London: More To Discover?
I’ve always joked that London is an onion; break through one layer and there’s another beneath, and another. It’s provided a rich seam for me with the Bryant & May books, but also with other volumes from ‘Soho Black’ to ‘Disturbia’. One of the problems you face when researching London is that books are not enough; you have to see and feel the city for yourself.
The ‘Gentle Author’ behind ‘Spittalfields Life’ (both the website and its books) has been digging deeper into his particular area and balancing past lives with present ones. Its a technique that works wonders because too many London books retread old ground (I can never read another Oscar Wilde or Jack the Ripper account, even if there really is new evidence).
The next Bryant & May novel will look into the city’s taste for insurrection, and that research took me into the past, but it’s time I explored more present-day London lives. For all of its much-vaunted multiculturalism, very little is seen or heard from ethnic communities in the city, many of which remain secular and invisible. Perhaps the onion analogy is wrong and the city should now be considered a series of locked boxes, each inside the other. In some cases, finding the key proves almost impossible.
For example, my former street, which featured in ‘The Water Room’, was traditionally an area of Irish descendants but has now been taken over by the Somali community. The Irish were garrulous blenders-in, the Somalis are insular and have nothing to do with their neighbours. So where the history of that street was once easy to chart, it is now closed off.
More and more London areas have become like this, from the hidden Singaporeans who own many of the new flats around King’s Cross to the Russian and Italian super-rich who live behind security bars in Knightsbridge. How can a mere writer gain enough access to discover anything about these people?
It’s a problem that continues to grow as the newly arrived Londoners disappear behind electronic walls.
The photograph above is by Jenny Pockley, whose ‘London’s Story’ is at Sarah Myerscough gallery, 15-16 Brooks Mews, W1K 4DS from 24 September until 14 October. The gallery is open Monday-Friday, 10am-6pm, Saturday 12pm-3pm, entrance free.