The English will always cheer an underdog – no matter if they are English, Scottish or even French – in the interests of fair play, another ideal the English hold in equally high esteem. The English have always loved the underdog: ‘Eddie the Eagle’ Britain’s first (and only) Olympic Ski jumper was ranked 55th in the world at Calgary’s winter Olympics in 1988 and Eddie had all of England cheering for him.
We are a small nation who have taken on giants giving us a David versus Goliath mentality. As a fellow “David” let me relate to you a story while trying hard to conceal a smirk.
The old Wickhams department store on Mile End Road, completed 1927, is a masterpiece of thwarted desire. Although called the “Harrods of the East”, its architectural model was Selfridges, its facade; a confident parade of giant iconic columns in imitation of the Oxford Street version. It even goes one better by having a tower in the centre: Gordon Selfridge planned one for his store but never achieved it.
All would have been perfect had it not been for the Spiegelhalters, a family of jewellers who owned a two-storey building near the middle of the site. They were descendants of the first Mr Spiegelhalter who had set up shop in Whitechapel in 1828 after coming to Britain from Germany.
The business had moved to 81 Mile End Road in 1880. The Spiegelhalters refused every inducement to sell up, causing an exceptional case of colonnadus interruptus, their little structure causing the march of columns to stop and start again. It also meant the tower was built slightly off-centre. The original idea for Selfridges — a completed colonnade plus a tower — was fated to be achieved in neither Oxford Street nor Mile End Road.
What we have instead is more interesting, a graphic demonstration how competing ambitions and sheer obstinacy shape a city. As it turned out the Spiegelhalters lasted longer. Wickhams closed in the Sixties.
Is there a lesson to be learnt here?