Walking down Shooter’s Hill, in south London, Iain Sinclair, poet, novelist, diviner of urban esoterica, ‘London’s Magus’ no less , is collared by a disorientated Frenchman with an intriguing question; ‘ ‘Is this London?’ he demands, very politely’. Sinclair doesn’t think so; ‘not in my book’, he replies. He then points northwest and offers simple directions; ‘Keep going. Find a bridge and cross it’ (Sinclair 1999b, 40).
Sinclair’s bemusement raises some intriguing questions about what counts as London, and, importantly, for our purposes, the relation between authentic London and its writing: ‘not in my book’. Sinclair himself admits that the tourist’s ‘question is a brute. Is this London?’ Angela Carter’s London-set Wise Children also opens with a question: ‘Why is London like Budapest?’ ‘Because it is two cities divided by a river’, comes the answer (Carter, 1). South London is the ‘wrong side’ of the river, ‘the bastard side of Old Father Thames’ (1). Carter’s novel explores a series of ‘wrong sidedness’; divisions between cultural and social (and familial) legitimacy, and between reality and fantasy. Any account of literary London, as we shall see, has trouble with the south. It is rarely mapped as part of that London which is constantly glimpsed through its writing.
This demotion of south London, its not being ‘in the book’, is largely based on the fact of its being suburban, or synonymous with our understanding of what we take suburbia to be. Despite being an enormously popular and successful metropolitan habitat for a century and a half, suburbia has always been ‘wrong’ somehow, and always a problem for fiction. It has been ignored, mocked, despised, scapegoated and stereotyped. It has been considered remote, unknowable, philistine, standardised and insignificant. In fact, Suburban south London, the inner suburbs of Victorian expansion are unusually troubling because they represent the extreme of suburban indeterminacy. They can appear both urban and suburban, and neither. The south of the capital closely resembles a city but isn’t one. But neither is it what most would consider a suburb. It has the curious doubleness of being familiar and recognisable, and yet bewilderingly alien. As Walter Besant noted in 1898 this place is actually a ‘city of some two million people’ yet it is lacks precisely those landmarks that mark it down as urban. Besant characterises it as defined by what it lacks. He observes that it is ‘a city without a municipality, without a centre, without a civic history; it has no newspapers, magazines or journals; it has no university; it has no colleges apart from medicine; it has no intellectual, artistic, scientific, musical, literary centres’ (Besant, np). In many ways this picture hasn’t changed. It remains, as Besant noted a century ago, a ‘strange spot’, an in-between space. The south London suburb presents an unsettling indeterminacy. It is both too close and yet agonisingly distant, contiguous and alien, intertwined with the urban core and sharing some of its features, but also displaced, even off the map. Crucially, this particular suburban zone upsets definitions of both urban and the suburban, sharing features of both while being neither.
‘Without question’, argues Dominic Head, ‘suburbia is the most difficult social space to describe’ (Head 2002, 213). Here I want to assess why this may be true. I want to do this by concentrating on a specific mode of metropolitan writing that, while commonly applied to urban experience, cannot function in suburbia. This is the popular, recent style of London writing, that Roger Luckhurst has termed ‘London Gothic’. I will concentrate primarily on ‘London Gothic’ writing (urban and suburban) by Iain Sinclair. The inapplicability of this mode of writing south of the river reveals much about south London and about suburban writing.
