Simon Jenkins

Simon Jenkins is a journalist and author who has written on London throughout his career. He is now chairman of the National Trust, while writing a column twice weekly for the Guardian and weekly for the London Evening Standard. He edited and contributed to the Times as well as writing for the Economist, Country Life and the Sunday Times. His books include works on London, the press and British politics.

60 years on

I can just recall visiting the Festival of Britain as a child. It was a damp, eerie place of enforced jollity and quaint national pride. We would now consider it rather eastern European. Yet gazing at the documentary images of the time, I find myself admiring the dignity with which a London largely frozen for half a century and blitzed in the war, was struggling to make peace with the future.

I remember my astonishment at seeing foreign camera crews in Carnaby Street and King’s Road, desperately seeking something outrageous.
Simon Jenkins on London in the Sixties

Two small boys leave their south London slum and walk quietly to the Tower of London (London - We Live By The River). Barges lie at anchor in the Thames, archaically awaiting a trade that would never return. Girls arrive from the provinces for the boom in clerical work, craving a vitality they seem unable to find (A Girl Comes To London). As the American, Ed Murrow remarks on revisiting the sites of his wartime experiences, Londoners at time of crisis "fly into a great calm". Over this calm echo the voices, as if from a great distance. Nothing better demonstrates London's class divide than the gulf between the pebble-in-mouth news announcers (First Year Flashbacks) and the raucous cries of market traders.

Then came the Sixties, an explosion of colour, music, style and classless bravado whose impact on London is hard to recapture. Smart commentators might talk of "swinging London... sinking giggling into the sea" but the Sixties brought an astonishing confidence to the metropolis. The mini-skirt, the mini car, the twist, the global prominence of the Beatles and Rolling Stones, even the odious property speculator, all marked an end to post-war gloom (Three Swings on a Pendulum). I remember my astonishment at seeing foreign camera crews in Carnaby Street and King’s Road, desperately seeking something outrageous. If economic renewal could have emerged from fashion and froth, London in the Sixties would have been made for life.

John Betjeman's hugely popular forays into Metroland and up the Edgware Road offered the city a deeper vision of itself, not just as a working capital but as a place with a past as well as a future, and one worth protecting. This was reflected in what became ceaseless battles, to save Euston, St Pancras, Whitehall, Parliament Square and Covent Garden from mass demolition. It is hard to imagine what today’s London would be like if these battles had been lost: except to visit London Wall in the City or Berlin's Alexanderplatz. Working class London was less fortunate. Swathes of terraced housing south of the river were demolished in favour of "system building", whose false utopianism contemporary film-makers capture well (I Love This Dirty Town).

Succeeding decades saw London rather pause and take stock. The fall of traditional industries, such as manufacturing and the docks, gave way to the rise of financial services (Inside Story: The Market). The new mercantilism took over from the old. It was a close-run thing. In the early 1980s Frankfurt, Paris and Brussels were all bidding to be financial capitals of Europe. A city of ravens, tawdry hotels and, as Clive James put it, "Margaret Rutherford beating Alastair Sim over the head with an umbrella" could well have gone into peripheral decline.

I have no doubt this did not happen because the Thatcher government broke the City of London banking oligopolies in the late-1980s and liberated London's labour market. It was due also to the capacity of the metropolis to offer newcomers a diversity (Who Are the Cockneys Now?) of what makes modern cities liveable. The films record gracious suburbs, a vigorous night-life (Soho), civilised taxis (Streetwise), noble parks (Man Alive's Hyde Park) and discreet royal pageantry (The Tower of London). For all its tribulations, London had by the end of the century fashioned itself as a city at peace with the new age. It was again the unquestioned capital of Europe.

June 2012

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