Monday, January 27, 2014


'I like this book,' said my niece, clutching it close like a comforting
teddy bear. ‘It makes me feel safe.’ The book was the A-Z, and it was her first time living in London. The A-Z has been making Londoners feel safe for years, ever since it was first published in 1936. Between two covers, fronted by its distinctive sans-serif logo, is London. Major roads declare themselves in dark yellow, mid-ranking roads look over their shoulders in light yellow, while the rest cluster behind in white. Railway lines snake over the map in black; overground stations are a comforting, solid black, while Tube stations are a cheeky little dot. The regular splodges of green remind you of how blessed London is with parks. The West End is printed in enlarged format, just in case you’d forgotten how important it is. The Thames sails through it all in a serene blue. Even the index has stories to tell of the city’s history. The column full of Alexandra Roads and Avenues speaks of the surge of suburban house building in the first decade of the twentieth century when Edward VII was on the throne and Queen Alexandra was his much-betrayed consort; the two pages of streets with saints’ names reminds you of the hundreds of years of Christian heritage behind the modern multi-cultural capital.

The A-Z was created by Phyllis Pearsall, the eccentric daughter of a Hungarian Jew and an Irish Catholic suffragette. She told the story that one evening she arrived late for a fashionable dinner party, having got lost on the way, only to find that most of the guests had had the same experience, in the absence of satisfactory maps. The next morning she rose at 5 am, and did so every day until she’d walked and mapped every street in London. This story (lovely though it is) is widely dismissed as a marketing fiction. What’s certain is that the company she established, the Geographers’ A-Z Company, is still going strong; it was the official provider of maps for the 2012 London Olympics.

Except, of course, that people no longer clutch books to make them feel safe when they come to London; they stroke phones. There are numerous apps to get you from anywhere to anywhere, not only telling you how long it will take, how much it will cost on the bus or the Tube or the train, which stop you should get off (and the stop before), and how many calories you would expend walking or cycling, but also accompanying you as your little pin floats up and down the streets with a protective penumbra flashing round it. None the less, I can’t quite get rid of the old hard copy A-Z; copies of it in large and small formats nestle in different parts of the house within an arm’s reach, there’s one on the shelf in my office at work, and a big, chunky, hardback sits smugly in the car waiting for everything electronic to admit defeat. I’ve vaguely thought of choosing the A-Z to take along with the Bible and Shakespeare if / when I’m on Desert Island Discs, in order to relive a thousand London stories in my head, and invent a few more. And in any case, the A-Z has its own app now. With the lightest touch of your finger, you can move up and down streets, zoom in close on favoured areas, then pan out and look down on the whole city from above, like a god surveying his creation. The A-Z is London, bigger than any of us could possibly comprehend, and yet at the same time sitting in our pockets, waiting for us.

Monday, January 20, 2014


He would have established a brutal dictatorship in Britain, seizing property, ruthlessly crushing dissent and sending his opponents to labour camps. But he still loved his little son Brian. I know, because I’ve held in my hand a postcard from him with a drawing of a man peeking out of the moon and the message, ‘When I come home, we will have some fun. With love from Dada.’
Harry Pollitt was General Secretary of the Communist Party of Great Britain from 1929 to 1956. I was researching him for a novel I’m writing about Communists in London during the Blitz (you can read an extract from it on my website.) As he was tracked by MI5 throughout his career, there is a bulging file on him: reports of his movements from agents who followed him around London, intercepted letters, stolen minutes from confidential party meetings, verbatim accounts of speeches he made round the country – and the postcard that never reached little Brian. Together, it contains a man’s life and work. And it’s all there, tied up in red ribbon, for anyone who wants to read it, in the National Archives at Kew.

One of the glories of London is how much is available for free. I don’t like the notion of ‘government funded’; I prefer ‘belongs to all of us’. The National Archives are free because they belong to all of us. They’re housed in an imposing, cool, modern structure set back a hundred yards or so from the river amidst the suburban calm of Kew, a short walk from Kew Gardens Tube. You approach it via a wide, welcoming front area where fountains play and you can sit and eat your sandwiches on a hot day. Inside, an efficient cafe is served by screens playing rolling twenty-four hours news as if to drag researchers back into the present. There’s a celebratory exhibition, and a bookshop dominated by social history and almost as many different books about the First and Second World Wars as soldiers fought in them. You can’t just walk straight into the archives: you have to present a driving licence or a utility bill, be photographed, and pass an online test on how to handle documents with clean hands and respect. Once you’re in, you can place an order, and before long an intriguing cardboard box appears in your own personal transparent locker. Take it past the security men into the reading room, and you literally open up the secrets of the past. As with all research, it’s best to keep an open mind; you can be trawling through pages of tedium when you stumble on the unexpected and the revealing, like the flash of humanity in a would be dictator. I’m sure little Brian Pollitt thought his Dad was a lovely man. Maybe he still does. Maybe he was.

