Prince Albert’s Mega-kitsch Memorial

Of course the damn thing is utterly absurd.

Every criticism of high victoriana – over-sentimental, over-decorated, over-elaborate to the point of fussy, over size – applies in spades. If it were half the size it would be laughable. And yet … it’s magnificent; utterly absurd, but magnificent.

This is the Albert Memorial, that sits in Hyde Park like a gothic Thunderbird 3 about to launch.

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St George’s Bloomsbury: the triumph of “the Devil’s Architect”

Find your way to the High Holborn entrance to the roof terrace of the new ‘Post Building’ (the former Royal Mail West Central District Office), navigate the security, ascend the lift to the ninth floor and you will be rewarded with a view of the rooftops of the West End.

Over to the east is St Paul’s and the City, south you can make out Parliament and the Eye, but it’s the sights north and close by that really impress.

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The Teenage Queen Victoria

If I say “Queen Victoria” I’m guessing that the picture in your head is of the late-age monarch, ‘we are not amused’-era, dressed in mourning black; the old, short, rotund, queen empress.

This version of the ‘old queen’ is perhaps most famously seen on Sir Thomas Brock’s Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace. Unveiled in 1911 by her grandson Geroge V with another grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, in attendance), she stares sternly down The Mall, the marble embodiment of the Empire that would last the ages (spoiler alert: it didn’t).

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St Mary’s Isn’t in the Way

One of the ways in which the city has been vastly improved over the past few years has been the claiming back of roadways into public (i.e. pedestrian) space.

Perhaps the first of these was Ken Livingstone’s reclamation of the road between Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, turning what had been a traffic island (albeit an historic traffic island) visited only by tourists and pigeons (and a thousand drunk londoners on New Year’s Eve) into an actual public space. It became somewhere one walks across rather than round, and a true centre to London, one where events from opera screenings to Diwali festivals attract large crowds.

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The Belgian Gratitude Memorial, Victoria Embankment

WHAT: The Anglo-Belgian Memorial

WHERE: Victoria Embankment (map)

BY WHOM: Victor Rousseau (and Reginald Blomfield)

WHEN: 1920

The casus belli for the British Empire’s declaration of war on 4 August 1914 was Germany’s violation of Belgian neutrality, the Imperial German forces enacting the Schlieffen Plan to (try to) sweep through Belgium and take the French armies in the flanks and the rear. Thus started World War One.

The resistance of “Plucky Little Belgium” and stories of atrocities committed by the invading troops fuelled anti-German feeling in Britain, but also made the country initially very welcoming to the 250,000 Belgian refugees who made their way across the channel.

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In Praise of Custard Tarts

If pushed to choose humankind’s greatest inventions, I’d probably put the wheel second, because head and shoulders above everything has to be custard.

Creamy, eggy, sweet – the base for ice cream, the heart of a good trifle, the yin to crumble’s yang – it is both luxurious and comforting. And think of its European variants: creme brulee, crema catalana, zabaglione and – the ultimate – the Portuguese custard tart, pastel de nata.

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The Mithraeum: The City of London’s Roman Temple


Under the Bloomberg European headquarters building in the City is the ‘London Mithraeum’, a glimpse into an obscure part of Roman London.

Obscure not just because many of the rituals of the cult/religion of Mithras are unknown to us – these rituals were communicated from initiates to novices by speech and example rather than being written – but also because Mithraic temples were underground, dark spaces emulating caves, where the mysteries of the cult were revealed.

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The Blue and Green Plaques of St James’s Place

St James’s Place, which cuts between St James’s Street and Green Park, has the modernist/brutalist Target House at one end, and the vast neo-classical pile of Spencer House overlooking the park at the other. It also has an interesting selection of blue (and other) plaques, demonstrating the range of famous residents that have occupied houses in the street.

First along the way at number 4 is the Polish composer and pianist Frederic Chopin who, in November 1848, “went to Guildhall to give his last public performance” – a recital for Polish emigres. Shortly after this a very ill Chopin returned to his home in Paris where he died in the autumn of the following year.

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Book Review | Public House: A Cultural and Social History of the London Pub

[This review was first published on The London Society website in February 2022]

As a London Blue Badge Guide I take Americans around London – the Tower, the Abbey, through the alleys and courts of the City, museums and galleries – all the internationally famous points of the capital. But I always encourage them to spend an evening in a pub, because it is there that you will see the real London – the colleagues having a couple of drinks before going home, the old friends meeting up, laughing and teasing each other, the couple on a date, the guy in the corner reading a book. You get the hustle and bustle of London: the noise, the joshing, the laughter. 

A good pub (and to steal a friend’s aphorism, any pub where you’ve just ordered your second drink is a good pub) has a mix of ages and classes, of men and women and others, separate groups but sharing a common experience. (Expressed better by Phin Harper at the end of this book, “in pubs the divergent lives of diverse citizens barrel into each other – mutually enriched through sharing space, architecture and company”.)

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Book Review | High Buildings, Low Morals by Rob Baker

[This review was first published on The London Society website in November 2017]

Fans of Rob Baker’s blog ‘Another Nickel in the Machine‘ and his earlier collection of tales of the West End of the 20th century, ‘Beautiful Idiots and Brilliant Lunatics‘ will not need any further recommendation to buy his new selection of stories of the characters – performers, club owners, crooks and hangers on – from London’s night life.

The title comes from a Noel Coward quote (and Coward is a recurrent visitor throughout the book) “I don’t know what London’s coming to – the higher the buildings, the lower the morals.” and provides a dozen cause celebres of the last century – huge stories in their time that filled acres of newsprint – which have now been completely forgotten.

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