It was the telephone boxes that I appreciated the most when I came back to London after years of living abroad. Reassuring in their ubiquity, something about the way their bright red, slender facades stood out from the grey backdrop reminded me of that very British eccentricity that’s so particular to our weird little island. It wasn’t something I’d paid much attention to prior to moving away. Now I notice them every day.
Everyone has their own version of London. Whether you’ve lived here your whole life or you’re just visiting, we all experience a different side of the city. So when the illustrator Carlo Stanga takes us on a trip through its streets, parks, bridges and buildings, I seize it as a thrilling opportunity to abandon the predictability of my usual commute and view the familiar through a different lens.
I Am London is a beautifully illustrated publication that allows London’s unique personality to unfold across its pages. Stanga zooms in on the many architectural styles that pepper its horizon through intricate drawings and affecting narration. From the “odd shapes” of the City’s modern skyscrapers to the defiant monuments to Brutalism that is the Barbican in the east and Trellick Tower to the west, he recreates the peculiarities of their forms and facades with equal devotion.
But it wouldn’t be a true portrait of London if we didn’t step back a little further in time. Often dwarfed by newer structures or obscured by the bright lights of yet another gourmet burger joint, London’s truest architectural gems have stood their ground for centuries. Stanga draws attention to St Bride’s church in Fleet Street, whose multi-layered tapering spire is said to have inspired the invention of the wedding cake in 1703. Then there’s the Monument. Designed by Christopher Wren in memory of the Great Fire of 1666, it is the tallest free-standing column in the world at 60 metres. But even if you knew that (I certainly didn’t, and I’ve climbed to the top), you may not know that this also happens to be the exact distance from the bakery that started the devastating fire.
Stanga continues with the enormous footprint left behind by the Victorians. The neo-Gothic style of Tower Bridge and the Houses of Parliament is diligently inked onto the page line by line, while Albert Hall is recreated in a vivid watercolour, underlining its cultural significance to the city.
With each turn of the page, I am drawn in even closer by Stanga’s version of London’s story. I realise I don’t know how many times I’ve passed through Covent Garden or St Pancras without a thought spared for the historical significance or hidden design details of a place. Ever the typical Londoner, I’m much more likely to rush through these intersections desperately avoiding eye contact. A British Council study recently found that the average London walking speed was faster than in Cardiff, Edinburgh and Belfast. So after years of marching from A to B, I find myself slowing down to take in the view in my own backyard.
We meander through Edwardian Baroque, mock Tudor and Georgian houses. We go underground for a ride on the tube before finding a perch and watching the crowds in Trafalgar Square (did you ever notice that Nelson’s right arm is missing?). We go for a pint in Soho, pick up a bargain at Portobello Market, and somewhere along the way we spot David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust dressed in his iconic jumpsuit, waiting to cross the road. I won’t tell you where that particular Easter Egg is hidden; you’ll have to look for it yourself.
As post-Brexit anxiety grows stronger by the day, Londoners wonder what will become of our city. I Am London gives us back a voice. It reminds us of the many trying moments in its history that it stood up to and held its own. It paints a picture of its bright future. It turns our gaze away from our flat whites and towards all the weird and wonderful characters we share a postcode with. And it shows us what, or who, London is today: a beautiful melting pot of concrete, steel and telephone boxes that are always on the move.
“I could tell you a thousand other things. I’m a city brimming with such enthusiasm, history, great wonders and resources that I could talk forever. I’m capable of the deepest loyalty to my traditions, and at the same time, I propel myself into the future like no other. This is why I would like to conclude my narrative by evoking once more one of my classic symbols, the telephone box, now sadly obsolete and overtaken by the mobile phone, but reimagined in a thousand different ways, some of them truly ingenious: an urban rest stop, an emergency office equipped with an internet connection, a printer and coffee machine, a shower cubicle, an aquarium…
This, as with so many of my iconic features, is not merely an aesthetic symbol but an expression of innovation, creativity and endless versatility, which sums me up in history and in the present, and will still be true of me in the future.”
The Book I am London is available here.