Thinking inside the box

A common complaint nowadays is that our high streets are being decimated by the recession, with boarded up gaps.

These gaps, looking like missing teeth, are between every shop that is managing to stay afloat.

At first it was your local butcher, baker and greengrocer unable to compete with the large supermarket chains.

[O]nce they gave up trading the mega-giants of retail moved into open their own “local” version of their ubiquitous brand while offering the same products as that of the displaced retailers.

Inevitably over time most moderately successful high streets in medium sized towns all looked the same as fashion brands copied the supermarkets and swallowed up independent clothing retailers.

With every high street identical with only the order they appeared along the shopping parade one entrepreneur has taken this trend to its logical conclusion – Boxpark.

In Shoreditch in what’s dubbed the world’s first pop-up mall – an Americanism if ever there was one – Boxpark comprises of 60 identical shipping containers over two levels each 2 metres wide by 6 metres deep and all of them painted black, each with identical signage with none displaying the famous logos that clothing brands have spend millions perfecting and promoting. Nike, Puma, Calvin Klein – they all look the same.

The idea taken from Puma City store in Boston and Illy Cafe in New York was conceived by Roger Wade and erected on the site of the defunct Shoreditch High Street Station that has remained empty for 40 years.

Located on the edge of “Silicon Roundabout” which the Government is predicting (and investing) to be London’s hi-tech growth centre competing with Silicon Valley in California, it couldn’t be in a better location.

Roger Wade is boxing clever, he has plans to open another dozen of these container parks offering retailers short economical leases with each unit stamped with Boxpark’s unique style.

Could this approach be the shops of the future? The high street is beginning to look uniformly the same, to paraphrase Henry Ford: Soon you can any colour shop front you like as long as it’s black.

Mustn’t grumble

1950s cabbie

[M]ustn’t grumble, which of course is what we Londoners are always doing – roadworks, litter, Boris – you name it we can moan for England. While maintaining an air of cheerful, if somewhat deferential, stoicism we go through life apologizing while at the same time keeping a stiff upper lip.

This air of permanent regret can seem bewildering and perverse to tourists. We apologize when bumping into you “Sorry old chap, didn’t see you there”. When you bump into us “So sorry” meaning do that again at your peril.

When we hold open a door for another with the greeting “Don’t mention it” which of course is shorthand for “Please continue to thank me”.

When we might seem to be having a perfectly amiable conversation while in fact disagreeing with every word you have uttered the appropriate interjection is “I’m not being funny, but . . . ” which is a prelude to a socially unacceptable remark.

Punctuality was once the trademark of an Englishman, but with transport in London slowly grinding to a halt you are more likely to get the apology “I’m running 10 minutes late . . .” roughly translated this means “Boris hasn’t fixed the delays yet and I will be there anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour after we agreed to meet”.

And watch out if at a social gathering you hear “I have half a mind to say something . . . ” that indicates

“I am adding to years’ worth of unspoken resentment that you can silence with a very dry white wine”.

Sorry doesn’t seem to be the hardest word as Elton John opined: When we walk into doors, when dropping anything, when we want to butt into a conversation, when flustered or when brushing past you in a pub, when we cannot hear or when hearing all too well as a reflex “Sorry” suffices for what we cannot think of what else to say.

But by no means does saying “sorry” mean the speaker is in fact, well, sorry.

“Probably my fault . . . ” is about as deferential as we get. Take that to mean “This is your fault.”

Frequent apology is one of an arsenal of clever tricks Londoners employ to obscure their true feelings. If the words “Mustn’t complain . . . ” are directed at you take notice, their true meaning is “I have just complained and if you don’t sort it out I will take the matter further”.

Eastenders greet one another with “Alright?” don’t enter into a conversation about your woes, it’s the law of the jungle to show that you are one of them and a friend.

And London cabbies are not immune to this verbal gymnastics, our greeting to another cab driver of “Be Lucky” roughly translates to “I hope you don’t get a job before me”.

London’s burning

[A]sk any London schoolboy when the Great Fire of London occurred and he will tell you 1666 when 80 per cent of the mediaeval city was consumed in the conflagration. Over the years with very little we have managed to reduce many of London’s important building to ash.

The Crystal Palace

Crystal Palace

In 1851 the world’s first expo was staged in Hyde Park beneath a glass structure so massive mature elm trees were incorporated within its structure. Following its success when 6 million people visited, the prefabricated building was re-assembled in Sydenham on a hill that has since adopted its name. An amusement park, concert hall, theatre were incorporated within the grounds. Even the FA Cup Final was played there until 1923 when the old Wembley Stadium was built. Then on 11th November 1936 it burnt down, so fierce was the inferno witnessed its glow from north London over 20 miles away.

