London In Six Pictures No.1
This is going to be a regular feature, because I now have such a vast fund of London photographs that it seems a pity to just leave them inside an electronic folder, never to be seen. I’m going to choose shots from time to time to illustrate different aspects of the city. Today, Englishness.
1. St Paul’s Cathedral after the Blitz
It’s getting harder to see the effects of the devastating wars on London (people forget that the first also dropped bombs on the capital). As a child I clearly remember playing in bomb craters, sliding down rubble on a sheet of corrugated steel. The rebuilding involved tearing down most damaged buildings and replacing them, because repairs required skilled craftspeople. As a result you could always walk down any London street and count the houses removed by bombs. Today that’s getting harder, because so many buildings that had nothing wrong with them, save for being in the way, have been destroyed. More were lost to clumsy councils than bombs.
2. Covent Garden
I can’t even recall which of the celebration days these flags commemorated but the shot is recent, so it’s probably a Royal wedding. We do grand-scale pageantry very well and fairly often. Having said that, I don’t know any Londoners who attend such events. I’ve never seen the changing of the guard, nor do I want to. Past experience of standing in rain at the back of a crowd seeing nothing is for mostly for tourists now, colourful pageantry divorced from political meaning.
3. South Bank
Considering our love of dumping the past and replacing it with something more commercial, it is surprising how much of an older London still pokes through around the edges of all that glass and steel. Number 49 Bankside is a three-hundred-year-old property still in private hands that overlooks the Thames and stands opposite St Paul’s. Humbler buildings abound, made graceful by beautiful, functional Victorian design. Backstreets still reveal warehouses, depositories, chapels and buildings housing ‘societies for the public good’.
4. Harley Street
If there’s one point in England that can be universally agreed upon, it’s that HRH The Queen is a Good Thing. She was crowned in the year I was born and is still there in the background of London life, and when she goes we will all feel the loss. Preaching unity, peace and acceptance, she has given her life to her duty in a way few other monarchs have. And she is out and about in London life. I went for a test at a London clinic because a particular specialist was working there that day, and HRH had signed the visitors’ book before me. She got the page to herself. It was dead posh there; instead of a waiting room they had a library, and the nurse said, ‘You should stay until after lunch.’ I said, ‘But I feel fine.’ She replied, ‘Yes, but the monkfish is fabulous.’
5. King’s Cross
London is raffish. It can be trouble. We’re prone to a bit of a kick-off. As they say, a pint and a fight is a great British night. Protests, pubs, rowdy boyz and girlz, fly-by-night entertainments and attractions now called pop-ups. When I stumbled across this photograph of early 20th century King’s Cross it felt perfectly logical to me that there should be a roller coaster in the middle of one of London’s busiest main roads. I wish it was there now.
Arthur Bryant lives in a flat in this building. I decided to move him when I moved, so that I would still be in sight of the book’s locations. There are affordable homes in some of the most exclusive streets in Central London, oases of calm which become timeless at certain times, in snow, at night, on hot summer days. Bloomsbury is surprisingly unchanged, unlike Soho, which has effectively been sawn off from its past. East Soho today is completely unrecognisable, and therefore not Soho anymore. Bloomsbury, bookish and quiet, feels like Arthur’s natural home.