Pamela K. Gilbert (ed.) Imagined Londons (State University of New York Press, 2002), 288pp.
Imagined Londons is an interesting, well-compiled collection of twelve essays. The editor, Pamela K. Gilbert, sees the work as a contribution to a field of study in which more recently there has been more emphasis on spatial analysis than on narrative. Whilst Gilbert welcomes this corrective she also notes “Ultimately, however, space and time cannnot, of course, be separated.” Gilbert and her collaborators eschew a purely materialist analysis of the city and the emphasis of the collection is on the Londons “of the imagination”.
The twelve essays come from a variety of critical perspectives and disciplines – including Literary Studies, Architecture, Politics, Sociology, Geography, Music and Lesbian and Gay Studies. The subject matter dates from the mid-nineteenth century to the present day, a period that Gilbert notes “is particularly marked by London’s identification with modernity”. The range is convincing and there is a nice scope to the collection. Much of the material examined (and the contexts in which it is considered) is refreshingly new. David Gilbert and Fiona Henderson look at tourist guidebooks of London over the last century and a half, noting the change from the constructions of London as heart of empire to the attempts to sell a supposedly post-modern London as post-imperial diversity. They also point out the transitions from earlier constructions of “old London town” to later positionings of London as “style capital of Europe”. This aspect of the city’s more recent self-fashioning is also explored in a provocative and beautifully-structured essay by Michael Levenson entitled “London 2000: The Millenial Imagination in a City of Monuments”.
Levenson opens with an exploration of the contested domain of public monuments and proceeds to consider “public, monumental London in its post-imperial and new millenial aspect”. The article is particularly interesting on the subject of the importance of the production of symbols in post-imperial Britain. It examines the contexts of the Saatchi phenomenon and the commodification of contemporary art (“the fine art of real estate”), and New Labour’s investment in public spectacle, describing the government’s adoption of an “(Americanized) strategy of media discourse and the manipulation of imagery”, and their coming to power “through an understanding of symbolic action”. Levenson concludes with a convincing vision of London 2000 as a city vaunting its own self-conscious stylization, and enjoying what he calls “a community of style” in which what is celebrated is “the force of Difference, the value of the ‘inimitable’ structure”. This new monumentalism, which Levenson convincingly argues is a co-option of modernist forms within a post-modern milieu, reveals a new vision of London and its citizens – not the “total metropolis” but the “radically dispersed city” a “community of isolates”. London, suggests Levenson is a “touristic theater even for its workday citizens”.
As is inevitable in such a collection, there are some essays whose connections with London are tangential rather than substantial. However, there are many interesting takes on representations of London. Pamela Gilbert’s essay “The Victorian Social Body and Urban Cartography” demonstrates how medical and social cartography “not only represented Victorian theories of urbanism, but inscribed them on the city itself, as such maps were used for slum clearance and other urban plannning projects”. David L. Pike’s extended analysis of Harry Beck’s map of the London Underground as modernist icon counterpoints British and Continental understandings of modernist space, the role of the Underground map in the production of “oneiric space” and the “liberation of the imagination”, and the modernism of its representation with “the Victorian condition of its infrastructure”. Julian Wolfreys in “Undoing London or, Urban Haunts” continues his Writing London project, discussing the fracturing of representation in the work of a range of writers and artists of the 1990s – Iain Sinclair, Patrick Keiller, Allen Fisher, Rachel Whiteread and more – and the “understanding of the city text as always just the structural experience of urban textuality as Nächtraglichkeit.” Gautam Premnath’s examination of V. S. Naipaul’s constructions of London compares his post-colonial vision with those of Jean Rhys, Sam Selvon and George Lamming. My favourite quote in the article is from Naipaul’s 1958 essay, “London” where he observes “after eight years [in London] I find I have achieved, without effort, the Buddhist ideal of non-attachment”.
The book is nicely-illustrated and presented, modestly-priced and contains a stimulating range of material.
To Cite This Article:
Emma McEvoy, ‘Review – Pamela K. Gilbert (ed.) Imagined Londons (State University of New York Press, 2002), 288pp.’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 1 Number 1 (March 2003). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2003/mcevoy.html. Accessed on [date of access].