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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Filmmaking and the problem of London

Thoughts on the essays of architectural filmmaker Patrick Keiller and the restless creativity induced by the experience of living in London.

This year I decided to experiment with making London videos – specifically, the 6-second looping variety that people share on Vine. It’s a possibility opened up to me by the power of a new little computer I carry around in my back pocket – my phone. I can capture high-quality audio and visual footage, then adjust the colours, edit the sequence and overdub sound effects – all as I make my way through London on weekend strolls, lunchtime walkabouts and 15-minute train commutes.

Graffiti of an eye in a telescope

As a form, the 6-second Vine video loop is not really long enough for satisfying storytelling – at best, you might be able to achieve a kind of Hemingway 6-word story: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” But it does offer something different from the frozen photographic moment.

Whether in continuous take or jump cut, the looping nature of Vine videos makes them feel like an audio-visual pattern. In keeping my eyes and ears open for suitable subjects around London to experiment with, I often find myself drawn to moving colours and shapes that suggest an inherent city rhythm.

London Vines

In this Vine, vivid streaks of light from a stationary police car have been transformed into strobes by the scissoring motion of commuters’ strides. It seemed inevitably to require a disco beat.

Some of the Vines I’ve made could be likened to moving photographs, like a gently nodding daffodil that frames a distant shot of Big Ben.

I like the opportunity this looping form presents for finding patterns of motion in the city: the wind riffling through the blossom of a street tree, the bright splash of raindrops on wet black tarmac, a stream of headlamps on a twilight arterial road, the blink of a faulty light in the porch of an apartment block.

The View from the Train

At the same time, I’ve been reading “The View from the Train”, a collection of essays by architectural cinematographer, Patrick Keiller. It’s interesting to see his evolution as a filmmaker concerned with urban space and the experience of being in London – and how he transformed the literary wandering of Baudelaire, Benjamin and Aragon in Paris into his own peculiarly British response to London.

Again and again in his essays, Keiller revisits the Surrealist conception of space: “To endow with a poetic value that which does not yet possess it, to wilfully restrict the field of view so as to intensify expression: these are two properties that help make cinematic décor the adequate setting of modern beauty.” (Louis Aragon, “On Décor”, 1918.)

In his 1994 film “London”, Keiller’s narrator recounts a series of journeys through the city with “his companion and ex-lover Robinson, a disenfranchised, would-be intellectual, petty bourgeois part-time lecturer”. Robinson is investigating the “problem of London”, which Keiller identifies as a resistance to the kind of urban daydreaming possible in European cities of homogenous architecture and endless avenues like Paris. On the other hand, through the pompous discourse of Robinson, Keiller is able to identify a different transformational quality particular to the space-impoverished jumble of London:

The true identity of London is in its absence. As a city, it no longer exists. In this alone it is truly modern: London was the first city to disappear.

Having lost its medieval centre, its mighty port and industry, its hills and rivers, its self image – London is a city of loss. Although Londoners may dream of a home in the counties and the countries beyond the M25, they continue to live in this city because it offers an opportunity for transformation – even in its architectural fabric.

A London state of mind

And yet how far does London allow its inhabitants to project a state of mind as opposed to forcing a state of mind upon them?

I like how Keiller ponders the ageing housing stock of London and suggests that this stasis in our places of dwelling, combined with rapid technological advances in the way we experience space (eg through smart phones), naturally inclines Londoners towards psychogeography. Our living space doesn’t change so we find imaginative ways to change it.

I’m also interested in the character of an architectural filmmaker who has rejected the numbing domesticity of a life in the provinces for the restless creativity of a life in London, who scours the city looking for out-of-time buildings and spaces, for ways to restrict the field of vision, so that light and movement can transform urban absences into places of poetry.

Read more: why we look for lost London…

Hidden London: place hacking and the city’s vanishing points

A talk about urban exploration makes me want to look for the secret entry points into the city.

