"...We lack the joie de vivre of Paris and the chutzpah of New York. Somehow, London seems, well, dull."
So began a feature called "50 Ways to Improve London" in the 1 February 1988 edition of the Illustrated London News. This was a city with an unreliable, dirty tube. London without an Eye. One proper skyscraper. No Tate Modern, Olympic Park or Eurostar. Litter was widespread; dog shit endemic. A city in the wilderness years between punk and Britpop. What could be done to make London swing again?
The Illustrated London News asked a panel of thinkers to put forth their suggestions. Contributors including such luminaries as Melvyn Bragg, Lady Longford, Auberon Waugh and Sebastian Faulks collectively came up with 50 ideas, although none of them are attributed to a particular advocate.
Here, we revisit those 50 suggestions, and see how many of them have come to pass in the intervening third of a century.
1. To civilise the underground
The beef: Marks of incivility included Walkmans (an early form of portable music player), eating and drinking on the tube, and incoherent announcements. Suggested improvements include getting Lord Olivier to record announcements, video screens to showcase West End shows and exhibitions, automated ticket barriers, and paint tube carriages the colour of their lines.
Did we get it? London soon introduced automatic barriers. Digital adverts for cultural stuff have also been part of the tube experience for a while. We've yet to see a ban on food and drink, although alcohol was outlawed in 2008. The painted tube carriages would be awesome, but would be a right pain for contingency planning if carriages could not be moved between lines. Lord Olivier, so far as we know, never did a tube announcement, but you do hear occasional celebrity voices during campaigns and promotions.
2. To replace fallen trees with ginkgos
The beef: London lost a heck of a lot of trees in the Great Storm, four months before this article. They don't come more resilient than the ginkgo (also called maidenhair tree) which is about the only tree still with us from the time of the dinosaurs.
Did we get it? Yup. It's not hard to find a ginkgo in central London these days. They were planted all over the place after the storm. Indeed, the first replacement tree in Holland Park was a ginkgo, as shown above.
3. To create an area of late-night pavement cafes in central London
The beef: London has no continental-style al fresco dining areas suitable for late night use. The proposal is to create a zone north of Oxford Street which is "currently rag-trade land".
Did we get it? London's outdoor dining/drinking scene is infinitely more ambitious than the crappy offering even 15 years ago. However, we still don't have many places where you can carry on carousing outside beyond 11. It's a tricky proposition given that even places like Soho have a residential population. The "rag-trade land" north of Oxford Street is now well-heeled Fitzrovia.
4. To build a memorial to Nicholas Brakespeare
The beef: The only English-born Pope (12th century) has no decent memorial (the only one is a piss-poor "manhole cover" near Rickmansworth).
Did we get it? Adrian IV (as he became) remains uncommemorated in London, so far as we know. Not sure this one would have improved the capital much, to be fair.
5. To enforce the wearing of shirts in public places
The beef: Too many fat blokes walking about with their beer bellies on show, particularly during footballing occasions. A bylaw would suffice, with "labourers being exempt on the basis of custom and practice".
Did we get it? No, although the problem (if such it can be described) seems to have been largely forgotten. It's rare to see a nipple on show, even in the summer parks — at least from personal experience. That said, we did stumble across the peculiar scenario above in Covent Garden a few years back.
6. To encourage more firework displays
The beef: France, Spain and Japan have tons of firework occasions, whereas we Brits have just one night per year.
Did we get it? Oh god, did we get it. Multicultural London has ushered in several other pyrotechnic evenings, and New Year's Eve has since become a big old bang of a night. If anything, Londoners now moan that we have too many fireworks.
Verdict: Tick (tick boom)!
7. More inscriptions on streets and buildings
The beef: Bare concrete is such a drag. Fill the city with words by inscribing poetry, quotes and bons mots onto the pavement and walls to "make every stroll a literary adventure".
Did we get it? Pretty much. It's very common nowadays to see bits of verse or whatnot decorating a new development or public plaza. Trouble is, people tend to ignore them because to stop and read would block the pavement.
8. To embellish the banks of the Thames
The Beef: The north bank of the Thames is particularly dull. It could be enlivened with cantilevered platforms to support "walkways, restaurants, bandstands and shops".
