Being in London, thinking about somewhere else

Reflections on ‘A London Adventure’ by Arthur Machen and the sense of feeling out of place in your city.   

I haven’t posted on this blog in a long time, as I’ve been channelling all my efforts into writing short stories. In fact, I took some time off work to be alone with my writing. It was exhilarating; it was exhausting. And I’ve only just emerged, blinking in the springtime sunshine (or at least I’ve emerged blinking and wondering where the sunshine is).

reflected symbol-like shapes on the side of a house
Mysterious symbols reflected on a south London house

I’ll try and publish these stories individually, if I can. And hopefully one day I’ll be able to publish them together as a collection. For me, of course, they belong together, and I’ve been chewing over what it is, thematically, that binds them together.

As you might expect from the writer of a blog called London Imagined, all the stories are set in London, from the winding paths of Nunhead Cemetery to the back streets of the Borough to the Eurostar platforms in St Pancras. London is my home, London is my vernacular, so perhaps it’s inevitable that my stories are set on my doorstep, in the world I can see.

Is London my unifying theme, then? And, if so, what is London as a theme? Is it more than just a setting?


Arthur Machen and the veil of London

As I’ve written elsewhere, walking through the city can be a way accessing a transformation. London’s immensity, the visible shifts through time you can see in its motley architecture, the diversity of its neighbourhoods and its people, can all act as a kind of portal for the imagination. On a good day. There are also plenty of days when the great greyness of this city overwhelms you, and the vast unknowability and sheer disinterest of the people you pass on the pavements can be supremely oppressive.

Afternoon light glowing on two cranes in Bloomsbury
Afternoon light glowing on two cranes in Bloomsbury

I’ve recently discovered Arthur Machen, a Welsh journalist and writer of ‘weird’ tales, who lived and worked in London during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, and who frequently referred to the paradoxical nature of this city, both transformational and deadening.

I made this discovery on a guided walk through Bloomsbury called ‘The Thin Veil of London’ – the drawing back of a veil being one of Machen’s favourite metaphors for a kind of imaginative revelation latent in the city’s street. The leader of the walk, Robert Kingham, did an excellent job of capturing the forces of rationalism and mysticism at play in Machen’s time as we explored the alleys, squares and mews of Bloomsbury, an area of London that has long been home to medicine men, occultists, humanists and Egyptologists. The walk was surprising and inventive, and, in its search for hidden signs and remnants of the past in the everyday city, wholly appropriate to the writings of Machen.


The London Adventure

Since then, as well as reading some of his shorter tales, and his strange and wonderful novella ‘A Fragment of Life’, I was particularly intrigued to read Machen’s autobiographical account: ‘The London Adventure, or the Art of Wandering’, from 1924. It’s a digressive narrative, and deliberately so, from a man who had “a very special reverence, almost an unreasoning awe, of signs and intimations given in odd ways in unexpected fashions, in places and surroundings which are generally accounted unreverend enough”. It’s as if, by wandering through the memories of a lifetime spent exploring London, Machen hopes to illuminate a series of oblique signposts to his wayfaring readers. More than anything, though, it feels the recollections of a solitary man exploring the mysteries of his own experience. The ramblings of a madman?

Machen’s day job as a newspaper reporter provided him with opportunities to see “queer things and odd prospects which, otherwise, I should not have seen”. Nevertheless, the occupation frustrated him in its short-lived curiosity for the strange. Off he would go to investigate, for example, the occurrence of a poltergeist in a north London household (as you do), but after “a column of description on the Monday, a couple of paragraphs on the Tuesday… the matter vanishes away; and nobody cares” (from his short story, ‘The Great Return’).

To Machen, instances of the inexplicable were of paramount importance. They were not to be explained and rationalised – they were to be valued as intimations of greater mysteries: “the eternal beauty hidden beneath the crust of common and commonplace things; hidden and yet burning and glowing continually if you care to look with purged eyes”.

Towards the end of the book, Machen seems to regret not having gone mad, for having been too much of a realist – although, as an author of fiction, he does acknowledge that writing stories in a realist style allows a greater counterpoint for portraying the strange:

You are to make wonder credible; it is clear that if your setting, your scene, at least is credible and familiar and accepted you are so far forwarded in the work that is before you.

The author recalls a time in his younger days when, after a furious night of writing a chapter where the protagonist is “rapt into the ancient Roman world of Caerleon”, he (Machen) emerged into Bloomsbury for his customary midday stroll and:

utterly lost the sense direction. I was disorientated, though I was in a part of London most familiar with me; north and south, east and west had no more any meaning. I knew perfectly well that I lived in 4 Verulam Buildings, Gray’s Inn; but as to where Gray’s Inn was, considered from the view-point of – say – Lamb’s Conduit Street, I had not the remotest notion.

For a short spell, Machen was so enveloped in the world of his invention that the ‘real’ world around him was transformed into something unrecognisable.


London disorient

Machen’s recollection of disorientation in familiar surroundings reminds me of the feeling you get sometimes when you emerge from the Underground at, say, Leceister Square and, for a moment, it’s as if someone has removed a blindfold from you and you stagger aimlessly amid the jostle of people until you see an outline of a bookshop or a theatre that you recognise and you suddenly remember you’re on Charing Cross Road and there’s somewhere you’re headed in Covent Garden or Soho.

A reflection of St Paul's in a pavement puddleOr, a feeling I had the other day when I came out of the Theatre Royal Haymarket after watching a particularly dark play, and, as theatregoers spilled out onto the pavement and into taxis, I had to look for some moments at the shape of the buildings across the road before I could remember where I was. I had emerged from a deep and unsettling spell and I found the context of the real had briefly vanished, so that I looked anew at the city I know.

Such is a quality of the London experience – its potential to mesmerise you one way, then jolt you another. It may be true of any great city, or other kinds of landscape, or even of life itself – but I think that’s how London operates in my stories.  My Londoners are often thinking of somewhere else ­– their home country, a place of escape, somewhere they’ve left, somewhere they long to return to.

Something about London induces a sense of displacement – just think of how many Londoners have come from somewhere else, of how many Londoners talk about moving somewhere else. Perhaps it’s just that in a city as great as this, you’re bound to feel out of place – an experience that binds us whether we’re seeking asylum or London born.

And this makes us vulnerable. For no matter how habituated we are to our routines, how hypnotised we are by our commutes, how much we dream of somewhere else, there’s always the sense that in London somewhere, something or someone startling might be just around the corner.

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