After but a short time in London, I quickly abandoned any and all preconceived notions of English culture and society that I had previously held. Though not my first visit to Her Majesty’s realm, more than fifteen years had passed since I last set foot on British soil. What pretensions to expertise on the region I maintained were fostered largely by history books, network news, and of course a plethora of Charles Dickens novels. Though I hardly expected visit the England of David Copperfield, my sources of information combined to impress on me a strong perception of exoticism surrounding the nation that had once ruled the United States.
Landing at Heathrow Airport, my cab ride into London did much to dispel my incorrect beliefs about the city. What first stirred my curiosity was the presence of modern edifices in the city center. My exploits in Iberia the previous summer took me to remote villages and major cities alike, all of which retained the distinct architectural and cultural aspects of the Romantic Era. Unlike the cities of Spain with which I had become closely acquainted, the major commercial districts of London were at the city’s heart. Modern buildings were interspersed in haphazard ways between Tudor and Victorian edifices. It occurred to me that this was the result of the London Blitz and IRA bombings which left many holes in the city blocks to be rebuilt after the war. This first, markedly visible disparity was a loud message that England had moved beyond its past and entered the 21st century.
Firmly aware of the United Kingdom’s current and historic role as a major stakeholder in the global economy, I was excited to visit the centers of industry and meet with enterprising capitalists over London Week. This was a sobering experience as I admittedly did hold to a decidedly Victorian image British enterprise and corporate culture. Traveling to many major firms among them Ernst & Young, CNBC, and Facebook, I was amazed at the informality of the corporate culture across all industries. Suits were viewed as relics of a by-gone age. Vertical hierarchical structures were viewed as organizational technicalities. Even relevant education as a hiring prerequisite seemed to have fallen by the wayside. This presented stark contrast not just with the Britain of the Imperial Era but with the modern American corporate world.
Indeed, the only bastion of the traditional order of things was Lloyd’s, Britain’s historic and still-thriving insurance trading center. Though the building was decisively modern, loosely resembling a coffee machine, the organization was everything I expected. We were greeted and accompanied by two incredibly polite gentlemen sporting three-piece suits. Here, the traditional dress prevailed. Enterprising underwriters and brokers cavorted with one another to secure international cargo among other assets. I was fascinated by the rich history of the industry and indeed, our guides seemed only too thrilled to discuss the exploits of their Admiral Lord Nelson and the hey-day of the British fleet when Lloyd’s was still a coffee shop. It seems I found one thing that hasn’t changed.