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Imagined/Remembered Londons

C. Bruna Mancini

In his famous essay The Image of the City (1960) Kevin Lynch asserts that writers have contributed to create the cities we inhabit, as their architects and builders. In fact, the image of the city — created by literature and painting, and perfected by the cinematographic language[1] — precedes the city itself; even better, it is through it that the traveller seems to be attracted into its texture/web of streets, buildings, monuments. For example, we can evoke the figure of Goethe irresistibly charmed by Rome, or Marco Polo anxious to reach the golden cities of Katai, or even Proust who, in his Recherche du temps perdu (1913-1927), can solemnly affirm that, in addition to – and prior to – being real cities, Florence and Venice are names full of dream and imagination.

The urban image, portrayed by the artists in their works, becomes an icon with a vigorous expressive meaning. It makes the city legible, memorable, imaginable. Close to every single real city, standing out in all its concreteness, there is an imaginary, remembered, narrated/narrative city;[2] or better, there are many different imagined cities born of dreams, utopic visions, haunting nightmares, disturbing contexts. Thus the urban text(ure) gives birth to powerful and inseparable “doubles” of itself: imagined, unreal, or even hyperreal cities whose magic and seductive images make them more real than “the” real.[3]

In the second chapter of La città postmoderna/The Postmodern City, Giandomenico Amendola writes that nowadays the boundary between reality and image is weak, labile, ephemeral: the lived city, the desired city and the imagined city tend to merge.[4] So the real city looks more and more like the imagined ones. The urban/architectonic space becomes a linguistic/poetical space, the space of imagination.[5] Through imagination and memory, the narrated/imagined cities cause the real world to be absorbed by an imaginary one, acquiring a powerful symbolic value.

Significant in this sense seems to be (the image of) London, a city which has always held a remarkable hold over the artistic imagination. Lawrence Phillips — in an editorial suggestively entitled “Literary London: An Old, New Subject?”, in the first issue of Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London[6] — remembers “the biggest aggregation of human life, the most complete compendium of the world” described by Henry James at the end of the nineteenth century;[7] the London of Malcom Bradbury’s “aesthetic realism”; the theatricality/simulation of Wordsworth’s London; the topography bound to gender/genre in the cities of Fanny Burney and Charles Dickens; the London seen through the “alien” eyes of authors such as Krishnabhabini Das, Lee Kok Liang, Sam Selvon, V. S. Naipaul. And again, I would add the grotesque, caricatural London portrayed by William Hogarth and Gustave Doré;[8] the dark and dangerous London of many detective and spy stories; the cataclysmatic London of the future predicted by the authors of the British New Wave.[9]

In the novel entitled City of the Mind (1991) Penepole Lively writes:

Everyone is talking, shouting. Language hangs in the night air and throbs in giant lettering above shops and theatres. A column of buses stands pulsing in a traffic jam: Gospel Oak, Putney Heath, Clapton Pond, Wood Green. Matthew and Alice pause on the pavement and he thinks of the city fung out all around, invisible and inviolate. He forgets, for an instant, his own concerns, and feels the power of the place, its resonances, its charge of life, its coded narrative. He reads the buses and sees that the words are the silt of all that has been here — hills and rivers, woods and fields, trade, worship, customs and events, and the unquenchable evidence of language. The city mutters still in Anglo-Saxon; it remembers the hills that have become Neasden and Islington and Hendon, the marshy islands of Bermondsey and Battersea. The ghost of another topography lingers; the uplands and the streams, the woodland and fords are inscribed still on the London Streetfinder, on the ubiquitous geometry of the nderground map, in the destinations of buses. The Fleet River, its last physical trickle locked away underground in a cast iron pipe, leaves its name defiant and untamed upon the surface. The whole place is one babble of allusions, all chronology subsumed into the distortions and mutations of today, so that in the end what is visible and what is uttered are complementary. The jumbled brick and stone of the city’s landscape is a medley of style in which centuries and decades rub shoulders in a disorder that denies the sequence of time. Language takes up the theme, an arbitrary scatter of names that juxtaposes commerce and religion, battles and conquests, kings, queens and potentates, that reaches back a thousands years or ten, providing in the end a dictionary of reference for those who will listen. Cheapside, Temple, Trafalgar, Quebec, a profligacy of Victorias and Georges and Cumberands and Bedfords — there it all is, on a million pairs of lips every day, on and on, the imperishable clamour of those who have been here before.[10]

In this passage the real London transforms itself into a fantastic, hypnotic image full of historical/social references as well as of personal/mental visions. The urban topography becomes an infinite hypertext[11] encoding the whole (hi)story of the city, its citizens, its buildings, its streets, its monuments, the events that have happened and that still happen in it: fragments/links of a past and a present which take the form of unreal/phantasmal mental images. Years, centuries, millennia melt together as the remembered, imagined city overlaps the real one.

