It’s got curves and acute angles and includes some of the oddest names for its edifices: the Gherkin, the Walkie-Talkie, the Scalpel, Can of Ham (my personal favorite), and the Cheese Grater. (All items you can buy at Aldi at a better price.) The Shard sits outside to the right of the above photo across the river like so:
Anyone visiting London will notice there is constant construction going on. There always seem to be as many cranes as buildings. Where this skyline is going precisely, we don’t know. In fact, in 2011 the the chief planning officer of the City of London, Peter Rees, said, “London doesn’t have a skyline, it’s had a series of chance events which, apart from St Paul’s, isn’t very distinctive.”
Let’s go over the famous and strangely nicknamed buildings. There’s the Gherkin.
And yes, phallic symbol comments aside, it does indeed look like a gherkin.
Of course, there’s the walkie talkie.
During its construction, they realized there was a major issue: if the sun shone directly onto the building, it emitted heat so strong that it could melt cars! One car owner was paid £946 by the developers to repair melted bodywork. To make the point gastronomically clear, a reporter from a local paper fried an egg by setting the pan in the building’s direct reflection. (Calling it a “fryscraper” became popular.) The problem was fixed with awnings on the top floors.
The Scalpel was originally a nickname but is now the official name of this building on Lime Street:
Then there’s the “can of ham”:
And of course, the “cheese grater”:
Now the “why” or rather “how the hell did this happen” is all kinds of complicated involving planning commissions and I’m guessing a tad of graft but there is also one factor that I find absolutely bizarre and to be honest, I didn’t believe it when I first heard about it: the so-called “sight lines.”
Sight lines, or “protected views” are legally protected views of one place from another place. There are ten spots outside the city centre from which one must be able to view St Pauls Cathedral. And there are four places from which you must be able to see the Palace of Westminster (aka Parliament).
There’s an oak tree (an oak tree!) in Hampstead Heath from which your grandma has to be able to eat her cheese toastie while gazing at St Pauls in the distance. I’m not kidding. There’s also a spot called King Henry’s Mound in Richmond Park 10 miles away! Here’s that view:
Developers have had to stretch, bend, shorten, and jiggle their visions of buildings so that we can keep our vision of St Pauls and the Palace of Westminster from obscure places. For example, the Walkie-Talkie. It was originally conceived as a 200m tall building but the architects had to re-vamp because the proposed structure interfered with sight lines. The Cheese Grater slopes so deeply to “protect the view.” Thus, at least in part due to these protection view requirements, the skyline is a hodge-podge of odd shapes and nutty angles.
A map of the protected views:
So why St Pauls? What’s the big deal about a cathedral? Well, it’s pretty darn historical. It was the tallest structure in London from the time of its completion in 1710 (one of the many churches rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren — who you could say was England’s Leonardo da Vinci — following the 1666 Great Fire) until 1967. There’s been a church on the site since 604 AD. It was not, however, initially popular. Wren’s design at the time was considered scandalous and outrageous as many thought it looked too “catholic” — looking too much like the Vatican with its immense dome. During its construction in the late 1600s, the country was entrenched in protestantism having gone through the Reformation the century before. In fact, anti-Catholism was so rampant that you could get an enemy jailed by declaring to authorities that they were secret Catholics! However, over the course of the next decades then centuries it came to be a beloved icon of the city. In fact, it still stands despite extensive bombing during World War II, only because volunteer fire watchers stayed on its rooftops 24/7 putting out incendiary bombs. Nearly all buildings in its vicinity were destroyed during the Blitz thus making St Pauls a symbol of the British people’s resilience and survival.
And by the way, for you cynical Americans out there who think this is just more evidence of British eccentricities, San Francisco has protected view requirements that blows London’s out of the water.
Not to say that I don’t think the Brits aren’t eccentric. They are. And that’s why I love them.
I first met Micheal on a temping assignment when I was living in New York City. He was the manager so I tried to behave, which I could do on occasions. I did my work, typed in the boring legal documents as fast and inaccurately as I usually do (spellchecker!) and when he said he was going out for a cigarette, I joined him. He smoked Merits, I remember, and he asked what brand I smoked and I said OP’s – “other peoples”.So we had our first laugh (of many to come) and he gave me one.
