Common section

Refashioning the City

A poster extolling the virtues of the Lansbury council estates in Poplar, built upon the ruins of the old East End. Some of the energy and the animation of the original tenements had gone but the East End was a safer and healthier place.


Fortune not Design

How Shall We Rebuild London? This was the title of a book, by C.B. Purdom, which described the postwar city “dulled by such extensive drabness, monotony, ignorance and wretchedness that one is overcome by distress.” That drabness or “greyness,” so characteristic in recollections of London in the 1950s, was a matter of privation; in the years immediately after the Second World War, most commodities were rationed. But in another sense it was the greyness of twilight. If one natural reaction after the war lay in the desire to create a “new world,” as the urban planners wished, then another was to reconstruct the old world as if nothing particular had happened. So when Roy Porter in London: A Social History invokes the 1950s in terms of a “knees-up at the pub” and “contented commuters,” he is remarking upon the atavistic tendency of London to go on doing all the things which it had been doing before the unhappy interruption of hostilities. Yet it could not, and did not, succeed. The desire to impose a set of familiar conditions, in changed circumstances, led only to a vague atmosphere of oppression or constriction.

The two great set-pieces of London theatre were the Festival of Britain in 1951 and the Coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953. This sense of London as a successful and enthusiastic community, miraculously reassembled after the war, was subtly reinforced by the resurgence of orthodox values and conventional activities. Youth organisations, like the Scouts and the Cubs, flourished; it was a great period for Boys Clubs in east and south London. Attendance at football matches rose once again to prewar levels; the cinemas were also crowded, perhaps because, as one Londoner of the period recalled, “there was practically nothing else to do.” This air of mild oppression, like a hangover after the excitement of war, was intensified by a concerted if unspoken desire to redefine sexual and social mores which had been considerably relaxed during the conflict. The relative sexual freedom of women, and the chummy egalitarianism of enforced contact between the classes, were phenomena strictly of the past. And that in turn led to further if ill-defined unease, especially among the younger population. The standards of the 1930s were being reintroduced within a quite different society. The imposition of two years of compulsory military service, known as “National Service,” only served to emphasise the atmosphere of general constriction. It was a less advantageous aspect of the newly formed “welfare state.”

So London, then, was drab. Compared with other great cities, such as Rome and Paris and New York, it was ugly and forlorn; for the first time in its history it had become something of an embarrassment. And yet there were already stirrings of change, arriving from unexpected quarters. The Teddy boys of Elephant and Castle, and other parts of south London, were joined by the bright young things of the Chelsea set and the beatniks of Soho, as objects of moral outrage. It is perhaps significant that these various groups were closely associated with certain areas of the city, as if local historical forces were also at work. They were all intent upon breaking free from what they considered to be the dreary uniformity of urban life still modelled on outdated systems of class and belief. The dead areas of Walworth or of Acton, of Islington or of Stoke Newington, were a standing reproof. Their territorial spirit, too, was manifest in what they wore; the clothes of the Teddy boy, as well as his successor the Mod, were the single and often only mark of identity. The Teddy boys had in fact borrowed their “look” from the more respectable tailors of Savile Row and Jermyn Street who were trying to promote the images of “Edwardian” refinement among their male customers. Edward became “Teddy,” and a new hybrid was created. Instead of those images of working-class youth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, shabbily dressed and with the uniform cloth cap perched upon their heads, there emerged a picture of boys in velvet jackets and drainpipe trousers. The recklessness and freedom, already evinced by the children of the Blitz, were still apparent. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries clothes were “handed down” from class to class in the spiral of trade, but on this occasion the disadvantaged actively promoted the transaction. It was another feature of native London egalitarianism accompanied by a self-possession and aggression which have been evident in London since the days of the medieval apprentices. In fact many Teddy boys were themselves apprentices.

But these attitudes were reinforced by the fact that London was becoming once more a young city. The rising birth rate and accelerating prosperity of London in the 1950s helped to create a younger society which wished to divest itself of the limitations and restrictions of the postwar capital. There was no sudden transition, in other words, to the “Swinging Sixties.” There were cafés and coffee bars and jazz-clubs in Soho; there were clothes-shops and small bistros in Chelsea some years before the efflorescence of boutiques and discothèques. London was slowly being rejuvenated, and by the mid-1960s it was suggested that 40 per cent of the general population were under twenty-five. This is approximately the condition of Roman London, when only 10 per cent of the population survived after forty-five, and we may infer a similar sexual energy. It also corresponds to the ratio of the city’s population in the sixteenth century, where all the evidence suggests an earlier resurgence of the London appetite for fashion. If the conditions are approximately the same, then urban attitudes will be repeated.

