Identity & Icons
London's identity was partly a matter of the way the city saw itself, and partly the way it appeared to outside observers, including tourists. During the 20th century London's identity could be said to have gone through four phases: imperial London, cautiously modernist London; swinging London and multicultural London.
In the first quarter of the century London was an imperial capital, a place of tradition and gravitas, conscious of its greatness, not just for the nation but for the whole of humanity. London was, in the proud words of a London County Council handbook, 'the home of the world's markets; the centre of international finance; the capital city of a world-wide Empire; the meeting place of nearly every race and people.'
Imperial London's iconic places reflected the capital's sense of continuity and its pride in its past. Trafalgar Square was still seen as 'the heart of Empire'. The Palace of Westminster and Buckingham Palace represented tradition and values. Only one of London's traditional public spaces began to develop a new, 20th century character. This was Piccadilly Circus where, in 1910, the first electrically-lit advertisements began to flash.
Although proud of its imperial grandeur, London also took pride in its plebian side. As reflected in Rudyard Kipling's verse, the ordinary working man was assuming a new role in national mythology. The ordinary 'Tommy' solider was the sinews and blood of Empire, and the ordinary 'London types', the policeman, costermonger, park keeper, docker and tram conductor, were the engines of the Capital. The changing mood was reciprocated by the better class of cockneys who reinvented themselves as 'pearlies', wearing their pride in King and country on their sleeves.
From the 1930s to the 1950s the mood altered and London became a cautiously modernist city, looking to the future and shaping itself for the benefit of the masses rather than the few. In London's modernist phase the city turned its back on its past and tried to remake itself as a cleaner, healthier and more efficient city of the future. The spirit of this age created three classic London icons: the tube map, the K2 telephone kiosk and the Routemaster bus.
The tube map designed by Harry Beck in 1931 exemplified London's new modernist values. It was democratic, simple, easy to understand, clever and modern. The same qualities also infused the K2 red telephone kiosk of 1926, albeit designed by Giles Gilbert Scott to have a slightly more traditional look. The Routemater Bus, entered service in 1954, and from the beginning, became one of London's most distinctive visual emblems. It also reinforced London's association with the colour red.
During the 1960s London's image began to be remade by people under the age of 25 and the city took on a new identity as 'swinging London', an exuberant centre of youth culture. In 1966 the American magazine Time printed a cover story which dubbed London 'the swinging city'. Rhapsodising over the new spirit of classless youth which infused the city's nightlife and social networks, the writer saw London as a place of freedom, self-expression and the future. The most potent icons of this age came from fashion and pop music. Mary Quant's mini skirts and Punk's mohawk hairstyles were among many 'London looks' which took a sense of London's distinctiveness around the world.
London's identity as a place of youth and alternative values was tied up with its growing sense of itself as a city of multiple cultures. The last quarter of the 20th century saw London becoming ever-more comfortable with this aspect of its character. Re-discovering and re-valuing the city's links with people and cultures around the globe, London began to present itself to the outside world in a way that reflected the changing ethnic make up of Londoners. Before its abolition in 1986 the Greater London Council was at the forefront of promoting a new sense of London as a city of many and equal cultures where difference should be valued. Tourist chiefs and planners began to rebrand London as a rainbow city, bursting with language skills, cultural riches and global foodstuffs.
The icons associated with London's late 20th century multicultural identity include events as well as places or things. The Notting Hill Carnival, Europe's largest street festival, and the Chinese New Year Parade both exemplify London's sense of its identity and character at the end of the 20th century. The city is still, 'the meeting place of nearly every race and people' but this time cultures meet as equal contributors to the city's identity.
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