How did London become the first metropolis to disappear?

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Go to the City of London on a Sunday afternoon and you will find emptiness. Street after street of emptiness. Nobody comes to the City, London’s financial district, on a Sunday.

The irony of this is that the City IS London. The boundries of the City are the same that marked the Roman settlement of Londinium, established nearly 2000 years ago. The City is where London first started to breathe and grow and develop into the teaming metropolis that it has since become.

Under the modernist, brutalist layers of the Barbican Centre, lie not only Roman foundations, but Tudor foundations too. It was here, in the bustling Barbican of Tudor times, that Shakespeare lived, in Cripplegate, and wrote Hamlet.

The City is where Londoner’s endured the greatest calamities of the metropolis’s history. The Church of St-Giles-without-Cripplegate, which sits, preserved, within the concrete womb of the Barbican, survived not only the Great Fire of London in 1666, but also the Nazi bombs of the 1940’s, which obliterated the rest of the area.

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This church’s canny skill of self-preservation allowed not only Oliver Cromwell to marry at its altar, but also allowed Rick Wakeman to record The Six Wives of Henry VIII, in the church’s nave, a century later.

Today the population of London’s historic heart is just 8,000, out of an overall population of nearly nine million, a number that has stayed static for decades.

It is surprising that anyone still lives there at all, in this cavernous mass of offices and sandwich shops.

There are over forty Eats and Pret a Mangers within the Square Mile and there are probably more on the way. That is one to serve every 200 of the City’s population, which is quite a good ratio of sandwich coverage.

But, civilisation does cling on and people do live there in the penthouses that sit at the top of the ever taller office blocks and in the beautifully appointed apartments of the Barbican.

I once even met someone who lived in a converted flat in the spire of Christ Church Greyfriars, the bombed-out church at the top of Cheapside, which was left partly in ruins as a memorial to those who died in the Blitz.

This is, to say the least, one of the City’s more unusual desirable residences, sitting as it does above the grave of Isabella of France, the so called ‘She-Wolf’ and original femme fatal, who was married to Edward II.

The rise of global finance and the power of the City of London Corporation and Parliament’s reliance on it as the economic engine room of the country, led to the sanitisation of this very crucial slice of London’s history.

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The very centre of wider London, sits not in the City though, but under the statue of Charles I in front of Trafalgar Square. The statue of the beheaded King was torn down in the wake of the Civil War and the Roundheads ordered that it be melted down. The canny merchant who bought it though, buried the statue in his back garden and returned it to Charles II on his restoration in 1660.

It is from this spot that the accession of future Kings and Queens of England will be announced, but the monarch too, just like the workers in the City, is a commuter. For long periods of time Buckingham Palace is empty, turned over to millions of tourists, while the Queen reigns from Windsor or Balmoral or Sandringham.

Go to Chelsea or Kensington, or any of the more well healed inner suburbs of London and you will find emptiness too. Street after street of houses bought up by millionaires and billionaires, who use them once in a blue moon whenever they are in the city.

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Go to County Hall, the imposing building that sits opposite Parliament, the former home of the powerful and independent Greater London Council and you will find only fish. Tank after tank of tropical fish. It was converted by Margaret Thatcher into an aquarium in the 1980s.

Pretty soon you won’t even find Parliament in Parliament. The Commons and Lords are all set to move to allow a multi-billion pound restoration to take place.

The centre of London has been hollowed out and turned into a playground for bankers and tourists, while the real people, the lifeblood of the city, have been pushed further and further out into the endless outer suburbs.

The pulse of the city can now be found in its extremities rather than at its heart.

As Patrick Keiller, in his excellent 1994 documentary film, ‘London’ writes, ‘for Londoners, the City is obscured. Too thinly spread, too private for anyone to know. Its social life invisible, its government abolished, its institutions  at the discretion of either monarchy or state or the City, where at the historic centre there is nothing but a civic void, which fills and empties daily with armies of clerks and dealers, mostly citizens of other towns.

The true identity of London is in its absence. As a city it no longer exists. In this alone it is truly modern. London was the first metropolis to disappear.’

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