“Yeah so back to Picket Hall thanks”, he said in his American accent. “Picket Hall? Where the hell is that?” I thought to myself. I’d just picked this chap up at the top of Baker Street with the understanding that we were popping down to Mayfair to collect his children and then going back to where we started, but Picket Hall? Is that a mansion block, perhaps? I said I didn’t know it and he said a tad impatiently, “never mind, it’s where you picked me up, just head that way and I’ll direct you”. I said okay and started driving and then suddenly it dawned on me, “Oh, you mean Bickenhall Street!” I think he then thought I was being a touch precious about things.
But that word street is useful. Even if I’d correctly heard Bicken Hall I would still have been frantically searching my memory for the location of some Tudor manor house standing in the middle of Marylebone that I’d somehow previously failed to notice.
I do believe I have identified a new and worrying phenomenon in the linguistics of London. Pub bores have complained for years about the Americanisation of our high streets with McDonalds, and of our language with all manner of slang, but I’m getting really concerned if we’re starting to address London taxi drivers as if they were New York hacks.
“Allen and High please, driver”. Any guesses? I’m thinking it could be an upmarket pharmacist in Marylebone or perhaps a gourmet butcher’s shop in Mayfair. But just in the nick of time I realise we’re talking about the junction of Allen Street and Kensington High Street. I concede it may well seem it to those who reside there, but Kensington’s is not the only high street in London. The clue was in Allen, and I admit I feel a tiny bit pleased with myself for solving that one.
I’m noticing more and more I get requests for intersections, too, or people getting in and saying the name of a road and then, “hang on and I’ll get the cross street for you” before they fiddle around on their iPhone. Cross Street? You mean in Islington? Between Upper Street and Essex Road?
Or people talk about “neighbourhoods”. In London, isn’t your neighbourhood just the small area immediately surrounding your house? Is Earl’s Court a neighbourhood? I always just thought of it as being a part. Or perhaps we’re stuck in traffic, and my passenger is contemplating giving up and doing the rest on foot: “How many blocks from here?” they ask. “Er, we don’t really have blocks in London”, I say, “it’s kind of about five minutes in that direction.”
It’s honestly not that I’m being pedantic; it’s that after four years of learning streets and the precise location of premises in them, if you talk in terms of blocks or crosses or drop part of the name of a place I get confused and actually don’t know what you’re talking about, and then you think I’m clueless, when in fact I just haven’t been programmed that way. I mean, why would you want to go to a junction? Are you a junction spotter?
These errors are entirely forgivable in tourists of course, those lovely naïve enthusiastic generous tourists whom I adore with all my heart, who are never drunk and always polite. But I’m worried that the locals seem to be following suit. I think they think it’s trendy.
Here’s a bar at 1a Bedford Street, just off Strand:
And here’s a new property development in Compton Street in the part of London called Clerkenwell:
And tucked away in Bateman Street, Soho, from 1967 until 2013 you could find the most beautiful little Italian restaurant called Lorelei. In all that time it barely changed. It was never fashionable, at least not on purpose. It had no truck with trends, with dropping suffixes in order to pick up a bit of hip.
I was lucky enough to get a little sneak preview of its successor recently. (That is, on seeing the light on after dinner nearby I stumbled in and demanded to be shown around.) It’s going to be a Greek restaurant, an independent venture run by some very charming and welcoming people, and it even retains its outside toilets, which is all wonderful news, and things really could have been a lot worse, but I do wish they’d chosen a different name:
Sherlock Holmes doesn’t live at 221b Baker, does he?
Perhaps worst of all, some facile marketing twonk has decided, hideously, to rebrand the parts of London known for centuries as Bloomsbury, Holborn and St Giles as Midtown. You can just imagine a bunch of hip young Londoners saying, “Hey, let’s hit Midtown tonight guys!” Can’t you? No? If anybody ever gets in my taxi and asks me to take them to Midtown I am going to tell them I have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. There is only one Midtown, and it’s in (on?) Manhattan. There is only one Bloomsbury too. I can take you there.
I estimate the difference between, say, Oxford and Oxford Street is probably around £170, depending on the time of day and where you start. Next time someone gets in and simply shouts the former I might just set the meter running and see how far we get before they decide that little word street is useful after all.
(Oxford Street. Picture also demonstrates another new London phenomenon of the permanent Primark window ledge roosters.)