A city close to my heart
Although Plymouth has been my home – by choice – now for forty-seven years, there is and will always be another city close to my heart. It is that great throbbing metropolis of London.
I was born there on Grays Inn Road which, on a quiet Sunday, may still be within sound of Bow Bells. If so, that would make me a true Cockney – a born, though not bred, one. Unfortunately the not-bred part renders me incapable of fathoming most of those strange yet endearing Cockney terms.
When I was born in May 1939, London stood on the edge of a cataclysm which would test its metal as much as the plague, the great fire or that earlier fire when Boudicca’s enraged followers torched the Roman city in AD 60. Luckily, when the bombers came, I was safely ensconced forty miles north in the lovely little Essex market town of Saffron Walden. From that area would be assembled the mighty armada of bombers which make good on Churchill’s promise to repay the Luftwaffe with interest tenfold.
When I returned to the city as a sixteen-year-old in 1955 to find a job, it was a sad place. It was not long since its skies had been darkened by Hitler’s bombers. My job was to take news photographs to the art editors of all the leading periodicals and newspapers of the day to see if they were interested in featuring them. The agency was based in Fleet Street. When I stepped out on my rounds I could see the massive structure of St. Paul’s cathedral 500 yards away on the top of Ludgate Hill. To the right and left as you walked up that famous hill was a wasteland of bombed out buildings. Feral cats and other creatures had made the ruins their home. All over Central London, which was my stomping ground, were similar sad sights. I could never quite understand how, amidst such destruction, Wren’s masterpiece had survived. (Later I learned that, apart from an element of luck – which some might prefer to regard as divine intervention – this was because orders had gone out from on high (not that high) that, whatever happened elsewhere, the great cathedral must be saved. The firefighters, therefore, made it their business to prioritise it.)
When I was born, London was the largest city in the world which, perhaps, befitted the world’s largest empire ever. Though today thirty one other cities have overtaken it in numbers, it is still Europe’s largest if you exclude Moscow, which is a Johnny-come-lately having ballooned since the fall of Communism. Before this it was only half London’s size and you needed a permit to go and live there.
When I took up my job, a pall of gloom hung over the city. It was only a decade before that the doodlebugs and V2 rockets had come visiting. We talk of austerity today, but those times knew the real thing: a biting hard period of real deprivation which makes today’s talk sound something of a joke. There was simply not the money to give people a decent life, never mind make good all that bomb damage.
It was a dirty city, too. Those building which had survived were encrusted with a thick, black layer of industrial grime. And the grime was still coming down. Once, I had to get off a bus in Harrow and take my turn to walk in front with a torch to help the driver to avoid mounting the kerb. The smog was so thick you could barely see your feet from a standing position. It was actually quite scary. The dear old Thames, which today is alive with every kind of fish and aquatic creature, was then a dead river.
Unlike Berlin and so many other shattered cities of Europe, London, despite everything, still had a pulse – even a beating heart. But it was weak and its population shrank as so many of its citizens migrated to the leafy suburbs and the new garden cities erected close by. And while all this was going on, the great empire, whose imperial will had reached out from the city across the world, was being disbanded. Truly, it seemed, London’s glory days were over. It would have been a brave pundit who would say it would ever rise again to its former pre-eminence.
Yet hey, that is exactly what has happened. Few would say it was exaggerating to call it the coolest city on the planet. In 2012, with the Olympics, it had the chance to showcase itself like never before in its history. And what a success it made of it. Athletes and visitors alike were stunned at how well that most challenging and complex of events was managed and how beautiful the city had become. Even the sun made a brief appearance, as though to bless our endeavours. London may not exercise hard power to the extent it once did, but it projects soft power by the shedload.
When I treat myself to a visit, as I like to do every three months or so, I look around and marvel at the transformation that has taken place since I trod it walkways as a youth. As its skyline grows ever more interesting, it remains the financial centre of the world, beating New York, Hong Kong and Singapore to the spot. And its many great parks and myriad little squares have grown even more beautiful. Racial bigotry has all but gone, with no more signs to be seen in landlords’ windows saying ‘No Dogs, Irish or Blacks’. Couples of mixed race walk hand in hand and its streets echo to the sound of dozens of languages. Street cafes are everywhere and British cuisine has been turned on its head. It is now right up there with the best. The city has a multiplicity of world-class chefs.
It is at last a truly cosmopolitan place. Not only is the shopping the best to be had anywhere in the world, but, glory be, London now hosts its best fashion houses. Now there’s a surprise for all of us. Perhaps that all began long ago in a non-descript place called Carnaby Street.
So there we have it, my second favourite city. One which, along with our hopefully-reviving economy, we can all celebrate.