THE UNKNOWABLE CITY
Recent Reading, January 2001

I miss London, where I grew up and lived for over 20 years, and I'm fascinated by 'Englishness' as I slowly grow older and find myself, like it or not, part of English myth and culture. Albion, the rural dream, the distant city... all of this, along with Robin Hood, King Arthur, the seaside, racism and class all have to be dealt with. Recent reading seems to have all been on that theme, from a witty consideration of Englishness by Julian Barnes through to the watery centre of England, London, in Roni Horn's art book.

Julian Barnes can be slightly dry and formal in his books; my favourite remains Metroland, a novel dealing with strange friendships in the suburbs. But England, England shows him on top form, with a satire on the whole notion of what it means to be English. Jack Pitman, entrepreneur and bastard businessman, rebuilds every top English attraction on the Isle of Wight then declares the theme park a free state. Of course, things backfire on him as people start to take their roles too seriously; the reader is, amongst much jocularity and wit, brought to realise how futile and silly most of our cultural assumptions are. And how dangerous. But the book is far more than polemic or moralistic essay, most of all it is funny and knowing.

I've never been much of a fan of Peter Ackroyd's writing. His books strike me mainly as pastiche and set-pieces: his best novel, Hawksmoor, was Iain Sinclair expanded and sanitised for the general public; First Light seemed to me to draw on the work of Alan Garner; other books such as Blake were full of passages that screamed out to be noticed, self-conscious exercises in tone and manner. London the biography is of course a very different kettle of fish.

For starters, it is non-fiction and is therefore allowed to openly borrow, collect, shift and re-present information. This it does, throughout its 800+ pages. Starting with a brief couple of pages arguing for 'The City as body' the book then dives back into prehistory and the middle ages, briefly and clearly describing what archaeology and history has revealed of how the city began. After this the book gradually splinters and tangents into a set of grouped essays: two or three, sometimes more, chapters under a group heading such as 'London as Theatre'. It's fascinating stuff, full of events and details, conjecture and fact, which gradually builds up to a complex picture of the vast living entity known as 'London'. Beyond the orbits and turns on themes and specifics the book returns to a kind of linear history as it ends, chronologically picking up at the end of the 19th century, as the empire slowly wanes, and continuing through the two world wars and up to the present. The book closes with a rather new-age and nebulous little chapter making rather vague claims about things continuing to happen where they always have.

In fact this is the major sub-text of Ackroyd's book, that some kind of occult force, perhaps, keeps the city functioning, keeps trades in the same neighbourhoods, keeps neighbourhoods alive... Because it's so nebulous an idea he can only sporadically return to the theme throughout the book; every so often the author pops up to say 'I told you so...' or 'yet another example of...', which can sometimes annoy. Also annoying is the occasional repetition of a story, appearing in a chapter devoted to another theme entirely from the one where the story is first presented. There is such a morass of stuff available to any London historian that it's clear Ackroyd simply reached some sort of hiatus in organisation and got the book out as it is. Otherwise it would have become some kind of never-ending folly for the author, or a dull ten-volume tome for social historians only. As it is it's an intriguing, bewildering read, that can't fail to at times delight but also to disappoint: I wanted more on the suburbs, more about the anarchists and political rebels, less about Dickensian prisons and drinking houses. I also wanted more specific references when the author quotes - as he often does. But I quibble, for someone else can write another book. This is an exciting, intriguing project, that makes a strong case for London's specific peculiarities and powers, a city that perhaps contains a microcosm of all England within its ever-spreading sprawl.

If Ackroyd synthesises and gathers, in King of the City Michael Moorcock plunders, steals and invents a gloriously decadent, surreal and uncaring London. Best known for dreadful science fiction novels, Moorcock got some serious acclaim with his book Mother London many years ago, which has been rereleased to tie in with this 'sequel' many years later. This novel is a sub-Burroughsian epic, with it's narrator wandering through a London where fact and fiction co-exist; where Moorcock's [real] punk-sci-fi band The Deep Fix assume musical importance, where the famous intermingle with fictional characters to hilarious effect; where anything can happen and does.

This is a novel of conspiracy theories, sex and drugs and rock and roll, of the dead-ends and dark side of [a] London, of tabloid journalism and photography, of corrupt banks, bankers and redevelopers, of true love and friendship. A novel where government ministers jam with heavy metal rock stars, where millennium celebrations go wrong, where the hero loses and just about regains the girl. Where global communication is commandeered for good use, and where the city slowly recovers and survives from a twentieth century battering. Parts of the novel are some of the worst written fiction I think I have ever read, but the steamroller plot and set scenes kept me reading through these passages, and I'm glad I did. It's a glorious, ridiculous book that declines to bother with things like good form or taste.

At the heart of London is the River Thames, a dark swirling string connecting us with Europe, the sea, and our primal urges. It features strongly in Ackroyd's 'biography', but is the only subject of Roni Horn's Another Water . Beautifully printed, the book contains endless photos of the surface of the Thames, only intermittently interrupted by coroner's reports of bodies found in the river. At the foot of each page a band of numbered footnotes: a mysterious, self-referential collection of quotes, opinions and asides; an ur-text referring to no text shown, only intimated at by the photos. Footnote 466: 'These notes, rootless, flowing one into another, are tiny landmarks of relation.' Footnote 649: 'Have you ever noticed how rarely water looks like water?' Footnote 823: '(Whose reflections are these?)'

The photos are beautiful, and living with them one comes to see how much they show about the city. Every dimple of rain, every fallen leaf, every piece of litter, every faint reflection, shows the presence of weather, people, the city around it. Yet it remains mysterious and unknown: suicides enter it and are given back to the city, lifeless and unwanted. Another Water should be set beside Iain Sinclair, Charles Williams, Brian Louis Pearce, Michael Moorcock, JG Ballard and others as explorers and documenters of the unknown and unknowable city.

Rupert Loydell 2001


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