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‘What Is London?’

Photo: Tim Chapman, © 2006

Editor’s note: the following is a talk given at London ‘City Hall’ in 2004 at the ‘What is London?’ seminar. Iain has asked me to point out that the talk was improvised and given to an audience of practitioners, but I persuaded him to let us publish it all the same. Thanks to Iain for this.

How the Thames has shaped London

I am not a scholar nor an academic. I do not have any constituency; I am not a politician. I am just somebody who has bumbled about strategically trying to survive in London since 1968 and who has occasionally written accounts of curious walks, such as the most recent one in which I decided to define what London actually was, and where it finished, by circumnavigating the M25 on foot.

The most important thing for me, and I felt it again this morning walking here, is the very special light along this river. It is so persuasive. In a day’s walking through London, the light changes all the time. When we just have to shuffle between meetings or we only see the open air for a brief period, we can have that darkness. However, if you are out there — if you take the opportunity to walk this river, which is the meaning, history and blood of London, then that light will change and shift all through the day. You can walk from the estuary in the rain, with clouds heavy and pressing down, and suddenly the clouds will part and you will see shafts of sunlight.

These epiphanies are the nature of London — its duality — and have been from the time the Romans were here establishing the religion of Mithras, the Mithraic religion which is schizophrenic and dualistic. It is darkness and light. The whole sense of London is always that, the kind of darkness you find in the gothic novels of Peter Ackroyd or Michael Moorcock, and the light you find in new writers like Zadie Smith, who show a multicultural city engaged and energised.

There is always a sense of strategic reality, political reality; things cannot be as the visionaries pitch them and would like them to be. The Temple of Mithras, which once stood alongside a now-vanished river coming down through the city, has actually moved into the grounds of a Hong Kong bank. It was dug up and replaced, so it is not where it was. Its meaning is completely changed and perverted — the alignments are all different and there are just a few rocks in the ground – but from these rocks can be traced the history and the blood of London. It is there. It comes in with the Romans, with the Vikings, and with wave after wave of immigrants. The most important thing is that we must know where we are before we can tell who we are.

We must also be very careful to understand that London, above everything else, is a city of language. It is now a city of many languages. Even the shapes of the buildings, the adverts on the walls, the signs, the scraps of paper you find in the gutter, all these things obsess me, and they are all forms of language — including graffiti. In an earlier book called Lights Out for the Territory I did an enormous survey, a gigantic ‘V’ that ran from Hackney down to Greenwich, where there was an exhibition about language in the university, and back up the other side of the River Lea recording the cultural contour lines of London in terms of the graffiti.

Hackney has a fabulous anthology of graffiti from anarchists, Kurdish political groups, Marxists, and just ‘taggers’ — often middle-class kids. The whole landscape was awash with these things, which people would treat as eyesores and as a disgrace the city should do something about. On the other hand, it is a sign of diversity and energy. As you moved into quieter, deader, more suburban boroughs, of course the graffiti vanished but I actually — bizarrely — felt diminished because some of this language was going.

In a place such as City Hall, I am very much aware that there are actually two forms of discourse and language that come into play. The normal one is the realpolitik, the political language of business, which most of you would be engaged with, and which I characterise perversely as taking real evidence — documentation, facts, committees and all the rest of it — and turning it into a final form which is not true, which is smoothed over and presented in the best possible light.

The side I represent, the poetic, which I use in the broadest sense, takes in all kinds of artists, painters, writers and anybody who thinks about the city. We all bend the evidence to start with. We tell lies, use fiction, exaggerate, satirise and do all of that to arrive at a truth. There is a naked truth or there is nothing for those writers. That side of it is the argument I would like to put.

That is how I see the river, in the way that the poets from Alexander Pope through to William Blake, Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot have been obsessed; they have understood that the river itself is London. Out of the river comes London. Out of the sediment of the river comes London, and it gradually grows up.

First of all, where we are is geology. It is geography. It is looking at Hawksmoor churches and seeing in the white Portland stone the fossils. It is in looking at the paving stones, seeing the fossil record there, that we see where the city came from — out of the sea. We see the stones that are fish. We see the symbol of the fish in the Roman city. The city exists in this wonderful multiple time.

