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Maps of the London Underground: Iain Sinclair and Michael Moorcock’s Psychogeography of the city

Brian Baker

On the back cover of the dust-jacket of Iain Sinclair’s Dark Lanthorns (1999), a book designed to mimic the look of a late 1960s London A-Z streetmap, there is a reproduction of a map of the London Underground system. This design classic, a rounded rectangle at the centre of a system of arteries and veins, is faded, the ink blurred with damp. The print, blue-black on white (rather than the now more familiar colour reproduction), is indistinct, the lines receding beneath surface like veins below the skin, the names of the stations lost. The basic shape, if not the stations themselves, is legible, however, and indicates one of the ways in which Londoners (and visitors to London) orient themselves. The first maps of the underground followed lines of geography; the current design is geometrical, space and distance compressed, London given comprehensible form in one diagram. This London Underground, an abstraction of the network of tunnels and stations that make up the transport system, is not a ‘true’ representation of the city, but allows the traveller to see a totalised (and therefore entirely comprehensible) map of its design.

London has, particularly over the last 150 years, been the site of repeated attempts to comprehend the physical, social and economic fabric of city life through exercises in cataloguing and mapping. These mapping exercises render the city legible, and articulate its spaces in textual form. Henry Mayhew’s four-volume work London Labour and The London Poor, the first three of which appeared in 1851 and the fourth, ‘Those that will not work’, published in 1862, was the first of the great Victorian investigations of London. Mayhew’s nod to sociological rigour is to offer a taxonomy of London characters, but his methodological emphasis is on personal witness through a series of visits to key areas of the city. To locate the ‘types’ which constituted London’s underworld, Mayhew conducted ‘A Visit to the Dens of Thieves in Spitalfields and its Neighbourhoods’, one of which included Whitechapel. In another excursion, Mayhew took in the notorious Rookery of St. Giles. In a particularly illuminating title, Mayhew is accompanied (usually by large friends or policemen) on ‘A Ramble among the thieves’ Dens in the Borough’ (240). The idea of the ‘ramble’ is central to Mayhew’s attempt to encompass London life, as is the identification of criminal activity (‘thieves’ dens’) with place or space. It is important to note the component of surveillance in these ‘rambles’, and the extent to which his method may be compromised by the presence of the policemen themselves. The aim of understanding the city collapses onto controlling the city: ridding London of its crime becomes synonymous with ridding it of its ‘rookeries’.

Charles Booth’s Life and Labour of the People of London (begun in 1886) was the next great exercise in mapping the city, which used information from the 1881 census, reports from London School Board visitors, and door-to-door interviews to collect data for a wide-ranging survey on the condition of London. Booth’s method involved a taxonomy of social class, rather than Mayhew’s types. Of the 900,000 people living in the East End, 314,000 were, by his taxonomy, ‘poor’ (xxvii). Most importantly, he then coloured a series of maps of London with the information gathered about the predominant social type found in each street, spatializing the economic stratification of the city itself, making visible patterns of wealth and poverty, advantage and disadvantage. Booth’s maps make legible, but also fix, the spaces of the city. The maps attempt to articulate city space, not only in its topographic form, but as a social and economic cartography, but its view of London is ultimately from above, implicating the reader in a powerful spectatorial position, able to read the economic life of the city at a glance.

Franco Moretti, in his 1997 book Atlas of the European Novel 1800-1900, analyses Booth’s maps. This book, which offers an entertaining and illuminating set of analyses of novels and stories of the nineteenth century, is illustrated by and generated by maps. He writes, as a theoretical justification for his project:

[W]hat do literary maps allow us to see? Two things, basically. Firstly, they highlight the ortgebunden, place-bound nature of literary forms: each of them with its peculiar geometry, its boundaries, its spatial taboos and favorite routes. And then, maps bring to light the internal logic of narrative: the semiotic domain around which the plot coalesces and self-organises. (5)