“Before the Blitz,”Rasmussen has written in London: The Unique City, “Londoners took their dingy streets as a matter of fact, an unavoidable act of fate.” But when whole terraces could be levelled with one bomb, they came to believe that even London was susceptible to destruction and could be changed. It was dirty, and seedy; it was part of the civilisation which had created two world wars. A London newspaper, the Evening Standard, asked for more dynamite. Even before the war was over a regional planner, Patrick Abercrombie, had prepared two proposals, the County of London Plan and the Greater London Plan, which would lend London “order and efficiency and beauty and spaciousness” with an end to “violent competitive passion.” It is the eternal aspiration, or delusion, that somehow the city can be forced to change its nature by getting rid of all the elements by which it had previously thrived.

Yet, in topographical terms, the Abercrombie plans were immensely influential. They required a significant shift of population within the city itself in order to “create balanced communities each comprising several neighbourhood units”; the reconstruction of bombed London would proceed on the basis of “density zones” which would disperse hitherto overcrowded neighbourhoods. There would be a balance of housing, industrial development and “open space” with key highways connecting variously integrated communities. Three examples may represent many. Much of the population of Bethnal Green was rehoused in LCC “low-density” estates such as Woodford in Essex; the bombed areas of Poplar were rebuilt as the great Lansbury Estate with a mixed style of block and single dwellings. Within inner London the Loughborough Estate rose in Brixton, its main edifices eleven storeys high. The elements of London were being redistributed, to create more light and air. The old streets, which were variously considered “obsolete” or “outworn,” “narrow” or “confined,” were erased in order to make room for modern, larger and neater estates. The advent of municipal control over large swathes of the city was not, however, without disadvantages. It altered the reality of London, damping down its natural laws of growth and change. Small businesses, the life and blood of the city, could no longer thrive. The “inner London councils” were attempting to ignore, or reverse, the natural tendencies of the city which had been in operation for almost a thousand years. It was inevitable that the old City of London would promote other ideas and in its own plan the planners suggested “the conservation wherever possible of features which are of traditional and archaeological significance” as well as maintaining “the romance and history which the very street names breathe.” But their proposals for careful redevelopment were not in accordance with the modern spirit of innovation and large-scale urban planning; they were rejected by the national administration, and the LCC was invited to redevelop areas around St. Paul’s, the Tower and the present Barbican.

Other elements of Abercrombie’s plans were also implemented, most notably in the Town and Country Act of 1947. He proposed that London become a “circular inland city” composed of four rings—the Inner Urban Ring, the Suburban Ring, the Green Belt Ring and the Outer Country Ring. It was a way of containing the “inner city,” as if it were some dangerous or threatening organism which could not be permitted to grow. On most maps it is painted black. It was also important to remove industry and people from this inner darkness as if the act of so doing would render it less dangerous. In order to expedite the migration of a million people another part of Abercrombie’s report suggested the development of new “satellite towns” in the Outer Country Ring. Eight of these were built, and prospered, but the effects upon London itself were not exactly as had been anticipated and planned. As any historian of London might have told the various urban boards, neither schemes nor regulations would be able to inhibit the city. It had been proposed to check its industrial and commercial growth, by siting new industries in the “satellite towns,” but London’s commercial prosperity revived after war. The manufacture of cars, buses, trucks and aeroplanes rose to unprecedented levels; the Port of London handled record numbers of goods, and employed 30,000 men; the “office economy” had restored the City of London so that it experienced a property boom. The population of the capital had dipped slightly, after the dispersal of many of its inhabitants to the suburbs and to the new towns, but the effect was mitigated by sudden and unexpectedly high fertility. Nothing could withstand the ability of the city to rejuvenate itself, and continue its growth.

The new “satellite towns,” such as Stevenage and Harlow and Basildon, became part of an historical process which was also too powerful—too instinctive—to be “reversed.” London has always grown by taking over adjacent towns or villages and cradling them in its embrace. It has been a feature of its development since the eleventh century. And so it overtook the newly created towns.

