05 January, 2004 Filed in: Capital Letters | Everything
I arrived in town several days ago with a car full of long-haul snacks. I am hungry, I am tired and I have the nutritional profile of a feral child hotwiring a Ford Fiesta on a windswept housing estate. I desperately need to cook.
Yesterday I managed to find a 24-7 emporium of unidentifiable tinned goods. I’m fairly sure that almost everything that grows, swims or grazes has been ground down and compressed into a can at some point, but even so, tinned burgers was a distinctly new phenomenon to me. Suspecting that they may not have been as wholesome a snack as, say, the tin they were in or even the shelf they were sat upon, I declined to surrender to the allure of mechanically processed lips and arseholes in a bap and moved on to pastures new. For lunch, I foraged for fast food and sandwiches, but today it has to come to the crunch. I need actual nourishment. Where exactly are the shops?
I live in a flat just around the corner from Holborn Circus and in this part of town, big architecture dominates. Big buildings for big businesses staffed by tiny, tiny dehumanised insect folk scuttling about in between. As far as this part of town goes, the concept of the city appears to have gone too far; the environment which institutions find perfect for moving capital around the globe – a jumble of high-rise office blocks all concentrated in the financial hothouse of the Square Mile – is not an ideal habitat for humans. It’s quite hostile to all life, in fact. All I can see are sandwich bars, coffee bars, bar bars and weird retail dental practises. There’s nothing for anyone to get their teeth into.
A cop car goes wailing past. I can’t help but feel that, even in a city of eight milion souls, I hear a lot more police sirens than I really should. It has been said that, on average in London, you’re never more than fifteen yards away from a rat – which is, perhaps, the only life form that can truly make a go of it in the financial district. But at all hours of the day and night, city dwellers are seemingly never more than a few moments from the screaming tendrils of an emergency of some kind. Criss-crossing their way around the capital, each siren, each conduit of distress connects an outrage with an emergency vehicle. It’s no wonder that, at times, London life can feel a like crisis enclosed in a calamity, wrapped in a thinly-veiled panic.
Almost immediately, as if to underline this thought, a police car screams past in the exact opposite direction. Had the two police drivers compared notes before they set off, who knows, they may have been able to stay put and just deal with the emergency closest to their origin. Such are the dangers of crisis management, the current method of controlling London.
Back to my search for nutrition, I notice a familiar logo. An enormous Sainsbury sign the size of a whole street back in the dear old WC – my slightly bitter sobriquet for the West Country. At last, the architecture houses something of real use – a glass cathedral of commerce, a superstore, right here bang-slap in the middle of town: What a fabulous idea, I wonder if it will catch on.
Under the logo, an enormous orange poster, dominated by an enormous orange, at least three hundred and fifty times the size of any orange I’ve ever seen before. It has a slogan – something about freshness and value, I forget precisely – and I am lured to the door by this photographic representation of food that is not a sandwich.
I open the door and a man in a suit says good afternoon. Now that’s service. The manager himself appears to be standing at the door to usher his customers in. And in I go, to a large atrium at the front of the building. There aren’t many people about, but the lady behind the long low customer service desk is very well dressed.
Where are the trolleys, I wonder.
I look. Several yards into the building and the embarrassing truth dawns on me. This is not a supermarket. There are no trolleys because nobody has ever shopped there before. The staff are so polite and well-groomed because they usually only have to deal with a specially selected sub-set of the general public. I know all of this because I am standing in the atrium of the head office of Sainsbury plc. I turn around with my new-found urban coolness and let my assured, purposeful gait walk my straw-sucking simpleton mind from the building. I am officially a hick from the sticks, a moron from Moronia, a small village idiot fish in a big city pond.
Eventually I find that there is a tiny supermarket just around the corner – effectively the back door of head office – that stocks food for the financial district; sandwiches, baguettes, microwaveable plastic pots full of chicken snot and other offerings belched up by the ready-meal industrial complex. It occurs to me that the gophers and minions that administrate the offices and dealing rooms of our world-class city institutions are run on pre-fabricated food. Maybe that’s why the economy is so fundamentally buggered as a concept.
