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My Kind Of Town

in Architecture Today, Issue, 254, January 2015

by Carolyn Steel

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"The city doesn't go by the rules or stand too much on ceremony, apart from when the Queen is out and about. It likes to get on with things; it is informal, animal and untameable," recounts Carolyn Steel

"Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner... as the song goes, and it works for me, since I am from London, and I do love London Town. The reason why I feel so at home here is probably because London, like me, is a maverick. The city doesn't go by the rules or stand too much on ceremony - apart from when the Queen is out and about. London likes to get on with things: it is informal, animal and, as Christopher Wren found to his chagrin, untameable. If London were a character, it would be played by Timothy Spall.

"The London of my 1960s childhood was one of Routemaster buses with smokey top decks, visits to the Science Museum to gaze at silent turbines, and pub lunches at the Prospect of Whitby, where we watched the barges sail by. We lived just off the Fulham Road in South Kensington: an area where only tycoons can now afford to tread, but which back then was an ordinary family neighbourhood.

"Everything was shabbier then: things were lower key, friendlier: paint peeled off the walls and kids played in the street. My father was a medical registrar at the Brompton Hospital and we had a doctor's flat nearby with a dusty attic and gas-fired Ascot heater in the bathroom.

"At the end of the street were a butcher and baker - no candlestick maker, but also a fishmonger, grocer and greengrocer. My mother took us shopping every day, and the shopkeepers gave us sweets. Such everyday life would be unthinkable now in that neighbourhood. Everything gleams and glistens: children are chauffeured about in SUVs, and the butcher and baker have become antiques shops displaying pieces worth more than most annual salaries.

"I find that sad. London has always been rich, of course: its geography was always a licence to print money and just 20 years after its foundation Tacitus called it a 'celebrated centre of commerce'. Yet the city that Cobbett dubbed the 'Great Wen' has always combined its talent for raking in cash with another, equally important one for being, well, rakish. With its taverns and coffee-houses, theatres and pleasure gardens, London has never taken itself too seriously - unlike its arch-rival Paris, with its posh restaurants, bourgeois boulevards and power axis radiating from the Louvre. No clearer illustration of this Tale of Two Cities could be found than in Covent Garden, where Inigo Jones' attempt to create a London version of the Place Royale produced, not a stately aristocratic space, but a 'Mud-Salad Market' full of cabbages, coffee houses and Punch and Judy shows.

"Give me the London version any day. The London of Pepys and Shakespeare, Defoe and Dickens may be greedy, dirty and crowded, yet it is also humorous and warm-hearted in a way that no other city has been. This is the London I like to imagine as I stare at John Ogilby's incomparable 'Large and Accurate Map of the City of London' of 1676. Here one can trace the ebb and flow of trade as it once coursed through the city's arteries. Hundreds of ocean-going ships crowded the Thames as they queued, for up to six weeks, to unload their cargoes into heaving warehouses. Queenhithe and Billingsgate were the two main river ports, and running up from them towards the city's long, broad market Cheapside (from OE ceap, to barter), Poultry and Cornhill, are streets whose names are similarly redolent of food: Bread Street, Fish Street and Friday Street, where' one bought fish on Fridays, when meat was forbidden. West of Newgate is Smithfield, the 'smooth field' that was for centuries the world's greatest livestock market, with its main tributary St John's Street, whose flowing contours bear witness to the thousands of cattle that made their final journey down its rounded flanks in what the historian George Dodd called 'an agitated sea of brute life'.

"This is the London that I love: visceral, vital and real - a city full of smells and sounds and chaos. Perhaps it is now mostly an imaginary city, to be found only in the pages of novels and faded photographs. For me, though, its spirit remains very much alive. Perhaps it's more to be found in Hackney than South Ken these days, but London still knows better than most how to combine business with pleasure, and to do both with a knowing wink."