How many times have I looked out of the train window on the way into London and wondered about the backyards and the bedrooms, the garages under the arches, the tower blocks in the distance, the tracks that curve away?

Palm tree off Sutherland Square

On a surprisingly warm day in early March, I took the bike out for the first time this year and explored some of the streets that run off the Walworth Road. I wanted to explore the tapering Victorian facades that I usually glimpse from the number 12 bus or from the train through Elephant & Castle.

On that bright afternoon in Walworth, the lowering sun reduced market-goers to silhouettes on East Street and illuminated the oasis of Sutherland Square with its well-kept townhouses, hawthorn-lined garden and occasional palm tree. In contrast to my working week, which flashes by like the view from the train, I was able to explore these quiet, hidden areas at a slower, dreamier pace.

Looking for loopholes

Not long before that I was at the wonderful ‘London at the Library’ salon in Westminster Reference Library, where ‘place hacker’ and ‘Explore Everything’ author, Bradley Garrett, gave a talk on secret London. In his adventures as part of a crew of urban explorers, he has “snuck into” Victorian sewers, derelict factories and half-built skyscrapers like the Shard.

Garrett talked about the “existential freedom” of accessing these urban spaces, which are hidden just outside of the boundaries of most city-dwellers’ daily experience. For place hackers, like computer hackers, the aim is more than just the discovery of areas that are off the beaten track – it’s about finding “loopholes” in the system, the thrill and the challenge of sneaking past security.

Both in his book and in person, Garrett is eloquent on the rationale behind the mucky and dangerous pursuit of seeing the rarely seen, under the pavements and behind the hoardings. He said it’s as simple as lifting up a manhole cover.

Imagining the place hacker

There is something thrilling and romantic in imagining these bands of restless adventurers scouring maps and building plans, dodging past surveillance cameras and night watchmen, squeezing through shafts and running along Tube tracks to find entombed Underground stations and bring back brilliant photographs like the treasures of the Pharaohs.

Derelict Alcatel building by Enderby's Wharf, Greenwich, 2014
Derelict Alcatel building by Enderby’s Wharf, Greenwich, 2014

From a story-telling point of view, there’s lots to explore in the place hacker’s commitment to their crew, to physical danger and to the avoidance of criminal damage. I can imagine how this largely nocturnal pursuit would erode and undermine the routine world of the day, making the urban explorer feel distant from the rest of society and, at the same time, close to his gang. He has to make breathless ethical decisions about whether to pick a lock or force entry, tantalised beyond mere trespassing by what he might find behind that bolted door. He sees the city horizontally and vertically, with ledges, drainpipes and manholes as his natural terrain. He looks for cracks and ‘vanishing points’ to navigate his way into the undiscovered city. To the place hacker, London is a platform game.

Taking risks

Whether these explorers who resist the permitted pathways of the city can be seen as champions of the public’s right to access, or whether they are too secretive for that, the political can arise when curiosity leads us into private places – and in London it’s easy enough to stray without even realising. Try looking at a Canary Wharf skyscraper while writing in a notebook – in my experience, security guards are unsympathetic if you tell them you’re taking notes for a short story. And so, when it’s in the street, a playful, creative or imaginative activity can become an act of disobedience.

The Heygate Estate in Walworth, now demolished
The Heygate Estate in Walworth, now demolished

It’s the place hackers’ willingness to take great risks with the city’s structure that sets these explorers of London’s secret spaces and passageways apart from the rest of its inhabitants. But we can take more gentle risks to find our way into hidden, half-glimpsed or dimly perceived physical spaces in London – we just have to risk our imagination.

Read some more city questing with this post on how looking for the city’s past can become a search through your own archive.

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…

London as an API: using data to narrate the city

A talk about visualising London in maps and data patterns makes me think about how to select material for city stories.

