Last weekend I made my way back to the U.K. after a few weeks in Australia. It was, as always, incredibly painful to say goodbye to everyone there, knowing that we would not be seeing each other for a while. But at the same time I was looking forward to getting back to London. Not quite a “going home” sensation, but for the first time in a long time I felt like I knew where I was heading.
Which was quite an unexpected and slightly unusual feeling for me, to be honest, and for almost the entire plane trip back I kept thinking to myself: “why”? What is it exactly about London that appeals to me, and that over time has got under my skin, bit by bit, so that almost without realising it I have become oddly fond of the place?
Over the past 18 months I have written several blogs about my experiences in London, and I read back through them on the long flight. I thought that maybe, with the benefit of hindsight, they would offer some answers. (See for example The Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, Diamond Skulls and Thai Princesses, A Run in London, Jellied Eel and Afternoon Prayers, On Beef and Liberty). Sure enough, there are a few fairly self-evident themes in these stories. Like my appreciation of London’s amazing ability to blend old with new, seamlessly. Or London’s rich and varied history; its endless array of “things to do”; and its diverse population, from every corner of the globe.
But none of these, taken in isolation, quite worked as an explanation for me. And then I landed, and was straight back into work. Pretty quickly I forgot all about this existential soul-searching crap, as the daily grind took over.
Although London didn’t forget, biding her time until yesterday, when she served me up three deliciously “only-in-London” moments. One after the other, a coordinated blitz designed to spell out for me exactly what it is I like about this place.
The Bleeding Heart
It started at lunch, to which I had been invited by the London office of a large French company. Not surprisingly, therefore, lunch was at a French restaurant, that occupies a four hundred year old building in central London.
There were twenty of us at the lunch, and we ate in a wonderful old room, located below street level accessed via a steep flight of rickety narrow stairs. The ceiling was lined with ancient timber beams, the bare stone floor shiny from centuries of continuous use. Down the middle of the room was a single large table, big enough for us all to sit around, and dressed in white linen and shiny silverware. The food was classic, simple French cuisine; the wait-staff all had heavy French accents; the conversation was loud and friendly. Wines were from Burgundy and the Loire, the butter came in little pots that said “beurre” on them, and espresso was served at the end of the meal without anyone even asking for it (imagine a meal ending without a shot of coffee, quell horreur!).
In short, the whole thing was so quintessentially French that had I closed my eyes, I could easily have been at an artist’s dinner in a Parisian basement, or in a rustic Provencal barn enjoying a convivial family feast. Except that I wasn’t, of course. I was in a restaurant called The Bleeding Heart, in drizzly and slightly cold central London, just off a tiny cobbled courtyard known as Bleeding Heart Yard.
So the story goes, in January 1626 (that is, about four hundred years ago, and thus long before the modern nation of Australia was even a twinkle in anyone’s eye) Lady Elizabeth Hatton was hosting a winter ball in a building adjacent to the courtyard. She was supposedly young and incredibly beautiful, and also fabulously wealthy after her husband died, leaving her a small fortune. She became famous for throwing extravagant over-the-top parties, to which everyone who was anyone in London back then wanted an invitation.
This particular winter ball was in full-swing when a hunchback man with a clawed hand made a grand entrance. Apparently, he was Lady Hutton’s mysterious European lover, who gossip had it was a bit upset about recently being ditched in favour of a younger, more attractive model. He made directly for Lady Hatton, led her to the dance floor, and they whirled around the room in full view of the other guests. Then they exited into the garden together. Everyone assumed they had gone off to one of the boudoirs, for a spot of make-up nookie.
But no – the next morning the deformed European man had disappeared, and Lady Hutton’s dismembered corpse was found in the courtyard, limbs torn from it. According to the legend, her chest was ripped open and her heart was visible, still pumping and splashing blood all over the cobblestones. Thus giving the small square (and the restaurant I ate in) a name that has endured for four centuries: the Bleeding Heart.
Rumour has it that Lady Hatton’s ghost still haunts the yard.