So powerful is the historical imperative that Patrick Abercrombie and his colleagues were instinctively creating just the same patterns of habitation as the seventeenth-century builders of Bloomsbury and Covent Garden. The “new towns” ineluctably became as much part of London as their predecessors; instead of restricting the size of the city, the postwar planners immeasurably expanded it until the whole south-eastern area became “London.” The Outer Metropolitan Area represented the latest manifestation of urban life, characterised by endless movement. But that was always the condition of London. Whenever the opportunity and location are offered, it replicates its identity. It is a blind force in that sense, not susceptible to the blandishments of planners or politicians—except, as we have seen, when they offer further prospects of growth.

The Green Belt did not then act as a barrier or inhibitor of urban life; in certain respects it simply became a large open space fortuitously situated within the outer Metropolitan Region. But it did have one effect, in checking the physical development of the inner city and its immediate suburbs which had to leap over the greenness in order to continue their ineluctable life. Yet as part of this phenomenon there was also a curious sense in which the city recoiled upon itself. It fed back into itself. Deprived of any room for immediate local extension, it began to re-explore its own patterns and possibilities. The construction of the great Inner London estates, the resurgence of interest in restoring old dwellings, the process of “gentrification,” the growth of “loft” living, the whole emphasis upon renewal, are the direct consequences of the Green Belt which forced London and Londoners to look inwards rather than outwards.

The imperatives of London’s history had one further consequence. The postwar planners had also envisaged a great network of orbital and ring roads, with much the same intent and significance as the wide avenues proposed for London by Wren and Evelyn after the Great Fire. But, like the earlier designs, they came to nothing; they were defeated by political pressure, economic constraints, and vehement local opposition. London, almost alone of English cities, has withstood the edicts of rational planners and “highway management”; it was part of its ability successfully to frustrate any general or grandiose plan. General structural change did not, and could not, occur. The city has preserved its character ever since the first Tudor proclamations concerning “town planning” were ignored.

Yet this was not generally understood at the time and, in London, the 1960s were particularly charged with forgetfulness. The American weekly Time proclaimed on its front cover “LONDON—THE SWINGING CITY.” Its affluence was visible enough; real earnings had risen by approximately 70 per cent in the twenty years since the war, and the high birth rate in the first years of peace certainly gave the impression of a city dominated by youth. The fact that National Service had been abolished in 1960 itself represented a literal and emblematic lifting of restrictions upon young males in particular. So music, and fashion, returned on an unprecedented scale. One designer, Mary Quant, has suggested that she wished to create clothes that “were much more for life—much more for real people, much more for being young and alive in.” So there was an efflorescence of boutiques in well-defined areas of London; Carnaby Street became the centre for young men who wore Mod fashions, with the familiar London emphasis upon what was “new” or “in the news,” while the King’s Road in Chelsea became the destination for young women who wished to be trendy. Music, too, emanated from London with groups such as the Who, the Kinks, the Small Faces and the Rolling Stones, many of their members having come from London art schools and colleges. Those groups from outside the city, like the Beatles, necessarily migrated to it. Designers had also caught the prevailing mood. Terence Conran recollected that “I’d always believed that well-designed things should be available to the whole population, that it shouldn’t be an elitist thing. And I think this coincided with a lot of people who’d had further education coming through who were discontented with the way things were.” So broader access to higher education played its part in what Conran called “the atmosphere of discontentment.” It was discontent, primarily, with the postwar world of hierarchy and repression but also with the perceived shabbiness and dreariness of London. It was a way of lightening the surroundings. The actual nature and identity of the city were no longer of any consequence. For a few years instead it became the “style capital” where music and fashion attracted the ancillary industries of magazine publishing, photography, advertising, modelling, broadcasting and film-making to create a bright new city.

But of course “Swinging London” was not “new” at all. The city’s familiar instincts had never ceased their operation. The commercial imperative of the city’s life, for example, had identified a “market” among the newly resurgent youth which could be in turn exploited by intelligent entrepreneurs. The commercial infrastructure of the music business, for example, was already in place. In all areas of this teenage revolt, in fact, the youths themselves were exploited by a vast commercial project. It was a thoroughly London undertaking. The phenomenon of the 1960s was essentially theatrical and artificial in nature, too; like so many London displays, it glided over the fundamental underlying life in the capital. To see the decade clearly it is important to see it steadily, and as a whole, encompassing all of its realities.