It’s a very democratic place. Professional scholars rub shoulders with curious citizens. Its most popular use is by people researching their family histories (hence the contents of the bookshop), but it also hits the headlines every New Year’s Day as newspapers present to our hangover-clouded eyes the contents of confidential government papers released under the thirty year rule, letting us in on the secrets of plans to use the army to break the miners’ strike and how much Mrs Thatcher’s ironing board cost. It also hosts a number of talks and events, and will be a major part of the commemorations of the various First World War centenaries, putting soldiers' and civilians' diaries online, bringing back ordinary men and women from the dead. It’s all there, the life of our nation, kept for us, belonging to us. You should use it, to stop them taking it away.

Monday, January 13, 2014


1.      You’re not from here.

According to the 2011 census, more than a third of Londoners (37%) were born overseas. I don’t have the stats for how many of the rest were born outside London, but I have a hunch it would be enough to tip the incomers over the 50% line. And even if you’re from here, you don’t feel like you’re from here, because there are so many people here who aren’t from here it doesn’t feel like here any more.

2.    You don’t drive.

This might seem a bit unlikely, given that the default mode of London roads is stationary traffic. But that’s precisely why you don’t drive. Anyone with any sense realises that you will get wherever you are going much faster by Tube, bus, bike, or even walking. Even if your car eventually gets you somewhere, there will be nowhere to park when you get there.

3.      You read a lot.

‘Reading’ is understood in a broad sense to include texts, emails, apps etc. The crucial thing is that you must on no account make eye contact with, still less actually talk to, any other person on public transport. This means you must have a book / newspaper / phone / tablet about your person at all times. Before the invention of e-books, a Tube carriage served as a rough and ready best seller chart. Now, of course, you can be reading Fifty Shades of Grey with no one knowing it, and can click swiftly into Middlemarch if your old English teacher sits down next to you.

4.      You look like you’re going to miss your stop.

Not only must you pay no attention to other people; you must also be oblivious to your route. It’s the hallmark of tourists / recent arrivals that they glance constantly up at the Tube map, and begin twitching and fiddling with their coats and bags as soon as their stop is announced, standing up and moving nervously to the doors, wondering if anyone else is going to get off. True Londoners remain immersed in their book or paper, and stand only as the doors are opening, sometimes continuing to read as they make their way to their next connection.

5. The Thames is never the Thames.

The Thames is always and only ‘the river’. This is because there is only one city, indeed only one place, in the world. As there is only one river running through it, the river does not need a name.

6. You call your Mayor by his first name.

Boris Who?
The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will never be Dave to anyone but family and close friends. But whoever succeeds Ken and Boris at City Hall will have to sacrifice not only their time, energy and privacy to their office but also their surname.

  1. You view homophobia and racism as the bizarre customs of a long extinct barbaric tribe.
Residents of some areas (Hampstead, Clerkenwell) try a bit too hard at this, competitively totting up their quota of non-white friends, trying unsuccessfully to conceal their disappointment when their children come out as heterosexual or insist on dating someone of their own ethnicity, but on the whole social liberalism is simply the air we breathe; as see the sublime indifference of voters to the decidedly rackety personal lives of Ken and Boris.

  1. You worry about schools.
Apparently there are civilised countries where all the children go the school nearest their house and no one gives it a second thought. It’s not like that here. Even if you are gay / infertile / have voluntarily undergone a surgical procedure to ensure you never reproduce, it’s hard to escape the constant chatter about schools. Parents fret over the educational battleground like generals fighting a losing war, consulting league tables and OFSTED reports like casualty statistics, inching their house under financial fire a few hundred yards nearer a desirable school, disguising themselves as believers to infiltrate churches with schools attached, taking a heavy hit from tutors’ charges and school fees. Dare to suggest that it doesn’t much matter where kids go to school as long as they’re loved and cherished and you will be looked at as if you have just denied the Virgin Birth at a papal conclave.

