London, City of Stasis


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London is always considered the city of progress and fluctuation, but there’s a side to the metropolis that remains unchanged across the decades. The constancy is really noticeable when you start to look for it.

The populace – more international now, obviously, as my mother-in-law’s Australian travelling companion noted loudly when she got on a crowded tube (you have to do the accent):

‘My! Just look at all the diversity!’

Everyone who loves London enough to move here somehow ‘catches’ Londonness, and within ten minutes of arriving they’re apologising profusely like postwar Londoners whenever people spill drinks over them or try to shove past them.

Other things don’t really change no matter what they tell us in the press.

The weather – was a bit warmer, a bit colder, neither lasted very long. Looks like it’ll rain. My, isn’t it windy! Weatherfolk got it wrong again, I see. Basically, just like the 1950s.

Books – ‘Harry Potter And The Tree of Nothing’ (cf Stewart Lee) was once ‘The Once & Future King’ (although that was really good). ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ was once ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’.

Health – Mums didn’t want MMR jabs because of misreporting. They didn’t want diptheria jabs in the 1950s either.

The NHS – has always been ‘at risk from Tory privatisation’.

Celebrity scandals, politicians having affairs, TV stars caught in hookers ‘n’ coke stings (cf Steve Coogan, Angus Deayton) disgraced MPs – same as always.

Incompetent town councils change road layouts, cause a few bike and pedestrian deaths, change layouts back. Nobody’s first choice of career is in a London council. A friend tells me it’s a bit like working at Curry’s. You never thought you’d end up there. Councils are still full of people who are like Arthur Lowe, just as they always were.

Too many students with the same useless degree. In the 1960s it was art. In the 1970s it was sociology. In the noughties it was media studies – all a complete waste of time.

Architecture – Attractive old building comes down, ugly new building goes up. The same for over a hundred years. The Middlesex Hospital, not an exceptionally fine example of Victorian building, gets replaced by a glass box – although the developers aren’t allowed to touch the listed chapel at its centre. The difference is, there’s hardly any outcry these days except from young fogey Giles ‘Son Of The More Talented’ Coren, who complained that the Shard is spoiling his view from Hampstead Heath.

The arts – flourish in spite of rather than because of infrastructure. Music? No money. Theatre? No money. Film? No money. Art – er, Damien Hirst. QED. Every decade gets the heroes we deserve, so we must have done something really bad in the noughties. And cinemas are as rowdy as the pre-war years, thanks to texting and talking.

The wealth gap – the dim rich still have servants, the vulgar common still speak badly – and imaginatively, as Joey Essex’s ‘Salty Potato’ (fit woman) proves, and recent research shows that although everyone is better off the gap is wider now than it was in 1885.

Fashion – oh look, everyone’s wearing guardsman’s tunics/ Edwardian frock coats/ Grandad cardigans/ beards! Everyone’s  ironically wearing what their grandparents wore for real, basically.

Food – well, that’s a hell of a lot better. Except that it may be going back to 1940s standards, as anyone who has eaten at Leon late at night knows the taste of wartime hardship. Try to see if you can swallow their fish finger wrap without the aid of WD40 and something to poke it down with.

Bombsites – seen Tottenham Court Road and Soho lately? Thanks to the Crossrail dig, they could film ‘Hue And Cry’ down there without sets. And it’s still possible to get hopelessly lost in London, thanks to the London Eye, which presents itself at the wrong angle to where you’re headed at every opportunity.

Oh young things – you thought you were living the modern dream in Hoxton. To see that it’s all been done before, read Patrick Hamilton’s ‘Hangover Square’ – or any architectural book on London…


imagesLondon buildings still get moved to different locations. Piccadilly Circus’s Gilbert statue ‘Anteros’, the Angel of Christian Charity – not ‘Eros’, as it is commonly called – gets redirected so often he might as well be on wheels. Temple Bar, commissioned by Charles II and designed by Wren, was constructed between 1669 and 1672. During the 18th century, the heads of traitors were mounted on pikes on the roof.

The other seven principal gateways to London, Ludgate, Newgate, Aldersgate, Moorgate, Cripplegate, Aldgate and Bishopsgate had all been demolished by 1800, but Temple Bar remained despite blocking the ever-growing traffic. It was discovered to have sunk in 1874, so the City of London council, eager to widen the road, dismantled it piece-by-piece over an 11-day period and stored its 2,700 stones.

In 1880, a brewer bought the stones and re-erected the arch as a gateway at his house. There it remained until 2003, when it returned to the City of London and was  re-erected as an entrance to Paternoster Square, and opened to the public on 10 November 2004.

7 comments on “London, City of Stasis”

  1. Dan Terrell says:

    As always most interesting.

  2. John says:

    I liked the last three paragraphs the best. Just like the tidbits you drop in the B&M books.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    Thus it has always been. To say nothing of the “Whatever is the reason they’re declaring *that* monstrosity a heritage building?” A glass cube from the 60s is heritage? There’s an article in the paper today about ski cabins built in the local mountains fifty or more years ago – built by teenage boys. They are well built and have been maintained over the years, quite probably altered along the way. They are not typical of anything in particular except as an example of “what we could do before all these regulations stopped initiative in its tracks” so I don’t know what they’ll decide. In the late 20s my father and his friends hiked up onto a neighbouring mountain and built a cabin complete with a wood stove which they carried up in pieces and then bolted back together. I would love to have seen that cabin but that area is closed to the public as watershed. Perhaps looking at these cabins would suffice.

  4. Helen Martin says:

    By the way, what on earth are those zig zag lines on the street? “Slow down there’s a corner coming up?”

  5. admin says:

    No, they mean no stopping/parking before a zebra crossing.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    That is very useful. I’m glad we didn’t run afoul of that one.

  7. Helen Martin says:

    Presumably you are allowed to stop if there are people in the zebra crossing.

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