It is significant, for example, that the age of the boutique and the discothèque was also the age of the tower block, of public vandalism, and of increased crime. They are not unconnected. Of the tower blocks of the 1960s, much has been written. They had become the resort of planners and architects motivated by aesthetic, as well as social, reasons. They seemed to offer the vision of a new kind of city; many Georgian and Victorian terraces were razed by the civic authorities to make way for an experiment in urban living in which a new kind of vertical community might be forged. The popularity of the tower blocks—some four hundred were erected in London during the late 1960s—was also animated by economic principles. They were standardised, and therefore could be quickly and cheaply assembled. There were so many people on housing lists, or living in parts of the “inner city” which were deemed unfit for human habitation, that the “high-rise estates” seemed at the time to be the only efficient and affordable means of translating citizens from relative squalor into relative comfort.

It was the age of the property developer when great fortunes could be made, trading off development land to the LCC for permission to build on sensitive sites. Their names were legion—Centrepoint, London Wall, Euston Centre, Elephant and Castle, all of London seemed to have been changed out of scale and out of recognition. It was a form of vandalism in which the government and civic authorities were happy to acquiesce. Vast swathes of London disappeared in the process—Printing House Square, Caledonian Market, St. Luke’s Hospital, parts of Piccadilly, stretches of the City, were all demolished in order to make way for what became known as “comprehensive redevelopment.” What it represented was a deliberate act of erasure, an act of forgetting, not so dissimilar in spirit to the mood and ambience of the “Swinging Sixties” elsewhere in London. It was as if time, and London’s history, had for all practical purposes ceased to exist. In pursuit of profit, and instant gratification, the past had become a foreign country.

Three examples from the 1960s may suffice. Londonderry House in Park Lane was dismantled, in 1962, to make way for the London Hilton; the Georgian streets of the Packington Estate in Islington were demolished in 1966 to make room for a council estate; in 1963 the great Euston Arch, the portico of Euston Station, was pulled down as part of a scheme of “modernisation.” Just as the excitement of the “trendy” had animated the worlds of music and fashion, so the same denial or rejection of the past determined architectural and civic planning. “Swinging London” was all of a piece, and much of the swinging was done by the implements of the demolition teams.

London has always been an ugly city. It is part of its identity. It has always been rebuilt, and demolished, and vandalised. That, too, is part of its history. The ancient creed—“Cursed be he that removeth old landmarks”—has never been observed in the city. In fact one of the characteristics of London planners and builders, over the centuries, has been the recklessness with which they have destroyed the city’s past. There were even songs on the subject from previous centuries:

O! London won’t be London long

For ’twill all be pulled down

And I shall sing a funeral song …

It might have been sung by Victoria Station, or Knightsbridge, or St. Giles Circus, in the 1960s.

The haunts we revelled in today

We lose tomorrow morning,

As one by one are swept away

In turn without a warning …

In the 1260s all the old “ruinated” work of past ages was swept away in the entire redevelopment of Bridge Ward. In the 1760s the medieval gates of the city walls were demolished on the grounds that they “obstructed the free current of air”; in the same decade of “improvement,” houses were demolished to make way for new streets in no fewer than eleven wards. It was the greatest single change in London since the Great Fire a hundred years before. Then in 1860 the Union of Benefices Act expedited the destruction of fourteen city churches, some of them erected by Wren after that Fire. The 1860s were in fact the great period of destruction when, in the words of Gavin Stamp in The Changing Metropolis, “half of London was being rebuilt … the city must have been a nightmare of dust, mud, scaffolding and confusion.” Queen Victoria Street and the Holborn Viaduct were being constructed, causing massive destruction to the oldest parts of London, while the various railway networks were defacing the cityscape with tracks and stations; the London Chatham & Dover Railway passed across Ludgate Hill, for example, and obscured the view of St. Paul’s Cathedral. This disfigurement of the cathedral was once more the charge levelled against property developers of the 1960s, so it would seem that there is no pause in the destruction of London.

It can be no more than coincidence that these great waves of vandalism occurred in the 60s of each century, unless you were to believe that some theory of cyclical recurrence can be applied to the city’s development. In that case we might expect the 2060s to mark the destruction of much twentieth-century building.

