Visit Homepage
Skip to content

Introduction: Intermodern London

Nick Hubble

Most of these essays are developed from papers given at the seventh annual Literary London conference, ‘Liminal London: Country/City, Work/Leisure, Past/Future, and States Between’, organised by Brycchan Carey, Nick Hubble, Lawrence Phillips and Philip Tew; hosted by the Brunel Centre for Contemporary Writing (BCCW) and the Department of English at Brunel University from 2nd – 4th July 2008 with financial support from the British Academy. The call for papers cited writers as diverse as William Cobbett and J.G. Ballard in order to sketch out a partial history of London’s liminality and included the following passage:

For Ford Madox Ford, it was precisely the persistence of an almost parodic version of the ‘Country’ in the outer zones which allowed the masses to partake in the cultured leisure pursuits of the gentry as London and Country seasons merged into one daily commute. Thus was the trace of true individualism preserved within modern mass society and, thereby, the possibility of a fulfilling utopian future was kept tantalisingly open. But the transition was never completed: Ford talked of romantic suburbanites doomed to ‘an always tragic death’ (Ford 5) and while, less than forty years later, George Orwell thought that he had found ‘the germs of future England’ along the arterial roads ‘in Slough, Barnet, Dagenham, Letchworth, Hayes’ (Orwell 158), this England has not so much appeared as become part of the landscape of the past. Iain Sinclair talks of West Drayton in this manner as an historical frontier in which ‘Bicycle shops are a nostalgic recollection of the days when H.G. Well’s clerks took to the country roads’ (Sinclair 229).[1]

The consequence of this was that a number of papers addressed this period, approximately 1900-1945, in terms of this context, liminality, with quite startling results. Normally when the English literature of this period is studied, the focus is squarely on the modernist classics. However, the cumulative effect of a number of panels at the conference was to produce a different picture of the period. As the geographical focus shifted from central London to include the fuzzier borderlands of the metropolis, the sharpness of the centre itself began to blur and so did the firm distinctions that had previously seemed to exist between the works of the modernists and their less celebrated contemporaries. A whole new set of literary relationships emerged that, following Kristin Bluemel’s inspiring keynote address ‘Intermodernism in Literary London: from Suburbs to Spitfire’, began to group themselves under the label of ‘Intermodern London’ -– a designation that virtually announces itself from Bluemel’s understanding of intermodernism as:

… a literary-critical compass, an analytical tool or useful guidepost, an attractive neologism that can help scholars design new maps for the uncharted spaces between and within modernisms. Encouraging critics to think in terms of threes –- “inter” always forging a connection or bridge between at least two other territories –- intermodernism permits a more complex, sensitive understanding of many writers’ relations to literary London … (Bluemel 6).

Bluemel introduced the idea of intermodernism in George Orwell and the Radical Eccentrics: Intermodernism in Literary London (2004), where she expressed an impatience with the limits which the current academic construction of literary modernism was placing on the study of those writers whose eccentric social locations and literary practices had the potential to ‘enrich our understanding of the history and possibilities of radical English literature’ (Bluemel 7). Her project has since gathered momentum as other scholars have responded to the context, with the consequence that her original focus on four writers –- Orwell, Mulk Raj Anand, Inez Holden and Stevie Smith –- has now expanded to include other writers, and even movements, such as Elizabeth Bowen, Stella Gibbons, Rebecca West, William Empson and Mass-Observation.[2] The essays collected in this special issue of Literary London represent a further extension of this project and a particular focus on the geographical location which was home to most of these writers and their works. The emphasis here extends beyond concepts of the modernist city to encompass the very illimitability of intermodern London itself.

More than a century after it was originally published, Ford’s The Soul of London (1905) remains arguably the finest book ever written about London. Elsewhere, I have suggested that at least some of the roots of intermodernism lie in Ford’s ‘sense of duality’ and ‘understanding of intersubjectivity as the precondition for conscious existence’ (Hubble 175). Here, Omar Sabbagh’s Hegelian reading of Ford demonstrates not just that ‘one cannot write “London”; rather, it seems, “London” writes us’ but, more specifically, how it is Ford’s ‘London’ which turns its readers, critics and fellow writers into ‘mere vehicles … for its own elemental expression’. Sabbagh quotes Ford’s observation that ‘London, in fact, is … a matter so much more of masses than of individuals’ (Ford 11) and discusses the challenge this places on the individual: far from having a soul, London is soulless and death-like. Redemption for the Londoner lies in getting to know this death and then choosing to live.

