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Reading London Stone: The Paradox of Alternative Material History in Representations of Contemporary London

Alex Murray

In Lights out for the Territory Iain Sinclair asserts: “The London Stone, with its mantic cargo, is now kept behind bars, beneath the pavement; a trophy for the Overseas Chinese Banking Corporation Limited in Cannon Street. Grievously misaligned.”[1] The fate of London Stone is symbolic of the material reserve of historic artefacts that litter London. During the 1980s and the rise of the heritage culture in England under Thatcherism, material history was grasped as being a form of oppositional engagement within the city, a means of reading the alternative history of the city beyond the misuse of Thatcherite historical discourse. In what follows I will investigate the potential of material history to function as alternative history, in particular once it is exposed to market forces. Historians such as Raphael Samuel and Patrick Wright, and novelists such as William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, have suggested that the manufacturing of a conservative national past had the potential to be significantly challenged, in particular within London, by an oppositional use of material history. Yet the relationship between material history and opposition remains ambiguous. Michael Moorcock in his short story ‘London Bone’ suggests that the increasingly intertwined relationship between detritus and dramatic alterations in England’s Post War economy has resulted in material history becoming antithetical to any oppositional history from below. For Moorcock all material history, once exposed to the vagaries of the nostalgia hungry market, can only result in the destruction of London’s essence, in the perpetual entrapment and misaligning of London’s Stone.

Ideology and Nostalgia in Thatcher’s Britain

While Thatcherism was responsible for remarkable shifts in economic and social structures within England, many critics consider the increasingly complex and flexible relationship between ideology and culture it developed was its defining legacy in British politics, culture and society. Stuart Hall’s analysis of Thatcherism centres around the ways in which it constructed an incredibly powerful form of ‘hegemony’ that was supported by a complex form of organic ideology. Following the Gramscian concept of hegemony in relation to the development of post-war ideologies in Italy, Hall suggests:

arenas of contestation which may appear . . . to be ‘marginal’ to the main question, acquire in the perspective of an analysis of ‘hegemony’, an absolute centrality: questions about moral conduct, about gender and sexuality, about race and ethnicity, about ecological and environmental issues, about cultural and national identity . . . these are as central to Thatcherism’s hegemonic project as the privatisation programme of the assault on local democracy.[2]

The legitimisation of Thatcherite policy through shifts in conceptions of a national identity and the production of a heritage industry are therefore an integral element of its ideological edifice.

The relationship between Thatcherism and heritage is a complex one, and has been the object of numerous studies. From the ‘Victorian values’ that were used as a legitimating factor in the 1982 election campaign to the appropriation of Britain’s naval history in the Falklands War, Thatcherism constructed an organic ideology of nationalism that revolved around a selectively appropriated heritage. The field of material history was one such area in which changes in cultural policy were responsible for creating a specific, ideologically manipulatory form of historical interaction. Thatcherism saw the acceleration of de-industrialisation across England as the country’s once dominant mining and manufacturing sector faced ruin in a rapidly altered global economic environment. The looming impoverishment of working-class communities was simultaneously combined with a shift in governmental policy to support the rise of a heritage industry. The National Heritage Act of 1980 granted indemnity to museums, allowing an environment conducive to the development of more private museums. The Act also slashed funding to public museums and imposed strict revenue targets for all publicly funded museums.[3] Such changes saw many industrial communities forced to reinvent themselves or face gradual obliteration, with the construction of heritage centres and museums providing an attractive alternative. Robert Hewison highlights the Wigan Pier tourist centre as an example of this new trend. Following the closure of the mine, the local community in consultation with the Greater Manchester Council redeveloped the old mining site as a heritage centre. The centre operates interactive displays with actors employed to recreate domestic scenes from turn of the century life. As Hewison asserts of this mode of interaction: “the main purpose of Wigan Pier is to create, not so much an informative, as an emotional experience, a symbolic recovery of the way we were.”[4] As he suggests there is little in the way of historical interaction in this mode of remembrance, the past has come to take on a separate meaning from the economic hardship, ill health and suffering that constituted the daily life of a manual worker in the 1900s.

