Mark Wilkins

My Lon­don

The London Magazine - - NEWS -

Mark Wilkins is a for­mer Lon­don-based mu­sic/tech lawyer and au­thor who moved to South­ern Eu­rope nearly two decades ago. The Dream has never paled but this some­times re­luc­tant ex­pat needs a hit of metropoli­tan life. This is the twenty-fifth ar­ti­cle in our reg­u­lar se­ries of “My Lon­don”.

Ar­riv­ing in Lon­don in late Septem­ber 1977 to start a law de­gree course, I fell ir­re­triev­ably in love with Lon­don, re­plete with equal mea­sures of en­ergy, di­ver­sity and op­por­tu­nity.

It would be easy to ex­plain Lon­don’s ap­peal as be­ing purely ar­chi­tec­tural; the pale ochre of the Lon­don Stock, the white of the stucco por­ti­cos, acres of sky reach­ing tough­ened glass and the vast parks, but it is so much more. Short­hand for the con­nec­tion that I feel to the Spirit of this great city, where you can be as gre­gar­i­ous or as anony­mous as you choose, is Home.

My ear­li­est ex­pe­ri­ences of Lon­don were largely of a re­tail na­ture. A dear grand­mother had im­pla­ca­ble cus­tomer loy­alty to Har­rods, the then sup­plier of do­mes­tic­ity to the up­per-mid­dle classes and to Ga­m­ages; a lump of a depart­ment store on Hol­born Cir­cus, next to the Pru­den­tial Build­ing. It closed in 1972 six years prior to its cen­te­nary. Famed, through the eyes of a child, for its Christ­mas Bazaar, a cap­ti­vat­ing drain­pipe pneu­matic pay­ment/change sys­tem, con­nect­ing the cash desks to the Count­ing House and a renowned Pet Depart­ment from where Rud­yard Ki­pling fondly re­mem­bered buy­ing a gold fish. He re­called ‘A stern woman…… who said she liked Natur’ l ‘ist’ry’ ( The Let­ters of Rud­yard Ki­pling 1920-30).

In the mid 1970s, with my Dad and a school pal, Petrol Heads all, I would board a grimy diesel to Eus­ton and then to Earl’s Court for the Mo­tor Show. A heady dis­play of ev­ery­thing beau­ti­ful on four wheels, where we would dream of driv­ing the Ger­man and Ital­ian sports cars as pre­sented by girls in

biki­nis with red leather boots.

For over thirty years, Lon­don was the back­drop to most sig­nif­i­cant events of my life but it was rarely the same hue of Lon­don. Ev­ery ten years or so my life would sig­nif­i­cantly evolve and Lon­don’s role in my drama­tis per­sonae would be com­pelling though dif­fer­ent.

Richard Church, in his turn of the twen­ti­eth-cen­tury novel Over The Bridge, tells of a young Black­heath lad cross­ing the Thames to work in the City. This other Lon­don, so at odds with that of his child­hood, had the most pro­found im­pact. My col­lege in Moor­gate had much the same ef­fect on me. It was pre-Big Bang, and the streets ad­ja­cent to Thread­nee­dle Street were pop­u­lated by lugubri­ous Stock­bro­kers and job­bers in silk hats with furled um­brel­las shar­ing gos­sip prior to the con­clu­sion of a day’s trad­ing be­fore re­pair­ing for lunch at Sweet­ing’s.

The City of the late 1970s ex­uded the air of a party to which I hadn’t re­ceived an in­vi­ta­tion. The tribes of Lon­don have al­ways fas­ci­nated me, but this un­bear­ably smug and over-priv­i­leged clan helped me steer clear of a ca­reer in the City of Lon­don. The in­ex­orable rise of the ‘trader’ in a later era, when greed was good, came as lit­tle sur­prise.

Col­lege years were spent in var­i­ous of Lon­don’s vil­lages: a Six­ties tower block off Up­per Street in Is­ling­ton that stank of urine, muz­zled dogs and cannabis; Ben Jon­son House in the Bar­bican, a Mod­ernist refuge in the an­cient heart of the City; a Lam­beth Coun­cil man­sion flat in Vaux­hall close to the Di­vi­sion Bell de­sir­abil­ity of the Al­bert Square; a ‘grace and favour’ apart­ment on Maryle­bone High Street and a stun­ning flat on Prince of Wales Drive in Bat­tersea, owned by an art dealer, that over­looked the Park and marked the ever chang­ing tableaux of sea­sons.

Is­ling­ton is the fur­thest North that I’ve lived in Lon­don. My par­ents hailed from Hert­ford­shire so, as kids, we’d of­ten travel into Lon­don by car through Bar­net, Hen­don and Finch­ley. I didn’t warm to th­ese cur­tain-twitch­ing sub­urbs that Bet­je­man chris­tened ‘Metro-land’ as used to great

satir­i­cal ef­fect by Eve­lyn Waugh in De­cline and Fall.

Study­ing for the Bar in Lin­coln’s Inn re­minded me of a board­ing school I er­ro­neously hadn’t wanted to at­tend. Up wide stone steps to the cav­ernous but wel­com­ing Grand Hall, a pot­pourri of An­ti­quax, claret and smoked mack­erel paté. Dur­ing the Le­gal Terms, as pupil Bar­ris­ters, we were obliged to dine reg­u­larly. The cel­lars were for­mi­da­ble and we all drank far too much with the ami­able Benchers, in­clud­ing sev­eral Lords of Ap­peal, who to our mock-shock shared their wildly in­dis­creet views on life and so­ci­ety.

