In central London you’re never far from buildings designed by Henry Astley Darbishire, the dependable architect of choice for philanthropic individuals and institutions in the second half of the 19th century.
With so few people on the streets, your eyes are drawn upwards. I’ve walked or cycled down Rupert Street countless times but have never before noticed the Exchange and Bullion Office at No. 9. The Survey of London says they were the offices of Benjamin Smart, a gold dealer in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Walk south from St Paul’s Cathedral, itself gloriously lit but merely corroborating what we already know and admire of it, over the Millennium Bridge and east along the south bank of the Thames to see the revelatory sequence of Southwark, Cannon Street and London Bridges. Formerly either blanked out by nightfall or dully picked up in a single wash of yellow or blue, they now unpeel in front of your eyes along the riverbank, linked by their calibrated tones and shifting timing, subtle painterly effects achieved by LEDs and computer programming.
The 1909 Cinematograph Act used the term ‘inflammable films’ in a literal sense – cellulose nitrate catches fire easily – but some local authorities interpreted it to mean ‘morally dangerous’, and it led to censorship. Still, the act wasn’t as confusing as the latest flurry of communication from the British government. One of its requirements was that exhibitors provide fire exits, which led to the emergence of purpose-built picture houses. Many of the buildings are still standing, though few of them are still cinemas.
Lo’s Noodle Factory supplies almost all the Chinatown restaurants, as well as the Hakkasan group; no one was cutting noodles when I went there on a Friday afternoon. ‘It’s not just Chinatown. It’s anywhere where there are Chinese people. France, Italy – it doesn’t matter; it’s the whole world,’ said the man handing me my order of char siu bao, red bean buns and cheung fun. Lo’s only just avoided closing last November, when Shaftesbury plc (which owns most of Chinatown) tried to turn it into an electrical substation. The whole area was already under pressure from skyrocketing rents and immigration enforcement raids. The novel coronavirus has further stymied Chinatown’s micro-economy.
The Whitechapel Bell Foundry, the maker of Big Ben and the Liberty Bell, was established in 1570. In 2017 it closed its premises on the corner of Whitechapel Road and Plumbers Row, where it had been since the mid-1740s. The site was bought by Raycliff, an American private investment group, whose other assets include a stake in the hotel chain Soho House. Raycliff wants to convert the Whitechapel site – the original Grade II*-listed building and a number of later extensions – into a ‘boutique hotel’ with a roof pool, some shared workspace and a café with a small workshop tucked into a corner.
The first V2 to hit London fell on Staveley Road, Chiswick, on the evening of Friday, 8 September 1944. There was a small gathering to commemorate the 75th anniversary at the site last Sunday. Unlike the V1s, which you could hear coming with the buzzing of their pulsejet engine – Iris Murdoch described watching them ‘tottering past the window’ – V2s gave no warning at all. Fired from continental Europe and tracing out a parabola into space, they fell at supersonic speed from at least fifty miles up.
I first met Leon Kossoff at Willesden Junction, down by the railway tracks, in 1995. I was there to take his photograph for the catalogue of his show at the British pavilion in Venice that summer. The following year I took his portrait for his retrospective at the Tate. I photographed him for the last time in 2013, for the catalogue of his show at the Annely Juda gallery. The idea was to meet at Arnold Circus, where Leon had grown up, and take pictures there. Afterwards we had coffee in a café on Calvert Avenue, the street where Leon’s father had run his bakery. I sent the pictures to Leon and he didn’t very much like them.
The Tyburn Angling Society purports to have been established by a royal charter issued by King Edgar the Peaceable in 959 AD, though there are no records of its existing before the 21st century. The River Tyburn, culverted in 1750, still flows underground from Hampstead to Westminster. The society claims to want to ‘daylight’ the river, bringing it back up to the surface. It commissioned a map in the early 2000s showing the proposed course, which would cut a swathe through ‘£1 billion worth of property’. The buildings marked for demolition included Buckingham Palace and the offices of Westminster City Council, which promptly rejected the proposal.
Seventy-five years ago, on 13 June 1944, a pilotless aircraft flew over the south of England in the early hours of the morning. Its engine buzzed loudly, giving off flames in the moonless night, until it cut out somewhere over the East End of London at 4.25 a.m., and crashed in Mile End along with nearly a tonne of explosive. The blast destroyed a railway bridge, killed six people, injured 42 and made two hundred homeless.
The Report of the Children’s Employment Commission, published in 1842, was compiled by Dickens’s friend Richard Henry Horne. The result of a three-year investigation, it was unprecedented, not merely for the level of shocking detail and first-hand evidence, but because it was illustrated. And most of the 26 images were by Gillies.
I remember the Admiral Duncan bombing through the media coverage: footage of fire engines and a policeman with a bloodstained shirt on the Nine O’Clock News that evening; the gouged-out front of the bar in grainy newsprint photos the next day. And I remember thinking: ‘They really hate gay people.’ It’s the kind of awkward thought you have on the cusp of adolescence: ‘they’ is hard to define, but it’s large, out there and armed; and ‘gay people’, you are beginning to sense, however scrupulously you may draw the third-person boundary in speech, includes you.
‘Where the fuck is the government?’ posters on Waterloo Bridge said. A road sign at the northern end flashed: ‘Global warming at work.’