Within London we can see a similar presentation of a petrified history in contemporary remembrance of the Blitz. As Lucy Noakes’ study of the Imperial War Museum and the Winston Churchill at War Theme Museum suggests, the Blitz has become a symbol of national unity, a sanitized picture of a nation at war. Both exhibitions create a Blitz ‘experience’ that allow the visitor to interact with a controlled representation of a past. As Noakes asserts: “Because these themed museum ‘experiences’ begin with the choice of a period, event or lifestyle as particularly significant and worthy of commemoration rather than beginning with the discovery or acquisition of artefacts, they have the ability to tell us more about current preoccupations with the past . . . rather than preserving the past, they create it.”[5] For Noakes, our current preoccupations reveal the need for palatable versions of a past with the experience of a minority represented as a unified majority. This version ignores the unsanitary living condition in bomb shelters and the tragedies at Bethnal Green and Balham Tube stations. Noakes, supporting the contention of critics such as Hall, suggests: “Oppositional or problematic images of the Blitz are overwhelmed by more positive images; images which serve to support the New Right’s construction of British national identity as something natural and unchanging, untouched by ‘modern’ impositions such as gender, race or class.”[6] The need to construct oppositional historical narratives through the presentation of material history thus becomes a fundamental element in an historiographically based attack on the ideological edifice of Thatcherism and Neo-conservatism in contemporary London.

Benjamin, Samuels, Wright, The Difference Engine and Oppositional Material History in London

The establishment of oppositional histories through the presentation of material remains has become a dominant feature of contemporary urban Cultural Studies. A great deal of this impetus flows from the work of Walter Benjamin. In order to contextualise the turn to oppositional histories in contemporary London history I will briefly examine Benjamin’s method of alternative historiography as it represents one of the fundamental shifts in attitudes toward urban historical practice. Benjamin’s historical materialist project, as presented in The Arcades Project is an attempt to reconstruct a non-teleological form of Marxist material history that had the potential to explode dominant ‘official’ narratives of the past. Intrinsic to Benjamin’s project is the relationship between the past and the present. For Benjamin we are the product of a certain tradition, one of manifold possibilities that have arisen. The role of the dialectical historian is to awaken the present out of that tradition by presenting to it the ways in which it had arrived at that point, and how certain moments in history have been denied. So The Arcades Project becomes an attempt to discover in the past a continuum in the development of the political economy and the role of the phantasmagoric commodity within that economy in order to highlight the many flaws of modes of production and consumption. As Tiedemann asserts: “Benjamin discovered the signature of the early modern in the ever more rapid obsolescence of the inventions and innovations generated by a developing capitalism’s productive forces.”[7] The implementation of this philosophy of history would be a moment of realisation that comes with the dialectical image. Benjamin asserts:

Its not that what is past casts its light on what is present, or what is present its light on what is past; rather, image is that wherein what has been comes together in a flash with the now to form a constellation. In other words, image is dialectics at a standstill . . . . Only dialectical images are genuine images . . . and the place where one encounters them is language. “Awakening.”[8]

This passage embodies many elements of Benjamin’s philosophy of history, and the term “awakening” perhaps crystallises both the method and goal of his project. For Benjamin it is not a task of making a complete picture of the past, but assembling it in such a way that allows the awoken dead to speak out against the injustice of progress that has silenced all but the most powerful of voices.

In William Gibson & Bruce Sterling’s The Difference Engine we see such an exploration of material history that undermines official history through an examination of the repository of thousands of years of forgotten history contained within the city of London itself. Gibson and Sterling personify the city throughout the text, presenting it as one of the most powerful characters in the novel, one that is all too often misread and misinterpreted by its citizens. The city is its own repository of material history, and one that is juxtaposed with the institutionalised and governmentalised history of the museum-space. The novel suggests that London is itself a geological fossil that can be read and interpreted. While the Victorian debates over geological history were intensely political, London’s geological history will always be one of ambiguity. Although the excavation of a fossil is always accompanied by a notion of teleological closure in that the object once excavated will not change materially over time, the geological history of London can never have that certainty, as the city itself constantly changes and expands. London, with its endless process of construction, consistently yields new geological secrets. In 1690 the remains of a mammoth were found in the Kings Cross area and hippopotami and elephant remains uncovered beneath Trafalgar Square.[9] This ad-hoc excavation is mimicked in the novel through the excavation of the London Underground. Mallory becomes aware of the trains creating a potent smell that would later in the novel culminate in the apocalyptic ‘big stink’: “It had a subterranean intensity, some fierce deep-buried chemistry of hot cinders and septic drippings, and now he realized that it must be pistoned out somehow, forced from the hot bowels of London by the trains below” (p. 115).[10] The excavation of London is seen later in the novel in the newly made Underground tunnels in which a tunnelling torpedo gnaws “with relentless vigour into a reeking seam of ancient London clay” (p. 405). This process yields the remains of a plague pit: “bones tangled thick as the branches of a fallen forest” (p. 408). Such a discovery is an example of both the power and the ambiguity inherent in London’s geological history. The city is able to remind its residents of the terrible reality of the past through such direct displays of suffering, while simultaneously suggesting that the geological history of London can never be fully realised: it, like the city’s history, will always be contingent, the book never closed.

