04 Mar 2013 London Callings: Originality counts?
London is a city that has been wildly saturated by the global world. The five block radius around my apartment had no less than five starbucks, two pret-a-mangers, two Massimo Duttis, two Ranoush Juices, and I could go on for days. Its almost as much of a transplanted cultural dumping ground as Dubai is! Where has all the originality gone in a city that is famed for well originality? Sometimes you cannot fight an established chain, I mean realistically its pretty good in the first place which is why ostensibly there is more than one. Of the clones of the London I would like to single out Busaba Eathai, Yalla Yalla, and Humingbird Bakeries as generic but organic to the city culture. Sometimes standardization is all I really crave in a day. But what do you do if you are looking for that holy grail of ‘authenticity’ in London?
What would a native ‘Landannnner’ do? Depending on whom you ask you will get a plethora of answers. An avid London fan is likely to point you to various happenings in the East. Shoreditch, alittle passé now will more likely than not, be mentioned enthusiastically. A masochist will point you toward central (if they say Oxford street, don’t ask questions just run away). A hater will point you to the countryside (and the nearest train out). Naturally, I have tried all three and this is what happened:
To the East: Recently I forayed into the East. Long regarded warily by the Center and Center west, Shoreditch has had something of an artsy revival in the last twenty years or so. Trendy art galleries, restaurants, vintage shops and a vibrant nightlife have had gentrifying effect on the area. The generally drab post-war area is rampant with graffiti art making it a varied and fun promenading ground. Institutional to the area is Brick Lane, home to some great Indian food and the oldest (and only from what I can tell) Bagel shop in London. Commercial Street and Petticoat Lane (also known as Spitalfields flea market) make for fun shopping. Beyond Retro, the Swedish vintage chain has its larger warehouse venue in this area at Cheshire Street. Come twilight at Queen of Hoxton’s (1-5 Curtain Road) I found a rooftop pop-up in the form of WigWamBam, essentially a modern take on the wild west campfire: complete with spiked warm cider, s’more kits, pulled BBQ sandwiches and firepits. I give this creativity a gold star, although the American’s amongst us would prefer to bring our own s’more kits.
The Center Holds: Frankly Oxford Street is my worst nightmare, it’s Rockfeller Center at Christmas on Steroids and no one actually walks like a human being. It’s also mildly soulless with chain-store after big-box store after boring-store. However, it is the main thoroughfare of Westminster and as a convergence point it deserves objective analysis. I am hugely partial to Liberty, the department store frequented by aesthete Oscar Wilde. Founded in 1875, the present Tudor Revival building is salvaged from the HMS Impregnable and HMS Hindustan. Its fantastic interior remains a purveyor of its famed Liberty ‘art’ fabrics along with the trendy shoppers selection of avant garde labels. Tres chic. Tucked away in the broader area are eatery gems: Dean Street is home to Burger and Lobster the restaurant that funnily enough serves Burgers and Lobster, in the corner of Selfridges on Bond Street is Pinkberry (expats take note), Great Marlborough Street is home to a mysterious nameless tapas place (if anyone can relocate it please let me know, I’m beginning to think those tapas were a figment of my imagination), and little Chinoiserie never goes amiss at The Artisan Bar at the Langham Hotel on the east end has a fantastic cocktail menu. Also in the general area is Sketch on Conduit Street, a multi-dining space that looks like a five-year old girl was let lose in a country house to redecorate.
The Country: the English dream of the countryside like I dream about Chanel sample sales. The bewildering stress of the city often necessitates staring at some greenery to find center balance. I never thought I would be the person to utter the words ‘I think I need to get to the country today’ but that is what happens when you are dealing with a largely historic city trying to function in the contemporary world. London itself is home to some wonderful greenery in the form of parks so fortunately you don’t have to go very far to commune with nature. For my green therapy I started with my local: Hyde Park. Originally the grounds of Kensington Palace, Hyde Park delightfully remains part of Jane Austen’s world with its manicured ‘wild’ landscape dotted with water fowl, joggers, and dogs out a daily jaunt, its wild flower garden paths and its horse stables. Well, the horse-stables themselves are physically slightly north tucked into some mews but you can trot your horse out on rotten row in true late Georgian fashion. The park is also home to Albert Memorial a stunning tribute to Prince Albert and the Victorian proto-global economy. The memorial takes the form of a statue of the Prince seated in a neo-gothic Eleanor’s cross-seated atop four personifications of Europe, the Americas, Asia and Africa. The Park is also home to the Serpentine Gallery, which often does solo exhibitions of contemporary artists from Yoko Ono to Anish Kapoor.