Lorenza Mazzetti now runs a puppet theatre for children in Rome. But in London in the 1950s, when she was in her early twenties, she begged, borrowed and stole camera equipment to film K, an adaption of Metamorphosis, in a storage space in Notting Hill and a fabric shop in Soho with no script and a non-professional cast who had never heard of Kafka. Her next project, Together, the first publicly funded British fiction film directed by a woman, portrays the friendship between two dockworkers. Both characters are deaf; there’s no dialogue. Filmed in the streets, wharfs, pubs and fairgrounds of the bombed-out East End in 1956, Together woke British audiences up to a different kind of cinema.
There are 415 British MPs who don’t take climate change seriously enough. That is the number who voted to build a third runway at Heathrow earlier this week; 119 of them were Labour. The plans sailed through Parliament, despite some vocal but limited resistance. Only 119 MPs voted against it. Most of them weren’t worried that a third runway would make it near impossible to meet the government’s carbon reduction commitments. They were concerned that the plans were London-centric and might sideline transport projects in the north.
‘There’s a writer in England called … er, Peter Ackroyd,’ David Bowie said in a short film he made in 2003, ‘who wrote a book called … Hawksmoor I think it was. Wasn't it? Yeah.’ Ackroyd's 1985 novel struck him as 'a very powerful book, and quite scary', and in 2013 Bowie included it on a list of his favourite 100 books, ranging from the Beano to The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. His son, the filmmaker Duncan Jones, recently launched #BowieBookClub to discuss 'dad's favs' on Twitter, choosing Hawksmoor as 'an amuse cerveau before we get into the heavy stuff'.
Britain’s south-eastern coastline is low-lying, and faces relatively shallow waters. This makes London naturally vulnerable to the surges created when high tides coincide with North Sea storms, and shove water back up the Thames. We have records of the city being flooded since the Anglo-Saxon era. In 1236 there were boats rowing through the Palace of Westminster; in 1928 the Tate Gallery was drenched in mud. After a surge in 1953 killed hundreds of people across the Thames Estuary, the government commissioned a report on what to do from the mathematician and cosmologist Hermann Bondi. The result was the Thames Barrier at Woolwich, operational since 1983.
‘Online intimidation of Tories brings call to curb Momentum,’ a headline in the Timessaid on Wednesday. The article was about a new report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which ‘contains detailed criticism of “fringe groups” that have a big impact on the tone of political debate’. The report doesn’t name Momentum, but the Times is confident the left-wing Labour group is its target. But what about the right-wing press? Yesterday, the Daily Mail attacked a number of Conservative MPs on its front page for voting to give Parliament a say on any final Brexit deal. Most of them were among those branded ‘mutineers’ by the Telegraph last month. Some of them have since received death threats.
Colourful banners hang from the balconies of Bowater House: 'Under London, heaven's light, grow life, not loot,' one of the 21 slogans says. Another: 'One day will this shadow fall.' The building is part of the Golden Lane Estate, a Grade II-listed social housing complex designed in the 1950s and built on a bomb site in the City of London. Bernard Morgan House opposite is shrouded in white sheets bearing the logo 'Taylor Wimpey'. The developer is about to demolish the building, which housed key workers between 1960 and 2015, and replace it with a 10-storey luxury block called The Denizen.
In Psmith, Journalist (1915), P.G. Wodehouse’s most enterprising character stumbles into the world of New York journalism and transforms a sleepy and sentimental family paper, Cosy Moments, into a campaigning publication. He sacks all the regular columnists and launches a crusade to improve the living conditions of tenement dwellers and unmask their anonymous landlord, despite threats encouraging him to stop: ‘Cosy Moments cannot be muzzled!’ he declares.
In 1893, the London Daily News published an article about Notting Dale, an area in north Kensington also known as the Potteries for its brick-making kilns and clay pits. ‘A West End Avernus’ was the headline: poor, overcrowded, with shocking housing – if there was an entrance to the Underworld, then this, the article said, was it. A grotesque report inspired by the piece a couple of years later blamed the bad condition of the area on the ‘vicious proclivities of the people themselves’. They were, the report said, ‘loafers, cab-runners, beggars, tramps, thieves and prostitutes’. One of the clay pits made by the 19th-century brick makers was so large that it was called the ‘Ocean’: it was filled with slime. The houses nearby were said to be of ‘a wretched class, many being mere hovels in a ruinous condition, filthy in the extreme, and containing vast accumulations of garbage and offal’. The wells were contaminated. The risk of cholera was high.
Cressida Dick is replacing Bernard Hogan-Howe as the Metropolitan Police commissioner. She is the first woman to hold the post in its 200-year history, which has spurred hope that she will reform the Met in a period of uncertainty and strain. The budgetry perils the force faces are real: Hogan-Howe said recently that his successor’s biggest challenge would be ‘money’. But Dick has another problem too. She was the senior officer in charge during the 2005 operation in which Jean Charles de Menezes was killed. Firearms officers emptied eight rounds into the Brazilian electrician at Stockwell tube station after wrongly suspecting him to be a suicide bomber.
Ian Gilmour on the horrors of Heathrow, the last time they were proposing to expand the airport (LRB, 19 March 1998): Heathrow is the worst-sited major airport in the world. Probably no other country would be crazy enough to place its principal airport at a spot which, when the prevailing wind is blowing, requires all aircraft coming in to land to fly first over its capital, one of the world’s most heavily populated cities. And I am pretty sure that if any other country had committed such a blunder, it would not magnify it by building another airport next door to the original mistake.
The Polish Social and Cultural Association on King Street in Hammersmith was daubed with racist graffiti at the weekend. I went to school just up the road, and take the attack on the Polish club more personally than I can explain.
In Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, published in 1978 but set in the late 1950s (and based on her experience in a Southwold bookshop), Florence Green decides to open the only bookshop in Hardborough, a place with no fish and chips, no cinema, no laundrette, an ‘island between sea and river’. Ripping Yarns, the Highgate bookshop which will close on Sunday, is on a sort of island too, between Highgate Village and Muswell Hill.
Two years ago, I counted 64 cranes from the top of Primrose Hill; now I count 96. Words attributed to William Blake are carved in stone on the hill's summit: 'I have conversed with the Spiritual Sun, I saw him on Primrose Hill.’ They were recorded by the poet’s friend, Henry Crabb Robinson. Blake told Crabb Robinson that God had spoken to him: ‘He said, "Do you take me for the Greek Apollo?" "No," I said, "that" – and Blake pointed to the sky – "that is the Greek Apollo. He is Satan.”’
Tessa Jowell is the current bookmakers’ favourite to be the Labour candidate in next year’s London mayoral election. If the odds are to be believed, Sadiq Khan is the only other person who stands a chance. Diane Abbott, the candidate most likely to benefit from the recent surge in Labour Party membership and support for Jeremy Corbyn, is well behind at 25-1. The Hackney MP shouldn’t be written off just yet – Corbyn was once a 100-1 shot for the party leadership – but the chances of a second bushwhack by the Labour left seem remote.
There was general upset earlier this year when TFL revealed that the redevelopment of Tottenham Court Road station would lead to the removal of portions of Eduardo Paolozzi’s 1984 mosaics. The 20th-Century Society called – again – for a register of public art and bemoaned English Heritage’s failure to list them (as they had the water fountains at the station, also removed). Most of the murals, TFL says 95 per cent, remain in situ and are being restored, but the arches at the top of the escalators, which made going underground look like descending into Ali Baba’s futurist cave, are gone.
When Vittorio De Sica was looking for funding to make the film that became Bicycle Thieves, the story goes, David O. Selznick offered to put up the money on condition that the lead would be played by Cary Grant. Film historians tend to take this as an instance of Hollywood crassness, though maybe it should be classed as one of cinema’s lost opportunities.
London’s two velodromes were built in the 19th and 21st centuries. The indoor track at the Lee Valley Velodrome, one of the fastest in the world, is housed in a beautiful stadium built at cost of £94 million. Its distinctive roof, a hyperbolic paraboloid clad in 5000m2 of custom-cut Western red cedar, is a prominent landmark at the edge of the 2012 Olympic park. The open-air track at Herne Hill is completely hidden in a South London suburb.
In Patrick Keiller’s film London (1994) there’s only one moment at which the camera moves: on the up escalator in the old central court of Brent Cross Shopping Centre, a once magical attraction for children all over north-west London. The fountain you can see in the court and the panels of rainbow-coloured ‘stained-glass’ in the cupola above aren’t there any more. They disappeared in 1996, in an ‘improvement and expansion’ scheme.
A five-foot, one-thousand-pound unexploded Second World War bomb was found on Monday on a building site near where I live in Bermondsey. Several streets were closed, causing traffic chaos, and 1200 residents were evacuated. None of the police I spoke to knew how long we would have to leave for: we were told to prepare for ‘at least 48 hours’. In the event, I was allowed to return to my flat at 9 p.m., but the police, wanting to speak about evacuation plans for the following morning, when the bomb was scheduled to be moved, hammered on my door three times between midnight and 7 a.m., when I finally gave up on sleeping and left the area.
Battersea Arts Centre, badly damaged by a fire last Friday, started life as the town hall. In the spirit of late Victorian civic pride and aspiration, the capacious porch is decorated with figures representing Labour, Progress, Art and Literature instructing the infant Battersea, who looks remarkably confident about the likely benefits coming his way. Built in 1892-93 to the designs of E.W. Mountford (the architect of the Old Bailey), the imposing exterior anticipates Edwardian Baroque while the interior is tinged with the dawning of art nouveau, most strikingly in the great coloured glass dome, painted with tendrils of golden foliage, like a giant Tiffany lampshade.
Dead bodies are being evicted from East London to make way for the new Crossrail station at Liverpool Street. Crossrail is gentrifying the soil. Last week archaeologists began digging up skeletons from what used to be the Bedlam, or Bethlehem, burial ground. The cemetery took its name from the lunatic asylum, which was close by, and some of the people buried there were former inmates. But it was mostly used, between 1569 and 1738, by East London parishes as an overflow cemetery for ill-favoured corpses, an underground slum for the dead.
Nairn’s London has just been reissued by Penguin, with an afterword by Gavin Stamp. On Sunday, the Routemaster bus that appears on the cover of the 1966 edition (registration number CUV 217C; Ian Nairn leaning jauntily from the cab), took fifty of Nairn’s devotees on a tour of his London.
The Open House weekend, when buildings across London open their doors to visitors, gets bigger every year: the most recent, its 23rd, featured more than 800 buildings and 2600 architect-led tours. Part of the pleasure lies in discovering so much of the city that is hidden from you: 10 Downing Street, the Cheesegrater, banks, halls and bell-towers; it's like walking onto a movie set, or into another life. It also indulges your nosiness about how other people live (and where): who knew there’s a three-bedroom flat at the top of St Pancras Station's clock tower, or that Lewisham has a whole cul-de-sac built on stilts?
