In the five years I spent in Oxford in the 1960s I spent a good deal of time in London which was a 22 shilling return rail fare away. (The price must have varied, but that’s the one I remember.) This was supposed to be “swinging London” and there were some good moments: walking down the King’s Road on a Saturday morning with a girl whose face appeared in advertisements and England’s 1966 World Cup campaign, for instance. But even though it was the place to be I never liked it and there were dark images to contrast with the positive ones. The extreme squalor of the Soho strip club which I visited with an undergraduate friend. Fulham Broadway station filled with Chelsea fans singing, ” ‘Arry Roberts is our friend . . . ‘e kills coppers”. The cheap, tasteless tat sold on Carnaby Street. Friends’ flats on wet Sunday mornings with everybody sitting around with the newspapers and whingeing – because there was nothing else to do. London was dark, depressing, declining, dirty . . . I could continue, even alliteratively. I absolutely resolved never to live there, even though most of my friends did. Like the countryside, it would do for visits. For actual living, you needed a nice town – Royal Leamington Spa in my case.
No regrets, but it would be a more difficult decision nowadays and I might well have been prepared to live in London – and as it is I have my cherished Oyster card and a bed in my youngest son’s flat. The city has revived and regenerated beyond any expectations which were held forty or fifty years ago. One interesting, though superficial, way of looking at this is to list the places where you might take a first-time London visitor now. A substantial number just weren’t there in the 1960s including Covent Garden, the London Eye, the Queen’s Walk, the Globe Theatre, the O2 Arena, the Millennium Bridge and the Tate Modern. I venture to suggest that there are more of these new icons in London than there are in other global cities such as Paris and New York. It is also true that some of the old London pilgrimage destinations have been improved beyond the imaginations of the 1960s; this is dramatically true of the Meccas of sport, including Wimbledon, Wembley, Lord’s, Twickenham and Ascot. It isn’t just the fabric of these places which has improved, but the spirit as well. When my little football team had the cheek to be the first to win at Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge for some years a couple of years ago the home fans gave “us” a standing ovation and we all mingled and conversed in the streets afterwards. In the sixties we would have had to slink away faking London accents for fear of being beaten up.
If you go back and look at the academic writing about “urban decay” when I first knew it in the early 1970s you will find it was deeply pessimistic and made few important distinctions between London and other large cities in Britain. The “anti-urbanism” of Anglophone culture and the loss of function meant that all our cities were doomed to decline and any urban policies had to be remedial. Cities would become “sinks” where nobody lived unless they had to. The endemic urban problems of transport and fiscal crisis were essentially insoluble; the future was semi-derelict. The argument that cities were no longer needed for manufacture nor as meeting places was rational, but it failed to take account of their burgeoning potential as tourist and cultural centres and at that stage took no account of the potential of cities like London to play these roles on a global scale.
Should anyone be credited for London’s revival? Or is it just fateful in the historical sense, the product of massive forces of economics and geography which (as usual) nobody understood forty years ago? Anecdotally, there seems to be a long history of London staggering towards a good policy having set off in a different direction. Covent Garden, now the city’s most popular area with tourists according to some statistics, was going to be massively re-developed with undistinguished high-rise buildings until Geoffrey Rippon (in 1973) rather indecisively refused to sanction the demolition of the listed buildings in the area. A temporary Ferris wheel became a permanent favourite of tourists and a visual symbol of the city. The O2 was a white elephant until a casual (and potentially corrupt) conversation between Gordon Brown and Philip Anschutz led to it becoming Europe’s premier popular entertainment venue. The Millennium Bridge started life with a design fault, but is now regarded as the best place from which to view the city.
If you ask when London began to revive the answer can only be in the Thatcher period. Some of this was policy. “Big Bang” and relatively liberal tax regimes made the place attractive as a place to be and become wealthy. The abolition of the GLC stopped it going down the Greek fiscal road. The strict maintenance of the Green Belt forced developments back into the urban area. The London Docklands Development Corporation created a whole new geography of wealth and power (with a vigorous new ruthlessness towards the innate conservatism of existing “communities”.) The selling of council houses made the property market more like a market. All of these were part of the revival – and the most important dimension of that revival was, of course, the recovery in belief in the city. Yet all of these, on closer examination, turn out to have a seat-of-the-pants, semi-accidental quality to them. The green belt was only maintained because of a backbench rebellion (in 1981). A whole raft of policies existed only because of riots. Much was facilitated because the main opposition party had temporarily fallen off its trolley.
In short if there was a virtue in the making of policy it was certainly not vision, but flexibility. And that was allied to a cultural virtue, the English global mentality. After four hundred years of commerce, piracy, empire et al., the outlook and connections of Londoners are able to accept the ambitions and abilities of everybody. Nowhere could be more sharply contrasted to the incest-and-folk-dancing corners of Europe than London. As a result, you walk down the river bank from Tower Bridge to the Houses of Parliament and you experience the strangeness of a town on an offshore island that feels like the centre of the universe.