Tag Archives: Holborn

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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London timewarp: James Smith & Sons umbrella shop, Holborn

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This article appears in the current issue of Completely London magazine

When you first stumble upon James Smith & Sons, it’s tempting to believe you have slipped through a timewarp in the Holborn pavement and landed in Victorian London or, more prosaically, chanced upon a perfectly realised film set. The plate windows of the New Oxford Street shop are crowded with umbrellas and walking sticks, while the polished frontage of carved mahogany, brass, enamel and engraved glass boasts, in richly painted font, that James Smith & Sons was “Established 1830”. It’s easy to believe it hasn’t changed a jot since then.

The interior is every bit as spectacular as the outside, and English Heritage have listed the whole thing at Grade II*, noting that it is a ‘typical high-class late Victorian or Edwardian shop and as such is a rare survival in London’. The shop has been occupied by James Smith & Sons since 1867 and while there have been some updates – a new till, electric lighting – much of the façade and interior date to then. “There have been some changes but not many,” says Robert Harvey, the owner. “A few years ago we spent a considerable amount refurbishing the shop and on the day we opened a customer came in, looked around and said, “I thought you were having it redecorated?’.”

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Fittingly for such a classic-looking shop, James Smith & Sons, which is still owned by descendants of the original James Smith, specialise in the very British trade of umbrellas and walking sticks – as one writer has noted, “the art of applying the shade to the ribs with just the right amount of tension is no small matter”. The umbrella is still seen as a key piece of kit for a well-equipped Londoner looking for protection from the elements in this most rainy of cities, and an umbrella from James Smith & Sons is as desirable as a pair of shoes from John Lobb or suit from Savile Row. The shop is also popular with foreign visitors, who purchase English umbrellas as well as walking sticks and seat sticks (collapsible seats, originally for shooting but now more likely to be found at Glyndebourne). They also once sold items like swordsticks and swagger sticks as well as ceremonial sun shades for African chiefs; according to legend, one American customer asked the company for walking sticks made from every English wood possible and received more than 70. The range of umbrellas stretches into the thousands and about 30% of the stock is unique, existing as just a single item, with its own combination of material, colour, wood and style of handle.

The shop’s appearance is, admits Harvey, an anomaly as well as something of an accident. “Looking through the records, the business survived by a miracle,” he says. “The Smiths never had enough money to refurbish and I’m not sure they were the sort of people who looked long-term – they were never sure how long the business would last.” The appearance eventually became a trademark, and the shop has made regular appearances in London guidebook, even appearing in novels, in one instance when the villain of a thriller purchases a murderous swordstick from a strange old shop “marooned on an island surrounded by traffic”.

But while the appearance is identical to the Victorian shop, the attitude is different. “Unlike the Smiths in the 19th century we see the business as having a future providing a great product,” says Harvey. “But we also try very hard to retain that original character, not as a museum piece but as an example of 19th-century commercialism in the 21st-century.”