Opinion

John Bird: Any cry to slow London's pace of change has fallen on deaf ears

London is a city of people, human beings with stories. Not just a place of redevelopment...

I have not loved architects. And at the same time adored them. The late and dearly missed Zaha Hadid features in a new book about London and I am sadly reminded of our one and only meeting.

Why I was invited with others to talk to a few thousand architect students at the newly open Tate Modern some 15 years ago, I have no idea. I think it was about a positive spin on London.

When the Tate Modern, a giant and grim piece of electrical power-stationism, first was opened I was asked what I thought about it. I stood before the whirling TV camera and looked about as if I was thinking deeply, and said: “I can’t help feeling it’s a bit like a redundant power station that’s been turned into an art gallery.” I was extracting the urine. They were puzzled.

But among the other contributors was the formidable Zaha Hadid, who, unlike me, was ‘Beatle’ mobbed afterward. My contribution went down with the audience like a cocktail of rat poisoning mixed with dog’s vomit.

They recoiled when I said that London was being destroyed by artists posing as architects. Trying to turn London into a place where much architecture was fanciful, exaggerated and alienating. And that it would be best if architects left most of their outrageous attempts to turn an abandoned crisp packet – for instance – into a giant architectonic statement on the drawing board.

They recoiled when I said that London was being destroyed by artists posing as architects

Zaha’s only words said about me that night was that I was living proof of why London had such crap architecture.

I am painfully reminded of my inability to start a dialogue with a major architect when I open For the Love of London. The book, though, is a shot in the arm. It’s a kind of how can you ‘people’ a city that represents its changing faces as well as its, at times, withering traditions: how can you hold together the old and the new.

It’s beautiful, and the great and, who knows, perhaps the good, are featured. Each one telling a London story that is like a kind of survivor’s guide, as we watch London morph into a no-go zone for most of humanity; except those with the gelt.

I am drawn into knowing about this stab-in-the-right-direction kind of book by Phil Ryan; who, as you know, was, when The Big Issue was merely a glimmer in Gordon Roddick’s and my eye, my lieutenant of delivery. The first I recruited and worked on making this mag a reality.

He has an encouraging and positive piece about his own musical memories of what is so special about a city not yet entirely destroyed by property speculators and distantly-residing home owners.

I was joyed by this book because of its storytelling beauty but also as a kind of aide-memoire of how London manages to get on with its life. A hundred or so stories of being human in our Roman town.

Phil struggled and struggles with his benighted and once delightful Denmark Street where London’s songsters and strummers bought their musical instruments and sold their songs. The Crossrail project has, along with property tycoons, turned this former paradise for the musically driven into a piece of prime money.

The book’s author, Conrad Gamble, has corralled widely, roping in among others Paul Smith and Stephen Fry to espouse and enthuse.

And there’s also Bobby Kasanga, of the Hackney Wick Football Club, whose paean to Hackney Marshes is bracing. You can almost taste the damp early morning air in his words as he describes press-ganging a flat piece of grass between a motorway and a council estate into a haven for ball and kicker.

Also Cecilia Knapp’s ode to a launderette in Mile End is both gorgeous and enlightening to read. Poetry with purpose, place and people; as a former lover of launderettes I can also smell this poem from afar.

Conrad’s book is published by Cassell and it’s challenging and shows London as people and not just redevelopment.

For the Love of London by Conrad Gamble (Cassell, £14.99); octopusbooks.co.uk

John Bird is the Founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue. Email him: john.bird@bigissue.com or tweet:@johnbirdswords

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