Did we get it? Not really. The north bank still lacks anything like the creativity and culture to be found across the water — which some would say is a good thing. Plans were afoot to build a kilometre-long floating walkway in time for the Olympics, but the idea sank without trace before the real thing ever could. The odd floating pub aside, the northern embankment remains relatively unchanged from its 1988 appearance (although Thames Water are beefing up the Embankment near Blackfriars Bridge as part of the Thames Tideway project).
9. Extension to the blue plaque scheme
The beef: London's blue plaque scheme is to dry and deferential to old-time bigwigs. Let's mark more recent people of note, such as Mick Jagger, um, Mandy Rice Davies and, um, um, um, Lord Lucan. (Seriously.) The proposer also thought events should be marked, such as "25 years of Private Eye lunches at the Coach and Horses" or one for the Abbey Road zebra crossing made famous by the Beatles.
Did we get it? While it has diversified somewhat, the official English Heritage blue plaque scheme has stayed true to its rules. The commemorated individual must still have been dead for at least 20 years (so no Mick Jagger, no Mandy Rice-Davies and, well, who knows about Lord Lucan?). However, the intervening years have seen a blossoming in rival plaque schemes. Even people who never lived are now commemorated.
10. To erect many more fountains
The beef: Continental cities have tons of fountains. We have the "miserable apologies" in Trafalgar Square and a piece of shit in Leicester Square. Make water flow down the Duke of York's Steps. Hydrate Cleopatra's Needle. Put a big fountain in Parliament Square.
Did we get it? We'd argue in the affirmative. London now has a dozen or more play fountains which have brought genuine joy (for children at least) to many corners of London. Granary Square, the South Bank, the Olympic Park, Elephant Square, Somerset House, etc. etc.
11. To remove all 'Nuclear Free Zone' signs
The beef: During the 1980s, it became fashionable for London boroughs to declare themselves "Nuclear Free Zones" and paste the happy news on to every lamp post. ("This is obviously fatuous since no hostile missile will distinguish one area of London from another," the paper joked, even though the scheme related to radioactive material rather than bombs.) The notices should go, since they're not only unsightly but also plain wrong. Every borough uses radioactive isotopes for medical purposes, among other uses.
Did we get it? We'd wager that perhaps 90% of our readership have never even heard of such "Nuclear Free Zones", or remember a sign. So, yes, this one was long ago quashed. Radioactive isotopes are still used (safely) in medical settings.
12. To create more roof gardens
The beef: We have puddle-stained roofing felt, while New Yorkers have parties and gardens on their roofs.
Did we get it? By Jiminy, yes we did. London's rooftops may not be a universal sea of green, but we've hugely upped our game in this regard. We have huge set pieces, like the Sky Garden, the Garden at 120, South Bank and the Post Building, but also many smaller rooftop terraces to explore. And we have way more corporate roof gardens, like the beauty shown above on top of Cannon Street Station. Obviously, there's much more to be done on this front (or top), but we're off to a blooming good start.
13. To rebuild London Bridge
The beef: The modern 1970s concrete span is just awful. Build next to it a version of the lovely old medieval bridge with its congeries of buildings, which could function as antique shops, confectioners and "other suitably quaint buildings". It'd be a magnet for tourists.
Did we get it? No, but we'll raise the idea next time we see the Bridge House Estates peeps.
14. To improve street entertainment
The beef: Buskers should have to undergo an audition and gain a licence before taking to the streets. Creative busking should be encouraged so it's not just one man and his guitar.
Did we get it? This one's spot on. Tube buskers, and those at culturally significant sites, do indeed have to gain a thumbs-up. Meanwhile, the scene has hugely diversified to include levitating Yodas, improv poets and (shown here) flaming tuba players. You do still occasionally see an acoustic strummer, but the inevitable tune has moved on from "Streets of London" to "Hallelujah".
15. To restore Victorian public lavatories
The beef: Ever noticed all those subterranean Victorian lavs? They're all chained up. Open them!
Did we get it? A bit. Quite a few of those old facilities have been reopened (for example, the ones to the north of Leicester Square). But still others have closed or remained padlocked. A few have been turned to new use, such as the Attendant cafe in Fitzrovia. Public loos (or readily accessible private ones) are common enough if you know what you're doing, but obvious, well sign-posted toilets remain a scarcity.