Cities (and suburbs) have, of course, long been considered metaphorically as texts: they demand explication and interpretation. Cities, those masses of infrastructures and peoples, are also partly constituted by writing: 222b Baker Street still receives its share of fan mail. Richard Lehan outlines the crucial link between the urban and the literary, seeing ‘the rise of the city as inseparable from various kinds of literary movements…comic realism, romantic realism, naturalism, modernism and postmodernism’ (Lehan 3). The suburb, however, has a far more problematic relation to its writing. Roger Webster argues that ‘literary and literary-critical discourses tend to be geographically and ideologically polarised between country and city’ and that, while highly valuing the urban, these discourses ‘rarely bestow on suburban culture an equivalent status’ (Webster, 4). Sinclair’s denial of south east London’s authenticity involves a disavowal of writing: ‘not in my book’. If we accept that a city’s authenticity and identity is partly formed by its various representations, then the London suburbs, especially in the south, present a problem. South London doesn’t appear on many maps- tourist, cultural, transport, shopping etc. Any guide to literary London will round up the usual central London locations and parcel them out to guiding lights. This is clearly an extensive mapping. In a recent Get London Reading guide, 2006, produced by the Mayor’s office, we learn that waves of novelists, poets, playwrights have ‘written about London and developed its identity’. Here we have, among many others, Samuel Johnson’s Fleet St, Wilde and Conan Doyle’s West End, Woolf and Co.’s Bloomsbury and of course, Dickens’s extensive sitings. This wave has not, however, inundated the suburbs. ‘Suburbia’, as the Guide readily admits, has ‘been previously overlooked in literary circles’, that is, until, we are informed, the advent in 2001 of Sadie Smith’s Willesden-set White Teeth. The suburb, on the other hand, in one form or other today the common habitus even for the majority of city-dwellers, is curiously absent from literary catalogues, surveys and histories. The suburbs, are then, doubly displaced, being both an appendage to an already indeterminate urban core, and its representations elided from the corpus of literary work.
Again, south London is the consummate suburb. Suburbs are both ignored (they are not much in any one’s book) and yet also, as we shall see, endlessly written about (but only within certain parameters). These are, after all, as Andy Medhurst observes, not ‘just any suburbs, but paradigmatic suburbs’ (Silverstone, 243). Like the ‘real’ south London itself, suburban writing is nowhere and everywhere, both ignored and ubiquitous. Medhurst cites ‘sound historical fact’, for this area’s utter suburban typicality; its status as the original industrial suburb, with the development of the world’s first commuter railway, and thus its establishment as a space of transition, instituting an integral polarity of work and domestic space, of spatial displacement from its own originary centre. The south London suburbs tend to stand in for the idea of the suburb in British Culture. In popular culture, TV sitcoms and dramas such as The Good Life, George and Mildred, The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin and Abigail’s Party all have south London suburban settings. These suburbs are also important in their role as incubators of a particular pop sensibility. Simon Frith notes that ‘the most significant suburb in British pop history is probably Bromley, setting for Kureishi’s novel … the quintessential suburban star, David Bowie, the quintessential suburban fans, the Bromley contingent’ (Frith, cited in Silverstone, 271). Bromley is also the birthplace of H G Wells, and the setting for some of his ‘suburban’ comedies: A History of Mr Polly, The New Machiavelli, and Tono–Bungay. South London is also the setting for other popular fictional accounts of suburbia; Kureishi’s Buddha of Suburbia, Nigel William’s Wimbledon-set comedies (The Wimbledon Poisoner) and more recently, novels by Rod Liddle , Howard Jacobson, Andrea Levy and others. It has also featured in work by J G Ballard (Unlimited Dream Company) Graham Swift (The Sweetshop Owner, Last Orders, The Light of Day), Ian McEwan (The Cement Garden) and Julian Barnes (Metroland). Southeast London suburbia originates, crystallises, disseminates and popularises dominant suburban themes; boredom and drift, alienation, a soulless homogeneity, an emphasis on camp and on performativity, unthinking consumption, alternate movements of rebellion and conformism, escape and return. The Southeast London suburb, as every suburb, is then, both exceptional and average, ‘instantly recognisable though never entirely familiar. Ubiquitous but invisible.’ (Silverstone, 4)
