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Tale of a city: The City in the sky

Alex Preston urges bankers to look up at the buildings they built.

At the beginning of The Soul of London, his wonderful and sadly out-of-print evocation of the city in the early 20th century, Ford Madox Ford (or Ford Madox Hueffer, as he was when it was published in 1905) writes of how each of us has his own London and, although we may say we know the city, “how little more will he know of London than what is actually ‘his’”.

Ford goes on to say how each of our discrete,personal Londons is formed through the initial approaches we make to the city, whether we arrive first in the “Bloomsbury of dismal, decorous, unhappy, glamorous squares” or the “Camden Town of grimy box-like houses, yellow gas and the perpetual ring of tram-horse hoofs”. Those first impressions of the “young provincial, raw and ready to quiver at every sensation”, set the tone for our understanding of London, the way we perceive it ever after.

My own London, quickly superimposed over those glistering fragments obtained from youthful visits to the theatre, to an elderly aunt in a trinket-strewn Baker Street apartment, to friends enjoying that peculiarly alienating experience of university that London provides, was triangulated between a damp, poky and eye-wateringly expensive Fulham flat, a West End hedge fund where, not really knowing what to do when I left Oxford, I’d taken a job, and the City: the shimmering Square Mile, where I went to meetings with sharp-suited traders who would spout incomprehensible business-speak at me while shooting their cuffs and surreptitiously checking their reflection in the meeting-room window.

I arrived in London in that golden time between the small crash of the dotcom bubble and the big crash of the credit crisis, and the majority of my friends were either, like me, working in Mayfair: for “boutique” investment companies, private banks and the sort of genteel/blustering hedge fund I’d ended up at; or they were in the City, toiling for the big banks, the law firms, the pension funds and insurance companies that made their homes in the glass towers that prodded the sky around Bank and Liverpool Street, or, further east, rose in terrible glory over the Isle of Dogs.

One thing Ford repeatedly stresses in The Soul of London is how important our means of employment is in defining the city we inhabit. Bankers live in a different world from that of the railway operative, the Gravesend ferryman; their eyes pick out different objects of interest; they even walk differently. These days there’s something a little more furtive about that walk, a hint (who knows?) of contrition, but you can still tell a banker by his stride. If the flâneur is, as Baudelaire saw him, “the gentleman stroller of city streets”, then the banker is the anti-flâneur. The legs are straight, the arms – if not hammering away on BlackBerry keys, unaware of traffic – are gripping leather-walleted documents tightly to the chest. The head is down and the face bears an expression of grim determination.

There is no time to look up, up at the glorious silver buildings that his work has helped to build. He is on his way to a meeting, or to the opera, a box at the theatre, leisure pursuits to which he devotes the same ruthless energy that he does to trading credit derivatives or forcing mergers between underperforming pharmaceutical firms. He does not think of the history of those who have worked and lived here in the past; he does not feel, as some do, that he is walking in the footsteps of other Londoners – Dr Johnson in St Paul’s, Charles Dickens in Fleet Street, Virginia Woolf in Bloomsbury. The world is concentrated into the next trade, the next meeting, the next bonus.

I never managed to master that banker’s walk. It was, perhaps, an early sign of my general unsuitedness to life as a financier. I moved from the Mayfair hedge fund to an investment bank in the City, ABN Amro. Their great glass lozenge of an office building – now owned by RBS – sits, some say, at the very spot on Bishopsgate where Shakespeare lived while writing for the Curtain Theatre in Shoreditch. From my desk, I could see the swiftly rising Broadgate Tower, the Gherkin, the NatWest Tower and, in the distance, the crystal peaks of Canary Wharf. But there was also the Hawksmoor spire of Christ Church, Spitalfields, which, when I caught sight of it, interrupted the tedious chores of work with thoughts of Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore and Peter Ackroyd.

At lunch I’d stroll out for a sandwich and eat it while walking east into the serene Huguenot streets of Spitalfields, or north into bustling Shoreditch, or south into the old City, where the Royal Exchange –modelled on the Antwerp Bourse – was a monument to an older, better world of banking, now become a high-class mall with shops selling £10,000 watches, diamondencrusted cufflinks and Jo Malone toiletries. After lunch, I’d go back to my trading-floor eyrie and look down over the city with a cartographer’s eye, tracing the path I had followed, merging this aerial view with my recollections of being at ground level. This was how I came to know London: from above and below.

In one of the first interviews I gave as a novelist, with Mariella Frostrup on Radio 4’s Open Book, she asked, in that matey-maternal way she has with young writers, whether I hated London, as all my characters seemed so miserable in the city. It was not quite that I hated it; rather that, according to Ford’s theory, my first approach to the city was the wrong one. The London I had constructed was one of fat cats and fast money and cocktail bars. Now, several years after leaving that world, I am slowly rebuilding London –my own London –on foot again, or on my bicycle, constructing new vistas, new landscapes that rise as quickly as the skyscrapers that still thrust up from the earth on Leadenhall Street and Fenchurch Street and Cheapside and all those venerable old City addresses. And when I find myself back in the Square Mile, and I see the bankers stride past buried in their BlackBerrys, or lost in the pacing of black Church’s brogues on pavement, I will them to look up, to stop and marvel at the cold, clear beauty of the world they have made in the sky.

Alex Preston’s most recent book is “The Revelations” (Faber & Faber, £7.99)

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The London Issue