By Roger Tagholm
LONDON: It is hard not to see Amazon’s arrival in central London as symbolic. Just as its publishing wing grows, so it announces that it is opening a giant office just a few blocks from Penguin and Faber, just around the corner from Simon & Schuster UK, a handful of Quidditch pitches away from Harry Potter publisher Bloomsbury and almost overlooking Little, Brown down on the Thames Embankment. It’s as if they’re saying: “we’re playing your game too, now, boys, and we’re going to be neighbors — and while we’re about it, we’re going to have much bigger offices than all of you because we’re expanding and expanding and the industry revolves around us now — as you know…”
So let’s take a closer look at the building and the area — after all, the Amazon HQ (no, it hasn’t been officially confirmed this is what it will be, but everyone is assuming) is going to be as much a part of the London publishing scene as Penguin’s splendid building is off the Strand with its famous views up and down the river.
Amazon’s modern building is all steel and glass with a sweeping, snake-like roof that could also be the track of a roller-coaster – appropriate, some might say, since negotiating with the giant can be quite a ride by all accounts. According to the developers, it’s going to be a very green office, with solar heated hot water serving the WCs.
Griffins and Dragons, Oh My
The building is situated right next to the famous Smithfield meat market — the original, 19th-century building is their immediate neighbor, with the new market beyond. SixtyLondon — that is the building’s official name — rises up against the original market buildings providing so many of those contrasting, old against new juxtapositions that make ancient, world cities like London so fascinating to walk around.
When it comes to views, it will have one to rival Penguin’s. The striking building has a roof terrace overlooking St Paul’s Cathedral and on to the towers of the financial district beyond. The Old Bailey, where the Penguin Lady Chatterley trial took place in 1960, is on its doorstep.
Every square foot of London is historic, but this area particularly so. The building lies just inside the boundaries of the old City of London, marked by the famous statues of griffins or dragons bearing the red cross that is the City of London’s coat-of-arms. Who knows what publishers may read into the presence of these forked-tongue beasts just outside their biggest customer? One senior publisher recalled their Kindle negotiations:
“We’d had libel lawyers before, and we have agreements with the supermarkets that probably run to about four pages, but this was of another magnitude. Amazon arrive with their lawyers in situ as part of the normal process. When you disagree with something, another one turns up, so you end up with two lawyers. While you might get a clause taken out here and there, it starts life as a very, very, very one-way contract, so that the warranties and liabilities, for example, are all yours, rather than Amazon’s. Anything that can possibly go wrong is your fault — and basically, anyone can sue you.
“Amazon move in their own way. If they decide to do something, they’ll do it. It doesn’t really matter what you think, what their suppliers think. It’s the same with Apple and it’s the same with Google. With Amazon, Apple and Google, every now and then the Terminator face gets revealed…
This individual may certainly look at those dragons and give a bitter smile.
The staff will be spoiled for lunchtime strolls. There are some literary sites very close by. The very English poet and writer, Sir John Betjeman (1906-1984), who was appointed Poet Laureate in 1972, lived for a time in the fascinating alley that is Cloth Court, just behind the building. He wrote:
“This was the nicest place in London to live in because everything could be reached on foot, down alleys and passages. Like all country towns it had a bit of every trade. I was lucky enough to live in Cloth Fair where there was still a shop which sold cloth. On some weekly nights there was bell-ringing from the Tower of St Bartholomew’s the Great, just such bells as the walled city must have heard when there were 108 churches in its square mile. Behind me was Smithfield market with its cheerful Chaucerian characters and Medieval-looking hand barrows.”
The aforementioned St. Bartholomew’s the Great is London’s oldest church (and that’s saying something in this city where everything seems old). It is the only surviving part of an Augustinian priory founded in 1123. John Milton, the author of Paradise Lost, once hid in its entrance gate when Charles II wanted his head because of his anti-royal writings. In 1725 the American statesman and scientist Benjamin Franklin came to work as an apprentice in the printer’s office that occupied the Lady Chapel. More recently, the church featured in the films Four Weddings and a Funeral and Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love.
The sunken churchyard of St. Andrew’s nearby has a pleasant garden. The English essayist William Hazlitt was married in the church in 1808, and just beyond lies the tiny, secret garden of Staple Inn, described by Dickens in The Mystery of Edwin Drood as “one of those nooks, the turning into which out of the clashing street, imparts to the relieved pedestrian the sensation of having put cotton in his years, and velvet soles on his boots.”
Easily reachable at lunchtimes too, are Dickens’ house in Doughty Street, near the Gray’s Inn legal district, and Dr. Johnson’s house just off Fleet Street, where the “harmless drudges” — his description of lexicographers — worked on his famous Dictionary.
So, all in all, if books are your lifeblood, the location couldn’t better. And if visiting American executives want something to make them feel truly at home, there is an outpost of a hometown Starbucks almost directly opposite the building. Amazon hope to be settled in before Christmas — let’s hope some of them take a stroll to Betjeman’s house at the very least: it’s an atmospheric part of town. Of course, Betjeman had something to say about the location of Amazon’s current offices too. “Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough! / It isn’t fit for humans now…”