One of the pleasures of London is strolling down its high streets, popping into the odd coffee shop, your sole purpose being to earwig. Few things are as gratifying as tuning into that multi-lingual audio channel of this old yet young city, listening to myriad tongues of its zillions of tourists in July, peppered by the staccato and wonderfully resolute Cockney accent.
When the sun’s shining, there’s nowhere else like London as you wander aimlessly along with changing tides of people of every kind and description… “suits” pacing briskly, backpackers looking wildly about for their hostels, workmen winding each other up with double entendres, cyclists, runners, Hassidic Jews, giggling girls headed for the pub, furtive addicts. And if you’re where I was recently, Kings Cross, an interesting smattering of working girls – some clearly in the transition from boy to girl – mixed in with bright-eyed athletes arriving at St Pancras station for the Olympic Games.
You might even suspend disbelief and wonder whether the recession over here isn’t just an extravagant media spin, because right now London is pumping.
The Olympic Games follows hot on the heels of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, and the city is also milking the honour of being crowned the “World’s Best Destination” this year by travellers.
The downside is there’s queues at every Starbucks, and the Tube stations are sausage machining a number of humans around the clock. But it would be churlish to complain. It’s all part of the buzz.
The reason I was here was to see what, aside from our athletes participating in the Olympic Games, SA’s party trick is. It’s to be found, it turns out, inside one of the busiest tourist attractions in the city, the Tower of London’s Jewel House, in the form of our own Cullinan diamonds. One is set in the Sovereign’s Sceptre and other is the centrepiece of the Imperial State Crown.
With hundreds of thousands of tourists pouring into the Tower of London – 2 500 on a quiet day the Tower guard told me – that’s excellent exposure, more so since De Beers diamond group sponsored the £2.5 million re-presentation of the Jewel House and the Crown Jewels, which opened to the public in March.
Everywhere in the Tube stations are posters about the display, with the De Beers and its Forevermark (its most prestigious diamond brand) insignia proudly displayed.
The Jewel House is now a thoughtful, modernised setting designed to really show off the jewels amassed by the British monarch over centuries, and to see the jewels up close you get on the new travelator, which goes along at a slow but sensible pace, eliminating unseemly jostling even though you’re tightly packed.
The jewels are being shown off like never before, and the stars of the show are the Cullinan diamonds, to my mind anyway.
I confess, too, to a hankering for those two astonishing diamonds to be repatriated one of these days, though we could never match the celebrity status they get sitting exactly where they are.
For good measure, De Beers hosted me to a Forevermark masterclass – which puts you through the paces of selecting potential Forevermark diamonds from a handful of rough “run of mine” diamonds.
Since its launch in 2008, the Forevermark brand has proved a winner for De Beers, initially being introduced to several Asian markets and available now from authorised jewellers in the USA, Hong Kong, Japan, China and India. (It is available too in South Africa, through the Forevermark licensee Caratco.)
So I took the opportunity to wander around Hatton Garden, the epicentre of London’s jewellery trade since medieval times.
Here you’d easily imagine that far from being rare, flawless diamonds are everywhere. A more concentrated and extensive display of diamond jewellery is hard to come by, and it’s somewhat of a revelation to the novice traversing through all that windowed-off opulence.
Any belt-tightening that’s going on elsewhere in ye olde city, the sight of lovely young things with Hollywood good looks, shopping for engagement and wedding rings, makes you want to forget all that.
Talking of diamonds and such, the building that is busy changing London’s skyline, The Shard, is nearing completion, and what a skyscraper it is. At more than 305m, this 87-floor construction that Prince Charles has described as “an enormous salt cellar” will be the tallest building in the European Union, and has residential apartments in it that will reportedly sell for up to £50 million. A similar building, the Leadenhall building, which looks like a giant cheese grater, is also going up, and nearby is yet another futuristic-looking skyscraper in progress, number 150 Stratford in High street, set to become one of London’s tallest residential blocks.
My bent, though, is less architecture than art, so off I set for the Tate Modern, a strangely grey, uninspired monolith considering its purpose and its prime position in Bankside overlooking the Thames.
There to see what kind of pull the controversial artist Damien Hirst – he of the severed cow’s head in glass vitrine fame – might still have. A lot, it turns out, even though opinion is divided over whether he actually is the presiding genius of contemporary art or a conman taking us all for fools.
So much attention is he drawing that all copies of the original catalogue for the retrospective he has on at the moment, quickly sold out, at £35 per copy.
I duly paid my entrance of £14 and must report that I’m happy I did, not just to see his reflections on life and death represented in a mammoth collection of cigarette butts and butterflies, but to satiate my curiosity by observing his impressively diverse patronage.
But that’s London. Diverse, opinionated and open-minded. As long as it’s compellingly articulated, anything and everything goes.
Figures show England’s economy shrank by 0.3 percent in the first three months of the year, but that’s hard to process when confronted by so much abundancy, creativity, aspiration and tourist spend during what’s been billed by Tesco’s retail chain as “The Great British Summer”.
A day travel ticket for the London underground, travelling in and around London central, costs £8.40 (R85).