The maps in Moretti’s book are fascinating in what they reveal, but his cartographic method is compromised. As Ania Loomba notes, ‘Maps claim to be objective and scientific, but in fact select what they record and present in specific ways, which are historically tied with colonial enterprises’ (78). For ‘colonial enterprises’, here, I would suggest the operation of economic and ideological power more generally. As an analytical tool for the literary critic, maps must be treated with caution, as a translation of a text into these terms will impose its own discursive limits. Maps are not neutral, neither as a literary/ critical tool, nor as a way of explaining and exploring the spaces of the city. With this note of caution, however, it is interesting to look at Moretti’s use of the maps that Booth created. A section of one map is reproduced, in colour, in Moretti’s book. The maps illuminate the processes by which narratives incorporate, or perhaps interpellate, the spaces of city life. Moretti points out that there are two ordering systems present in the maps: on a macrocosmic scale, poverty is concentrated in the East End, while wealth resides in the West. However, on a microcosmic, street-by-street level, the highest class (coloured gold) and the lowest (coloured black) exist within two or three streets, or two hundred metres, of each other. This, Moretti argues, expresses the ‘confusion evoked with fear and wonder by most London visitors’ (78, Moretti’s emphasis); but what this map does is make the spatial orderings legible, readable. Moretti’s project in his book is to analyse how narratives and novels make urban spaces legible through a process of journeys, and in turn make the spatial apparatuses of the narratives legible by rendering them as maps or diagrams.

Here we must pause to interrogate further the relationship between the city space and how it is perceived and represented. In ‘Walking in the City’, taken from his The Practice of Everyday Life (1984), Michel de Certeau contrasted the ‘panoramic’ view from above with the ‘practices’ of city life as it is lived by its inhabitants. Looking from the 103rd floor of the World Trade Center, then serving as a ‘prow’ for Manhattan, the viewer is able to take in the whole of New York in their gaze. This view from above, however, like the map, while organizing the city through the look of a ‘totalizing eye’ [sic], ‘construct[s] the fiction that creates readers, makes the complexity of the city readable and immobilizes its opaque mobility in a transparent text’ (128). This legibility is a fiction, ‘a “theoretical” (that is, visual) simulacrum’ which obscures the true nature of the city space as it is lived (128). Opposed to this, de Certeau offers the idea of ‘practices’ of life, conducted every day, which undermine and oppose a totalising view of the city:

The ordinary practitioners of the city live ‘down below’, below the thresholds at which visibility begins. They walk — an elementary form of this experience of the city; they are walkers, Wandersmänner, whose bodies follow the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read it. (128)

De Certeau’s emphasis is on the ‘practices that are foreign to the ‘geometrical’ or ‘geographical’ space of visual, panoptic, or theoretical constructions’ (128). The ‘geometrical space’ is material, lived physical space made into a diagram, an abstraction: a map. The map becomes an organized illusion of the totality of the city, a totality incomprehensible in the everyday lives of its citizens. The walker, through her/his everyday practices of life, resists the organizing power of both the gaze and the map. The city is produced every day, inscribed with her/his journeys, journeys that create the city but ‘elud[e] legibility’.

In this essay I am going to investigate two books which try to represent the experience of living in the city of London, particularly in Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory and Michael Moorcock’s Mother London. Iain Sinclair’s London fictions are closely connected with those of Moorcock. Sinclair, whose contemporary texts deploy figures who are both wanderers and witnesses, self-consciously inherits the tradition of London as city and London as text. Poet, novelist, former book-dealer and savant of London’s histories, Sinclair often uses the East End of London as the backdrop for his fictional and journalistic investigations into the city. His Lights Out for the Territory is subtitled ‘9 Excursions into the Secret History of London’ and is dedicated to Michael Moorcock. Following de Certeau’s distinction, Sinclair is certainly on the side of the territory rather than the map, the fragmentary impressions of the walker rather than the totalised vision of the cartographer. In Lights Out, London’s secret history is uncovered or discovered in urban topography, graffiti, underground publications, crime, and marginal artistic endeavours. The ‘excursions’ in Lights Out are metaphorical but also physical: Sinclair and his photographer march from Hackney to Greenwich to Chingford, from St Pancras to Vauxhall bridge, from St Dunstan’s-in-the-East to St Paul’s. His rationale is spelt out on the first page:

I had developed this curious conceit while working on my novel Radon Daughters: that the physical movements of the characters across the territory might spell out the letters of a secret alphabet. Dynamic shapes, with ambitions to achieve a life of their own, quite independent of the supposed author. Railway to pub to hospital: trace the line on the map. These botched runes, burnt into the script in the heat of creation, offer an alternative reading — a subterranean, preconscious text capable of divination and prophecy. (1)

The conception here is the city as text, a system of signs. Reading these signs reveal the hidden or ‘subterranean’, that which, in de Certeau’s terms, is ‘below the threshold’ of visibility. Walking in the city, then, makes the invisible legible. Sinclair, like de Certeau, deploys the metaphor of vertical space to suggest the culturally hidden or ‘invisible’. The characters in his novels, and ‘Sinclair’ himself in Lights Out, reveal a symbolic (and repressed) underground, the latent and true face of the city. The mode of investigation used by Sinclair is ‘psychogeography’, a pseudo-science of occulted urban symbols, lost or erased spatial configurations, and the semiology of London’s cultural marginalia. Chris Jenks describes it thus:

A psycho-geography, then, derives from the subsequent ‘mapping’ of an unrouted route which, like primitive cartography, reveals not so much randomness and chance as spatial intentionality. It uncovers compulsive currents within the city along with unprescribed boundaries of exclusion and unconstructed gateways of opportunity. The city begins, without fantasy or exaggeration, to take on the characteristics of a map of the mind. (154)

Notice the insistence on the collapsing of city and subject in this discourse, one that is mirrored in Peter Ackroyd’s London: The Biography (2000). ‘Psycho-geography’, as the hyphenation in Jenks’s usage indicates, treats the city as a psychological entity. In his first novel, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987), Sinclair insistently deploys metaphors of the city as a body, and the map on the back cover of Dark Lanthorns repeats this connection. Perhaps we can suggest a Cartesian binary metaphor at work here: if the city is a body, then as Jenks suggests, the map is a figure of the city’s mind. The materiality that de Certeau insists upon as part of the practice of ‘walking in the city’ (rather than the visuality of the map or panorama) finds its analogue in the city represented as a body. If the city is a body, psychogeography attempts to recover a materiality lost in the abstracting process of mapping.

Sinclair’s use of psychogeography is derived from the writings of the Situationist International, and their idea of derive, ‘drifting purposefully’ in Sinclair’s own terms, which takes up the flâneur of the late nineteenth century and applies it to the conditions of late twentieth century life. The pedestrian (as psychogeographer) is witness to the true histories and spaces of city life, through derive or, in Sinclair’s texts, long ‘excursions’ across the city. Walking or drifting reveals the ‘psychogeographic’ space of the city, one which is identical to that of London but which is culturally subterranean. The intuited patterns of ancient London, its topographies and hidden or forgotten pathways, for Sinclair provide an occluded map of the real city, one only accessible by the adept. Psychogeography, in Sinclair’s earlier writings particularly, assumes the form of urban magic, an invocation of hidden histories to indict the metropolitan system of power and control. The secret or occluded knowledge that psychogeography symbolises is a reflection of the histories of London which these texts suggest can be found, by the flâneur or urban magus, in the physical spaces of the city. Whether psychogeographers are neo-Gnostics or semiotic guerillas, the accessibility of this occluded knowledge remains problematic.

Early in Lights Out, Sinclair writes:

Walking is the best way to explore and exploit the city; the changes, shifts, breaks in the cloud helmet, movement of light on water. Drifting purposefully is the recommended mode, tramping asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to assert itself. To the no-bullshit materialist this sounds suspiciously like fin-de-siècle decadence, a poetic of entropy — but the born-again flâneur is a stubborn creature, less interested in texture and fabric, eavesdropping on philosophical conversation pieces, than in noticing everything. (4)

