Tag Archives: Bloomsbury

In defence of Midtown

I recently wrote a piece for The London Magazine about Midtown.

Midtown is the bastard offspring name for what people traditionally think of Holborn. For some reason, that really pisses people off. Perhaps it’s the very crassness of the name – Midtown – that deliberate literalness with its clear nod to grid-like American cities where entire areas are known by their compass points. In London, of course, we have nothing like that.

Except the West End.

And the East End.

And the South Bank.

Ah, but they are all different, aren’t they?

It is very easy to get annoyed about Midtown – the idea of it, rather than the place itself, which is pretty inoffensive – but what interested me is why. Why take on the challenge of renaming a traditional part of London? What’s the benefit? How do you summon up the gall? And how do you persuade locals it’s a good idea?

To answer those questions, I spoke to Tass Mavrogordato, Chief Executive of InMidtown, a very nice woman who appears to be permanently on her guard against negative attacks on her Midtown baby. She quickly explained to me that Midtown isn’t another name for Holborn at all. “It’s an umbrella term for the entire area between the West End and the City ,” she says. “We didn’t want to take anything away from the historic areas of St Giles, Bloomsbury or Holborn, and in many ways should help them as it helps to locate them in a wider area. We look at places like the South Bank and can see how these names with a geographical sense have been successful.”

Mavrogordato draws a straight comparison with the West End, an umbrella term that people happily use for a wider area that takes in some of London’s most historic and lovable quarters – Mayfair, Soho, Marylebone – without in any way detracting from them. Nobody has a problem with the West End. Why, she wants to know, can’t Midtown do the same thing, just a bit further east?

It all sounds very logical when she puts it like that, but I doubt people will be convinced.

Part of the problem is one of perception. People don’t like being told what to call places by other people with more money than them. InMidtown is a Business Improvement District and uses aggressive branding to push the concept of Midtown in ways that rubs people up the wrong way – even if the term Midtown predates the BID and has been in use by estate agents since the 1990s.

It’s this noxious aroma of branding that really galls, making Midtown appear distinct from the West End and South Bank, even though these are equally artificial constructions, placing rather spurious boundaries on areas that already had well-defined, historic names. But the latter two appeared more organically, or more to the point they appeared so long ago that nobody actually remembers how they came about, so they are accepted simply because they predate people’s perception of what London is, which was generally formed when they first moved to the city.

London, though, evolves far more quickly than people are comfortable with – and most people don’t actually want London to evolve at all, or at least only in ways that benefits them directly, in the form of better coffee shops or making their flat more valuable, but not so valuable that people a lot richer than them might buy it.

And that gets to the crux of people’s problem with Midtown, it’s change that appears to be directed from above, by outside forces, by money. That’s why people delight in using the ridiculous name Fitzrovia, an inter-war construct for an area that was previously considered to be an extension of Soho, but rejected Noho when that was proposed by developers as it just felt too damned American, too damned money, even if it was, in many ways, more appropriate and certainly no less daft. (Imagine trying to name somewhere Fitzrovia now – you would be laughed out of town, and rightly so.)

There is a consistency here, it’s just a very wobbly one.

And so it goes. Londoners will boast long and loud that London is the greatest city in the world, a barrel of fun for all concerned. Other people will come to London, push the property prices out of orbit and rename the streets so they can get from Lincoln’s Inn Fields to Gower Street without looking at their phone.

And suddenly, it doesn’t seem so much fun.

So in Midtown, poor helpless Midtown, they draw the line.

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The nature of London: Clay by Melissa Harrison

‘It wasn’t much of a park, really, more a strip of land between the noisy high road and the flats… Despite its size and situation the strip of grass was beautiful – if you had the eyes to see. The Victorians had bequeathed it an imaginative collection of trees; not just the ubiquitous planes and sycamores, and not the easy-care lollipops of cherries either, but hornbeams, service trees, acacias and Turkey oaks with bristly acorn caps like little sea anemones. It was alive with squirrels, jays and wood mice, while in spring thrushes let off football rattles from the treetops, and every few summers stag beetles emerged to rear and fence and mate, and begin another perilous generation among the logs that were left to decay here and there by government decree.’

‘Clay’ by Melissa Harrison

Next to my computer is a small round stone my daughter brought to me from the garden. If I was to pick it up and throw it at the bookshelf, I could hit any of a dozen novels set in London,  all of which carefully detail the grimy, grey, green-free streets of the post-industrial capital. They could be set in Soho (‘Adrift in Soho’ by Colin Wilson) or Kennington (‘London Belongs To Me’ by Norman Collins), Bloomsbury (‘Scamp’ by Roland Camberton) or Bethnal Geen (‘King Dido’ by Alexander Baron). I love some of these books dearly (all of the above) while others I find unforgivably bad (er, ‘Saturday’ by Ian McEwan) but they all inhabit essentially the same milieu – a London of narrow streets and Victorian houses that block out the sky, paved streets, traffic, pubs, smoke and people. This is the written London, or at least the London most experienced by writers in London which they then transfer to the page at the exclusion of almost anything else.