Other aspects of the 1960s seem, in retrospect, aligned to each other. There was an extraordinary and indeed unprecedented rise in crime, which tripled in the twelve years after 1955 and showed no signs of diminution in the late 1960s. The culture of instant gratification, and of youthful power, must have played a large part in inciting less affluent youths to theft and house-breaking. But the tower blocks, and the property speculators, and the garish fashions, all contributed to a mood of implicit or explicit aggression. “Controls” had been removed from office-building and from planning applications, but controls had also been removed from all aspects of London’s existence. The later waves of youthful protest, from the “hippies” and “flower children” of the late 1960s to the “punks” of the 1970s, manifested only confusion and anxiety in a highly unsettled urban society.

The civic existence of London, like some Behemoth below the water, continued ineluctably to expand. In 1965 the Greater London Council, comprising thirty-two boroughs and some 610 square miles of territory, was established; as has always been the case with London’s government it represented a political compromise and a division of powers between different levels of urban government. The confusion can be exemplified, perhaps, in the decision that the GLC should be responsible for “metropolitan roads,” the Ministry of Transport for “trunk” roads and the boroughs for “local” roads. Yet confusion is, perhaps, the wrong word for the fundamental condition of London’s administration. The competing road authorities were remarkably similar to the competing vestries and parishes and metropolitan authorities which in the early decades of the nineteenth century were responsible for lighting and sanitation. London has always been a muddle; that is, perhaps, why it has survived. The GLC, however, was given responsibility for a new “Development Plan” for London including the distribution of population, employment, transport and redevelopment in the continuing delusion that the city could somehow be made to serve the will of civil servants, politicians and planners. Even at the time of its inception, however, the Greater London Council was not great enough to control or supervise the expansion of a city which, in terms of planning for population and employment, now took in the entire south-east of England. Its administrative area was already anachronistic, and its planning purposeless. It could not have been otherwise.

But something else was happening, over which no one had any control. Trade was being lost. Manufacturing industries moved out, or closed down; unemployment rose very quickly. The most important transition occurred upon the river where in quick succession London’s docks were deemed redundant and irrelevant. They were no longer large enough to handle the new container ships and, in any case, trade with the Commonwealth was rapidly decreasing. The East India Dock ceased activity in 1967, followed by St. Katherine’s Dock and London Dock two years later. The Surrey Commercial Docks were closed in 1970, and there were further closures until the banks of the Thames were bare and empty, with echoing warehouses and waste ground the only visible remnant of what had once been one of the city’s glories. The Queenhithe Dock, which had a continuous history since the time of Saxon London, was destroyed in the spring of 1971 to make way for a luxury hotel. In a sense it epitomises the movement of London, where one trade must give way to another. But the wasteland of the dockside area, once the centre and principle of the city’s commerce, was in a larger sense an emblem of London in the 1970s.

The 1960s have been described by some commentators as a time of “innocence” (although their levels of crime and vandalism may serve to alter that impression), but whatever “innocence” still existed fell away in the succeeding decade when all the old problems of London reasserted themselves. An economic boom in the late 1960s was followed by a bust in the mid-1970s. London lost its vivacity, and much of its energy. The sudden decay of trade and commerce, in a city devoted to them, provoked considerable dismay and anxiety. For a while it seemed that its life was being stopped. This in turn led to concern among those who administered the city. London was sick, and needed a fresh access of life and trade.

The long experiment with high-rise tower blocks, on borough housing estates, came to an end; it had been effectively destroyed by a structural accident at Ronan Point in 1968, in which several people were killed, but the spirit of the time—and indeed the spirit of London—turned against it. The emphasis would now rest upon “high-density” and “low-rise” estates which would, in a sense, attempt to reproduce the atmosphere of the old terraced streets. At the same time measures were introduced to revive the central areas of London with schemes designed to protect the environment and expedite public transport. In particular the policy of demolishing Victorian or Georgian housing was reversed, and grants were instead made available for “improvements” in older and more dilapidated dwellings. The city, once more, was being comforted and consolidated rather than destroyed. There ensued a process of what became known as “gentrification” when generally middle-class and professional couples moved into run-down houses or areas in order to refurbish and renew them. Islington and Spitalfields were two previously “deprived” areas which benefited from this change of ownership and direction. The Green Belt turned the city in upon itself. The edges of Greater London were now so distant that Londoners began to reclaim those parts of the city closer to home. The city was solidifying; perhaps it was about to realise its potential.