St Pancras Station, LondonLast week I was at the London travel bookshop Stanfords to listen to geographer James Cheshire and designer Oliver Uberti discuss their new book ‘London: The Information Capital’, which presents 100 themed maps and data visualisations based on data generated by London and its people. This beautifully produced book is a result of a year’s intensive collaboration. The creators have applied all kinds of interpretive, statistical, cartographic and design filters to reveal London’s hidden patterns from millions of data points. My favourite is the street trees of Southwark – each of my neighbourhood’s trees intricately mapped as a tiny coloured dot.

Some of these data sets are freely accessible on the London Data Store; others the creators retrieved from Freedom of Information requests. What particularly interested me was that they felt that only now are the data tools available, and only London has the level of open data needed, to make such a book possible.

In all its magnitude London has inspired Charles Booth to map its poverty, Phyllis Pearsall to map its A–Z of streets and Harry Beck to map its Underground stations. Now we can see our city as one great API, and ourselves as the data points and data creators.

Londoners as data creators

Of course, everyone is and has always been a data creator, producing limitless information with every moment of existence – from breaths drawn to every flick of an eyelid. What’s different now is how conscious people are of their own data.

You can actively broadcast your experiences – wearable video cameras, whether mounted on your lapel, glasses or cycle helmet, being one of the latest ways to share life data. Or you can self-quantify, tracking the data you produce as a living creature, from how deeply you’ve slept to how far you’ve run to how many calories you’ve eaten. Or you can just feel quietly paranoid, knowing that every time you use a device or the web or simply walk down a street, you’re leaving behind data like sweaty fingerprints.

What’s clear from ‘London: The Information Capital’ is how much data from our lives is being recorded by the city, with its cameras, microphones and sensors like a million eyes, ears and fingers. This collecting of data is often justified on the basis that it can inform and instigate social change. The city promises many answers in its mass of data, but it also overwhelms, and a centralised intelligence is needed to extract patterns and make deductions.

Choose your own adventure

At a recent digital storytelling conference I attended there was a lot of talk of applying digital design thinking to storytelling. Consider your audience as ‘users’ and use tools to understand their data – who they are, what they’re looking for and how they use it. Then create stories to meet their user needs.

In a product or service design setting the user-focussed approach is the ideal approach, but for stories I was concerned about a lack of serendipity. Personally, I don’t want to be stuck in a ‘filter bubble’. Let an author show me a world I don’t know!

Nevertheless, the idea that a story world can adapt itself to the choices that a user makes, as in a computer game, is an exciting prospect – particularly in a real city setting where the data about your location and your movements could reveal new layers of a story. How long before Londoners are running around their city acting out missions in a layered world that only they can see? You are Sherlock Holmes!

Multiplicity in the municipality

But how to narrate the city?

As Henry James records in his ‘Notebooks’, a writer may first despair of London’s ‘horrible numerosity of society’, only to ultimately celebrate the city as ‘the most possible form of life’. Nevertheless, the writer has somehow to break down this multiplicity.

You may start with a list and certainly the 19th-century journalist Blanchard Jerrold revels in cataloguing the city scene in ‘London: A Pilgrimage’, heading down to the busy Thames riverside to observe the:

watermen, porters, touters, fish-salesmen, sailors, draymen, costermongers, all mixed up with the passengers hurrying to and from the boats, stopped by street vendors of all descriptions, importuned by beggars, threading perilous ways between mountainous loads, fish and fruit barrows, cabs and cars…

Jerrold’s very loquacity stands in for the crowded nature of London, but all this detail still leaves me feeling vague about the subject.

'Resting on the Bridge', Gustave Doré
‘Resting on the Bridge’, Gustave Doré

Jerrold did at least have the foresight to hire Gustave Doré to accompany him and provide illustrations. In this author / designer collaboration the Frenchman’s intricate engravings don’t match the journalist’s rhapsodic tone; instead, they are sombre and melancholy, showing London to be a cramped and infernal place of industry and poverty. At one point Jerrold recounts Doré’s sudden suggestion to retrace their steps to a scene of poor women and children upon the stone seats of London Bridge: ‘By night, it appeared to his imagination, the scene would have a mournful grandeur.’

