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

Journal: London, again

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It’s been a busy year so far. So busy I haven’t found time to write about returning to the UK in January, after seven years living and working overseas in Australia, Finland and Italy. Nor even to write about taking up a position as an Executive Director at the Future Cities Catapult—but more about that shortly.

London is markedly changed during that time. Yet it's also much the same, of course, as befits a city that’s been around a while, and just keeps rolling relentlessly onwards.

Life in Muswell Hill, where we now live, is rather different to the life we left behind in Bloomsbury, before the arduous trip to New South Wales in 2007, just as it was very different in each city in Australia, Finland and Italy. I wrote about our Bloomsbury life just after Oliver’s birth here, and more so here, on one of those new father’s wanders, with him strapped to my chest.

I keep coming back to the series around Oliver’s birth. And each time I revel in the rich memories, I also feel the Hannah-shaped guilt at not having marked her birth in a similar way, even though it was equally important and wonderful. But such is the fate of the second child, perhaps. If beleaguered parents think they have no time for fripperies like journal entries after the birth of a first child, it’s nothing compared to the second. Yet that's still no excuse, and apologies to Hannah, and 'second children', everywhere. The memories of those sunny Sydney winter days around 24th August 2009 – which saw a far calmer birth, by the way – are as warm as ever.

London now is certainly on one of its upswings. I think there’s no more interesting and viable megacity in the world at the moment, despite its many issues. It’s the place I’ve lived the longest, and so it feels like home—along with my other homes, like Sheffield, Manchester, and now perhaps chunks of Brisbane, Sydney and Helsinki. (Treviso never quite felt like home in the same way, as much as life was often unspeakably pleasant there.)

I’m seeing London anew, too, as I’m now cycling into work (currently, Muswell Hill to London Bridge.) London is in the midst of a long-term and expensive—though entirely value-for-money—transformation into a city fit for bikes, but it’s a long way from being an easy city to cycle.

I cycled to work in Sydney, which was partly the greatest cycle commute in the world, snaking along the edge of Sydney Harbour from the Inner West, and partly the worst, being ejected from the harbour’s idyll into a snarling collision of multi-level, multi-lane highways, chock full of articulated lorries and angry drivers.

Cycling in Treviso was a delight, from the perfect, 'naturally shared space’ medieval town conditions I referenced at the start of this Dezeen article, to the second half which was a meander through the flat north Italian countryside, past the ruined shells of the post-war industrial miracle, the hollowed-out monuments to corruption in the form of never-occupied office buildings built with European regional development funding diverted into the middle of nowhere, the mansions of local magnates, and the simple humble abodes of retired Trevigiani, who pottered about in glorious fecund gardens bursting with tomatoes, beans and zucchini.

Archway Road at eight-thirty AM is rather different. But still worth it.

We’re enjoying Muswell Hill hugely, perhaps due to the presence of friends, the wonderful sense of being on the top of the London plain, almost like the relationship the Hollywood Hills has with Los Angeles, yet with a Waitrose, and the encircling of the ancient woods—Highgate, Queens, Coldfall and Bluebell—which were part of what was once the Wildwood that covered most of England #gameofthrones

(I did just note my haughty mild disdain for “North London suburbs” in this entry in that aforementioned Bloombury/Oliver series. Witnessing a long-term change-of-mind is one of the joys of keeping a journal. )

Equally, I’m enjoying working in London Bridge—where the Catapult is temporarily located—as it’s somewhere else I never really frequented when previously living in London. I played football once a week in Kennington, and lived for a while at Clapham North, but never really visited this bit of inner-south London. It’s clearly changed hugely since I was last here—nearby Bermondsey street has proper hipster coffee shops, as well as the vast White Cube, and of course the giant Shard looms over it all—and the social housing will keep all that in check. And the street names are replete with earlier meanings, belying its trade- and craft-related histories (Morocco Street, Plaintain Place, Tanner Street, Druid Street, Wild’s Rents…. and, er, Nebraska Street.)

The Catapult itself is based in the former Leathermarket building. We’re moving to Farringdon when our building renovation is complete, but I’ve enjoyed discovering this place in the meantime. (Celia's working at Fjord London, and also currently in temporary digs near the Old Bailey, while their Fitzrovia studio is revamped.)

I’m slowly reading my way back into London too, via Gillian Darley’s and David McKie’s excellent biography of "Ian Nairn: Words in Place” (and Nairn’s 1964 “Modern Buildings in London” (Published by London Transport! “Some of the buses listed in this book run on weekdays only … Red and Green Rover unlimited travel tickets are ideal for architecture hunting.”), the recently reissued “Nairn’s Towns”, with a great intro by Owen Hatherley, and revisiting the classic “Nairn’s London”) Edward Carter’s 1962 “The Future of London”; John Lanchester’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About The Tube”, Patrick Keiller’s “The View from the Train: Cities and Other Landscapes” and Jason Orton’s and Ken Worpole’s “The New English Landscape”. But more of all that anon, perhaps.


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