  1. You worry about housing.
There are several permutations to this worry. Super-rich: how many times do I have to double the price before they say yes? Retired baby-boomers: how many hints do we have to drop before the kids leave home and let us have our four-bedroomed house to ourselves? Couples with children: how many more hours do we have to work before we can afford to pay the mortgage / rent? Anyone under 30 born in London: how much longer do I have to share a room with the soft toys my parents refuse to let me throw out? Anyone under 30 not born in London: how much longer do I have to share a room with someone I’m not having sex with?

  1. You think that life stops at the M25.

There are, in fact, five countries in the United Kingdom: England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London. Conveniently, they all use the same currency and speak the same language, and border controls between them are very relaxed. Trips abroad are excellent for broadening the mind.

Monday, January 6, 2014


Night after night, we watch the scenes from around the country: motorboats going up and down main streets, helicopters lifting people off rooves, church towers poking defiantly above the water, businesses destroyed, homes ruined. It hasn’t happened in London – yet. Could it?

It has. In 1928, heavy snowfall at Christmas in the Cotstwolds near the source of the Thames was followed at New Year by a sudden thaw, heavy rain, a high tide and a storm surge in the North Sea, raising levels in the Thames Estuary to 1.5 metres above normal. The situation was made worse by the recent dredging of the Thames, designed to deepen the river channel and allow bigger boats into the port, but having the unintended consequence of speeding the surge of water. In the early hours of January 7th 1928, the river burst its banks from the City all the way to Hammersmith. Fourteen people were drowned in basement flats in Lambeth. The ground floor of the Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) was flooded, damaging several Turner paintings. Water swept onto the terrace of the House of Commons, forming a pool at the base of Big Ben. The old Lambeth Bridge was destroyed. The dilapidated area around Millbank was particularly badly affected, and the flood prompted an extensive new build, including the construction of Thames House, now headquarters of MI5.  

In 1953, catastrophic floods which killed over 300 people down the east coast of England reached London, but got no further than Canning Town in the east, and claimed only one life: a night watchman who inhaled the fumes of a broken gas pipe. It was enough, though, to speed up work on a flood barrier.
The Thames Flood Barrier was opened in 1984. When closed, it shuts off the inland river, protecting it from what is happening out at sea, containing surges caused by heavy rain, stormy conditions and high tides. It’s worked so far; we ought to be safe. But the fear of flooding is still there in the folk memory. One colleague at the school I teach at recalls the pre-Thames Barrier flood drill. When the waters rose, the air raid sirens would be sounded all over Hammersmith. Her task was to seize a mop and go round all the toilets cleaning up the waste that would back up from the sewers (she must have been very junior). Though the Barrier is supposed to last till 2070, some say the effects of climate change mean it will be unfit for purpose long before that. The river made our city, and the river could destroy it. The prosperity of the city in the form of its carbon footprint could yet be its downfall. Another reason to get on your bike. 

Sunday, January 5, 2014


There‘s one restaurant in London that feels like an extension of my kitchen: New World in Gerard Street, Chinatown. Over the years, I’ve been there with school friends, university friends, work friends, friends of friends, friends of friends of friends, potential / actual / ex girlfriends, my wife, my daughter, my family, my family’s friends, my in-laws, anyone who happened to be passing through London. My daughter has been coming since she was a baby, and every time the waitresses recognise her and call her by her Chinese name. We even considered having our wedding reception there (admittedly not for very long). There are hundreds of Chinese restaurants in London, but none of them do dim sum like New World. I do go to other restaurants, honestly, (I’m a reviewer for the Time Out Cheap Eats Guide), but coming back to New World is like coming home.

For the uninitiated, Dim Sum dispenses with menus. Instead, there’s a constant traffic of trolleys passing your table carrying piles of small round bamboo boxes, each containing three to five portions of something. The trolleys are themed, some specialising in meat dishes, others fish, others desserts. You hail the trolley as if it were a taxi, choose your boxes, and your bill is updated on a rolling basis. No ownership: the expectation is that you all dive in to the latest arrival with your chopsticks, transferring a portion to your bowl. If you miss out, don’t worry; there’ll be another one along in a minute. It’s eccentric to request rice. Chinese tea is recommended and the pot is regularly topped up. If you fancy something stronger, Tsing Tao beer goes well (the wine list is not New World’s long suit). Personal favourites: roast duck, pork dumplings, prawn cheong fun, egg tarts (for dessert). It’s admittedly not the greatest option for vegetarians, as meat and fish are pretty much omnipresent; but this does make it a very popular meal with kids, as the Vegetable Police are so easily evaded. Observant Muslims and Jews do need to be on the lookout for the way pork sneaks in everywhere. (The Chinese say they eat any animal whose spine does not point to the sun, i.e. everything bar humans.) You can have a thoroughly good feed for £15 a head. If you’re still hungry afterwards, you can stroll through Chinatown and buy a Chinese cake. 

