Circus Of Horrors


On Saturday night I found myself in the innermost Dantean circle of Hell that is Piccadilly Circus. The Dilly was always disreputable, either for its ‘secret army’ of streetwalkers or renters, or its touts and pickpockets, but now it seems to have taken on a particularly horrible aspect.

The new hi-resolution ads are running so brightly (with McJunkfood more eye-searing than the rest) that you can’t directly look at them. Where are they designed to be seen from, Mars? Beneath this pickpocket’s paradise are several kettling spots governed by the placement of the tube entrances.

One is under the fugly building that replaced the newsreel cinema last seen in ‘An American Werewolf In London’, which is now occupied by toxic pizza-slice displays and people who draw your caricature – who on earth would sit and have their caricature done at this nightmarish junction? (Answer: the same people who go to ‘Les Miz’ and Angus Steak Houses).

There are also lines of overexcited suburbans queuing for a couple of nasty nightclubs at the same point, creating a solid wall of pedestrians. As I exited the tube on Saturday night (at a creeping pace, due to SWOT) deafening announcements were being made in Chinese, lending the entire scene a Blade Runner-ish feel. In fact, it made Ridley’s Scott’s dystopia appear rather sedate and under-populated. I’ve been in Bangkok night markets that were less chaotic. The only saving grace is that a few streets over, the crowds fall away to almost nothing.

Here is Westminster Council at its most purposeless, greedy and derelict, seemingly blind to the tourist Hell it has created. If they were interested in giving back any dignity at all to the area they would reduced the intensity of advertising, stop nightclubs from allowing street queueing, reduce the open-fronted junkfood stands that bring foot traffic to a halt and keep rickshaws in the Soho backstreets.

Of course the young gravitate there just as I once did, but I’m pretty sure I was never sick against the side of a building, as at least half a dozen people had been on Saturday.

In John Wyndham’s ‘The Day Of The Triffids’ a man leads the blinded populace to Piccadilly Circus, shouting ‘Here we are ladies and Gentlemen, the hub of the universe!’ The Dilly is now more like its exhaust pipe. Its nature will never change, but the massive influx of gawkers means that it is no longer a safe or desirable place to be at night.

10 comments on “Circus Of Horrors”

  1. Ford says:

    You shouls try Bournemouth at night! The Council is happy about the thriving night-time economy …. which basically means is’t geared up for stag and hen nights; who want “vertical drinking” establishments, before going onto a clubs, one of which shut down after being linked to gangsters!! Sophisticated eating, involves eating whilst sitting down!!! We don’t even have the “pretty lights”!!!

  2. Dan Terrell says:

    It sounds as if Times Square is now a tad up scale. It was amazingly Piccadily-ish back in the 50s when I went into the City with my mother to meet my father after work for dinner and a show. Loved the huge Camels man sign who blew really big smoke (steam) rings out over the square.
    Based on the photo the most annoying sign appears to be the stacked Coke carton(?) sign: busy, busy.

  3. John Howard says:

    Couldn’t agree more. It is definitely a place to pass through on the way to somewhere else rather than somewhere to dawdle now.

  4. Mary says:

    That is such an excellent description and so sad. I visited Piccadilly in 1953 and I was delighted. Thanks for the warning. I’ll settle for the memory!

  5. Helen Martin says:

    We only saw it at a distance in daylight. I’m such a stodgy person that I have never been able to understand the “let’s go drinking” cry. It may have been because I grew up in a time/place where there weren’t places where you could go and have a couple of drinks with friends, especially if you were female. Here’s what we had in the ’50s: beer parlours with a full wall down the middle. The door to one half marked Men and the door to the other Ladies and Escorts. Women on their own were suspect and not really welcome. It was the ’60s before those walls came down. I was never in one until the ’70s. You couldn’t carry a drink anywhere, either. The waitress brought your drinks to the table, you paid and you sat there to drink it. I don’t think they served food, either. It must have been like drinking with Cromwell’s enforcers watching.

  6. Dan Terrell says:

    Except for the walls, it sounds like the old States most places. Wait person always carried your drink for you. You stood at the bar or sat at a table. You didn’t walk around.

  7. Marc says:

    I too have fond memories of visiting Piccadilly Circus when I was a child and being shown the sights of London by my parents. Much to my wife’s frustration, I’m nurturing a growing collection of 1970s tourist guides for the capital at home as an aide-mémoire! McD’s maybe the dominant advert now, but I seem to recall Wrigley’s Spearmint gum being very prominent thirty odd years ago.


    Piccadilly Circus may not be the hub of the universe anymore, but it is the focal point of the West End, and hence a key location for London’s tourist economy.

    If there is one thing that can be learnt from The Sun newspaper, it is that hitting to the lowest common denominator is the best way of appealing to the greatest number of people and hence generating the most money. If, as Admin writes, Westminster Council have taken a relaxed approach to the regulation of the area (which I very much doubt, but that’s for another time), then this is simply market forces at work: businesses are giving consumers what they want and, in return, consumers giving businesses their money.

    To keep the money coming in, the area has to follow changes to the lowest common denominator – if that means the adverts become brighter, the newsreel cinema becomes a pizza slice shop and announcements have to be made in a foreign language, then so be it.

    As for being sick against the side of a building, this is not a phenomenon that is unique to Piccadilly Circus – it is something that can be found in High Streets across Britain on weekends. If there is a positive to be taken from this particular puddle of vomit, it is that the Circus maintains it’s position as a place to go on a big night out.

  8. Dan Terrell says:

    The last time I was in Piccadily Circus was in early October 1967 (the first in early January 1963) both times during the day. What I remember both times: pigeons, pigeons and more pigeons ang mini skirts. And everything looked a bit down, but looked a lot like the British black and white films I’d seen at a British-filming showing theater in Washington, D.C.

  9. Alan G says:

    A couple months ago I was stopped in a tube station by an American family. It was nine pm on a Saturday night and they were dressed for sight-seeing with nice-looking cameras and temptingly snatchable bags. They wanted directions to Piccadilly.

    I gave them directions but, feeling rather vaguely like a traitor to my country, strongly advised them to stay the hell away – or at least to try to be less of a target. Chillingly, they ignored my advice – and I never heard from them again…

  10. NB says:

    Let us not forget that the whole of that area including the Eros statue is dedicated to the Earl of Shaftsbury who did so much work for children in this country. It has become a rather sad epitaph

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