London: City of Disappearances

Friday 10 November 2006

As part of my recurring curiosity about London’s psychogeography, I went to the launch of the book London: City of Disappearances in Bishopsgate. Bishopsgate was an appropriate location for the launch: the City’s frontier, the line of the old city wall acting as a threshhold where the establishment’s corporate bastions give way to the rapidly redeveloping East End. All around the Bishopsgate Institute’s Great Hall are new cafes and bistros built over what was formerly bohemian squalour, and before that working class and immigrant enclaves.
My own place in Hackney is on a similar border, but between two manifestations of the same economic weather. To the west, gentrification and property speculation encroaches, as the housing estates gradually disappear, one by one. Just to the east lies Olympic territory, the Hackney Marshes destined for wholsesale reconstruction by 2012.
The book, a collective repository of memories from the famous and unknown alike, solicited from an open call for contributions, was edited by Iain Sinclair, whom I have discussed several times before. He spoke of the intertwining of history and myth, of the city as a tissue of ephemera related from one individual to the next, its identity made or lost through what someone remembers or forgets.
“Every appearance is a disappearance,” we were reminded, thinking of the construction sites that surrounded us. It was not a necessary injunction. As a newcomer, I knew that arriving in a city entails always being reminded of how much you have already missed. As for Londoners, they are so preoccupied with memories, with conservation and preservation, that every change in the city is regarded as a loss. The preservationist urge is so strong in most Western cities today that the population’s response to the cityscape is almost entirely reactive, focussed exclusively on what is to be destroyed, with no deep consideration of what is to replace it. Really, it would be more instructive to remind ourselves that every disappearance is an appearance, for ill or good.
Sinclair himself has been guilty of this kind of barbaric nostalgia – who, not knowing what is of value, hoards everything – reacting to every alteration and relocation with an innate fear and mistrust. Transported back to Victorian times he would have doubtless been dismayed by the excavation of the sewers. His attitude has become more enlightened lately, having explored further afield into the suburbs, and learning from J.G. Ballard how to appreciate the new city that has sprung up in the Docklands.
Someone asked how he knew that all the stories collected are true. “I don’t.” Everyone invents their own world, and so each London described cannot help but bear a greater or lesser resemblance to the city you or I would recognise. Some of the collected memoirs are likely fabrications; some flatly contradict each other. (Two ageing anarchists in the book claim to have been working in the same Charing Cross Road bookshop at the same time, and each vociferously denies that the other was there.)
The book will not give a definitive overview or coherent mapping of a city plainly seen, but hopefully in its omissions, repetitions, dead ends and contradictions, its confusion will make a truer reflaction. As someone who prefers to play the hunter-gatherer of used and remaindered books, it will again be a portrait partly eclipsed by time when I get around to reading it.
  1. Great post. I'm interested in Sinclair but I'm yet to actually read any of his books. Any you particularly recommend?

  2. There were other writers present on the night, but in the interests of brevity I focussed on Sinclair. Lights Out For The Territory is the key work: non-fiction, tying together his various obsessions, sources for his fiction, his vision of London and fellow artists. I was fascinated by it before I even thought of moving here; now it's my Rough Guide to London.

    The fiction I'm still getting into: Downriver looks promising, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings descends into turgid, "shamanistic" verbiage that presumably seems loaded with meaning if you're heavily intoxicated. His other novels may suffer the same problem.

    I just read Rodinsky's Room, his collaboration with Rachel Lichtenstein (who was also speaking at this night in Bishopsgate). It looks specifically at the old Jewish community in London's east end, in particular on one particular, mysterious inhabitant. Sinclair, however, can't help digressing into talking about Michael Moorcock or the filming of Performance, which I can't remember being connected to the subject at hand in any way. This may or may not be a problem.

  3. Oh, and Lights Out For The Territory.

  4. Thanks. I might check out Rodinsky's Room because of the Moorcock connection (or lack of connection).

  5. Sinclair wrote a BFI Modern Classics monograph on Cronenberg's film of Crash – right up your alley Tim.

  6. Thanks, Laura. I'll add it to the list.

  7. The Moorcock connection is very small, I should add. Just something about him living in Texas and pining for the duller aspects of British life. Or was that Malcolm Bradbury? I always get the two confused.

  8. 'London Orbital' is an essential read – as Sinclair says far more eloquently than I can remember, you can tell a lot about a city by the things that drift out to its fringe, the things that we would like to forget about or would like to hide.

  9. Ah yes, "London Orbital" is on my to-do list. I'm very curious about what he finds out there.