Barnet Council and Barratt Homes are in the early stages of knocking down a housing estate in West Hendon, to replace it with a new development. Their aim is to create ‘high quality new homes in a pleasant environment and make the area a desirable place to live, work and spend time in’. But not for most of the current residents: nearly 400 homeowners and non-secure tenants, along with their families, are being ‘decanted’ off the estate. Twenty-six non-secure tenants have already been made to leave. Those remaining are not going quietly.
Rectory Gardens, a residential mews in Clapham Old Town, is being emptied, one household at a time. Henry, who has lived in the street since 1985, is among those waiting to be rehoused. When he leaves, Lambeth Council will probably hire Camelot, a ‘vacant property management’ company, to install ‘guardians’: people who pay the company for the privilege of staying in disused buildings and keeping out squatters. There are several property guardians already living on the street.
The ‘deconstruction’ of the main part of the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle is well underway. Since last autumn, it has been almost completely hidden by scaffolding; to a passerby, it might have looked as if the blocks were being built rather than being taken down. But now that any asbestos and all the fixtures and fittings have been removed, cranes are removing the concrete panels from the block nearest the Walworth Road. It’s an unspectacular demolition, and a quiet one. There won’t be a specific moment of explosive collapse; the 1974 structure will just be gone by the end of the year.
In mid-March, on the weekend that France played Ireland at the Stade de France (the reason I was in Paris), the city authorities made public transport free. This was because of the air pollution, which was bad despite the skies that were clear and blue. The mayor had hoped that Parisians would give up on their cars and travel instead by Metro, tram or bus. I don't know Paris well enough to guess whether there were fewer cars that weekend or not, but the streets on those ideal spring days didn't seem any less packed with traffic. Still, there's nothing like the idea of free transport – the thought you could go anywhere, despite there being people to see, and places to be, such as the Stade de France at five. You wonder what would happen were Boris Johnson to consider the same thing, what with the London air, like the air over much of Southern England today, spiked with Saharan dust.
Last Tuesday a group of 29 young mothers and mothers-to-be occupied an East Thames Housing Association show flat in protest against their prospective eviction from the Focus E15 Foyer, a hostel that provides temporary social housing and training to young people in Newham. Some of the Focus E15 Mothers have been there for more than three years. Six months ago, the women were served an eviction notice following a council decision to cut £41,000 of funding for the Foyer and its purpose-built single-parent units. The only alternative offered to them was private rental accommodation in Hastings, Birmingham or Manchester, far from their families, friends, jobs, colleges and children’s schools.
1. Mark Duggan was shot dead by a Metropolitan Police officer on 4 August 2011 after getting out of a minicab on Ferry Lane, Tottenham. The inquest into his killing concluded yesterday. All ten jurors agreed he had a gun with him in the taxi before police stopped it. Eight of them were sure the gun was no longer in his hands when he was shot. And yet, by an 8-2 majority, they found that Duggan was lawfully killed. The jury accepted that V53, the anonymous officer who shot Duggan, ‘honestly believed, even if that belief was mistaken’, that he needed to use deadly force to defend himself against an unarmed man. According to the police witness accounts, Duggan was holding a gun until the moment he was shot. A gun was later found behind a wall nearby. No witnesses – including the only civilian – describe seeing Duggan throw anything away.
Six cyclists have been killed on London’s streets in the last fortnight. On 5 November Brian Holt, a hospital porter from Aldgate, was hit by a lorry on Cycle Superhighway 2 in Mile End. On 7 November a man died after a collision with a bus in Croydon. Last week Francis Golding was hit by a coach at the corner of Southampton Row and Theobalds Road. He later died in hospital. On Wednesday morning a woman was hit by a heavy goods vehicle as she cycled round Bow roundabout, where two other cyclists have died this year.
When my father was a student at the University of Cape Town in the 1970s, the university went to court to prevent the police coming onto campus during political demonstrations. Yesterday Michael Chessum, the president of the University of London students’ union, was arrested on suspicion of an offence under Section 11 of the Public Order Act – failing to notify the police of a public procession. The procession in question was a demonstration the previous day of maybe 200 students, on the pavement outside the students union, around the perimeter of Senate House and in the Senate House car park.
A few days ago a coroner released a report on the deaths of two cyclists killed in London. Both died while cycling along Cycle Superhighway 2, which runs from Bow to Aldgate. Both were hit by heavy goods vehicles. One of them, Philippine De Gerin-Ricard, was riding a Boris Bike.
Squatters have moved in next door. 195 Mare Street, a Grade II* listed Georgian villa built in 1699, is the second oldest surviving house in Hackney. It’s been derelict for years: windows boarded up, front garden overgrown. Until, that is, one evening last week, when I saw people passing bags and boxes over the gate. The next morning, some sheets of A4 paper had been posted to the railings.
On 15 January, in a six-hour meeting that ended just after midnight, Southwark Council’s planning committee voted to turn the Heygate Estate in Elephant and Castle, where 2800 people once lived in 1212 flats, into a ‘mixed-use development’ of 2500 homes for 4000 people, plus shops and restaurants and some ‘community space’. It was asked why the scheme would be an improvement on what’s already there. ‘It’s better because it’s an improvement,’ came the non-answer. Nearly 300 fully grown oak trees will be cut down to make way for a privately managed park. A quarter of the land will be given over to car parking, on a site that has the best transport connections in London.
