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Pieces of the city are forming like islands

A recent trip into Central London in search of a headphone cable for my suddenly malfunctioning AKG K271 MkIIs (unsuccessful) took me on a bit of a trek from one baffled clerk to another, and the landscape I stomped through under a menacing January sky with music leaking intermittently into my left ear put me in a contemplative and quite melancholy frame of mind.

I was initially trying to wend my way from Piccadilly Circus to New Oxford Street, blinkering myself as deliberately as I could to the signs of decay that are creeping in all around us in the city: Blackwells dismantling large chunks of their shop, shrinking smaller and smaller; the ever-increasing number of soaped-over shop windows like the sleeping eyelids of coma patients; and later the grim steel shutters of Comicana‘s dead shell. It was the works at Tottenham Court Road that eventually got to me: the traffic diverted, the fountains at the front of Centre Point which are so inextricably linked in my memory with hot days waiting for bands, now covered up by the ubiquitous blue construction board.

It seems as if half the streets in London are cordoned off behind blue board, white wooden tunnels and pedestrian rat-holes funnelling us down alarming low-ceilinged corridors still dripping with the rain they’ve retained. I’ve done my mourning for the death of the Astoria and the LA2, the redoubtable parasite chip shop on the corner which serviced gig-goers late into the night, and I’ve accepted that the days of exhausted-looking emo kids lining up down a main street waiting for a band who aren’t due on for another eight hours are now behind us. London must aim to be a shopping mall without interruption or character or, we’re told, we’re doomed to fall.

Some construction projects complete: there is a vast mall in Shepherd’s Bush, not far from where I used to work (although this at least not at the cost of the beautiful Bush Hall), and there is another book-ending it to the East, in Stratford. Camden Stables market, the only place I have even been which is consciously trying to imitate the more alarming aspects of a William Gibson and with which I have enjoyed a love/hate relationship since I first encountered it a good 12 years ago, has been if not improved then at least expanded and made interesting in a fashion which bears some relation to its use, history, and future potential. Also I can’t really object to something that so drastically increases the sum total number of massive bronze horse willies knocking around in London.

I wasn't kidding about the equine wang festival

Photo taken from wheresmybackpack.wordpress.com

But I’m thrown into doubt, now. When the old Japan Centre and the block surrounding it was axed on Piccadilly, when agoraphobia-inducing gaps appeared in the London skyline, letting unnatural natural light into Oxford Street down by Selfridges or into the traditionally shadowed thoroughfares of Tottenham Court Road, I took it for granted that these would be filled once more. I was, don’t get me wrong, irate that the buildings had been pulled down. I love the history and the texture of these rotten-mouthed, slowly-rotting brick edifices, and also I have Asperger’s and despise change.

I did think, though, that there would be buildings in their place. Ugly ones, of course – like the new health centre on Park Road in Crouch End, which replaced a Edwardian hospital – but new buildings. New projects, perhaps, new blood. I was excited, even, when The Londonist (my London periodical of choice) reported on the progress of the Shard, for I’m nothing if not a sucker for pointlessly huge buildings. I did think that this utterly stupid Crossrail project would at least find some way to justify the destruction of some of my favourite memories and the perpetual swaddling of London under blue board and beeping lorries.

After educating myself about the Asian financial crisis in the 90s, and seeing the endless skyscrapers optimism and borrowing had thrown up left unpeopled to collapse without ever being used, I’m not so sure. I’ve gobbled up pages of abandoned Soviet installations, great train stations never used and left to be swallowed by the landscape, and I’m almost envious of Pripyat when I know the alternative could be the creeping urban necrosis of Detroit, poor Detroit. When the money goes, the city falls in on itself leaving only bones.

Pripyat

London is the first and only place I’ve lived in that I’ve ever felt comfortable calling home; I grew up in a series of unassuming villages in the West Country which brochures would call “charming” and which I would call “characterless voids”, and  in Plymouth, which scarcely a single person in history has anything kind to say about and for very good reason; moving to London was an exercise in growth that could not have happened anywhere else and I am deeply attached to the place. It is acutely heartbreaking to imagine it reaching the same over-reach dead end as other cities have been driven into by economic straits in the past, and there are few things as architecturally depressing as a half-finished building gone to seed.

Every city is unique; London’s hodgepodge of architectural periods, where a 15th century pub abuts a 2009 office building and sandstone churches rise out of glass and steel menageries like greenhouse flowers that weigh hundreds of tonnes, its proliferation of bridges in an embarrassment of styles, its grand Gothic Parliament and Brutalist South Bank, are unique as Paris’s wide leafy boulevards, Amsterdam’s coy canalled streets, and Birmingham’s gentle urge to suicide. Any trip up or down the Thames is a showcase of innovation throughout history (in addition to being an excellent way to ensure that your hair smells of dirty river water for the rest of the day; the silt-riven old woman river may be clean enough to house seahorses now but she’s still a cloaca full of corpses and she smells like it).

The symptoms of sickness peppering the face of the city like a pox, the shops that close and don’t reopen and the subtle decline into endless souvenir stands and pound shops, are like the first lesions. They are intimidating and ugly, and bring dread in their wake. I couldn’t stand to watch this city die, but I have my suspicions that it is entirely possible we will be mismanaged into a care home and left to shuffle through our own emptying streets in a less-hopeful re-enactment of 28 Days Later by the time I finish my second decade here.
It’s not what I wanted.

Passionate, less morbid, and even more poetical burbling about London can be found in For The Love of A City, which is an honest-to-gods tiny booklet of poems about London by yours truly.

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