London: we’ve been doing this for centuries

19 Dec

covent garden christmasI’ve just been back to London this week for a pre-Christmas wedding, which involved the ceremonial catch-ups with mates and ex-colleagues and a particularly lovely encounter with a bacon and cheese toastie, which will stay with me for a very long time.

Festive London really is a lovely affair. Christmas as we know it in the UK is pretty much a Victorian invention so it’s probably fitting that the capital – with its imposing monuments, churches, statues and stations from this period – does it better than anywhere else. Even Covent Garden comes into its own at Christmas – I dunno, there’s just something very festive about cobbled stones, failed actors and terrible mime artists.

It’s always bitter sweet, going home after any length of time abroad and it can be difficult to get over the feeling of having being left behind. London had its best mockney attitude on for Christmas, though, and did its best to persuade me to stay. Eccentric little bars, restaurants, cafes and clubs are dotted all over the place from Soho to Exmouth Market, Borough to Brixton. Menus glued to the inside of Cannon and Ball albums, blackboards scrawled with the lyrics of classic indie songs, bar staff with more piercings, tattoos, casual unaffected humour and just plain weirdness than you can shake a stick at: London is just better at this shit than anywhere else.

In Hong Kong, of course, the biggest tragedy of the absurdly high rents is that any budding entrepreneur looking to succeed in the hospitality space needs a combination of luck, friends in high places, plenty of money and a business plan aimed at servicing wealthy ex-pats, tourists and super-rich locals with lots of money but no taste. This is the Armani and Cristal set, who’d rather preen with a cocktail halfway up a skyscraper than slum it in an artsy dive bar basement. The fact that there are few alternatives to get wonky in Honky is a tragedy.

London’s not all good though. I was staying in Elephant and Castle, an area which has redefined the meaning of underachievement. Zone 1, 10 mins by Tube to the City, West End, etc etc and yet a wasteland of brutalist 1950s housing estates, 99p Shops, Halal butchers and payday loan shops. This is urban planning by the bastard child of Corbussier and Waynetta Slob and it has been waiting for renewal for about 20 years while successive local councillors bicker over the small print.

If this was Hong Kong, Elephant would have been restored to its rightful place as the Piccadilly Circus of the south by now. No political infighting, no squabbles over funding – just getting shit done. Then again, it would have probably ended up with 35 x 7-11s, 5 x private members’ bars, 3 x shopping malls filled with luxury fashion and jewelry brands, far too many escalators and housing that no-body who currently lives there can afford. I love Hong Kong – “sometimes misguided but always enthusiastic” – but it needs to loosen up a bit or its poor citizens will be drinking in vapid grief-holes for the rest of their days.

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