In Edgar Allen Poe’s short story ‘The Man of the Crowd’ the falling of night also helps the narrator to focus. From the window of a London coffee house he catalogues the merchants, clerks, pick-pockets, gamblers, pedlars… until as the city descends into the ‘garish lustre’ of the gas-lamp, he is taken by a decrepit old man with a fiendish countenance who he follows like a willow-the-wisp through the streets of London. For me, what comes across in Poe’s tale is not the character of the old man, whose purpose for wandering the city remains elusive, but the loneliness of the narrator.

For the writer there’s always a tantalising sense that looking hard, making observations and spotting patterns can reveal the secret of a personality. In a city setting, I often think of the writer / detective Daniel Quinn in Paul Auster’s ‘City of Glass’. Quinn is tailing the mysterious Peter Stillman on his daily walk through New York, and as he plots Stillman’s routes on a map he becomes increasingly convinced that the subject of his surveillance is creating a new letter each day to spell out a secret code. I love this idea of city tracking as a metaphor for an author on the brink of madness. ‘The implication was that human behaviour could be understood, that beneath the infinite facade of gestures, tics, and silences, there was finally a coherence, an order, a source of motivation.’ Naturally, the act of following Stillman leads nowhere for Quinn. No Sherlock Holmes in Manhattan.

The following

As a writer, your starting point is data, usually of a sensory kind. In the words of Flannery O’Connor: ‘The first and most obvious characteristic of fiction is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched.’ But data needs a filter: ‘Detail has to be controlled by some overall purpose, and every detail has to be out to work for you.’

You can follow a character, record their route and spot their signposts, but the data created and observed in a physical or virtual space will never reveal their personality – not unless, at some point along the way, you experience what that data means to them. Only then, with what O’Connor called ‘experienced meaning’, can you move from data to narrator.

Sounds of lost London: early field recordings, and memories of the city

An evening of archive field recordings by the London Sound Survey inspires a remembrance of lost time.

London's most recognized sound, the marking out of time by Big Ben
London’s most recognized sound, the chiming of Big Ben, is one that marks time

I’ve recently been working in Westminster and, as I’ve shuffled down Victoria Street with the other commuters, I’ve heard a beggar tooting out tunes through a traffic cone, actors advertising lunch-break performances of Shakespeare and, of course, Big Ben sounding out 9am – all above the engines of endless cars, cabs, coaches and buses, and even horses and carriages.

I’m sure I’ll never forgot this period where I’ve marked out my working day with London’s mightiest clock, but even the city’s more humble sounds can evoke memories of past routines and phases of life, like the high-pitch electric whirr of Jubilee Line trains that brings to mind an old commute from Willesden Green, or the low drone of planes descending to Heathrow that accompanied a time I lived in Twickenham.

But can you feel nostalgic for the sounds of London you weren’t alive to hear?

This question came up during a wonderful audio tour of archived BBC actuality recordings given by Ian Rawes of the London Sound Survey last month. These included street cries from the 1950s: a coal seller on a misty December morning, a loquacious jellied eel seller in Cambridge Circus, a violet seller, a muffin seller, a chair mender… all long since disappeared from the streets of our city.

You can find many of these atmospheric audio clips curated on the London Sound Survey website (along with contemporary field recordings plotted on various London maps old and new), but it was a treat to be talked through the stories and personalities attached to each of these snippets.

Horses and carriage in rush hour traffic on Victoria Street
Horses and carriage in rush hour traffic on Victoria Street

Each time we went further back in time with the clips, Ian pointed out the ratio of people still alive from that era, until we left living memory all together for the final recording: Handel’s ‘Messiah’ performed by a choir at the Crystal Palace in 1888 and captured on a wax cylinder. Hearing the frail quality of the recording and thinking about its relative antiquity brought something like a wave of sadness over me – was I feeling nostalgia for a forgotten time?