London is not only (no longer) a large metropolis but a powerful image, a symbol, the texture of our desires and/or of our fears; an “unreal city”, like that appearing in The Waste Land (1922), which recalls urban images of the past and of the present (maybe of the future, too, if we observe it through the eyes of the old and blind Tiresias) giving them a mythical aura.[12] Fragments, memories, emblems of cities full of meaning which act as the vestiges of a noble tradition of culture, similar to the literary ruins which close the poem.[13]

Suitably, only in the streets of this infinite, uncanny urban text can Virginia Woolf survive her demon, getting lost in the crowd. In “Street Haunting: A London’s Adventure” (1930), for example, she discovers the most secret sensations of her soul, becoming part of an endless army of anonymous pedestrians. And, again, in “Flying Over London”, Woolf imagines herself hovering in an airplane over London. With a typically refined cinematographic visivity/vision, the earth falls down and the sky comes down. The airplane is immersed, swallowed in it. The domes, the roofs, the buildings, the tangle of streets vanish, fade away, crumble, fly, sucked far away:

Nothing more fantastic could be imagined. Houses, streets, banks, public buildings, and habits and mutton and brussels sprouts had been swept into long spirals and curves of pink and purple like that a wet brush makes when it sweeps mounds of paint together. One could see through the Bank of England; all the business houses were transparent; the River Thames was as the Romans saw it, as paleolithic man saw it, at dawn from a hill shaggy with wood, with the rhinoceros digging his horn into the roots of rhododendrous. So immortally fresh and virginal London looked and England was earth merely, merely the world. Flight-Lieutenant Hopgood kept his finger still on the lever which turns the plane downwards. A spark glinted on a greenhouse. There rose a dome, a spire, a factory chimney, a gasometer. Civilization in short emerged; … Now, however, there were often movements in the streets, as of sliding and stopping; and then gradually the vast creases of the stuff beneath began moving, and one saw in the creases millions of insects moving. In another second they became men, men of business, in the heart of the white city buildings. … There were blocks in the city of traffic sometimes almost a foot long; these had to be translated into eleven or twelve Rolls Royces in a row with city magnates waiting furious; and one had to add up the fury of the magnates; and say – even though it was all silent and the block was only a few inches in length, how scandalous the control of the traffic in the City of London. But with a turn of his wrist Flight-Lieutenant Hopgood flew over the poor quarters, and there through the Zeiss glasses one could see people looking up at the noise of the aeroplane, and could judge the expression of their faces. It was not one that one sees ordinarily. It was complex. “And I have to scrub the steps,” it seemed to say grudgingly. At the same, they saluted, they sent us greeting; they were capable of flight.[14]

This image/representation of London remembers to me another view of the city, this time seen from a train running through a metamorphic landscape, which appears in Tono Bungay (1906) by H. G. Wells. At the end of the fourth chapter, George Ponderevo — protagonist and omniscient narrator with a backward perspective — comes to the city, on a dull and smoky day, by the South Eastern Railway. Stage by stage, George can observe the multiplication of houses, the diminishing interspaces of market garden and dingy grass, the big factories, the gasometers and the wide reeking swamps of little homes, more of them and more and more; to the east, he can see a queer, incongruous forest of masts and spars. He marvels at this boundless world of dingy people, whiffs of industrial smell, van-crowded streets, tall warehouses, grey water, crowded barges, broad banks of indescribable mud. Cannon Street Station appears to him as “a monstrous dirty cavern” with trains packed across its vast floor:[15]