Philippine De Gerin-Ricard was killed by a heavy goods vehicle as she cycled past Aldgate East tube station on Friday, 5 July. She was riding a Boris bike along CS2, one of Transport for London’s pale blue ‘Cycle Superhighways’, painted onto the roads two years ago to encourage people to get on their bikes. She was the third person to have been killed on CS2 and the second cyclist to have died in east London in the last fortnight. HGVs make up only 4 per cent of traffic, but were involved in more than half of all cyclist deaths in London in 2011. In Paris, where HGVs are banned from the roads during the day, no cyclists were killed in 2011. Sixteen cyclists died in London in the same year.
In March the Southbank Centre announced plans to redevelop the Royal Festival Hall, including the undercroft, a small scruffy space, covered in graffiti, which has long been used by skateboarders and BMX riders. It's probably the most famous – and certainly the most well documented – skateboarding spot in Europe. On one of the foundation piers of Hungerford Bridge there's a skateboard graveyard: boards broken by the undercroft’s brutal geometry are scattered across the concrete.
A year ago, during the riots, James Meek wrote that London 'is not the mixing city its liberal inhabitants would like to think it is. Loving the cultural diversity of London as a spectator-inhabitant is not the same as mingling with it':
The only football ticket I’ve ever bought a from a tout was for the FA Cup semi-final between Manchester City and United at Wembley last year. It cost me more than a third of my monthly rent. After the tout had satisfied himself that I wasn’t a cop he told me that the ticket was ‘one and a half’ and that I could collect it from his pal. ‘My mate’s in the bookies, ’cause it’s bent round here with the Old Bill.’ In the bookmakers there were horses on the telly, beer in the air, and football on everyone’s lips. A thin man with an unlit cigarette in his mouth gave me a ticket in a Club Wembley branded envelope, and I handed over £150.
I stayed up until about 3 a.m. on Thursday night, listlessly watching the BBC coverage of the local elections in England and Wales (the graphics get more elaborate every year; the presenters more desperate in their pretence that they’re broadcasting to anyone but politicians and insomniac election nuts). But, parochially, there’s only one race I’ve been following: the London mayoral election. Ken Livingstone may be unlikeable in some people’s eyes – ‘Vote Reptilian Stalinist!’ was a rallying cry going round, only half-jokingly, on Twitter recently – but he’s been the most, some would say the only, recognisable figure in London politics for a generation. There wasn’t much going on in my life in 1986 when the Greater London Council was abolished, and since it was what the politically obsessed adults around me were talking about, it seemed worth writing down in my Hello Kitty notebook.
Beware the wrath of the cycling lobby. In an editorial for the latest issue of add lib, the minicab company Addison Lee’s in-house magazine, its chairman, John Griffin, called for cyclists to ‘get trained and pay up’ if they want to share the road with drivers.
In January, Transport for London applied for anti-social behaviour orders to be issued against four unnamed young men. Under the terms of the ASBO, they are prohibited from speaking to one another for ten years, carrying equipment that may be used for exploring after dark or blogging about ‘urban exploration’. Their crime: in the early hours of Easter Monday last year, as ever-tightening security encircled London ahead of the royal wedding, the group entered Russell Square tube station, and walked along the deserted train tracks and closed tunnels to the abandoned station at Aldwych.
Last Thursday the Times launched a campaign to ‘Save Our Cyclists’. It was also the first anniversary of the death of 28-year-old Dan Cox, killed on his bike by a lorry at Dalston Junction. A memorial walk traced his last journey across the city. A ‘ghost bike’ near the spot where he was hit has been painted white and adorned with flowers and a copy of Kafka’s The Trial.
At 6.15 on Friday evening, Henry VIII (played by the bloke who impersonates him at Hampton Court) led a procession of local politicians down the steps of Greenwich’s council offices. In front of a crowd of a few hundred people, they announced that Greenwich had been accorded royal status by the queen in honour of its ‘longstanding royal connections’. It’s only the fourth borough to be given the title (after Kensington and Chelsea, Windsor and Maidenhead, and Kingston upon Thames), and the first for more than a hundred years. It’s almost surprising it didn’t happen earlier: Greenwich is the birthplace of Tudor kings, home to Wren’s Royal Naval College, the National Observatory and the National Maritime Museum (where in the summer David Starkey will be curating an exhibition called Royal River: Power, Pageantry and the Thames), and a Unesco World Heritage Site regularly used by Hollywood to shoot historical scenes of a vanished England.
Russians love living in London: Berezovsky and Abramovich fight it out in a London court room, the Lebedevs buy the Standard and the Independent, minted Sashas and Pashas fill up the public schools, Russian hipsters spliff on London Fields, Russian shoppers throng Selfridges, Russian middle-class professionals walk their tots in Primrose Hill. London is known as ‘Londongrad’ or ‘Moscow on the Thames’; Russian media call it ‘Russia’s premier city abroad’ and even talk about ‘misty Albion’. Skinny bohemians and fat bureaucrats sip overpriced bitter at ‘Olde Englande’ theme pubs in Perm and Ekaterinburg; there’s a boy band called ‘Chelsea’ and Russia’s best alternative rocker has a song called ‘I dreamt of the sky above London’. Tell a certain kind of Russian you’re from the US or Germany and they’ll shrug; say you’re from London and they’ll sigh wistfully the way some Americans once did about Paris.
Not much happened in Camberwell during the riots. Morrisons was boarded up and there was some milling about on the Green one evening, but that was as far as it went. All around us, in Peckham, Brixton and at the Elephant and Castle, there was trouble, but this end of the Walworth Road, properly called Camberwell Road, was unscathed, or rather it remained scathed in the same way as before. From the Green northwards Camberwell presents a collage of changing use and disuse, a continuous Mexican wave of opening and closing shops and businesses, squats, pubs, charities and churches.
