Northbank: Welcome to 'Harrodsland' and 'Fortnumia'?

Something to declare

Mark Jones
Monday 13 October 2014 12:46
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At 8am, I walk up the Strand on my way to work. It's not that pretty a sight, with fairly recent and mainly obnoxious stains on the pavement.

Later that day, outside Embankment Tube station, I meet Sofia, a Swedish girl in a bowler hat. She hands me a magazine and a map. "Welcome to Northbank," she beams. Northbank is a new area of London. It includes Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden and Aldwych, as well as the traditional centre point of London, Charing Cross. So it's not really new at all, it just has a new name.

I'm now working in a BID. That means a Business Improvement District. The BID team will do great things, they say. They'll spend £8.6m regenerating the place over the next four years. Some of that money is spent on dressing up eager young people in bowler hats to give out leaflets and directions. Rather more will go on getting those grotty pavements deep-cleaned. We will get better security and (says the magazine) see efforts to "deal with" the "rough sleeping issue".

Actually, the area is already picking up. There are swish new hotels such as the Corinthia, and notable established ones that include The Savoy, and One Aldwych. The restaurant scene is immeasurably better than it was when I started working here four years ago. Shops, including H&M and TM Lewin, have opened in what was previously a retail desert. Covent Garden is almost fashionable again.

The problem with the area is it lacks an identity: a brand, if you like. Hence "Northbank".

Modern London is engaged in a nomenclature tussle. The area north of Northbank was recently rebranded "Midtown". Londoners, especially those who drive cabs, haven't yet wiped the sneer off their faces. What worked well for Manhattan seems faintly offensive when used to replace old "Holborn". The fact that Holborn has one of those weird English pronunciations ("ho-bun") only made the locals more protective.

South Bank is still not entirely accepted as a district, despite being around since the 1951 Festival of Britain. It's as if the city rebels against reductively geographic names that might suit lesser places such as Paris or New York. That's just not us. We know the place. For tourists, London is a jumbled mess of strange names. A hotelier in, OK, Northbank, told me they have difficulty tempting rich Asian visitors so far east, as it's "too far from Knightsbridge".

In fact, the way UK tourism is going, perhaps we should forget the old names and just go with the money. So Knightsbridge becomes "Harrodsland", Piccadilly "Fortnumia". Meanwhile, I'm trying not to be snooty about Northbank. A little alien nomenclature is a small price to pay for chewing gum-free pavements – or is that sidewalks.

Mark Jones is editorial director of the British Airways 'High Life' and Best Western's 'Do Not Disturb' magazines.

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