"The charm of modern London is that it is not built to last; it is built to pass. [...] It is an impulse that makes for creation and fertility."
Virginia Woolf, The London Scene in Good Housekeeping, 1931.
So close and yet so far away! London and Paris: two cities, two philosophies, two very different lifestyles. Living under the spell of the French capital, it was hard for me to fathom living anywhere else. While traveling, I gravitated towards cities etangled with their past. I kept visiting Rome, Naples and Venice, each time more eager to unravel their layers of history and architecture. These cities possessed a larger-than-life essence that drew me in like a magnet.
Reluctant to scratch the surface, I kept procrastinating my visit. Fortunately, art made me finally cross the canal to explore an exhibition on French-born artist Louise Bourgeois. It turned out, my preconceptions were far from accurate.
The pulse of the world
The volume and pluralism of this city reveals itself immediately. On my very first day in London, I ventured to Oxford Circus. What a shock! This muscular amalgamation of vehicles, people and sounds breathed on a scale I had never witnessed before.
I lingered at the crossroads of Regent and Oxford streets, absorbing the excitement that quickened my heartbeat. Hundreds of people emerged from every cardinal point, forming buzzing swarms that would disperse moments later, making way for a new assembly of figures and faces.
“A perpetual ribbon of changing sights, sounds and movement”, Virginia Woolf once said, expressing her amazement when discovering Oxford Street some 80 years earlier. In a selected excerpt below, this modernist writer, raised in a home-school environment distant from the outside world, vividly described her initial ventures as an adult in the chaotic metropolis of the ‘30s.
Such a massive agglomeration of people and cultures is unparalleled by European standards. The tension and excitement electrifying the air have become integral to London’s identity; travel literature has penned some of its finest pages: German philosopher Friedrich Engels labeled the city “endless”; Sir Victor Sawdon Pritchett termed it “voracious.” For French diplomat Paul Morand, London is “an extraordinary listening post”; for 19th-century writer Heinrich Heine, it is “an agitated river of living human figures.” Their impressions are eloquently captured in “Babylondon,” an article dedicated to the vibrant chaos of the British capital.
City in motion
Have you ever noticed the scarcity of continental-style squares in London? This struck me as I searched for a bench to rest. While I found a couple of parks and a charming garden square, I bypassed them all. On that initial day of my visit, I craved every minute amidst the city vibes, and these green havens gave an impression of seclusion—close to the main arteries yet seemingly disconnected from the city.
This observation led me to ponder: with so little public space encouraging us to slow down and linger, is the city conveying a message? Could it be London’s historical duty as one of the oldest trade hubs, exemplifying that market leaders are here to produce, not idly gaze around? Has London evolved into what Peter Ackroyd termed “a city of clock-time and speed for its own sake,” leaving no room for occasional idling in the streets? Attempting to quell the conspiracy theories galloping through my mind, I recalled the words of Sir Victor Sawdon Pritchett. This polyglot traveler, whose impressions of London grace many of our articles, expressed intriguing thoughts on the topic:
“As for one Londoner meeting another in a public place outdoors, this appears to have difficulties. […] London has no Grande Place. Compared with continental cities, it is poorly provided with places for sitting outside for a chat whenever and wherever you please.
A few timid little coffee bars allow one to sit outside nowadays; but there is no stretch of tables on a wide pavement […]. After the fixation on property, privacy and order; […] after the guilty feeling that to sit down and just watch the crowd go by for an hour or so for the price of a beer or a cup of tea is idle, bad for trade and that in any case it is rude to stare – would you like people to stare at you? – after all these things, – there is the unanswerable climate. It will rain in a minute, and it takes a German Queen Victoria to like picnicking in the rain. […] No. Get inside, pay for your drink, finish it quickly. Be considerate, someone else may want the table – go. If you want to sit for hours, go to the parks. In the centre of London you have the largest and most beautiful parks in Europe.”
Cult of nature
And how beautiful they are. Accustomed to the artificial geometry of Parisian gardens, I was struck by the untamed freedom London parks exude. In Paris, where each tree adheres to a landscape plan, parks derive their beauty from human intervention; London parks captivate due to its absence. Their lush grass and vibrant green lawns transport me to the exotic rice fields of Bali, with fearless squirrels darting about, making visitors feel like intruders.
