This is the fifth of our series in which writers say what London has meant to them. John Tusa has been a BBC TV journalist and presenter, the head of the BBC World Service, and the managing director of the Barbican Centre. He is the author of books on international affairs and contemporary art.

I would have been six or seven at the time, towards the end of the war. We lived in a village in south Essex. On many a Saturday, my parents had their weekly treat in a night out in London. Late that evening, after midnight of course, my mother would slip into the bedroom to tuck me up. I remember her perfume, the smell of her furs, then the soft rustle of her reticule as she took out two or three petit fours saved from the restaurant table, sometimes the Savoy. I did not eat them there and then but saved them for the morning. But they, my parents’ regular trips to London, carried a single message – London was the place to be. It has stayed that way ever since.

When in the late 1940s, we started to make the easy hour-long journey to the West End, it was usually to see variety shows at the Hippodrome or Prince of Wales theatres. If the show did not include jugglers who kept a dozen plates spinning on a dozen poles, it was a poor night. The road home to Essex took us either along the Commercial Road or more daringly along Cable Street ‘known’ to be the home of desperate dives peopled by lascar seamen. I had no real idea of who or what a lascar was but traversing those streets even in the safety of a car lent a late night frisson to an evening of pleasure. We probably passed Hawksmoor’s magnificent St James’s, Shadwell but I knew nothing of that until much later. But the message of each outing was also clear – if you wanted theatre as I did, the place was London.

On leaving Cambridge in 1960, I was going to the BBC, my wife to Penguin’s. We both knew it was London for us, but where? At the time, an enlightened and shrewd property developer named Francis Wenham – his company was Royd’s – bought up large swathes of what was semi-derelict and wholly neglected Pimlico – Islington too for that matter. Wenham’s company sold only after his builders restored every property to a common standard – though buyers could choose their own colours. It was a wonderful start to life in London, just twenty-five minutes from the theatres, opera houses and concert halls of the centre.

The house, charming as it was, had no garden or open space of its own. The arrival of children put a huge strain on my wife. Living as we did in the shadow of the impressive and elegant Churchill Gardens Estate, there was a (concrete) playground across the road from us. The council tenants largely shunned it; for us it was the nearest to an immediate escape on our doorstep that we had. Battersea Park meant a lengthy walk across the lovely bridge with pram or pushchair. It never ingratiated itself. Ranelagh Gardens, the leafy part of the Royal Hospital grounds, was also a lengthy push away; once there it was warm and secluded but peopled almost entirely even then by uniformed nannies.

We had to move. Was our move determined by the No.24 bus which had one terminus close to us in Pimlico and the other at South End Green in Hampstead? We followed it northwards. By determinedly ringing the estate agent every Saturday morning, Ann got us first viewing of a terraced family house in Hampstead just off East Heath Road. The elderly owner took a fancy to her, we bought the same week and lived there for thirty-four years.

Our sons were brought up on the Heath, the Sunday morning extended walk-cum-exploration ending at Kenwood being an almost unbreakable ritual. We made the Heath our own, giving its paths, woods, meadows, landmarks our own names, creating a private geography and a special sense of location, our space. In thirty-four years, the Heath never palled, changing with the seasons, showing a different face with the vagaries of the weather and climate.

But forty years ago, Hampstead gave us another gift – our neighbours. Not everyone liked everyone else equally but most felt that the sense of neighbourhood in the street was worth having. It wasn’t just the big occasions like the cheerfully communal fireworks party which famously once burned our common fence down. It wasn’t only the little moments like observing the moths clustering in the bright lights of the moth trap on summer nights which an older neighbour delighted in, or saving an owlet which had fallen from its nest in the huge plane tree nearby and which a teenage neighbour looked after, fed and then engineered a reunion with its distraught parent.

No, the truly rich moments used to come on Sunday afternoons, usually in spring or autumn and not always every Sunday. The gardens of our terraced houses ended in a common access lane. Sweeping up leaves and twigs and lighting a small fire – it was legal then – proved a signal for doors to open, friends and children to emerge, followed by cups of tea, sometimes baked potatoes and often enough by bottles of wine. It was informal, spontaneous, generous, convivial and a precious part of our life.

The scene was changing in the 1990s; we and our neighbours were journalists, publishers, doctors, architects, academics, the ‘un-moneyed’ middle classes. A jerry-built 1870 terrace was very affordable for the likes of us. Soon it became ‘desirable’ a notion with noughts attached. As money moved in, community and conviviality weakened.

