Notebook - Rosie Millard

There is one London area so bereft of history, a book of stories had to be commissioned about it

As if anyone needed reminding, the incidents of the past few weeks have meant we have been told, yet again, that London is a city with character: from its signature buses to its architectural icons, from Gherkin to Eye via Big Ben. So it was very odd to hear that there is one area of central London so bereft of fable, so devoid of mythology, that a book of stories had to be commissioned and published to rectify the situation. Indeed, it is the very patch on which the New Statesman has its headquarters. I'm talking about Victoria.

Victoria, one would have thought, might have capitalised on the Kinks single, or its royal name, or at least made merry about how its eponymous terminus was the one where the infant Jack Worthing was famously abandoned in a handbag. None of these things has been hyped by Victoria. (Unlike King's Cross, which has been tediously banging on about its Harry Potter connections for the past seven years.)

Now, however, the developers have finally arrived and everything is different. "We need to bring Victoria to life as a location, not just a station," announced Mike Hussey, MD of the London portfolio at Land Securities, over lunch at a flash restaurant in the cultural vacuum that is Victoria.

Land Securities owns roughly 30 per cent of Victoria. It is building a huge new shopping centre, "Cardinal Place", opposite Westminster Cathedral. This shopping centre needs tenants. Land Securities grasped that, in order to sell sites, it had to make Victoria sexy, like Knightsbridge is sexy, like Westminster is, like Belgravia is; hell, like every one of Victoria's neighbours is. Even parts of south London are sexier than Victoria.

Hussey commissioned Victoria Defined, a book that picked up hitherto unknown but fascinating local stories, and sent it to potential tenants of Cardinal Place. He also commissioned £500,000 worth of contemporary art. "It's all about the developer being a patron of art," he said. "Art is capable of delivering all sorts of indirect messages to people."

Clearly, the charm offensive worked; Cardinal Place is full. When it opens next year, we can look forward to a place full of high-street outlets which, having read all about the history of the place, have suddenly realised its sexiness and want to be at the party. Who knows what will happen next? The very least we NS staffers can expect is a son et lumiere show at the bus station.

Having lured in the shops, the art now has a second job - to lure in the shoppers. Over lunch, I was introduced to "footfall", "tarrying" and other gobbets of commercial marketing-speak. If you have good public art around shops, Hussey explained, you might not only increase footfall, but you make people tarry. And when you tarry, you spend money. How very useful a tool art is. It makes hanging out at the shops into a better experience.

What is wrong with this? Nothing. It is a perfectly good, tried-and-tested reason for employing professional artists to bring non-essential decoration to a row of shops. It's just that, like Victoria Defined, a publication which lends mystique to an area where none actually existed, the urgency and fidelity of creativity are somewhat lost when shackled to the market-driven and complex demands of footfall.

By Rosie Millard

Rosie Millard was previously Arts Editor for the NS and a Theatre Critic. She was the Arts Correspondent for BBC News for 10 years and is now a broadsheet columnist. She lives in London with heaps of small children, which may partially explain her love of going to the theatre.

This article first appeared in Why Britain is great

2005-08-01