The flâneur moves with the crowd but is separate from it, city life becoming a spectacle to be consumed. Although Sinclair, in the above quotation, seems to mark out the ‘born-again flâneur’ as different from the fin-de-siècle decadent, his appropriation does bring with it political and spectatorial problems. While the flâneur has been a recurrent touchstone for cultural theory over the last decade, its construction of a distinctly masculine subjectivity, and its concern with the aestheticization of the city and the crowd, has troubled some critics. It is perhaps no coincidence that Chris Jenks’s revaluation of the flâneur, which he suggests offers a ‘creative attitude of urban inquisition’ (156), begins in the East End, at the Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel made famous by the execution, by Ronnie Kray, of George Cornell. The flâneur offers the not only a fantasy of unseen agency, privileged knowledge and voyeuristic power, but also a fantasy of possible violence and sexual domination. Judith Walkowitz, in City of Dreadful Delight, critiques the flâneur, suggesting that ‘the fact and fantasy of male bourgeois exploration had long been an informing feature of nineteenth-century bourgeois male subjectivity’ (16). The fantasy involved is of experiencing the city ‘as a whole’, the diversity of London’s districts and locations made coherent through the unifying gaze of the male subject. It is also a fantasy of sovereign desire, the male desiring subject freed from social, economic and spatial constraints. In his most recent book, London Orbital (2002), Sinclair has gone some way to repudiate his former use of the flâneur, and instead calls up a walking subject who does so in a state of fugue, a rather less problematic figure.

In Lights Out for the Territory, Sinclair’s flânerie both decodes and calls into being the signs of the ‘real’ city, the ‘fiction of an underlying pattern’. Sinclair’s city is a sign-system of accretions, a palimpsest. As in Moretti’s critical text and Booth’s maps, his ‘readings’ make the city legible, but there is little attempt to bring these into a single, totalised vision. The first excursion in Lights Out begins by describing the layering of ‘tags’ sprayed by graffiti artists on the walls of East London. The city is itself inscribed by language, but its linguistic materiality and legibility is invoked by the presence of the drifting subject. Mayhew’s ‘rambling’ observer, Booth’s cartography, or the contemporary flâneur all organise the city into a legible space. In all of these cases, the subject who witnesses or sees is not simply a transcriber of the ‘truth’ of city life, they are also readers, and their presence creates the readings. As in de Certeau’s formulation, ‘the fiction . . . creates readers’ (128). They are active agents in, and participant creators of, the social and topographic space they describe, and this extends to the languages and discourses they use to articulate the city.

Sinclair’s city is an accreted, occluded fabric of language and signs (literal and semiotic), a ‘tangled skein’ of cultures, narratives and histories. Michael Moorcock’s 1988 novel, Mother London, to which I will now turn, also re-imagines London as a web of linked fragments and identities, brought into vibrant being by the babel of London’s voices. It attempts to encompass London in all its massive diversity. The narrative concentrates upon the experiences of three people, the writer David Mummery, theatrical Josef Kiss and former coma sufferer Mary Gasalee, who are all to some extent telepathic. All three are explorers of London’s streets. Josef Kiss, stage magician, telepath and Falstaffian celebrant of life, compulsively walks the city, tracing out its patterns. Mary Gasalee, however, more explicitly re-imagines London. ‘Dreaming’ in a self-willed coma, she walks the streets of a magically transformed London in the company of Merle Oberon. The text is regularly punctuated by italicised paragraphs of ‘other’, unmediated voices, which signify the Babel/babble that is London’s linguistic multiverse: ‘Four-in-hand cutting a dash monkey never gobbled no bad bananas, sold up to do it I’ll never know why’ (120). These narrative foci channel the voices and experience of Londoners throughout the post-war period. Each of the protagonists struggles to deal with the cacophony that is the life of the city, each of them spending time in hospitals and on medication because the city is not occluded but too present. Language, unfiltered by speech and social discourse, is not a sign system to be decoded, but a multivalent, fluid and ultimately painful perpetual presence.

The novel begins with the voice of David Mummery. He writes: ‘All great old cities possess their special myths. Amongst London’s is the story of the Blitz, of our endurance’ (5). The Blitz, then, the myth of the East End and endurance against the odds, is appropriated and re-invented by Moorcock. The Blitz becomes the central event in London’s recent history, a crucible out of which the present has been formed. Images of fire and of (re-)birth find a conjunction in the figure of Mary Gasalee, one of the three main characters of the novel. ‘Ordinary life’ comes to an end in 1940, when her house and her husband are obliterated in the bombing. Mary is downstairs in a Morrison shelter, and her escape is one of the enigmas of the book, one of the means by which the fantastic enters its structure. We, and she, do not find out the ‘truth’ of her history until later in the novel, when she meets a fireman on duty that night. He had seen Mary, clutching her baby daughter, walk unharmed through an inferno. Mary, like London, is re-born through fire, but she cannot face the significance of her own survival. In two chapters we find Mary, in the 1950s, inhabiting a self-willed coma, existing in a Land of Dreams within her own head. In a telling complication of the space of the book, Mary’s inner world is a mise-en-abyme London peopled by the film stars from the late 1930s: Ronald Colman, Olivia de Havilland, June Havoc, and Greer Garson. This is another London underground, a symbolic and conscious/unconscious zone of escape.

