Thursday, July 07, 2005

Reading London in its wounds

A map with a whole in the middle greeted me on waking this morning. London turned into a Polo mint (Lifesaver, for North American readers) by a series of explosions in the capital's vulnerable bloodstream, the public transport network. People's responses are pouring out, and into the media. King's Cross, scene of an almighty fire that killed dozens of people and derailed the underground for years (some would say it never recovered). Tavistock Square, where my grandfather died, giving a speech to the Board of Deputies of British Jews. Russell Square, core of Modernist London, where so many university students live, where the British Museum stands as a monument to both imperialism and multicultural education. Edgware Road, terrifyingly posted as "Edgware" on many sites, although the suburb where I grew up and the subway stop for Madame Tussaud's are an hour apart. Aldgate East, end of the line, east of the city, edging towards where the Olympic regeneration project will begin. So close to where I was last Friday, filled with excitement at the new East London blooming from the depression of the 1980s, becoming a cultural centre. Where I sat in The Flea Pit, a cafe exhibiting local artists, and offering out space for screenings, reading the incredible words of Sally Potter's new film YES, persuading us to substitute love for hate, and courage for fear. I think of the scene in the film where Simon Abkarian's character, a Lebanese immigrant who has just been fired from his job after he responded to racist comments by other workers, rides the Tube alone, on Christmas Eve. The Tube, which admits everyone who can pay a fare, and carries them where they need to go - or just offers a seat for thought.
The Tube might be a joke, a complete waste of time some days, but it's so integral to London's identity -- I think people sheltering in the now-defunct British Museum stop from air raids during the Blitz. Images of safety, of companionship. In London, everyone rides public transit - unlike North America, where the car is king and anyone on the bus is either too young, too poor, or too illegal to have a car. Of course, I'm eulogising - the Tube is also a crime scene, a place of surveillance, and a source of confusion for locals and tourists alike. But as James Meek writes in his beautiful article from the vantage of east London, public transport could, if we looked up from our papers and self-interest long enough, provide community and conversation that cuts across all divisive lines, through the commonality of space and motion.
But it's there. And we do read on it - not just newspapers or ads, but books. Everyone who uses the Tube learns that nervous, hyper-attentive state of reading, checking up at stations, monitoring the stranger next to you. Long commutes are the ideal site to read - I used to do my homework on the 113 bus (when I wasn't sleeping). An average Tube journey has gone from short story to novel as the system grinds down and gets only partially overhauled. And it's in every novel, play, film about London that I can think of, or find on my shelves. As Delirium's Library is wont to do, it throws up (un)likely bedfellows: Rose Macaulay's The World My Wilderness, an anarchic post-WWII novel about bombsites and freedom, and Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, about an alternate universe coinciding with the London Tube.
Then there's the many volumes of Poems on the Underground, full of memories of "I first read this poem..." "I first discovered Anna Akhmatova..." (and the teensiest bit of ambition to be a poet on the underground ;) and the London A-Z, perhaps the best book ever written, certainly one I turn to again and again. It changes every time. There's Aldgate East station highlighted in pink, with my route to the Flea Pit. There's Russell Square, with a small black cross beside the student apartments where friends were staying.
What else? Iain Sinclair's conspiratorial black dystopias of Eighties London (perhaps the best descriptions of the East End) - or Derek Walcott's Omeros, for its melancholy stanzas on being lost, exiled in - but amazed by - London as a Caribbean man. If it's horror you want, the Tom de Ville's series Urban Gothic, full of things that go bang in the night. Or perhaps Alan Moore's V for Vendetta (read it before the Wachowski film comes out).
Or, to go another way, recent books about the Londons few people see, the London being changed and rebuilt by new communities - Monica Ali's Brick Lane, Lela Aboulela's Minaret. Alan Hollinghurst's gay London in The Swimming Pool Library and The Line of Beauty.
Perhaps above all, the London book that takes in the city and sees a battlefield, where the ghosts of soldiers walk in Hyde Park, where time stops like a bus, Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway. A book where the desire to life emerges from tragedy - but only just. Where the city is as fragile and real as the memory of a kiss opening like a tulip. Something to hold onto.
And if someone reads over your shoulder (perhaps now not the worst Tube crime imaginable), share the book with them.

2 comments:

mat felix said...

Love the blog - what a brilliant idea!

Here's a strange & unsettling addition to your London library: a novel called 'Incendiary', by Chris Cleave. It was published on Thursday, the very day of the bombings - and it's about a terrorist attack by suicide bombers on Arsenal's new stadium... Apparently Waterstones had to pull adverts showing a smoking London skyline - kind of reminiscent of all those Hollywood studios cancelling their disaster movies post-9/11...

Interesting that with London, it's a book rather than a movie. Which makes me wonder: why is it so hard to think of a list of great London movies that could stand alongside your list of London lit?

Delirium's Librarian said...

I read about that - and the fact that Waterstones pulled the posters, but not the book (some movies were pulled in the US too, or edited - like Spiderman). What's more unsettling is that Chris Cleave was being interviewed as an 'expert', like Tom Clancy in the US. Maybe his book does come from years of research, but it seems unlikely... I mean, why would terrorists target Arsenal?

As for London films, hmm. What would I have? Absolute Beginners. One of our Dinosaurs is Missing. I want to say A Matter of Life and Death because it's so Blitzy, but it's not London-ish at all. Oh, The (original) Thirty-Nine Steps, which begins with Hitchcock getting on a London bus. Naked. Wonderland. Sally Potter's short thriller The London Story. Some would include Shaun of the Dead. There's some great London stuff in Velvet Goldmine. But as for apocalyptic London - Urban Gothic probably comes closest in the visual field.

One to ponder -- and to invite posts on. Thx mat.