At a time of recession, and falling expectations, there were also fears that it might become the terrain of social conflict. It became the task of administration, therefore, to preserve and heal the fragile city; thus, in the late 1970s, the Greater London Council funded new community projects, with the emphasis resting upon the vulnerable or the marginal; ethnic and sexual minorities, in particular, were afforded assistance. Here was an affirmation of London’s democratic and egalitarian instincts, but it was also a necessary remedy for difficult times. The real needs of the city, having been ignored or exploited for some years, were being met. It is significant, too, that in the period of improvement grants and gentrification the conservation of London became a matter of great and growing public concern. A scheme for the “Motorway Box” around London was dropped; proposals to refit Covent Garden, in accordance with principles of traffic flow and pedestrian decks, were abandoned after strenuous local opposition. By the mid-1970s there were some 250 “conservation areas” located in all parts of the city, testifying to a new awareness of London’s textural fabric and social history. Hostilities against the city had finally come to an end. The abolition of the Greater London Council in 1986 left it without a unified authority, but it did not seem to notice; in effect London resumed its ancient life, with the separate boroughs affirming distinct and different identities. The city, in the process, acquired its old momentum. The election of a mayor, and assembly, for London will not materially affect its nature or direction. It does not respond to policy committees or to centralised planning. It would be easier to control the elements themselves.

This was nowhere more evident than in the conception and creation of “Docklands.” The Docklands Development Corporation was established in 1981 to restore or renew the wasteland left by the closure of the London Docks; Wapping, Rotherhithe, the Isle of Dogs, Silvertown, north Woolwich and Beckton were within its boundaries and a number of enterprise zones—rate-free and tax-free catchment areas—were marked out for especial attention. The London City Airport, the Docklands Light Railway, and an extended Jubilee Line, were the designated means of transport. But, as in most London developments, the results were largely unplanned and unpredictable. The fate of Canary Wharf was in that sense emblematic. Its central feature was an 800-foot tower surmounted by a pyramid (which might provoke thoughts of imperial destiny) with approximately ten million square feet of office space. The original developers withdrew from the scheme and their replacement, the firm of Olympia & York, was reduced to bankruptcy even as the tower was nearing completion. A third consortium took over the project, even though a surplus of office space in the rest of the capital mitigated against early success. And yet, somehow, it worked. Tenants were found, and the whole of Canary Wharf flourished.

Docklands itself experienced a similar fate. Wild fluctuations in the urban economy left it balancing between triumph and disaster on a number of occasions; its apartment blocks were fashionable one year, and unfashionable the next; there were complaints about rudimentary transport facilities as well as the absence of shops, but nevertheless there was continual development. Michael Hebbert, in London, has remarked that there were “few preconceptions as to what should occur,” and that this “hands-off approach produced a curiously piecemeal environment.” Yet in that respect it followed the pattern of most London growth, which is no doubt the reason for its success. Docklands “had no overall philosophy for the massing and scale of buildings, or for the layout of public spaces,” but that is why it has become a natural and recognisable extension of London. The entire area was accused of “aesthetic incoherence” and a “market-driven disregard of social policy” but these are precisely the conditions and circumstances in which the city has expanded and flourished; it understands no other principles of life.

That is the context in which the great tower of Canary Wharf, which dominates the London skyline, has won in Hebbert’s words “immediate acceptance and affection.” This great shaft, so in tune with the alignment of the city, now rivals the Monument and Big Ben as the symbol of London. It represents, too, the single most important shift in urban topography for many centuries; the commercial and social pressures had always edged westwards, but the development of Docklands has opened up what has been called London’s “eastward corridor” which in historical and structural terms offers passage and access to Europe at a time when London’s economy is becoming more closely associated with the continent. There is a suspicion that the City of London—as well as the banks and brokers newly moved to Docklands— will come to dominate the financial markets of the European Community. Here, in this steady progress eastwards, we may be able to sense London’s instinctive and almost primordial reaching towards money and trade.

