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.

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.