In any case these thirty-four years had been rus in urbe, precious, cherished but remote from the city. Hampstead is cut off from London by the Northern Line, a tube link fraught with confusion, complexity and distance. It was time to downsize, de-clutter and change perspective even though most Hampstead friends thought – think – we were mad. Islington proved the answer, a heavily modernised 1910 redbrick bay-fronted end of terrace house whose exterior belies its inner heart and soul.

There is green here; my study looks south down the gardens filled with trees that once belonged to the historic Canonbury Park. Beyond them, the lights of Canary Wharf and the Shard glow excitingly in winter evenings. Community too if built on a very different base from our former experience. Here it turns around a small group of shops – fag and mag, hairdresser, cafe (run by a neighbour’s son), dry cleaner. In a non-nosey way, they know who is who, what is going on and mediate the daily interaction of lives and people. It is close but not intrusive.

Shops matter, they matter a lot. Not a quarter of a mile away, on Essex Road, side by side shops include a butcher, greengrocer and fishmonger. Some steps further on you come to one of Islington’s two bakers; their character speaks volumes about the twin spirits of the borough. Raab’s on Essex Road – which used to be called ‘Lower Street’ – is pure trad Islington, staffed by, used by, filled with real north Londoners. They always ask if you want your bread sliced?

On Upper Street, the baker of choice is ‘Euphorium’, double the price, a smart cafe, a key stopping point in Upper Street cafe culture and the weekend ‘passagietto’. These are two of Islington’s varied faces, resisting facile homogenisation but keeping local identity and variety.

We had moved to Islington soon after I went to run the Barbican. From home to concert hall or theatre was just twelve minutes, a boon though that wasn’t why we moved. At the Barbican, I continued a lifelong set of encounters with large, familiar and probably iconic buildings which are all part of London’s scene.

The first in the 1960s was Bush House, that American-built, commercial development from 1910 at the bottom in Kingsway and dominating Aldwych. It became the unlikely home of the (then) BBC External Services.

Skirting around the lavish marble staircases and lobbies of the original building, impoverished BBC external broadcasters filled its spaces with frosted glass and wood partitions that rattled to passing footsteps. In offices reeking of newsprint and coffee, an amazing gathering of world journalists, writers, ex-politicians, permanent philosophers met, talked, smoked, played chess (if you were in the Russian Service) and kept the world accurately informed in some of its darkest C 20 days. Best of all was the basement canteen which everybody used and where the famous ‘Bush telegraph’ method of rumour and communication held sway. But working at Bush House had an added appeal; we were on the edge of Covent Garden, lively, varied, original, quirky in the years before it became captured by corporate retail and catering.

The experience of the Barbican from 1995 onwards could hardly have been more different. Take its surroundings. Twenty years ago, Barbican was an isolated island – or fortress – of culture surrounded by nothing very much. Clerkenwell was the eccentric home of bookbinders, clock repairers, small architects. It was uncertain of itself, not sure if demolition beckoned or renewal. Hoxton was definitely edgy, Shoreditch a distant name and postcode. Now London’s drang nach ost has enveloped these districts in the new world of the creative industries. The Barbican now sits at its very centre. Moving from isolation, remoteness and exclusion to a position of centrality in growing London was invigorating.

And the Barbican had to change too, both as a building and as an institution, learning to welcome people, believing it could lead the arts not follow them, standing comfortably as one of the City of London’s physical and intellectual landmarks. Is it a lovable complex? Probably not but as Isaiah Berlin once observed: ‘You will not make the Barbican loved, but you can make it admired.’

At the University of the Arts, the transformation of Cubitt’s great Granary building north of Kings Cross and its associated railway receiving sheds into a dynamic new home for Central Saint Martins did more than just realise something new out of the old. It has created a new sense of urban space, a place where people gather, a new part of the city scene, an added dimension of living. I love that.

Now I count myself very fortunate to work in another great historic building that has found a new role in life – Somerset House. Walking through its Strand gateway on a spring morning – or leaving on a summer night – when the courtyard is empty and the building’s lines and proportions speak calmly and gracefully is one of the greatest experiences of London.

My London has been shaped by closeness to the footprint of some great buildings. But the embrace of the local, of friends, of people, of small places is what has mattered most.


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