Ian Martin: My ten favourite bits of London
AJ columnist and exiled Londoner Ian Martin chooses his favourite parts of the capital ahead of a talk at the Royal Academy about his experiences of London as an outsider
‘I’ve lived in the North since 1988, yet still spend more time in Soho than I do in Lancaster city centre. I’ll be talking about my 10 Favourite Bits. Half of them have disappeared now but I claim psychogeographical privilege’, Ian Martin.
1. BBC Television Centre
Norman and Dawbarn’s genuinely iconic inhabited doughnut, with studios and office splayed out in all directions. I first went inside it in the 60s to watch a Monty Python episode being recorded. Decades later I had my own pass as a writer for The Thick of It. It drove people I know mad. Built for an age where people smoked pipes indoors, it creaked under the weight of an internet age. I loved it. There was always some rackety improvised stuff going on. Any time of day or night you’d nip out for a fag break and there’d be young people running lines or buggering about with a Dalek. Inside, there were so many creative particles in the air you’d instantly be 10 percent cleverer. Now it’s going to be more yuppie flats and offices. That saddens and infuriates me.
2. Waterloo Bridge looking south
In 1967, I remember seeing the Hayward Gallery under construction. Song of the summer was Waterloo Sunset by The Kinks. Weirdly melancholy and uplifting at the same time. An old post-war world giving way to these fantastical Brutalist lumps. The Hayward’s a joy to be in, my favourite London space. In the late 70s I was in a band, lots of early morning drives south across the river. Philip Vaughan’s Neon Tower cheered me up, never more than driving home after the birth of my first child. Three a.m, just me and the neon in an utterly changed world. Thatcher had become prime minister. Now she’s gone and so has the lovely tower.
3. Something by Lubetkin
Not the penguin pool. His Finsbury Health Centre probably, or his council flats, or both. I loved Lubetkin. It used to make me laugh, the way his critics would airily dismiss him as a champagne socialist, as though that undermined the iconic egalitarianism of his local authority work. His Royal Gold Medal acceptance speech was electrifying and full of strangeness. The revelation that astronauts had a genuine psychological struggle seeing 17 dawns in 24 hours – that’s been lodged in my head ever since.
4. The Bride of Denmark
When I worked at the AJ in the 1980s it was still very much an old-fashioned family firm. A sprawling Georgian warren in Queen Anne’s Gate. The Bride was the cellar bar, assembled from bits salvaged from bombed Victorian pubs by John Betjeman and the rest of them. Stuffed lion, the lot. Everyone went down for coffee in the morning and tea in the afternoon. You could “cause the bar to be opened” in the evening for guests. It was fantastic. The building was later bought and asset-stripped. The stuffed lion’s probably in some oligarch’s study now.
5. Nine Elms Cold Store
The memory of this always make me laugh. I worked with Martin Pawley at the AJ in the 80s. He was a contrarian, a man without scruple. He had a very low threshold for dicks and idiots. I can’t remember if it was in print or on the radio but someone had asked him what his favourite Modernist building was and he sarcastically put the case for the feature-free, lumpen concrete bunker everybody called Battersea Cold Store. What was hilarious was that I think as he spat out his satirical words of praise he sort of convinced himself. And me. I miss it. It was never not funny, remembering how it had become accidentally emblematic in my head.
6. The Mappin & Webb building
Oh, the megalomaniac larks at Poultry. I had zero interest in preserving the undistinguished Victorian corner block former containing the ghost of Mappin & Webb, the posh jeweller’s. Then millionaire philanthropist Peter Palumbo decided he would buy up the neighbourhood and drop an architectural bomb on London - an unrealised Mies van der Rohe slab, a brutal Mad Men slab of chic. I didn’t like Palumbo, but Prince Charles strongly objected to the scheme, and I liked him less. Always pick a side. The scheme eventually foundered and in what felt like a half-spiteful move Palumbo commissioned Jim Stirling to design a post-Modern landmark there instead. The planning inspector weighed Mappin & Webb against Stirling’s ‘possibly a masterpiece’ and at that point, when the original Victorian building was doomed, I thought that the just thing to do would be to keep it. I wish we had. I hate Number One Poultry. I blame Terry Farrell, the great po-Mo enabler. Bah.
7.Tottenham Court Road Underground
When Eduardo Paolozzi’s mosaics went up in the 1980s I thought they were pretty good. Now I feel like weeping with gratitude every time I see them. Who could have foreseen at the time just how egregious this bit of public art was going to be? Because three decades on, Paolozzi’s legacy is not just a thousand square metres of charming, optimistic art. It’s much more. It’s a thousand square metres of commercial retardant. No purchase for those brainless ads you have to see everywhere else. How utterly brilliant is that?
8. Balfron Tower
The scruffy version of Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower. I used to know someone who lived there and it was a pretty frightening place to visit. I’m sure it’s got a Trellick-level hipster quotient now. To be honest, it’s seeing it on the skyline I like most. Still so shocking and futuristic. Also, it was designed for and built by the GLC, in the days when more than half the architectural profession was in public service. What a monument to those days of a thriving public sector.
9. Any view of London that doesn’t contain The Fucking Shard
‘The best view of London is from the top of the Shell Centre’ said John Betjeman, ‘because you can’t see the Shell Centre from there’. The quote was later appropriated by Nicholas Ridley who, for the benefit of younger people was once secretary of state for the environment. He was a sort of Cardinal Richelieu to Margaret Thatcher’s Sun Queen. I went ‘up The Shard’ recently. The architectural press made a great fuss about how sterile and disconnected it is at ground level. My God, have you seen it inside? Seriously. It felt like being in some giant static advert for Everest double glazing. I hate its monstrous bullying scale. I hate the rhetoric that’s always surrounded it. “A vertical city”? Shut up, Renzo. You’re pissed mate, go home. I hate its inevitability. Its unstoppable rise demonstrates just how horribly invincible late capitalism is. Remember this free market stalagmite was submitted for planning permission before 9/11. It inched its way up through recession and scepticism like some revolting, giant inverted drip.
10. A sign for ‘The North’
I like being close to an escape route. You can hear the M6 in summer from our garden and I find soothing and reassuring. I could be out of here and heading north or south at speed in 10 minutes. The first ‘The North’ sign I used to see was at Angel. I mostly travel up and down by train these days, but it still lifts the heart. ‘This way to not-London. This way to a geography so massive anything’s possible, and lets stop at the first Burger King services on the M1, and then GO HOME’.