:: Article

In the flicker

By Dale Lately.

London is eternal. London is infernal. Its Elizabethan inhabitants walked amongst extant pillars erected by the Romans, the sixteenth century antiquarian John Stow could talk of great Medieval houses ‘of old time built upon arched vaults, and with gates of stone’ dotting the city of his day. Wren’s mighty icons of Church and State jostle among today’s post-modern totems to turbo-capitalism. Ever since I arrived here at the dawn of the twenty-first century my walks have been concierged by drills, demolition, cranes, destruction, construction, fenced-off floodlights spearing the night sky. Gashes and open wounds in the skin of the city. Victorian brick and Portland stone have crumbled, and in their wake have risen the postmodern playthings, the glass walls and the steel-frame skeletons. CrossRail. St. Pancras. The Shard. The hand of history, cleaning, clearing, creating – the flux is the only constant. London is eternal. We live in the flicker…

‘We live in the flicker,’ intones Marlowe, the sea-weary storyteller at the heart of Heart of Darkness, as he gazes upon the reaches of the Thames beyond Gravesend. ‘May it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday…’

Look east along the Thames today and you see corporate glass stretching into the night sky, part of the new financial colonialism that has seen the Docklands redreamt as a privatized Shangri-la. It continues to radiate waves of gentrification through what were once the slums of East London: kebab shops swallowed by upmarket cafes, Brick Lane made safe for DJ bars and indie record stores, loft apartments seeding themselves in former sweatshops. Myths brawl for space here. Jack the Ripper and Cable Street, the young Lenin and the embryo of Communism, Old Nichol, Dickens’s London. This is Tower Hamlets, famous and infamous, a borough tangled together in 1963 from the crumbling backlots of Bethnal Green, Poplar and Stepney, its clumsy name – that jarring collision of rural yeomanry and the inner-city – somehow perfect for a heartland of pie-and-eels cockerney transformed into multicultural Kebabylon: minicabs jostling with microbars and art galleries, third-gen Hindus and Sikhs touting curries to thriftstore hipsters. The spoils of empire have washed up here in the docks: plunder from the Commonwealth, sugar, diamonds, slave booty. Ghettoes have flourished in the back-alleys of Bow and Whitechapel and Wapping. Huguenots, Ashkenazis, Sylhetis, Somalis have jostled among its redbrick alleys. Like London itself, it’s a great work of creative assimilation – and like London itself, it’s desperate to take the more uncomfortable aspects of its history and airbrush them out.

Beyond history

It was a moist Winter’s night when I arrived at the Idea Store Whitechapel. Five floors of smoked glass and tetra cladding reared up beneath the skyscrapers, replacing the old borough library that once stood in Whitechapel, a relic of the great Victorian drive to bring literacy to the working poor. All shiny PFI-financed modernity, the Idea Store promised the impossible: to provide a focal community hub to one of the most diverse places on earth. Below it, street markets greeted the traffic as the Mile End road opened up into the mouth of Aldgate and the Square Mile. Turks and Koreans flogged noodles from stalls while skyscrapers speared the night. The low-hanging cloud burnt with a reddish glow, like the coal miasmas that would have clung to the capital in Conrad’s day. The air was freezing.
I climbed the floors through a strip-lit murk, dodging Babel clusters chattering in unknown languages, hollering into phones, locked into screens. Gone were the dusty, musty shelves. Gone was the shuffle and rustle of pensioners working their way through today’s paper. The prim oak desks, the draughty halls, the overtones of learning and condescension – all done away with. Even rooms had been done away with. The floors opened up like silicon circuits, conduits for mutual observation and surveillance. An aesthetic of inclusivity based on Bentham’s concept for an Enlightenment prison. The skyscrapers beamed on.

The age of transparency

One day historians will surely spot the architectural fingerprints on these new Panopticons: they’ll see them in the leisure centres, NHS complexes, Sure Start Academies of our age. Their curtain-wall glass will come to define our era in the way that crescent terraces defined the Regency, their open-plan gestures at post-colonial harmony, their post-modernism hinting at an age unstained by history. What happens to the library in a world that no longer needs one? In the dim, smudged light I found books among the shelves, old hardbacks, multi-lingual paperbacks. They bore Dewey stickers but there was something haphazard about their arrangement, as if they’d been an afterthought in the building’s design. I held a couple of them in my hand, sheathed in thick cellophane, like old condoms. They felt flimsy, plasticky somehow. A distant recollection of being a child in a library, picking up a book and holding it in my hand, flickered and then faded. I climbed on.

