The London Grill: Chris West

We challenge our contributor to reply to ten devilishly probing questions about their London and we don’t take “Sorry Gov” for an answer. Everyone sitting in the hot seat will face the same questions that range from their favourite way to spend a day out in the capital to their most hated building on London’s skyline to find out just what Londoners really think about their city. The questions might be the same but the answers vary wildly.

Chris-West

[I] do regular talks (not tours) about Charles Dickens and his London; these are held regularly at the George in The Strand. I also do various private events as guest speaker. I passionately admire the way Charles Dickens influenced society through his writing and force of personality. He knew London and its ways intimately. I try to reflect on this in my talks, hoping to stimulate thought and encouraging people to further investigate aspects of life that interested him. This picture was taken during a BBC production at the Charles Dickens Museum in Doughty Street. It is filmed in the Drawing Room, using a pen and ink well used by him, on his chair, at his desk, where he wrote at least part of David Copperfield; in my lapel is a geranium, his favourite flower. My latest book: The Story Of St Katharine’s is now on sale at Nauticalia. I can be contacted via my website CharlesDickensLondon.net.

What’s your secret London tip?
Find the websites who advertise what’s free in London, such as Londonist – it’s the way to really learn about what’s on offer in London. Try to use upstairs on the bus instead of the underground.

What’s your secret London place?
St. Katharine Docks- now the quietest, most peaceful haven, with beautiful boats, eateries and space to sit, to reminisce about when it was a busy dock, specialising in luxury goods like silks, spices and ivory. Dickens wandered around there as a child, before the docks were built, observing the squalid living conditions of the slums and noting the rich variety of low life ruffians, urchins and thieves, mingling with poor, decent folk, trying to survive ill health and hunger. He gained great inspiration for his writing from this area.

What’s your biggest gripe about London?
We could do with more powerful modern day reformers to keep pushing for higher standards. I guess that Charles Dickens would love the progress since his time – but we still desperately need more opportunities for the youngsters. If he was still around now, he would be remonstrating against red tape and money being wasted by bureaucracy and demanding bold new initiatives to cut unemployment. He might admire Boris on his bike – but Ministers in Jaguars in austerity times is not good- we’re all in it together? Humbug!

What’s your favourite building?
The Royal Courts Of Justice – Following so much lampooning of the legal fraternity by Dickens (not least in Bleak House) Gladsone and Disraeli united to order the replacement of the antiquated courts in Westminster and near St Pauls, in favour of the wonderful new building, which houses eighty courts, and has one of the most splendid Great Halls in Europe (do visit, it’s free). As well as a great monument to Dickens, it is also handy for me to direct people to where I hold my Talks, which is directly opposite, at the George in the Strand!

What’s your most hated building?
Hate is not quite the word for me, but there are so many loathsome buildings like Oliver House in City Road, that should be singled out and shamed into renovation by the owners, wherever it can be done.

What’s the best view in London?
The bridge across the lake in St. James Park. Beautiful view of the back of Buckingham Palace, from where the Monarch can look down the lake to Horseguards Parade and Whitehall, seat of government – dignified fountains at each corner of the lake, with exquisite trees lining the banks. The London Eye towering above Whitehall, inspiring us towards modern Britain and great engineering.

What’s your personal London landmark?
The Gherkin- it’s sleek, dazzling and splendid, somehow dignified yet cheeky, being surrounded by old masterpieces like St Pauls and Mansion House. Also, when it comes into view, I know I’m nearly home.

What’s London’s best film, book or documentary?
Apart from Dickens’ books, I would say The Queen – I’m still in love with Helen Mirren (not that she has ever looked my way)! And I think it does justice to our amazing head of state – it must help others to understand better how the U.K. works. Also Four Weddings and A Funeral, showing off various aspects of London, as well as Simon Callow’s excellent performance, as he was climbing to the dizzy heights in which he now excels, in his masterly portrayal of Dickens at the Playhouse, and shortly opening in Christmas Carol.

What’s your favourite restaurant?
Agonising choice between two of Dickens’ favourites, Simpsons and Rules – Obviously because Simpsons is ‘all British’ and carves the finest roast meats at the table, and the Strand is the most amazing historical ‘Street’, yet Rules equals in standard, and devotes the delightfully intimate ‘Dickens Room’ to his memory. So Rules, because it is neighbour to the second site of Warrens Boot Blacking Factory (which later became Cherry Blossom), where he was humiliatingly forced to work at the age of eleven, (at the same time as his father was shamefully incarcerated in prison for debt). I like to think that it was cathartic to the great man, as he sat there, tucking into his oysters, whitebait, fowl and red meat, pleased in the knowledge that he climbed up from there to international fame and success.

How would you spend your ideal day off in London?
Always my nearby fitness centre, because of my spine problem (and the irresistible swimming pool and free Times newspaper). Then favourite walk across Tower Bridge, walk along the Thames to London Bridge, shopping in Borough Market and snack, sitting by the river. Maybe an hour in the BFI watching a favourite bit of film on their wonderful free computer screens – lots of writing on the pc then maybe cycle into the City for an hour or two with my girl friend.

This ‘Grill’ was first posted on the Radio Taxis blog.

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