London: The Information Capital is a book you'll never tire of

The graphical exploration of London's infinite variety is endlessly fascinating - and it's funny and original too, says Chris Blackhurst.

by Chris Blackhurst
Last Updated: 27 Nov 2014

When my eldest daughter went to Manchester University, everyone told her how trendy Manchester was. At the end of her first term when they said how cool she must be finding it, Daisy pulled a face and responded: 'It's not exactly Camden, is it?'

She was right, of course. What London or Camden does today, Manchester and other British cities do tomorrow.

There is nowhere else like London in Britain, nowhere that comes close. This is one of the themes brought out in stark relief by James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti in London: The Information Capital. Using maps and graphics, they paint a picture of London that is both brilliantly arresting but disturbing. It may as well be in another country, such is its detachment from the rest of the UK.

London is closer to New York and Paris, to Mumbai and Shanghai, than it is to Birmingham and Glasgow. Unlike those foreign centres, however, its domestic domination is overwhelming. London is eight times bigger than the nearest British metropolis; it accounts for 25% of national GDP.

These figures are more akin to what you'd find in a small Third World nation. Paris, by contrast, accounts for only 10% of France's GDP. New York does not enjoy anything like the same supremacy in the US. In the UK, a small island, everything is routed through London.

That is certainly how it felt to me, growing up in the north of England. At university in the east of the country, it was quicker to go home by taking a train south to London then switch to another going north than to attempt to go direct, cross-country.

After graduating, there was no question we would head for the capital – the concentration of people like us was such that the alternative of living in a much smaller community did not appeal.

Except that today it is a draw for the world's super-rich as much as it is for those journeying down the M6 and A1 seeking employment. The result is a place that does not know whether to laugh or cry at the sometimes unhealthy position in which it finds itself.

Yes, as this book makes vividly clear, London is home to enormous wealth. But it's also the location for desperate poverty – five of Britain's poorest boroughs are in London.

London's cheek-by-jowl nature is not new, but what is alarming and what puts the city on a par with some of the biggest, sprawling conurbations in the Third World is the lack of a bridge between the two.

Increasingly, the middle classes are being squeezed out from residing anywhere near the centre of London, unable to afford to live there. As London's increasingly super-rich inhabitants move between world cities, the danger of the most expensive districts in the middle forming a 'doughnut' with few people holding down a socially useful, public-sector job and living there is becoming very real. Already, there are luxury apartment blocks in Knightsbridge and Mayfair that are virtually dark at night.

Much of London, of course, is given over to commercial buildings. In one corner of the City, the population soars from 222 at night to more than 127,000 during the day.

One of the effects of the new HS2 fast rail link between London and the north-west will be to bring an even further location, Birmingham, within daily commuting distance. It's possible that Britain's 'Second City' will become an extended suburb of the First, such is London's economic stranglehold.

As well as living and working in the capital, foreigners come to see the sights - and to spread their cash. On average, an American spends £800 on a trip to London; a Saudi will spend over three times that, and many retailers are hiring Arabic-speaking staff.

Where the graphics really excel is with their humour and quirkiness. The map showing how it is possible to visit all 270 tube stations in a single day is a delight. Likewise, the table of items left on trains, buses and black cabs at Heathrow Airport is mind-boggling.

This book may lack words but it is a monumental work all the same - the attention to detail is testament to that. Its pages are to dip into, to linger over and to return to time and again. It's hard to imagine tiring of them. In that sense, fittingly, they bring to mind Samuel Johnson's eloquent words about London itself.

Chris Blackhurst is the City editor at the Independent and Evening Standard and is an MT editor-at-large. Tweet him @C_Blackhurst.

London: The Information Capital by James Cheshire and Oliver Uberti is published by Particular Books/Penguin, £17.99

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