Culture Watch

In this blog, in his eternal quest for style, menswear aficionado and former museum director Mr Londoner presents …

‘Nine things you need to know about London and Londoners’

There’s so much more to the Capital than beefeaters and bearskins. Perhaps you’ve already seen the big sights, or just decided to skip the touristy stuff altogether. So, now might be time to explore the quirks of the British character and truly get under the skin of our Capital city at the same time. Here’s (what just may prove to be) a helpful introduction.

1. We Brits are obsessed with the weather. We discuss it constantly. We check BBC forecasts before braving the elements. As well we might. You can experience three seasons in a day here. I have suntan lotion, umbrellas and waterproof clothing constantly to hand. In truth, we’re a tad defensive about our weather. And global warming is making it even more unpredictable. You’ll hear us patiently explaining that London’s sunshine and precipitation match the meteorological conditions of Berlin, Paris and Amsterdam. But it’s no good. Nobody believes us. And London does have James Smith and Sons – one of the world’s best umbrella shops.

A perfect day – the British weather is famously unpredictable. The River Thames @meetmrlondoner

2. We’re forever saying sorry. Apologising is a defining national trait. In the 1980s there was a popular, if low-key, British TV sitcom called, predictably, Sorry. And just watch the merry dance two Brits do when they attempt to pass each other on a busy but narrow city street. It’s not helped by the fact that we Europeans, unlike our more orderly American cousins, have no ‘lane discipline’. We bowl along the sidewalk (the pavement as we call it) any which way. This means we’re pre-programmed to bump into each other when navigating the ancient streets of our Capital, increasing our opportunities to apologise. So all good.

The UK hasn’t yet got round to penning a written constitution. Parliament Square @meetmrlondoner

3. God Save the King – the role of religion in political life is, er, a mixed one. The UK’s unwritten constitution does not dictate the separation of church and state – central to political life in democracies like America and France. Our hereditary monarchy embodies Christian values. The monarch is The Defender of the Faiths and appoints senior clergy. The coronation service is based on the Holy Communion. The Lords Spiritual (26 unelected bishops) also sit in the House of Lords. This archaic practice has its critics. The Archbishop of Canterbury recently drew some flak from his fellow lords and ladies for sporting his full, blindingly white, clerical robes while addressing the House.

Despite all this, faith in Britain remains a mainly personal affair. Our most religious recent Prime Minsters, Tony Blair and Margaret Thatcher, kept their beliefs largely to themselves. Our current PM is a Hindu. London’s Mayor is a Muslim. Half of Britons define themselves as Christian. This falls to about three percent however when measured by regular church attendance. Perhaps, somewhat surprisingly, London has the UK’s fastest-growing Christian community, with the spread of mainly African evangelical churches throughout the suburbs. The fastest-growing faith in the UK, and indeed across Europe, is Islam.

Global cuisine. Lunch at Govinda’s, Soho Square @meetmrlondoner

4. The food’s better than you think. London used to get a bad rap for its cuisine. Trust me, things have moved on. The modern Metropolis is a foodie capital to rival Paris or Barcelona. Our food reflects the diverse cuisines that have arrived on our shores these past 2,000 years. The Capital is justly famous for its Indian delicacies alongside its gastro- pubs – a peculiar British phenomenon.

The most British of dishes is of course fish and chips. And there are two types of fish and chips in Britain. Exquisite and inedible. The Fox and Anchor pub in Farringdon delivers the former, and pours the perfect pint, in an atmospheric setting. Kennedy’s is a great traditional fish and chip shop (or chippie). Fish and chips actually arrived in the 17th century with Sephardic Jewish immigrants.

5. Like Scotch whisky, the British sense of humour is an acquired taste. You may have seen Monty Python. If so, you’ll know that British humour embraces irony, mischief and sometimes surrealism. But not everyone gets it. And there’s a fair amount of close-to- the-line innuendo (end-of-the-pier, or toilet, humour as it’s sometimes called here). If you’ve ever seen a Carry On film or an early James Bond movie, you’ll know exactly what I mean. Perhaps you were a fan of 1970s sit-com ‘Are You Being Served?’ Its high-camp humour is a little off-key today. If you’re still confused, then book yourself into a panto. A Christmas pantomine is a very British tradition. Naturally, it has continental origins. The ‘Commedia dell’Arte’, was a 16th-century Italian entertainment – out of which modern-day panto was born.

