Next stop, the ministry of sound

Seen Big Ben? Done Oxford Street? How about a trip round Cool London? As 'Newsweek' hailed its clubs and style last week, cool Londoners collectively cringed. Oliver Bennett reports
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Our time is now", went the refrain from a summer rave hit called London Acid City. And it does seem that the capital is once more supreme - if an article published last week in Newsweek is to be believed. "London Rules", it avowed, promising a keyhole glimpse "Inside the World's Coolest City". Each city has its age, we read. The Twenties belonged to Paris, the Thirties to Berlin, the Fifties to New York, the Sixties - and now the Nineties - to London.

Can it be true, we might think, as we walk to the Underground in the drizzle? But there is a quaint symmetry to all this. Readers old or pop- cultural enough may recall Time magazine's cover of 15 April 1966, a pivotal media moment which gave birth to the cliche, London: The Swinging City. A great read, page after page gushed on about London's "undefinable thing", and offered up a "switched on" glossary of superlatives: "super", "fab", "groovy", "gear", "with it", and "close" - the "sorted", "large", "fierce" and "top" of the day.

All good fun, but did it relate to the people who made London swing? " 'Swinging' was such a lame expression," says John Dunbar, ex-husband of Marianne Faithfull and leading light of the Indica Gallery, the nodal Sixties venue where John met Yoko. "Whatever was happening was nothing to do with Carnaby Street of Time magazine: in fact, the fuss was after the event. By the time anything like that is recorded, it is already uncool."

Looking back, London has had periodic 10-year peaks, usually marked by musical sub-cultures: psychedelia, punk, New Romantics, rave. The quicker they arrive, the quicker they are mugged by the voracious media and marketing industries and left bleeding in the gutter. Indeed, a certain school of thought would agree with Dunbar that whenever a piece like Newsweek's comes along, the phenomenon has peaked.

Newsweek's recently arrived London bureau chief, Stryker McGuire, has already had to defend his corner. "You'll always get the cognoscenti sniping back saying, 'you've got it wrong; there's something better'," he says. "That's fine. Hipness is by definition transient." Londoners cautiously agree. "When you put things on paper it inevitably kills the phenomenon," says Doton Adebayo, publisher of the X-Press list on young black fiction. "It's a necessary part of the equation."

Among Newsweek's more questionable emblems of London's resurgence was the Ministry of Sound superclub which, despite its massive branding effort, is considered infra dig: "establishment", "corporate", "old hat" and "full of bikini girls" were just a few responses from club-going acquaintances. "It's hardly cutting edge and underground," sniffs David Swindells, Time Out magazine's nightclub editor, who is currently kept busy fielding calls from the US press eager to find out about the new, improved London.

Newsweek also focuses on the expensive, dangerous suburb of Notting Hill Gate - to the delight, no doubt, of the bleating ra-ras and arriviste popsters that make up its new constituency - as well as the turbo-priced loft-land Clerkenwell.

At present, the hordes of pop-culture tourists - 58 per cent of visitors are under 34 - tend to hop straight to Camden Town, which in the past few years has become the fourth largest tourist trap in the capital. The London Tourist Board is running two campaigns targeted at foreign youth (one in the US, another in France) with a menu for a groovy day that takes in Camden Lock and ends up at the nightclub Subterrania. But where is the true cool, and how do London's subcultures stay ahead of the media?

One is by constant and baffling musical and stylistic genres. For instance, the music genre "jungle" overnight became known as drum 'n' bass - the new terminology becoming the shibboleth by which the Unknowing are weeded out. This can reach neurotic proportions with dead-on-arrival musical concepts such as hardbag, dark ambient, loungecore or - as Newsweek identified - Elevator Noir Crime Jazz.

The casual visitor might find it difficult to find "cool" London. "You won't necessarily walk down Oxford Street and feel the pulse," says David Swindells. "It's lots of interlinking but often invisible scenes." He does believe that London is enjoying a positivity spurt - "even Londoners are talking it up, and normally they're quick to knock it" - and perceives an exciting music-led approach in clubs such as Hoxton Square's Blue Note, cradle for Goldie's club Metalheadz which now resides in the larger venue of Holborn's Leisure Lounge.

Also exciting, it seems, is The End, owned by Mr C of the Shamen; PM Scientists, a club in Farringdon (described by Rachel of style mag Dazed and Confused as "close-knit and underground") - and all manner of one- offs from Harlesden to Hackney.

Club-goer Chas, 23, identifies an "egalitarian tendency" whereby clubs are not restricted to an elite, and most agree it is good that a bit of confidence has returned to London. It remains true, however, that anyone not schooled in London's nuances of attitude, speech and dress may find themselves as alienated as Eliza Doolittle at a garden party.

Some Londoners remain sceptical. "These puffs often only benefit estate agents," says Gordon Faulds, artist, DJ and editor of local magazine The Ditch, which chronicles the desperately with-it Shoreditch/Hoxton area. "The thing is to resist the hype and identify the actual things going on."

Another current claim to greatness lies in the London art world, which has not only cultivated the opening, private view or pee-vee as peripatetic bar and salon, but has also managed to stay ahead with the YBA (young British artist) phenomenon. "London is a powerbase," says Jonathan Wakins, curator at the Serpentine Gallery. "It's partly to do with the strength and numbers of the art schools - London has so many, compared to cities like Paris - and their teachers. And the art is accessible, exciting and humorous. But the domestic market is still rotten."

Nevertheless, young foreign dealers are now setting up in London. Swedish gallerist Lotta Hammer, 31, has opened a gallery in Fitzrovia, and says: "London is a stepping stone; accessible and international, and it is very friendly compared to New York or Paris."

YBAs tend to see themselves as international, as they have to: many rely on being shown and sold abroad. But is it all hype and no substance? No, says artist Michael Stubbs. "That undermines the achievement of this generation of artists, who have initiated the whole phenomenon themselves. London is interesting precisely because the artists organise themselves. But if young British collectors and investors don't get involved, then we may lose what we've built up."

We are not quite convinced of our global supremacy. While London has long since ceased to bow to Paris, either culturally or culinarily, we are still in thrall to New York and Los Angeles, as betrayed by the Concorde accents of the "creative" industries, and the inordinate attention given to cracking the US market. Equally, some of London's attempts to be hip fall flat, such as the current Jam show at the Barbican, a showcase of fashion, design, art and music.

"London is pure accident," according to the graphics design team, tomato. "Its strength is that it continues to be so." No doubt it will also survive the stigma of being the coolest city known to Newsweek.