Few cities place nature at the heart of their citizens’ lives and mentalities as London does. Paul Morand’s observation holds true: “Parks connect London to history more deeply than buildings, because the latter disappear much faster than trees in this country characterized by a love and sense of nature.” Indeed, nature, not buildings, emerges as London’s most enduring landmark—the one that withstands the tests of time and wars.
In a city that grew without central planning, where buildings rose and fell based on the private considerations of noble landowners, London evolved into an architectural patchwork. Tudor, Regency, Victorian, Modernist, Brutalist, and other styles form a diverse architectural tapestry that finds solace in the city’s green lungs.
London’s parks also serve as equalizers, erasing any lingering cultural divisions from the Industrial Revolution. Traverse their lush grass, and the entire city unfolds before you: elegant joggers, avid readers, meticulous picnickers with charming hampers, young mothers strolling with their prams, amateur photographers, and digital nomads using their laptops as trays for lunch. In London’s parks, all city tribes unite under one flag—the Londoner’s enduring passion for nature.
The dynamic force of evolution
The final days of my visit were immersed in the splendor of the Victoria & Albert Museum, home to one of the world’s most opulent collections of applied and decorative arts. While marveling at a magnificent Persian carpet, a revelation struck me:
If Paris were a tapestry, distinguished for its craftsmanship and the skill of its upholsterer, London would be the discerning eye of the merchant who singled it out from a myriad of others; it would be the free spirit of the decorator seamlessly blendind it with different fabrics; finally, it would be the audacity of its user to replace it with something new and more fashionable.
In essence, certain cities are renowned for the objects they’ve created—a palazzo, a fountain, a boulevard—while others earn admiration for the creative process. Paris wouldn’t exude the same allure without Baron Haussmann and the grandeur of the 19th century, nor would Rome without Bernini and the theatrical Baroque era. Although visitors rightly appreciate Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s or John Nash’s Regent Street, these masterpieces might not be the lasting impressions they take from London. The city isn’t defined by the brilliance of a few minds; rather, it embodies the ingenious state of mind among its people—a spirit ceaselessly seeking new ideas, unafraid to wipe the slate clean and start anew. Virginia Woolf used to say that:
“The charm of modern London is that it is not built to last; it is built to pass. […] We knock down and rebuild as we expect to be knocked down and rebuilt. It is an impulse that makes for creation and fertility.”
Is it the city’s evolution into a multicultural metropolis that instilled a culture of embracing diverse, unconventional perspectives? Or perhaps, the entrepreneurial ethos compelling its residents to always seize opportunities first, pushing boundaries rather than drawing lines in the sand?
The undeniable truth is that London’s magnetic appeal lies in an ever-evolving equilibrium between its myriad diversities—social, cultural, political, and even architectural—and its intrinsic embrace of evolution.
Returning to Paris after that initial visit to London filled me with excitement, having finally experienced a city for more than its historical allure. While other places are confined within images dominated by their glorious pasts—Athens and Naples serving as typical examples—in London, one learns to value the power of evolution. The city’s inherent sense of progress, its invigorating inclination to “knock down and rebuild,” and the electric energy pulsating through its crowds become sources of excitement and motivation.
Delving into the socio-political context that shaped a city’s growth can unlock the key to understanding its identity. This becomes especially pertinent when trying to fathom why London and Paris, born with similar profiles and shared destinies, have evolved into distinct personalities. Paul Morand’s meticulous exploration of their parallel trajectories sheds light on how these two cities became each other’s alter-egos. His observations are both enlightening and enjoyable.
Every time I return to London, I affix a post-it with some of Morand’s notes on the back of my boarding card:
“London, or the anti-Paris. Born in the same era, their destinies diverged remarkably! London has groped its way along, resembling a vast blind beast that encounters no barriers; Paris had to deliberately dismantle, one by one, the fortified city walls that enclosed it. Paris is the barricade, and London is the social order. London is drenched with water, and Paris with blood. Paris is the bistro, and London is the private club. In London, things are beautiful because of people; in Paris, in spite of them. Paris is mistrust, and London is credit. Paris is the ability of reasoning, while London is the chance. The lights of these two cities shall never be confused.”
The cult of nature
Albert Camus named London the “city of gardens.” Amidst its ever-evolving cityscape, London’s magnificent parks remain timeless landmarks, shaping local culture and lifestyle.
Ladies & Gentlemen
What makes a gentleman? Is it his impeccable tweeds and composed talk? No, sir; it’s not just about the words he uses but how steadfastly he stands by them. A gentleman is a man of honor.