One of the most vivid images of alternative material history is that of the Thames mudlarks. Elements of the mudlark’s life have been preserved in Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor. Mayhew’s study captured the lives that the burgeoning industrialised society of Victorian England had created, in particular the ways in which that society created the conditions in which extreme poverty was imposed upon its citizens. The mudlarks become one of the most striking images of Mayhew’s study as they, along with such desperate figures as the river dredgers, bone-grubbers, cigar-end finders, old wood gatherers and sewer-hunters, represent the ways in which the detritus of the city is utilised and cultivated by the poor who are subjugated by the economic system that produces the detritus they are forced to collect. They are thus excluded from the economic system, yet forced by the inequalities of that system to create a sub-system that exposes the inherent cruelty and transience of capitalism. The mudlarks would search for coal, iron and rope, along with lost tools, which they would then sell on to the rag-shops. [11] There is a definite correlation in Mayhew’s work between the nature of economic production and the river-workers surveyed. In his discussion of the fishermen, who became dredgers, Mayhew asserts: “as the commerce of the river increased, and a greater number of articles fell overboard from the shipping, they came to be more frequently called into requisition.”[12] The business of the river-folk became immortalised in Dickens’ fiction, in particular the characters of Riderhood and Hexam in Our Mutual Friend (1864-5). In contemporary London fiction the mudlarks have become a potent symbol of an alternative history,[13] one that accentuates the disparity between the institutionalised world of material history and the processes of historical engagement foisted upon the working-class by the inequalities of free-market capitalism. That symbol perhaps embodies one of the greatest of potentialities in alternative urban material history.

The Difference Engine utilises the mudlarks as exemplars of the oppositional mode of historical engagement that can result from an analysis of the inequalities of the economic structure. The novel’s depiction of the apocalyptic and inhumane nature of the Thames riverbank highlights the conditions in which the mudlarks are forced to live: “they reached . . . a dredger’s muddy hollow, half-filled with black-silt, marbled with veins of vile pale grease like the lees from a pan of bacon” (p. 284). Fraser explains how: “winter and summer they slog up to their middles, in the mud o low tide. Hunting lumps o’ coal, rusty nails, any river rubbish that will fetch a penny” (p. 283). Mallory’s brother Brian, a soldier in the Royal artillery recently returned from duty in Asia, among other places, expresses disbelief that this can be the reality facing subjects of the British Empire at its very heart: “‘I don’t believe you . . . if you told me Bombay or Calcutta, I might grant it. But not London'” (p. 284). Brian’s reaction highlights the glaring hypocrisy of an economic force such as the British Empire that dominated the world market, yet forced its own citizens to live in the most horrendous poverty. But even amongst this poverty the city yields up its own material history, and it is that history that Gibson and Sterling suggest can have value: “‘All the fish must be dead, eh?’ said Tom, stooping to rip up a china-hard platter of mud. He showed Mallory a mash of fish-bones embedded in it. ‘Look, Ned – the very image of your fossils'” (p. 284). What Tom has uncovered is not simply the image of the institutionalised fossils of the museum, but when read in relation to what Gibson and Sterling perceive as the political, economic and social inequality perpetrated by that history it becomes a Benjaminian dialectical image. The idea of the river-bed yielding an alternative material history to the ideologically saturated one of the museum-space signifies an historical image that entails an explosive force bound up in the internal contradictions of narratives of historical progress. In such an idea we can see the relationship between material history and opposition, an idea that has been extended in analyses of London’s material culture.