Fol­low­ing grad­u­a­tion my early years of work were as an in-house lawyer for mu­sic com­pa­nies in the West End. Day­times com­prised com­plet­ing rather dull pa­per­work in pent­house of­fices in May­fair in­ter­spersed by meet­ings with ex­tra­or­di­nary mu­si­cal tal­ents in­clud­ing Ge­orge Michael, Paul Weller, Billy Bragg and their rep­re­sen­ta­tives. By con­trast, evenings of­ten meant head­ing to lo­ca­tions in Soho, such as The Mar­quee, where doyens of the mu­sic busi­ness on bar stools would retell much of their fas­ci­nat­ing his­tory on a nightly ba­sis to those who’d stand their round. As­pir­ing record­ing artists, hav­ing scrib­bled their names and ob­scene graf­fiti on the walls of the dress­ing room, played their sweaty hearts out, all too of­ten to re­ceive a neg­a­tive re­sponse from a record com­pany’s A&R man.

The floor was sticky with spilt beer and the walls yel­lowed with nico­tine but the role played by th­ese venues in the Post Punk mid-1980s was cru­cial. Ten years later John Niven’s BritPop based Kill Your Friends ac­cu­rately re­told much of a sim­i­lar tale of the Lon­don’s mu­sic busi­ness and its seedy char­ac­ters.

At this time I was liv­ing in the ru­ral idyll of North Ac­ton, a home to the BBC’s pro­duc­tion and re­hearsal stu­dios on a slip-road off the West­way. Its prox­im­ity to a Cen­tral Line tube – which emerges above ground af­ter the White City – was a key sell­ing fea­ture and I had re­cently pur­chased a con­verted ground floor gar­den stu­dio flat that backed onto the rail­way. This flat be­came my base for the next cou­ple of years un­til it be­came clear that

my so­cial life had moved South of the River and so should I.

On Christ­mas Eve 1991 for­tune smiled when the con­cert pi­anist seek­ing to buy a large flat over­look­ing Clapham Com­mon Northside pulled out due to ‘mort­gage is­sues’. I had seen the flat ear­lier in the year, loved it and jumped at the chance to buy it. It ne­ces­si­tated a quick sale in Ac­ton, which I man­aged to get.

SW4 was largely an un­known part of Lon­don but sev­eral con­tem­po­raries from Col­lege and work had moved to the area over the last few years. I had re­cently been made a part­ner in a niche May­fair law prac­tice that faced the Hard Rock Café’s mer­chan­dise shop and needed a change of scenery.

I was de­lighted to al­low Lon­don to re­veal yet an­other of its many faces. Lime-tree lined streets, 220 acres of open com­mon land, the hugely re­li­able No.137 bus route and the odd highly vo­cal day­time Kestrel drinker by the swings. The his­toric home to Kings­ley Amis and Graham Greene, per­haps, but this in­creas­ingly gen­tri­fied bor­ough couldn’t have been fur­ther from the lives re­counted in the slums of Clapham/Bat­tersea in Nell Dunn’s Up the Junc­tion.

The mag­nif­i­cent pa­rade of Ed­war­dian build­ings stood sen­try over the Com­mon and my flat, on the raised ground floor, had a front row seat for the un­fold­ing day and night-time dra­mas. We also had cool neigh­bours in Ja­son Fle­myng (of Lock Stock and Two Smok­ing Bar­rels) and his then girl­friend, Lena Headey, now best known for her role as Cer­sei Lan­nis­ter in the US TV se­ries Game of Thrones.

In 1993, I met my wife – in Sel­fridges. We lived very hap­pily in our flat be­fore be­ing joined by the first of three chil­dren. All were born at Chelsea and West­min­ster Hos­pi­tal on the Ful­ham Road, which had re­placed the gothic St Stephen’s Hos­pi­tal and vir­tu­ally over­looked the hal­lowed turf of Stam­ford Bridge.

With par­ent­hood yet more Lon­don was re­vealed, the aptly named ‘Nappy

Val­ley’ that bor­dered Wandsworth and Clapham Com­mons. Hav­ing sadly out­grown our flat we found a beau­ti­ful Vic­to­rian villa in a side road off North­cote Road, famed for its mar­ket. It had been di­vided into two flats that we re­fur­bished into a home full of love, hap­pi­ness and Spaniels.

In the early noughties we moved away from Lon­don, but re­turn fre­quently to a fam­ily home in South Kens­ing­ton. SW7 has lost none of its al­lure and con­tin­ues to be a cel­e­bra­tion of cul­tural di­ver­sity. I of­ten re­mind our chil­dren that the post­card im­ages of the South Kens­ing­ton tube sta­tion in the late 1970s were real. Sugar-stranded punks in lu­mi­nous tar­tan con­gre­gated on the King’s Road – which wasn’t yet then the home of hedge fund ex­ec­u­tives – and bizarrely, they hap­pily co-ex­isted with Her­mes scar­fwear­ing ladies, whose boyfriends drove green MGB’s in brown cor­duroys.

Lon­don will al­ways change, re­fresh and de­velop to be­come some­one else’s vi­brant stage but My Lon­don is still mine.

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