When I got there the signs were already up: 'Paternoster Square is private land. Any licence to the public to enter or cross this land is revoked forthwith. There is no implied or express permission to enter any premises or any part. Any such entry will constitute a trespass.' Bundles of legal papers were duct-taped to the archways leading into the square. Police stood about, watching. A few tourists drifted in and out. Photographers stood by, crash helmets dangling from their waists.
A wedding party turned up, on their way to the reception. At first the bride and groom sat in their Merc and waited. Then they got out, and the crowd surrounding them, which got big quite quickly, chanted the Wedding March and cheered as the glowing couple walked off.
On the second Friday of the Egyptian revolution (4 February) I noticed a change in the dusty, makeshift bookstalls on the streets leading to Tahrir Square. The usual array of cheaply printed, sun-faded, sometimes used books – Programming for Dummies, C++, The Prophet’s Hadith, The Little Prince, Advanced Mathematics – were joined by An Alternative President, Red Card for the President, Revolution 2025 and a selection of pirated publications with covers bearing the silhouette of Che Guevara or social networking logos. ‘It was a revolution for our business,’ one of the booksellers told me recently. ‘There were no longer police on the streets – there was no one to arrest us or take away our goods. Censorship ceased to exist.’
The general impression of the Blitz, fostered by war movies and many books, is of a period when intense national solidarity reigned supreme and class was transcended as everybody sang songs and went about their work. But Alexander Cockburn in Counterpunch draws attention to a piece by Gavin Mortimer (author of The Blitz) in the First Post on looting during 'our finest hour':
Some years ago, not long after we saw the looting and burning of Baghdad together, I went with my Iraqi friend Ghaith for lunch in Broadway Market, in Hackney, one of the many parts of London where gentrification of a previously run-down area has been going on for years. The street was, and is, lined with cute shops, bars and restaurants for attractive, trendy, second-generation creative and media types. It has become one of the poles towards which the compass needles of estate agents and fashion-conscious yuppie couples quiver. There is no point in looking to buy a house nearby unless you have at least half a million pounds at your disposal. When Broadway Market actually becomes a market on Saturdays it is as if the council-owned tower blocks and estates behind, around and in between the gentrified patches, where less well-off and poor people live, belong to some other dimension. As Ghaith and I walked down the street a disturbance began.
Why is it that the same areas always erupt first, whatever the cause? Pure accident? Might it have something to do with race and class and institutionalised poverty and the sheer grimness of everyday life? The coalition politicians (including new New Labour, who might well sign up to a national government if the recession continues apace) with their petrified ideologies can’t say that because all three parties are equally responsible for the crisis. They made the mess.
When I got to Mare Street people seemed excited rather than angry. The rhythm of the riot was well established. Every so often a police charge would surge towards Bethnal Green, scattering rioters into side streets where they’d regroup before pushing back. There was the odd cry of ‘hold the lines’, but no one seemed to pay much attention. Outriders ran on ahead, overturning glass recycling bins and arming themselves with bottles. Others fired fireworks at the police, at buses, and at cyclists.
The other evening I was on the roof of a bar on the tenth storey of Peckham multi-storey car park. Frank’s campari bar has been going for three summers, and it’s been written about more than 'locals' who feel smug about it would like. It has the best view of London I’ve ever seen. The city looks like the place I wanted to get to from the boring north London suburb where I grew up. I don’t know what’s going on outside in Peckham Rye right now – except through Twitter and the lamestream media – but the police helicopters are still overhead.
I can see the Shard from my bathroom window. I can also see it from my bedroom and from outside the front door of my office. Millions of other people can see it too as it rises next to London Bridge station. That is the famous thing about it: it’s big. When completed next May it will be, at 310 metres and 72 storeys, the tallest building in western Europe, a fact on which its website and its architect, Renzo Piano, harp relentlessly. It is impossible to overestimate how much size, in the simplest, crudest, mine’s-bigger-than-yours way, matters in architecture. The Strata Tower at the Elephant and Castle enjoyed the not especially impressive title of ‘tallest building in Southwark’ for a few brief months. Now it is eclipsed before it is finished and sulks within sight of its rival, its rooftop turbines (which apparently make too much noise to switch on) sullenly immobile.
Walking from Trafalgar Square to the Houses of Parliament on Wednesday afternoon took about two hours and was very good fun. We were near an art-school crowd who were boisterously throwing glitter and confetti about, and had built an impressive ten-foot vulture out of bin bags and part of a hoover. The sun was out, London looked great, there was chanting (‘Tories, Tories will tear us apart again’ was a favourite), cheering and a brass band. The banners ranged from official university ones to the very much homemade ('CUnTS'). Everyone was there because they were angry but it was like a celebration of us mobilising ourselves so all the way up to Millbank it felt like a kind of important party. On the embankment everyone congregated outside the Tory HQ where people had speakers, there was even dancing. When everyone noticed a crowd had made it up on to the roof we all cheered them, and they cheered back.
One of the most striking things about yesterday's student protests, culminating in the ransacking of Conservative Party HQ at Millbank Tower, was not the numbers involved (50,000 or so), or the violence (sporadic and quite heartening), but the shiny and sterile quality of many of the images of dissent we’ve been offered in today’s papers. This iconic moment of window smashing was a gift to the Daily Mail, but doesn’t exactly justify their description of ‘militants from far-Left groups’ who ‘whipped up a mix of middle-class students and younger college and school pupils into a frenzy’. The phalanx of photographers at the back clearly outnumber any militants or frenzied schoolchildren in the shot.