It is this form of oppositional material history that, both explicitly and analogously, underpins many of the alternative material history projects in the late twentieth century. During the 1980s there was a surge, in particular within London, of material history projects that attempted to deconstruct conservative narratives of history that were used as a legitimation for Thatcherism. Raphael Samuel was one such writer, whose left-wing model of materialist historical practice can be interpreted as an oppositional model of reading the urban environment. Samuels notes, in a similar register to Hall, that our relationship to the past is constantly changing and evolving. ” We live . . . in an expanding historical culture, in which the work of inquiry and retrieval is being progressively extended into all kinds of spheres that would have been thought unworthy of notice in the past”.[14] One of the central focuses of Samuel’s study becomes the utilisation of detritus and found objects as loci of memory: “reference need(s) to be made to the legions of bargain-hunters who through the medium of the flea market and the car-boot sale have created whole new classes of collectables, or made archives of the future out of the ephemera of the everyday.”[15] Samuel’s examination of the everyday takes in a variety of London-based sites and phenomenoen in which “retro-chic” became one of the dominant features of post-war culture. From Portobello Road, to Tin Pan Alley, The Camden Market, American Retro in Old Compton Street and the literary club Black’s in Dean Street, Samuel traces the contours of retro-style throughout the city. For Samuel it is not of great importance whether these sites are epicentres for private collectors or fashion emporiums for tourists. It is instead the new model of history that is ushered in by this phenomenon, a model that is potentially more egalitarian, dynamic and oppositional: “It seems possible that retrochic may have . . . prepared the way for a whole new family of alternative histories, which take as their starting point the bric-a-brac of material culture, the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life.”[16]

Samuel’s confidence in the potential of the material object to function as the locus of oppositional histories is shared by the London historian Patrick Wright. His 1985 study On Living in an Old Country was a sustained analysis of the ways in which the conservative uses of history in the 1980s undermined any attempt by a left-wing challenge to Thatcherite ideology. Wright’s critique of Michael Foot’s attempt to identify with a traditional labour past highlights the necessity of discovering an alternative model of historical engagement for the contemporary situation: “Shouldn’t we be dismantling the past to make a theory (rather than a philosophical romance) of history — one which can inform a political project which is capable of wining ground in the future and which therefore stands on an adequate analysis of the present rather than on wistful solidarity with marches of old.”[17] For Wright, this history is to be found through creating histories from below, compiled from the detritus of those whom history has forgotten: “‘Timeless’ history is often also petrified history in another sense, for what survives is usually what was made and intended to survive: the edifices and cultural symbols of the powerful, structures of stone rather than wood, the official rather than the makeshift and vernacular.”[18]

Wright’s faith in the construction of alternative materially based historical narratives dissipates in his 1991 study of London entitled A Journey Through Ruins. Wright reads the material condition of the city against the grain, against conservative ideological formations in an attempt to tell forgotten histories that expose the systemic prejudices and manipulatory objectives of Thatcherite policy. Yet Wright also notices the shifts in the nature of alternative historical practices. Instead of seeing them as having the potential to undermine conservative ideology, he observes that in many cases alternative history has become as commodified, and therefore as complicit in conservative ideological practices as the most official narratives. For instance, Wright investigates the rejuvenation of the Bow Quarter in East London. The site of the infamous Bryant and May match-girls strike of 1888, led by Annie Beasant, Bow can be seen according to Wright as “a drama of triumphant class struggle.”[19] Yet during the late nineteen eighties, the factory was the site of plans for six-hunderd and seventy luxury flats. The development was the work of ‘Kentish Homes’ who planned a lifestyle precinct that would actively incorporate selective elements of the sites history: “a monument dedicated to the memory of Annie Beasant’s intervention would only bring further ‘enhancment’ to the loft-living lifestyle of the Bow Quarter.”[20] In such development, Wright is observing a dominant trend world-wide in the appropriation of urban history, de-contextualising material history in order to ascribe symbolic capital for the potential investor. As Nan Ellin suggests: “while postmodern urbanism has largely chosen to overlook changes set in motion by the factory system, it has at the same time ascribed new meanings to the industrial era by displacing its artefacts from their original contexts.”[21] In this mis-appropriation of material history for economic gain we see the potential of material history, once removed from the conservative stranglehold of the museum-space, to again be misused in an increasingly common interaction with capital.