I could fill a book, I think, with a more or less imaginary account of how I came to apprehend London, how first in one aspect and then another it grew in my mind. Each day my accumulating impressions were added to and qualified and brought into relationship with new ones, they fused inseparably with others that were purely personal and accidental. I find myself with a certain comprehensive perception of London, complex indeed, incurably indistinct in places and yet in some way a whole that began with my first visit and is still being mellowed and enriched.
At first, no doubt, it was a chaos of streets and people and buildings and reasonless going to and fro. I do not remember that I ever struggled very steadily to understand it, or explored it with any but a personal and adventurous intention. Yet in time there has grown up in me a kind of theory of London; I do think I see lines of an ordered structure out of which it has grown, detected a process that is something more than a confusion of casual accidents, though indeed it may be no more than a process of disease.[16]

This impressive description/”imaginary account” of London outlines an endless, boundless landscape, an immense crowd of people going to and fro on a pavement always covered with mud, under a grey and hopeless sky. The city appears to George as a second-hand dress, slovenly, harsh and irresponsive. An image I instinctively connect with the tangle of streets, courts, and alleys plunged in the direst poverty which appear in some films interpreted and directed by Charlie Chaplin during the first two decades of the twentieth century: Easy Street (1916), Police (1915) and The Kid (1921), for example. In them the city defines itself as a dangerous place full of snares and traps, inhabited by thieves, cheats and poor wretches. The dark gorges, the decrepit buildings, the dirty lanes, the black basements transform themselves into an elastic, porous fabric; a sort of enormous circus scenography in which the famous clown/tramp, masterfully interpreted by Chaplin, uses every single element of the urban environment in a very paradoxical way. Thus the urban image undergoes a kind of ironic splitting — both tragic and comic — and the audience can easily decode it as a poetic reminder, a bitter and satiric reaction to the rude London he lived/survived during his childhood.[17]

But all these (urban) features also remind me of the black, dangerous, ambiguous London described in some of the films produced by Alfred Hitchcock in his “British period” – The Lodger. A Story of the London Fog (1926), Sabotage (1936), and The Thirty-nine Steps (1935), for example — in which the metropolis defines itself as the ideal place where thrill and suspense can develop, expand and grow; an enormous, broaden cobweb; an eyrie of murderers, spies, assassins, conspirators, and bloody monsters. After all, London is the city of Jack the Ripper and Mr Hyde, Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and James Bond. Its Babel hugeness, the danger and mystery of its labyrinthine routes, its pubs shrouded in mist, the endless stream of people and vehicles in its streets are icons everybody can recognize, even before seeing/visiting it personally.

We all know London is a metropolis of sharp contrasts, anonymous areas, poor streets and green parks, transgressive acts and multicultural encounters; a “world city”, or better, “The Great World of London” that Henry Mayhew observed from his fire balloon in 1862 and that Mario Maffi still describes in his book entitled Londra. Mappe, storie, labirinti (2000) as real or imaginary stratifications of past and present, of literary and cultural suggestions and cross-references which exercise a singular magnetism on the walker. The many, numberless narrative/narrated Londons melt into the real one, almost engulfing, absorbing, phagocytizing it. The image of London — portrayed, communicated and spread through the different media (literature, painting, cinema, television, music …) — transforms the city into a multifaceted symbol, the space of memory and imagination. To the point that there seems to be no more one (real) London but many (imagined/remembered) Londons: the product of our imagination, our (hi)story/imaginary, our dreams and/or nightmares, our inner space/landscape, our mind.


[1] See Giandomenico Amendola, La città postmoderna. Magie e paure della metropoli contemporanes, Bari, Laterza, 1997 (in particular pp. 115-6) and Marisa Galbiati “Proiezioni urbane. La realtà dell’immaginario” in Proiezioni urbane. La realtà dell’immaginario, a cura di Marisa Galbiati, Milano, Tranchida Editori, 1989 (in particular pp. 14-16). The city narrated/produced by the cinema creates a “secondary reality” which tends to prevail over the (primary /daily) “reality”.

[2] See Cristina Giorcelli “Introduction” to Città reali e immaginarie del continente americano (a cura di C. Giorcelli, Camilla Cattarulla, Anna Scacchi, Roma, Edizioni Associate Editrice Internazionale, 1998) and Gianni Puglisi – Paolo Proietti, Le città di carta (Palermo, Sellerio, 2002).