A key difference between suburban and urban writing, I would argue, rests on a structuring principle of surface and depths: the notion that there is something beneath or beyond what can be immediately seen or apprehended. Both urban and suburban writing frequently use this illuminative mode to decipher metropolitan complexity and opacity, but with drastically differing emphases. A popular mode of much recent urban London figuring, as I have suggested, is the contemporary Gothic genre, reviving the Fantastic modes of the 19th Century fin de siecle (the Victorian era ‘was the moment when a distinctively urban Gothic was crystallized’ (Luckhurst, 530)). This ‘newly Gothicised apprehension of London’, or ‘London Gothic’, as Roger Luckhurst terms it, is based on a (writerly) palimpsestic principle where the city is repeatedly overwritten by subsequent waves of historical development and change, but each surface is only ever partly erased (Luckhurst, 528). London Gothic considers the city existing in the present as a modernised, dispersed, amnesiac surface, but which nevertheless contains recoverable spectral traces from the past, an underlying, hidden ghostly network that can be accessed if you have the right sensitivity and knowledge. The tuned-in observer can provide meaningful contemporary mapping of the urban, by means of often visionary and semi-occult workings. Here, nothing is lost, nothing ever really goes away. Literary theorist and critic of London writing, Julian Wolfreys, argues that for this mode of writing the city, ‘the past is transformed, but has never disappeared’ (Wolfreys 195). The past, especially the traumatic past, makes uncanny reappearances among the sleek buildings and spaces of the modern city. The past can irrupt into the present, as ghostly material trace, as recalled trauma, as a repetition or echo; futurity can be intimated, divined, placated, its threat cauterised.
This kind of writing seems well-suited to the particular nature of London’s piecemeal modernisation. Contemporary London presents a curious mix of new developments (landmark buildings, corporate zones, redevelopments) mixed with remnants from a different age. Canary Wharf abuts low-rise council housing; Seventies housing estates are in-filled with remnants of Victorian terracing; urban motorways expire into clogged suburban high streets; the City of London retains medieval guild structures. Furthermore, as Wolfreys argues, London has always challenged its representation, has always approached sublimity, been ineffable. Since the mid nineteenth century, its massive unplanned growth, its rapid spread toward the countryside, its sudden populousness, its commercial and industrial expansion, has all worked against any simple representation. It has proved disruptive of traditional narrative, Wolfreys argues, ‘challenging the classical efficacy of mimetic, hegemonic, representation’ (Wolfreys, 196). London, then, has a need for gothic writers sensitively attuned to the ghostly reminders of a half-buried past. Luckhurst names Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd as the contemporary exemplars of the London Gothic, along with novelists, such as W G Sebald, Will Self and Michael Moorcock, and urban commentators such as Stewart Home and Patrick Wright.
The suburb, on the other hand, isn’t amenable to this type of gothic revenancy. The idea of a palimpsestic suburb, layer upon layer of accreted historical details, local tradition, cultural memory, the ghost of traumatic events, the elucidation of a previous literary tradition, now all partly erased and partly legible, but still adding up to an esoteric meaningful connectivity, doesn’t work. In fact, the suburb, in much writing, fictional and non-fiction, is often rendered dismissively as consisting of an impenetrable, standardised, featureless surface, with no worthwhile history or tradition likely to seep up into its orderly, banal, present. The idea of the suburb is that it is new, built from scratch, in what were, until recently, open fields . The fact that it possesses no history has been its unique selling point, and the reason for its existence and obvious success, since the 1840s. We can argue that suburban writing does indeed make a gesture toward the surface/depth poetics of metropolitan legibility proposed by London Gothic, but only to point out its limitations. Suburban writing, in fact, always refuses the notion of a meaningful beyond, a deeper meaning that can help to interpret the present, provide it with a meaningful context and tradition. Where the London Gothic attempts to provide the modern or post-modern city with a sense of place, based on some continuity with the past (even if not immediately available to all) suburban writing does not. The suburb has no valuable, culturally sanctioned echo. The suburb could be anywhere (again, that is what it is for) and this placelessness is a constant refrain in much suburban writing.
