London: not as liveable as I’d like

By Tyler Brûlé
Published: May 1 2010 01:29 | Last updated: May 1 2010 01:29

By London standards, I’m a high-rise resident. I live in a duplex on the top floor of a period building in the heart of central London and from my terrace I have views of the BT Tower, the twinkling westbound approach to Heathrow and the rooftops of Marylebone.

As spring kicks into gear I throw the doors open most mornings to create a bit of indoor-outdoor living (weather permitting) and I like to take the sun before the clouds start to settle some time just after 9.30. I could almost go so far as to call it penthouse-living except, this being London, my penthouse is a somewhat vertically challenged three to four storeys above the streets of W1.

In spite of the Lilliputian proportions, it’s a tall building by Marylebone standards and stands out among its neighbours. It shares airspace with the dishes and antennae bristling on top of the Chinese embassy and has views into a handsome apartment across the street belonging to a couple I never see on the street below but frequently glimpse acting out scenes of cosy domestic bliss. On days when the skies are big and bright, the southerly views make it feel connected to the warm plains of the Iberian peninsula; when the heavens are grey and low it all becomes damp and Dickensian.

Last Saturday I arrived back in London after a 10-day Asian tour and, bright skies and warm breezes aside, I couldn’t help but feel I’d been dropped into a shabby chapter from Oliver Twist. Heathrow was its usual dysfunctional self with the added feature of a fire alarm that shut down the arrivals area and broken public announcement system that left passengers arriving from Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore wondering if they’d all been detained by HM Customs or were about to be burnt to a crisp. At the taxi rank outside Terminal 3 cabbies were hot and bothered and not budging from their comfy seats whether to help elderly Canadian couples load their luggage, or bewildered mothers heave children and prams into passenger compartments.

Also on LKL:  The secrets of my brilliant Korea

As we bounced and bumped our way into central London, my post-flight mood was best captured by various political party campaign posters for the general election beside airline billboards promoting the electric delights of Asia. Was I being to asked to vote for parties ill-equipped to take their game on to a global stage or vote with my feet and return to countries that are already speeding past the UK? Voters in the UK have a buffet of choices (a purée of policies, soundbite-size candidates and pickled promises) before them but none is particularly appetising. Much was made of the three parties’ manifestos but there’s little to convince voters that they’re supporting a group of individuals who will lead them boldly into the future with a worldview to match.

Spend two days in Seoul and London starts to look and feel like a sleepy, stagnant backwater. At Incheon airport you can spy UK designers flying in to work on high-profile projects for South Korea’s biggest technology players. At the headquarters of a major financial services company the chief executive is meeting a Pritzker prize-winning architect to embark on the creation of a concert hall for his credit-card holders. Beneath the streets, rails are being laid for an expanding metro system and stations are being overhauled into gleaming hubs to serve the citizens of one of the hardest working capital cities in the world. At the Park Hyatt Seoul staff deliver a level of service that’s mirrored across a variety of sectors in South Korea’s economy. As the nation becomes less competitive as a manufacturer its financial, retail, transport and technology companies are all sharpening their skills to take their respective games global. Even Mayor Oh’s promise to make his city greener or more design-minded seems to be coming good.

Also on LKL:  The secrets of my brilliant Korea

When I first travelled to South Korea seven years ago I found it grey, a little grumpy and largely unattractive. In less than a decade it’s fashioned itself into a major passenger and logistics hub, is home to some of the best hotels in the world and crackles around the clock. Korea Inc’s executives want to work and learn from the best and leaders at both the local and national level have embraced the liveability mantra to retain and attract talent.

As I crossed Oxford Street on Saturday afternoon there was little of this sort of crackle – just a lot of crack. Up and down the street tummies were hanging out over jeans, food was being stuffed into faces, and bums were falling out of trousers. Was this a nation at rest and play on a gorgeous spring day? Perhaps. Was this also a fleeting snapshot of a nation that’s lost its dignity and sense of pride? For sure.

As a chronic low-scorer on global liveability surveys it’s surprising that none of the UK’s political party strategists have embraced a message that’s become central to leaders elsewhere. A manifesto for “A More Liveable UK” would surely be a vote and inward-investment winner.

Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle

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