Where are we now? What was here before? Back to language again. We are in this strange building called City Hall. It is not in the City and it is not a Hall. This is the kind of business I mean. What it actually means, saying City Hall, is that we would like to be in New York. It is a virtual city and a virtual language; we cannot be in New York, so we will borrow the name. It signals what is going to happen. It is untrue.

We are actually on the site of a warehouse where beasts were brought in, killed and slaughtered for their skins. It stank. The Victorian city on this very point was a chaos of different smells and odours. I know those smells because I used to work in Stratford East. When the docks were collapsing there was a kind of movement to subvert this by using containerisation and employing the cheapest labour, such as students and layabouts like me, to work unloading the containers in Stratford — until we realised that and went on strike. The smell was the smell of sheep casings, as they were called, which came from Australia — big bundles of skins reeking. You realise what the products of the world actually are from the cargoes of the world that came in. These were animal skins. Next was a spice warehouse. Next to that a factory that pickled herring.

All of these things were there not so long ago, within living memory. If you looked out on the river it was black with traffic, with boats carrying goods up and down. What is there now? There are pleasure cruises giving a sanitised version of London history, with someone standing there spieling away — true or untrue — and landfill barges going down, taking out the waste. The excrement of the city is carried down. There is a fabulous metaphor there too, when the presidential cavalcade of Blair and Clinton went to Le Pont de la Tour for their dinner, and they had to open up Tower Bridge to let through landfill barges. Here they were, these people in a great political moment, held up and put into abeyance because the business of the city had to be transacted — which was a great truth, unlike Le Pont de la Tour which is not French and is not in France. It is not a French restaurant; it is a kind of corporate identity thing of the virtual city.

When I go to Waterstone’s to look at books on London, suddenly there is this lovely glossy one, which is a vision of London by Terence Conran, introduced by Ken Livingstone. It is a curious thing. There is this sort of ‘neighbourliness’ between the nice luxury restaurants there, and the City Hall, which is not a City Hall, and the heritage that moves on down the river.

When you are standing on Blackfriars Bridge you see a large metal sign, such as the ones produced for all the crimes that mark the city, that says ‘Shakespeare’s Globe’ with a big arrow. It is not Shakespeare’s Globe; it is Sam Wanamaker’s Globe. It is not set where the Globe Theatre was; it is in the wrong place. The arrow is pointing in entirely the wrong direction because the arrow is only for cars. If you are in a car then you drive down this way. The Globe — as anyone can see — is actually there, but that is not how the city begins to work.

The only way you can really read the city, in my opinion, is by walking and moving through it. That is increasingly difficult, although there are great walks opening up now. The riverbank is beginning to come back into play, which I think is extremely exciting. To pass by the Dome, which was off-limits for a long time, is to see it as it really is — a piece of J.G. Ballard fantasy. It is wonderful. The biggest empty car park in London. There is this great circus tent unused and haemorrhaging money. There are several asylum seekers wandering slightly depressed through the car park picking up litter and there is a grand eco-zone of head-high grass.

It is like some vision of the future that you can walk by and carry on down towards Woolwich, Erith and all the marshes — and all this stuff that is going to become Thames Gateway. This is another wonderful term. It is as if London and the river itself were going to be turned into a gated community. Gateway to what? Come on. The housing will be erected where once upon a time criminals were sent on the Dickensian hulks; it is the same landscape. It is also where the plague ships were. It is the distance from the city to which disease and lunacy were once dispatched. If you go on to Dartford Marshes, where there is the fabulous Joyce Green Hospital, anyone from the East End knows that at one time cholera patients were shipped down there to get rid of the disease and contagion of the city, putting it out into a landscape. Thames Gateway will somehow massage the sores of the city, the inability to deal with housing.

What has happened is that nobody trusts the financial markets. They have obviously been completely dodgy, so people have been encouraged to put money into property. There are endless makeover programmes about buying two homes and doing up your property, but there is not anything to sustain that. For people like my children, who grew up in Hackney, there is no way they can now live in Hackney. Hackney is as Islington was, on some levels, and a killing zone on other levels. Hackney is a whole universe, but that is another story.