Last weekend, in the former Royal Mail West Central District sorting office, near LRB HQ, an illegal rave took place. It didn’t take long for the police to arrive: here you can see them trying to stop people getting into the building. As the comments below the video make clear, they failed. The ravers all got in, held their ground and the police withdrew.
Last Sunday afternoon I was eating a pear – an overripe and dangerously juicy pear – on High Holborn, on my way to the gym. When the pear slipped from my hand onto the pavement I bent down to pick it up ('The streets are for people, not for trash,' my mother always said), only to be caught in the act by two old ladies who hadn't seen me eating it. One of them looked aghast as I fumbled with the pear, which by now had collected a fair amount of dirt. Transformed by her gaze into a bum, I became so self-conscious that the pear fell out of my hand again. Determined to bin it somewhere like a responsible citizen, I waited till they'd passed, and made one last, successful attempt to pick it up. Relief! Just then, she turned round to satisfy her curiosity and stared at the man furtively clasping a soiled, half-eaten pear. I was almost tempted to offer her a bite.
When I started working as a housing officer in Westminster in 2006, I finished my first week of visits feeling relieved. There were few signs of antisocial behaviour, no gangs of youths intimidating residents in dark corridors, no evidence of overwhelming deprivation. Which isn’t to say that the tenants’ lives were easy: most were living on low incomes, some had mental or physical health problems, others had learning difficulties, some were addicted to drugs or alcohol, others were simply struggling to bring up their children in small flats with poor sound insulation and tired neighbours complaining about the noise. But they were, for the most part, getting by. And with tenancy for life, low rents and housing benefit, as long as they kept to the terms of their tenancy agreement they had a secure home in an area where they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford to live. That security has now gone.
The invasion of the Boris bikes is complete. They stand on street corners, corralled like docile, futuristic horses in their blue harnesses. They’re good bikes – sturdy and solid – with a rather pleasing sit-up-and-beg riding position the better to survey the road around you. Undocking them is also quite fun, like something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey. The name has become universal, which is only to be expected, launched as they were with all the pomp the bicycling mayor could muster. It’s not that we’ve forgotten that the bikes were originally Ken’s idea, but that Boris is a far more visible cyclist. The official name, ‘Barclays Cycle Hire’, was never going to take off, despite the lurid corporate livery.
Provenance and authenticity are always problems for art investors. How do you know it's the real thing? So much more of a problem when the work of art or otherwise is a stencil on a wall that appears overnight. Banksy has posed a difficulty to collectors – even if it's real, who owns that wall, and can I please take a chunk of it away? It has happened. These days you look for a Perspex covering to tell you if it's just some schmuck graffiti-ing the wall or a Banksy worth it's weight in gold bricks. Excitement followed by despair modulated by an upbeat local story then for North-West Londoners who found in Primrose Hill, Belsize Park and Kentish Town a series of grannies clasping kettles to their comfy bosoms next to the words: 'Make tea not war'. A most suitable image for the leafier parts of Camden.
The news of a fox attacking nine-month-old twins less than a mile away has caused much excitement in Hackney. The fox is assumed to have entered the house through a patio door left open on a warm Saturday night, then wandered up the stairs and into the bedroom where the babies, Lola and Isabella Koupparis, were asleep. Afterwards, three foxes were trapped in the family’s garden and killed.
Local feeling has been appalled, but also thrilled – perhaps rather more of the latter than decency would dictate, given that the children’s injuries turned out to be far more serious than initial reports suggested (Isabella spent several days in intensive care, and a week on remains in hospital). In part, this is the ordinary frisson of having been in the vicinity of, but not directly affected by, calamity; but it seems to me that the real thrill has come from a revelation of nature, red in tooth &c., on our doorstep, from seeing it proved that, as Jeff Goldblum says in Jurassic Park, 'Life finds a way.'
Though classified as self-employed sub-contractors for tax purposes, most bike couriers have in practice a rather more restrictive relationship with the firms that hire them. You may not get a guaranteed income or any benefits, but if you don’t work a full week you’ll generally be out of work pretty quickly. You’re often obliged to wear some sort of uniform or carry a branded bag. The better companies take a deposit for radios and xdas (the palmtop computers on which you receive job details and record signatures) which you get back when you leave, as long as nothing’s been damaged. Last month one of London’s largest courier companies, CitySprint, informed its riders that they would have to fork out £3 a week to rent some new bags they’d ordered. A disgruntled courier leaked the memo:
Not as dramatic as a production of King Lear in which the actor actually goes mad, but a nice instance of life taking over from art, or vice versa, when the Lithuanian tenor Edgaras Montvidas took over from John Tessier at the last minute in Jonathan Miller’s beguiling production of The Elixir of Love at the Coliseum last week. (The understudy was also unavailable.) Montvidas knows the part of the forlorn Nemorino in Italian: his rival, the bumptious sergeant Belcore, the object of his desire, Adina, and everyone else was singing in English. Poor Nemorino, sitting alone in his corner, as the entire neighbourhood bounced and swayed around him, had every reason to feel misunderstood. He didn’t even speak the same language as his inamorata.