Pork dumplings!

The restaurant bustles over three large floors, and all ages, classes and ethnicities come and go cheerfully and without ceremony. There is something deeply homely about the informality and communality of Dim Sum. It literally means ‘touch the heart’, and I’ve never come away from New World without feeling warmed in the heart as well as the stomach. See you there!

Friday, January 3, 2014


With all that time sitting on the Tube or the bus, you’re going to need something to read. Here is an entirely personal selection of London novels which have entertained, enlightened and inspired me, and left me with new ways of looking at my native city. I’ll be delighted to hear from readers with other recommendations. The ordering is chronological by publication date.

Great Expectations Charles Dickens (1861)

I have to confess to something of a blind spot with Dickens. While I can see the marks of genius, I too often feel as if I am being hit over the head when I read his novels with their baroque sentences, their overwrought plots and their crushing sentimentality. However, he is the great London novelist. Great Expectations is the story of Pip, a young man who receives a mysteriously bequeathed fortune and leaves behind the narrow cosiness of a small village in Kent for the temptations and delights of the city. In his ambivalence about deserting his origins and his mix of awkwardness and excitement as he learns the London ropes, Pip speaks to and of the incomers that are London’s majority population. And the Thames is there in all its glory in a magnificent escape and chase narrative at the end of the novel. 

London Belongs To Me, Norman Collins (1945)

This is very much in the category of unjustly neglected classic. With a baggy, amorphous plot, or rather series of plots, it is in some ways more of a soap opera than a novel. The framing device is a boarding house in South London, and the lives of the people who live there between the summer of 1938 and the summer of 1940, ending just before the start of the Blitz. The characters are all convincing and likeable, but in many ways it is the city which is the star. The low key, smokey camaraderie of the pubs, the cafes, and workplaces of London as it tips into war is lovingly evoked. Best of all, it is a novel about ordinary, normally unremarked people. When you’ve finished it, you feel you know what it was like to live then.

The Lonely Londoners, Samuel Selvon (1956)

 Written in a Caribbean idiolect, Selvon’s novel recalls the world of the first wave of West Indian immigrants, most of whom fetched up in ‘The Water’, as they called Bayswater. Lonely, broke, cold and single, these men still manage to make the most of what the city has to offer. The book provides another piece of London’s ethnic jigsaw.

Sour Sweet Timothy Mo (1982)

London is of course a world city, in the sense that it contains the whole world. Within it are a limitless number of sub-cultures which can be impenetrable to the outsider. Timothy Mo lifts the lid on London’s Chinese community in this story of Chinese restaurant workers in Soho in the 1960s. Like Timothy Mo, my wife is mixed race Chinese-English, and I recognise many of the cultural markers of Chineseness. In one revealing incident, a young unmarried woman becomes pregnant by an unknown man and runs away from home. She writes to her sister. Her sister knows she must destroy the letter, as it carries with it shame and disgrace. However, she cannot bear to waste the paper, so decides to use it to line the takeaway boxes in which she serves the ignorant Westerners with a parody of Chinese cuisine. Then she is faced with a terrible dilemma: what if one of the Westerners manages to read it through the soya sauce? It’s all there: the remorseless thriftiness, the denial about any family difficulty, the pragmatism. Though there is a strain of gentle satire throughout, Mo is also deeply affectionate and understanding of his characters.

London Fields, Martin Amis (1989)

As with Dickens, I have some reluctance about including Amis. I don’t like his snobbish contempt for the so-called ‘underclass’; his portrayal of women too often veers into the misogynistic and the pornographic; and his inflammatory remarks about Muslims were almost criminally culpable. Also, like Dickens, there is at times something almost bullying about the stylistic pyrotechnics of his prose. That said, this is a great London novel. Keith Talent, a petty criminal and semi-professional darts player, is a monstrous, larger than life, unforgettable character. The scenes in which he hangs out with his mates God and Fucker at the dark and dingy Black Cross pub (you can tell Amis does names like Dickens) are a searing tribute to London’s seedy underbelly. At the other end of the scale, the dysfunction of the super rich is no less chilling, and there’s a backdrop of climate chaos. Amis is never less than forensically socially observant, and there’s no doubt that this novel, published in 1989, is uncannily prophetic of many of the problems of London in 2014.

