Long before I visited London, I knew about Harrods. Harrods was where you could buy anything under the sun. I knew about double-decker buses and I understood how the mysterious Underground trains worked.
I knew London before I ever saw it, and when I actually did get to see it, as a 10-year-old ‘sophisticate’, it never for a second let me down: the double-deckers were shiny and red as fire engines; the steep white houses in Belgravia were trimmed with baskets of milk bottles and boxes of flowers; at the Grosvenor House hotel, a sign in the dining room announced that gentlemen were no longer required to dress for dinner. They dressed anyway, young men in antique dinner jackets that would, years later, appear to me to have been lifted from the BBC's wardrobe department.
London was alight with possibilities out of a favorite picture book: Dr. Johnson's house tucked away in Gough Square; the views of Parliament from Westminster Bridge; the Old Bailey where old judges wore silly curly wigs and talked like judges in the movies. There was a pretty young queen on the throne, and in front of her palace, row upon row of toy soldiers came to life every morning at 11:30 for the Changing of the Guard.
That child's London, that city I loved so much, was London as a theme park: tidy, glistening, held in an emulsion of sentiment and memory, played by a perfect cast. The images of that city remain indelible, and they show me, even as the snapshots fade to sepia, that at first glance, at least, the cliches of travel ineluctably prove the truth. And oh, above all else, its cobblestones smooth with age-London was old.
It was still old in the Swinging Sixties when I returned. At Rye, a town exquisitely dressed for the past, I dutifully called on Lamb House, where Henry James lived, went to Chawton in Hampshire for Jane Austen, to Yorkshire for the Brontes. Or was it Laurence Olivier in the movie version? But the music won. I bought a miniskirt from Mary Quant; went to discos that, hewn from London's bowels, were so dark at midday you were blinded when you emerged; and yearned to visit the Cavern Club in Liverpool. The music has been made part of history, co-opted by the theme park, and on the Rock Tour of London the guide on the bus will show you where "the famous ate and slept and lived and loved." If there's time, a visit to Beatle City in Liverpool is the nonpareil nostalgia trip, Britain's answer to Graceland. Ah, well, McCartney and Jagger and Bowie are pushing “advanced middle-age”, or, as Yogi Berra once said, "It feels like deja vu all over again."
For a decade (1989-99) Coronation Street was available for inspection: it was a wonderful blurring of illusion and reality to walk the street that served as the set for Britain's longest-running soap. Granada Television opened its back lot to tours, thanks to its resident design genius, Roy Stonehouse. There was Coronation Street, hard by 10 Downing Street, where a jolly copper stood out front. But best of all was the exquisite copy of Natalie Wood's dressing room-complete with fake Greek statuary and empty champagne bottles-when she starred in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof opposite Laurence Olivier as Big Daddy.
There are two kinds of theme park, of course. One, like Granada's, was self-contained, where the price of admission got you into a chaste environment, idealized, sanitized, with thirty-one flavors, and, happily for Britain, the weather removed.
But for me, in Britain it's the other sort of theme park that fascinates, where life imitates life and the past pursues itself. It's everywhere: in Edinburgh, men wear kilts in bars; in Glasgow, a city once reputed to be Europe's ugliest, public relations people promote opera and croissants. The former proprietor, Mohamed Al-Fayed, of Harrods made “Harrods more like Harrods, re-creating the elegance of the twenties and thirties," or so they said, but no one said whether they could re-create the salespeople as human beings. Omnia Omnibus Ubique—All Things for All People, Everywhere.
Never mind, there is always Covent Garden or tea at the Ritz, where I once met a man who could actually be said to have been wielding an umbrella.
Consciously, unconsciously, the natives play their parts: the cockney newsagent who sells you the headlines calls you "ducks"; the antiques dealer in that Cotswolds village worries about whether he can get his roof re-thatched; and locals in Stratford-upon-Avon dress up as Stratford townsfolk. Tourists, when not attending the plays of W. Shakespeare or consuming a Hamlet-burger, take snaps of people who resemble inhabitants of Stratford. Window boxes are perfectly kept.
And there are peacocks cavorting in Holland Park, and gee whiz, those window boxes! Ah, life in the theme park! Better than Reality T.V., better than any soap. And the bride and the groom from atop the wedding cake in the window where we press our noses have come to life on the palace balcony, life magically puffed into them by some cosmic, kingmaking Walt Disney. Like Mickey and Minnie, they cavort for our pleasure in their very own nation-sized theme park, called the United Kingdom.
For decades, there's been a version of Britain promoted that is all jolly nobles in stately homes, all teddy bear rallies at Longleat, vintage cars at Beaulieu, weekends, for a price, at Blenheim, complete with footmen. We love it, we want it, not, I suspect, because we are naive suckers for the odd trenchcoat or title, but for the same reason tourists from all over the world do - the French who call their kids Harry; the Japanese who join Sherlock Holmes clubs; the Russians who built a Mary Poppins Street at the Moscow Film Studios for the immensely popular Soviet version. It works because the Brits themselves are crazy about their own past, the most theatrical nation on earth, entranced with ritual and ceremony, tourists in their own land.
In the 21st century, a captain of industry longs to rent knee breeches and kneel down while the queen taps him on the shoulder with a sword; pictures of royals sell millions of magazines; people get dolled up like extras in My Fair Lady for Ascot; Prince Charles goes to the mat to protect Georgian buildings.
As Britain plunges headlong into the future, it becomes ever more concerned with preservation, renovation, the rehabilitation and protection of its culture-much like the Victorians, who, passionate for progress, were massively sentimental and put medieval ruins in their gardens and crammed their parlors with memorabilia as an expression of family values. Conservatism pays lip service to traditional values, but the policies with which it is associated promise more change, more innovation, more growth, more technology.
Go and see the Docklands and London's East End renovation so huge it's called the biggest new city in Europe. A ride on the elevated Docklands Light Railway is an experience for the picture album, it's that good.
The few remains of the old docks still give off a faint whiff of London as the great port city and the tiny slices of the Dickensian city so authentic that the BBC could film Bleak House without building any sets, or changing anything at all.
But the warehouses at Butler's Wharf and Cinnamon Wharf that once supplied an empire now supply the chic with converted lofts and penthouse apartments, all glass, bricks, and views of Tower Bridge and behind the riverfront apartments and high-rises are the rapidly disappearing council flat neighborhoods.
The London Data Table is a “table” in the shape of Greater London, which allows data to be visualised and made tangible, bridging the digital and the physical. Data such as real-time aircraft positions, bicycle hire usage, and live traffic updates can be projected onto the table, creating an immersive overview of what’s going in the city.
Like all great cities, London contains the quaint and transcends the picturesque; it is at the same time real and a story out of that tattered book of my childhood. It's too rich, too wild, too seditious, and too full of life to succumb. The music plays on.