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Cool Britannia

Issue 04/2009

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Text Ilona Marx Photos Andy Rumball Illustration Roman Klonek

Slow food meets art hype, construction boom meets congestion charges – even genuine Londoners are surprised at the turn, life in the city has taken. The Blair era got a lot of things moving, and ‘cool Britannia’ was on the rise on London’s streets: neglected inner-city buildings were redeveloped, more bike paths were built, the tube network was extended, thanks to the Tate Modern, art was turned from an elitist niche product into a hobby for the masses. And as if that weren’t enough good news, London won the bid for the 2012 Olympics and will be the only city in the world to have hosted the Games three times in modern reckoning.

For years London had been working hard to polish its image. Dizzyingly high rent, chaotic traffic and food with a reputation for being uninspiring and unhealthy, the fear of terror – the city that sometimes seems to be home to the whole world, had its hands full with problems. But that’s something an outsider shouldn’t point out, unless willing to risk the classic British reserve spilling over into a temper tantrum. Because that’s typically London too: they love to complain about their own city, but defend its unique nature should an outsider dare to criticise.

Current developments seem to be proving the inhabitants of the British capital right. Because even thought the city is reeling from the financial crisis, no other European city started the new Millennium with so many Millennium projects as London, and they’re still building. Not just the future site of the Olympics, a massive industrial wasteland in Lea Valley, the biggest building site in Europe, is proof of that. Broadgate Tower, which was finished at the beginning of this year, as well as the work-in-progress Shard of Glass, are examples of the undaunted optimism the metropolis is famous for, despite the financial crash and governmental crises. Iconic projects like the London Eye and the Gherkin leave their mark, and further sky scrapers are in the offing: like meddlesome troublemakers the cranes stick their long necks up to the sky, making sure the city skyline is constantly changing. No doubt about it: London is going through radical change.

But down below, in the streets, the pubs and in the bars, things have been quietly changing too: over the last ten years Londoners seem to have completely overhauled their dietary habits, particularly noticeable in the increase in organic markets and in the hip restaurants. Recently relaxed licensing laws, a well-received smoking ban, not forgetting the rebirth of the London music scene, which had disappeared off the radar for quite a while after the Britpop hype, all combine to increase the attraction of London’s nightlife.

The burgeoning subculture is, in any case, the most dynamic element of the city. Whether in music, fashion, art or film – on the banks of the Thames is where new trends are born, only to become established on an international level. This is also due in part to the wide spectrum of different ethnicities and their influences. Every borough has its own small ethnic community. Turks in Dalston, Pakistanis in Shoreditch and White Chapel and Afro-Caribbeans in Camden and Brixton – the contrasts are enormous, and to even attempt to understand the city in all its complexity seems impossible. Even in the more well to do areas customs and traditions clash with one another. The clamour of traffic on the Oxford Street is only a few steps away from the silent, seemingly forgotten streets of Marylebone or Mayfair. But that’s what makes London tick: the contrasts, the contradictions it produces, and the boundaries that it then helps tear down.

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