Earlier this autumn I changed job and I am now working from the City of London again where I worked for 7 years in the 2000s. This isn’t a “City” job – it’s just where the office is based – but after over a decade in a West London business park it’s amazing to be back in the commercial heart of our capital. Much has changed during my exile in Chiswick and a lot hasn’t changed: I am pleased to reassure Reaction subscribers that the insurance trade still keeps the pubs and restaurants of Leadenhall Market solvent and, even better, they all wear suits and ties while doing so.
In my previous incarnation, I was working at the Liverpool St end of London Wall; this time I am close to the Bank and the Mansion House. A move from the Edwardian City to the Victorian City; a change from Circuses and Avenues to Streets and Alleyways. It remains a thrill to wander past those traces of the old city from boundary markers to Livery Halls and fragments of Roman London to the ever over-looked Postmans’ Park. The old City is everywhere – as I head to Pret a Manger at lunchtime, I walk past St Clement’s Church of nursery rhyme fame and I get my morning flat white from a small coffee shop inside Hawksmoor’s St. Mary, Woolnoth where the anti-slavery campaigner John Newton was incumbent from 1780-1807.
But the City also remains relentlessly modern. In the evening, as I turn into the district line entrance of Cannon St station, I get a view of the lighted dome of St. Paul’s framed by the Bloomberg building and its new cousins. It’s a reminder of how the City has always managed change alongside stability: Tower 42 (the old Nat West Tower) and the Gherkin were, from memory, almost the only skyscrapers in town back in 2009. Now I look up and see a Mini-Manhattan of Cheesegraters and Walkie-Talkies. You’d have to have little in your soul to think that the post-war, battered City hasn’t been improved by these new additions which are a great deal more sympathetic than 1970s disgraces like BT’s Baynard House and the adjoining City of London School near Blackfriars. Even in post-Brexit times, the building continues apace with vast new edifices rising up on Bishopsgate.
I can’t help but wonder, however, if these buildings will ever be filled. For while some things haven’t changed, many things have: the City is empty on Mondays and Fridays. The 6pm tube home on Monday evening has room for thousands. Even the insurance boys prefer Zoom and four day weekends to struggling in for a five day week. In common with the rest of the City, they too are voting with their flexibly working feet, and when they do come in they moan continually about their commutes from their new homes in Brighton, Lewes and Deal. I am not sure all of them thought their lockdown house purchases through. It is possible that the pubs and clubs can make up for lost revenue on Mondays and Fridays through trade in the middle of week and believe me, City workers are doing their best: I am assured by my new colleagues that warm Wednesdays and Thursday nights in the summer and early autumn saw the City at its Bacchanalian best. Let’s hope so.
Beyond Leadenhall, I haven’t seen many suits and ties; the shirt shops are still there and still doing big business but a smart pair of chinos and an open-neck shirt passes for formal-wear these days. The large Waterstones on London Wall has sadly been built over but Daunts – thank god – has a shop on Cheapside. The best sushi in town – the belt at K10 on Copthall Avenue – has disappeared but Itsu is everywhere. Not everything has been replaced though: Searle & Co, the specialist silver sellers at the Royal Exchange, fell victim to Covid and a pawnbroker has taken the place of Ede & Ravenscroft on Bishopsgate. The bowling green in Finsbury Circus, which was removed for works by Crossrail, has not yet been replaced and my old office building is being refurbished yet again with dust and contractors in evidence everywhere.
However, as any City historian, from Michie to Kynaston, will tell you, change has always been at the core of the City’s success. When my father first joined the City in the early 1970s, it was a City of stiff collars, blue buttons and jobbers; today it’s a City of Bloomberg screens, compliance departments and button-down shirts but remains one of the world’s most successful financial centres. The City increased its financial services exports last year and the UK’s trade surplus in financial services remains higher than anywhere else. The City continues to be the European market leader for asset management, tech and innovation, investment in financial services and is still the world leader in foreign exchange. London’s advantages in time zone, language and culture are well known but, of course, it’s the people that make the difference. For all the change, there’s a bustle in the middle of the week as workers stream out of the 12 exits at Bank station that cannot be missed. I can promise you that if you stand at Mansion House at 8am on Wednesday morning and look down the streets around the Bank of England, you will see a City of London that is alive and well.
Write to us with your comments to be considered for publication at firstname.lastname@example.org