Tales Of The Cities


England has just come second (after Bhutan!) as the world’s best place to visit as voted by Lonely Planet, and their reasoning is strong. I’ve been feeling for a while that it’s time for me to explore the UK a bit more, not just on PAs. I gave up my car years ago, so I’ll be travelling by train looking at cities.

Seeing them from above has always fascinated me, as long-haul readers will know – my first novel ‘Roofworld’ was about disaffected youths living on the rooftops of London, but I was unable to gain access to key vantage points until after the book was published, when the Sunday Times managed to get me to the top of Centrepoint, the Telecom Tower and (this was long before the Shard, obvs) other high spots.

Rachel Green’s link in the comments section of the previous post shows London’s skewed symmetry from above to good effect. Check out those photos and compare them to this one, of Barcelona’s working class neighbourhood, Barceloneta.


That squarish thing on the beach top right is a sculpture called The Crooked House. BCN has many modernist sculptures, something that London is only lately getting to grips with.While we have some delightful sculptural additions to public spaces, there have been some horrible missteps, most notably Paul Day’s appallingly kitsch snoggers in St Pancras Station, balanced out by the lovely statue of Betjeman.

The Crooked House might have been named for London’s properties. Although our backstreets are still packed with Edwardian terraces the city’s unused and unnoticed spaces were very quickly noticed by developers when house prices soared, and the most extraordinary homes appeared in the cracks and crevices. Despite all efforts to transform London into a gigantic money-laundering machine, the Old Lady remains fairly unchangeable – views have been transformed but much is still as I saw it in the 1960s.

One massive change is noticeable however. The city was always dark and cold, so that even in midsummer light did not cut into the narrow streets. With the increased population and rising temperatures, London is no longer frosty and snowbound in winter and hardly ever misty in the mornings, so it has swapped its lonely, eerie atmosphere for another that’s more chaotic and bright. Going to Cambridge last week reminded me that outside of the city the temperature plunges.

10 comments on “Tales Of The Cities”

  1. eggsy says:

    We’re rather spoilt for “a view from above” nowadays thanks to Certain Well Known Internet Maps. But an artist’s eye may frame it better than we can. And the resolution is better.
    Before, what, fifteen years ago the aerial view was always a bit special, and I well remember poring over such photographs whenever they would appear. And I can’t have been alone, there was a whole industry of coffee-table “from the air” books, and jobbing aerial photographers would provide views of home or business.
    Even better than cartography (Ordnance Survey One Inch New Popular Edition my favourite – colour, but the italics are still very italic…and before they introduced grey urban blocks in the Seventh Series. I’ll get my anorak).

  2. Jan says:

    You aren’t’ up early enough…London can still be very misty between about 0430 – 7a.m……oops well about 13 years back it was!

  3. snowy says:

    This will not be news to eggsy, but those that like their aerial views a little more ‘retro’ can hop over to ‘Britain From Above’. An archive of photographs covering the years 1919-91.

    What to do when you arrive is up to you. An old school? The building you went to for your first job? That odd pub? The Factory/Office that your Mum/Dad would disappear off to every weekday morning.

    London types might like to see St. Pauls before it was hemmed in by steel and concrete.

    [Those searching for ‘East India Docks’ can play spot the Zeppelin!]

  4. eggsy says:

    …not news to me but only thanks to a previous mention on these pages I’m sure.
    BFA is hosted by Historic England, not to be outdone Historic Environment Scotland hosts the National Centre for Aerial Photography (ncapdotorgdotuk), largely ex-Ministry of Defence material although some – “GX”- is inherited from Messrs Göring & Co:
    ” After the fall of the Reich, photographs, maps, target dossiers and photomosaics were found hidden in several locations. Project TURBAN was the code-name for the handling of all the material found. Much material came from Hitler’s mountain retreat at Berchtesgaden in Bavaria, Germany, and was code-named DICK TRACY, while other large collections were found in Vienna (code-named ORWELL), Oslo (code-named MONTHLY) and Berlin (code-named TENANT), among others. In June 1945, the material was packaged in crates and flown back to the Allied Central Interpretation Unit at RAF Medmenham”.

    Soberingly, the collection is funded by sale of unexploded bomb data to developers around Europe.

  5. Ian Luck says:

    I know precisely two things about Bhutan: It has the most dangerous approach to any airport in the world, and it has, as a unit of currency, the wonderfully named ‘Ngultrum’.

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Ian, is Bhutan’s airport approach worse than the old one to Hong Kong?
    I must keep the ngultrum handy for crossword use.

  7. Ian Luck says:

    Helen – My uncle often went to Hong Kong, and told me about the approach to the old (Kai Tak?) Airport, and said that you could often see people in the skyscrapers as you descended on final approach. I saw a TV show about interesting airports, and Bhutan has an approach down a winding valley, where the aircraft have to skirt a mountain before they can see the airport. Being in a mountain valley, there is a lot of crosswinds and wind shear to contend with. If that were not lovely enough, the runway is on a plateau, rather short, and ends at a drop into the next valley, if I remember properly. My brother, who loves flying, said after watching this, something on the lines of: “Remind me not to go there.”

  8. Ian Luck says:

    Oh, and I think ‘Ngultrum’ is a legitimate ‘Scrabble’ word, too.

  9. Helen Martin says:

    Even more reason to keep the word handy, Ian, thank you, and yes it was Kai Tak I had in mind. When people had a chance to use the flight simulator, aside from necessary training, it was always Kai Tak they wanted to try. We have a (probably smaller) airport on the Bhutan model, but without the cliff at the end. Ours has the added attraction of occasional fog and there is a standing arrangement for planes to use the next airport on and then be bused back to Castlegar. It’s quite tension producing, too.

  10. Helen Martin says:

    For choice of photo – the first Northern Ireland photo that turns up is a linen factory in Ballymena, where my Mother-in-law was born. She taught me what retting is and I can see the river in the picture where it would have been done. (Wrong factory though. Hers was Old Bleach).

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