hidden europe 18

City of illusions: London

by Nicky Gardner


The City of London - the very heart of the English capital - has long been a melting pot for cultures and religions. And today the area has striking contradictions in wealth and social status. We report from the city of illusions.

There is nothing like the dreich drizzle of a damp Sunday morning to make you want to stay in your bed. For the woman who sleeps in the doorway of the abandoned shop that once sold expensive imported flowers, the first train of the morning on the Circle Line is the cue to emerge from the confused heap of cardboard and newspapers that does service as a bed. And that first train on London's Circle Line is happily an hour or two later on Sundays. The train rumbles past, just below the city streets, a few metres under the shop doorways and back alleys where some of London's homeless try to find some shelter. The buildings give a little shiver as the train slides past. The entrances of the onetime florist, the post office and a nearby block of offices all provide crude shelter for those who have long forgotten duck down and crisp linen.

The subterranean passage of the first train on a Sunday morning prompts the shadows of the night to gather up their tattered blankets and cardboard boxes and move on to their daytime haunts. On a sunny summer's day, the south-facing steps of St Botulph's church in Aldgate nicely catch the sun, but a dismal Sunday demands a different strategy and the ragtag cluster of not-quite-awake mortals go their separate ways - anxious to make tracks before the police make their morning round. One pale-faced young man heads south to the little courtyards off the west side of Jewry Street - always good for a few hours on a Sunday when the city's office workers are well away enjoying some sabbatical respite from commuting. An old woman with a dog elects to take a more northerly trail and wanders off towards Bishopsgate, where streets with names like Camomile and Wormwood tell of long lost green meadows awash with English herbs. And for one older man, who somehow seems too clean cut to have been sleeping rough, the comfort path leads just around the corner into Petticoat Lane market where the price of a tea at MBs confers the right to linger for an hour or two.

Old man Baldacci was responsible for the B in MBs! He came from Lucca in northern Italy. He arrived in these city streets longer ago than anyone can remember. Generations on, a war or two, and the Baldacci family are as good as ever at serving up pasta and a passable glass of Valpolicella. But they’ve learnt a thing or two about English cooking too and MBs is the place for cooked breakfasts, bangers and mash or the MB classic lunchtime special: fish and chips, a generous helping of bread and butter, a giant gherkin and a Peroni beer — all for six quid.

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