Central London is everything people hate. See: the absurd rents, the scourge of American candy stores, the fifty million chain lunch outlets and the heavily-polluted air that tastes like heavy metals. But this approach takes a very diminished, one-sided view to England’s capital city.
Recently, I tweeted about loving central. I said: I don’t pay extortionate London rent to walk around south east London suburbs. I pay to be in central – to get drunk and romanticise the Thames. In the way of social discourse, people agreed with me, then became extremely furious.
It’s not that the suburbs aren’t great – but there’s something electric and magnetic about central London. With everything in flux, it’s a place where it’s possible to sniff poppers after Pride, then con rich men into buying you champagne at the Rosewood. It is, to me, the best part of London.
Despite the best efforts of elected officials to turn London into Singapore-on-Thames, it remains unexpected, shambolic and odd.
If you look hard enough behind all the shining plate glass and rickshaws blasting Calvin Harris, you’ll find hole-in-the-wall hatches, mouldering second hand bookshops and hidden basement bars that still serve pints under a fiver.
When you can, tilt your head up, on Tottenham Court Road – when the crowd has lessened and you’re not in imminent danger of being knocked over – and look at the upper floors of the chain shops, at the strange mix of worm-eaten sash windows and scalloped stone work and uneven roofs. Even if some areas look like a uniform blend of juice bars and Elizabeth-line new-builds, central continues to be a hodgepodge experience, however much the council wants to turn Zone 1 into a rich person's playground.
If you have the spare cash to get involved, the constant unpredictability makes central London thrilling. It’s why a quiet half after work can become a late-night pub crawl with the people at the next table; why you decide, spur of the moment, to ignore the wilting food in your fridge and order dan dan noodles in Chinatown; why you decide to walk to the second nearest tube stop, to take a detour that brings you to the riverside, just so you can exist for longer in the city.
People sometimes say that central London isn’t meant for them – that it’s for tourists or oligarchs or Deloitte executives high on power and premium-priced cocaine. That isn’t necessarily wrong. But the thing is that central London isn’t really for anybody. It’s too vast and strange and old for that. Instead, it can be whatever you want, for whoever you want to be.
Where else can you find cab drivers sharing gossip and hot coffee at the cabmen’s shelter in Russell Square, and then, just up the road, see barristers crossing the road from the Royal Courts to discuss their cases alongside the pub cat in the Seven Stars?
Central London can be hectic: the people spilling out of every pub as soon as it’s warm outside, the clatter of Smithfield’s at closing time, the streets of Soho after 5PM on a Friday. But it can offer quieter joys too: walking down on the riverbank on a cold, clear day, picking your way over the rotting breakwaters, or winding your way through the backstreets of Mayfair to Regent’s Park, peering into the living rooms of five-bedroom mansions.
Yes, central London is loud, obnoxious and expensive. But it’s full of contrasts. Brashness butts against tranquility. The viewing platforms of skyscrapers overlook Roman bathhouses. With a long history of constant change, it’s in these contradictions that central London comes alive – where it finds its capacity for constant surprise: the place to see it all.