The London Grill: John Grindrod

We challenge our contributors 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 they will face the same questions ranging from their favourite way to spend a day out in the capital to their most hated building on London’s skyline to find out what Londoners think about their city. The questions are the same but the answers vary wildly.

John Grindrod is the author of Concretopia (2013), exploring the postwar rebuilding of Britain, Outskirts (shortlisted for the 2017 Wainwright Prize), which tells the strange story of the green belt, and Iconicon (2022), touring the landmark buildings of contemporary Britain. The books are a combination of social history, travel writing and architecture, and have grown from a personal geeky interest in the subject. John was born in Croydon and after 52 years in London has recently moved to Milton Keynes. He regularly gives talks and appears on radio and podcasts, and you can find out more at or here.

What’s your secret London tip?

It’s not a secret, but Embankment Station is your friend. Takes no time to get down to the platforms, is a well-connected super-easy gateway into central London, and has a handy park next door if you need a quick nap on a bench.

What’s your secret London place?

I grew up in New Addington, on the edge of Croydon, and stayed there till I was 30. As a result, my secret London is concentrated around the edges there: the viewing spot in Shirley Hills; the record shops of the town centre; the strange concrete landscape beneath the 60s towers of East Croydon. They are still very much my London. I know how to have fun.

What’s your biggest gripe about London?

The constant building work. In the midst of a climate crisis shouldn’t we be knocking down fewer old buildings, council estates etc, and putting up fewer brand-new ones? It’s not even as if they are the things Londoners really need, like housing. For the most part, it’s speculative nonsense like more shops and offices, or more buy-to-leave apartments, based on a version of life we seem to be shifting away from.

What’s your favourite building?

Even if I just narrow this down to the Southbank, this is still a tricky one! I will say the National Theatre because I find it strikingly beautiful (both the form itself and all of that wood-shuttering grain on the concrete) and because it’s the perfect place to while away a day. As a teenager coming into London from the suburbs the area around Waterloo was a favourite spot. The National – back in the days when taxis used to rumble right past the front entrance – reminds me of hanging out with mates and seeing some incredible plays in that cosy modernist cave.

What’s your most hated building?

St. George’s Wharf on the banks of the Thames at Vauxhall is an absolute horror. Visually it’s the noisiest structure going, all those glass balconies and facets and tricks to maximise the value of every flat at the expense of the architecture itself. It’s incredibly confusing inside too because of the sheer number of entrances and routes. How I ever managed to find my way to those numerous what-I’m-going-to-call-‘dates’ in there back in the day I’ll never know. Beside it stands Terry Farrell’s MI6 building, which I love. It’s a big theatrical flourish – rather ironic for a secret service building.

What’s the best view in London?

I love the view from the Horniman Museum gardens in Forest Hill. It’s quite an idiosyncratic one, as much of central London is hidden behind Dawson’s Heights, the glorious 70s ziggurat in neighbouring East Dulwich designed by Kate Macintosh, but it means you focus on some of the less obvious landmarks instead. On a clear day seeing Wembley glinting in the sun in the far distance feels magical

What’s your personal London landmark?

In the 90s I worked for a while in Covent Garden at Waterstone’s (it still had the apostrophe then). I used to spend my lunch breaks sat on Seven Dials roundabout munching my sandwiches and watching the world go by. It remains my favourite people-watching spot, though it’s much harder finding a perch these days.

What’s London’s best film, book or documentary?

A fascinating and original insight into London can be found in Penelope Lively’s 1991 novel City of the Mind, about an architect working on a new tower in Docklands. In it, she manages to weave in the Empire history of Docklands and the ambitions of the modern rebuilding into a personal narrative that’s haunting and magical. The Covent Garden of Hitchcock’s Frenzy is full of ghosts too, of a rather less salubrious sort, captured in the early 1970s just as the market itself was moving down to Nine Elms. And I am in love with St Etienne and Paul Kelly’s documentary made up from archive footage, How We Used to Live, which captures post-war London in all of its muddle of change, dereliction and modernity.

What’s your favourite restaurant?

If I frequent a cafe in London it inevitably closes within two years. I’m like the grim reaper of hospitality. New Piccadilly? City Snacks? Gone and probably my fault. So I love Giovanni’s caff on Museum Street, but please don’t let the curse strike again. Mine’s a sausage sandwich with mustard on crusty bread and a black earl grey, bag taken out, thanks.

How would you spend your ideal day off in London?

Breakfast at Giovanni’s. Barbican exhibition and lunch in the cafe. Pointing at colourful geese in St James’s Park. Buy film and music in almost-defunct formats and heaps of paperbacks I can barely carry. Film at the NFT (old habits and all that). Drinks in the Retro Bar. Sandwich on the train home. Fin.

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