Palace of Westminster

Houses of Parliament

The modern Houses of Parliament replaced the earlier one which had been built over a long period of time. Following the Dissolution the Commons found a permanent home in the Chapel of St. Stephen, the speakers sitting on where the altar had been, which then started the tradition of bowing in his direction. Tally sticks which were once used to keep records of accounts had become so numerous that in 1834 it was agreed they should be burnt in the furnace in the Palace’s cellars. In the resulting fire only Westminster Hall built by William Rufus survived. The building started by Edward the Confessor in the 11th century had to be rebuilt in the Victorian Gothic style we see today.

Whitehall Palace

Whitehall Palace

On the road that took the name when Henry VIII was King there stood Whitehall Palace one of Europe’s largest royal palaces. The area we now know as Horseguard’s Parade was the tiltyard used for jousting and Henry’s indoor tennis courts are now incorporated within the Cabinet Office, the only survivors of that once great wooden building. One of its last additions was Banqueting Hall built of brick by Inigo Jones and is the only complete survivor when in 1698 a Dutch laundry maid had a careless accident and burnt down most of its 1,500 rooms.

London Bridge

London Bridge

The medieval London Bridge had 19 small arches and was crowded with buildings of up to seven stories in height. The narrowness of the arches meant that it acted as a partial barrage over the Thames, restricting water flow producing ferocious rapids between the piers of the bridge, as the difference between the water levels on each side could be as much as six feet. Only the brave or foolhardy attempted to steer a boat between the piers and many were drowned trying to do so. As the saying went, the bridge was “for wise men to pass over, and for fools to pass under.” On the night of 10th July 1212, only three years after the bridge’s completion a fire broke out on the south side of the river. People ran across the bridge to help quench the flames, but this action was to be regretted, a strong wind fanned the flames and sent sparks across the river causing the north end to ignite, trapping the people in the middle of the bridge. There was only one way out over the side into the Thames where a large number of boats had gathered hoping to be of assistance, some of which were sunk by the number attempting to board. The number of bodies recovered was around 3,000, but this did not include the people incinerated in the fire, their bodies were never found.

Quality Street

Buckingham Street

A rare view of Buckingham Street, by John Niemann, 1854,
where Dickens lived briefly in 1834. David Copperfield lived here too.
Note the York Water Gate in the background, still visible today.

[I]n a little backwater between the rear of the Savoy Hotel and Charing Cross Station there is a small cul-de-sac which once ran down to the river’s edge. On the site that once stood York House former mansion of the Dukes of Buckingham, its 20 or so houses look for all the world like a street of small mid-Georgian period houses that can be found all over central London.

Buckingham Street was built before 1680 by Nicholas Barbon London’s first speculative builder. What makes this little unprepossessing street so unique are the sheer number of celebs who once lived here, so many that a whole series of that unlamented television series ‘Through The Keyhole’ could be devoted to these twenty-one houses.

The houses at the northern end of Buckingham Street are smaller than those nearer the river and have been used for many years for commercial purposes.

According to The London Encyclopaedia a Who’s Who of Buckingham Street has among its former residents:

Number 9: Beauty and one of the greatest actresses of the 18th century, Peg Woffington and Laurence Holker Potts inventor of the piling system for building foundations carried out experiments in his workshop there.

Number 10: Was once home to Scottish philosopher and Father of the Enlightenment David Hume and Jean-Jacques Rousseau, later postimpressionist painter Henri Rousseau resided there as did Thomas Russell Crampton, engineer who laid the first submarine cable between Dover and Calais.

Number 11: Groom of the Bedchamber to James II Thomas Bruce, 2nd Earl of Ailesbury also Victorian artist Arthur Rackham once worked there.

Number 12: London’s famous diarist Samuel Pepys. A later occupant was Queen Anne’s Treasurer Robert Harley who invited Jonathan Swift and William Penn to dinner at his home. Mary, Countess of Fauconberg daughter of Oliver Cromwell. The scientist Humphrey Davy carried out some of his most important experiments in the cellar.

Number 13: Dr. William Wellwood who served as physician to King William and Queen Mary and Dr. James Coward who wrote several works on the soul, which were ordered in 1704 to be burnt by the Common Hangman, since the House of Commons considered they contained offensive doctrines. William Jones, mathematician, was a friend and fellow worker of Sir Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley.

Number 14: Samuel Pepys who liked the street so much after nine years at Number 12 he moved next door to Number 14. Robert Harley Speaker of the House of Commons who later became Chancellor of the Exchequer started his book collection here and later the library was bought by the nation for £10,000 and formed a nucleus for the British Museum. Artist George Clarkson Stanfield was born there and fellow artist Charles Calvert had lodging. Sir Humphry Davy famous for his invention of the miner’s lamp.

Number 15: Russian Peter the Great stayed a while although some historians dispute this claim. Authors Henry Fielding, creator of Tom Jones and literary giant Charles Dickens also resided here

Number 19: Lord Drumlanrig, afterwards 2nd Duke of Queensbury who in 1707 was instrumental in bringing about the union of Scotland and England.

Number 21: English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

But most bizarrely of all Napoleon Bonaparte stayed at an unknown house in this same small street.