I am astonished as I walk through the City of London. The pavements are crammed full of office workers, agents, consultants; or whatever. All I know is that I have to weave this way and that. Many of them are on their mobiles. But they are incredibly well-dressed. This is not the City of London of my childhood, when I would get the 11 bus from working-class Fulham and Chelsea to Liverpool Street, past Fleet Street, St Paul’s Cathedral and Bank, the very epicentre of British capitalism.
Of course I missed the glory days when Great Britain was ruling the waves and Victoria ruled the recalcitrant Royal Family, unable though to control the Prince of Wales’s reputation for drink, gambling and serenading West End actresses in his royal bedroom.
I came to awareness in the Fifties when the City of London was like a mouth with many teeth knocked out, the missing teeth being the bombed-out churches, counting houses and economic institutions who along with the East End took the ire of Germanic expansionism.
As I walk around the City of London now on the way to the offices of the Chapter Catcher, our new literacy magazine, I am astonished at the clean and prosperous wealth of the streets. Back when I was a boy, before consumerism really took off, everyone was drab and long-skirted. Black and grey ruled.
Now you have beauty of clothing and fashion of an untold kind; as if every last one of us is on display to everyone else. As if a lot of contemporary prosperity goes into how we look. A pub on a Friday night after the office closes where deals are done globally is like a fashion shoot, with style paraded en masse.
Interestingly, if you went into Parliament back when I was a washer-up there in 1970 you’d be surprised, compared to now, how fashion has taken over. Back then everyone was black and drab. Now people, as in the City of London, express their individualism by their clothing.
The Big Issue has inspired the launch of 120 street papers globally, including sister titles in Australia, South Africa, Japan, Taiwan and Korea.
The City of London is not, it would seem, overrun by tourists. It is not a tourist destination. But still it looks lively and fun, and lacking in seriousness. Yet it determines the wealth, or about 23 per cent of it I’ve been told, of the United Kingdom. So each one of these at times fashionably clad people are the stormtroopers of much of our prosperity.
The City of London can also boast hundreds of places to drink and eat and sip coffee. It could be European. Perhaps in the coming break-up of Great Britain (as it used to be called) into mini kingdoms, Leavers-land and Remainers-land, you might have a recognition that London has been a continental city for over 100 years and is a separate kingdom of its own.
And with its superabundance of ersatz continental coffee establishments it might just be a part of Europe.
So when in the future we divide the UK, as it now likes to be called, into fiefdoms of pro and anti-Europe, we could also have London as a major European town. And certainly not English in any form. Perhaps this could be seen as the capital of this new ‘Remain’ fiefdom. But where would you put the Leave capital? Perhaps Luton? Sunderland?
I am astonished at the clean and prosperous wealth of the streets
As I walk from Liverpool Street station to my Chapter Catcher office in one of the ancient streets of a London that could at one time boast Chaucer and at another Caxton, I am aware of how cosmopolitan London is. And how ‘foreign’ it always has been.
The 11 bus was a most generous bus from the King’s Road Chelsea because for a few coppers – pence – you saw the absolute centrepiece of British capitalism. And also passed the place where Parliament sat at Westminster, and the very spot where the parliamentarians, so annoyed with the incessant desire of Charles the First for civil war, executed their king. What a dunderhead he was.
But then we have new dunderheads to contend with. The past, which should inform us, does not do so. Our politicians pass laws that they are not prepared to enact. Courts tell politicians what to do. The people, if they exist, are going to garden centres and burying their heads in grass seeds and John Innes Compost.
Back in those grim days we had no real pop music, except what came out of Radio Luxembourg, which came in and out of range. And you only heard half the song. Luxembourg, the place the Nazis wanted to turn into the largest
rest and recuperation centre in Europe, a kind of mass brothel, is back in the news for little more than humiliating our prime minister.
My office is fine and in the eaves of an old office block, and we are trying in our Chapter Catcher to spread thinking deeper through reading. Grown out of the Brexit crisis, where we all seemed caught up in the anecdotes we chose to believe when determining our vote, our response was to grow a thinking mag. So that we all get better informed and don’t skirt along on the flimsy expertise of people like the BBC.
I love the City of London. But it needs socialising, along with investment. But that’s another story.
John Bird is the founder and Editor in Chief of The Big Issue.