In the second of an interview series profiling Londoners and their love of the capital, A Gentleman’s Jotter welcomes editor and author Miss Caroline Taggart to the blog to talk Roman remains at the Guildhall, Charles II and The Wallace Collection.
1. Which part of London do you feel most at home in and why?
I’ve lived in Pimlico for over 30 years, and I love it. Like many parts of London, it has a village-y atmosphere – people recognise you in the shops and restaurants, and stop and chat in passing. From when I was 15 my parents moved about quite a lot, so going back to their place wasn’t going ‘home’. Pimlico became home as soon as I moved here.
2. Do you have a favourite piece of modern or classical architecture?
The Great Hall in the Guildhall is called the Great Hall for a very good reason. It’s one of the most impressive buildings in London. I’m also very excited about the remains of the Roman amphitheatre that were discovered under the Guildhall not so long ago. I like the idea that there was a mystery: a city the size of Londinium would definitely have had an amphitheatre, but no one knew where it was. Then someone was excavating the basement of the Guildhall – I think they were planning to turn it into a café, not looking for the amphitheatre at all – and there were these wonderful remains. OK, you can’t get a cup of tea there, but it’s a small price to pay.
3. Tell us an interesting trivia/fact you’ve learned about this great City?
There’s a – almost certainly apocryphal – story about how Constitution Hill got its name. King Charles II, taking his regular exercise one morning with very few attendants, encountered his brother and heir, the future James II. James, travelling by coach and well guarded, expressed surprise that the monarch should thus put his life in danger.
‘No kind of danger, James,’ retorted His Majesty, ‘for I am sure no man in England will take away my life to make you King.’
4. Choose 3-4 noted Londoners (past or present) to host a dinner party for and where would you like it to take place?
Samuel Pepys would probably be quite good value, if you could stop him fondling the waitresses. It’s intriguing that he kept that famous diary for only ten years – I’d love to know what happened to him, and to London, before and after.
Alfred Hitchcock – one of my favourite film directors – was a Londoner. He’d have lots of good stories. Just don’t let him loose on the ketchup.
I love Charles Dickens’ novels, but I expect he would be a crashing bore – no one else would get a word in. So I might have Agatha Christie instead and we could discuss all those glorious art deco Poirot locations.
And maybe someone modern: Simon Garfield, who has written fascinating books about maps and typography and other slightly off-the-wall things. If he talks the way he writes, I could listen to him all day.
And I don’t think I‘d take them to dinner. I’d take them to afternoon tea at Brown’s hotel in Mayfair. Going out for tea has had a revival in the last few years, and Brown’s is the nicest tea experience I’ve had. If you look closely at the right of the picture in the tea rooms below, you’ll see that they have two shelves of P G Wodehouse books, so try to get that table: then if your companions bore you (or even if they just go to the loo), you’ll have another delightful companion for a few minutes. Wodehouse was born in Guildford but went to Dulwich College and spent his early adult life in London, so he almost counts.
5. Name any buildings not currently open to the general public you’d like to explore?
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is open to the public during Open House London weekend and it’s a fabulous building, with glorious staircases and tiled floors. I’ve never been inside the Gherkin, and think that would be rather fun – I’ve no idea what it would feel like to be inside a building shaped like that, but can’t help thinking it would be weird. In a good way.
6. You have the opportunity to change one thing about London – what would it be?
I’d ban building overpriced flats (including the ones described as ‘bespoke apartments’) to sell to people who have no intention of living in them. I’d also teach the powers that be the meaning of ‘affordable’ in the expression ‘affordable housing’. I’m very glad I’m not 25 and trying to start out living and working in London. It’s madness.
7. Sir John Betjeman famously saved some great buildings from demolition including London’s St. Pancras. What modern structure do you admire that you’d want grade listed for future generations?
Daunt’s bookshop in Marylebone High St. But it would be part of the deal that it carried on being a bookshop. Or, if that isn’t modern enough, the new Foyle’s in Charing Cross Road. It may not be an architectural masterpiece, but the inside is a brilliant approach to encouraging people to buy books.
8. Tell us a recent London-based event that you enjoyed attending?
I go to the theatre a lot and was blown away by the recent revival of Art at the Old Vic. I saw the play about five times when it was first produced 20 years ago, and was thrilled to find that it was just as wonderful as I’d remembered.
9. Tell us three things you most like to do when in the capital?
I live walking distance from Tate Britain and am a friend of the Tate, so I go to a lot of their special exhibitions. But if there’s nothing on that I fancy, I go in and say hello to the Jacob Epstein statue of Jacob and the Angel. I love it. I don’t think even Michelangelo got more life out of a piece of marble.
I also love the Wallace Collection. When I was a child we had a set of table mats with classical paintings on them and I was completely over-excited when I discovered that the Wallace Collection has the portrait of Miss Jane Bowles by Reynolds that I ate my dinner off every day for years. My brother ate off The Laughing Cavalier, which is also in the Wallace.
And then I like to wander about. I stroll past Eccleston Square most days; it’s private, but even from the outside it is glorious – the lilac is at its best at the moment. When it is open to the public, as it is occasionally, it feels like the Tardis, there is so much in there. But London is incredibly lucky with its garden squares and there are little havens all over the place.
10. Do you know of a secret London gem that people should visit?
Dean’s Yard, just behind Westminster Abbey. It‘s an extraordinarily peaceful place when you consider the mayhem that is going on just through the arch in Victoria Street and Parliament Square.
Miss Caroline Taggart was born in London of Scottish parents, spent most of her childhood in New Zealand and went to university in Sheffield.
Having worked in publishing for 11 years, she became a freelance editor in 1989, focusing on adult non-fiction including BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs and the second edition of the Writer’s Market UK, a directory for aspiring writers.
Caroline is the author of I Used to Know that, which hit the Sunday Times best-seller lists selling over 250,000 copies and has been translated into several different languages. Since then Caroline has had a further 18 books published, has been series editor on another five and has two more books due out later this year.
Caroline’s latest book, Misadventures in the English Language is out now. Discover this and many more wonderful books here:
You can follow her on Twitter