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URBAN JUNGLE

  photo: Tony Hisgett, Wikicommons

‘It is a curious and delightful experience to be alone on a damp autumn night in Kensington Gardens. One is surrounded by London; its dull continuous murmur may be heard, and the glinting of distant lamps catches the eye through the trees; these fitful gleams and distant sounds but make the silence and darkness all the more deep and impressive.’

W.H. Hudson was writing of London at the end of the nineteenth century, and yet his description still holds true today. The fitful gleams and distant sounds may be brighter and louder but the sense of being surrounded by the city remains.

From the windows of my flat in Soho the sky is invisible. Only when one steps out into the courtyard or onto the front porch is it possible to catch a glimpse beyond the rooftops of the ever-growing buildings. The London skyline gets higher with every passing year. Additional stories are dumped on existing buildings, and every rebuild is higher, much higher, than the one that it replaces. For city dwellers the sky becomes ever more remote. If you have enough money, it is possible to buy an apartment and live above the streets, in blocks that become shrouded in cloud and shake with the elements or taste an expensive meal in a restaurant high in the tallest building in Europe. The rich now live above the clouds, like the gods on Mount Olympus, the mere mortals hidden beneath the vapour.

The rooftops of London are amongst the last, vast pieces of unexploited real estate left in the city. The footprint of every building has a sky print above it. Some have gardens, often scruffy, forgotten and neglected, some are covered with an interlocking maze of what the building managers call ‘plant’, but plant that is far from green: the chimney pots, extractor fans, electrical generators, heating and water systems that control the internal climates of the spaces below to keep them so constant that those inside have no inkling of what the outside world feel like. In exchanging one temperature, humidity, air quality for another the rooftop machines create micro climates around themselves.

Many Victorian schools in London had their playgrounds on their rooftops; not to save precious real estate but because up on the roofs the air was that bit clearer, cleaner and healthier than at smog ridden ground level. Most of those rooftop playgrounds are forgotten now, but some are coming back into use, as sites for gardens, planters, bird boxes and bee hives.

Up here on the rooftops, London no longer surrounds one as it did Hudson, but is instead spread about and beneath one, giving a sense of its entirety that can never be gleaned from the ground. There is natural world up here on these rooftops. Some is the result of human intervention, with sky gardens, apiaries, boxes for bats and for swifts, and avian pest controllers with falcons on their arms let loose to prey on and scare the feral pigeons; but for the most part Nature has found her own ways to live amongst the chimneys, radio masts, refrigeration units, solar panels, and other man made paraphernalia that sit upon the brick and concrete. There are the pigeons of course, and seagulls, and buddleia, but also a myriad other plants and creatures.

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From the top of Regis House on the north bank of London Bridge, with The Monument almost within touching distance and the Bank of England but a stone’s through away, it is possible to see across the whole of the south of London to the green hills of the Home Counties beyond. From here the Thames dominates the view and the very reason for the existence of the city becomes evident. The boats, docks and bridging points that stretch below are as crucial today as they were when the Romans first bridged the river and called their latest colonial stronghold Londinium. There are fruit trees on the roof of Regis House, six apple trees that are just the number needed for a group of fruit trees to be legally classed as an orchard. The fruit trees, surrounded by abundant lavender and rosemary, grow in giant containers, and amongst these planters are three thriving bee hives with some of the most prolific bees in the City. There are bumble bees too and butterflies, brought in on the wind and their own wings, and adding to the micro-environment that exists eleven floors above the toiling workers in the offices below.

From the roof top apiary on Ted Baker’s headquarters, the aptly named Ugly Brown Building just north of King’s Cross station, the Thames is not visible, obscured by the crush of brick and concrete to the south. There is water though. The Regent’s Canal runs by the side of the building, part of London’s sixty or more miles of man-made waterways, with its banks rich in flora and fauna, and its waters full of plant and animal life. These are aquatic nature corridors much slower and less polluted than the railway ones close by. Close by the canal runs through Camley Street Natural Park past which the Eurostar trains build up speed as they leave St. Pancras International Station for the Continent. Who knows what seeds these trains take to and fro on their journeys through the under-sea tunnel on their inter-national journeys of cross-pollination?

