City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Sunday May 16th, Helsinki and London

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The return to London had actually been via Helsinki, due to two projects there. Helsinki Vantaa is a wonderful airport, all soft sunlight, wooden floors, warm stone and steel, with free wifi and a civilized unhurried air, a near-perfect first impression of Europe.

Helsinki Vantaa

Heathrow, of course, is rather different, and enough said about that. Still, Heathrow Express into Paddington, cab to Fitzrovia. Sydney-home to London-hotel had taken around 30 hours I'd guess, although the time difference, stopovers and jet lag make it difficult to really estimate this in any meaningful way. I'm well out of time. The route had been via Bangkok, departing just hours bed ore the insurgency really kicked off, and had snuck into Heathrow just hours before the latest volcanic ash cloud and BA strikes. After such luck, i can only assume a return leg of unimaginable horrors by way of compensation. A rare business class flight smoothed this potentially tortuous passage, with Finnair easily walloping BA Club World (BA Old World?) in terms of service, food, design of seats, in-flight entertainment, and most of all, the all-important category, glassware – chunky Iittala Ultima Thule, named after a mythical place beyond the known world, perhaps appropriately for the flight up over the top of central Asia.

It was a pleasure to be back in London, and in my old manor too, although the Rathbone Hotel was an unpleasant reminder of the meanness that can infect British service culture. Small, poorly laid-out, overheated rooms and with wifi at the epic rate of six quid an hour. 

View from the Rathbone

However its location is spot-on, and that's at least half any hotel experience. For instance, it's about 30 seconds away from the peerless Lantana on Charlotte Place, a little slice of Melbourne in Fitzrovia that made me feel instantly at home – in fact, both my recent homes. Happily enough, close to Arup's various offices too.

Charlotte Place (Lantana in middle distance)

Wandering around Fitzrovia I was struck, as I had been a year ago, by how evident the signs of the so-called global financial crisis (it should really be the Europe-US Financial Crisis, no? Or EaU FuC.) Boarded-up shops, 'To Let' signs in places there never used to be 'To Let' signs, dormant development sites like the former Middlesex Hospital. This area of London will always do well in the medium to long term, due to its location and London's brutish, stubborn resilience, but right now it's an interesting bellwether, a sign of a malaise that must surely be being felt more deeply elsewhere in the UK.

Amongst the general flotsam and jetsam, a few closures were felt personally. We'd lived just off Store Street in Bloomsbury, and it was particularly sad to see that the old independent garage, which must have been one of the last in central London, had shut up shop. The Village Garage had been its charmingly inappropriate name. 

Here it is as it used to be:

image from

And here it is now:

Village Garage

Likewise the Korean grocer just opposite, presumably suffering from the fact that most of the street was boarded-up for renovation, had closed down. I'd lived with these places every day but I particularly remember sitting in Café Deco on the corner, with the garage opposite and the grocer to the left, having a Full English just after the birth of my son. I wrote about both of them at that point, and to see them now moribund and deserted is more than a little sad. Yet London moves on regardless, and this innate ability to roll with the punches and cruelly slough off the inessential is no doubt a large part of its resilience and power.

Hanna Super Market

The weather was instantly variable, which was actually an absolute pleasure. Walking around South Bank with my parents on Sunday, we had experienced bright, warm sunshine outside the Festival Hall, and within 10 minutes, horizontal sleet whipped into our numbing faces crossing Waterloo Bridge. Marvellous. The attraction would wear off, but after the perma-summer of New South Wales, I appreciate, and miss, the rich seasonal variability of Northern Europe. Perhaps Zürich or Milan rather than London, but still. Part of this is experiential, and even humbling. Another is to do with wearing clothes. Another is to do with long periods of internment indoors generating the drive to write books, music, code etc. The endless summer of much of Australia, as with Southern California, can actually get a little dull.

Photos from London, May 2010


One response to “Sunday May 16th, Helsinki and London”

  1. News Avatar

    A nice picture from your Rathbone Hotel room. Not a sight many can capture.
    You are wrong about Store Street and why it is boarded up. It has nothing to do with the financial crisis. Over a year ago the Bedford Estate hiked the rents up and the small shops and the small hotel and the Political Cartoon Gallery were forced out. Fitzrovia News ran a story about this a year ago and predicted “a ghost town” in Store Street.
    The street is much-loved by local people many of who approached us to raise the issue of the rent hikes.
    As for the former Middlesex Hospital site much of the reason it lies empty is that the previous owners the Candy brothers proposed an over-ambitious scheme that was also unpopular with many people and should never have been granted planning permission by Westminster City Council. It deserved to fail. Hopefully a more modest scheme will take it’s place. But in the meantime the extra light in the streets around the site is a huge environmental benefit.
    Fitzrovia is actually doing pretty well. There are too many cafes and restaurants for healthy competition and the mix of uses that give the place it’s unique character is under threat. But Fitzrovia will survive this.
    In the week Fitzrovia is bustling but on the weekend it’s more relaxed.And that’s what people love about it. But this is all being again threatened by the drive for growth and pressure to make Fitzrovia a tourist destination like neighbouring Oxford Street, Covent Garden, Soho and even Camden Town as a recent short film points out
    Hope you enjoyed your stay despite the Rathbone Hotel, and I look forward to reading more.
    assistant editor, Fitzrovia News


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