London as you’ve never seen it before


For those of us who know London well, and prefer to walk its streets rather than drive or take public transport whenever we can, it is still a collection of villages, each with its own character and boundaries: Covent Garden, Soho, Marylebone, St James’s, Mayfair, Westminster. The whole may add up to more than the sum of its parts, as any capital city should, but our perceptions still focus on the local and familiar.

More recently, we have begun to think about cities as networks, of transportation routes and telecommunications, water supply and drainage, electricity, not only the rivers but underground culverts and streams; and then there are communities of interest, overlapping ethnic groups and nationalities, centres of shopping and entertainment, green spaces and garden squares, football grounds, cultural quarters and brownfield sites, and ghettos.

Those powerful images of a small, lonely planet called Earth, taken by the Apollo 11 moon landing mission in 1969, allowed us to see global patterns in a similar way and on a grander scale; not so much an out-of-body experience as out-of-this world. Our very recent ancestors would have been astonished.

Ten years ago Twitter and smartphones were things of the future, so too super-powerful computers and Big Data. Without them London: The Information Capital could not have been published. As soon as I scoped it, at Waterstones in Piccadilly, it went to the top of my Christmas present wish-list. Thanks to those nice people at Penguin Books, I soon received a review copy so can share it with you now. As it states in the blurb, authors James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti have compiled, “One hundred portraits of an old city in a very new way,” through diagrams, maps and infographics. The result is simply stunning.

Each subject is treated to a double-page spread, landscape in format, and each page is slightly larger than A4. This provides sufficient space for compelling graphics – every one different – and accompanying explanatory text. But where to start?

Happiest borough? Why, it’s Kensington and Chelsea, represented by a smiley face with an open smile, wide-open eyes, a warm glow and just a few (four, to be precise) little dots for anxiety, while neighbouring Westminster is one of the most miserable of the inner boroughs, though no explanation is forthcoming.

Across the capital, Americans make up the biggest number of overseas visitors, but the biggest spenders by far, per head, are the Saudi Arabians, followed by Emiratis and then Chinese. In Olympics year, 2012, London had more visitors than Paris and took pole position among European tourist destinations.

Just over 200 years ago, in 1801, London’s population was the first to exceed one million, rising to its peak of more than eight and half million in the year that the Second World War broke out, 1939. By 1991 it had dropped to less than six and half million, about the same as 1901, but has rocketed since; by 2021 it is expected to reach nine million.

The cost of renting and the cost of buying property by different areas hold few surprises. The highest point of the London Underground: Amersham at 150-metres; the lowest: Westminster Tube Station at 32-metres below datum. While we’re on the Tube, the trains run more than 75 million kilometres a year, equivalent to circling the Earth at the Equator 1,900 times, or five times day.

Among the tallest towers, the BT Tower at 191-metres, Heron Tower at 230-metres, One Canada Square at Canary Wharf 235-metres, all now looked down upon by the Shard at 310-metres. Since the advent of the London Eye, in 2000, copy-cats have appeared around the world, many smaller, only three larger than its 135-metres: China with the Star of Nanchang (2006), followed by the Singapore Flyer (2008) and, since March 2014, the High Roller in Las Vegas at 168-metres.

More than 300 different spoken languages exist, more than anywhere else in the world. After ‘hello’, ‘bonjour’ is the most likely greeting by far in our neck of woods, with an occasional ‘marhaban’ (Arabic), ‘hola’ (Spanish) or ‘olá’ (Portuguese), ‘ciao’ (Italian) and ‘czesc’ (Polish).

Whether it is the proliferation of Blue Plaques, flashpoints of violence (avoid Soho and Leicester Square, Edgware Road and Marble Arch and Ladbroke Grove and Kensal Town, if living in Kensington, Chelsea or Westminster), who is looking for a partner of the opposite or same sex and within what age range, or ‘Mappiness’ – a survey of when Londoners are happiest on any day of the year between 8am and 10pm – it is all to be found here.

I’ll leave you with two favourites: a headcount of animals at London Zoo (reptiles, mammals, birds, amphibians, fish and invertebrates, coming to a grand total of 16,869 of 758 species; and a tally of artists who have 50 or more works in the two Tates in London, Britain and Modern. Way out in front is J M W Turner with 280 sketchbooks and 30,000 preparatory drawings and watercolours, a total of 39,389 works. There are even 623 Henry Moore’s. All of the Tate’s 70,000 works are available online, searchable by artist, decade, subject, even emotion.

The authors are on to a winner with this book. Next up Paris, Rome, New York, Barcelona…? Bring them on!

London: The Information Capital, by James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti, Particular Books (Penguin Group), £25.


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