Shining as never before, this indomitable city has unveiled new treasures in its South Bank and East End neighborhoods.
"What’s that one, Mum?" The little girl’s mother, dressed in black gloves and a crisp salt-and-pepper tweed coat, bent low toward the child and then, in a confiding lullaby, read the label on the box behind the glass museum case. "Animal bones with butchering marks," she said.
The little girl was silent, philosophically so, for a moment; and she looked up again through the knees gathered that afternoon at London’s Tate Modern museum. "And those ones, Mum?"
We were looking at almost two millennia worth of artifacts that artist Mark Dion had dug up on the banks of the Thames just before the museum opened in 2000.
"Well," the mother said, "there are bits of blood and stone, and pieces of pottery and bottle caps and old marbles and . . . "
The words sang like a paean to today’s London. The so-called Gray City has reinvented itself again, this time dredging up an ancient earthiness—the "pith and marrow" that inspired Shakespeare—to coexist with a nimble postmodernist chic in one of the world’s most sophisticated metropolises.
Even after last summer’s terrorist bombings, London remains an unfathomably vibrant city in which every street corner offers up a small carnival. You might find an immigrant from Ukraine playing the guitar on one corner; on another, an old man selling chestnuts: Get ’em while they’re ’ot. The city now thrives most, though, in an area fronting the south bank of the Thames. Over the past decade, the neighboring South Bank and Bankside districts have been transformed from decrepit industrial zones into a cultural center.
The former Bankside Power Station, a massive brick electrical plant, is now the Tate Modern, where you can take in the work of Matisse and Rothko, Monet and Warhol amid rough concrete pillars. A few blocks away, there’s an 8-year-old theater—an exact replica of the one that stood there four centuries earlier when Shakespeare’s acting troupe trod the boards. The Globe is an open-air venue built of small Tudor bricks, hulking oak beams, and lime plaster sprinkled with goat hair. Actors perform the works of Shakespeare here from May to September. When I was in London for a recent long weekend, I took a tour of the Globe, and the guide noted that nowadays heckling is encouraged at the dramas staged. "In Shakespeare’s time," she explained with relish, "many people got drunk at the theater."
Those vile hooligans wouldn’t appreciate the marvel of architecture that stands outside today’s Globe. The Millennium Bridge, built for pedestrians only, spans the Thames with but a thin ribbon of steel suspended by cables strung just seven feet above the deck. The structure is visually streamlined, and standing atop it, with the water streaming under my feet, I fixed on another gossamer sight: The London Eye, the biggest Ferris wheel in the world, is here in South Bank. Its glass cars look like giant bubbles, and as I watched them circle the sky with a magisterial slowness, I was struck by how thoroughly the sight defied the visions of London I’d honed after living here once, in my college years, and after reading many books. The grime and soot of Dickens? Not here. This was all too fanciful, too sublime.
Until I was yanked earthward again by some words carved on a pedestrian tunnel that cut along the riverbank. "Behold the liquid Thames, now frozen o’er," read the inscription, dating from 1740. "Here you may see beef roasted on the spit. And for your money, you may taste a bit."
The prospect was mouthwatering. I walked on a few minutes, into the cobblestoned shadows of London Bridge, and then opted, instead, to lunch at a diner called Fish. Set in a sleek, all-glass building looking out onto bustling Borough Market, Fish is at once classic, informal, and highly enlightened. Almost none of the seafood here is farm raised; it comes, rather, from sustainable ocean stocks. I ordered sea bass, caught two days before off the Greek coast, and some chips and washed it all down with a Bishop’s Bitter.
I needed the sustenance, for soon I was walking again, this time over the London Bridge to Whitechapel and on through the East End. Once the stomping ground of Jack the Ripper, the area has long been associated with pickpockets and Cockney accents. Of late, though, several art galleries have sprung up on the modest backstreets.
I happened into a tiny photo gallery, Trolley, that was showing the works of Italian Fabio Paleari. Paleari had spent years photographing a legendary family of tattoo artists, the Leus, on the Spanish isle of Ibiza. His oversize pictures were black and white, in a faded organic way, and they were both outré and calm: The wrinkled skin and fading tattoos of the older family members mingled naturally with the vines and heat of the Ibiza woodlands.
