2000s Archive

A New Look at London

Originally Published November 2001
It's Europe's great boomtown. But, as John Powers knows, the same river runs through it.

When my wife and I first went for lunch at the Tate Modern's glass-enclosed café, the young hostess asked, "Which side of the room would you prefer?" Though her question sounded innocent, I kept thinking that the answer would become a kind of statement. Sit on the right atop this converted power station, and you'd join the City men, lunching ladies, and designer-clad bohemians looking north across the Thames to the heart of the new London, where squadrons of cranes were rebuilding the city before our very eyes. Choose the left, and you'd gaze south over sprawling old London—crane-free neighborhoods that were dingy 100 years ago and haven't grown any more fashionable since. There, you'd find yourself among students, pensioners, and scruffy loners aggressively scrawling marginalia in their paperbacks.

Which side did we belong to?

Paralyzed by choice, I stood there until my wife, Sandi, got impatient and said, "Let's just sit in the middle." So there we sat, surrounded by empty tables, and as she ordered celery soup with spiced pear compote and Stilton bread, I tried to justify my dithering. "London," I told her, "is not as simple as it used to be."

And, really, it isn't. The city is now being sold as the capital of hip Europe, a reborn boomtown where the mobile phones never stop chirping and taxis are full at midnight. The dirty buildings have been scrubbed white, coffeehouses and trendy bars keep springing up like toadstools, and the pleasure-seeking young pour in from all over the Continent to take part in ecstatic clubbing. The air is thick with noise and the intoxicating scent of money—money made, money spent, money flaunted. Why, things are so good, the city has even run out of office space. Londoners were delighted when Bertrand DelanoŽ, the new mayor of Paris, declared that he wanted the French city to be as thrillingly modern as the one his countrymen have always condescended to. While it's been years since Paris set any real trends, London has pop-culture self-confidence to burn. It boasts celebrity filmmakers like Guy Ritchie and Hollywood movies named for Notting Hill. It trumpets scandalous artists (Damien Hirst), jet-set couturiers (Stella McCartney), top architects (Norman Foster), not to mention archetypal heroines (Bridget Jones).

And then there's the food, which you never stop hearing about. Every week a new restaurant opens, and there's talk of a Madonna sighting; turn on the telly, and you can't escape Jamie Oliver and Nigella Lawson, cooking gurus whose recipes come with more than a pinch of sex appeal. The city even has its totemic novel, White Teeth, Zadie Smith's exuberant vision of a racially mixed London whose blend of bouncy storytelling and multi-culti utopianism seems at once very old and very new—as if Charles Dickens were angling for a place at Sundance. Although one sees signs that this sense of destiny is starting to fray (diseased meat, train derailments, the shadow of northern race riots), London is still suffused with a serious case of Hot City Hubris, the sense that here is where everything is happening.

You can't really blame Londoners for strutting. When I first lived there, as a student in the mid-1970s, I was shocked by how poor and downtrodden it was. Despite a brief, giddy boomlet in the Beatles era, when it swung like a pendulum do, the city had never recovered from World War II. The electronics were shoddy, the media retrograde (The Black and White Minstrel Show!), the modern architecture Khrushchev-worthy, the food almost proudly abysmal—I've never seen so many peas cooked to mush. Yet despite all this, I loved London for its parks, bookstores, theater, sophisticated talk, and taste for eccentricity.

Naturally, my starstruck enthusiasm had my British friends there scoffing. For them it was hopelessly dreary. I remember interviewing filmmaker Julien Temple, who couldn't stop slagging off his city. Finally, I brought up Dr. Johnson's famous line, the one about a man who's tired of London also being tired of life. "I'm not tired of life," Temple snorted. "I'm just tired of London."

This deep sense of the city's inferiority began to change during the 11-year rule of Margaret Thatcher, whose ruthless restructuring of the British economy made London richer than ever (while turning the north of England into something of a backwater). Indeed, if the Thatcher era was about turning London into a commercial beehive, Tony Blair has spent years inventing a fresh image for the stodgy old capital, making it young, chic, European—swinging. And his efforts have clearly paid off.

Nowhere is Re-Swinging London more visible than along the Thames, celebrated by Wordsworth, mocked by Verlaine ("a gigantic overflowing toilet"), and neglected for much of the past 50 years. When I first lived in London, I was aghast at the South Bank, a spooky moonscape of rotting wharves and dark streets filled with the loony and violent. Even the vaunted South Bank Centre was a gray bunker that seemed to be auditioning for a role in A Clockwork Orange.

All that has changed over the past dozen years, and the Thames has become the showpiece of Britain's millennial celebrations; in fact, if you want to mark the boundaries of the new London, the river offers two handy landmarks. To the west stands the River Café, famous as the flagship of the London food boom. To the east, in the area known as Docklands, you find Canary Wharf, a new business-shopping-dining complex whose 50-story tower dominates the horizon (it's the tallest building in Britain) and whose denatured mallishness embodies what many Londoners fear could happen to their city: It will be swallowed up by internationalized corporate blandness.

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