This isn’t the best of times to be in England. People may take its continuing failures in sport with either blank resignation or even blanker disinterest, but there’s a indefinable sense that the nation is lagging behind neighbours it once used to dominate and, let’s face it, brutalise. Drawn up to bat in England’s favour recently on Radio 4’s Today programme was none other than Norman Tebbit, which rather emphasised the problem.
The thuggish tendency, the out-of-date; this is what England now stands for. And at the nation’s heart, or at least its supposed heart — for the place lies a long way from that spot both geographically and in most people’s affections — lies its capital, London, a city whose recent monuments, such as Canary Wharf and the Dome, seem more like plugholes for investment and juicy targets for terrorism than true expressions of national pride. But there has long been a sense that the city isn’t quite the place it should be. Both Ken Livingston and Boris Johnson are far from first of their sort to get to high political office by promoting the lingering and ever-appealing idea that London, somehow and in some way, needs properly sorting out.
For centuries, writers have toyed with the idea that the city might be greatly improved if it were ruined or destroyed. In a private letter to his friends back in 1769, an anonymous American was already dreaming of finding “…nothing but unroofed buildings, common sewers open to the air…” whilst a lonely harlequin wanders empty St. Paul’s, mournfully plucking a guitar in that way that harlequins apparently do. In his novel After London the great Victorian writer of the countryside Richard Jeffries describes all of England becoming a wild and unpopulated paradise. The sole exception to his lovely vision is London itself, which becomes a vast, stagnant swamp filled with strange lights and fatal airs, which only the foolhardy would ever dare enter. In fact, Victorian fiction is full of heroes who fall asleep and wake up to find the city clean and verdant and suddenly beautiful; a utopia wherein they can engage in somewhat tedious discussions about the meaning of free will with beautiful, affectionate and surprisingly lightly-clad females. Top of the heap in this kind of London probably comes News from Nowhere by the great reformer and designer William Morris. After the customary nap, our hero awakes to find that the Thames is running clear and the buildings along its banks have been transformed into glorious works of art. The binmen wear bright clothes and sing as they go about their work. Children camp in the Kensington Woods. The Houses of Parliament have been turned into a vegetable market.
The inherent ugliness of much of the city seems to have presented an almost theological challenge to the wilder spirits of this and every other age. William Blake saw angels in a tree in Southwark as a young man, the Devil arrives to shake up Peckham in Muriel Spark’s The Ballad of Peckham Rye, whilst writers such as John Betjamen and P. G. Wodehouse have unashamedly celebrated the green and pastel glories of Metroland. But, Blake apart, who was gloriously mad, there’s always a slight sense that place they’d like us to see is only beautiful because we all know that the real London is such an ungodly mess. At the end of the day, they’re having us on, and we know it.
The deeper, richer vein of changed and alternate Londons, the Londons which seem much more believable because we glimpse bits of them every time we wander about the place, are far darker. In fact, they’re often subterranean. Films and fictions teem with the dark glories of London’s Underground, with lost stations and flesh-eating troglodytes and buried remains. An alien spacecraft is discovered deep amid some new underground workings in the sixties film Quatermass and the Pit, and we never doubt for one minute that it contains something nasty. Better still (or worse) in Death Line, plague-ridden ghouls populate its tunnels. Even when the city is nicely cleaned out by the arrival of the glaciers of a new ice age in Arthur C. Clarke’s short story The Forgotten Enemy, there’s a huge bear bashing at the closed grill of an underground station. In fact, the great modern recorders of the city, writers like Michael Moorcock and Iain Sinclair, can slip so easily between fantasy and reality that there often seems to be little, if any, difference. Perhaps there doesn’t need to be. London is, after all, and as Joseph Conrad recorded long ago at the start of Heart of Darkness “one of the dark places of the earth…” Since then, and the pipe fugs and fogs of Dickens and Sherlock Holmes, not much seems to have changed.
Christopher Fowler gave a neat new twist to the theme of dark London in his novel Roofworld, but, although the deeds take place on the rooftops high above our heads and bodies thus occasionally fall like strange fruits on us street-dwellers, the feeling remains giddy, but essentially subterranean. George Orwell, of course, could imagine London and the entire nation being dominated by four great, grey ministries in 1984 without really having to worry much about changing the architecture. In fact, improvements to the London skyline are surprisingly rare. In his sequel to Wells’ novel The Time Machine, The Time Ships, Stephen Baxter imagines the whole city being covered as air raid protection by a vast concrete dome, whilst Moorcock in The War Lord of the Air lets his hero wax lyrical about the glories of its trees and shrubs and monorails and civic amenities, but the outlook in both cases is, once again, essentially Victorian, and part of us always knows that they’re taking the piss.
Demolition, generally, seems the preferred option, and it is often described in cheery detail. That great writer of SF catastrophes John Wyndham got rid of the place at least twice, once by watery inundation in The Cracken Wakes, and once, in The Day of the Triffids, by blinding its entire population and letting them wander around ransacking the pubs before falling into savagery and committing suicide, or being attacked by giant plants. J G Ballard, both more clinical and more cynical, rejoices in the reptile swamps of a tropical, flooded London in The Drowned World. Even Mervyn Peake, who no doubt got much his inspiration for Gormenghast from the place, describes it as a wounded, tortured creature in his poem The Ballad of the Flying Bomb. And then, in the film The Day the Earth Caught Fire, as nuclear tests set the world spinning off its axis, it’s not so much the earth as London which goes up nicely in flames. And for that, and for all its many destructions, there’s always a sense that the place is really getting nothing more that it deserves.
So; wither London? Water, or flame? Ice, or madness? Flesh-eating ghouls in the Underground, or ravenous bears? One way or another, it has seemed to many writers — returning home, perhaps, after a long day at work and an even longer rush hour — that the place simply has to go. So I’ve got news for you, Ken and Boris. Congestion charging really isn’t the isn’t the answer, and neither is the Olympic Games. And for you, Osama and all your acolytes, as well. Whatever you’ve got planned for us, it’s probably been done already, and on a far bigger scale. So viva London, and let’s keep the fictional catastrophes coming; they make ideal reading, as we slip past unknown stations and strange glimpses of movement in the wet darkness and the terrible faces of our companions grow yet more haggard, on its Underground. Although wouldn’t it be nice, one morning (although perhaps just only the once) to wake up to clean, verdant breezes, and the sound of the binmen singing…?