There are seagulls too on these rooftops, and gulls are a commoner sight and sound in London itself than they are down the Thames estuary towards the sea. Often assumed to be pelagic creatures of the deep ocean, gulls in fact live close to the shore or human activity, following boats to catch scraps or foraging on what can be found near coastline. Even when R. S. R. Fitter was writing about the birds of London in 1949 gulls were still newcomers which did not breed in the capital. The Times reported in 1840 that gulls never came further upstream than the Nore, the Thames estuary lightship that marks the limit of the powers of the Port of London Authority and the beginnings of the open sea. Fitter writes of gulls being fearful of man. They are not fearful now.

On the roofs of London, attending to bee hives can be a perilous task when the seagulls are nursing their eggs or rearing their young. On the roof of Ted Baker’s Ugly Brown Building one summer a young seagull just learning to fly was protected by not just their parents but many other gulls too, diving from the sky towards myself and one of Ted’s beekeeping team as we emerged hunched through the small door onto roof to approach their hives. The adult birds got within an inch or two of us before swerving away. Again and again they came until, like refugees from the Hitchcock film, we pulled ourselves back through the doorway and to the safety of the humming plant room.

Bees

From London’s rooftops the richness of the city’s arboreal life becomes evident, mature trees spread as they get higher and many can only be appreciated in their full richness of growth when one is eye to eye with them many metres above the ground.  London’s trees are conduits between earth and sky, vertical pathways and flight paths inter-connecting the rooftops with the ground. Squirrels scurry and jump between the two. London’s trees create homes for the birds of course, but also for insects. Some of the bumble bees that seem to be found on every rooftop, even those with very little vegetation, make their homes in holes in trees, while others, being ground dwelling will find soil to nest in, even if that soil is in a pot on a rooftop high in the sky. Solitary bees will be content to lay their eggs in any hole they can find provided it is deep and narrow enough. My chalet on the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames Estuary off the north Kent Coast, is a haven for them with cracks and crevices in the dry, east and south facing sides which most catch the sun, giving dry warm places for eggs to be laid. Man-made places seem often to offer these creatures better habitats than natural ones.

At the London College of Fashion in Shepherd’s Bush, Pablo, professional maintenance man and amateur apiarist, is a keeper not just of honeybees but of solitary bees, carder bees, leaf cutter bees and hover flies too. In the quiet weeks of summer when the students are away and there is less to do, Pablo finds time to make bee ‘hotels’ for the College. He fashions them from cardboard tubes, bamboo, scraps of wood and piping, clustering them together in wooden boxes or in truncated ducting. From the detritus of a busy art school he strives to make perfect insect homes. Pablo knows what the different species of bee like and he gets the lengths and widths of the tubes they will lay eggs in just right. His skill and knowledge and patience are rewarded. On a balmy late summer afternoon Pablo and I watched a bee flying to and from a nearby tree to a piece of bamboo in one of his bee homes. On each journey she nibbled a piece of leaf from the tree and flew with it to the tube in which she has chosen to lay her eggs. The leaf cutter bee lays the female eggs first. Each one is covered by a layer of cut leaf. An egg is laid, the bee goes off to nibble another piece of leaf and once that is inside the bamboo and enclosing the newly laid egg in its own private chamber, she lays another. She continues until, having laid just eggs that will hatch into female bees, she then begins to lay eggs that will hatch into male bees. The last egg laid will be the first to hatch and it will be a male. In the spring the hatched males will come out from their bamboo tubular homes and hang around for the females to appear. As they too hatch they are immediately mated by the waiting males.

The idea for hives at the London College of Fashion came as part of project to research traditional natural dyes. In growing the plants to make them the College very sensibly decided that bees would be needed to pollinate them. There are now hives at the College’s many sites across London. The ones Pablo cares for are part of a little wildlife garden tucked away behind the College. It is noisy with frogs and disrupted by foxes. Rats enter at their peril likely to be whacked into the afterlife by Pablo wielding a spade.