[3] Compare Jean Baudrillard, Lo scambio simbolico e la morte (Milano, Feltrinelli, 1979) and Simulacri e impostura (Bologna, Cappelli, 1980) and Mario Perniola, La società dei simulacri (Bologna, Cappelli, 1980).

[4] “Il confine tra realtà ed immagine si fa oggi labile – ammesso che esso abbia ancora valore. Città vissuta, città immaginata e città desiderata tendono a fondersi. Si va verso la scomparsa del confine tra realtà ed immaginazione e il prevalere della seconda sulla prima in nome di un maggiore realismo. La città definita reale tende ad assomigliare sempre più a quella immaginata” (Ammendola 1997: 38).

[5] Gastone Bachelard talks about a power superior to nature which joins to the function of the real a seducing, charming, awakening function of the unreal (La poetica dello spazio, Bari, Edizioni Dedalo, 1975, pp. 24-25).

[6] Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 1, Number 1,

[7] In the short but intense London, written in 1888 and published in 1905 in the collection English Hours.

[8] In his famous engravings — Over London-By Rail (1872), Ludgate Hill (1872), London Bridge (1872), Docks (1872), Houndsditch (1872)- Gustave Doré showed everything the Victorian optimism wanted to hide: the noise, the uproar, the misery, the dirt, the crime, the despair, the vapour of a huge metropolis.

[9] See also my essay “Writing and Reading the Urban (Hyper)text of London” published in the review Prospero. Rivista di culture anglo-germaniche, X MMIII Dipartimento di Letterature e Civiltà Anglo-Germaniche della Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia dell”Università degli Studi di Trieste.

[10] Penelope Lively, City of the Mind, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1992, pp. 65-67.

[11] See my essay “Writing and Reading the Urban (Hyper)Text of London”, Prospero. Rivista di culture anglo-germaniche, X MMIII Dipartimento di Letterature e Civiltà Anglo-Germaniche della Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia dell”Università degli Studi di Trieste, 2004.

[12] It’s a mythical London, made unreal by the thick and brown fog of a winter dawn, half way between purgatory and hell, and yet a place of regeneration, rebirth; a London transformed into a symbol of desolation which: “What is the city over the mountains/Cracks and reforms and bursts in the violet air/Falling towers/Jerusalem Athens Alexandria/Vienna London/Unreal” (vv. 371-376).

[13] “I sat upon the shore/Fishing, with the arid plain behind me/Shall I set mu lands in order?/ London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down/Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina/Quando fiam uti chelidon — O swallow swallow/Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie/These fragments I have shored against my ruins/When the Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe/Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata./Shantih shantih shantih” (vv. 423-433).

[14] Viginia Woolf, “Flying Over London”, in The Captain’s Death Bed and Other Essays, London, The Hogarth Press, 1950, pp. 107-108.

[15] “Factory chimneys smoke right over against Westminster with an air of carelessly not having permission, and the whole effect of industrial London and of all London east of Temple Bar and of the huge, dingy immensity of London port, is to me of something disproportionately large, something morbidly expanded, without plan or intention, dark and sinister toward the clean, clear, social assurance of the West End. And south of this central London, south-east, south-west, far west, north-west, all round the northern hills, are similar disproportionate growths, endless streets of undistinguished houses, undistinguished industries, shabby families, second-rate shops, inexplicable people who in a once fashionable phrase do not ‘exist’. All these aspects have suggested to my mind at times, do suggest to this day, the unorganised, abundant substance of some tumorous growth-process, a process which indeed bursts all the outlines of the affected carcass and protudes such masses as ignoble, comfortable Croydon, as tragic, impoverished West Ham” H. G. Wells, Tono-Bungay, with an Introduction by C. M. Joad, London & Glasgow, Collins, 1962, pp. 97-8.

[16] Ibid, 95.

[17] Also Mario Maffi, in his Londra. Mappe, storie, labirinti (Milano, Rizzoli, 2000), affirms that the urban background of New Cut, Lambeth Walk and Vauxhall Road — where Chaplin survived when he was a boy — acts as a powerful subtext of the films realized in that period of his career.

To Cite This Article:

C. Bruna Mancini, ‘Imagined/Remembered Londons’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 2 Number 2 (September 2004). Online at Accessed on [date of access].