This is not to say that the suburb is totally transparent, or that it has no ‘underneath’, and can therefore be easily known. The suburb has its impenetrable depths. Indeed many suburban fictions are premised precisely on the idea that there is a seamy underneath that cannot easily be known. It is just that this hermetic element, once uncovered, doesn’t illuminate the suburban scene but, rather, confirms it in its everyday mundaneness. The ‘beneath’ might be nasty, but it is always banal, comprehensible, more of the same. Suburban-set crime fiction is a good example of suburban opacity. In Conan Doyle’s very first Sherlock Holmes investigation, A Study in Scarlet (1887), the detective receives a note; ‘There has been a bad business during the night at 3 Lauriston Gardens, off the Brixton Road’ (Conan Doyle, 26). The very first murder (and the second) the famous detective is called out to solve takes place in the south London suburbs, far from the cosy Baker Street bachelor pad. This inaugural murder is (even for the Holmes casebook) nasty and difficult to solve. Death, for Dr Watson, had never appeared ‘in a more fearsome aspect’ than in this ‘dark and grimy’ Brixton flat, ‘which looked out upon one of the great arteries of suburban London’ (30). The crime’s eventual solution involves much Holmesian deduction and intricate transatlantic connections. Much crime fiction is in fact suburban-set, the suburb’s populous, respectable terrain providing excellent cover for murderous deeds.
Some of this potential ‘suburban gothic’, the idea that respectable suburban appearances are hiding something bizarre or horrible is surely explicable by a desire for revelation, for meaning: the feeling that the suburb is so banal and ugly that something must be going on. This desire to believe that something must be happening beneath suburban domestic secrecy (and the mundane surface of the ‘really real’) is nicely illustrated in a minor tradition of suburban ghost stories from the 1840s. Here, in works by Dickens, Charlotte Riddell, Margaret Oliphant and Sheridan Le Fanu, worries over the rapidly expanding suburban housing market (its profitability, its ability to sustain social distinction) were transmuted into a series of fictional ghostly hauntings. ‘Suburban ghost story of this period’ argues Lara Whelan, ‘addresses anxieties about the instability of suburban space during the time of [its] most uncontrolled and rampant growth’ (np). Alas, these stories actually contain no ‘real’ hauntings, no return of a traumatic past. In these narratives, domestic ghostings are just scams, fiendish ruses aiming for simple financial gain by affecting the profitability or resale value of a given house (and presaging a ghastly return to the recently abandoned city slum). There is no ‘beyond’ behind the suburban facades, only greed, desperate social aspiration and status seeking.
Some suburban fiction does respond to the increasingly forbidding uniformity and planned standardisation of the Victorian suburb by raising the possibility of a submerged reality that evades the controlling banality of the surface. Suburban regimentation paradoxically produces florid visions of a bizarre hidden world, and serves to dissolve the certainties of this one. Arthur Machen (celebrated turn of the century occultist and ‘London Gothic’ writer) wrote of the city and the suburb. In the story ‘A Fragment of Life’ (1906), he describes the new suburbs, ‘the desolate world and wilderness of grey Shepherd’s Bush’ (26). Gradually, the story’s hero, City clerk Edward Darnell, senses, in the dull London suburbs, the presence of both other times (‘beyond the Norman, beyond the Saxon, far into the Roman’), and other places, ‘he lost the vision of the things about him in the London streets, and gazed instead upon the sea and shore of an island in the antipodes’ (96). Suburban London is so dull and orderly it becomes its very opposite: a fantastic city, transformed, ‘a city of the Arabian Nights, its labyrinth of streets an enchanted maze’ (102). The dull everyday suburb is here derrealised, and the suburb becomes a dreamscape: ‘I awoke from a dream of a London suburb, of daily labour, of weary, useless little things’. The drabness induces Hallucination. Similarly, G K Chesterton also emphasises the dreamy mystery adhering to suburban banality. The opening of his ‘metaphysical thriller’ The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) presents ‘the suburb of Saffron Park’ (based on the influential West London ‘Queen Anne’ suburb of Bedford Park) as ‘fantastic’ and even ‘wild’. Although merely the ‘outburst of a speculative builder’, the ‘place was not only pleasant, but perfect, if once it could be regarded not as deception but rather as a dream’ (9). Here, the present is not informed by the past, as in ‘London Gothic’, but rather dissolves away entirely, its surface proving flimsy and ephemeral.
