London is a city of many images that have impressed themselves on my imagination over the years through three visits and countless hours spent studying this city in history and literature classes. The thought of London conveys an image of a colorful seventeenth century crowd at the Globe watching a Shakespeare play, of the eighteenth century burgeoning city of John Gay’s Beggar’s Opera or Victorian fine homes and squalid sums of Dickens’ novels. But the most enduring image of London for me is the bazaar like ramshackle city of the twelfth century described by William Fitzstephen, or the slightly more stately and depopulated post plague fourteenth century departure point for Chaucer’s motley group of pilgrims on their way to Canterbury. London’s history from Agricola down to Gordon Brown has passed through several phases, which are generally quite neatly presented in history textbooks and also in the displays at the Museum of London, as Roman, Anglo Saxon, Medieval, Tudor, Stuart, Hanoverian, Victorian, Edwardian, and finally the post war or post industrial period since 1945.
London’s long history is almost two thousand years, with a fairly brief period of abandonment after the Romans departed in the fifth century. Despite London’s origins in the first century A.D. (during the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius), very little of the city prior to the eighteenth century still exists, aside from excavated remains of a handful of Roman structures, including the Cripplegate fortress, a recently discovered arena near the Guildhall, and surviving medieval icons like Westminster Abbey, the Tower of London, parts of the Parliament building, and the Temple Church.
The Roman city of Londinium was founded in the middle part of the first century, only to be destroyed be the ill-fated revolt of local tribes led by the local queen Boudicca. Recovery was quick, and London emerged as a major trading center and eventually became a provincial capital by the late third century. After the Romans withdrew from Britain in the fifth century to defend Gaul from Germanic attacks, London largely ceased to exist as a city until the sixth or seventh century, when a much less permanent trade emporium of beach landings for vessels and wooden structures emerged along the Thames where the Strand is today while the Roman city deteriorated into a collection of decaying stone buildings, townhouses, forums and bath houses surrounded by sturdy walls. When the Vikings arrived, the residents of the unprotected trade center reoccupied the walled Roman city in the late ninth century, which was the beginning of the continuous occupation of central London right through to the twenty-first century.
London became the center of the medieval English Kingdom by the twelfth century, as the king’s court gradually began to permanently occupy Westminster, where almost all rulers have been crowned since William I in 1066. By the late Middle Ages, London grew in size to 100,000 people before it was devastated by the high mortality of the plague between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries. The last outbreak of the plague that was described by Daniel Defoe coincided with the devastating fire of 1666. However the city recovered from these setbacks and gradually became the capital of one of the most powerful kingdoms in all of Europe, and, by the nineteenth century the most powerful empire in the world. Today Greater London, along with some sprawling suburbs located in adjacent counties, has a population of about fourteen million and is the center of the historical remnants of the former British Empire, with fairly close ties to the capitals of many former colonies all over the world. However, history aside, a walk along the Thames River or passing through different neighborhoods around the city reveals a quite modern city of classic monuments, cultural attractions, and everyday streets teaming with urban activity.
Unlike Hong Kong or Vancouver, London’s natural setting alone is not all that spectacular, just rolling hills and sandy banks along a mud colored river that responds dramatically to the tides. However, the essence of this very old city has created a fascinating image of wharves, streets, cathedrals, and bridges along the Thames. Essentially, the city itself on the muddy river is the spectacular attraction, much like how the New York skyline trumps its natural surroundings.
The most obvious element of London today is its dramatic image as a sprawling city along the Thames River, with famous landmarks like Big Ben, the Parliament Building, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London, and the nearby Tower Bridge. London Bridge was a prominent landmark between the twelfth and nineteenth centuries, but now it is just another concrete bridge as enticing as a typical interstate overpass. However as even old cities look to the future, the London Eye has the potential of becoming a new London landmark of the 21st century in the same way that the Eiffel Tower became symbolic of Paris at the end of the nineteenth century.
Another enduring image of London are colors – the muddy brown Thames, the subdued green trees alongside the river, the red double decker buses and telephone booths, the famous black taxi cabs, the neon yellow, orange, and white police cars that the city seems to be crawling with, the red and blue Underground signs, and the light brown structures like Parliament, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Westminster Abbey. All of this is often softened by a perpetual drizzle that frequently visits the city throughout the year, or is blotted out by the famous fog that was aptly described by Charles Dickens in Bleak House.
The tourist image of London is a whirlwind tour on one of of the double decker “Hop On Hop Off” tour buses, Madame Tessaud’s Wax Museum, the Beefeater guides at the Tower of London, and that long line to see the Crown Jewels. Many of the common tourist sites, like Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London, and Westminster Abbey, are quite expensive, especially when you realize that the ten quid entry fee for one adult is actually twenty dollars (or thirty dollars for the Tower)! Then there are all kinds of other sites like aquariums, Star Wars exhibits, the Cutty Sark (recently damaged by fire), and the Clinkerdagger Dungeon Museum on the Thames. There are hundreds of such attractions as these in London – some are quite interesting while others are merely designed to entice people to enter the gift shop to buy snow domes of Big Ben or thong underwear with the British Flag on the front (where else could they put it?). Of course two popular tourist destinations of a more culturally elite nature, the British Museum and the Victoria Albert Museum, are free. London is also a major intellectual and cultural arena with symphonies, art museums, and theaters. This is the London that most educated people tend to focus on when they are in there, regardless of their particular specialty. This includes the West End theaters featuring musicals like Cats, Les Miserables, Spamalot, and Wicked: the Witches of Oz, or perhaps a symphony. The replica of the Shakespearian Globe Theater in Southwark, on the south side of the Thames, is another common site of the culturally motivated.