It is appropriate to mention here the “Big Bang” which transformed the City in the autumn of 1986; that explosion turned the Stock Exchange into the International Stock Exchange, enabled the merger of banking and brokerage houses, finished the system of fixed commissions and introduced “electronic dealing.” It was not the beginning of the City’s triumphalism; the phenomenon of young urban professionals named “yuppies” had been first noticed in 1984: a group who, in the phrases of the period, wished to “get rich quick” before “burn-out.” But the events of 1986 heralded a sea-change in the position of the City of London. Its foreign exchange market is now the most advanced and elaborate in the world, handling approximately one-third of the world’s dealings; with 600,000 employed in banking and allied services it has become the largest exchange in the world. Once more London was fulfilling its historical destiny, and recovering the pre-eminence which it had achieved in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is an historical achievement in more than one sense since, as Hebbert has explained, “The compactness of a 2000-year old urban core is fortuitously well suited to the operation of a globalised financial service centre.” Whether it is entirely “fortuitous” is another matter, however, since the actual nature of that square mile seems uniquely possessed by the spirit of commerce. There have been booms and busts, but it has maintained its ascendancy.

A new type of commercial activity, however, demanded new forms of building. That is how the City changes, while keeping its identity intact. The demand was for large open spaces which could accommodate the miles of cables attached to electronic activity and which could harbour thousands of employees working under consistent pressure. There was, after all, a human cost to this fresh access of trade. In the late 1980s some four million square metres of office space were added to the stock of the City, not least with the development of the Broadgate complex. Light-sensitive blinds and prismatic blue-green glass shielded the devotees of finance as they continued, night and day, with their dealings and transactions. All the gods and griffins of the City protected them.

What gods were these? Who can say? In 1986 Faith in the City, a report sponsored by the archbishop of Canterbury, noted that it was “the poor who have borne the brunt of the recession, both the unemployed and the working poor. Yet it is the poor who are seen by some as ‘social security scroungers,’ or a burden on the country, preventing economic recovery. This is a cruel example of blaming the victim.” It is one of the great and continuing paradoxes of London life that the rich global city contains also the worst examples of poverty and deprivation. But perhaps that comprises the “meaning” of London. Perhaps its destiny is to represent the contradictions of the human condition, both as an example and as a warning.

The report also described those council estates which “have a quite different social and economic system, operating almost entirely at subsistence level, dependent entirely on the public sector … the degeneration of many such areas has now gone so far that they are in effect ‘separate territories’ outside the mainstream of our social and economic life.” These sentiments will be familiar to those who have studied the social topography of London over the centuries; Charles Booth’s “Poverty Map” of 1889 might provoke a similar analysis, for example, with the proviso that there was then no public sector to support the indigent and the unfortunate. Once more it is the condition of London itself which is being described. If the city had a voice it might be saying: There will always be those who fail or who are unfortunate, just as there will always be those who cannot cope with the world as presently constituted, but I can encompass them all.

The decade which saw the emergence of the “yuppies,” for example, also witnessed the revival of street-beggars and vagrants sleeping “rough” upon the streets or within doorways; Lincoln’s Inn Fields was occupied once more by the homeless, after an interval of 150 years, while areas like Waterloo Bridge and the Embankment became the setting for what were known as “cardboard cities.” The Strand, in particular, became a great thoroughfare of the dispossessed. Despite civic and government initiatives, they are still there. They are now part of the recognisable population; they are Londoners, joining the endless parade. Or perhaps, by sitting upon the sidelines, they remind everyone else that it is a parade.

And yet what is it, now, to be a Londoner? The map of the city has been redrawn to include “Outer Metropolitan Areas” as well as “Greater” and “Inner” London; the entire south-east of England has—willingly or unwillingly—become its zone of influence. Is London, then, just a state of mind? The more nebulous its boundaries, and the more protean its identity, has it now become an attitude or set of predilections? On more than one occasion, in its history, it has been described as containing a world or worlds within itself. Now it has been classified as a “global city,” and in Hebbert’s words as “a universe with its own rules, which has genuinely burst out of national boundaries.” So it does truly contain a “universe,” like some dense and darkly revolving cloud at its centre. But this is why so many millions of people describe themselves as “Londoners,” even if they are many miles from the inner city. They call themselves Londoners because they are pervaded by a sense of belonging. London has been continuously inhabited for over two thousand years; that is its strength, and its attraction. It affords the sensation of permanence, of solid ground. That is why the vagrant and the dispossessed lie in its streets; that is why the inhabitants of Harrow, or Croydon, call themselves “Londoners.” Its history calls them, even if they do not know it. They are entering a visionary city.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!