Mulberries

There is a wonderful black mulberry tree close by the hives at the London College of Fashion, an ancient and magnificent specimen whose fruit splatters across the ground as soon as it is ripe. The mulberry is not a native to the British Isles. The rapid softening and rotting of the mulberry immediately it is ripe made the fruit impossible to transport, so the Romans, with a taste for the berries, first brought mulberry trees to London to produce their favourite fruit. The tree at the Fashion College was brought not to feed invading Romans but rather imported silk worms. Silk worms have a taste not for the fruit of the mulberry tree but for the leaves. When James I decided to develop an English silk industry to rival those of and France Italy, he called for the importation and planting of 10,000 mulberry trees to feed the worms that were also brought in to produce the silk. England’s silk industry was never as successful as its continental rivals, hampered as it was by a climate not conducive to silk worms, and the mistaken planting of many black mulberry trees rather than the white ones silk worms prefer. There are no silkworms in London today but many of the mulberry trees brought in with them, like the one at the Fashion College survive and are of a very great age.

Pigeons

The pigeon, most ubiquitous of London birds, is probably the one most noticed but least studied or loved. Ken Livingstone, in one of his first acts as newly appointed first Mayor of London, had the pigeons and those selling food for them removed from Trafalgar Square. Once pigeons were not fed by Londoners but rather fed to Londoners. Pigeons were a staple source of food for those living in the city until comparatively recently. R.S.Fitter, writing in the second half of the twentieth century, opined that dockland pigeons, fed on ‘the finest Manitoba grain’, were especially tasty. Pigeons are not wild but feral, creatures that have ‘rewilded’ themselves, descended from rock doves that escaped from dovecots as long ago as the fourteenth century. Rock doves were a major source of food for centuries, kept in cotes that were very often large brick-built affairs. A great Victorian wooden one sits high above a pub in Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey. There are still wild rock doves to be found, but it is the feral offspring of the domesticated birds that are the ones that provide so much of the avian backdrop to city life.

Like the seagulls, it is on the buildings of London that pigeons make their homes, leaving the trees to others. This perching habit, be it underneath railway arches, atop shop signs, or on the ledges of tower blocks, is thought to have come from the habituation of the roosting habits of the original captive birds, who had only perches on which to lodge, and the natural settling habit of the wild rock dove which makes its home on rocky coastal outcrops. ‘The Great Pigeon Count’ of 2011 estimated there to be about 850,000 pigeons in London, give or take a couple of thousand.

Sparrows

While seagulls and pigeons roost on the rooftops and building ledges, there are other urban birds that prefer to be closer to the ground and to humankind, none more so than what W.H.Hudson writing at the end of the nineteenth century called, ‘the everywhere-present multitudinous sparrow.’ Sparrows in their numbers are the quintessential, pleasant city bird. ‘The individual sparrow is, however,’ Hudson goes on, ‘little known to us: we regard him rather as a species, or race, and he interests the mass of people chiefly in his social character when he is seen in companies, in crowds, and multitudes.’

Posing no fear or threat to Londoners, unlike flocking pigeons or fierce seagulls, and happy to feed from a patient human hand, the sparrow has become emblematic of the capital. So much a bird of London was this ubiquitous passerine that it was commonly known as the Cockney sparrow, and the name of the birds came to be applied Londoners themselves, especially to the younger female inhabitants of the East End. A sparrow, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us, is ‘a chirpy, quick-witted person, used especially of a Londoner.’ Often, if spoken of with an East End accent, it is a ‘sparra’

Hudson’s London was a city of sparrows and a city of cats. He reckoned that cats killed as many as six million sparrows a year. It is difficult today to conjure up a vision of just how cat infested London was at the end of the nineteenth century. In Hudson’s day there were feral cats on every street and the population was joined in the evening by thousands of domestic cats sent out for the night. Hudson worried that they would decimate the bird population of London. He estimated that there were no fewer than half a million domestic cats in the city, along with another hundred thousand stray and feral cats. This when the human population was around three million.