6. We drink tea …but our coffee scene is interesting. London is full of all the big corporate coffee brands you’d expect to find. These companies have their detractors but, interestingly, have inspired a plethora of independent coffee start-ups focussed on provenance and quality. The busy City of London (The Square Mile) is our financial centre. It’s not over-blessed with independent retailers. Yet one of London’s best coffee shops – the Press Coffee and Co – is here on Fleet Street. The lesser-known Fitzrovia district is home to quirky independent roasters. My favourite is the wittily-named Attendant. This former gents’ toilet is now a subterranean coffee shop. You can tuck into coffee and cake in one of the Victorian-era stalls converted from its magnificent ‘Jennings’ porcelain urinals. Better yet, a visit here affords the opportunity to indulge in British toilet humour.

Pubs are at the heart of cultural life. The Old Coffee Houses, Soho @meetmrlondoner.

7. But pubs are still at the heart of the British life. Despite growing pub closures across the UK, the London public house is still at the heart of much of our social and cultural life. Pubs welcome all comers and all classes. We have ornate gin palaces, pubs with fringe theatres, Thai restaurants and pretty gardens. Not to mention ghostly goings-on. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street is straight out of Charles Dickens. The George, at Southwark, is London’s only surviving galleried coaching inn. Here, 18th and 19th century travellers and their horses were fed and watered before embarking on arduous stage coach journeys.

The walls and ceiling of Holborn’s Viaduct Tavern sport souvenir bullet holes. Explanations differ. Some say the pot-shots to the masonry date from 1918 when an over- lubricated soldier misfired his Lee Enfield 303 rifle on Armistice night. Even by the standards of the day, this was quite the health and safety breach. Luckily no one was hurt in what we now refer to as a boisterous incident. But naturally, an unrelated spectral presence, by the name of Fred, still moves things about in the pub’s cellar just for good measure.

Fashion capital – Suzanne Edwards rocks the look in Spitalfields. @meetmrlondoner.

8. We love a bit of vintage. Paris may be all about classic style and elegance and LA about the cult of youth. But London captures the spirit of the street. Londoners have the confidence to curate their own look. The Capital’s vintage clothes’ scene is thriving. The area around East London’s Brick Lane is home to independent retailers offering clothes from the 1920s onwards – sometimes even earlier. Head east to grab a bargain or find a precious one-off item from yesteryear.

Charity (goodwill) shops also abound. These support some of the UK’s 85,000 voluntary organistions. They are popular with those on a budget. But the fashion crowd also seeks out rare finds – as do people looking for a bargain. I love them because this is a sustainable way to live and to dress. Every year, over 350,000 tonnes of UK clothing valued at £140 million (according to recycling business Clothes Aid) end up in landfill, in countries on the other side of the world.

Who doesn’t love a bit of vintage? The Brick Lane Vintage Market @meetmrlondoner.

9. Oh, and we’ve embraced the man-bag

Some of my more conservative guests shudder at the sight of a man carrying a small leather or canvas bag. It’s an efficient means of transporting phone, wallet and the detritus of daily life. A few of my American friends call this (clearly polarising) accessory a murse. They mean man-purse and not in a good way. The murse, a favourite in Mediterranean climes, has taken over forty years to reach our shores. Now London men too sport the man-bag with pride.

And finally … We Brits may lag in the style stakes behind our French, Italian, Spanish, Swedish and Turkish neighbours. But then again, we’re generally less conservative dressers than our American, Canadian and Australian cousins. It’s also true that some Londoners d’un certain age, aspire to find their own style. As a tiny boy, I yearned to dress like my elegant grandfather. He seemed so tall and dapper in his wide-cut trousers, relaxed tweed jackets and triangular-shaped 1940s wool ties. But perhaps I was short, pudgy and looking up?

Mr Londoner embraces ‘the vintage’ @Mrslondoner.

Today, the ambition to dress like our elders has it seems been turned on its head. Middle- aged men dress like their children and grand-children. You’ve probably clocked the identikit ‘normcore’ uniform of track pants, three-quarter length shorts and round-the- wrong-way baseball hats.

I don’t think clothes make the man. I think we should dress in the way that makes us happy. It’s not what we wear but how we put it together that counts and, more importantly, how it makes us feel. The way Londoners dress is a reflection of our wider culture and influences from across the globe. So, if you fancy it, do join me on a Mr Londoner Presents menswear tour. I’ll help you curate a more distinctive style – and one that’s entirely your own. And we’ll be sure explore the unique quirks of the British character along the way.

 

 

About the Author Mr Londoner is former museum director and writer Antony Robbins. His ‘Mr Londoner Presents …’ tours take bold and adventurous visitors off the well-worn tourist trail and deep in to the secret city.

You can book a bespoke tour with Mr Londoner here