Verdict: Not really
16. To cut lunchtime queues in banks and post offices
The beef: Everyone rushes to do their financial admin at lunch time, and huge queues form at the banks and post offices (exacerbated by the staff at those places also heading out at lunch).
Did we get it? Changes in technology and working practice have helped big-time here. A visit to the bank or post office is now an unusual occurrence for many of us, thanks to online tools. When we do need to go, flexible working means that lunch time is no longer the only option. We haven't given up queueing completely, though. It's common to see an hour-long queue outside the latest trendy sandwich shop, even though an equally delicious lunch can be found in last week's new opening, round the corner, with no queue. And all it takes is for a monarch to die and we'll queue up through the night.
17. All clocks to tell the right time
The beef: If you own a clock on public display and it shows the wrong time, you should be placed in the pillory.
Did we get it? Debatable. Clocks do occasionally break and remain in wrong-time mode for long periods. But it's the exception rather than the rule. More fundamentally, who cares? Most people would consult a phone or watch as the first option.
18. Theatres to print full reviews
The beef: Theatres should stop putting "Stupendous!" on their posters if the quoted critic had actually written "Stupendously awful!" (or other manipulations to that effect).
Did we get it? Again, debatable. Any theatre critic could still dine out on the number of times their words had been selectively chosen. But the days of shamelessly misrepresenting an opinion are behind us. That's not to say theatres don't use other tactics to get their stock of glowing soundbites.
19. To abolish the Italian pepper grinder
The beef: Apparently 1980s Italian restaurants had some kind of issue with gigantic pepper grinders — something to do with waiters brandishing them in a phallic way in front of "lady diners".
Did we get it? Well, can't say we've ever experienced anything like this, but perhaps it does still happen?
Verdict: Tick! (We think.)
20. To penalize restaurants soliciting double tips
The beef: It's a common practice at restaurants to automatically add on a 10% service charge, but then also have a blank space on the bill for the customer to add a discretionary tip (not realising they've already tipped).
Did we get it? Not really. The tip ecosystem is still a wild west of different experiences and expectations. The main thing that's changed is the automatic tip going up to 12.5% or even 15% (which can be challenged but requires a level of assertiveness not all of us find easy). While restaurants don't typically attempt the "double tip" any more, the lack of conformity can confuse us into over-tipping.
21. To make restaurants dispose of their own rubbish promptly
The beef: London's main catering areas are blighted by messy, smelly piles of black bags, full of days-old food waste.
Did we get it? People moan about litter now but, honestly, it's nothing like as bad as the situation in the 70s and 80s. Refuse collection and litter picking have improved beyond measure (though, of course, there are still pocket problems like that shown above). Given the pressure on council budgets and the rising tide of industrial action, however, let's revisit this one a year from now.
Verdict: Tick! (For now.)
22. To rebuild Piccadilly Circus
The beef: The "tawdry souvenir stalls, vast neon advertisements, and incessant roar of roadworks and traffic" spoil this once elegant junction.
Did we get it? The souvenir stalls have morphed into American candy stores. The neon advertisements have become 4k digital screens. But this remains a junction that could never be described as "elegant". To be fair, though, London already has more than its share of "elegant" streets. Piccadilly Circus should be a place of energy, showiness and even vulgarity.
23. To improve London's telephone directories
The beef: London's phone directories don't include postcodes. And too many phone booths lack phone directories.
Did we get it? What's a phone directory? What's a phone booth?
Verdict: Postcodes did find their way into phone directories, but the whole concept has long been obsolete. So, guess this one's a Tick!
24. To hold a pigeon shoot in St James's Park
The beef: Too many pigeons in the Royal Park. Meanwhile, the area is full of posh people who (a) like hunting, (b) sometimes actually eat pigeons! Hence, a monthly shoot to diminish the avian population and line the stomach.
Did we get it? Nothing so ludicrous as a shoot, but the local pigeon population has been reduced by a ban on feeding in Trafalgar Square, and the occasional presence of trained hawks to scare them off. St James's Park is still riddled with them, but no one really seems to mind these days.