The Long Firm, Jake Arnott (1999)

Loosely based on Ronnie Kray, Arnott’s anti-hero Harry Starks is a gay gangster operating in 1960s London. His story is interweaved with that of a dodgy peer, a minor hoodlum and a rent boy. Arnott’s atmosphere is pitch perfect. The clothes, the music, the drugs, the whole Sixties scene is here, the sense of a city waking and stretching as it tastes for the first time the delights of prosperity and social freedom; though the old world is still very definitely still there to be fought against.

White Teeth, Zadie Smith (2000)

If this list was ranked by merit rather than chronology, this would be my Number One. Like London, it contains multitudes. A sprawling comic epic reaching from the Second World War to the end of the twentieth century and covering the lives of three families, one Jamaican – English, one Bangladeshi and one chattering classes North London, it has it all. It enacts London’s limitless versatility and variety in the clash and the unexpected harmonies of its many different linguistic and cultural voices. To take one example: one of the central venues is O’Connell’s Pool Hall, situated on Willesden High Street. This is a pub which contains no pool tables and is run not by an Irishman but by a Muslim who serves beer and bacon sandwiches to Archibald Jones, an Englishman married to a Jamaican and Samad Iqbal, a Bangladeshi Muslim, who served together in the war and are now best friends. That’s London in a nutshell. Lest you think this all a bit earnest, White Teeth is also extremely funny, sharply observant, grippingly plotted and makes you care about the characters. I know of no other book that so ‘gets’ London as it actually is, nor one which makes me prouder to be a Londoner.

The Night Watch, Sarah Waters (2006)

The Blitz was an iconic, defining moment in London’s history. Sarah Waters is better known for her Victorian novels, but here she recreates the horror and the heroism of the nine months of nightly bombing  suffered by London between September 1940 and June 1941 with immense power. The novel’s main focus is on a group of women, mostly gay, who find liberation in their work as ambulance drivers, and for whom the return to normality at the end of the war is a disappointment. The sights, sounds and smells of the Blitz are brought back for us, and the deftly managed reverse chronology adds to the tension and suspense.

The Innocents, Francesca Segal (2012)

I’m not Jewish, but this book made me want to be. It’s the story of Adam Newman, a young Jewish lawyer who faces an agonising choice between the safety of his teenage sweetheart and fiancĂ©e Rachel and the erotic allure of her dangerous cousin Ellie. While Adam struggles with his dilemma, we’re taken through the religious and social rituals of the tightly knit middle-class Jewish community of North London. It could easily be reissued as a recipe book, given that so much of it is devoted to loving descriptions of family meals. As one of the characters crisply sums up Jewish festivals: ‘Someone tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat!’ Both the claustrophobia and the solidarity of an ethnic community are brought alive for us. It is very closely and consciously modelled on Edith Wharton’s classic The Age of Innocence, set amongst the equally meticulous social codes of the upper class in 1870s New York. If you know Wharton’s novel as I do, this does have the disadvantage of eliminating the suspense of the plot; but this is a minor quibble.

Capital, John Lanchester (2012)

This is a very conscious attempt at the Great London Novel, and like all such attempts it inevitably falls a little short of its project; and yet it is still an enormously likeable and engaging read. It takes one street, Pepys Road (note the reference to the legendary chronicler of London), and tells the story of its inhabitants against the backdrop of the financial crash of 2008. The result is a slightly formulaic roll call of contemporary London types: a Polish builder, a Hungarian nanny, a hipster creative, a grasping banker, an imported overpaid Premier League footballer and his canny minder, and a token long-term resident. However, Lanchester gets inside the hearts and heads of all of them, and you care about what happens to the characters. Many of his astute observations about London stayed with me. One example: the African footballer’s father accompanies him to London, and can’t understand why it is that Londoners always have to be doing something. Even when they’re waiting for a bus, they’re reading or texting; even when they’re walking somewhere, they’re on their phones. Why can’t they just be, like Africans? Good question.

There must be hundreds more - leave some recommendations in the comment box!

