The London Grill: Ambrose Hide

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.

Ambrose-Hide [F]or many years writer and producer Ambrose Hide had a growing sense of unease about his beloved city’s increasingly nostalgic ‘heritage industry’. Realising his love for London derived from the city’s imperfections as well as the foibles of its inhabitants he created the idea of virtual plaques to mark sites where (to put it bluntly) ‘s**t happened’. His Black Plaques London iPhone/iPad app lets users retrospectively rubberneck some of the city’s least proud episodes and has received great critical acclaim – ‘like a welcome breath of foul air’.

What’s your secret London tip?
When it comes to London’s history, don’t take what you’re told as gospel – beneath the carefully-placed rug there’s inevitably a nasty stain. The portrayal of some of London’s heritage has reached almost parody status – the story of ravens at the Tower has become so entrenched the Yeomen Warders are obliged to tell it, even though the birds (and myth) arrived in Victorian times.

What’s your secret London place?
The triangle of lawn outside Westminster Abbey. Today it stands amid busy traffic and gawping tourists but in 1555 a heretic was burned at the stake on the site. Unfortunately the authorities underestimated the amount of firewood needed so the man (who happened to be piously devout, though regrettably of the wrong gang) suffered hideously. Standing on the spot and reliving the story, surrounded by people oblivious to the fact (since the site is neither marked nor mentioned) is an immensely powerful experience.

What’s your biggest gripe about London?
Trying to get a drink/meal/Tube/anything after midnight.

What’s your favourite building?
Sadly it was knocked down in 2006 but it’s Mondial House.

mondial_1024_1In 1975 what looked like an oversize first-generation word-processor landed straight from outer space onto the riverside next to Cannon Street station. It was BT’s shiny, futuristic nerve centre but unfortunately Prince Charles didn’t like it one bit.

What’s your most hated building?
After the nondescript counting house that replaced Mondial House it has to be Paternoster Square next to St Paul’s – a kitsch, faux-Classical Legoland with massive pretentions. Unfortunately Prince Charles likes this one. My only consolation is that London is so relentless in its redevelopment it will probably be torn down in a few years time.

What’s the best view in London?
I have yet to experience it but I imagine it’s the view from The Shard because a) it’s so high and b) you can’t see The Shard.

What’s your personal London landmark?
Hardly original: St Paul’s Cathedral – but for a less obvious reason. Despite countless visits and extensive reading over the years it was only relatively recently I stumbled upon the tale of a man murdered in the (old) Cathedral by a red-hot needle up his nose. His story has all the elements of a Hollywood film script: gruesome murder, intrigue, tragedy, mystery, courtroom drama, the King and the Pope. Needless to say the site of the poor chap’s demise was honoured with the very first Black Plaque.

What’s London’s best film, book or documentary?
Constantine Fitz-Gibbon’s book The Blitz. It vividly tells of those on the receiving end of the Luftwaffe’s 1940 re-modelling of London – a moving tale of both tragedy and triumph with haunting illustrations by Henry Moore.

What’s your favourite bar, pub or restaurant?
The French House as a last gasp of old Soho, or the Roebuck in Richmond where drinkers are treated as adults and can take glasses (not dreaded polycarbs) across the street to Terrace Gardens to drink in the view from Richmond Hill.

How would you spend your ideal day off in London?
Making fresh discoveries in the British Museum followed by refreshment in one of the old pubs around Bloomsbury.

Photo: Mondial House © ugarthr 2006
An earlier version of this ‘Grill’ was first posted on the Radio Taxis blog.

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