If I have been too satirical about some things, I want to speak about what I think is good to have come out of this new ‘riverine’ makeover culture. The Tate Modern retains its history. You can see its history, which was as an electricity generating plant. It is an ugly building in some ways. It was at its most dramatic at the time when it was half a building site and half what it was subsequently to become. The engines and machinery were there. You saw something on the hinge of two cultures.

Now that it is finished, I think the experience of it is the turbine hall itself. The actual art is a bit mediocre; it is not a great collection and it is not very nicely hung.There is a kind of stair system out of Metropolis. It is really a restaurant and bookshop, but the turbine hall itself is a major experience. The show that has just been there was called the Weather Project. Another Danish invader has come along, a man called Eliasson, and produced this thing which is like an artificial sun shining in this hall, with slightly sugary smoke and a reflective ceiling. This thing was very simple but it really worked. It was a like a winter sun in the blood of Londoners. It was free and people were going into this extraordinary building which gives a resonance of what the history of London had been, and it gives them a sense of what a future could be. There it is, and it does not cost them a penny. They are lying on the floor making shapes; they are making star clusters; they are just drinking in this very simple event. I think we can do those things on the river. We can do those things that grow out of the river and grow out of these buildings. If we can do that, there is genuine hope and imagination for the future.

Equally, another project in there which I think is vital and crucial is by Mark Dion, called Archaeology, in which groups of people at Tate Modern and at Tate Britain went down on to the foreshore and gathered up anything that could be found there: shards of Roman pottery, broken bones, little bits of plastic, all kinds of stuff. They created this great cabinet of curiosities in which you can pull out drawers, like an old Victorian museum, and you can see the categories of London. You can see the sediment of which London is made. It is very exciting. Those two projects are where we can perhaps make a discourse between the language of poetry, which is always going to be exaggerated and extreme and wild, and the language of politics, where real things have to be done. They do not have to be at each other’s throats all the time – as long as we are careful with language. Language has to mean something, it cannot just fall back on terms that you put on the radio: ‘issue’, ‘agenda’, ‘best value’ and then streams of strange initials like GLA, GLC, or whatever. It is a smokescreen. You know that is there so as not to give meaning. I think we need to learn to say again, and we need to look and to be.

Getting back on to the river and walking outwards, walking that way, in a sense gives you what London was, because you are reversing the journey that all the immigrants made. You are seeing the river become a sea, you see it open, you see the oil container ships going down. It is working again as the port of London worked, and as there was real life on the banks of the river, rather than a series of son et lumière virtual reality histories: Dungeons of Darkness, Stories of the Tower in terms of torture and execution. It does not have to be that. As you walk in London, the poetic or romantic vision will always bang up against the realist vision. You will be stopped somewhere on that path. I got to a place called Crossness. I was so excited to have been able to get that far. I had not been able to for years. I had always had to stop and detour, especially around the Dome. I got to Crossness, which is a monster pumping station, and I was saying to my wife how wonderful it was that we had actually been able to walk from the inner city, from Hackney, as far as that. We were going to stop at Dartford and carry on down towards the coast without being stopped once.

Of course, at that very moment a very young, red-faced policeman stepped out and said ‘Stop. There has been an incident’. We stopped and waited 10, 15, 20 minutes because these things happen. By that time a couple of dog walkers had turned up and a guy on a bicycle. The London Mob was forming itself there, and one policeman was looking very, very nervous. We all kept badgering him: ‘Why not? What is going on?’ We assumed there had been a suicide or something. He said, ‘Well, actually, it is Prince Charles’. What had been the sewage pumping station of London, as ever, has become a heritage museum. Of course you could not have one of those without Prince Charles’ cavalcade coming to open it.

Here we were, the London Mob in its bedraggled self on the riverbank trying to walk, trying to do all that, trying to experience the sky and the light — seeing this distant royal cavalcade sweep away with the photographers, and then the suddenly excited buzz and chatter of conversation of all the people who had been on their best behaviour while this visit took place.