I had a crush on him. He was funny, smart, serious enough to get his work done but always making fun of the big bosses. A curmudgeon with a twisted sense of humour. And he was a strange kind of handsome. When I told my friend Cynthia my secret she said, Ter, he’s gay! I had missed it somehow. So instead, he and I became friends.
He had a sister with my name (very unusual!) and I have a brother with his. We were oddly and wonderfully connected.
Whenever I had a computer /printer problem — which was often— I’d call Micheal. He’d take a deep breath, and say, Ok, reboot. He always sounded annoyed, even if he was charmed at how flummoxed I got and delighted that he could help. I made him laugh.
He drank. We were at the park having a picnic and he told me that he and his partner, Tony, would love to adopt but he didn’t think he’d be a good dad because he abused alcohol. One time he reluctantly agreed to come check out an introduction to a self-development course that I was doing; he was very “against” those type of things. He showed up a bit under the influence and left after a half hour in a rage, saying that all the people who said good things about the course were “plants”. That was the only time I ever saw him angry.
I often went to the beach with him and Tony. We’d meet at Penn Station to take a train to Jones Beach on Long Island. These were very early morning events. I showed up once still so fresh from sleep that the bedsheet fold was imprinted on my face. Of course Micheal pointed it out, and it became a giggly point of reference throughout the day. From then on, even in my absence, whenever that happened to them, they’d call it a “Terianne.” “Tony, you have a Terianne right there on your cheek.” “Hey Micheal, I spot a Terianne on you arm.” And they’d laugh.
He was a good writer. He had been working on a novel off and on for years based on his time as an undergrad at Cornell University. He referred to the manuscript as “Thing”. We often took walks in Riverside Park and talked about Thing. “Gonna tweak Thing tomorrow – Chapters 13-15.” We’d also go walking around aimlessly in the city and he thought it was hysterically funny that I refused to walk under scaffolding. For a long time, whenever I saw scaffolding, I thought of Micheal.
We played Scrabble a lot. God, was he good. Always above 500 points. One time, he challenged my use of “varmit.” I insisted it was a word. Turns out, of course, Micheal was right. It’s something that Yosemite Sam used to call Bugs Bunny and it got lodged in my brain but it wasn’t in the dictionary and so it didn’t count as an actual word. (I was and am still not wholly convinced.) I beat Micheal once. One single time. For Christmas I framed that glorious scorecard and gave it to him. He laughed his ass off. He absolutely loved that and he absolutely loved me.
It’s really hard when someone who absolutely loves you dies. I was torn apart that he was gone but selfishly really; I lost someone who thought the world of me. I have a hard time thinking the world of me so the loss was profound. He died on Valentines Day 2015. Cancer. It upset me deeply that he never had a chance to publish Thing.
At my going away party when I was moving to Italy in 2004, Micheal had given me what appeared to be a business card. But it was a one-of-a-kind that he had created just for me. He had written our little in-jokes on one side and a poem on the other. The poem made me smile because it was so lovely and corny and Michael can give the impression of being above it all. But he’s not. I mean, he was not. Still hard to accept that he’s gone.
Here it is:
(It bothers me that I don’t know what the “Ben Nash – ‘Equal costs Extra'” refers to. It’s like a pebble in my shoe that I can’t get rid of.)
I laminated that business card and it’s lived in my wallet since.
Micheal was a true friend. Loyal. Loved my jokes. Felt my pain. Made fun of me. Adored me. Beat me at Scrabble but probably not as bad as he could have. Cooked glorious dinners for me. Encouraged me. Believed in me. Made time for me. Did whatever for me. And I for him. And here’s his quirky one-eyed Facebook profile pic. What a character.
I promise you, “it” is not awesome. Whatever “it” is, It’s not. Unless you are gazing at the Grand Canyon, the Aurora Borealis or Donald Trump’s hair on a windy day, it might be great, cool, excellent, very wow…
Harry Gordon Selfridge. Ever hear of him? No, right? Well it’s his fault that Apple employees smile so damn much and that shopkeepers hover over you offering unwanted help with you having to repeat, “Really, I’m just browsing,” but thinking LEAVE ME THE FECK ALONE, MOTHER FECKERS. (Then again, maybe that’s just me.)
Because it was Harry Gordon Selfridge who didn’t simply coin the phrase, “The customer is always right” but he embodied it and threw it (up) on the world. Specifically, on London, on Oxford Street.