London, then, poses the ultimate existential question to all its inhabitants in general and its writers, in particular, can be defined by their response to this potentially Conradian horror: did they go deep into the heart of darkness or did they retreat? Rudolf Weiss investigates examples of Edwardian retreat into the suburbs –- a seemingly ‘undramatic’ setting for plays of the period –- and discovers how ‘delightful suburbia, a heterotopic space, ideally the antithesis of central London, the inversion of the urban lifestyle, is uncovered as a place with many uncomfortable analogies to the city’. In short, the horror of London’s soullessness is intensified and the suburbs are shown not as a destination for escape, but as a prison from which there is no escape. Other writers, though, were made of sterner stuff: not only did John Buchan stoically endure the horrors of London –- such as the post-WWI ‘savage’ dancing to jazz which had usurped the orderly Edwardian ball –- he also understood, according to Pilvi Rajamäe, how ‘only complete abnegation in the name of selfless service to humanity [could] atone for the easy pleasures of those years’. The complimentary papers of Rajamäe and Kate Macdonald work together to chart Buchan’s fascinating reaction to the London of the period, which might be seen as the mirror image of the classic modernist response. Buchan’s London is a locus of fear in which, as Macdonald observes, the characters are always liable ‘to leap across the border from a milieu that Henry James or Virginia Woolf might have inhabited, and into the realm of The Strand Magazine’.

Joanna Pready analyses how the hotel in Henry Green’s Party Going (1939) intensifies the wider blending of public and private space of the city around it, even as the known London outside is rendered unknown by fog, causing panic among the travellers trapped in this enclosed liminal space. As Pready demonstrates, this situation promotes a loss of identity which generates fear and anxiety comparable with that present in Buchan or the Edwardian drama of the suburbs. However, for some of Green’s characters, this identity loss becomes an intersubjective opportunity to try on new identities. The horror of London’s soullessness takes on a more neutral aspect, moving closer to the ambiguous sense of exhilaration signified by the use of the term ‘terror’ in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925). My own essay addresses this terror and both traces it through the influence of Katherine Mansfield on Woolf and relates it to the concept of intermodernism and the rise of mass modernity.

If Mansfield, Woolf and Ford successfully represented the terror and exhilaration of mass London, then the later writers identified by Bluemel, such as Smith and Orwell, can be seen to have coded this terror, by domesticating and suburbanising it, into an intermodern Greater London. As Simon Goulding shows in detail, the suburb portrayed in Orwell’s Coming Up for Air (1939) is a typical product of the great interwar suburban expansion; an expansion of London’s unsettling intersubjectivity and not, as with the suburbs of Edwardian drama, a flight from it. Goulding usefully identifies the great ambiguity at the end of the novel, published on the cusp of the Second World War: ‘The urge to improve has been lost; now comes the will to fight, and at this point in time it seems that that the will is just not there.’ Of course, in many ways, the novel sends out a strong pacifist message. In fact, it can even be read as Orwell calling on suburbanites to stop sleepwalking into the world of total war and concentration camps and make the most of the simple peaceful pleasures available in their own environment. This message is a forerunner of his vision in The Lion and the Unicorn (1941), referred to in the extract from the cfp above, of a classless intermodern society developing in the outer suburbs of London and then just continually expanding. However, this future never happened and the suburban frontier was left stranded by the war in the manner of the abandoned housing estate described at the beginning of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945). So where did the will to fight come from and why did the war change the future of intermodern London?

Bluemel’s essay, ‘The Making of a Londoner: Richard Hillary and the Myths of War’, investigates exactly how the existence of an ‘intermodern London’ was obscured by the intersection of three wartime myths: ‘the myth of the Battle of Britain … the myth of the Blitz [and] the myth of the ideal Englishman as a beautiful “boy” at war’. In her compelling reading of Hillary’s The Last Enemy (1942), she charts the transition from a fully intermodern ambivalence towards a ‘flight from cross-class, cross-sex identification [and] into the myth of masculinity’, which encapsulates how the War radically changed the social coordinates that had underwritten interwar intermodern London. The wartime Blitz overwrote the symbolic death of mass London, which Ford had described, with physical death and as a consequence, intermodern intersubjectivity subsided back into the fixed identities of an earlier age.

Finally, Beryl Pong’s ‘Space and Time in the Bombed City: Graham Greene’s The Ministry of Fear and Elizabeth Bowen’s <>The Heat of the Day’, discusses two novels written after the Blitz and identifies a temporal distortion in which these novels are haunted by a future which never came into being. Pong suggests that these novels demonstrate a postwar persistence of modernist concerns, but at the same time their uncanny bombed spaces can be seen as the partial remnants of an intermodern London. Hopefully, this collection will inspire others to join in the excavation of a future from these ruins.


[1] The cfp and other conference details are available on the BCCW website:

[2] See Bluemel, ed., Intermodernism: Literary Culture in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain. Edinburgh: Edinburgh U.P., 2009 (forthcoming).

Works Cited

Bluemel, Kristin. George Orwell and the Radical Eccentrics: Intermodernism in Literary London. New York and Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Ford, Ford Madox. England and the English. Ed. Sara Haslam. Manchester: Carcanet, 2003.

Hubble, Nick. ‘The Origins of Intermodernism in Ford Madox Ford’s Parallax View’. Ford Madox Ford and Cultural Transition. Ed. Andrzej Gasiorek and Daniel Moore. Amsterdam and New York: Rodopi, 2008. 167-188.

Orwell, George. The Penguin Essays of George Orwell. Penguin: Harmondsworth, 1994.

Sinclair, Iain. London Orbital. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 2003.

To Cite This Article:

Nick Hubble, ‘Introduction: Intermodern London’. Literary London: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Representation of London, Volume 7 Number 1 (March 2009). Online at Accessed on [date of access]