How Do You Prefer Your London?
Real or imaginary?
In my head there’s another London where every fictional character from every London book and film lives.
In this London the Droogs still maraud through Thamesmead, Mr Sloane strokes his tanned torso beside the Oasis pool, the sinister Professor Marcus knocks on a door in King’s Cross, Henry Earlforward destroys his marriage in the little bookshop on Riceyman Steps, Netta is manipulating poor dim George in ‘Hangover Square’ and Bob Hoskins tells the unfooled Americans ‘I’m a businessman and what’s more, I’m a Londoner.’
Everyone’s experience of London is different. When he was asked about the history of London last year, an unnamed 17 year-old boy said, with perfect teenaged confidence; ‘It begins with me. It ends with me.’ So his London can never be anyone else’s.
Writers create their own London, and are very good at rebuilding it as an imaginary state. It’s a tricky balance, creating a fantastical London. It has to be both recognisable and one step away from reality. The film ‘Paddington’ had rain, pigeons and grey skies, but also a bit of drag and a heartfelt London message; in a city where everyone is different, everyone can fit in.
When you reimagine London like this it all gets sparklier and more colourful, the kind of London tourists expect to find, and if you go too far you end up in a place where people still use red phone boxes and everyone has a nanny, and we all live in white stucco £5 million houses in Pimlico. It’s a fantasy city many would secretly like to see, the London of ‘Mary Poppins’ and ‘Harry Potter’.
If you’re not sure that’s true, take a walk through King’s Cross station, and see the line that’s there night and day, where people from all over the world queue up to have selfies taken with their hands on half a baggage trolley sticking out of a wall. They want to believe in the fantasy of London, the London of Peter Pan and Sherlock and Dr Who, a pastiche that’s recognisable but nicer and therefore more fun to subvert.
In the opera ‘Hansel and Gretel’ there’s an orchestral scene that’s traditionally awkward to stage, when the children are lost in the woods and protected by angels. In one production Hansel and Gretel’s wood was a London park, and the children were protected by the city’s classic authority figures, milkmen and lollipop ladies and constables who guarded them through the night. It’s a charming surface nostalgia; scratch it and all you find underneath is private property, not public good. Still, it’s nice to believe in a parallel reality.
In the first half of the 20th century London fiction is wonderfully vivid and real, from Waugh to Hamilton, Rhys to Spark, Chesterton to Bowen. It’s ripe for reclaiming now; the city as a modern-day adventure playground full of stories. As you read, you need to feel you might discover something wonderful around the next corner, as sometimes – just once in a while – you do, and it makes you feel special. London has places which are unique to each of us.
To start with, there’s the inverted city beneath our feet. Our relationship to the underground is complex; you would think that after numerous fires, acts of terrorism and bombs we’d be wary of stepping below the pavements. Instead, I find the reverse to be true; it has always made me feel safe and warm because it’s full of people – perhaps the Plague Year of 2020 will leave us feeling differently. The delightful 1928 film ‘Underground’ is a good reference point here.
But London is losing its liminal spaces. There are over twenty ‘ghost’ stations in London. The Clerkenwell House of Detention is one of the strangest underground buildings I’ve ever entered. And the vaults at London Bridge are often used to disconcerting effect as venues. Until the 1970s, basements and attics were central to London life. I remember visiting an oyster bar underneath Piccadilly Circus, a genuine Tudor garret in Soho, and 19thC rooms made available to impoverished writers. London always loved its clubs. In the Troy Club, Manzi’s and Eileen’s you’d be given drinks by the owners just to stay and be bohemian.
These were the opposite of guilds and masonic lodges. They sought to encourage disorder, anarchy, drinking, gambling and above all promiscuity. Some were strictly for the elite – peers, military men, the gentry. The Wig Club in Edinburgh required its members to make a toast from a penis-shaped glass after donning a wig made from the pubic hair of the royal mistresses from Charles II to George IV. It was full of lice, so they all ended up infested. London clubs had their own equally disgusting rituals.
We loved being furtive. The mistresses of Henry VIII tripped through secret passages, and the strip club girls of Soho ushered punters downstairs into traps they had to pay to get out of. The gay bars were gaudy little dumps with red velvet curtains and names like the Rockingham, the Sombrero and Chaguaramas, and were entered by venturing down subsiding staircases.
These atmospheric worlds vanished, but London rooms still host all manner of esoteric events. Upstairs in the Princess Louise in Holborn, the Dracula Society fell out with the Vampire Club. One lot were Darwinians, the others were Goths. The Handlebar Moustache Society met beneath the deranged decor of the Windsor Castle just off the Edgware Road, now closed by developers.But there are still gatherings for any London tribe you can name.
But for writers, none of this matters; we can build anything we want. I’ve opted for an amalgam London that reflects the best parts of my experience. So, today’s question; if you could world-build any kind of imaginary city what would it be like? We already had a brilliant reimagining of Africa as a high-tech superstate in ‘The Black Panther’. What’s the best representation of a future city you’ve seen on film or read about? And what about London in books or on film? What’s the most atmospheric and timeless image we can conjure of the city?