Mother London has a concentric structure, and the narrative moves from 1980s London back in time to the Blitz of 1940, and thence back to ‘present’ time again. The novel begins with a chapter titled ‘The Patients’, then ‘David Mummery’, ‘Mary Gasalee’ and ‘Josef Kiss’; it ends with ‘Josef Kiss’, ‘Mrs Gasalee’, ‘David Mummery’ and ‘The Celebrants’. Between are four parts, each of six chapters. Parts two and five are mirrored and have chapters that are identified by the names of London pubs; part two begins in 1957 and ends in 1985, and part five begins in 1985 and works back to 1959. The three central characters not only focalise the narrative but are exemplary figures in their creative relationships to London (and each of them find their telepathic power diminished by distance from the city). Like Mayhew, Moorcock characterises his London in terms of ‘character’ and place. Josef Kiss is life writ large, one of the Falstaffian figures that recur in Moorcock’s fiction. Kiss takes his mind-reading powers onto the stage — only to find that the truth, and his honesty, are detrimental to the success of his act. Ironically, Kiss’s sister, Beryl Male, is the antithesis of Kiss and also London’s spiritual nemesis. A politician in Thatcher’s cabinet, Beryl is ashamed by Kiss’s excess, by his exuberance, by life lived and celebrated. Kiss is both an expression of what should valued from London’s past, and a rebuke to London’s commodified, materialist present. The two central parts, three and four, focus in upon two central chapters set in 1940, the only two in the novel to act as sequential narrative, ‘Late Blooms’ and ‘Early Departures’. The two central chapters show Kiss, half deranged by London’s babble, impersonating a Fire Warden and attempting to defuse an unexploded bomb with a pair of garden shears. (He succeeds). Moorcock replaces heroism with madness, self-delusion and the theatricality of Kiss, but his act becomes another kind of heroism, a reminder of a forgotten history of courage and communal action. Kiss uses his ability to ‘hear’ the mental voices of others, the text reveals later, to find buried victims of bombing raids. The Blitz, the myth of London’s survival, and one that is used to obscure class conflict and foster a coherent sense of British nationhood, is appropriated by Moorcock to reaffirm communal feeling but countermand sentiments of ‘national pride’.

Perhaps most interestingly, Moorcock relocates the mythic epicentre of the Blitz spatially across London. Where the East End, the docks and warehouses were the target for much of the Blitz, and the myths that grew up around it, the canal-side cottage which harbours the UXB is in North Kensington, in the West. Moorcock has long been identified with the imagination of western London. He famously spent much time in the 1960s in Ladbroke Grove, and his Cornelius novels feature this area as the crucible of the counterculture.[1] West London is also the location for Mother London’s most celebratory chapter, ‘Variable Currents 1970’. Moorcock has written: ‘I started Mother London with a wish to write about my own experience of the world in my own city, and I wanted it to be a celebration of that city’ (Death Is No Obstacle 101). This chapter is at the end of part four, where the characters come together just as the 60s and the counter-culture is disintegrating, to ride a carousel at a London fair. ‘The Gypsy Baron’ gives way again to ‘The Emperor’ and Time does not so much stand still as reach and then repeat its apotheosis. If they could they would all gladly live this instant forever.’ (371). Kiss, Mary Gasalee, even the twitchy Mummery are at home in this moment, the last expression of freedom and love. As the novel closes, the ‘celebrants’ of the last chapter congregate to toast the coming together of Josef Kiss and Mary Gasalee at Bank Cottage. This seems like a retreat for the last of London, but marriage is a fitting resolution, and signifies that Mother London should be considered, amongst other things, as a comedy.