Hudson blamed the poor: ‘How does it happen that there are so many of these strays in London? For cats do not leave their homes of their own accord, except in rare instances when they have been enticed or encouraged to take up their quarters in some other neighbourhood. As a rule the animal prefers its own home with poverty to abundance in a strange place. I believe that a vast majority of these poor ones come from the houses or rooms inhabited by the poor. Most persons are extremely reluctant to put kittens that are not wanted to death. In the houses of the well-to-do the servants are ordered to kill them; but the poor have no person to delegate the dirty work to; and they have, moreover, a kindlier feeling for their pet animals, owing to the fact that they live more with them in their confined homes than is the case with the prosperous. The consequence is that in very many cases not one of a litter is killed; they are mostly given away to friends, and their friends’ children are delighted to have them as pets. The kitten amuses a child immensely with its playful ways, and is loved for its pretty blue eyes full of fun and mischief and wonder at everything. But when it grows up the charm vanishes, and it is found that the cat is in the way; he is often on the common staircase where there are perhaps other cats, and eventually he becomes a nuisance. The poor are also often moving, and are not well able to take their pet from place to place. It is decided to get rid of the cat, but they do not kill it, nor would they like to see it killed by another; it must be ‘strayes’ - that is to say, placed in a sack, taken for some miles away from home at night and released in a strange place.

Now this very painful condition of things ought not to continue, and my only reason for going into the subject is to suggest a remedy. This is that the metropolitan police be instructed to remove all stray cats and send them to a lethal chamber provided for the purpose. The ownerless cats, we have seen, do not roam about the town, but have a home, or at all events a house, to which they attach themselves, and which they refuse to leave, however inhospitably or even cruelly they may be treated. On making some inquiries at houses in my own neighbourhood on the subject, I find that most people are anxious to get rid of the stray cats they may happen to have about the place, but are at a loss to know how to do it. In some instances they succeed in straying them again, but the cats are no better off than before, and the starving population is not diminished. But it would be a simple way out of the difficulty if they could have them removed by reporting them to the nearest policeman.’

Cats are hardly the problem now that they were in Hudson’s day. During the Second World War they were eaten by Londoners which dramatically reduced the population, and now their breeding is controlled by neutering. The drowning of bags of unwanted new born kittens in buckets of water, something I remember from my childhood, is unheard of in London today.

Hudson did see one good thing to be said for cats in London’s parks: ‘So far as I know, the park cats can only be credited with one good deed. Two or three years ago a number of rabbits were introduced into Hyde Park, and quickly began to increase and multiply, as rabbits will. For a time the cats respected them, being unaccustomed to see such animals, and possibly thinking that they would be dangerous to tackle. But they soon found out that these strangers were the natural prey of a carnivore, and, beginning with the little ones, then going on to those that were grown up, eventually devoured them all. Two big old buck rabbits survived the others for a couple of months, but even these were finally conquered and eaten. I for one am very glad at the result, for it really seemed too ridiculous that our great national park should be turned into a rabbit warren as well as a duck-breeding establishment.’

Some years ago, the sparrow all but disappeared from London, and despite many theories as to why, no one knows for certain what led to the decline, or why the bird has as suddenly made a strong comeback. Populations of bird species come and go in numbers. For Hudson the magpie was ‘all but lost.’ Though you could buy them in the markets of London it had all but vanished in the wild. There was said to be one in St. James’s Park which the park keeper thought to be one too many. It was a rarity too for Fitter, writing half a century later, though today, they too are ubiquitous London birds.

Birds for Pie and Pot

In Hudsons time, Londoners went on days out to the seaside to shoot the seabirds. ‘The chief breeding-places of our sea birds were invaded every year at holiday time by train-loads and ship-loads of trippers with guns to engage in the wholesale massacre of the birds on the cliffs and the sea,’ he wrote. Their numbers diminished to such an extent that their survival became in doubt and in 1868 the first Wild Bird Protection Act was brought in.

Birds were shot both for sport and for eating and were a great source of food for Londoners. They were shot in the heart of the city as well as at the seaside. Traps and nets were more often used than guns in town, both for reasons of safety, but also because birds were such easy prey, living as they did in abundance so close to those who fed on them. Sparrows, being the most populous birds were the commonest source of meat, and made their way into pies, puddings and stews. Shakespeare’s audience could have bought nine for a penny if his ‘Troilus and Cressida’ is a reliable source.

Sir John Bucknill in ‘The Zoologist’ at the beginning of the twentieth century tells us that, ‘thousands [of sparrows] are captured ... by bird-catchers, chiefly in winter, either with the clap-net on the ground or the bag-net on ivy and hedges.... The captured birds are either destined for shooting from traps, a sport much in vogue near the metropolis, or their wings are cut off and used, after being dyed, for decorating hats and bonnets.’