Even though chance has saved this fragment of audio from disposal or destruction, its partial nature evoked in me a longing for something lost to return. Indeed, the place where the singing was recorded has also disappeared, the Crystal Palace having burnt down in 1936, but if, like me, you’ve lived in that neighbourhood, then even now you can sense the poignancy of its absence on the skyline and may wish for its return.

The evening’s other particularly memorable recording for me was the song of a Battersea-dwelling lavender seller from 1938. Again there was something strikingly melancholy about the sound and the way it had been recorded. I found myself solemnly whistling the tune the next day – and so a lost sound lives on!

Vaughn Williams incorporated the cry of the violet seller into his ‘London Symphony’ and, serendipitously, I just found out that a new London Symphony is being created as a film for silent cinema. I’ll be interested to see how the makers renew this retro format, interpreting the angles, movements and sounds of London’s buildings, transport and inhabitants with cinematic visuals and an orchestral score to inspire an emotional or aesthetic response to the city.

As I consider how to use sound in my own story writing, I wonder if it is the incidental field recordings in the heads of Londoners, how they fuse with our habitual and transitory routes through the city, and the chance re-encounters we have with those sounds, that together have a power to induce feelings and memories. Could a particular city sound – the chime of a bell, the cry of a trader, the shudder of a cab’s motor – be akin to Proust’s biting of a madeleine, a sudden sensory input that brings back the past with irrepressible force?

What is London? 10 definitions of the Smoke

In my attempt to understand the character of London through the eyes of the people who live here, I’ve looked back at some of my own photos from this year and picked out 10 unashamedly filtered shots that have captured something unique for me.

Further down the line, I’ll pick out some writers’ definitions of London-ness (with no Samuel Johnson “tired of London” quotations, I promise), but, for now, here’s my view…

London is what the commuter sees through the window of a rain-flecked train…

An early morning view of Queens Road Peckham on the commuter train to London Bridge
A bleary-eyed early morning view of Queen’s Road Peckham on the commuter train to London Bridge

London is Byzantine…

Westminster Cathedral was built in a neo-Byzantine style at the turn of the 20th century
Westminster Cathedral was built in a neo-Byzantine style at the turn of the 20th century. It’s always a surprise to come across the turrets of this mini Hagia Sophia amid the office blocks of Victoria

London is the world’s meat market…

A butchers' and grocery in the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre
A butcher’s and grocery in the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre

London is waiting at a Tube station in the dusk…

The Wells Terrace exit of Finsbury Park Tube Station in a rare lull
A tunnel exit at Finsbury Park Tube Station in a rare lull

London is a design capital with no design…

Afternoon sun cuts a cool line across the Design Museum's Thames-side home
The afternoon sun cuts a line across the Design Museum’s Thames-side home in a former banana warehouse

London is a mishmash of sash…

An amazing array of windows at the back of the Jerusalem Tavern in Farringdon
An amazing assortment of sash windows at the back of the Jerusalem Tavern in Farringdon

London is St Paul’s illuminated after the rain…

St Paul's from Southwark Bridge
St Paul’s from Southwark Bridge

London is a series of unexpected Underground encounters…

A dog descends to the Jubilee Line at London Bridge
A dog and his owner descend to the Jubilee Line at London Bridge

London is layered with runes…

A graffiti covered doorway by the Old Vic Tunnels at Waterloo
A graffiti-covered doorway by the Old Vic Tunnels at Waterloo. The tag has undoubtedly been sprayed over countless times since this photograph

London is where commoners entwine in royal parks…

This tree in Kew Gardens forms an oddly provocative tableau
This tree in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew forms an oddly provocative tableau

What is London to you?

All images © knightswrites. Read more about the author…