more illustrious forebears lack, The suites and terraces are out of this world. If you are a visiting US president, send a polite note to Buckingham Palace saying thanks, but you have already booked your accommodation for the night. I’d try the Writer’s Suite.
A terrace at The Corinthia, looking back at the walk we’ve just done
Songs that take you places
Staying out for the Summer by Dodgy
The 90s in London: possibly a theme I’ll come back to. Definitely a theme I’ll come back to. You’re spoilt for musical choice. Let’s avoid the really obvious – Blur – and go for the Really Quite Obvious But Brilliantly Heartwarming All The Same. Dodgy – a great and defiantly unexportable name, and a great band. No apologies or choosing the one Dodgy track everyone knows. It’s summer, innit?
The full Marklands playlist is here: https://open.qobuz.com/playlist/8335276.
Let’s end back on the river, and the place where London came to be
Along the whole stretch of the tidal Thames only one place exists where two spurs of high, dry and gravelly land face each other on the river’s banks on which a pair of bridgeheads could stand securely – on the south bank at Southwark and on the north bank at the foot of the twin hills on which the City stands. Here, the engineers of the Roman army built the most important crossing of the Thames. Around this wooden bridge a settlement grew up, a port and a meeting place of roads from every quarter. Until 1750, when the first bridge at Westminster was completed, London Bridge was the only one spanning the Thames in London.
The London Encyclopedia
Messages from an anxious place
I’ve recently started a new blog on this platform with my nephew, Rhys. It’s about anxiety: what it is, how you deal with it, and how people who don’t live with it can help those that do. We’d really appreciate if you signed up or told people about it. Link below. Thanks, Mark
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