As I looked at the photographs, a visitor clad all in black sat at a table in the back room, wolfing down chicken. It turned out to be Paleari himself. He and I eyed a loose pile of photos that sat atop a shopping cart spray-painted gold. His prints.
"How much are these?" I was thinking "souvenir."
"I think one thousand pound each," Paleari said.
"Oh," I said. "I see."
But almost everything in London is shockingly expensive. Lodging typically runs well over £100 ($180) a night, so I stayed in one of the myriad low-budget guesthouses near King’s Cross train station. At just £35 ($65), breakfast included, the Alhambra Hotel was clean and sufficiently charming. It was a couple of miles north of the Thames and just a short cab ride to more old-school attractions, such as the British Museum and Buckingham Palace.
The buildings around the palace are old and venerable. On Sunday morning, I slid into the back pew of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, a high-steepled Anglican church opened in 1726, and listened to the pealing bells and then to a tranquil lector who explicated the scripture in tones so mellifluous that I found myself thanking the heavens above for the diction of the British upper class. "We have," he said, "just seen our Lord transform a prodigious amount of water into first-class wine."
After the service, I strolled around a single turn and found—ta da!—Trafalgar Square, with its iconic statue of Lord Nelson flocked, as ever, by pigeons. Down the hill, I heard the slow, rhythmic pounding of drums. I followed the sound into St. James’s Park. The English Civil War Society was reenacting, in period dress, the 1649 hanging of Charles I. "We’re marching to the scaffold," one cavalier told me, poker-faced.
Boom, boom, boom. The beat was still with me, hours later, when I took my table at a posh and vaguely loungy central London restaurant called the Ivy. Dimly lit, with stained-glass windows and white tablecloths, the Ivy serves British comfort food, and it appeals to all ages: Beside me, a young fellow was dining with a very old lady. "I’m her boy toy," the man told me. Actually, Hamish Urquhart, who deals in antique floorboards, was treating his grandmother to a night out at her favorite restaurant.
"I came here as a young woman with my father," Nora McMurtie said. "During the war, you know."
"You, uh, you were eating here during the Blitz?" I asked, obtusely.
"Apparently not," she said.
My dinner arrived: blackface mutton and turnip pie. Nearby, another diner, surrounded by lovely young sylphs wearing evening gowns, rolled his head back and chortled.
"You come to the Ivy to see who’s here," Mrs. McMurtie said. "I’ve seen Katharine Hepburn and Bob Geldof. Even the Queen’s been here. It’s not fancy—it’s cozy."
The man at the other table laughed again, uproariously, and then I dug into my meal.
On my last night, I returned to South Bank to attend the National Theatre. In 2003, it hired a new artistic director, Nicholas Hytner, who vowed to shake up staid sensibilities. He has since staged several daring productions, including a modern-dress version of Henry V and Jerry Springer: The Opera, a musical that puts security guards in the audience to ward off fistfights.
The play I saw, Fix Up, focused on an aging, dreadlocked black activist, Brother Kiyi, who runs a radical bookstore in north London. At first, the production struck me as thin, polemical. Gradually, though, I was won over. I was moved each time the stage went dark and a quartet of singers, seated in a small upper bower, underscored the drama with a soulful song. I began to believe in Brother Kiyi’s dusty bookstore and its high, cluttered piles of political tracts. Here again was a new London, a city I’d never known. Just how many cities were there, here by the Thames?
As I filed out of the theater, I fell into conversation with Asi, a college student home on break from her studies in Scotland. "I always miss London," she said. "I like Notting Hill, where Kate Moss shops in the boutiques, and I like the cathedrals and also Brick Lane, where there are so many Indian restaurants along the bumpy old streets."
Asi and I walked along the riverbank and then climbed the stairs onto Westminster Bridge. Soon we were out over the Thames, where the lights from the buildings sparkled down onto the dark water. It was the last time I would see the city before heading home. "London is always changing," Asi said, as we stepped along toward the train station. "It’s new every time. This is the one city in the world where you can always get lost."
Photography by Alison Wright
This article was first published in November 2005. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.