My mission completed, I take my carrier bag full of this evening’s nutritional disappointment for a walk around town. Holborn Circus sounds so grand, so London, you may feel that it should be on the Monopoly board but it is really just a tiny signal-controlled roundabout with a statue of someone on a horse. Quite who is riding the steed, I cannot say; show me someone who can tell you who it is and I’ll show you someone impaled on the front of a taxi, because you can’t get near the thing without a certain degree of recklessness. It seems odd – a back-handed compliment even – that someone is marked out for special recognition, perhaps for their own stab at gallant recklessness, gets a statue erected in their honour which nobody can get near enough to read the name on. It’s apparently Prince Albert up there on the horse straddling the carriageways between the number 25 bus and a couple of vans full of Polish builders, but it may as well be in memory of Derek Twiddle from Peterborough, the first man in history to open a tube of glue without sticking his thumb to his tie. The horse is merely symbolic – a transient by-product, as it is, of the manufacture of glue.
Six roads radiate from Twiddle’s memorial at Holborn Circus, but none of them are at all remarkable, except Holborn – which is famous, at least in my mind, for being the location of the half-timbered building known as Staples Inn, a picture of which has adorned the front of a packet of Old Holborn since before I could comfortably breathe without making a high-pitched whistling sound. There’s also the old Prudential building – Holborn Bars, designed by the Victorian Gothic revivalist architect Alfred Waterhouse, who also designed the Natural History Museum and, apparently, Hove Town Hall, but most of Holborn is dominated by drab high rise offices that take over the landscape in an almost authoritarian way.
I am an admirer of modernist architecture, but most of the buildings that line the office canyons of the City and its immediate area have little architectural merit. One building in particular – a structure I simply call ‘the ugly building’ lies directly opposite my flat. Long and low and clad in alternating shades of pink granite, with burgundy steel window frames and tinted panes, it rises to six storeys high at its southern end, in a manner I imagine the architects described as the prow of a ship. The building has the aesthetic potential of a dog turd in a food blender and the allure of a spreadsheet, so it should come as no surprise to find that it is entirely populated by accountants – not the humble, mousey kind who empty out shoe boxes of your receipts every year, but multi-national corporate serf-eaters who plot trajectories on graphs and eschew simple number-crunching in favour of systematically buggering entire third-world economies to turn a buck for their masters.
There is one thing about the building they inhabit that shows a certain Dickensian penny-pinching in operation, however. The disgraceful piece of architecture is mercifully stopped in its tracks at the intersection of two streets where the pavement is uncharacteristically very narrow. The roads meet at a slightly acute angle which makes it very difficult for the thousands of commuters leaving nearby Farringdon Tube to get around. At street level, the building has this acute angle chamferred off, which would give people more room to get around the corner, that is if it wasn’t for the accountants, who have built an otherwise pointless barrier to stop people crossing even one single yard of their property. It is for this example of dull mean-spiritedness that I believe that the Ugly Building should immediately be knocked down and its cavity filled with decomposing vomit in an effort to improve the environment.
There are, after all, tall and ugly office blocks all over London, and they are knocked down and replaced on a wholesale scale. The City of London has an almost unimaginable thirst for office space, despite the fact that 75% is built speculatively and that at least 10% of it – some 11 million square feet – is unoccupied at any one time. A building I walked past the day I moved in – one which I was determined to investigate more fully because it bore the slogan ‘Crowson’s – The Fancy Cheese People’ – has already been knocked down just days later. I am struck unaccountably sad by the realisation, for I will never know just how fancy their cheese really was. There is nothing left in the spot formerly chock-full of fabulous dairy products, it is now just a hole in the ground and looks for all the world like the cavity left by a removed molar. To add insult to injury, I can’t help but notice on a planning application tied to a nearby pole that the hole in the ground will shortly become yet another Sainsbury’s mini-market – the third within a few hundred yards of their headquarters – and one which will inevitably stock more on-the-go nourishment to keep the economy moving.