As a child London’s Piccadilly Circus was one of my guilty pleasures. It was exciting, dynamic and thrilling – the beating heart of a big city.
The bright lights and bustling crowds threw a young girl into a sensory overload of wonderment and exhilaration.
There was nothing better than staying out late at night aged 10 with your parents – long past bed time – to see the wonders of London town.
The flickering, illuminated lights with their gaudy colours and flashing signs danced across the sky line.
As a child it seemed huge, exciting and overwhelming.
It was also a little threatening. A frisson of life on the wilder side. A spectacle. A sonata in dazzling lights.
My mum and dad would shuttle me away from any drunks or druggies – and envelop me in a protective blanket as they hurried me down the Tube station at midnight to draw me away from the city’s evil clutches.
Even today it sends a shiver down my spine.
Forty years later as an adult and world traveller, I wonder if Piccadilly Circus still has the power to excite.
On a London trip last week I found myself in the centre of the Circus, walking to work through its busy streets, battling with the crowds and traffic.
But does Piccadilly Circus still have any charm or cachet today?
In my childhood innocence, Piccadilly Circus felt like the epicentre of one of the world’s great capital cities.
But today, it’s just like anywhere else – a smaller version of New York’s Times Square, another city space I dislike for its crowds, fakeness and gaudiness.
It’s also a massive disappointment if you’ve ever been to the world’s most spectacular illuminated city, Las Vegas with its stunning strips and casinos.
Let’s face it – Piccadilly Circus is a bit dull and distinctly undynamic.
It’s a tourist trap featuring the worse excesses of mass travel, surrounded by tacky shops selling tasteless trinkets and Union Jack T-shirts.
And the attractions aren’t that wonderful either – the Troacadero could be anywhere in the world – and has never been one of my favourite haunts.
Piccadilly is fake and fatally uncool. Basically – don’t believe the hype…
The crowds still flock here, but it looks surprisingly small and underwhelming through adult’s eyes.
The sparkle has become merely a glimmer. The spectacle has lost its fizz and excitement.
It’s a bit like a flat Coca Cola… ironic when you consider the adverts for the world’s fizziest soft drink, Coca Cola have been flashing their message on Piccadilly Circus since 1954.
All our yesterday’s are simply an illusion.
May be Piccadilly Circus was never that special?
Perhaps we simply expect more of our cities these days?
Whilst Piccadilly Circus looks flat and old-fashioned, tourists are flocking to the other side of London to see The Shard, an architectural wonder of the modern capital city.
This new Tower of Babel is all about sensation and pure thrills… as well as corporate business tourism.
The city’s new spectacles are about statement spaces and stunning buildings that cut through the envelope of the skyline. They’re one step removed from the real world.
These are amazing dream-like spaces.
To be brutally honest, Piccadilly Circus is basically a busy road junction and traffic intersection… with a few frills.
Today’s Circus was largely created in 1819, but lost most of its interesting circular form in 1886 with the construction of Shaftesbury Avenue.
The first electric advertisements appeared in 1910, and, from 1923, electric billboards were set up on the facade of the London Pavilion – creating the iconic scene that we see today.
Traffic lights were first installed on 3 August 1926 – the sign of things to come. Today you have to negotiate about four sets of annoying lights to cross the Circus… and the traffic is horrendous.
Piccadilly Circus does have one or two tricks left up its sleeve though.
There’s still one thing that I love – the statue of Anteros at its very heart.
Alfred Gilbert’s winged nude statue of the Greek god has has become a London icon – even though it was mistaken for his twin brother, Eros, for many years.
Eros was the the god of sensual love, something that historic commentators thought somewhat vulgar… a bit like Piccadilly Circus today.
Anteros, on the other hand, is an uplifting symbol of our hopes and dreams for the city… a beautiful dreamer. The god and vanquisher of unrequited love. The champion of philanthropic love and everything unselfish.
This spindly figure that symbolises the city’s heritage still dominates the large space despite its relatively small size.
A bit like my childhood dreams all those years ago.
Perhaps there is some magic left at Piccadilly Circus after all?