Doug the Head
And then we left the restaurant, turned the corner from Bleeding Heart Yard, and found ourselves in Hatton Garden, a street running down towards the Holborn Viaduct and also named after the lovely Lady Hatton and her family.
For the past three hundred years though, Hatton Garden and its surrounding streets have been better known as London’s Jewellery Quarter. Then in the past century this became quite specialised, such that nowadays it is not just any old jewellery you’ll find here, but one thing and one thing only: diamonds.
The London headquarters of De Beers, titan of the global diamond industry, is here. Until 2011 it was where De Beers held its renowned “sights”, when a lucky handful of invited diamond merchants were each handed a yellow briefcase stuffed full of diamonds. They were allowed to open the case, “sight” the stones, and pay the requested price. No negotiation, no discussion, no argument: take the diamonds as offered, or fuck off and never get invited back again. De Beers has now moved its “sights” to Gaborone in Botswana, although the Hatton Garden HQ building is still a hive of diamond activity, stones travelling to and fro by helicopter (apparently this is the only building in central London that has private helicopter landing permission).
Although it is not just because of De Beers that Hatton Garden is the centre of London’s diamond trade. In this compact area there are another 300 trading houses and stores dedicated to the sole activity of buying and selling diamonds. The first ever Graf retail store is here (important to know should you be in the market for a million dollar stone, or two), as are countless other diamond shops, big and small. Display windows that line the street are literally blinding, what with all the shimmering stones in them.
And of course, like in so many other places where diamonds are traded, Jews are disproportionately represented. Thus I immediately noticed that many of the stores lining Hatton Street have Jewish sounding names (Abrahams; Gedalovitch; Jacobs; etc). Not to mention that every second person walking down the street was an Orthodox Jew. And although I had never been there before, the whole place felt oddly familiar to me, which at first I assumed was a function of the street’s Jewish flavour.
Until I realised that it wasn’t just a vague sense of cultural familiarity. No, I actually knew this street already, and it dawned on me that I had seen Hatton Garden before, as the place where many of the unforgettable scenes in Snatch – Guy Ritchie’s cult film about a botched diamond heist – were filmed. It is in Hatton Garden that wannabe Jewish diamond dealer “Doug the Head” and his gorgeous twin daughters have their store, and where Franky “Four-Fingers” delivers a stolen 86 carat diamond on behalf of “Cousin Avi” in New York. And it is at Doug the Head’s local drinking den (the wood-panelled, four hundred year-old Ye-Old Mitre pub at number 8 Hatton Garden) that ex-KGB agent “Boris the Blade” is contracted to find the missing stone.
All quite bizarre and wonderful and totally unexpected, really, and I just stood there for a few minutes, looking around, taking in this uniquely London scene. As all the while in front of me a steady stream of orthodox Jewish men shuffled past, beards and kippot (skullcaps) and dark sombre suits, from one diamond shop to another.
The Blue Rooster
A few hours later I was walking through Trafalgar Square, with some colleagues on the way to my final meeting of the afternoon. In fact, I pass through Trafalgar Square almost every day, often several times, whether walking, jogging, or in a cab. It is one of London’s main traffic choke points, and one of the city’s principal tourist attractions, attracting almost twenty million visitors a year.
Each year elaborate Christmas celebrations takes place in Trafalgar Square, and then a week later London ushers in the New Year from here. All year round people gather in this square to demonstrate and protest; to watch major sporting events on big screens; for community events; to commemorate important dates and events; or simply just to gawk. Trafalgar Square is almost always blanketed with people, who like an army of little ants swarm constantly over and around the square.
At the northern end of Trafalgar Square is the National Gallery, to the east St. Martins-in-the-Field Church; to the south Whitehall, and to the west Admiralty Arch, leading to The Mall and Buckingham Palace. In the centre stands Nelson’s Column, 200 feet high, surrounded by four large bronze lions and two elegant fountains. The column is topped with a statue of Vice-Admiral Nelson, commander of the Royal Navy at The Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 (hence the name of the square). Nelson became a national hero when he delivered a spectacular victory for the British in what turned out to be the decisive battle of the Napoleonic Wars, despite being mortally wounded in the fight.