The commodification of the past and the question of efficable material history in ‘London Bone’

As Wright’s analysis suggests, the notion of material history functioning as alternative history becomes problematised when it enters the sphere of commodities. Michael Moorcock’s short story ‘London Bone’ highlights the complicated nature of the relationship between material history and the culture industry in contemporary London. The narrator of Moorcock’s story is Raymond Gold, a traditional cockney entrepreneur, who describes himself as “an art representative, a professional mentor, a tour-guide, a spiritual bridge-builder . . . a cultural speculator”(Moorcock, p. 105),[22] but is commonly referred to as a scalper. Gold sees no moral dilemma in charging steeply marking-up tickets of West-End musicals to American tourists. As far as he is concerned they have more money than sense and would have no knowledge of a crime being committed in the first place. The vagaries of the spurious popular culture industry from which Gold benefits are evident early in the story, as he asserts after the low ticket sales to a West-End musical: “Fuck the public . . . they’re just nostalgic for quality at the moment. Next year it’ll be something else” (Moorcock, p. 116). Gold also justifies his dubious profession by donating large amounts of money to traditional “high art” forms such as symphony orchestras. For Gold this movement of capital is an integral part of London’s life: “without our whoorish good cheer and instincts for trade – any kind of trade — we probably wouldn’t have a living city” (Moorcock, p. 109). The integral nature of trade to the city becomes more apparent throughout the story as Gold recounts the rise and fall of the trade in London bone.

Moorcock’s story highlights the paradigmatic relationship between enterprise and heritage that Corner and Harvey et al. see as dominating British culture throughout Thatcherism, and has arguably continued with New Labour. The rather awkward marriage between the two can be seen as responsible for what Hewison perceives as the entropic turn in British culture. Corner and Harvey suggest that enterprise was legitimated through heritage, as Britain developed a new financial ethos that was antithetical to the ideas of democratic freedom and the independence of the national identity symbolised through the power and position of the sovereign: “Freedom and independence derive not from civil rights but from choices exercised in the market. The sovereignty that matters is not that of king or queen, the lord or the white man, but the sovereignty of the consumer within the marketplace.”[23] Moorcock’s story is an attempt to take the nexus of free-market enterprise and its legitimation in heritage to its rather frightening yet logical conclusion: a culture in which the desire for heritage is at the mercy of a rapacious market, a world in which morality and ethics have given way to fashion and the desire to satiate the ever growing thirst for commodities. The fictional trend bares an uncanny resemblance to the sale of human organs, that as John Frow suggests, illuminates the ambiguous relationship between the gift and the commodity form and raises many serious questions about notions of morality in relation to the entry of the body into the world of the commodity.[24]

The commodity of London bone begins its life purported to be the remains of a preserved Mastodon. The bone becomes the ultimate material commodity, and its rise and fall throughout the story highlights the changing nature of the commodity in contemporary London. While the fossil is very different to the material detritus of Benjamin’s Paris, the path it makes from the city’s waste (plague pits), to highly prized artefacts is analogous to the path the mass-produced commodities of the past have undertaken in contemporary culture. The path is not direct, as London bone begins its life as the ‘auratic’ or authentic artefact: “It’s like it’s got a soul. You could come close, but you could never fake it” (p. 115) This auratic nature of the bone, along with its age, cements its place as a highly-prized commodity. For Benjamin, in his much celebrated essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, the work of art traditionally had an auratic quality, a form of temporal embodiment, fixing its production as an originary moment within space and time.[25] London bone has this intimate embodiment of space and time, a genuine artefact that cannot be reproduced, and is completely original. Yet the nature of that commodity is drastically altered when London bone is discovered before too long to be the remains of seventeenth century Londoners dug up from plague pits. For Gold, the principal salesman of London bone, the true nature of the commodity represents a moral dilemma. The removal of the bones of Gold’s ancestors represents the destruction of the city’s soul: “You’re dissipating the deep fabric of the city. You’re unravelling something. Like, the real infrastructure, the spiritual and physical bones of an ancient city” (Moorcock, p. 125). This moral dilemma is overwhelmed by the economic gains to be made from the enterprise, and the true commodification and marketing of human remains can begin.

