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'London in Chains'

Updated: Jul 28, 2021

It was Elton John who famously recalled in an interview how he’d woken up in the middle of the night in a hotel room high above London, his slumbers disturbed by the gusts of wind whistling around the tower block. The rattled Rocketman had immediately reached for his phone, dialled his office, and blasted into the mouthpiece: “Do something about that wind!” Rocketman’s descendants have launched an ever-floating armada of watchful satellites which supply our laptops and mobiles with largely accurate short term predictions of weather for our current and planned locations, but Messrs Musk, Pichai, Cook and Bezos have yet to provide a button for ‘editing’ the weather (although they doubtless all have teams hard at work developing just such a feature!). But what do I do in the meantime? When the skies above us darken with ominous portents of a Biblical-scale deluge? Do I go online and research ark suppliers? (there are none currently listed BTW). Or book an Uber and join the bumper-to-bumper caravan of fellow rain-dodgers progressing at snail’s pace through the downpour? Of course not! Help is at hand, quite literally, in the form of my….

Oh God! Where is it? I had lost my umbrella! Gone was the mighty shillelagh-handled giant that had kept me dry (and street-safe) for five years, and all I could find to replace it for my morning’s meetings was a “bag-size” brolly of the kind most commonly brandished by tight-rope walkers and circus elephants. But it would at least get me across the West End to find a replacement. Since the mid 1980’s I have been buying my umbrellas from James Smith and Sons, a dazzling jewel of a national treasure housed in a Grade II listed building in New Oxford Street that I discovered completely by chance whilst working as a theatre manager at the nearby Shaftesbury Theatre. Imagine my shame, therefore, as I carried this tiny, wind-twisted piece of Taiwanese plastic into that walnut-panelled Seventh Wonder of the Umbrella World, the Aladdin’s Cave of the silver-topped cane and shooting-stick. I was a pitiable sight, standing there with my “collapsible” amidst the proud rows of ramrod-solid rain-shades and stout walking sticks standing erect in their gleaming Victorian racks. It was the busiest morning of the year. The shop was brim-full of steaming, soaked bodies. But I was spoken to in seconds: “Someone will be with you in two minutes,” one of the assistants assured me. And they were! (one minute forty-nine seconds by my surreptitiously triggered stop-watch). I explained my quest and immediately the century-old solid oak chart drawers were unlocked. My guide, an ancient and venerable Zen Master in the art of umbrella-making, stood silently by my side as I tried several of the burnished wooden club-head handles for weight and shape and that delicious feeling of “rightness of fit” as the wood hinges in the heel of the hand. But when I did eventually find the perfect burr, the shaft, sadly, was too slender for the golf-size frame I need for my hunk-size frame. So we began again, unhurried by the thousands of pounds worth of transactions that were popping the cash registers around us every minute. And then I saw it, a supremely knotty knob of ash-wood naturally shaped into a serpent’s head. My finger-tips lowered lightly over the crown (it is important not to flex the tendons when gauging grip) and then slowly raise the wrist and… Eureka! Now to find the right frame. I wasn’t offered a lifetime warranty or after-sales agreement. There was no mention of Nectar Cards, Air-Miles or Loyalty Points. Instead the manager explained, somewhat apologetically, that as it was now Friday afternoon, the assembled umbrella would not be ready until at least the next day, Saturday, or possibly even Monday morning. Four hours later my phone rang. My newly-made brolly was ready for collection, if I could just get there before closing five thirty closing time..?

James Smith and Son have been keeping Londoners and visitors dry since 1830 and the fabulous storefront has appeared in numerous films and TV series. It is a window on a previous age, but it is not a museum piece. Their customer is as good anything Messrs Musk, Pichai, Cook and Bezos can deliver.

My bank has muskets racked along one wall which the staff used to defend the building during the Gordon Riots of 1780. Charles Dickens used the even-then-venerable institution as the model for “Tellings Bank” when he wrote “A Tale of Two Cities” in 1859

Six doors down from ‘Tellings’ is Twinings Tea. It opened its doors in 1716 and its logo, created in 1787, is the oldest in continuous use in the world, with the possible exception of the Christian cross (perhaps Dickens coined the name ‘Tellings’ while stopping off for a brew in Twinings?)

Just like each of the polished wooden burrs in James Smith and Son’s drawer is a one-off, a unique testimony to the history of the tree from which it grew, the bank, the teashop and the umbrella emporium are all unique and distinctive outcrops of London’s history. An essential part of the character, the flavour, the unique personality of the heart of the capital. But in London's West End that character is being rapidly and tragically erased as rent and rate rises force established businesses out of the area.

"RIP PJs Covent Garden" 1982 - 2014.

"RIP Food For Thought" 1973 – 2015

“RIP XXXXXXXXXX ..the list of London Bars, Cafes, Restaurants and shops closed permanently due to Covid…(how long have you got?)

Inevitably the only firms that can afford to move into these premises in their wake (pun intended) are the big brand chains of shops, bars, restaurants and coffee bars that can be found the length and breadth of... well anywhere short of the Sahara and Siberia. The process is one of ironic osmosis: the chains acquire Central London flagships to add a lustre to their outlets in the suburbs, and, in doing so, the West End thoroughfares are rapidly being transformed into Suburban High Streets

But can the process be halted or reversed?

Adam Smith the economist (no relation to James the umbrella-maker) would probably suggest that the market would correct itself at some point, over a cuppa in Twinings of course.

In theory the individual central London councils and zoning authorities could conceivably draw a line in the sand to protect the area (and their income from tourism).

Or perhaps it simply takes a leap of the imagination?

Imagine that you've travelled to the heart of the big city from Yeovil or York and find yourself in a street with a wide variety of chains to choose from (because a LOT of people LIKE the familiarity the chains offer). But there, two doors down, is what looks at first glance to be an independent coffee-house, and it is only as you get closer that you see the sign: "Sponsored by Starbucks -Keeping London Unique." Then later that day you find a charming third generation Italian Caffe with a plaque: "Sponsored by Jamie Oliver - supporting the real flavour of London."

I write this as a Londoner, not a Luddite. And I must declare an interest: my livelihood, like that of many other Londoners, depends on London continuing to offer visitors a unique, vibrant and authentic experience. Take my word for it, London has no beaches to speak of. And it oh-too-rarely offers balmy Mediterranean climes to lure visitors to its great grey thoroughfares. But what of the city’s broader offering? Generally speaking, the big West End Musicals that start their lives here such as Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables and Mamma Mia! Can be found around the globe in long-running local productions and tours. And while it is true that we do have more than our fair share of world class museums and galleries, cultural icons and historic buildings but most international capitals have more than enough to fill a fun (and footsore) short break. Similarly, the Royal Parks, while of exceptional size and quality, have international counterparts providing cities with breathing spaces. But it’s the bits in-between, the pubs and restaurants, tea and umbrella shops, one-off boutiques and greasy spoons that give London its distinctive as a global destination. That ‘can’t-quite-put-their-finger-on-it’ atmosphere, and energy, that has captured a unique place in the imaginations of visitors from around the world and draws them back again year after year. Once that has gone, it will be lost forever.

As a footnote, I recently purchased a shooting-stick from James Smith And Sons as a gift. It was neatly wrapped, but the manager asked me if I'd like to remove the paper to check it was in perfect condition. "That's alright," I replied. "If there's a problem I'll just bring it back next week. I'm pretty sure you'll still be here." "Yes," he replied: "It would be nice to think so."

Copyright David Thomas 2021

All Rights Reserved

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