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None of them, then, do what Melissa Harrison has done with ‘Clay’, which is write a novel about nature in London. The plot, a slight but melancholic meditation on freedom, is really just a MacGuffin for this, Harrison’s real heroine. There are a number of non-fiction books enthusing at the way trees, weeds, flowers, foxes and immigrant parakeets coexist alongside largely uninterested Londoners – try ‘The Unofficial Countryside’ by Richard Mabey or ‘Scrap’ by Nick Papadimitriou – but by placing nature so firmly in the foreground of her novel – and the book is rich with descriptions on each page of everything from pine cones and owl pellets poo  [Harrison tells me that owl pellets aren’t poo] to rain clouds and long grass –  Harrison has managed to achieve what every London fiction writer surely dreams of: she makes you look at the city around you with freshly opened eyes.

I am perhaps a little biased – and not just because I know Harrison through Twitter (where she introduced herself to me by announcing she’d varnished a duck). The book is set in a part of London that I know already, a park based on Rush  Common, a strange, thin, scraggy strip of parkland that follows Brixton Hill from St Matthew’s church down towards the prison. I’ve always thought it a scrawny, rather pointless piece of grass but through her characters – a small boy called TC, a Polish farmer called Jozef and a grandmother Sophia – Harrison shows how much life can be concealed a short walk from a traffic-clogged A road. It gives an unexpectedly life-affirming twist to an otherwise sad but beautiful book, that resonates far louder than its slim size would suggest. Is it a new London genre? It’s certainly a welcome change from the norm, though I doubt whether many other writers would have the knowledge, passion and skill to recreate it so impressively.

Hawksmoor at the Royal Academy: bunkum and brilliance

As the adverts all over the tube let us know, there’s currently a big David Hockney exhibition at the Royal Academy. Less well advertised, but far more compelling from a London point of view, is the same gallery’s fine show on the fascinating architecture of Nicholas Hawskmoor.

This takes place in the Architecture Space – a nice name for a small corridor near the restaurant – and features a short introduction to the architect, alongside photographs and paintings (photographed, not originals) of key works that feature or reference Hawksmoor’s work.

Leon Kossoff's Christchurch, Spitalfields

Hawksmoor, who specialised in hefty Baroque churches, is not an architect to everybody’s taste. In 1734, James Ralph argued that Christchurch was ‘beyond question, one of the most absurd piles in Europe’.  His reputation was resuscitated by Kerry Downes in 1959, who insisted of his churches that ‘they will repel us or fascinate us, but we cannot escape from their strange, haunting power’. This has been a mantra repeated by writers in the following years.

I actually find it quite easy to escape their powers, strange, haunting or otherwise, but this supposed mysterious attraction of Hawksmoor churches is now almost impossible to ignore or deny. It has been repeated so many times, it’s become fact, as Hawksmoor became the anointed architect for a certain type of London writer, the Peter Cook to Sir Christopher Wren’s Dudley Moore. I admire Hawksmoor’s churches, but don’t see them as particularly profound or unsettling.

Charles Hardaker's Hawksmoor Baroque, St Mary Woolnoth, London

Among the first to take up this theme was Iain Sinclair who wrote about Hawksmoor in King Lud (1975). A quote from the book is reproduced on the wall, and it offers a perfect illustration of what I dislike about the psychogeographic way of seeing London: ‘From what is known of Hawksmoor it is possible to imagine he did work a code into the buildings, knowingly or unknowingly, templates of meaning, bands of continuous ritual.’

‘From what is known’; ‘possible to imagine’; ‘knowing or unknowing’. Make it up as you go along, in other words. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course, but I do resent the way it is elevated above all other forms of London writing.

Sinclair has made a career out it, and he does it so well you could almost believe he takes it seriously. A fascinating map drawn by him features in the exhibition, showing his hand-drawn connections between London buildings, and there’s also a great film in which he talks eloquently about his relationship with Hawksmoor, which began when he was a gardener employed by Tower Hamlets to mow the churchyard grass at St Anne, Limehouse. Sinclair is a wonderful speaker, and spins a fine yarn here.

Sinclair's map for King Lud

After Sinclair came Ackroyd and Alan Moore, both of whom woves tales of occultish imagination around this indefinable mystery of Hawksmoor churches. Nonsense clearly, but at least it gave us the majestic From Hell, which features prominently in the exhibition.

From Hell featuring Christchurch, Spitalfields

All this bunkum gets space in the exhibition, but I found much else to entertain besides. There are wonderful photographs and prints of Hawksmoor buildings in many different styles and from varied eras, and also a passionate film by Ptolmy Dean, explaining – quite successfully – the attractions of the easily overlooked St Mary Woolnoth near the Bank of England.

The most interesting element, however, were the photos that drew attention to the parallels between Hawksmoor’s work and more recent buildings. We see a comparison of St Mary Woolnoth and Poultry in the City, and another between St Anne, Limehouse and the National Theatre. It might not be as sexy as psychogeography, but there’s nothing wrong with a bit of straightforward architectural history every now and then.

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Celia Paul's St George, Bloomsbury