Verdict: Partly achieved
25. Buses to be named
The beef: Bus numbers are boring. Give buses names individual names like "Godot" for the one that never turns up, or 'Musketeer' for the infamous "and then three turn up at once" service.
Did we get it? No. Buses remain stubbornly numerical, though Thames Clippers and some mainline trains do carry names. The project would be unwieldy, given there are 8,700 buses in London to name, but wouldn't it be fun?
Verdict: Nope, sadly.
26. A bridle path from west to east London and back
The beef: Nobody commutes by horse any more. Build a dedicated bridleway from Ealing to Smithfield, with hire-stables along the way.
Did we get it? Strangely, it proved simpler, cheaper and more popular to build cycle superhighways instead. You can ride horses in central London, but it's more as an experience than a practical commuting method.
27. The Albert Embankment
The beef: The Albert Embankment (in Lambeth) is populated by bleak office blocks that would be more at home in communist Russia. It's so awful that Jeffrey Archer lives there. Raze it all, and instead build Nash-style terraces like those around Regent's Park. This important site shouldn't be open to "buildings by futurists like Richard Rogers".
Did we get it? Nope. Quite the contrary, the Albert Embankment today has many more office and residential blocks — taller, too. The tallest of all was designed by... Richard Rogers.
Verdict: The exact opposite happened.
28. Return of Temple Bar
The beef: This important Christopher Wren structure once marked the boundary between the City and Westminster. It now languishes in a field in Hertfordshire. Bring it back to London!
Did we get it? Yes! The gateway was returned to London in 2004 as part of the redevelopment of Paternoster Square.
29. Charming wardens
The beef: Nobody can be expected to actually like traffic wardens, but at least we could make their uniforms more cheery, to improve the mood. A look resembling a sky-blue Parisian air hostess might work!
Did we get it? One of the more unusual suggestions. Nothing like this ever came to pass, although warden training has greatly improved.
30. To abolish pay-as-you-enter buses
The beef: Routemaster buses are slowly being phased out. Their one great advantage is that you can pay after boarding, instead of slowing things down by paying the driver. Ideally, keep the Routemaster; otherwise, at least find a way to keep pay-after-boarding.
Did we get it? Sadly, Routemaster buses are now a rare sight on the streets, and none can be boarded as regular services. Happily, though, the payment delays have been addressed. Oyster and contactless technology means that passengers can pay on entry much faster than the days when cash was king.
Verdict: Mostly tick!
31. The improvement of Regent's Park Zoo tearooms
The beef: "... The food and service given to the average gibbon compares favourably to those on offer in the tearooms". Improvements are needed.
Did we get it?: Catering at almost all London visitor attractions is much superior to what we remember from the 1980s and 90s. This was the case last time we had lunch at the Zoo, with mediterranean salads and superior quiches in places of the plateless chips served up in the 1980s article. That said, our roof terrace lunch was partially stolen by starlings.
Verdict: Tick! (Mostly.)
32. Restore saluting
The beef: "Members of London Transport, British Telecom, the Gas Board, British Rail, the AA and RAC shall salute when addressing the public."
Did we get it? Thankfully not. What an appalling suggestion.
33. To erect statues of contemporary heroes
The beef: Most of London's statues (even the newer ones) commemorate old military duffers. Let's have something a bit more contemporary. Suggestions include Lord Olivier outside the National Theatre, Richard Dimbleby outside Broadcasting House, Henry Moore outside the Tate, Graham Greene in Doughty Street, Evelyn Waugh outside White's Club and Dame Edith Evans, John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson on Shaftesbury Avenue.
Did we get it? Dissatisfaction with London statuary is a centuries-old phenomenon, which has flared up again recently. The question about who deserves recognition and who does not will never find a universally agreed answer. Positive strides have been made, however. Many of our more recent statues have commemorated community leaders, rights activists or even everyday tradespeople. Of the (white male-dominated) list of suggestions given in the 1988 article, only one has come to pass: the statue of Lord Olivier outside the National Theatre.
Verdict: Tick! (With caveats.)
34. To introduce sanity tests for all motor-cycle messengers
The beef: London has a problem with motorbike couriers who take to pavements and jumping lights in a bid to cut through traffic. They should be made to sit annual medical examinations to check for "mental unreliability", along with the drivers of Post Office vans, evening newspaper vans and Volvos.
