London: Unreal City


This article originally appeared inVector , the journal of the BFSA. I’ll be discussing imaginary cities with Kit Caless on Resonance FM at 3 today, so I thought I’d post it here.
London is fractal.

It’s dark and I’m walking a route north from Deptford that I’m sure I’ve taken before, but this time it doesn’t seem to be the same.I feel I’m getting further inward rather than further along, deeper into one of the city’s spirals, rather than closer to the Thames.  Between here and the river, there shouldn’t be enough room for this many convolutions, this much detail. I recognise that old scrapyard – nothing but trees within the walls—  but where did this little garden with its frozen pond come from? Why does the Gerkhin, occasionally looming on the horizon, above the lower, closer  heights of Rotherhithe, always seem to be apparently in the same place, the same distance away?

London is full of alternate realities: you can’t travel through it without brushing against them. In the once-Blitzed streets where 17th century livery halls abruptly give way to brutalist concrete , you can see a confluence of  Londons conquered, complicit or blissfully untouched by the third Reich.  London has time travel:  the resurrected Globe; the temple of Mithras dragged up from under Walbrook Street to Temple Court;  the anonymous remains of Tudors, Romans, and ancient Britons that the Thames sometimes recedes to show preserved in the mud.  From the Thames Path, you can peer through a rank of blackened Victorian arches  sprouting buddleias,  at the  bright, sterile palace of Canary Wharf. A green laser divides the night sky above Christopher Wren’s domes, marking the Greenwich Meridian. There’s nothing to unite these fragments except the modern heir to the Victorian smog, the ubiquitous fine black dust that coats nostrils, nail-beds, and penetrates even closed and untrodden rooms.

The skyline only began to climb only in the sixties, but now it’s hard to imagine it static,  London is always climbing itself up the ladders of swivelling cranes, always tinkering with itself. Very tall buildings are, apparently, a reliable indicator of an economy  approaching crash. Just completed, the Shard shimmers above the recession it predicted. Below, the beggars that faded from the bridges and underpasses for a decade or so are back in force.

London is a godawful mess. It offers beauty only in patches and shifts of light, rarely in steady, reliable expanses. It’s no surprise that its masters have never  been quite satisfied with it. The city owes itself now not only  to disasters overcome but to endless attempts to make it more like somewhere else.  More like an ancient Greek agora,  more like a continental cafe culture, more  like a monolithic fortress on a distant planet… architects have  shuttled it back to a romantic past or hurried it into an imaginary future.

The Olympics, the chunks of Soho have been carved away for  Crossrail, have been only the latest attempt to shift the place’s identity, to tidy it up a bit; now. In the long term, London can probably stand the loss and the waste: it  has absorbed far worse, and you can’t ruin a city this jumbled. For now, though, there’s only the spectacle of a government amusing itself by writing dystopian sci-fi it into the actual city: a missile-bearing warship to be moored  in the Thames and criminal sanctions for using the words “Twenty Twelve” the wrong way on pub signs or on the internet.

London has something dreamlike encoded into it. It will readily lend itself to visions of Hell, and it will never credibly give you Utopia, but  it has infinite room for the weird.  Shelley and Eliot saw the abyss  in its massive, relentless busyness, Dickens imagined dinosaurs roaming up the Strand. Virginia Woolf gave Clarissa Dalloway  a perfect summers’ day in a London at its freshest  and most glittering,   but always on the point of hallucinatory metamorphosis: a London  populated, in the visions of a shell-shocked war-veteran, by dogs about to turn into men, birds singing in Greek, while even the ostensibly sane wonder if perhaps at midnight the city reverts to the ancient landscape the Romans saw. Arthur Conan Doyle subtly inserted  imaginary squares and stretched Baker Street  more than double its length to accommodate Sherlock Holmes (The street numbers only went as high as 85 in the 1890s, it was only extended up into the 200s later.)

London imitates fiction imitates London. The city lives and breathes – sometimes literally – its own mythology. Once a huge slab of fog settled on the Thames  as I was crossing Tower Bridge.  Suddenly this truly was Unreal City — landmarks were reduced to transparent outlines, people to spectres – and they loved it: every cluster of people I passed was happily chattering of London’s legends and how this was just like them; they were delighted by the heightened sensation of walking from a workaday pavement straight into story. Does anywhere else open so many portals back, forwards and sideways across time and into?   Other cities are grander, many are a fusion of ancient and modern, but are any so varied as to allow for the underworlds of Neil Gaiman and Ben Aaronovitch, and Philip Reeve’s ambulatory predator-city, and Mary Gentle’s magical Tudor capital, and Susanna Clarke’s Regency scientist-magicians, and Anthony Burgess’s ultraviolent wilderness, and J.G Ballard’s submerged ruins?

But are we getting to know the multiple Londons too well? It’s been joked that adding “in London” to the blurb of a book has become the genre equivalent of adding “in bed” to the prediction of a fortune cookie. For instant awesome, shake freeze-dried werewolves and vampires, and just add London!  Are London’s dark places – abandoned tube stations, ancient catacombs, labyrinthine sewers –becoming too frequented? Need we fear that the shadows and ghouls that live down there are growing exhausted by the number of visitors?

It’s true that there’s more to the world of the strange than London. Lauren Beukes gave us a brilliant, grimy, complex Johannesburg whose traumas haunt its residents as a fantastic menagerie of animal familiars. Anil Menon’s Beast With Nine Billion Feet is set in a 2040 Pune  whose citizens  exploit advanced genetic engineering and escape their dissatisfactions into “Illusion” pods.  Ekaterina’s The Secret History of  Moscow  explores a world of folklore beneath the gloomy post-Soviet streets. And the Anglophone writers have also explored the fantastic side of Venice, Paris, Istanbul … but with so little of the world’s modern literature is translated into English that it’s hard to know, from here, what else might be out there.

But while I hope more of the outer world flows at last into this country and this city, I don’t think writers need to worry about digging too deep, or loading too much into London.

London can take it. London always has more.

This entry was posted in Essays. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.