Monday, 26 May 2008



Dear all, sorry for the laxness in posting. I’ve been busy. Actually, I’ve been away. Just got back. From Paris no less, my other great metropolitan love. Just had four beautiful days of beautiful weather, beautiful food, beautiful sights and beautiful people. We, meaning myself and K my better half, shopped a bit, lazed around a lot and on several occasions loitered conspicuously in Place Vendome wondering how a space so big and empty could be so unmistakably chic and opulent. We watched the Tour Eiffel sparkling at midnight, strolled Les Grand Boulevards at 1am and rolled our eyes all day long at the Parisians’ new found love for Le Velo. We had a glorious time, as we always do. But I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t glad to be back.

It’s hard to say why. Between the over crowded streets, the gridlocked traffic, the beautiful architecture and the relentless superiority of its inhabitants, Paris has just about everything I’m looking for in a city. The weather was perfect– bright spring sunshine making the garden of Le Palais Royale the best place to come to of a morning; the cooling afternoon breeze making the formal greenery of Les Jardin des Tuileries the best place to waste the rest of the day. The food was exceptional – although you’ve got to know where to go – and the company, was, obviously, stunning.

Yet pulling into London, I couldn’t get off the Eurostar and out of St Pancras quick enough. It wasn’t until we were hurtling along the Victoria Line, desperately hanging on to our luggage and each other, that I felt truly relaxed again. As much as I love London, I don’t normally feel like this on my return. Paris has such a perfect mix of stately elegance and crazed chaos that I’m usually at least a little reluctant to leave, even if it is to come back to London.

But this time something was different. The break was welcome, restorative in the change being as good as a rest way that swapping one frenetic city for another is – if you’re a city type that is, which I am. Beaches and the countryside make me uneasy. I might have mentioned that before.

To the naked eye everything was as it should be. Streets lined with tables and dog shit? Check. Exceptional coffee, even the stuff out of the automatic machines? Check. Shop assistants replying in English every time I spoke to them in French? Check. No, everything was as it always is. I just didn’t feel the same about it.

At first I thought the change might have been in the temperament of the Parisians themselves, possibly a side effect of the smoking ban. But then, from the number of butts in the street, it was clear that they’d lost none of their affection for languidly dragging on a Gauloises – they just do it outside now, laughing with friends and sipping Ricard, making smoking seem even more glamorous than before.

If not the smoking ban then it seemed reasonable to blame the Parisians’ new found love of Le Velo. Last year Paris introduced a cheap, self-service bike hire scheme, dubbed Vélib (velo + liberté, see what they did there?). For just €1 you can hire one of the 20,600 bikes from the racks on almost every street corner. The aim is to cut pollution and improve fitness, the net result is a careering mob of business men, house wives and tourists who haven’t been on two wheels in several decades, bolting through red lights, cutting up the already chaotic traffic and putting the fear of god into anyone on a crossing. I’m not a fan of bicycles or cyclists. I might have mentioned that before too.

Given my unmitigated loathing of the bicycles and their riders, I’d dearly like to hold them responsible for the waning of my affection for the city. But I can’t. I know there’s more to it than that. However, if not the reason, the rise of Le Velo is certainly a symptom.

In truth, the ease with which I left Paris this time has more to do with the sudden realisation that I couldn’t live there. Not full time anyway. It’s long been a given that, if for some reason I was going to live anywhere other than London, I’d be more than happy to decamp to Paris. It is, after all, London with the volume turned down. London with the work/life balance generously tipped in life’s favour. London with artistic flourishes where the business like attitude should be. And that last point, I’ve realised, is the problem.

Paris is, unashamedly, all style. Substance… who needs it when you’ve Louis Vuitton? Parisians are too busy working on their joie de vivre to waste time worrying about international affairs or being a world leading city. And in fairness, that’s why I love it. It has the familiarity of London, but without all the bits that will give you an ulcer. It’s a city lite. A holiday from the daily grind for city dwellers who can’t bare to be away from pavements and traffic lights, but are in need of something prettier to look at. I couldn’t live there because it would feel like I’d opted out. Gone on extended leave. I could do it for a month or so, or whenever real life’s too much. As an escape it’s good to know we’ll always have Paris. But as a fulltime abode…?

The success of Le Velo only goes to highlight the fundamental difference between Paris and London. A similar city bike scheme has been mooted in London on numerous occasions and while everyone nods and says what a good idea it is while bemoaning the fact that we don’t have enough cycle lanes – no, go ahead, take up the whole road why don’t you? – it will never be embraced this side of the tunnel with quite the same enthusiasm. We’re serious people, doing serious business. We haven’t got time to bugger about on bikes, getting trussed up in Lycra and wearing a silly hat. Our cabs are black for a reason, because the people in them have no time for fun and frivolity. We’ve got graves to work ourselves into.

Today in Paris, where life is something to be savoured rather than gulped down while working at your desk, it seems that everyone is already well on their way to becoming a cyclist. In London it’s still a dirty word usually only owned up to by vegetarian singletons with tinkly bells and smug attitudes. Real Londoners haven’t got time to peddle their way to saving the planet, they’re too busy – rightly or wrongly - trying to run it.