Some courier jobs pay more than others. ‘Wait and returns’ are sometimes the best rewarded, especially if you can wangle a lot of waiting time. The vast majority of these jobs are embassy runs, collecting visa documents and waiting in line to have them processed and stamped. The new design for the American embassy in Nine Elms may look like ‘a non-turreted Norman keep’, but even with the addition of a moat it will be difficult to increase the fortress-like security of the current set-up in Grosvenor Square. Deliveries there have to be checked in by the client in advance. Queues are long and supervised by armed police, who don’t take kindly to anyone cycling on the bollarded road at the front of the building. Once you’re inside, a rigorous search ensures you’ll clock up plenty of waiting time. It’s all very different
The US embassy brouhaha can be looked at in two ways: as a spat between two countries and their differing architectural cultures, or as part of a time-honoured process whereby London’s north bank shifts its problems and its detritus over the river onto the poor, long-suffering south bank. The cultural issues are not perhaps so absorbing. Following a thirty-year period from 1945 when American architecture led the world, its reputation has since declined. Almost all American buildings are better built than ours, but too many have become bland, safe and stodgy. The dull, all-American competition shortlist made it near certain that London would get something lacking in freshness or charm.
The winning plan for the new US embassy at Nine Elms, South London, was unveiled two days ago. 'Not inelegant,' was the cagey reaction of one architectural critic to illustrations of the new building, which has resemblances to a non-turreted Norman keep, a white version of the Kaaba at Mecca, the base of one of the towers of the World Trade Center, the central stack at Yale’s Beineke Library and the Richard Desmond Children's Eye Centre at Moorfields. Which is to say that it’s a cube with something of a moat and a colonnaded ground floor, and exterior walls that resemble shards of glass.
You’d think that after cycling several hundred miles during the week, bicycle couriers would be glad to hang up their bikes at the weekend. But, come Friday night, many are itching to up a gear, an impulse that is occasionally channelled into ersatz point-to-point races. Usually these alleycat races follow a series of checkpoints through London, where manifests must be stamped or strange rituals performed. They are fast, exhilarating and exhausting. Though non-couriers are welcome to enter, I don’t know of any who have won.
Cyclists, unlike motorists or pedestrians, tend to notice other cyclists. When I was working as a bike messenger, Jon Snow was an almost permanent fixture of Gray's Inn Road, shuttling to and from the ITN building. I saw David Cameron, for all his eco-trumpeting, only once. He was going down Whitehall with the telltale wobble of the amateur enthusiast. There was a car following, though whether it contained a change of clothes and briefcase I couldn’t say. And then there was Boris Johnson. A regular pick-up from the Angel going to Burlington House on the Strand would send me down Rosebery Avenue, where I’d often see him emerging from Amwell Street. On a particularly slow and dismal day I chased him down and said: ‘Giz a job.’
To a cycle courier, the conflict between public and private, between the rules of the road and those of corporate estates, is constantly apparent. The glee with which the police hunt down and fine couriers who jump red lights, while letting off their commuting counterparts, is well known. But the guardians of private land are just as intolerant.
One of the main appeals of bicycle couriering is the freedom it seems to offer. Freedom from the inanities of office life, the freedom of the city. But there's also the freedom to freeze on a slow day in the rain, the freedom to be injured on the job with no chance of sick pay, the freedom to die on the road. It’s a wild, unregulated business, which is part of its attraction. Cycle couriering is the modern equivalent of running away to sea, or joining the circus, without having to leave London.
Tracey Emin has complained to the police of 'harassment', after a spoof letter purportedly written by her was sent to some of her neighbours in Spitalfields. It was written in childish handwriting, similar to her now iconic style (but spelled correctly, which made it instantly suspect). It outlined her supposed plans for the Tenter Ground weaving works, an old Huguenot factory she is restoring: a swimming-pool was mentioned, along with the fact that she didn't like traditional building methods. She bought the building last year to a small fanfare of publicity. There was positive coverage in, among other places, the Observer ('Emin pays £4 million to save art district'), the Evening Standard (‘Emin weaves £4 million scheme to keep art in Spitalfields’) and the Times property supplement (‘Tracey Emin is leading the battle to save the "cultural heart" of East London from developers’). In interviews, Emin got all nostalgic, telling the Observer that the whole area used to be 'full of artists... the rents were still comparatively low and there were lots of our friends living around us and using freezing-cold studios.' Colliers, the agent who handled the sale of Tenter Ground, said she said she 'made the acquisition to ensure the building remained in use by artists'. This all sounds very altruistic and noble, until you read the bit where she says: 'I will be working there on my own.'
Riding a bicycle round London for ten hours a day is grindingly difficult. A bike courier is paid £2-£3 per job (with a 10 per cent bonus for working a full week if you’re lucky), income can be fickle, and a slow week spent standing in the rain is no fun at all. Though it varies dramatically, couriers cover distances averaging around 300 miles a week. Couriers are obliged to deliver whatever a client wants delivered as quickly as the client requires; if you can’t get from pick-up to destination within 40 minutes, you don’t get paid. Covering London from (roughly) Wapping to Knightsbridge and Camden to Elephant and Castle, you see a lot of the city, a lot of weather, and a great many post-rooms.
The Elephant and Castle is an architectural graveyard over which a huge new tombstone is going up in the shape of the 43-storey Strata tower. Things began rather well in 1769, when Robert Mylne laid out the route south from his new bridge at Blackfriars and joined it to the old turnpike road with St George’s Circus. This was the first ‘circus’ in London, predating Piccadilly, the capital’s first roundabout. Since then almost every new idea in town planning – high-rise, low-rise, shopping precinct, pedestrian underpass and ever bigger roundabouts – has been imposed on the Elephant, with singular lack of success.