While Londoners might once have hurried to the coast to shoot sea birds, and trapped and netted birds in the city, they paradoxically cherished other wild birds - just so long as they were kept caged as pets. In the East End the goldfinch was a favourite to be caged, and lest the birds forgot their songs, they would be regularly taken out in their cages to sing alongside wild ones.

‘Even on working days I have met as many as a dozen men slouching about among the shrubberies, each with a small cage covered with a cotton handkerchief or rag, in quest of a wild bird for his favourite to challenge and sing against,’ wrote Hudson. He tells how, ‘the east-ender is ‘devoted’ to his chaffinch, but for the generality the first favourite is undoubtedly the goldfinch, and if few are seen in cages compared with larks and linnets it is because they are much rarer and cost more. Our ‘devotion’ to it, as we have seen, nearly caused its extermination in Britain, and we now import large numbers from Spain to supply the demand. One doubts that the bird will stand this drain very long, as the Spanish are just as fond of it (in a cage) as we are.’ Hudsons London was one of ‘bird-dealers and their supporters the bird-fanciers, and their servants the bird-catchers,’ all jobs that have disappeared now from the city.

Foxes & Rats

While Londoners have lived with the birds of the city as food, pet and ornament, their relationships with fellow mammals have been more complicated. Foxes provoke awe and fear, with urban myths of babies being dragged from their cots and decimating penguin populations in the city’s zoo. Even smaller less obviously predatory animals can be scary. Tabloid newspapers tell of a pack of squirrels attacking children in a London park. Gardeners spend money on ever more elaborate devices to keep squirrels from the bulbs, seedlings and bird feeders. Some call the grey squirrel the tree rat.  Real rats, the ground and below ground dwelling ones, are creatures of the night time and the sewers and the true denizens of the city, outnumbering us humans by thirty to one. Or is that another myth? Who has counted the rat population? Is there a census of vermin as there has been of pigeons?

While the birds and the bees keep or retreat to the aerial world, and the squirrels scurry between earth and tree top, some animals are resolutely of the ground, none more so than the fox. We have a fox in our Soho garage. A neighbour saw it with a dead rat hanging from its jaws. The fox, and its family, has its den in the churchyard a hundred yards down the road. For David Goode writing as recently as 1986, foxes were a new, rare and wonderful sight to be glimpsed in the hidden green places of the city. Now they are a commonplace to be smelt and seen everywhere, adults strolling nonchalantly past pubs and school playgrounds, cubs destroying flowerbeds in their play. In Shepherds Bush they are a constant aggravation for Pablo as he nurtures the garden of the London College of Fashion, unseen and nocturnal for the most part, they play havoc with his flowerbeds.  They have sometimes played havoc with my hives. At Coram’s Fields I once found one standing beside a hive that he had pushed the roof off, nonchalant of the bees he had disturbed. Since then all my hives have been strapped up tightly against vulpine intrusion.

The English fox is now not a rural but an urban creature. Researchers estimate there is one fox for every three hundred people in the city, many more per square mile than in the countryside. They are the top of the pile amongst urban creatures, with nothing to prey upon them. Only a very large raptor would take out a fox; a golden eagle could lift it from the ground but nothing else will trouble its swanky insouciance as it strolls through the streets, oblivious to humans. Once there were hounds in the city, (the name Soho comes from a hunting cry) but there are hounds no more. And there are no eagles, though there are plenty of other hawks and always have been. Shakespeare’s spectators saw them in the open sky above the Globe theatre as they watched his plays, and the actors would even point up to them. Petruchio talks directly to the audience in ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ and refers to ‘these kites that bate and beat and will not be obedient.’

Sometimes when I am on a roof top in the city tending a hive I will come across a falconer at her work, a magnificent, stoic, patient bird on her arm until it is released to prey on, terrify and disperse the feral pigeons that defecate and damage the stone work of the buildings.  In the city, the wild raptors keep high in the sky, almost motionless if they have spotted a prey, and swoop down with razor sharp speed and precision to take it. They are creatures of the world above the rooftops.

Other creatures make their homes beneath the ground, venturing out only after dark, nocturnal and keeping out of the sight of man, even when, like the rat, they outnumber their human neighbour. The pest control woman was our predator of choice to remove the rats in Soho. I was not the first of the tenants to see a rat, but I was the first to see one outside my front door. I do not know which of us was the more startled, me or the rat, as I came across it on returning home late one evening. We both stopped, literally in our tracks, the rat between me and my door. Then before I could make another step, it scurried off, past my neighbour’s windows, and into the dark behind a dustbin in a far corner of the block.

