Down in the tube station at midnight... (THE CLASH)
“Earth has not anything to show more fair,” said William Wordsworth, struck by the city's beauty first thing in the morning. Bookpacking likes to think he’d just pulled an all-nighter with a roomful of rakes at a Hellfire Club and was making his lairy way back home. He might not have had to contend with ‘hoodies’ or Boris Johnson’s ban on tube boozing, but down the centuries it’s been going off in London Town.
From the Roman wall at Tower Hill to the old naval college at Greenwich – overlooked by London’s own Wall Street in the shape of the glass and steel towers of Canary Wharf – this city’s got a lived-in face and every wrinkle tells a story. Wander the alleys that inspired Dickens on his midnight rambles, imagine the boats lying up on the estuary a la Heart of Darkness, or sip a Belgian beer in the pub where De Gaulle had digs during the WW2 as the Blitz raged and hundred-bomber formations pummeled the docks in the East End.
yourself right up to date by indulging in the modern London pastime of
counting the cameras. Not for nothing is this said to be one of the
most heavily-surveilled cities in the world. So make sure you smile.
Housmans is a tiny bastion of radicalism squeezed into the newly-corporate Kings Cross. Proudly labelling itself a “progressive” bookshop it’s a literary beacon for the peace-loving and the politicised. Iconic 1968 (see Paris) posters adorn the walls as you pick up latest indictment of disaster capitalism. They host regular events and this was pretty much the only place in the capital Naomi Klein stopped at, when she visited in 2008. Recent (Nov) appearances include John Sinclair from 60s/70s politico-rockers MC5. Manager Malcolm is a local institution and happy to chat about Surrealism, Situationism, or whatever 'ism you're into.
Afterwards, just up the road on York Way you can find the Lincoln Lounge* where you might stumble across a book club having its meeting, some locals chilling, or the more adventurous businessman who’s looked a bit further for that ‘killing time’ pint before the Flying Scotsman departs. Currently (winter 08) Wednesday nights see the resident acoustic duo soulfully reworking classic pop tunes to put a mellow spin on some of your favourite songs. *find 'em on Facebook
Whilst not on a par with Berlin in terms of modern-day decadence, there are a few cool places to hang out if you sniff around. Scooterworks on Lower Marsh (near Waterloo Station) is a great place to read the paper while background jazz soothes you. It avoids the pretension of some Hoxton contemporaries, and if you want the toilet you have to go behind the toilet (like Camacho in Madrid).
Life is a cabaret...
A resurgence in the spoken word scene means that there are some great nights to be had in the city that never sleeps – or at least not without a good drink beforehand. Poetry and music make beautiful bedfellows and come together at 'happenings' such as 14 Hour* or the fledgling Trespass Magazine* launch nights. Visit metaroar.com and get subscribed to the FYI List; check the listings of Time Out; or the free papers Metro/London Lite/The London Paper come up with some surprisingly esoteric gems. *on MySpace
Get out there!
Nothing brings a city's history alive like a good guide. For the price of a couple of pints of beer you can tour along the Thames or sniff around Soho with excellent Blue Badge-led walking tours. There are even pub tours if you take your history hydrated. Hackney is the cutting edge art ghetto where you can see the young pretenders to the Banksy street art throne. Some of the galleries are tucked away but artist-guides will lead you around for a fiver from Fosterart at 20 Rivington Street.
Organic produce, decent coffee and exotic meats are available at Borough Market Thu-Sat. Beers of the world and beautiful burgers under girders and railway arches. Think California’s farmers markets, minus the sun.
The pub is a British institution and some of them date back hundreds of years; try a pint of real ale in East End Ripper-territory; on the river where the gunboats set sail to keep Empire; or in the Soho pubs where Bacon and Bernard found their muse.
In under an hour you can be on the beach in 'London by the sea'. The backdrop of film "Quadrophenia" and Graham Greene's classic "Brighton Rock", you can pick up French radio stations like NRJ in party-town Brighton. It's the closest we get to resorts of continental Europe. Lose yourself in the boutiques and quirky shops of the Lanes, scare yourself on a fairground ride on The Palace Pier, then retire to one of the many bars to watch the sun disappear behind the sad scaffolds of the ruined West Pier.
Time Out is comprehensive, though it can sometimes leave you feeling helpless before the tyranny of choice. Someone else has done all the sifting for you at sites like Flavorpill and Le Cool. See Not For Tourists for a guide book which doesn't pull its punches; and the chatty chaps at the Londonist.
If you're new in town and looking for cultural playmates (and it can be hard to meet people in head-down hurry-up London), sign-up with website My Cultural Life. You could end up hosting your own event.