So having realised that I’ll only ever be a visitor in Paris, that my long fantasised St. Germaine apartment, barely big enough to swing une chat, would probably never happen – not unless I suddenly strike it rich and can afford the extravagance of a weekend crash pad, a pied-à-terre if you will - I suddenly felt the urge to get back to London and be relevant again.

I’m hoping that this is just a passing phase, that next time I’m feeling fractious and on the edge from life in the bosom of my first love, I’ll be grateful to fall back into the arms of my second. I hope that I will once again be able to see her as that most seductive and caressing city, that last decadent refuge for when a little above average self-indulgence is required. If not though, if for some Paris never feels quite as desirous again, then make no mistake, I will blame Le bloody Velo.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

I'm In Love


I love London. That’s why I'm here. North, south, east, west - particularly west - I'm in my element. The streets, the tube, the cars, the concrete, the parks, the history, the relentless pace and the constant need to evolve and achieve and be now; the dirt, the grime, the crowds, the tourists, the rain, the pomp, the pageantry, the money, the graffiti, the dome and the bloke with the megaphone and appalling dress sense at Oxford Circus who drones on about how Jesus is there for sinners like me if only I’d let him into my heathen heart. I love it all. All except the cyclists, but I’m sure I’m not alone in that.

More than anything though, I love that London has finally found itself again. There was a point, back in the ‘80s when I was growing up when London just seemed embarrassing to me. I was enthralled by all things American and couldn’t believe that I’d had the misfortune to be born somewhere as lifeless as this. I was a child. I liked the A-Team and Knight Rider and TJ Hooker. I didn’t know any better. But looking back I can see that, my juvenile America obsession aside, I’d picked up on the fact that London was not a proud and confident place back then. For whatever reason, there was something apologetic about it, like it knew it wasn’t the great capital it should be, but you know, it was getting by. Just.

Then came the ‘90s, Cool Britannia and all that. That helped. Oasis, Blur and the Spice Girls were saying that Britain really could be great and they were all moving to Primrose Hill. Still, for all the sex and drugs ‘allegedly’ being indulged in the rarefied air of The Groucho Club, even then, with money everywhere and all the cool it could handle, London was still down at heel and sorry for itself, half-heartedly trading on past glories from when it was swinging or punk or something other than tired.

I'll say now, I’ve never exactly been Ken Livingstone’s biggest fan – it’s not that I mind the congestion charge, just the fact that it’s passed off as anything other than a money making exercise. However, the change in London since it’s had a mayor is impossible to underestimate. If initially I was against his pedestrianization outside The National Gallery and banning of pigeons, I’ll be the first to admit that Trafalgar Square is a far better place for both, and minor as such changes seem they’re exactly the things that have re-instilled the sense of pride which the city was missing for so long.

While, with the mayoral election upon us, Ken would probably argue otherwise, the city’s rejuvenation is arguably less to do with who the mayor actually is than with the office itself. Ken Livingstone, love or loathe him, is as passionate about London as anyone you’re likely to meet – expect maybe for yours truly. Yet for all his efforts, both good and bad, it’s the fact that the government realised that making London great again would require a concerted effort, a budget and some leadership that made the difference.

Walk down Regent Street, Carnaby Street, through Trafalgar Square, along the South Bank or any number of other formerly worn-out and jaded London landmarks and the rebirth is obvious. When the government decided to take London seriously, so did everyone else and money and investment is pouring in. Now London can boast better shopping than New York or Paris, the City is taking over from Wall Street as the world’s financial hub, the arts are thriving, music – my other passion – is world class and, despite literally costing the earth, London is again a great place to live.

It should come as no surprise to learn that I’m a city boy at heart. Always have been, always will be. Fields and open spaces make me nervous. I like a good pavement and a background hum of traffic and sirens. And as a city boy, and without wishing to appear promiscuous, there are other cities which I love and love with a passion. Yet, if New York is an irrepressible goodtime girl who's always in party mode, and Paris is the most indulgent of mistresses, wanton and seductive in the extreme, then London is the wife, mother and love I always come back to and could never leave.

But then I would say that. I’m besotted. I’m aware that my obsession is not one shared by everyone who lives here. Even among friends I’m something of an oddity. They’re all too busy fighting their way through the rush hour to worry much about where they’re battling through. That’s why I think tourists are the luckiest people alive. They’re the ones who really get to appreciate the parks, the architecture, the history, the relentless pace and constant evolution, all the things I love so much.

As is no doubt obvious, I only have to walk down the street to feel inspired by London. Bayswater, Notting Hill, Soho, Belgravia, Chelsea, Clapham, Islington, Shoreditch, The City, anywhere you like, pick a street and I’ll walk down it and I promise you I’ll be glad to be there. Everything about the city inspires me, excites me and makes me want to write about it. So here goes.

Sunday, 11 November 2007