Next morning, I looked for traces of its nocturnal scavenging. As I lifted the plastic cover off the bicycle near my door it was clear at once why the rat had been outside my home. There under the bike was a pile of droppings: rat scat. Being one of the cleanest of creatures, rats do not defecate where they sleep and so have a ‘latrine’ area. My rat, and maybe its family, had chosen to make their latrine in the undisturbed darkness under the bicycle’s rain cover. I removed the cover and the bicycle and gave the paving slabs a good wash and disinfection. That night I saw the rat again, sniffing around, and again a few days later. But it modestly chose to find somewhere else as its latrine, away from human gaze and lamplight.

There is something alarming about having rats about the place, though it is we humans who have created the places for the rats to live. As we have built homes for ourselves so we have built them for the brown rat. We have even named them town rats and they have followed us, and we have unwittingly carried them, everywhere that we have urbanised; on boats across the oceans, on trains across the land and no doubt in planes across the skies. Mostly we hardly know they are there yet watching the CCTV cameras at night in our museums and hotels is to witness a parallel world where the rats take over our spaces.

For the rat is a creature of the night. The pest controller told me so, as I stood with my neighbours outside our flats. With a practiced eye she noted the traces of the rat population, and of the mice. There were clear rat runs and clear mice runs too. You only see the rats after dark she told us. I begged to differ as I pointed to one standing alert and watchful just a couple of yards from our feet. When the rat caught our eye, it ran off into the corner behind a dustbin. A torch shone into the gloom beyond caught its eyes as it took the measure of us.

For the most part rats are indeed nocturnal creatures and living parallel lives, apart from yet invisibly close to humans. Dark voids, roof spaces and cellars, cable runs and chimneys all provide vast interconnected areas for rats to live and breed. But sometimes those spaces are disrupted and the rats, in numbers, become refugees in search of a new home. The building of Crossrail through the bowels of central London was one such disruption and perhaps the biggest London had known since the original coming of the railways to the city, or perhaps the Blitz. Hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of rats and mice were dislodged from their familiar lives as the diggers and demolishers moved in and they were forced to move out. That is when those living in the Soho neighbourhood noticed a problem and sales of traps and poisons at Jim’s market stall on Berwick Street soared. ‘There’s always rats and mice,’ he said as he sold more glue and spring traps to be put on a mouse run.

We have rats on Sheppey of course. Sheerness is a major port and the rats travelling the world come and go just as the mariners and the containers do. Under the chalets they will scurry around, but as my neighbour told me when I first moved in, ‘if you’ve got rabbits, you haven’t got rats’, so there is something strangely comforting hearing the rabbits burrowing and copulating under my bedroom floor, even if they do disturb my sleep. At least it isn’t rats, I tell myself, as the rabbits, dig and nibble through the cabling and take out the electrics.

I know someone who spends his nights in the underground world of London’s sewers, walking the rivers hidden beneath the pavements, disappearing down a manhole with just a torch for company walking the length of the river Effra, its waters now confined by Victorian brickwork beneath the metropolis of South London and popping up again in Brockwell Park. As he walks he catalogues with his camera the human detritus that is washed down drains and plug holes and flushed down toilets, all the things you would expect and many that you would not. Accumulations of plastic, bags and headless dolls, accretions of fat hanging as stalactites from the rounded ceilings of the enclosed river systems, the natural contained and contaminated. Hidden with the rats below the streets.

Hudson asked, ‘To begin with, what is London?’ In Shakespeare’s day the city was contained by walls and gates and the river, in Hudson’s day by fields and fences, and in our day by motorways and green belt. Yet nature has ever been confined by man-made barriers. London today with its underground tunnels and hidden rivers, its canals and roads and railways, its parks and gardens, cemeteries, roof gardens, sky gardens and buildings towering into the firmament, is a complex of avian, terrestrial and sub-terrestrial worlds of natural and human construction, all interlinked in a vast and inter-related environment for man, beast and plant. Hudson’s conclusion at the end of the nineteenth century that ‘London is whatever we want it to be,’ is as true today as ever it was.