The City of London, the ‘square mile’, must count as one of the strangest places on earth.
During the week thousands of workers stream into it every morning over London Bridge – ‘… so many, I had not thought death had undone so many’, says the Dantean voice of The Waste Land – to apply themselves to that purest of occupations, making money out of money. But on a Saturday morning in August it’s so quiet you can almost hear the sound of the Walbrook, or maybe another local underground Styx, flowing under your feet. There are almost no cars on the streets, and the only other people to be seen are provincial gawpers like us and groups of east European construction workers. These men sit smoking in bank doorways, putting off the time when they have to return to their precarious nests high up on the concave face of the Walkie-Talkie.
The Monument, though still the world’s tallest column, isn’t that easy to locate, it’s so hidden by other, taller buildings. But that’s where we start, in New Fish Street, by climbing the 300 steps to see the capital from atop its capital. Though it was built, to a design by Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to mark the Great Fire of September 1666, which started nearby in Pudding Lane, it’s prospective and not retrospective in intent. It’s the equivalent of a television trailer, advertising a massive rebuilding of the churches and indeed of the whole City destroyed by fire.
That rebuilding has never ceased, and around us we can see a herd of cranes, as capital (in the third and strongest sense of the word) lifts up yet more megaliths from a few square metres of ground below. Less than fifty yards away from us an orange-jacketed worker is edging into place the head of a new crane, which has been lifted by a still taller crane. This ‘o’er-topping’ is the City’s habitual behaviour: just as its companies devise ever more ingenious algorithms to defeat the financial interests of their rivals, so its new buildings constantly strive to outperform the old – even if they’re older by only a few months – in size, majesty and power.
Back on the ground we search out some of Wren’s churches, but most, like the shops and offices, are closed, like St Magnus, which T.S. Eliot said he reckoned one of the finest of the architect’s interiors: ‘where the walls / Of Magnus Martyr hold / Inexplicable splendour of Ionian white and gold.’ These churches and the names of the streets and lanes, are almost all that remains of the pre-20th century City.
In small nooks sculptors have been permitted to create new artworks, in a vain attempt to persuade the bankers that there are values that lie beyond their own. In Fen Court we stumble across Gilt of Cain, a striking assemblage by the sculptor Michael Visocchi and poet Lemn Sissay that marks the bicentenary of the ending of the transatlantic slave trade. The sculpted poem includes the lines
Who shall unlock the stocks and share?
Break the bond the bind unbound – lay bare
The Truth. Cash flow runs deep but spirit deeper.
How many of the passing moneymen stop, I wonder, to ponder the wordplay – and the sentiment?
Next we come across the Guildhall, self-described as ‘designed to reflect the importance of London’s ruling elite’. Though as soon as you enter the fifteenth century Great Hall you realize that’s an understatement: it’s the might of the British state that meets you, not just that of a dominant London mercantile class. The hyper-grandiose statues of Nelson, Pitts Elder and Younger, Wellington and Churchill reduce the visiting citizen to the status of subject and serf. The mythical giants Gog and Magog are pressed into service to the same effect. An essay-length inscription on Pitt the Younger’s monument pays tribute to his record of crushing democratic opposition by the common people, referring to his ability ‘to check the contagion of opinions which tended to dissolve the frame of civil society’. When it was necessary the Guildhall was a fitting venue for show trials, as Lady Jane Grey found to her cost in November 1553, with the Tower of London conveniently close at hand for the purposes of executing the wishes of the court.
What crushes the spirit of the visitor these days in the City, of course, is the contemporary architecture of oppression: the ever taller concrete, metal and glass structures that ignore the pedestrian and have eyes only for one another. We take the swift lift to the 40th floor of Heron Tower, itself of no architectural merit, to get a better view of its peers. Nearest is Norman Foster’s Gherkin, an exotic vegetable at a distance, a vulgar one close to. The Walkie-Talkie makes a desperate bid for difference with its concave southern glass face. The Cheesegrater works a different and more successful variation on the vertical (it’s mysteriously lost its ‘other half’) but with the added virtue of interesting, variegated surfaces: the transparent and the opaque alternate nicely, and the lifts on the north face have different coloured frames. In the distance, across the river, the slim and graceful Shard glitters. But for me the most interesting of the bunch is still Richard Rogers’s 1980s Lloyd’s of London building. Interesting because most honest. This is a building that doesn’t try to disguise its brute power with grace or smoothness. As with other Rogers buildings the innards are on display on the outside, and bold repeated patterns preferred to trim lines. In essence the Lloyd’s building is a machine – the Futurists, in love with violence and movement, would have manifestoed it – a machine for making money rather than real objects, it’s true, but a mechanical, dynamic thing nevertheless.
We’ve failed to notice that the ground floor of the Cheesegrater has just been opened to the public for the first time. That’s not to say that it’s actually public space. In his review of it the architecture critic Rowan Moore coins a term to describe such locations: privately owned, publicly accessible space (POPAS for short). (What he doesn’t say is that large amounts of space in our city centres are already of this type: most shopping malls, for example.)
Overcome by vertigo, the overbright sun and the alcoholic air of the Heron’s skybar we retreat to ground level and walk next to the Barbican. The Centre, designed in the 1970s and opened in 1982, is the City of London’s attempt to portray itself as a selfless cultural Maecenas. Its arrogant treatment of the public pedestrian, grim interior darkness and over-use of the colour orange still repel, though one must admit that it’s preserved its 70s ambience well.
Finally we reach a refuge from the concrete in St Giles Cripplegate. This church is hard to find, like most things in the Barbican, and it’s been stranded in an isolated, island position. But go inside and you find yourself in a different world. This is where John Milton is buried – there are two sculptural monuments to him, and one of the famous mapmaker John Speed. The great Bible translator Lancelot Andrewes, revered by Eliot, was rector here (he’s buried just across the river, in Southwark Cathedral).
There’s a second-hand book sale in the church, and I find a hardback copy of the first volume of Richard Holmes’s biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge spent a large part of his boyhood in the City, as a scholar in Christ’s Hospital. He didn’t look back on the experience with pleasure. The school was run by a sadistic headmaster, James Bowyer, who beat the pupils at the slightest excuse: ‘The powerful sense of intellectual hierarchy, which affected Coleridge for the rest of his life, inculcated fear and respect for all social authority … All discipline was enforced by Bowyer with savage and frequent flogging.’ Coleridge was glad to move on to Cambridge.
It’s a relief to leave the eerie malignity of the City and return to streets where ordinary people are going about their business and pleasure. For the first time I understand that the place Eliot has in his sights in The Waste Land is less London the city than the London the City, the part of the metropolis he knew best (he worked for Lloyds Bank from 1917 to 1925). It’s this square mile that induces much of his deepest disgust and despair: ‘My feet are in Moorgate, and my heart / Under my feet’. Two international City traders come into his sights, Mr Eugenides:
Under the brown fog of a winter noon
Mr. Eugenides, the Smyrna merchant
Unshaven, with a pocket of currants
and Phlebas the Phoenician, whose watery end Eliot recounts with some satisfaction:
Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
(On the face of it Mr Eugenides is no rough diamond – his name means ‘well-born’ – and ‘unshaven’ is no doubt a reference to his designer stubble. The Phoenicians were the ancient world’s City traders par excellence, and it’s pleasing to think of Phlebas as a high-flying futures speculator.)
Strangely, as far as I know, the City has erected no public monument to its very own poet. But then again, neither will you succeed in finding a statue of the Remorseful Banker, head in hands, contrite for his wrecking of the world economy.