London: Destruction & Reinvention


KX Chaos

I try to be upbeat about the Mayor’s transformation of London into an Oligarch Moneypit, but sometimes it’s hard. After more cyclists were maimed on London roads last week, the half-hearted new cycle lanes that peter out after a few metres, forcing riders into traffic, feel symptomatic of what happens when government planners step in to change life here.

Where I live, part of Caledonian Road (where Bryant & May work) has suddenly become two-way after years of being one-way. Unfortunately no-one has realised that the two-way bit doesn’t lead anywhere, so no vehicles use it. Nearby, the horrific bottleneck where half a dozen cyclists died has been changed again, to no avail; the street is so clogged that drivers are more concerned about not mowing down pedestrians than watching for bikes. So on this insanely crowded corner, one of the busiest in the city, they’ve allowed a McDonalds and a line of Jesus chuggers to operate, swelling crowds even more.

Meanwhile, private enterprise has saved one neighbourhood oddity; London’s only inland lighthouse, said to have been created in the mid-19th century to advertise an oyster house, is being restored after falling into disrepair.


And as one rarity nears restoration, down near Leicester Square the destruction continues. The latest victim is the Victorian Hand & Racquet pub, where I used to drink with my Dad, now boarded up and awaiting an unannounced fate.


Incredibly, the pace of change seems to be getting even faster. London has always been in flux, but change was largely driven from within. Now it is due to international market forces. Mercifully, the city no longer makes its money from children working in factories, dying of mercuric poisoning so toxic that their skeletons turned green. Now it’s the impossible-to-comprehend world of money-moving. Here’s an edited excerpt from Stephen Moss’s excellent Guardian piece, in which he interviews anonymous ‘Justin’ and tries to understand who does what in London:

‘The attraction of London for financiers is that it spans time zones and acts as a bridge between the US and the rest of the world – hence the 17-hour day. Seeking an insight into the City’s problems is a thankless task. The Bank of England refuses to grant me an interview, thrives on opacity; and City insiders are paranoid about talking to the media.

‘The City is the equivalent of Venice in the middle ages,’ Justin tells me. ‘It’s a massive international melting pot that drives London and the rest of the country.’ Justin startles me by extending his Venetian analogy. If the City is Venice, he says, then the rest of the UK is Mestre – the boring bit on the other side of the causeway that no one visits. “The banks are here, but almost everything they do is not here,” he says. “I’ve got no clients in this country. I’ve got clients in Russia, Mexico, South Africa, Australia, Switzerland. The City doesn’t service London and the UK; it starts off in India and goes all the way to Ireland, then up to Russia and down to Cape Town.’ The City exists to serve ‘Emea’, a land known only to bankers: Europe, the Middle East and Africa.’

It seems to me that the result of being driven by outside money movement is that it’s now impossible to tell why anything at all happens here. Why does a presumably listed pub vanish? Why is an unlovely lighthouse getting rebuilt? Is it simply all down to chance now?

For a city so well-connected, hard information is scarce. We are now at the mercy of random forces. We can only grab London’s coattails now and hang on.

6 comments on “London: Destruction & Reinvention”

  1. Zoe Blake says:

    Articulate as ever, you express how I feel every time I venture into town.
    A trip to Aldgate and Stepney last weekend was thoroughly depressing; more of those forgotten pockets where you could still breathe the atmosphere of my grandfather’s east end seem to have vanished every time I go back. These buildings that were once synagogues, a jewish youth club, stables, a cinema – not to mention pubs – are being replaced by utterly featureless apartments and shiny office blocks. Though architecturally unremarkable (not that that would protect them with Tower Hamlet’s corrupt council making the decisions) these buildings were the fabric of the place, and were very precious.
    I don’t think I’m just reluctant to face change – what’s happened in the last few years and continues to happen to the city feels like a different class and speed of change, as you say.

  2. John Griffin says:

    Welcome to the New Empire of the Lords of Misrule. Places close without any reason where I live, near Birmingham; owners of buildings and land are impossible to trace; the Tory council (effectively run by an all-Tory inner cabal of six, despite lots of other parties being represented) gives permission for everything – so bad they’ve had decisions overturned by Pickles in person as being unacceptable! Rents are collected and continue to soar; shopping arcades lie deserted; the only growth is warehousing on brownfield sites; all new housing is luxury while almost nobody under 30 has a real job, only zero-hours. One of the biggest employers is Amazon at its Rugeley megawarehousehub; all employees are GPS monitored and pickers are expected to maintain an average speed or face loss of £ or even job eventually. In certain enclaves (e.g. Four Oaks near Sutton Coldfield) there are private estates where every car is a top range BMW, Audi, Porsche etc usually 4×4, and Maseratis are everywhere. Go further into Birmingham and you have dusty streets where the rubbish (no bins) is collected by black bags left on the street, every other shop is closed etc.
    Britain has become marketised, its institutions sold, its facilities turned into rent-generation, its people a commodity, its history (unless marketable to foreign tourists) meaningless. In Kings Cross, you are watching the world order change, momentously.

  3. andrea says:

    what are “chuggers”?

  4. snowy says:

    It’s a contraction of Charity and Mugger. [A mugger is a slang term for a street robber].

    A Chugger is a paid fund-raiser employed to solicit donations from the public. Usually in the form of a direct monthly payment from your bank account. They normally work in large teams making them hard to avoid.

    A polite “No Thanks” usually works and if it doesn’t there are other phrases that do.

  5. andrea says:

    Thank you. Snowy

  6. Colin Vaines says:

    The Hand & Racquet has been shut as part of the major development that will also take out the Odeon Leicester Square, and put another soulless glass and steel monolith containing offices, a hotel, a replacement of some sort for the lost cinema screens, and I’m sure more luxury flats for overseas investors not to live in. In other words – everything we expect as our city turns into what Stephen Fry has already termed the Singapore Airport look.

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