Moorcock’s conception of the space and time of the city is represented in the form of Mother London itself. Just before the bomb lands for Kiss to defuse, Beth and Chloe Scaramanga, whose canalside cottage it descends upon, feel time standing still in the summer heat:

They heard nothing from the gasworks, nothing from the canal, no traffic in Ladbroke Grove, no trains from the other side of the gasholders . . . Time itself might have stopped, save that Chloe, experimenting, saw her fingers move and knew that if she wished she could easily get up, while the lapping of the water from the canal meant that too was unaffected. Or was Time moving backward? (227).

This is the still centre of the novel, around which its structure revolves. Though the structure of the novel is concentric, it does not narrate time flowing linearly towards and from 1940. Rather, the events of the Blitz are like a stone dropped into the canal, and the ripples of its significance move forwards to the present and back again. Chloe, like ourselves, cannot be sure whether time is linear, is fragmented, has stopped, or is running in several directions at once. In the chapter which immediately precedes the events of 1940, Kiss indulges himself in a recurring reverie:

It is as if the rest of the nation is perpetually in motion on the city’s periphery, as if London is the hub around which all else revolves, the ordering, civilising, progressive force which influences first the Home Counties, then the entire nation, ultimately the Empire and through the Empire the Globe itself: a city more powerful than all cities before it, perhaps more powerful than all cities ever will be. (221)

Though this is Josef Kiss’s reverie, not Moorcock’s, and is in part a parodic version of Imperial dreams, is Moorcock sentimentalising the city here? Careful to separate London and Londoners from the rest of Britain (and even its suburbs: Kiss fulminates against middle-class suburbanites who displace older city dwellers), the metropolis is, nonetheless, the heart, head and centre of Britain, one which supports ‘British’ identity while retaining a sense of difference. Mother London is also a class-based vision, one which invests the celebratory heart of the text in the figures of the dominated and the marginal, and it is here that Moorcock finds the things of value: memory, community, and love.

That twelve chapters of the text are named for London’s pubs, centres of communal life, is essential to the representational economy of Mother London. The public house is a public space which yet escapes the ordering principles of state or official culture. Pubs are also central to Sinclair’s texts, and as we have seen, Chris Jenks’s article on the flâneur begins at the Blind Beggar in Whitechapel. As this showed, the pub is also the epicentre of a masculine culture of territorial violence. This underside of London is represented in Mother London by John and Reeny Fox, gangsters, promoters and panders, but their defeat comes when Kiss abandons them to night terrors in the sewers of the city. Mother London’s signposts attempt to replicate the physical materiality of the city itself. As Sinclair notes, Moorcock ‘shift[s] and re-arrang[es] co-ordinates until the city conforms to his reading of it’ (LRB 33). It articulates the histories of the city not through linear time experienced by human protagonists and readers, but through space. Mummery’s vision of the city expresses Mother London’s design: ‘I believe Time to be like a faceted jewel with an infinity of planes and layers impossible to map or to contain’ (486). These are Mummery’s last words, his moment of insight, and in the chapter that follows (‘The Celebrants’) we are told of his death. Time for the city co-exists in space. History is not an accretion of layers, a palimpsest of symbols and names and signs, to be decoded by the drifting subject. It is an expression of the human lives that exist within it, eternal but ever-changing. If Time is a faceted jewel, so is the space of the city.

Though Mummery is himself fascinated by London’s lost histories, and is, as Moorcock has himself suggested, like Josef Kiss an autobiographical character, he is capable of misperception. Mummery is the only protagonist in Moorcock’s Mother London to function as a first-person narrator, albeit a rather unreliable one, and he is the one who is sacrificed to the city. Mummery is a play on motherhood, the Mother London who nurtures the three protagonists but which is brought into being by them. It also signifies Mummer’s plays, whose subject matter is characterized by death and resurrection: Mummery had himself been saved from death by the ‘Black Captain’ during the bombing. Punningly, Mummery also recalls ‘memory’, and as Iain Sinclair has suggested of Mother London, ‘[i]ts status as one of the novels by which a substantial portion of London memory can be recovered is restored’ (LRB 32). Importantly, Mummery is a writer, a small-press author who has charted and stored a repository of London marginalia and myth. However, his own search for a ‘London underground’ is subtly ironized:

