Why we look for lost London

Some thoughts on a lost London street and how looking for the city’s past can become a search through your own archive.

Clock-face made in LondonA couple of years ago I wrote a story about a man who, as he recovers from a serious car accident, finds himself feeling detached from his family and haunted by dreams of a London street that no longer exists. He was dreaming of Holywell Street, which was a narrow thoroughfare of tall timber-framed houses that once lay between the churches of St Mary-le-Strand and St Clement Danes, parallel to the Strand in London.

The twin churches, with their tapering octagonal spires, remain today as two peaceful islands amid the flow of buses and taxis along the Strand, but Holywell Street is no more – at the turn of the last century it was cleared away, along with a slum of alleys and courts around Clare Market, to widen the Strand to traffic and make way for the crescent of Aldwych and the prong of Kingsway.

I was interested in some of the ironies that had attached themselves to Holywell Street. The tall houses with their overhanging eaves were often reproduced by artists, but they were also dirty and dilapidated. The street’s name, Holywell, was derived from a curative spring for Canterbury-bound pilgrims, but the Victorian street had a reputation for housing booksellers of salacious prints and publications. The street was pretty and perverse in equal measure.

Holywell StreetThe desire associated with the images of this London street, and the images sold on this London street, seemed somehow to affix itself to the desire to know a place lost to the past and to the state of detachment and longing that arises from the wandering of city streets.

The story didn’t come alive, the wrong choice of character I think, and is lost to my notebooks. But the imaginative state that city-walking, particularly London-walking, induces is a source of continuing fascination.

Our city of ‘absences’ (Patrick Keiller) or ‘disappearances’ (Iain Sinclair) seems to encourage a melancholic wandering while reflecting on loss. This may be because London is visually characterised by destruction – its motley architecture formed from fire, from bombs and from the wrecking ball, as well as from the resistance of conservation movements. But it may also become more personal.

The art of getting lost

Not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal. It requires ignorance – nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city – as one loses oneself in a forest – that calls for a quite different schooling.

Walter Benjamin, ‘A Berlin Chronicle’ (1932, published 1970)

Despite its size, physically getting lost in London today is difficult: its dense signage and mesh of transport routes surely prevent all but the most blinkered wanderer from losing their way. And there are map apps aplenty for anyone carrying a smart phone with them.

But there is something desirable about getting lost in the place in which you live and work: a promise of self-discovery. As Rebecca Solnit notes in ‘A Field Guide to Getting Lost’ (2006): “That thing the nature of which is totally unknown to you is usually what you need to find, and finding it is a matter of getting lost.”

Perhaps this is why there is such a publishing industry around ‘lost London’, from hardback books of early photographs taken by image collectors like the 19th-century Society for Photographing Relics of Old London, to guides to forgotten areas of the city, such as ‘The London Nobody Knows’ (1962) and the newly published ‘Vanished London’, to anthologies of London-set prose and poetry.

I think the ‘lost’ of these lost Londons has a double, interlinked meaning: by contemplating what we have lost we wish to lose and find ourselves.

London melancholia

Bricked-up Victorian window in Peckham Rye that looks like a closed eyeUrban melancholy is not particular to London – Orhan Pamuk on Istanbul or Jan Morris on Trieste are two of my favourite European examples – but London has a particular urban melancholy. It might still be in the narrowness of the streets, or in their ancient of names, or in the closed eyes of bricked-up Victorian windows, or in the silent cranes of building sites at night, or in the dispersing vapour trails of aeroplanes flying over disused chimneys.

London’s Victorian legacy plays a strong part in this – and how once rural villages with their own identities have been amalgamated into the city mass, and how, on any particular walk, you seem to pass through various time zones. A few Saturdays ago I walked from the de-industrialised canal at Hackney Cut past the empty stadia of the Olympic Park to the artist-filled factories of Fish Island, across the six-lane A12 to the lakes and lawns of Victoria Park. In each planned and organic layer of the city are the traces of lost intentions.

Coming out of the fog

When you first move to a city as great as London, it can make you feel lost – dispossessed by your home town or your country of origin. A territory as large as London can never feel like home. That’s why you need to find your patch, whether it’s Peckham Rye or Finsbury Park.

There’s a wonderful chapter on city solitude in Jonathan Raban’s ‘Soft City’ (1974) that begins: “It is as easy to lose other people in a city as it is to mislay one’s umbrella. They are always being carried away by the crowd.” Raban describes how making personal connections in London, such as through computer dating (quite prescient for 1974), can be a means of “coming out of the fog”, and considers how this city-born(e) phenomena of London fog became a metaphor for isolation and disappearances in the works of London writers like Dickens.

Raban also writes of solitude as being the “prize and the penalty” of city living. To live in urban exile may be as liberating as it is imprisoning when you consider where or who you may have escaped from.

From A to B to A to Z

A pool of sunlight and a painted arrow on Lyndhurst Grove, Peckham RyeThe process of becoming a Londoner is the finding of your neighbourhood, and the establishing of the A to B of your commute. And, from time to time, for reasons of expediency, whether love life or rising rents, you may find other A to Bs, sometimes making great switches of allegiances from north to south, east to west.

This process also involves the joining up of places, knowing your Tube map or your bus routes, walking from one area to another, and looking out beyond the condensation of the bus window.

And perhaps the process of belonging to London is finally realised when you find yourself walking along a street or through a square, by the canal or by the river, remembering the times you’ve been there before – and you discover that how you felt then, and how you feel now, is reflected in the look of the city.

Read about early archive field recordings of London…