There was a café on the top floor where I bought a latte and gazed out over the high tech financial dystopia of the City while cash-in-hand precariat and down-at-heel migrants slumped back in chairs. It was a grim Winter evening and the head of the tallest skyscraper – an impossible blade of fiery glass – had disappeared into a blur of cloud. Near me a bunch of hip international creatives were planning something over laptops. I flicked through one of the paperbacks I’d picked up, then gave up after a few minutes. Few others were reading. From below the stepped ziggurat of a colossal Sainsbury’s burnt into the night sky.

‘… Like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker – may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling.’

Somewhere down below, in the dark, lay the kebabbatoirs and backlots of Whitechapel and Bethnal Green, the once-slums of east London now fetching multimillion land valuations, ripe for lucrative development and gentrification. I glanced around the café, its curtain-wall glass and neutral colours shorn of queasy historical associations. An architecture of apology. A PFI tabula rasa, Blade Runner aesthetics updating the library for the age of frictionless finance. Could it be that a place like this, so keen to whitewash the stain of a colonial past, had itself been colonised?

The place was thinning out. The young creatives had gone somewhere else, and there was a shuffling restlessness in the air, of the night drawing late, too late to be here. As I descended darker skinned, poorer locals were watching clips, checking news, emails in scripts I didn’t recognise. Soccer listings in Arabic, Moroccan telenovelas, news portals. I imagined them sitting here till late, till someone switched the power off, then sloping off with a heavy step to flog donor kebabs to the post-pub crowd, or kipping down on a sofa only to venture out into a muddy dawn to man a stall on the Commercial Road. Libraries closed at five or six in the industrial age, now they creep towards the twenty four hour clock, the sleepless city. The glass gleamed my reflection back at me.

I wandered into the ghostly Crossrail office, one of the Quangos involved in developing the local area, where a little exhibition display had been arranged. The staff had left for the evening but there were electronic maps glowing beneath the PFI insignia. A schematic showed high speed links ploughing their way through the east end, through Whitechapel and Stratford and beyond, into places like Seven Kings and Gidea Park, new frontiers along the Thames Gateway. Urban sprawl that the Victorians who once built a crumbling library near here never imagined. Urban sprawl that even the people who conceived of urban sprawl could barely imagine. The Transport For London propaganda lining the walls breathed promise of growth and job creation. A new city was being unveiled: the chaos and dirt and debris of Whitechapel awaited clearing and cleaning. The street markets below, the migrants flogging noodles and chips and kebabs, perhaps they too would be tidied away before long. Only the gleaming financial towers would stay. The screens around me hummed in silent approval.

In the flicker

One day, I knew, I would fail to recognise the streets around us. The antiquated brownstones that line this gateway to the Square Mile, the low-rise jumble of rooftops – it would all just be just another memory. Already I’d forgotten what the London of 2001 used to look like, or the old St. Pancras station, or the concrete base of the Centrepoint tower. They’d been superseded, upgraded. The smells of draughty old libraries and mouldering twentieth century underground stations would die with me and my generation, mistily recalled one day for future grandchildren or great-grandchildren perhaps. Back then they still had these places where you could go and read, finger the actual paper of the books… One day even the Idea Store would be replaced by something better. All it took, presumably, was the right idea.

The whispering automatic doors purred as I stepped out into the dark. London howled with traffic; streetlight burned up into the night. I breathed it all in, the fumes, the cold, the freezing air, and looked back up at the Idea Store against the Wintry skies, the skyscrapers beyond it emptied for the night, but for teams of migrant cleaners running low-hum vacuum cleaners over computer keyboards amongst the transparent glass. Then I looked back down. Traffic screamed amongst angry sodium streetlight. Faces rushed through the crowds. London was infernal.

Dale Lately
is a contributor to Litro, Dead Ink, Smoke, Culture Counter, OpenDemocracy and Pop Matters, as well as being shortlisted for Flashtag Competition 2013, the BIGGER Short Story Competition 2012, and published in the print anthologies From the Slopes of Olympus to the Banks of the Lea and Triskele’s Words with Jam. He has also run a storytelling night featured in The Times and writes about anti-social media at his blog.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, April 27th, 2014.