Did we get it? Hardly. The popular target for such vexation has merely changed to delivery cyclists and patrons of the electric scooter.
35. Bring your own wine in restaurants
The beef: BYOB schemes are popular in the Antipodes, but rare in London. Such schemes are cheaper for diners who avoid significant mark-up, and mean that restaurants don't need to apply for a licence.
Did we get it? Certainly did. London now has BYOB restaurants in all corners of town. We chose some favourites here.
36. Courtesy campaign
The beef: Those interacting with the public should always show common courtesy, and those who do not should be put in the pillory. "In our estimation, the doorman at Joe Allen's restaurant in Covent Garden is the first appropriate candidate for such treatment."
Did we get it? We sense this suggestion comes from the same highly-strung individual as "restore saluting". And singling out one individual is a low blow (the restaurant is still going strong over 30 years later and no doubt has sterling staff these days). It's hard to judge whether courtesy levels are better or worse than in the 80s. We all encounter shitty service from time to time, but staff training norms have surely improved since the 80s. Subjective one.
37. Commuting on the Thames
The beef: The Thames, once London's greatest highway, is a lost asset. Let's launch a fleet of water buses to add a more charming option to the commuter routes.
Did we get it? Various river bus schemes had been trialled before the article and others would be attempted in the 1990s. It was only with the advent of the Thames Clippers, though, that our city could claim a reliable, regular river service. The Clippers are now well used (by both commuters and tourists), with 19 vessels serving 24 stops, most recently at the new Barking Riverside pier. A service to and from Gravesend is planned.
38. To restore the lost rivers of London
The beef: London paved over most of its rivers during the industrial revolution, when they became choked with waste. In these times of greater environmental awareness, we could set free the Walbrook, Fleet, Tyburn and Westbourne and let them flow cleanly.
Did we get it? The 'lost' rivers of London are not so lost these days. Numerous books, websites and a successful series of novels have brought these hidden watercourses out into the popular imagination. Very few sections of river, though, have been brought into actual daylight. Boris Johnson revived the idea while Mayor of London but (you'll never guess what), he didn't deliver. All that said, many of London's surface rivers have been greatly improved in recent years, as a walk along the Wandle or Lea will confirm.
Verdict: Not really.
39. The renaming and revitalization of Network South-East
The beef: London's commuter rail services are a disgrace. Also, the name should be changed to something more sensible like "the South-Eastern Railway".
Did we get it? Network South-East wasn't an olden days equivalent of Southeastern. It was, simply put, the bit of British Rail that tackled the whole of Greater London and the south-east. Why the complainant thinks "South Eastern Railway" a better name than the more accurate "Network" is beyond me. In any case, he (presumably it was a 'he') got his wish. Network South-East was carved up into about a dozen franchises as part of the rail privatisation of the mid-1990s. Whether this led to an improved service is one of those questions with many answers.
Verdict: Hesitant tick!
40. Redesign street furniture
The beef: London's various bits of street furniture — bus shelters, litter bins, lamp posts, etc. — clutter the pavements haphazardly. Where they are necessary, they should be well designed and conform to a national standard (like post boxes).
Did we get it? If anything, the streets of London have an even greater variety of mismatched street furniture today. An exception is the City of London, whose bollards and lamps are harmoniously painted black, red and white. Otherwise, it's a free for all out there. That said, we rather like the infinite diversity, and even celebrated it on a tea towel.
41. An annual winter festival in London
The beef: London can be a dismal place in February. Let's start an annual festival, reminiscent of the once common frost fairs, to joy things up a bit. Alternatively, make a celebration out of St Paul's Day (24 January), given he's the patron saint of the City.
Did we get it? London now has no shortage of winter festivals — usually tied into Christmas and heavily commercialised. A specific festival in February to lift the spirits sounds like a good idea to us. St Paul remains uncelebrated in any big way.
Verdict: Partially, but not really.
42. To extend the opening hours of art galleries and museums
The beef: Most museums close their doors just as offices are kicking out. Let's have longer hours so we can visit after work.
