The Spectator: Planet London
Of course, London has always been a place apart. Even in the 17th century, visitors noticed how the inhabitants of the metropolis walked faster than people in other towns. Visiting the city in the 1720s, Voltaire was stunned by what he saw in the Royal Exchange. ‘There the Jew, the Mahometan and the Christian transact together — as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts. The Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist, and the Churchman depends on the Quaker’s word. At the breaking up of this pacific and free assembly, some withdraw to the synagogue, and others to take a glass.’ All were united in the Londoner’s preoccupation: generating wealth.
But while London was always a bit different, it was a difference of degree, not of kind. In the late 1970s you would have struggled to argue that London was a successful world city. The population had shrunk relentlessly since the 1930s. This was unsurprising, as it was unclear what the city was for. It was the clapped-out capital of a recently collapsed empire. After the first world war, New York had taken its place as the financial capital of the world. Rundown townhouses in Notting Hill were squatted — and not by hedge fund billionaires. It was a shabby, defeated city, brilliantly captured in The Long Good Friday, in which the rat-like gangster Harold Shand picks over the ruined wilderness of London’s abandoned docklands.
We all know about what happened next. Mrs T and the Big Bang. Yuppies then hipsters. Russian oligarchs and Polish builders alike have moved to London. Like the turning of the tide on the Thames, people started to flow back into the city — which will soon have the biggest population in its history. A rash of new skyscrapers — the Shard, Gherkin and Cheesegrater — line the sky like a bar chart in physical form, documenting the resurgent progress of the city