This fictional mode of the outlandish weirdness of the extravagantly normal suburban, loitering just below the surface, can also be found in much twentieth suburban-set science fiction. In Philip K Dick’s Time Out of Joint (1959) the suburban reality of Ragle Gumm’s Californian suburb is so hyper- real it’s obviously fake. This suburb turns out to be, in fact, a flimsy simulacrum, built by the government in 1997, populated by actors (a plot later adapted by various films). J G Ballard’s The Unlimited Dream Company pressurises zones of banal suburban normalcy until they crack and devolve into their opposites. Here the uncanny sense that there must be something else beneath the orderly calm of the suburb, the uneasy sense that something is not quite right, is taken to extremes as dull Shepperton irrupts into a Blakean paradise of untrammelled desire, perversity and delight. Iain Sinclair argues that ‘Ballard has taken the germ of suburban consciousness and allowed it to mutate into something subversive and strange’ (Sinclair 1999a, 85). The sense that beneath the familiar and cosy exterior actually could lurk something nasty, argues Mikita Brottman, produces, in the eighties and nineties, a sense of ‘suburban apocalypse’. Here the stereotypically bland and peaceable orderly surface irrupts violently into its extreme opposite, into disaster: plane crashes, serial killers, spousal murder, random killing sprees all become suburban specialities.
The most common example of traces of the ineffable occurring in a fictional suburban context is, of course, the sense that domestic secrecy and normalcy is in fact harbouring the opposite; passion, sexuality, violence, dysfunction. This, of course, is the dominant motif of numerous suburban fictions; novels, dramas, sitcoms, films. If only we knew, decorous net curtains must be hiding something. Here, cultural work recapitulates the conditions of suburban living; in such a secretive, defensive, familiar, domestic and privatised space, nobody really knows anything for sure. This explains quintessential suburban concerns with materialism, domestic detail, appearance, status, snobberies; these are the ways the environment is negotiated. It is how community is developed. It is the response to a closed environment. Here, anything is possible. In his farce The Wimbledon Poisoner (1989) Nigel Williams presents suburbia as placid, predictable and dull surface, but with an underneath of domestic crisis, loathing, violence and murder. Murder by poisoning is breezily considered an easy solution to domestic crises. Poisoning is seen as merely another tedious domestic chore that cannot be avoided. It is just part of the mundane fabric of the suburban everyday. Henry Farr, the nominal poisoner of sorts, ‘did not, precisely, decide to murder his wife’ the novel opens, ‘it was simply that he could think of no other way of prolonging her absence indefinitely’ (Williams, 3). The mundane and the horrific are the same here: his idle fantasies, based on mundane ‘irritation’, include imagining her ‘hurtling over cliffs in flaming cars’ or being ‘brutally murdered on her way to the dry cleaners’ (3). Here, then, ‘suburban gothic’ hints that beneath the standardised facades and impenetrable surfaces lies more of the same; routines, petty crises, family crises. The ‘beneath’ is the same as the surface. The outrageous murderous drives buried deep in the Wimbledon psyche are as dull and predictable, as affectless and clichéd, as the identical calm surface. It is the same all the way down. The suburban scene offers flashes of difference to the emotionally charged observer because the possibility of nothing else being there is too awful to contemplate.
