Saturday, 12 November 2011

Crisis? What Crisis? City, St Paul's, Students, Tony Benn and Tea

Salvador Dali, the artist, might've liked how London turned surreal again last Wednesday (9 November).
At the Guildhall in the morning I listened to property developers, planners and architects ponder the City of London's office development pipeline.* 
  After a lunch attended by the outgoing Lord Mayor of London, I sauntered to St Paul's Cathedral to see if thousands of students marching against rising tuition fees and public spending cuts would link with Occupy London protesters camped outside the great church in protest (above photo).
  Police re-routed the marching students away from St Paul's. However, I did bump into one of Britain's great tea drinkers at the foot of the cathedral steps. Tony Benn, seemingly on his own, was sporting an anorak and bearing a rucksack on his back. 
   Tony Benn (below) entered the House of Commons in 1950 and left 51 years later. During that time he had held four cabinet posts and twice contested the leadership of the Labour Party.
  In his political heyday, Tony was reviled by the right and revered by the left as the darling of the Labour Party's left-wing. Supporters often say 'Tony Benn was the best Prime Minister Britain never had'.
   I watched Tony do a TV interview. He then listened intently to two young men giving him the benefit of their views.  Typically, he responded with "don't give up" and "don't let them get you down".
   I greeted Tony at the foot of the St Paul's steps and we shook hands. I reminded Tony of his calculation that he reckoned to have supped over 155,000 cups of tea in his lifetime. "I still drink a lot of tea," he replied, still smiling at a sprightly 86.
  We chatted briefly about the protest, wealth distribution and wireless communications. As we parted, others recognised Tony and approached him. 

I veered down Ludgate Hill away from St Paul's. Squads of clunking riot police thudded down Fleet Street to block traffic at Ludgate Circus. 
   Other clumps of coppers thumped up Farringdon Road to head off students on Holborn Viaduct. No less than four helicopters hovered over the wedding cake spire of St Bride's and incessantly hammered the air. In this moment, London's political economy began to look a little more like crisis-torn Athens. 

I looked back toward St Paul's but could no longer see Tony Benn who often told denigrators over many years: "If you don't want to talk about socialism, let's at least talk about capitalism."
  Few listened. Now, in 2011, three years after the banking collapse and in the middle of the sovereign debt crisis, everyone is talking about capitalism. 
  The students' clamour distracted my thoughts yet again. A gaggle of young girls in the middle of the march poetically chanted at riot officers. "Hello cop - You're so cute -Take off your riot suit!"
  A genteel banner proclaimed: "Down with this sort of thing". 
I looked at my watch. 
Four-fifteen in the afternoon in London in the middle of the world economic crisis. 
 Why am I so thirsty? 
Tea-time, of course.

* Guildhall City of London event hosted by New London Architecture.

Paul Coleman, London, November 2011

Photos: Copyright Paul Coleman, 2011. No re-use without permission.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Thames Hub hubbub, starring Lord Norman Foster and the City of London

Breakfast this morning proved expensive. £50 billion came up at one point.
  Early birds at the New London Architecture breakfast briefing heard Lord Norman Foster, architect behind the Gherkin and Wembley Stadium, stir up a hubbub about the Thames Hub -  a potential new airport and high speed rail terminal in the Thames Estuary, east of London.
  A carbon neutral Thames Hub would be powered by electricity generated by a second Thames Barrier. Initially, I thought this seems a great initiative.
 But Hub tea cups began to rattle in the meeting room when the £50bn cost surfaced. I sipped my tea and dwelt on a definition: 'an initiative - an idea going nowhere fast'.
  Hub advocates say it would revolutionise the UK's congested, creaking infrastructure. A freight rail hub would link the new London Gateway port with the rest of the UK. A new rail freight line would avoid central London by tracking the orbital M25 route.
   Of course, this would mean building on sacred 'Green Belt' land. But Britain would once again become a competitive trading nation. Did anyone venture what 'Made in Britain' exports would fly, rail or sail to the rest of the world via the hub? 'No' is the long answer.
I couldn't help but think some perspective was needed. Earlier this week, I'd heard some perspective offered to another NLA audience of developers, planners and architects in the Livery Hall at the Guildhall, home of the Corporation of London
   City Planning Officer Peter Rees began his entertaining presentation on 'The Future for Building Typologies in the City', by saying: "Here we are on the brink of possibly the world's worst economic crisis we'll see in our lifetimes. 
   "Thousands of the UK's disaffected youth are amassing in the west ready to march on us here in the City...and I've been told to speak about building typologies!"
   Soon after we were joined for lunch by the outgoing Lord Mayor of London, Alderman Michael Bear, (not to be confused with that younger man Boris Johnson, the ongoing loud Mayor of London).
Bear told a barely humourous joke about Einstein's driver.
Crisis? What crisis?
Aptly, lunch was taken in the undercroft or crypt.

Images: Foster & Partners

Paul Coleman, London, November 2011.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Meerkats fight Russian money battle in London court

I'm sure the £3.1 billion compensation High Court battle between Russian oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Roman Abramovich - the owner of Chelsea Football Club - is all very entertaining but why is the case being heard in London and not in Moscow? 
   My eager legal beaver friends offer a couple of reasons. Firstly, Berezovsky apparently fell out with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin and fled to self-imposed exile in London in 2000. 
   Secondly, and more to the point, they tell me London law firms are keen to earn fat fees from putting the fairness of the English legal system at the disposal of Russia's many huge ‘commercial’ disputes.
    I wonder if fees paid to London lawyers delving into Russia's murky post-Communist era contribute to the United Kingdom's gross domestic product. 
  Compare the Mercs. Compare the meerkats.

Paul Coleman, London, November 2011.