Essay | My London by Mark Wilkins

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Arriving in London in late September 1977 to start a law degree course, I fell irretrievably in love with London, replete with equal measures of energy, diversity and opportunity.
It would be easy to explain London’s appeal as being purely architectural; the pale ochre of the London Stock, the white of the stucco porticos, acres of sky reaching toughened glass and the vast parks, but it is so much more. Shorthand for the connection that I feel to the Spirit of this great city, where you can be as gregarious or as anonymous as you choose, is Home.

My earliest experiences of London were largely of a retail nature. A dear Grandmother had implacable customer loyalty to Harrods, the then supplier of domesticity to the upper-middle classes and to Gamages; a lump of a department store on Holborn Circus, next to the Prudential Building. It closed in 1972 six years prior to its centenary. Famed, through the eyes of a child, for its Christmas Bazaar, a captivating drainpipe pneumatic payment/change system, connecting the cash desks to the Counting House and a renowned Pet Department from where Rudyard Kipling fondly remembered buying a gold fish. He recalled ‘A stern woman……who said she liked Natur’l ‘ist’ry’ (The Letters of Rudyard Kipling 1920-30).

In the mid 1970’s, with my Dad and a school pal, Petrol Heads all, we would board a grimy diesel to Euston and then to Earl’s Court for the Motor Show. A heady display of everything beautiful on four wheels, where we would dream of driving the German and Italian sports cars as presented by girls in bikinis with red leather boots.

For over thirty years, London was the backdrop to most significant events of my life but it was rarely the same hue of London. Every ten years or so my life would significantly evolved and London’s role in my dramatis personae would be compelling though different.

Richard Church, in his turn of the twentieth century novel Over The Bridge tells of a young Blackheath lad crossing the Thames to work in the City. This other London, so at odds with that of his childhood, had the most profound impact. My college in Moorgate had much the same effect on me. It was pre-Big Bang, and the streets adjacent to Threadneedle Street were populated by lugubrious Stock Brokers and Jobbers in silk hats with furled umbrellas sharing gossip prior to the conclusion of a day’s trading before repairing for lunch at Sweetings.

The City of the late 1970’s exuded the air of a party to which I hadn’t received an invitation. The tribes of London have always fascinated me, but this unbearably smug and over-privileged clan helped me steer clear of a career in the City of London. The inexorable rise of the ‘trader’ in a later era, when greed was good, came as little surprise.

College years were spent in various of London’s villages: a Sixties tower block off Upper Street in Islington that stank of urine, muzzled dogs and cannabis; Ben Johnson House in the Barbican, a Modernist refuge in the ancient heart of the City; A Lambeth Council mansion flat in Vauxhall close to the Division Bell desirability of the Albert Square; A ‘grace and favour’ apartment on Marylebone’s High Street and a stunning flat on Prince of Wales Drive in Battersea, owned by an art dealer, that overlooked the Park and marked the ever changing tableaux of seasons.

Islington is the furthest North that I’ve lived in London. My parents hailed from Hertfordshire, so, as kids, we’d often travel into London by car through Barnet, Hendon and Finchley. I didn’t warm to these curtain-twitching suburbs, that Betjeman christened ‘Metro-land’ as used to great satirical effect by Evelyn Waugh in Decline and Fall.

Studying for the Bar in Lincoln’s Inn, reminded me of a boarding school I, erroneously, hadn’t wanted to attend. Up wide stone steps to the cavernous but welcoming Grand Hall, a potpourri of Antiquax, Claret and smoked mackerel paté. During the Legal Terms, as pupil Barristers, we were obliged to dine regularly. The cellars were formidable and we all drank far too much with the amiable Benchers, including several Lords of Appeal, who to our mock-shock shared their wildly indiscrete views on life and society.

Following graduation my early years of work were spent as an in-house lawyer for music companies in the West End. Daytimes comprised completing rather dull paperwork in penthouse offices in Mayfair interspersed by meetings with extraordinary musical talents including George Michael, Paul Weller, Billy Bragg and their representatives. By contrast, evenings often meant heading to locations in Soho, such as The Marquee, where doyens of the music business on bar stools would retell much of their fascinating history on a nightly basis to those who’d stand their round. Aspiring recording artists, having scribbled their names and obscene graffiti on the walls of the dressing room played their sweaty hearts out, all too often to receive a negative response from a record company’s A&R man.
The floor was sticky with split beer and the walls yellowed with nicotine but the role played by these venues in the Post Punk mid-1980’s was crucial. Ten years later John Niven’s BritPop based Kill Your Friends accurately retold much of a similar tale of the London’s music business and its seedy characters.

At this time I was living in the rural idyll of North Acton, a home to the BBC’s production and rehearsal studios on a slip-road off the Westway. Its proximity to a Central Line tube – which emerges aboveground after the White City – was a key selling feature and I had recently purchased a converted ground floor garden studio flat that backed onto the railway. This flat became my base for the next couple of years until it became clear that my social life had moved South of the River and so should I.

On Christmas Eve 1991 fortune smiled when the concert pianist seeking to buy a large flat overlooking Clapham Common Northside pulled out due to ‘mortgage issues’. I had seen the flat earlier in the year, loved it and jumped at the chance to buy it. It necessitated a quick sale in Acton, which I managed to get.
SW4 was largely an unknown part of London but several contemporaries from College and work had moved to the area over the last few years. I had recently been made a Partner in a niche Mayfair law practice that faced the Hard Rock Café’s merchandise shop and needed a change of scenery.
I was delighted to allow London to reveal yet another of its many faces. Lime tree lined streets, 220 acres of open common land, the hugely reliable No.137 bus route and the odd highly vocal daytime Kestrel drinker by the swings. The historic home to Kingsley Amis and Graham Greene, perhaps, but this increasingly gentrified borough couldn’t have been further from the lives recounted in the slums of Clapham/Battersea in Nell Dunn’s Up the Junction.

The magnificent parade of Edwardian buildings stood century over the Common and my flat, on the raised ground floor, had a front row seat for the unfolding day and night-time dramas. We also had cool neighbours in Jason Flemyng (of Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) and his then girlfriend, Lena Headey, now best known for her role as Cersei Lannister in the US TV series Game of Thrones.

In 1993, I met my wife – in Selfridges. We lived very happily in our flat before being joined by the first of three children. All were born at Chelsea and Westminster Hospital on the Fulham Road, which had replaced the gothic St Stephen’s Hospital and virtually overlooked the hallowed turf of Stamford Bridge.

With parenthood yet more London was revealed, the aptly named ‘Nappy Valley’ that bordered Wandsworth and Clapham Commons. Having sadly outgrown our flat we found a beautiful Victorian villa in a side road off Northcote Road, famed for its market. It had been divided into two flats that we refurbished into a home full of love, happiness and Spaniels.

In the early noughties we moved away from London, but return frequently to a family home in South Kensington. SW7 has lost none of its allure and continues to be a celebration of cultural diversity. I often remind our children that the postcard images of the South Kensington tube station in the late 1970’s were real. Sugar-stranded punks in luminous tartan congregated on the King’s Road – which wasn’t yet then the home of Hedge Fund executives – and bizarrely, they happily co-existed with Hermes scarf wearing ladies whose boyfriends in brown corduroys, drove green MGBs.

London will always change, refresh and develop to become someone else’s vibrant stage but My London is still mine.

BY MARK WILKINS