Did we get it? It's still the norm for museums and galleries to close around 5 or 6pm. However, many venues stay open late once a week (e.g. British Museum and National Gallery close at 8.30pm and 9pm, respectively, on Fridays), or else put on special Lates evenings.
43. Improvements to the London cab driver
The beef: The usual rants about the nature of the stereotypical cabbie. But also the suggestion that each cab could have a roof-mounted light system, to show which compass direction the driver is most inclined to go in. Also, more drivers should have phones.
Did we get it? Well, we certainly got the phones, and then some. The introduction of app-driven services like Uber has shaken the industry like no innovation since the internal combustion engine. But the roof-light system would surely prove overly complex and has never been adopted.
44. Retractable domes for sporting arenas
The beef: Lord's, Wimbledon, Twickenham, Wembley... all could be improved with a retractable roof, to keep everyone dry during inclement weather.
Did we get it? Mixed bag here. Wimbledon's Centre Court gained a retractable roof in 2009, with No.1 Court following a few years later. Wembley Stadium (entirely rebuilt since the 1988 article) has retractable roof structures that keep the crowds dry, but does not cover the pitch. Twickers and Lord's remain uncovered, and possibly always will be.
45. To improve London's shopfronts
The beef: Too many shops have garish signs, with Underwood's Chemists taking the crown. Councils should develop regulations to encourage more harmonious frontages.
Did we get it? Not really. Garish colours continue to dominate the high street, although many conservation areas have put controls in place. These days, we're lucky to have any shops left at all.
46. Brighten up Buckingham Palace
The beef: Buckingham Palace is all a bit vanilla. Aside from the Changing of the Guard, there's little for the tourist eye to alight on. How about a giant cuckoo clock that, on the hour, sends out the oversized visage of a member of the royal family?
Did we get it? The Palace remains as stately and drab as ever. We're not sure a regal cuckoo clock is the answer, but some kind of intervention is still warranted. How about the traditional trick for posh houses: cover it in ivy?
47. New use for County Hall
The beef: Since the Greater London Council was dissolved in 1986, the South Bank landmark has been largely empty and is set to be turned into flats or hotel space. How about turning it into a giant gallery, in which London's main museums could display all the art and antiquities that won't fit into their prime sites?
Did we get it? We got the Shrek Experience, the London Aquarium and the London Dungeon. Nuff said.
Verdict: Tick, but not quite as worthy as anticipated.
48. Climbers on eyesores
The beef: The Brutalist buildings of the South Bank spoil the river! Meanwhile, the Barbican is an utter eyesore. Clothe these monstrosities in Virginia creeper to soften the edges.
Did we get it? No, but most of us have learned to love these concrete buildings, and to cover them in creepers would be sacrilege.
Verdict: Nope, thankfully.
49. To bring back trams
The beef: London lost its trams in the 1950s, but the time is right to bring back more efficient modern versions.
Did we get it? South London's trams began operation in 2000 and now cover 28km between places like Wimbledon, Croydon, Mitcham and Beckenham. The article envisaged a return of central London trams which, despite a high-profile attempt by debut Mayor of London Ken Livingstone, never saw fruition.
Verdict: Tick (partially)
50. London's dress sense
The beef: London was once the best-dressed city in the world, but today languishes in a culture of sportswear and casuals. Bring back elegant dress.
Did we get it? London dress sense is, if anything, more diverse and vibrant than ever before. We've not gone back to the kind of uniformity and formality that the commentator seems to pine for. London's dress sense is more "anything goes", and is all the better for it.
Verdict: No, happily.
How did the panelists do?
It's tricky to tally just how many of the 50 ideas came to pass. Some, like commuting on the Thames, are fairly clear cut. Others, like making London more courteous, are open to subjectivity or caveat. Still others, like improving the phone directory, are irrelevant to modern London. We reckon about 30 of the 50 items have come to pass in one form or another, though not necessarily as the commenter might have imagined.
Lists of ways to improve London are still a common topic for discussion. We've made our own suggestions here, as well as thinking up 15 ways of improving the transport network. With any luck, some future holowriter of the metaverse will revisit our own lists in 40 years time.
50 Ways to Improve London is accessible via the British Newspaper Archive (£). All images by Matt Brown.