When did your love affair with London begin?
The seeds were there as I child, I think. I grew up in the north of England, and London always felt like a magical, distant place you only see on the telebox. But I remember the exact moment I thought ‘I’m going to love it here’. It was 1998, I’d just moved down, and I was stood outside The Horniman pub next to HMS Belfast enjoying a pint. Across the Thames, the City skyscrapers, church spires and ancient buildings were lighting up to the biggest electrical storm I’d ever seen. It was a magical moment, when I fell in love with the city.
How did you begin your career in journalism? Was it what you’d always wanted to do?
Ha, by a very circuitous route. I actually trained as a chemist, then bagged a Master’s in biochemistry. As part of the latter, I had to do an internship somewhere (or ‘work experience’ as it was called in the 90s). I chose a science publisher, learnt the ropes, got offered a job, then learned to edit and to write. From there I did a bit of science journalism before realising that I really wanted to write about London.
You have taken a step back from your full time editorial position to become an ‘Editor at large’ and spend more time with your Oyster card. Do you think there will ever be a time when you throw in the investigative towel completely?!
Yeah, although London moves so quick that I’ve since ditched my Oyster for a contactless, which I’ve now ditched for Apple Pay. I don’t think I could ever ditch London, though. Having written about it for 15 years, I still find new stuff every single day.
Describe the perfect day in East London.
Probably not like most other people’s. My idea of a good day is exploring somewhere I’ve not been before, looking out for street art, plaques, unusual buildings, pubs and coffee shops and learning something about the city I didn’t know before. Then I’d randomly bump into a friend I haven’t seen for years and we’d sneak off for a pint. Come to think of it, that happens surprisingly often.
How have you seen the Shoreditch food scene change over the past 5 years?
I’m not sure about 5 years, but definitely 10. All the street food markets were non-existent back then. Most people would have laughed at the very idea 15 years ago -- street food was all low-quality burgers with dubious hygiene standards. There’s been a well-documented revolution there. I suppose the variety of restaurant offerings has also boomed. A Peruvian restaurant 10 years ago would have been a curiosity, now they’re almost as ubiquitous as Thai. Obviously, vegan and veggie food is also on a steep upward curve.
What do you think it is about Shoreditch that attracts so many creatives into one concentrated area?
I think it’s partly historic. The area started to emerge as a creative hub around the turn of the century, when rents here were still lower than comparable parts of town. The launch of the Overground a decade ago really cemented things, putting the place on the map and linking up other cultural hubs like Dalston, Camden Town and latterly Peckham. It’s also the architecture, I think. All those old Victorian warehouses, perfect for small startups and artist studios. Plus the disused railway lands that have enabled BoxPark and Village Underground to thrive.
You’ve been at the core of Londonist for an impressive number of years now- what events and milestones would be included in your highlights reel?
Don’t remind me! Since 2015, in fact. Where have the years gone? Five milestones from the highlights reel:
The first Londonist book, which no one has heard of, called The London Collection (2006). I wrote my part pseudonymously, as I still had another day job at the time.
The point in, I think 2011, where we turned the site from an unpaying hobby into a business with salaried staff.
Conceiving and curating an exhibition of hand-drawn maps, submitted by readers, at Museum of London (2011).
Londonist’s 10th birthday party (2014), when we filled Bishopsgate Institute with hundreds of wonderful Londoners.
Our most recent book, Londonist Mapped, winning Stanford’s ‘best travel book’ award… quite ironic to win a travel book award as we’re an online publisher that rarely leaves the city!
How have you seen trends in arts and culture change over the past 13 years that you’ve been involved with Londonist?
14 years! ;-) It’s a good question, and not something I’ve really thought about before. I think the words ‘pop-up’ and ‘immersive’ have to figure highly here. Way back when, most stuff took place in well-known venues, organised top-down by institutions -- or else in a pub function room. These days, you can find something going on beneath flyovers, in disused swimming pools, on a thousand rooftops and even in people’s private houses. Culture is now all-pervasive, and often free.
Do you have any tips for anyone looking to become a part of the Londonist extended team?
We don’t often have openings, but do consider freelance pitches from people with interesting stories to tell. My tip would be to check our archive first before submitting an idea. We’re 15 years old, so there’s a good chance we might have covered something before.
If you needed somewhere to hide out for 24 hours in the whole of London, where would you go and why?
Somewhere I don’t know very well like Croydon or Romford or Uxbridge. 24 hours would be just enough to get a real sense of the place and to explore every road.
What would you say is the most overlooked area in London?
Ha, well, there are whole swathes of Outer London that few non-residents have ever heard of, let alone visited. Ever been to Tolworth or Arkley, for example? But I think the spirit of your question is more about places that perhaps people do know about, but don’t tend to get much press. I think Holborn has to be up there. Everybody knows where it is, and passes through from time to time, but it doesn’t have a reputation as a ‘cool’ place (Leather Lane market aside). There’s so much history to explore there, though - ancient alleys, gorgeous pubs, the Inns of Court, hidden squares. Go for a walk around at the weekend and soak in the history.
Londoners love to moan- true or false?!
What a banal, trite question. Be off with you! ;-)
Tricky one- what’s your favourite London fact?
Not tricky at all, because I’ve written so many London-themed quizzes! How about this? Who are the only two people to have performed at the Royal Albert Hall, and also to have been imprisoned at the Tower of London? Answer: The Krays. They boxed at the RAH, and spent the night locked in the tower after dodging army service.
If you could live in any building in London, where would you live and why?
You know, the really dull truth is that I’d just love to be able to afford to live in a 3-bedroom semi so I have adequate room (perhaps even a garden!) for my growing family. As for where - probably somewhere like Wimbledon, just because I’ve never lived round there, and I like the area.
Where has been the strangest place that your curiosity has taken you in London so far?
Either a recently excavated plague pit with the bones still in attendence, or else the roof of St Pancras station, which was a bit scary.
What has been the strangest situation you’ve ended up in when exploring London?
Crash-landing a balloon into the middle of a five-a-side game in Bexley.
You are a self confessed London obsessive with a love for all things adventurous. Have you ever found yourself in a situation that’s made you think ‘maybe i’ve taken it too far this time…?!’
Perhaps the first time I went into the sewers. I hadn’t really thought about what to expect. The reality is that you’re up to your nipples in brown sludge, while carrying several kilos of emergency breathing kit, wearing massively buoyant waders and walking on a feculent carpet of sludge. People ask me what the smell is like, but you don’t notice because every ounce of concentration is going into keeping your balance. I’ve since been down on several further occasions, and got the hang of it. The sewers are actually rather beautiful.
Thanks so much Matt for your time and awesome insight- you’ve given us itchy feet! Can you really call yourself a Londoner until you’ve been in its sewers?…
Perhaps we will leave that trip for someone else…
UNTIL NEXT TIME!