At last we were allowed through. You arrive in evening light in Erith. I see it as it was, it is a marine town, it is a town on the side of the river, a town on the side of the sea. It is the way out. It is the landscape Joseph Conrad wrote about. Like so many of the great London writers, Conrad was an immigrant. At the period when Conrad was writing, the great writers in London would have been Henry James, who was an American but who came to London to settle. London was the place. Joseph Conrad, who was Polish and used French as his first language, lived at Stanford-le-Hope and went out sailing near Gravesend and taught himself to write in English, and agonised over this famous story called Heart of Darkness, which I have always been obsessed by as a kind of parable of colonialism and a journey down the dark Congo. It was only within the past six months that I discovered that when he himself came back from the Congo, collapsed, ill, and sick he was taken to the German hospital in Dalston. Heart of Darkness, all the journals and material he brought back from Africa, was actually cooked and created 200 yards from my own house. All the time I had been looking at this exotic notion of an African river and a journey into some kind of madness, and the thing cooks in London. London is the hinge of great fictions. By walking it or moving through it, you can experience that.

If you want to know about the future of London, the way to do it is to go backwards. The best elements in talking about London and seeing London that I discovered on the M25 walk were the novels of Bram Stoker and H. G. Wells. Dracula is the perfect description of Purfleet. Stoker sets his abbey in Purfleet and Dracula is the first estate agent. He is the forerunner of the age of estate agents. He goes out looking for property in Thames Gateway. He sends out a lawyer with a Kodak camera and actually describes how he goes out to these rundown areas, starts taking photographs and buys up bits of property. The other great image in that book is of storage and distribution. He stores Transylvanian earth and he distributes it in coffins to a series of addresses all around London, exactly where the Esso oil refinery is now and where the pickets were on the gates to stop them distributing oil. The same metaphors occur.

H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds takes place in the southeast corner of the M25, in Surrey. The images of invasion are exactly the kind of images we are getting out of the Gulf War, except that in that case the British were the ones on the run. The English were the ones who were taking to the hills and hiding in caves, helpless against weapons of mass destruction from an advanced technology. You have to keep going back in London to arrive at where we are now.

To finish I will go back to 1909, when Ford Madox Ford wrote a book called The Future of London. His vision then, and this was from an Edwardian gentleman, is very close to where we are now. He proposed a series of ring roads and parkways. He said, ‘I must define the point at which London finishes’. For him it was 60 miles out. He said that you put the point of a compass in Threadneedle Street, set it to 60 miles, and you make a great circle. Everything within that circle is London, the south coast is London, Oxford is London, Cambridge is London; all of this refers back to the gravity of the centre, the culture of London. He finishes up with a sudden vision of the future:

“A vision of huge light, white inner city filling with the greater part of the shallow bowl; that is London. All the tall white buildings would be places for the transaction of business. There would be huge open spaces flagged with stone, from which would rise memorial buildings pinnacled, domed and august; representative of the idea of London — just as grandiose skyscrapers would represent that which is material. Beneath the central place there would be a huge junction of all the lines of communication coming into London underground, and all around would lie the outer ring. It should be a penalty, an impossible offence to build a dwelling in or upon a beauty spot. In that circle there would be ample space for all things, because the alternative is a slipshod, easygoing, random collection of towns scattered along the river.

“The benevolent tyrant that I have invented for you, or an enlightened council, would only be expressing the trend of what we may see going on around us. If we gain a huge, ordered city full of light and air, we must lose a romantic and glamorous old place, dirty and full of accidental charms and appeals and poetry. We must lose too some stretches of still unspoilt country within that radius of 60 miles.

“The future of London is very much in our hands. We are the tyrants of the men who are to come. Where we build roads their feet must tread. The traditions we set up, if they are evil our children will find it hard to fight against. If you want vigilance, we must not let the beautiful places be defiled. It is our children who will find it a hopeless task to restore them.”

Author of London Orbital, Iain Sinclair has gained a reputation as one of the foremost writers on the capital. Born in Cardiff, he moved to Hackney in the 1960s. Iain trained at the London School of Film Technique and first began publishing his own poetry in the 1970s, paying the bills by working as an odd jobs man and then as an occasional book dealer. Iain’s books include Downriver; Landor’s Tower; White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings; Lights out for the Territory and Lud Heat.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, February 17th, 2007.