In each corner of the square there is a large stone plinth, three of which serve as bases for regal bronze statues, although of not-quite-so-famous people: King George IV on a horse; Sir Charles Napier; and Sir Henry Havelock. But in the north-west corner of Trafalgar Square is the fourth plinth, and despite having walked through the square umpteen times before, I had never really noticed it. In the crush of vehicles and pedestrians and general hubbub of Trafalgar Square, it has always kind of blended into the background, in a nondescript, entirely unremarkable way.
Yesterday, however, the fourth plinth finally got my attention. Perhaps this is because after an absence of a few weeks I had fresh eyes, although how I could not have noticed it previously beggars belief, really. In that the fourth plinth is not topped by yet another bronze statue of some long-dead former notable, but instead is topped by a gigantic blue rooster.
That’s right. In Trafalgar Square, alongside Nelson’s Column and the famous bronze lions, there is now also a near fluorescent, 15-foot high statue of a chicken. WTF?
A work colleague who was with me happens to be a bit of a London history buff. So when I pointed out this rather bizarre sight, he kind of shrugged his shoulders, and quite matter-of-factly gave me a potted history of the fourth plinth. I did notice that he was looking at me slightly quizzically, though, like I was mentally defective for not having previously noticed a massive blue rooster right in the middle of Trafalgar Square.
It turns out the fourth plinth was built about 175 years ago, originally intended to house a statue of King William IV. That statue was, however, never forthcoming, owing to a lack of public funds. So the fourth plinth remained empty, a festering and very visible sore right in the heart of London. Apparently, just about everyone had a view as to what should happen to it, and the result was paralysis.
Then in 1999 a bright spark at the Royal Society of Arts finally hatched a plan, to use the plinth as a temporary exhibit platform for three contemporary artworks. Even more remarkable, he was able to get through all the red-tape and actually implement the plan. Thus from 1999 – 2001, after more than 150 years of standing empty, the fourth plinth became the temporary home for a naked Christ, a gnarled tree on top of a book on top of a squashed face, and an exact replica of the plinth, made from clear plastic and placed upside down on top of the stone original. It was a runaway success, and now everyone thought this temporary art thing was absolutely wonderful, and should be continued indefinitely.
But Britain being Britain, a Royal Commission was established to decide on the fate of the fourth plinth (imaginatively, it was known as “The Fourth Plinth Commission”). The plinth once more stood empty, until after due consideration and almost three years of deliberation the Commission finally decided that this temporary art thing was absolutely wonderful, and should be continued indefinitely.
Since then, the fourth plinth has been host to oddities such as a statue of Nelson’s ship, encased in a giant glass bottle; a boy on a rocking chair; a building made of coloured glass; and live humans (2,400 people who each got a few hours on the plinth, during which they were free to do whatever they wanted). Then on 23rd July of this year, a blue rooster, created by German artist Katharina Fritsch, was installed. It will now be there for about 18 months.
See what I mean about London?
In the space of a few minutes I ate lunch in France, made a short detour through the skullduggery and intrigue of Elizabethan England, and arrived at a street that was simultaneously diamond alley, a modern-day Polish shtetl, and the backdrop to one of my all-time favourite films. And then a few hours later I was back at Trafalgar Square and very much back in London, in a place steeped in history, swarmed with tourists, surrounded by stately buildings, and home to Nelson’s column and glorious bronze statues. Only that now, side-by-side with all this, there is an oversized blue cock, as well.
I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried. London is, in a word, quirky, but in a most understated, unpredictable kind of way. Without really ever having to seek it out, there are little oddities everywhere, which are not rejected or hidden away under the rug. Far from that, these oddities are embraced, celebrated, and woven into the very fabric of the city. Wherever you are from, whoever you may be, and whatever grabs your fancy, you will find a niche here, and it will all be just fine.
And that’s why I like London.