The Man Who Pays His Way: London is on top of the world but for how long?

Click to follow
The Independent Travel

Last Sunday night, the patrons of the Seasons Restaurant in Nairobi (the city rated 58th in our premier league of world capitals) watched engrossed as Arsenal beat Chelsea in the Premier League of English football. Events in what is now officially the capital of the world captivated viewers in thousands of locations across the planet even though the England team ignominiously failed to qualify for the top 16 in Europe, and apparently need a highly paid bunch of Italians to remind them how to play football.

As with the beautiful game, so with the business of travel: the city transcends the nation.

For much of the span of human civilisation, the key unit has been the city-state from Athens and Angkor to Venice and the Vatican. When European expansionism began in earnest five centuries ago, the nation-state began to hold sway. Since then, the one thing at which kingdoms, republics and federations have proved remarkably successful is getting into wars.

In the 21st century, the globalisation of commodities, culture and ideas facilitated by air travel and the internet means that city-states are paramount once more. The big difference today is that these are no longer defensive, walled citadels; they are open to the world; indeed, these global villages depend on travel to thrive.

London, New York, Tokyo: the original, and very different, reasons for their settlement have long since eroded. Now, instead of fortifications, they build towards the sky and aim to the sky for communication. Why should the travel pages of a national newspaper be interested in calculating the capital of the world? Because we, and our readers, are fascinated by cities. You don't brag about going to Spain or Italy for the weekend you tell friends and colleagues that you are off to Barcelona or Milan. Cities can pack in so many thrills and indulgences.

For evidence of the ascendancy of the city, consider the transformation in guidebooks. Lonely Planet and Rough Guides began by describing whole continents and entire countries: their first books covered Asia and Greece, respectively. Today, the focus is on cities. And look at the flight advertisements in this travel section. Almost all of them seek to entice you to cities, not countries.

From the view of a global air traveller, the world comprises a scattering of aviation fiefdoms: on the fringes of great landmasses you find city-states such as Dubai, Singapore and, yes, Sydney. Plenty of people embarking on a city-break this Christmas may be unaware of their country of destination. Stelios Haji-Ioannou and Michael O'Leary share credit for breaking down national boundaries; the founder of easyJet and boss of Ryanair have made it so much easier to visit the great cities of Europe (or, in the case of Ryanair, airfields some distance from the great cities of Europe): Bratislava isn't so much the capital of Slovakia as a cut-price route into Vienna.

Nearly half of the 60 cities surveyed today are not true capitals in the political sense though one point was awarded if they ever had been, and another if they still are. Johannesburg hasn't made it to the official status of capital even in a country that has three: executive (Pretoria), judicial (Bloemfontein) and parliamentary (Cape Town). Yet South Africa's biggest city is the undisputed capital of sub-Saharan Africa.

At the opposite end of the metropolitan spectrum, allow me to introduce Belmopan. If the question "What is the capital of Belize?" comes up in a pub quiz, well, you know the answer. Another potential point: this fragment of empire was formerly known as British Honduras. And a third: the quote "If the world had any ends, British Honduras would be one of them" is by Aldous Huxley.

You will not be amazed to learn that Belize is almost exactly the same size as Wales. Maps of Guatemala still show this British fragment of Central America within the territory governed from Guatemala City (which is a real capital, ranking perhaps 150th in the world). Officially, however, power resides in the funny little town of Belmopan, well inland and with almost no natural or human advantages.

Artificial capitals can work: Ottawa, Washington DC and Brasilia have succeeded in growing into their roles of capitals for the three largest countries in the Americas. Bonn, which governed West Germany until unification, is twinned with Oxford a cultured city of similar scale. And while Wellington is cooler, windier and smaller than Auckland, it is still a worthwhile New Zealand city destination.

Not so Belmopan. British Honduras had a perfectly sensible capital, in the form of Belize City, which is still the commercial core of the nation. But in 1961, Hurricane Hattie crashed through the nation and wrecked much of the drowsy, flimsy city. The following year, someone had the bright idea of relocating the parliament and government 50 miles inland, which is why Our Man in Belize endures the least appetising posting in the Diplomatic Service book. When I called in at the High Commission, the most exciting discovery was a three-week-old copy of The Independent.

Some londoners may feel smug today, relishing not only the prestige of being capital of the world but also savouring the pleasure of beating Paris into third place. Beware hubris: other cities are bolstering their capital credentials. The capital of the Middle East, for example; Dubai may still be only 42nd in the world, but the rate at which the city-state is expanding will see it soar by next year. Partly this is because of the quest of the local airline, Emirates, to become the leading people-mover on the planet within 10 years. And what was the venue for that Arsenal-Chelsea match that attracted viewers in Nairobi and around the world? Ah, yes the Emirates Stadium.

Ozbus United

Today is the winter solstice, signalling the very depths of winter in Britain. Things can only get brighter in the capital of the Northern Hemisphere but in Sydney, the capital of the Southern Hemisphere, summer is at its height. This means that the 38 pioneering souls on the world's longest bus ride timed their journey of nearly three months just right.

The OzBus 38 left London in mid-September, just before the autumnal equinox, and travelled across Europe and Asia, reaching Australia at the end of last month and making their way across to Sydney. At the end of the trip I caught up with Richard Ballard, also known as "Mr Bee", whom I had last seen at dawn in London three months ago.

What, I wondered, was the best moment: the Taj Mahal? The beaches of Thailand? Ayers Rock? In fact, it happened further west, late at night on 26 October, and, judging from his description, was an Italian Job moment.

"We were towards the end of a 10-hour drive from Iran into Pakistan when there was a grinding noise. We had grounded ourselves on the way down a mountain and ended up half in a ditch and half on the road. The way we all pulled together is, for me, the best moment of the trip. The bags were unpacked from the roof so we didn't topple over, we helped each other out of the windows.

"Then, with the help of a couple of Pakistani truck drivers and their spingle-spangle truck, we went about pulling the bus from the ditch, reloaded it and were on our way again."