Iron and Water: the Kew Bridge Steam Museum

Given that my modelling career came to an abrupt halt after an attempt on an Airfix version of the plane my father flew in in the war ended with upside down wings, glued together fingers and paternal disappointment, a museum dedicated to engineering should not really be my sort of thing. But Kew Bridge Steam Museum (currently being refurbished, and due to reopen in March 2014 as the Museum of Steam and Water) is an unsung delight. It’s housed a couple of hundred yards down the road from Kew Bridge in what used to be a pumping station for extracting water from the Thames. The stern, solid, High Victorian brick building is topped with an uncompromisingly phallic tower.

Room after room is filled with pumping machines, fifty or sixty feet high, assertively metallic, tightly welded. In one room a machine is operating, and its clank and hiss goes on and on with the determination and power of a repeated prayer. There is very little concession to the human scale, and you feel small and insignificant in the face of these titans of steel and water. But when you make your way up to the gallery, you find that the machines are actually there to serve humanity. A display tells a little known story. In the early seventeenth century, Sir Hugh Myddleton, an enterprising  Welsh cloth-maker, goldsmith, banker and entrepreneur oversaw the construction of the New River, an ambitious engineering project which brought water from the River Lea near Ware in Hertfordshire down to the River Head, in what is now Clerkenwell. That’s where the ‘well’ in Clerkenwell comes from; it was once literally a well, where people would get their water.
Sir Hugh Myddleton commemorated in Islington
Sir Hugh, commemorated with a statue and a couple of schools in Islington, began the provision of reliable, clean water to Londoners, which the heavy duty giants of metal and steel, constructed with the world-mastering fervour of the Victorians, continued. The fact that we can drink and wash and flush our toilets is thanks to these machines, and to the men who built them.

Facing recently built riverside flats and the slow moving sludge of traffic on the A315, the museum is a throwback to an age when industry made Britain rich and powerful. It’s something of a throwback in other ways too. It’s the sort of museum I used to visit in my boyhood in the 1970s. There’s not a screen in sight, just pasteboard displays with informative drawings and densely typed text. The shop is housed in a prefab in the car park, and sells single finger Kit Kats and popular social histories of World War Two. The cafe offers homemade sandwiches and flapjacks, and advertises its soft drinks with emptied cans of the half dozen brands on sale. On the fridge there’s an exhortation not to open it or take anything out of it. When I suggest to the woman serving that this might interfere with the core functions of a fridge, she tells me it’s there to stop the other volunteers helping themselves.

The key is there: volunteers. This is a museum which is curated and administered with the sort of love that money can’t buy. You feel it wherever you go. That more than anything is what won me over, for all my resistance to things mechanical. When it reopens in March, I fear I might miss the engaging amateurism of its old incarnation, but I’ve got a year’s membership, and I’ll be back.

Thursday, January 2, 2014


The first time I realised I was a Public Enemy was one evening in April 2012 in a civic centre in Isleworth. I was dutifully attending a public meeting with Ken Livingstone, desperately trying to snatch back City Hall from Boris Johnson. Question time came round. I wanted Ken to look good, so I thought I'd bowl him a slow full toss.

'What will you do to help cyclists?' 

I might as well have asked him 'What will you do to help criminals?' Heads jerked round; eyebrows shot up; glances were thrown. Then they started. 'They go through red lights.' 'They ride on the pavement.' 'They don't look where they're going.' All (sometimes) true; all wrong. Next came the madder complaints. 'They take up space on the road.' (Cars don't?) 'They don't pay road tax' (Actually Vehicle Excise Duty, payable only by vehicles which produce emissions.) 'They slow down traffic in Richmond Park.' (Where there is a 20 mph speed limit). 

My naivety was to think that cyclists were gentle, unassuming, herbivore people who sacrificed the warmth and dryness of a car in the cause of making London a cleaner, safer place and reducing their burden on the NHS. Not in London; not these days. Armed neutrality between motorists and cyclists is the best you can hope for. Ken, ever the careful politician, picked up on the mood of the room and fashioned a careful response that left the stigmatisers' righteousness untouched. Now Boris, stepfather of the Boris Bikes, is blaming cyclists who wear headphones for HGV deaths

It's an old one, repeated throughout history: take a group that's weak, find an example of bad behaviour by one or more of them, and win the approval of the fearful strong by generalising it with the simple addition of the third person plural. 'They all ... [insert complaint] ... so we needn't feel bad about maintaining our advantage over them.'

