A time to bask in urban sun

Image of Tyler Brûlé

At long, long last, spring put in an official appearance in London this week. After months of snow, biting wind, dull skies and a general absence of sun, the meteorological funk burnt off early on Wednesday morning and by midday the city had been transformed into a place where one might actually want to work, live and even play.

Part of the metamorphosis was already under way on my terrace by the time I headed off to work. With a Marimekko kerchief on her head and a spade in hand, my Mom was tackling the planters, wrestling with the magnolia and shifting terracotta pots into little groups.

En route to the office, the usual characters I pass all looked a little bit chirpier. The Egyptian man was doing his rounds without the tweedy top coat and astrakhan hat, the nearby clinic’s Filipina nurses were striding along the pavement rather than shuffling, and the American mother walking her two daughters to school had swapped her scowl for something closer to a smile.

At the office, the bike racks were unusually full (the harsh winter took its toll on even the hardiest cyclists as colleagues gave up on frozen knuckles and shifted to public transport), and out in the garden our trusty housekeeper, Sally, was prepping the flowerbeds for the arrival of more shrubs to top up patches that hadn’t coped so well with the past few months.

On the floors above, where doors had been thrown open, a breeze rustled newspapers and layouts, and the office was filled with the scent of blossoms from the park below. By midday, the garden space at the office was packed with colleagues lined up in the sunshine, eating lunch, road-testing sunglasses and trying to get a splash of colour before returning to their desks. As the sun shifted across the courtyard and everyone tried to follow the warming rays, I decided to mark the fine occasion by asking my able assistant Tommy to speak to reception (keepers of the keys to the company cellar) to organise rosé and beer for an 6.15pm kick-off.

Around the corner, Chiltern Street’s paving stones were close to twinkling in the sunshine and the entire neighbourhood had a certain sense of industry about it. Builders from the soon-to-open André Balazs hotel, who’d been taking their tea indoors for the past seven months, were out of the street with their sleeves rolled up and shopkeepers were out surveying their façades – perhaps figuring out how to spruce things up now that the weather had taken a turn for the better.

Along the way, I chatted to a gentleman who told me that the neighbourhood association was concerned at the possibility of local restaurants having more outdoor seating and he asked if I thought this was a problem.

“Problem? Why would outdoor seating be a problem?” I asked.

“Well, outdoor dining means noise, and it does raise various health and safety issues,” he informed me. “It’s all a bit controversial you know.”

“Hmmm,” I started. “I’m not quite sure where the controversy is in people enjoying themselves outdoors and supporting the regeneration of the neighbourhood. Am I missing something?”

“It just gets a bit difficult when people gather outdoors sometimes,” he went on.

At this point my gaze might have narrowed and my eyebrows might have arched a touch as if to say, “For heaven’s sake, knock it off!”

Instead, I said: “Isn’t part of living in the city about being able to wander around the corner to dine outside when the weather is favourable? Isn’t urban life about the hum of commerce and the welcoming din of humanity?”

The gentleman nodded and toddled off. Only after he was a few hundred feet away did I realise that he was a campaigner of some sort and must have been caught off-guard by my lack of support for turning our part of town into a monastery. Heading back to work, I hoped to bump into him again and suggest that he might be on to a local election winner if he proposed rural relocation for people no longer fit for city living.

An initiative of this sort might force a rethink on the part of curtain twitchers and shutter clickers (what a sad use for smartphones) who like nothing more than to hold up their devices and record all the tiny misdemeanours that ruin their day. Under such a programme, local government would dutifully record and respond to complaints – but also keep a tally of how unreasonable and intolerant these individuals might themselves be.

At some point an official would pop round for a consultation and gently explain that cities are inherently noisy, boisterous places, and that all of these complaints suggest that life in a dull, damp hamlet might suit them better. Hopefully most would see reason, take their fingers off speed dial to the authorities and everyone could get on with basking in the glow of a city reanimated.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine


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