“London is recreating.” Three simple words to sum up London?
London never ceases to reinvent itself, to recreate itself and to work (if I might for a second time quote these words from Clive James*) “its eternal trick of showing the next generation that the possibilities are infinite, and everything has begun again.”
Permanent renewal is the essence of London. But what was there before is never fully erased by change and by time.
For all the recent talk of Back to the Future’s future actually arriving on Wednesday 21 October 2015 (and consequently now being part of the very recent past), much of London and of the wider world would be recognisable to the good folks of 30 years back, when the all this back-to the-future-ing began.
I came across the phrase "London is recreating” the other day via a fascinating piece by my friend Steve Toft. In The 1920s London commute looks familiar, Steve looks at how little has really changed in the London commute between 1928 and 2015. The experience of taking the tube probably isn’t so very different today from how it was 87 years back (give or take the legality back then of wall-to-wall fag, pipe and cigar smoking on escalators, platforms and trains). The main change is in the sheer volume of people crammed into those creakful carriages. Steve says:
“It wasn’t meant to be like this. We were all supposed to be working from home and connecting by video links by now, the roads and railways left as almost deserted white elephants, monuments to a catastrophic lack of foresight. At least, that’s what my lecturers told me in the 1980s.”
The more things change. Reading The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin by David Nobbs for the first time a few weeks back, I was taken aback to see that the typical commute of 1975 was similarly bedevilled by endless delays, and endless bizarre excuses for said delays (“connectional purposes,” for example, being just one of an infinity of reasons why RIP’s train is always 11 minutes late into Waterloo).
I was thinking about London’s simultaneous renewal and familiarity on a geographically-illogical but highly enjoyable walk from Victoria to Waterloo via Covent Garden and the South Bank t’other day.
Veneration for London’s history was all around. Victoria station was visited by a deafening marching band with bagpipes and marching drums ablaze, to mark London Poppy Day. Passing Buckingham Palace, I heard probably the millionth tourist that day wondering aloud if the Queen really lives there.
It was delightful to see the Back to the Future-related display in the window of Forbidden Planet on Shaftesbury Avenue, replete with (perhaps not 100% genuine, it must be supposed) flux capacitor, to mark the occasion of Mr McFly’s future becoming first present then past **.
London is first and foremost about the present. The view from Waterloo Bridge said it all (see pic at top of page). The perspective and curve of the Thames must be all-but-unchanged from when the bridge opened almost 70 years ago, in December 1945. But the skyline (and levels of light pollution) are very different. And you can guarantee they will have changed drastically once more by, say, 2025. Also unlikely that the gentle gaze Londoner of 1945 would have been met by the icy glare of Mr Craig in his Spectre-ful guise wrapped around the curve of the BFI Imax at the end of the bridge.
London is recreating. London will never stop recreating. I’ve blogged before about my mixed feelings about the Denmark Street comic shops and Soho record shops of my youth making way for what’s to come next.
But could there some day be nostalgia for London as a place where it workers could afford to live and work?
A very human face is put on this by music blogger Marcello Carlin. For some years, Carlin and his wife Lena have worked on Then Play Long a remarkable, epic blog series revisiting and casting beautifully fresh insights and perceptions on every single UK number one album. Last month, Carlin interrupted this series with an anguished and upsetting post on how he and his wife may no longer be able to afford to live, work and blog in London, due to the unaffordability of renting. He says:
“I don’t know what sort of people London wants to live in it now. Financial workers, celebrities, trustafarians – who? All I know is that it doesn’t really want people like us, or if it does, it expects us to share houses, or possibly even rooms, with a dozen strangers, cooped up like battery hens, sleeping there and otherwise going out and working. I also know that if you systematically strip London of everybody and everything that was good, original and attractive about it – made you want to go there and be part of it – you are literally left with nothing. Just an extended international airport for elderly tourists or rich students from abroad.”
Could there also some day be nostalgia for London as a place where businesses could afford to have offices?
Not only are people being forced out of London by the preposterous unaffordability of infinitely spiraling house prices and rents. Businesses also risk finding themselves homeless, the Guardian suggests. The current ‘planning shakeup’ makes it easier for offices to be converted into much-needed living quarters. But by failing to differentiate between occupied and abandoned office space, the regulations are acting to reduce the quantity of work space available in the capital. The video-linked future predicted by Mr Toft’s lecturers may yet come to pass.
London is recreating. The London of tomorrow will inevitably be different from today. But will the days when most Londoners could afford to live and work there be more than a memory?
* Here’s the first time I quoted these words from Clive James.
** Forgive please the low-quality of this photo; it was the first I ever took with my new smartphone!