Why Is London So Scruffy?


the-bar-ceilingWhen the spectacular Victorian Gothic edifice of the St Pancras Grand Hotel decided to open a bar called the Gilbert Scott, its restored interior exceeded all expectations. From the vast painted ceiling hang immense golden bells, and the space is outrageously opulent, although it lacks the personality of the great hotel bars and is consequently never really full. Full points for the interior, though, and the home-made infusions that provide their unusual cocktail list.

However, then there’s the bar’s forecourt. Here somebody decided that high smartly-clipped hedges on this busy thoroughfare would not be enough, so they stuffed into the space what can only be described as a suburban allotment filled with spindly half-dead garage plants and what appears to be a bargain-basement gazebo designed for an incredibly downmarket wedding. The result is something you might see gazing from a train window just outside Lewisham. I actually photographed the neatest bit.

IMG_3681When I walked past the spot last night, several cans of lager had been chucked into the pots, adding to the chaos. Welcome to London, home of the overflowing bin, the street slickened with ghee, the cast-aside fried chicken box, the vodka bottle left on a car roof. Why is it that in Tokyo, a city four times the size of London, you don’t see any litter, workman’s rubble, graffiti or ugly council buildings? What is it in our nature that makes us so untidy, messy and generally unkempt?

Every new initiative designed to tidy the city streets seems to collapse halfway through and get withdrawn, so that the only uncluttered places are Boris’s private developments. It doesn’t stop at streets and buildings – have you seen how we dress in the summer? As if there was just an explosion that blew half our clothes off. We burn, we reveal bra straps, butt cleavage, mismatched socks, muffin tops. We have a Lord Mayor who looks like he’s just been pulled out of a binbag.

Oh, and here’s London Bridge Station; for many, their first sight of this great metropolis. Nothing says welcome like a lot of mismatched metal bars. Perhaps it’s a UKIP plan to get foreigners to turn around and go home in despair.


In between the wars, London developed and expanded its own colour-coded street traffic signage – everything was black and white, usually striped. The main other colour was red, on buses, telephone boxes and fire engines. Looking at old footage now everything seems impossibly neat. But before we sink into a miasma of nostalgia it’s worth recalling that much of the life was pretty ghastly, as this hep look at swinging new ‘coffee bars’ proves.

Given the choice I much prefer life today, but I wish London would prevent junk-food outlets from leaving trash lying about. Perhaps the problem goes deeper. Londoners aren’t fond of being told what to do, and generally make a mess wherever they go. If a smart new building opens, it’s instantly filled with net curtains, satellite dishes and overflowing rubbish in front gardens. I have a neighbour who stopped to ask me why on earth I was picking up trash in the street when we pay a council to do it, when he could see the system clearly wasn’t working.

King Mob was the rule in the London of old. There were more insurrections during the reign of George I than in all the reigns since the Norman Conquest. If you felt wronged, you rioted or duelled or printed up your grievances and threw the pages all over the city. You fought in the street and aired protests in public. This, as much as anything else, defines the London character. We are scruffbags.




We will never be Sweden or Canada or New Zealand. But if we paid half as much attention to design ethics as we pay to TV baking or amateur song contests, we could sort this out in a moment.



5 comments on “Why Is London So Scruffy?”

  1. snowy says:

    It’s Autumn in England, what did you expect to see? “The Hanging Gardens of Babylon? Herds of wildebeest sweeping majestically across the plain…” 🙂

    I don’t think they ever put back all the rubbish bins that were ripped out in the late 70s, [anti-bomb precaution], so with nowhere to put rubbish people just fell out of the habit.

  2. Charles says:

    I don’t understand how people can in good conscious just chuck their trash out their car window or throw it on the ground. What are they thinking? That “somebody else” will pick it up for them? I mean, I’m no environmentalist (far from it), and even I have the good sense not to do this. It’s ugly and downright disgusting. I either stuff my trash in my pocket until I find a trash can and always keep a garbage bag in my car.

    I especially hate when people chuck their butts on the ground after they’re done smoking. Cars have ashtrays for a reason, and at most establishments there are “Butt Out” cans fastened to the wall a little ways away from the entrance.

  3. Helen Martin says:

    If you can carry it in full you can pack it out empty. What applies to national parks applies to the downtown, especially since women all carry large bags these days. Overflowing garbage cans are a sign of careless municipalities, however. If you’re going to provide rubbish tins then you have to empty them regularly. The overflow says, “You want trash here? Here it is.”
    You gave us this bit of film once before and I enjoyed seeing it again. There was nothing particularly ghastly in the life shown, however.

  4. George Mealor says:

    The surest way to tell that you are in an unsafe neighborhood in the USA is to look for trash on the streets.

  5. Chandon says:

    I agree with Snowy, in that the decision to get rid of the bins from the streets, stations and most tube stations (as an anti-terrorist measure in the 1970’s) was a real turning point when it comes to the amount of rubbish on the London streets. When you add in the growth in the number of take-away food outlets in the capital that has occurred since then, and the fact that you no longer have to stop drinking by 11.00pm in pubs, then what has happened is no real surprise. I enjoyed watching the film again. It is amazing how clean and uncluttered the streets of Soho looked. I did not see a single person walking along, slurping from a bucket of frothy coffee, looking for somewhere to dump the cup.

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