My friend Tomoko was in London the other week and it was interesting seeing what excited her about London, as Tomoko’s London is very different from my own.
Firstly ‘knowing London’ means knowing central and Northwest London rather than central and East London. Shoreditch, Clerkenwell and Soho aren’t attractive; St Johns Wood and Mayfair are – big learning curve for me here, as I have assiduously avoided anything west of Soho during my 13 or so years in London.
Whilst we may think that London has everything to offer with contemporary clubs like Cargo and the East Village, it was Whisky Mist that Tomoko went to. With a clientele drawn from or aspiring to be in a P.G. Wodehouse adaption styled by Jack Wills; that you would only find me in under duress, but was what she wanted to do. Tradition and the class system trappings is a huge selling point for the UK – in terms of experience it beats Cool Britannia of modern UK life into a cocked hat. We had a drink and a catch-up late one evening in the Rockcliff Bar in The Trafalgar Hotel which I felt was a reasonable compromise.
One thing that she was surprised at was how early in general London closes its bars and restaurants on a week-day; its not as swinging as the reputation would have others believe and certainly not up to the standard of Tokyo, Seoul, Shanghai or Singapore.
Fifteen or twenty years ago, the UK had a reputation as the worst cooks in Europe. Tomoko’s trip was as much about being a gastronomic journey. She learned how to prepare a proper English afternoon tea (the rest of the world thinks that we don’t go to Pret-a-Manger and Starbucks apparently) and we had a taster menu lunch at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze restaurant (more on this in another post).
There was an interesting take on shopping:
- Mitsukoshi for convenience – not having to fight your way through Mayfair, along Regent Street or up Oxford Street to Selfridges
- Jermyn Street for male family presents; Covent Garden antiques market for souvenirs and bringing presnts to female family presents
- Old and New Bond Street were of interest for window shopping
Which makes me think that a lot of central London retail space is looking seriously over-priced and that high footfall – long the measure of a desirable retail space can be as lethal for a shop as a branch of the Sue Ryder charity opening up next door.
All of this made think about what what my current home city means to people around the world. I have met people within my industry where having worked in London agency life carried a lot of kudos, the popularity of modern dance music elsewhere in the world was spearheaded by the middle-aged UK DJs who were involved in the late 80s acid house scene. Modern design with a twist of irreverence from James Dyson and Paul Smith to Jonathan Ives at Apple are the product of a forward-looking country. But that doesn’t seem to have translated into a brand identity for London that is less Daniel Craig and more David Niven.
Asian countries like Korea, Japan and China have managed to forge identities that are modern, yet are complementary to the centuries of culture and history that they have. On the other had, Egypt (at least as a tourist destination) is all about the ancient Egyptian society that flourished and declined 2,000 years ago. I would prefer to see London being able to balance a modern identity with a nod to the history rather than be trapped by it. Perhaps the best place to start would be through the creative destruction of the Central London built environment.