The marketing of the human bones proves to be relatively easy, tapping into the nostalgic and grotesque, two of the most dominant features of London tourism: “by owning a piece of Bone, you own London’s true history. You become a curator of some ancient ancestor . . . it’s the hottest tourist item since Jack the Ripper razors” (Moorcock, p. 124). The appeal of the bone is undoubtedly its claim to be “true history”; it is an unadulterated piece of the past that is yours, without the imposition of ideology linked to museum displays, as we have seen in representations of the Blitz. As pieces of the bones of forgotten ancestors, dead peasants and artisans who could not afford to leave London during the plague, London bone represent the ways in which power is structured to silence and render anonymous those voices of the past that are not in control of the official narratives of history. They represent the very dialectical image that Benjamin seeks in the urban environment, they are the pure potentiality of material history. This potential is however negated by the intense commodification of these objects. They are merely fashion items in the vagarious world of the contemporary culture industry in which morality has been transcended by the insistent demands of the market. Before too long the trade expands to include the famous dead. Private bone fields (cemeteries) are established and soon there is no site that is too sacred to be pillaged in order to satisfy the market. Ironically Marx’s graveyard is pillaged in order to satiate demand. The fashion permeates all levels of society, culture and government. There are campaigns by politicians to allow all cemeteries to be pillaged: “The profits from those fields should rightly go into the public purse. They could help pay for the health service. ‘Let the dead,’ went their favourite slogan, ‘pay for the living for a change'” (Moorcock, p. 130). Inevitably the government takes up the exploitation of material history, and its path from potentially alternative history to institutionalised history is complete.

Yet the trade in London Bone becomes another transient trend: “For a few months there is a grotesque trade in the remains of the famous. But the fashion has no intrinsic substance and fizzles out” (Moorcock, p. 126). The fizzle is followed by a counter-reaction against the trade and a new-found morality, yet in Moorcock’s narrative this means little more than another twist in the market. The next election sees this new moral imperative emerge: “They got a city that started cultivating peace and security as if it were a cash crop” (p. 133). Moorcock highlights the economic foundation of morality, with the enterprise ethos of contemporary British society destined to control any shift in public culture, and deny the place of an alternative history that is intrinsically linked to commodities. Gold, despite becoming exceptionally wealthy from the trade, is now an outcast: “I’ve had the extremes of good and bad luck riding this particular switch in the zeitgeist and the only time I’m happy is when I wake up in the morning and I’ve forgotten who I am” (Moorcock, p. 136).

Gold’s changing fortunes throughout the story are analogous to the changing relationship he has with the city of London, and the detrimental ways in which the exploitation of material history has affected London’s culture. Gold considers himself to be a true Londoner: “I was one of the last great London characters . . . Iain Sinclair couldn’t write a paragraph without dropping my name at least once. I’m a quintessential Londoner I am. I’m a Cockney gentleman” (Moorcock, p. 108). Gold thus continues in the tradition of Dennis Dover, Josef Kiss, Mary Gasalee and other “quintessential” Londoners that are celebrated in Moorcock’s fiction. Gold’s complicity in propagating the culture industry is framed as a move to protect the true culture and lifeblood of London and its denizens: “Let timid greenbelters creep in at weekends and sink themselves in the West End’s familiar deodorised shit if they want to. That’s not my city . . . the real city I live in has more creative energy per square inch at work any given moment than anywhere else in the planet” (Moorcock, p. 109). The emergence of London Bone however leads to the destruction of Gold’s identity as a Londoner. Having chosen economic gain over cultural preservation and ethics, Gold ends up a wealthy, yet despised citizen: “I’m about as popular with the public as Percy the Paedophile. I don’t go down to Soho much. When I do make it to a show or something I try and disguise myself a bit” (Moorcock, p. 135). Moorcock’s Londoners constitute the city, and their removal and alienation from it represents the acceleration of its destruction, documented in Mother London. The abuse of the city’s material past has led to a destruction of its very soul.