The attention placed on the royal family, especially the late Lady Diana, is a well known component of Britain, but perhaps this association exists independent of the city of London itself, because the royal family appears in the international media, but is not likely to be encountered on the streets of London. However, they do reside in the vicinity of the capital city, and the focal points of their presence are Buckingham Palace, Windsor Palace, and, of a more historical nature, the Tower of London with its accounts of infidelities (especially with Henry VIII) and beheadings in the courtyard. My image of the royal family is largely that of red clad guards standing behind the iron fences of Buckingham Palace as I peer through the gates along with various other tourists and onlookers. I remember peering through a similar fence at the White House just a couple of weeks before I was at Buckingham Palace.
Another London attraction are the famous pubs with names like Golden Lion, Horse and Groom, or the Olde Cocke Tavern. These are a classic place to take a rest after walking mile after mile between tube stops in the rain, with their warm interior of dark walls and counters, traditional 18th century paintings of fox-hunts, and warm lights behind the bar. They serve fairly inexpensive food like hamburgers, fish and chips, or a coiled up sausage over mashed potatoes, along with a pint of dark ale. Recently the United Kingdom passed a law that bans smoking inside all public places, so now it is possible to visit a pub without leaving smelling like an ashtray, although smokers are still grumbling about this nanny act of the state.
Nightlife in London is typical of a large city with numerous pubs like the ones mentioned previously as well as many expensive and exclusive night clubs. I remember one club that was prepared to take my ten pound cover charge (twenty dollars) when it dawned on me that I was about to enter a gay pub. Once I realized this, I withdrew and tried to find another night club, since I knew that the steep cover charges meant that someone on my budget had to find the right place initially and just stay put. Places like Trafalgar Square, Piccadilly Circus, and Leicester Square are just jammed with people during all hours of the night, while advertising signs remain illuminated in this English version of Times Square. One frustrating aspect of nightlife in London is the fact that the Underground promptly closes at midnight, which means that when it is time to go home, when the sun is coming up the next morning, and you don’t have your own transportation, you must either take an expensive cab, brave the hostile and drunk crowds on the night buses, or simply just walk. New Year’s Eve in 2007 was an exception to this, when they kept the Tube running all night and didn’t charge any one to use it.
Like New York and Los Angeles, London is a major center of English speaking popular culture, the international jet set crowd that includes Andy Warhol, the Beatles, and more recently Madonna, Britney Spears, or numerous other sports figures, pop stars, actors, artists, the royal family, and celebrities. I tend to feel a little undereducated in this capacity, since I don’t know much about football conferences, the current royal family, or popular culture beyond the 1970’s supergroups like Pink Floyd or Genesis. The excitement of the selection of London as the site for the 2012 Olympic Games is part of this venue as well, along with the hovering of paparazzi photographers on Fleet Street near the Royal Courts of Justice where they wait for accused celebrities to emerge from their trial with their lawyers and attendants.
London has urban traits that it shares with other capitals and major cities, including gentrified neighborhoods with expensive clothing or art stores, coffee shops, alternative lifestyles (the punk scene with Mohawks and skinheads was big in the 1970’s for instance), nightclubs, traffic jams, congestion zones, trendy office workers, urban exercise clubs with huge windows, pubs served by immigrant Romanian bartenders, and sky high property values. Although this has a unique British flavor, it is not all that different from that international urban corporate scene that exists in New York, Frankfurt, or even smaller centers like Seattle.
London is also a major political center as the national capital and as the de facto capital for many of its former colonies in Africa, India, Canada, Australia, and even countries that have severed their ties with the British Commonwealth upon independence. Therefore, London is just as much of a world player as Washington even if Britain’s role as a superpower has diminished considerably since the Second World War. This arena focuses on the Prime Minister, the parliament, the political parties (Tory/Conserative and Labour), and endless ministries of every possible and fathomable function of government. Of course the debate here seems to be shaped by the two prominent parties, the more market oriented Conservative party and the more socialist leaning Labour party. The conservatives dominated the 1980’s and early 1990’s while the Labour party has been in power since the mid 1990s, although under Tony Blair they embraced a more hawkish position regarding Kosovo and Iraq. The evidence of a widespread world presence can be found all over the city, with Indian and Pakistani neighborhoods, mosques, Vietnamese, Kenyan, or Chinese restaurants. A darker side of London’s status as a world capital came to light in July 2005 when home grown Al Qaida terrorists bombed various tube stops and buses. Another similar plot was thwarted in 2007.
London is the financial and transportation center of the British Isles and for also for its former empire. Heathrow Airport is jammed with 747’s and A340’s that belong to diverse airlines like Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, Qantas, Air Canada, and Indian Airways. The large numbers of Indians, Australians, Hong Kong Chinese, and Canadians heading to the City to work in finance markets or banks is evidence of this important role. The UK economy seems to be emerging from a rather mild recession at a brisk pace, with a lower unemployment than the United States. The pound has become much stronger than the dollar, the current exchange rate in late 2007 is about two dollars to a pound. In addition to that rather lopsided exchange rate, property values in London are at an all time high, with many residents becoming almost millionaires (especially if calculated in U.S. dollars) just from holding onto their house in the city. The economic draw of this city, especially to Eastern Europeans after they were added to the European Union in 2004, has had an impact that is quite evident in many of the pubs and restaurants in the city center seem to employ predominantly immigrants.
From the reoccupation of the Roman city during the reign of Alfred in the ninth century right up to the announcement about hosting the 2012 games, London has been a political and economic center of England, whether it was a central city of a medieval kingdom, the capital of a global empire, or a major international economic and cultural center of a post-colonial Europe. This long and varied history and a prominent role as a twenty-first century center ensures that London will always be a fascinating place to visit.