Ian Sinclair writes an urban gothic that cannot cope with this south London banality. His attentive, dense, allusive writing itself becomes banalised, immobilised at the unsolvable boundary of the visible/invisible, the promise of something hidden; ‘I always wonder, drifting through south London, what mysterious lives occur behind the net curtains’ (Sinclair 1999, 42). There has been, in fact, an intriguing orbicular expansion in the focus of Sinclair’s work, analogous to the restless outward growth of the suburbs, from his earlier work’s concern with mapping the urban centre, toward an increasing need to survey the suburban margins. In Lud Heat (1974) Sinclair attempts to excavate and co-ordinate a ‘network of occult energies’ (Mengham, 310) in the form of the building and positioning of Hawksmoor’s eight central London churches . In his first published novel, White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987), Sinclair posts a continuing obsession with Whitechapel/East End, and psycho-geographic mapping of Jack the Ripper’s mythologized murderous territory. There is a project to trace the boundaries, and other hidden and marginal spaces in London more generally, including brief excursions to Rotherhithe, Greenwich and suburban Kent, in Lights Out for the Territory (1997). Sinclair walks the fringes of suburban Greater London and the M25 in London Orbital (2002), while his next project, provisionally entitled 60 Miles Out, is a journey to ‘explore that ultimate boundary’ — Maddox Ford’s 1909 prediction that London would expand centrifugally for 60 miles. At the circumference of each spiral Sinclair is searching for the ultimate defining boundary; where London ends: This defining perimeter, echoing Thomas De Quincey’s Piranesian nightmare, repeatedly recedes and fades. We can even follow the topographic traces of its removal in Sinclair’s work; in Light’s Out, ‘Beyond Brent Cross, Ikea, the bloated hangers of consumerism, London lost its grip’ (308); in London Orbital , the M25 is ‘the perimeter … the boundary of what could be called London’ (3); in 60 Miles Out, ‘Cut up through Cambridge and back down through Oxford … the rim where London really loses its identity’ (Jackson, 33).
Sinclair’s key response toward suburban south London is an awareness of its unforgiving, shapeless, unboundedness. This can be seen in his use of the spatial metaphor of the labyrinth, a dominant figure in his treatment of urban space. In White Chappell, the East End is such a place; ‘the zone was gradually defined, the labyrinth penetrated’ (Sinclair 1998, 35). As labyrinth the city presents a puzzling, complex surface for the individual negotiating its pathways, but also, beneath the seeming random complexity, promises the existence of a pre-formed, connective meaningful structure. The labyrinth is not chaotic, it has clearly marked boundaries and zones. It is a puzzle, not a muddle and offers an assuring fixed meaning and purpose, requiring only a usable external key, a code (or) solution, to reveal its ultimate meaning. The labyrinth is the city as text, though an esoteric one; ‘beneath the narrative drive is a plan of energy that can, with the right key, be consulted’ (59). In White Chappell, secret keys and esoteric decoding techniques are searched for manically; ‘I had treated the text … to uncover the mantic tremble beneath’ (59).
This controlling urban metaphor of the labyrinth, the site of recoverable submerged patterns of meaning and connectivity, placed there by purposeful agency, breaks down in the south London suburb. The south lacks the necessary meaningful boundaries (a centre and periphery, a revelation) required for labyrinthine wanderings. In Downriver (1991) Sinclair slips, Alice in Wonderland-like, southward (down?) through the Rotherhithe tunnel, which ‘covertly opens a vein between two distinct systems, two descriptions of time’ and alights at a boundary zone where the ‘outfall of the city…bled into drained marshlands’ (Sinclair 2002a, 50). The south London landscape, as supplement, excess, waste, is not legible; it retains and offers no impression, no trace or echo. In this marshy, dreamlike landscape, Sinclair experiences a phantasmagoric, nightmarish, mishmash of disembodied voices, ‘a voice is forged, a bone whisper, that belongs to neither bank’ (49) — this is the suburb as uncannily both distant and too close, that which will not remain in clear focus. The investigating subject in this fluid space cannot construct a meaningful grid, or a map; ‘the townscape would not settle into any recognisable pattern’ (51). This is the original pre-industrial south of the river: murky, marshy, shapeless, not quite solid. Even the temporal revenancy is wrong; ‘Disturbingly, everything was almost familiar — but from the wrong period’ (his italics, 51). The suburb effects a deliquescent hybridisation, a blurring of constitutive borders, and a subsequent dislocation and displacement of projects of legibility and representation; Sinclair discovers he is using ‘a map whose symbols had been perversely shifted to some arcane and impenetrable system’ (51).
