I’ve said many times that I don’t like living in London, a revelation that usually triggers surprised reactions by those I speak with. There are many reasons for my distaste for London: weather, prices, transportation, housing… But one is bigger than others, and the following picture is a very good example of it. Actually, it’s such a good example that I couldn’t resist the urge to talk about it. What this photo shows is Hammersmith station, on the Hammersmith & City line as seen up close by a member of the Hammersmith and Fulham forum.
Granted, it’s not a particularly flattering photo, but it serves my purpose, which is to show what’s there, or rather what was there.
You see, until a few months ago that Pret-à-Manger (whose name ought to be Crap-à-Manger given the quality of its products, and so I shall call it thereinafter) wasn’t there. To have your fix of plastic-wrapped manure at Crap-à-Manger you’d have had to cross the road, walk about 15 meters across a space euphemistically called ‘plaza’, and turn left. What was there, instead, was a barber shop.
That barber shop, Alexander’s had been there for about 100 years and, don’t get me wrong, it showed it. The décor was at that crucial stage where it cannot be considered vintage anymore and it wasn’t “period” yet. Photos of haircuts were faded and mildly repellent, including one that portrayed a very, very young Michael Owen. Not a single chair matched another.
But, still, it was a great place. In a city where a cut-and-blow-dry can cost up to £40 for gents, this barber shop charged less than a tenner for the whole lot, £12.50 if you wanted a shave thrown in for good measure. But cheapness wasn’t the only thing, for the main attraction was its staff. They had about 12 different guys working in there, but the core was made up by the ‘uncles’, a group of men in their fifties and sixties who had washed up on Britain’s beaches after Blighty decided that running an empire was too much effort and packed up. Ethnic Greeks from North Cyprus, Egyptian Christians, you name it.
They were joined by younger guys, some escaping Assad’s bombs in Syria, some the knives of the gangs infesting Acton’s council estates. Regardless of age or provenence, they all were a class act with the scissor and comb, and a great company as well. Because, you see, that’s the purpose of a barber shop, and don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
A barber shop has to be a place where the usual barriers fall down, a Chalmun’s Cantina without the sands and flying cars of Tatooine, a zona franca where the Anglo-Saxon manager talks to the Pakistani bus driver about how shit QPR’s been this year, and how lame Roy Hodgson’s knee excuse sounded when he quitted. The Hammersmith’s barber shop gave us all this.
Back in the day I was living in Shepherd’s Bush and once a month I used to go down there for a cut. If the weather favoured it, I stopped en route at the ice cream parlour for a cone – mango being the inevitable flavour – and then a good cut and some chat. Football, or politics if I happened to be in the hands of the Syrian fella. It was a place you could easily walk by and not notice, and many did; but for me, and for the many locals, it was the only chance to meet and talk to neighbours that we wouldn’t, otherwise, had never met.
Then I moved, and the barber shop slipped on the back of my mind, until today when I found it gone, replaced by yet another franchise. You might say that this is the face of progress, and that to survive in big cities you have to be like a shark, swim or sink; but the thing is that, in London, this is happening everywhere.
Small, individually own, independent shops are forced out of their own premises by rising costs and by an escalation in property prices that is fuelled mostly by foreign buyers. They are replaced by faceless, soulless franchises employed demotivated staff paid minimum wages. And this is the case for Alexander’s evicted after 100 years by a faceless Transport for London bureaucrat who claimed that they needed a “larger entrance”, only to replace it with a shop that’s exactly as big as the barber.
Nowhere is exempt, in London, every single street has its own Crap-à-Manger, Starbucks, Costa’s, Caffé Nero, Nando’s, betting shop, Tesco or Sainsbury’s. They all look the same, they all pretend to be something they’re not – an Italian bar, a local grocer shop, a Portoguese restaurant, you name it – and they are all, irremediably, bland. And it’s not just about retail, it goes everywhere, from real estate to historic heritage.
London is the capital of the industrial revolution, yet there are no museums dedicated to it, bar a small one about steam relegated in Brentsford. Battersea, which could’ve become a great post-industrial park, such as the ones I visited in Essen or Duisburg, is now becoming home to a stack of luxury condos, mostly bought by overseas buyers.
This is, basically, the reason I don’t like living in London. It has sold its soul, it has closed down its shops, flattened its heritage, watered down its character until it became something to be put in attractions such as the London Dungeon. The brilliant Hammersmith & Fulham forum, to which I owe the photo in this post, says that Hammersmith is becoming “Anysmith”, and I thoroughly agree; and not only Hammersmith, every other borough in London is suffering the same fate. Walk in places such as Paris or Madrid and you’ll see how these cities, despite their cosmopolitanism, nonetheless retain a local character. Do the same in London, and it’ll be like walking through a shopping mall.