There’s a great place to visit right in the middle of the traffic at Hyde Park Corner in London. A fine Georgian Mansion – Apsley House or, more colloquially, Number One London. The former home of the Duke of Wellington, who famously defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Waterloo 200 years ago last month, is open to the public from Wednesday to Sunday each week.
Housing one of the most stunning art exhibitions in the capital, including works by Velazquez and Rubens, this Grade I listed mansion is still, in part, used as a private residence by the current Duke of Wellington though the rest of the house is managed by English Heritage.
The bicentenary celebrations of the defeat of Napoleon on that field in Belgium, made famous again in 1974 by Abba with their Eurovision entry that year, brought to light a modern-day battle between the descendants of those 19th century warriors.
Jean-Christophe Napoleon Bonaparte and Arthur Wellesley, Marquess of Douro – and a direct descendant of the Iron Duke – fight in the financial markets for yield and profit as rival investment managers in London. Both represented their respective families at the commemorations held in June and N. Bonaparte rather startlingly revealed that his famous ancestor sought political asylum in London after Waterloo!
Although no end of people seems to want to come and live in the teaming metropolis of London, there have always been those happy to knock the city. Portuguese professor João Magueijo (of Imperial College) recently referred to local residents as “unrestrained wild beasts” while London resident New Yorker Hadley Freeman said London was uncool and way behind New York!
Now, in a new book about Roman Britain called Journey to Britannia, historical travel writer Bronwen Riley points out that back in those days Londinium was not a patch on Rome with its shabby wooden buildings and miserable public spaces. Despite this the place clearly had something to offer and in those early times it grew fast to become Britain’s largest city.
And somehow, to confound its detractors, this cultural melting pot has remained a population magnet for centuries, with a record 8.6 million now living in the capital. This is predicted to grow to 11 million by 2050 which seems likely when you look back just 25 years to find population around 30% lower than it is now.
Current Mayor Boris Johnson, champion of all things London, claims it is “the best big city on the planet”. The people meanwhile seem to be voting with their feet.
Ties … to wear one or not to wear one, that is the question … for men doing business in the City of London anyway. This July, the capital had its hottest day on record as temperatures soared to 37.4⁰C at Heathrow Airport.
Almost as shocking came news that the boss at Lloyd’s of London, Inga Beale, had allowed brokers on the Underwriting Floor to remove jackets and ties in the heat. For 327 years, the world’s leading insurance market has insisted that men (and it is still, sadly, overwhelmingly men who work there) should remain jacketed and tied in all weathers. Very British and correct, of course.
But, in fact, ties, they are a-changin’! Over recent years, your columnist has been monitoring the demise of the tie by carrying out a straw poll on the streets and in meetings. In five years, the numbers of tie-less have jumped dramatically from 40% to around 70%. And this is, come rain or shine, summer or winter. What will become of us all if we have to give up that weird bit of brightly coloured silk tied, mostly badly, around our increasingly stocky necks?
July 7, 2005 is a date that will live on in infamy. This was the terrible day when home-grown, radicalised, suicide bombers brought mayhem, carnage and death to the public transport system in London. Just the day before, London had been awarded the Olympic Games in 2012 and a seismic change from euphoria to grief swept the nation.
Sadly, the 10-year commemorations held in London were all the more poignant because 30 British holidaymakers had just been killed by a terrorist while soaking up the sun on a beach in Tunisia.
Prime Minister David Cameron led the tributes at the striking memorial to this terrible event in Hyde Park at a service attended by victims and their families. Also there were Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and former Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Perhaps the most moving thing on this 10th anniversary though was the indomitable spirit of Londoners. Everyone, from the bus drivers and train staff to policemen on duty and strangers walking along the street, seemed friendlier, more courteous and at one with each other. This is the ultimate weapon which will ensure the terrorists never win.
A young Londoner, Aaron Grant-Booker, summed up the spirit of London best on the day as “an international crossroads of diversity and ingenuity, tolerance and respect, challenge and opportunity”.
Thank goodness there are clearly just too many of us who care about each other and humanity generally.
By Richard Lamberth