This is the disorientating oddness of what we can call a suburban uncanny, the hazy double-focus of the already seen that hasn’t been seen. The suburb seems familiar, but isn’t. This results in a feeling of estrangement, a sense of a space that is not exactly self-identical. A Rotherhithe local speaks to Sinclair, but he sounds as if he has ‘been inefficiently dubbed’; a chemist shop displays the sign ‘Apoteker’ (Sinclair 2002a, 51). Suburban spaces are figured here as same, as repetition, but with a disorientating hint of tweaked difference, of slight displacement, which disrupts exact similarity and identity. The suburb is akin to the dream work; seemingly familiar because already experienced, seen, remembered, ‘I had visited it often in my dreams’, but with a disconcerting odd, slipped, detail, which only serves in fact to underline its weird foreignness, ‘but ‘my’ house was a mirror image. I pictured it on the other side of the street’ (320). This doubleness produces the eeriness of the suburban scene.
Sinclair’s expeditions to the ‘wilderness’ of suburban south London leads to a De Quincean nightmare of tantalisingly receding horizons, a mutated, vertiginous, non-labyrinth, without guiding boundaries. This nightmare muddle has no centre and thus no possibility of orientation or purpose. The sameness, the collapse of perspective, the repetition and illusory sense of forward movement while actually remaining motionless, creates a horrifying deathly stasis. This same suburban uncanny trauma is also present in Sinclair’s other suburban trip recorded in Downriver, to St Mary Cray in Kent, to photograph the house of poet Nicholas Moore, exiled to suburbia, ‘out there in the wilderness’ (Sinclair 2002a, 311). Sinclair describes one of one of Moore’s poems as a ‘dream sequence about wandering endlessly through anonymous streets: pavements the same, trees the same…that’s suburbia’ (311). For Sinclair, trips to the suburbs articulate precisely this repetition, the disconcerting meandering dream-like stasis, where ‘there is no sense of movement’ (311). Like the disorientated Frenchman encountered on Shooters’ Hill, ‘working a route through undifferentiated suburbs for hours’, (Sinclair, 1999b, 23) the lack of integrated spatial organisation, any form of meaningful inscription by urban monument, the mass undifferentiated repeating of domestic building, induces a paradoxical sense of nightmarish stasis.
The south London suburbs offer no illumination from the past. They remain confusingly muddled, murky, static. They have to be walked to offer up some kind of meaningful depth. The only way ‘truths about a city divided against itself’ can be uncovered, Sinclair paraphrases filmmaker Patrick Keiller, ‘is through a series of arcane pilgrimages, days spent crawling around the rim of things’ (Sinclair 1997, 1). This is the premise of Lights Out for the Territory, subtitled 9 excursions in the secret heart of London. The act of walking the city emphasises the metaphor of the urban as a written text, as marked and produced by its pedestrian inhabitants. These acts of ‘ambulant signmaking’ are acts of integration, forging a connection and a unifying narrative between seeming unrelated city spaces; ‘walking stitches it all together’ (4). This signification will uncover hidden connections, reveal latent meanings Typically, for Sinclair, the patterns traced and meanings generated, will be cryptic, ‘the physical movements of the characters across their territory might spell out the letters of a secret alphabet’ (1). But it will make sense. This form of urban textual production clearly has links with the work of Michel de Certeau, who views the walking of ‘ordinary practioners of the city’ as ‘following the thicks and thins of an urban ‘text’ they write without being able to read’ (de Certeau, 93). This walking refuses the totalising and abstract, homogenous, over-administered mapping of Modernist space, by substituting a knowledgeable localism and the production of meaning on an individual, experiential level. Walking can produce individual mappings of the city. Sinclair employs modalities of the urban walk, the Decadent flanerie, Surrealist Derive, Situationist psychogeography, as the most fruitful way to explore the city; ‘the changes, shifts, breaks’’ (Sinclair 1997, 4). The key for the ‘born again flaneur’ is in ‘noticing everything’ (4).