In 1964 I was working on a peculiar book about the city’s ‘lost’ tube lines whose maps only exist in Masonic libraries. There are many tunnels under London, some containing complete lengths of line, some with platforms, ticket offices and all the paraphernalia of an ordinary London Transport stop. There are, too, older tunnels, begun for a variety of reasons, some of which run under the river, some of which form passages under buildings . . . I discovered evidence that London was interlaced with connecting tunnels, home of a forgotten troglodytic race that had gone underground at the time of the Great Fire, whose ranks had been added to periodically by thieves, vagabonds and escaped prisoners, receiving many fresh recruits during the Blitz when so many of us sought the safety of the tubes. Others had hinted of a London under London in a variety of texts as far back as Chaucer. (Mother London, 343-4).

Mummery’s attempt to impose the hierarchy of the surface/ underground binary is self-deluding. His quest for this lost tribe under London, which he attempts to contact by leaving gifts and notes on lost Underground platforms, ends as he peers out of a manhole cover at two schoolboys who flee in terror. There is a clear suggestion that this ‘lost tribe’ have been indulging in the ancient London practice of fleecing the gullible.

Mother London is, then, an attempt to bring into being the ‘lost’ or ‘underground’ London perceived and channelled by its three central characters. It offers the reader an attempt to construct an order upon the multiplicity of London life, just as Mummery does, even if this version may be incomplete, or mistakes the true nature of the city. The non-chronological narrative, all récit, can be recomposed by the human subject who reads Mother London. Récit becomes histoire, fragments become history, through reading and narrative. Where Sinclair, in Lights Out for the Territory at least, suggested the flâneur can decode the signs of the city through derive, significance ‘swimming to the surface’ of the palimpsest through an indirect gaze, Mother London encourages the reader to reimagine, recombine and reconstruct London itself. Reading becomes not an act of interpretation but one of creation. Both Moorcock’s and Sinclair’s texts attempt to articulate London’s spaces in textual form, but theirs is an anti-mapping, resisting totality and celebrating diversity. In both, the project of reinvesting the city with the magical and fantastic is apparent, and the deadened surface of everyday life is revivified not only through walking in the city, but through reading and writing and through imagination.


[1] Michael Moorcock’s Jerry Cornelius began life as a James Bond parody in New Worlds magazine, edited by Moorcock in the 1960s. He quickly became a means by which Moorcock could playfully, and affectionately, satirise the pretensions and excesses of the counterculture. He appeared in four novels of increasing sophistication and complexity, The Final Programme (1969), A Cure for Cancer (1971), The English Assassin (1972) and The Condition of Muzak (1977). Cornelius, like Moorcock, had a ‘pad’ in West London’s Ladbroke Grove.

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Debord, Guy. The Society of the Spectacle. 1967. Detroit: Black and Red, 1977.

Fried, Albert and Richard M. Elman. ‘Introduction’ to Charles Booth’s London: A Portrait of the Poor at the Turn of the Century, drawn from his “Life and Labour of the People in London”. A. Fried and R.M. Elman, eds. London: Hutchinson, 1969. xv-xxxix.

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Quennel, Peter, ed. London’s Underworld, being selections from ‘Those that will not work’, the fourth volume of ‘London Labour and the London Poor’, by Henry Mayhew. London: Spring Books, n.d.

Sinclair, Iain. Lud Heat. 1975. London: Granta, 1998.

—. White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings. 1987. London: Paladin, 1988.

—, Lights Out for the Territory: 9 Excursions in the Secret History of London. 1997. London: Granta, 1998.

—, and Rachel Lichtenstein. Rodinsky’s Room. London: Granta, 1999.

—, Dark Lanthorns. Uppingham: Goldmark, 1999.

—, ‘My Old, Sweet, Darling Mob’. London Review of Books. 30 November 2000. 32-4.

—, London Orbital. London: Granta, 2002.

Walkowitz, Judith. City of Dreadful Delight: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late-Victorian London. London: Virago, 1992.

To Cite This Article:

Brian Baker, ‘Maps of the London Underground: Iain Sinclair and Michael Moorcock’s psychogeography of the city’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 1 Number 1 (March 2003). Online at Accessed on [date of access].