Moorcock’s fictionalisation of the intense commodification of material history in contemporary London has a strong precedence in the development of the antiques trade within Thatcher’s Britain. As Howard Malchow has explored, the seemingly worthless material history of the past was altered drastically in this new environment: “the most ordinary domestic objects — horse brasses and blue-glass medicine bottles, toasting forks and pot-lids — apparently became talismanic objects of desire by their ‘heritage’ associations.”[26] As in ‘London Bone’, we see material history imbued with an almost occult value, an aura that is ignorant to the mass-produced and insignificant nature of these items and radically alters their relationship to the period in which they were produced. Malchow argues that the movement toward a heritage industry based upon the commodification and presentation of material history can drastically alter our understanding of the past, rendering it as ideologically entrapped as institutionalised material history: “it is a history fixed as things, shorn of dynamic processes, ready to be picked over for illustrating heritage myths and heritage morality. This is history seen from the antiques marketplace, where the past is its physical detritus — commodities stripped of social relations in their production or use.”

In Malchow’s statement we see the movement of material history from the “dynamic processes” that characterise perceived potentiality of material history in Benjamin, Samuels and The Difference Engine, to an equally dynamic process of displacement, a realigning of the city’s history, trapping it, like the London stone under the weight of capital. It is this paradoxical movement that calls into question processes of resistance to hegemony within London, demanding a reappraisal of how oppositional history is utilised in the critique of ideology.


[1] Iain Sinclair, Lights Out for the Territory, London: Granta, 1997: p. 102

[2] Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left, London: Verso, 1988: p. 8.

[3] ibid., p. 42-5.

[4] Robert Hewison, The Heritage Industry: Britain in a Climate of Decline, London: Metheun, 1987: p. 21.

[5] Lucy Noakes, “Making Histories: Experiencing the Blitz in London’s Museums in the 1990s” in War and Memory in the Twentieth Century, Martin Evans and Ken Lunn (eds.), Oxford: Berg, 1997: p. 94.

[6] ibid., p. 101.

[7] Ralph Tiedemann “Dialectics at a Standstill” in Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, Trans. Cambridge, Ma: Belknap Press, 1999., p. 932

[8] ibid., p. 462.

[9] Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography, London: Chatto & Windus, 2000: p. 9.

[10] This, and all following parenthetical references are taken from William Gibson & Bruce Sterling, The Difference Engine, New York: Bantam Spectra,1991.

[11] See Henry Mayhew, Mayhew’s London, Peter Quennell ed. London: Bracken Books, 1984: pp. 338-344.

[12] ibid, p. 319.

[13] See Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry, London: Vintage, 1990: p. 15, and Peter Ackroyd, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, London: Sinclair-Stevenson, 1994: p. 20.

[14] Raphael Samuel, Theatres of Memory, Volume I: Past and Present in Contemporary Culture, London: Verso, 1994: p. 25.

[15] ibid., p. 27.

[16] ibid., p. 114.

[17] Patrick Wright, On Living in an Old Country: the National Past in Contemporary Britain, London: Verso, 1985: p. 140.

[18] ibid., p. 78

[19] Patrick Wright, A Journey Through Ruins: The Last Days of London, London: Radius, 1991: p. 177.

[20] ibid., p. 185.

[21] Nan Ellin, Postmodern Urbanism Cambridge: Blackwell, 1996: p. 141.

[22] This, and all subsequent parenthetical references are taken from Michael Moorcock, ‘London Bone’ in London Bone, London: Scribner, 2001.

[23] See John Frow, Time and Commodity Culture: Essays in Cultural Theory and Postmodernity, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997: pp. 102-217.

[24] See Walter Benjamin “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, in Illuminations, Hannah Arendt (ed). Harry Zohn (trans). New York: Sckoken Books, 1968: pp. 217-251.

[25] Howard Malchow, “Nostalgia, ‘Heritage,’ and the London Antiques Trade: Selling the Past in Thatcher’s Britain” in Singular Continuties: Tradition, Nostalgia and Heritage in Modern British Culture, Eds. George Behlmer and Fred Leventhal. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2000: p. 196.

[26] ibid., p. 202.

To Cite This Article:

Alex Murray, ‘Reading London Stone: The Paradox of Alternative Material History in Representations of Contemporary London’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 2 Number 1 (March 2004). Online at Accessed on [date of access].