Yet again, Sinclair’s project of urban aleatory ambulation is much less productive when transferred to the south London suburb; here the thrilling frisson of the chance encounter, the relaxed certainty of some significant encounter fails. Again, meaning doesn’t shine through. South London is different; ‘the south of the river is more than a simple culture jump, it operates on an entirely different pulse (Sinclair 1997, 42). In Lights Out, a walk to Greenwich fails to produce a true a psychogeographic buzz, only ‘washed out streets, without shops or garages or action of any kind’. In the ‘lost foothills to which only commuters return’, Sinclair discovers that walking here produces neither an illumination, nor a legible mapping; ‘I cannot connect any of this with the elegant fiction of my map’ (44). A later walk, recorded in the same work, to nearby Maryon Park, in Charlton, is also frustrating. The park is the setting of Antonio’s celebrated 60’s film Blow-Up, which develops themes of visibility, absence, and also, I would argue, renders nicely the disturbing vertiginous emptiness of uncanny suburban parklife. In fact, for Sinclair, Antonioni, with an unhabituated foreigner’s eye, has used the south London suburb to make ‘the most significant contribution to an anthology of vanishings’ (347). The film concerns a murder in a public park that leaves no visible trace, no resonance, a suburban space that even Sinclair himself concedes is ‘a few yard of grass about which it is possible to be quiet’ (354). For Sinclair ‘the park didn’t connect with an area of London I knew’ (347).
The perversity of attempting flanerie in the suburbs becomes the core premise of Sinclair’s, London Orbital (2002), recording attempts to walk sections of the M25 motorway, ‘the point where London … gives up its ghosts’(Sinclair 2000, 3). However the emphasis shifts from ‘the overworked flaneur’ to ‘the fugueur’, which describes a form of ambulatory ‘hysterical fugue’ that turns out to be exactly ‘the right description for our once-a-month episodes of transient mental illness’. Now, the walk, the Fugue becomes both ‘drift and fracture’, or ‘mad walking’ (120), the only way to figure the fragmentary collapse of constitutive zones and boundaries in London’s newer regions. The capital’s centuries old centrifugal expansionism is now at an end; ‘The ripples had to stop somewhere’ (4). In fact the original (Thatcherite) aim of the M25 ‘was anti-Metropolitan; it was about protecting the suburbs’ (10); however, the new liminal spaces developed at the intersection of boundaries has mutated and expanded horribly. While the metropolis is hollowed, expelled, turned inside out, the former suburbs accelerate, and expand, their logic of purely functionalised homogeneity, so that now neither recognisable urban core or peripheral suburb can be truly identified or located. Archetypal Metropolitan areas like Limehouse and Bethnal Green ‘once seen as the epitome of urban experience … are now Neo-Suburbia’ (221), filled with displaced commuters, neat gardens, defensive domesticity. What’s more, ‘nobody can afford to live at the heart of the city’ and so it is now sealed off, the ‘hollow centre divided up’ (59).
Meanwhile, former suburbs are now residential or commercial ‘off-highway zones’ with their own ‘impenetrable microgeographies’, (11). These ex-suburban sites all have an ‘awful secret: there is no there’. Furthermore, shockingly, even the buried historical trace, the ghostly revenant, is absent in this transformation; ‘memory is trashed’ (62). M25 post-suburban vernacular exists in an amnesiac present tense; quite the opposite of the notion of all time existing in one moment, the specific temporality of ‘London Gothic’ with the return of buried cultural memories. But in the suburb of the future, ‘out here on the motorway rim, there were no memories’ (149).
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To Cite This Article:
Ged Pope, ‘Deep in South London’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 6 Number 1 (March 2008). Online at http://www.literarylondon.org/london-journal/march2008/pope.html. Accessed on [date of access].