Tensions have got worse since cycling got cool in London. The number of cycle journeys doubled between 2000 and 2008, and has doubled again since. 
Bella Bathurst, in her brilliant The Bicycle Book, casts a deservedly mordant eye over what she calls the Serious Men, who text each other photos of derailleurs, earnestly debate the pros and cons of fixies over double espressos in Hackney cafes, and arrive at work 'gleaming with sweat and self-satisfaction'. I've done it myself (actually, only the last one.) Iain Sinclair, in a snarky but revealing essay in the London Review of Books, argues that the bicycle, once the escape route of the working class, is now the badge of a smug metropolitan elite. How many cyclists can't afford cars?

And yet ... Bella Bathurst also writes about souplesse, the sheer untrammeled joy of riding a bike. If I go too long without getting on my bike, I get itchy. Almost all my best ideas have either arrived or been perfected on the saddle. And the simple material facts remain: no matter how badly cyclists behave, they pollute less, take up less space, demand less infrastructure and kill fewer people than cars. 

Sometimes it's just a numbers game. When I was at school, there was one Asian boy out of a hundred in the year, and racism was endemic. When I went back to teach there eight years later, Asian boys were one in five, and racism had gone. The more people cycle in London, the better they will have to treat us. So get on your bike.


One of the many things I love about London is that it smells of history. Every building, every street, every park carries with it the whiff of the past. And not only the wheeling and dealing of the powerful, but also the comings and goings of ordinary people. I love to imagine what a place has meant to everyone who passed through it; what were their stories? What were their lives when they were here? What did this place mean to them? 

A place that means a lot to me is the Brompton Oratory (strictly, the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary) in South Kensington. Its vast, overpowering neo-classical facade is topped by a statue of Our Lady and it has the assertive confidence of St Peter's in Rome, albeit on a smaller scale. Sitting between the high culture of a clutch of still gloriously free museums and the high spending of Harrods, it is both a central part of this area of London and also oddly detached from it. In this it is very like the Catholic Church in England; part of the air everyone breathed for a thousand years, then a threat to the state, now a marginal oddity with a vague whiff of the foreign. 

That foreignness continues inside. You step out of the chill winds of a London pavement into Italy. It is unapologetically, brazenly baroque, bursting with drama and emotion and heaviness. The half dozen side chapels host statues of saints contorted with pain, love and yearning, illuminated by flickering candles. The Virgin Mary rules over the biggest side chapel, aloof like a Duchess, changing her dress with the liturgical colour of the season. Confessionals are everywhere, stern and wooden, unyielding in their disapproval of sin but also unfailingly safe receptacles for its forgetting. The interior is always in shadows, whatever the weather, whatever the time of year; though startling shafts of light blast down from the cupola. It really is utterly unEnglish, though it was founded by an Englishman, (Cardinal Newman, beatified by Pope Benedict XVI on his visit to England in 2010). It seems like it's been here forever, but it was only opened in 1884. Being in South Kensington, it's a notoriously society church, with a random clutch of celebrity congregants (the composer Edward Elgar, the director Alfred Hitchcock and the racing driver James Hunt were all married here). and yet come to Sunday Mass and there are, as befits a London church, people from all round the world, and every income bracket.

And I love it. It breathes the prayers of the thousands who have passed through it. The other day I snatched ten minutes inside on the way to a family trip to the V & A while my wife tried (unsuccessfully) to return a vase to Skandia across the road. I had someone to pray for who wasn't well. I lit a candle in front of the altar of the Sacred Heart - Jesus baring his heart, opening Himself to us. And for that ten minutes I felt at home. It was (it always is) like sharing a hug or a smile or a joke with someone I loved; nothing much in itself, but immensely strengthening.

Cor ad cor loquitur is the motto of the Oratorians; heart shall speak unto heart. Catholicism is fundamentally a religion of the heart, of the emotions, of the senses. It's ultimately as pointless to debate its rights and wrongs with someone outside the church as it is to say why you married this person and not that, why you love your children, why this person understands you and that one doesn't. But it's also a religion of history; part of what makes me feel safe in a Catholic church is the two thousand years of tradition, enfolding me like a vast extended family. History can kill, when it flares up as unforgiven grudges. But it can also give the present depth and texture and solidity. Next time you're in South Ken, step inside the Oratory, and step into two thousand years of Western culture.