Museums of Melancholy
Iain Sinclair on London’s memorials
Research into the background of my wife’s family, the Hadmans, brought me up against an obscure wall in King’s Cross Station. Anna’s father reckoned that the Hadmans were related to the poet John Clare, who came from Helpston, a village near their own. Our investigation drew many previously unknown Hadmans from the ground where they had lain, undisturbed, for hundreds of years. They were known to each other, some of them, but unknown to us: lives summarised by uncertain dates and incompetent transcriptions of that surname. Church records had been chewed by rats, inscriptions on gravestones erased by wind from the fens. Most of the Hadmans never made it beyond a day’s walk from their starting point, the now disappeared settlement of Washingley (on the ridge above Stilton in Huntingdonshire). Two, we discovered, had ventured further afield. One, Oscar, booked passage for America. He registered his destination as 414 West First Street, Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Unfortunately, his third-class ticket was for the Titanic. The other, ‘Hadman E.’, was recorded among the columns of the dead on the King’s Cross war memorial. Heroic efforts by Anna, trips to Kew, Clerkenwell, days trawling the internet, established a connection. Hadman E. was Ernest. From Stilton. A railwayman in Peterborough, an ‘acting porter’, Ernest died on the Somme in 1917 and is listed on the Thiepval Memorial. There was indeed a remote kinship with Anna. Her great-great-grandfather and Ernest’s great-grandfather were brothers. Enough to leave her in tears and send her on an expedition to the station memorial. I needed to come to terms with this episode in my own fashion: by walking a circuit of London’s mainline stations, checking on the visibility and continuing presence of the war dead. How does a preoccupied city remember them, the missing faces of a lost generation? How long do those memories survive the fret of contemporary life?
Stations and war: brass bands, flags, bunting, fumbled embraces. Refugee children with little boxes on string around their necks. Smoke, steam. Whistles. Troop transports. Pinched faces seen through the slats of cattle trucks. The physical layout of city stations, part civic boast, part open-doored barn, creates a microclimate of suspended anxiety: the urge to fall asleep on an uncomfortable bench, to eat food you don’t need, to purchase goods as a token sacrifice against the hazards of travel. Leaving an older self behind, rooted, watching as you walk away, involves an element of risk. Stations are non-denominational places of worship, staffed by preoccupied disbelievers. The laws of time and space are different here. The narrator of The War of the Worlds strolls down to Woking station to check the latest bulletins on the Martian invasion, news from elsewhere: the London evening papers, gossip with porters, rumours peddled by station casuals. Railway lines out of the grander urban cathedrals – Victoria, Waterloo – seem to connect directly with apocalyptic killing fields. They trench through heavy clay to emerge in the shock of battle. The city shudders from the silent pounding of stone ordnance, the mute thunder of that lifesize howitzer by Charles Sergeant Jagger on the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner. Arranged on obelisks are squadrons of engineless planes that will never achieve flight. Granite battleships hide in alcoves. Ghost armies perch on temporary plinths in a psychosexual romance of heavy cloaks, gas masks, boots and belts. I think of Walter Owen’s strange First World War fantasy, The Cross of Carl (1931), in which underground trains shunt still conscious corpses from the trenches to industrial units, where they will be rendered into meat. Silver rails out of the capital double as telegraph wires. The hum of manipulated intelligence, into the provinces, country towns, brings noisy echoes of present conflicts. In a mood of communal hallucination, pals from choir or band or football club, labouring brothers, are induced to volunteer. They lay down the plough, the blacksmith’s hammer, the slaughterman’s knife. Intoxicated with blood-and-flag rhetoric, tales of atrocities committed by a bestial enemy, they willingly march off. Dreams of posthumous glory. A memorial in the village church.
The Great War inflicted still unappeased psychic damage on 20th-century England: the shockwaves of Modernism, the fracturing of imperial pretension. News was unreadable. You could no longer trust official sources: far better to construct your own narrative from randomly chopped headlines varnished into Cubist paintings. T.S. Eliot’s Waste Land zombies, flowing over London Bridge, eyes down, have just emerged from a railway station. The dead are scattered, unburied, unclaimed in France and Belgium. War memorials are not in place, not yet, to remind Eliot’s city workers of what they have lost: fathers, brothers, sons. Publishing the pain, cataloguing the names (without vulgar forensic detail), was a necessary ritual of convalescence. Even memorials that now strike us as baroque, hysterical, were criticised at their unveiling for unnecessary realism. Death as death: so morbid.
So many. So many railway workers; faces gone, heat lost. Surnames that are no longer heard: Asplen, Ellege, Ellener, Ellum, Elvidge, Fairminer, Gilderdale, Gladders, Hawnt, Kedges, Markillie, Povah, Rasberry, Shawsmith, Shimelda, Shroff, Snoxell, Smotheringale, Spendiff, Waldie, Waterworth, Wellawise. On the King’s Cross panels, they are present, all of them, alongside Hadman E. The names are here because the dead men, one uniform exchanged for another, are not. Individual bodies could not be reassembled, bones picked from the mud. ‘The government of the time,’ Peter Ashley wrote in his English Heritage booklet, Lest We Forget (2004), ‘refused to acknowledge the concept of the repatriation of the dead, so these monuments became the focal points for grief.’ The fallen of King’s Cross are uniformly capitalised: a plain design, black on grey. Memorials are small incidents of civic amnesia, a way of letting go. If you place such a thing on a high wall, nobody sees it. I’d worked, years ago, shifting sacks of Christmas mail, at Liverpool Street, King’s Cross and St Pancras, but I had no focused picture of the war memorials. A single day, 29 April 2005, would stitch the London termini together into a circuit of remembrance. Anna decided that she’d like to come with me, some of the way.
As I crunched my muesli, I watched a drama being enacted just outside the window; a magpie was driving its beak into the belly of a mouse, which was alive but helpless, turned on its back, legs pedalling. Anna was delighted: one rodent fewer to poison. The bird flew up to the shed roof, the better to enjoy its morsel. A passing squirrel startled it. The dying or dead mouse fell from its grip and rolled down the mildewed slope.
London anticipates disaster. And, in that fearful anticipation, incubates it. Visible tanks patrol the perimeter fence, signalling the boundaries of risk: Heathrow, Bluewater shopping centre. American airforce personnel, it was announced, will not be allowed to step inside the M25. By asserting that future horrors are inevitable, politicians invite us to make an accommodation with present blight.
By 7.30 a.m. on this April morning, cruise cars are loud in the streets, performing the fake alertness of the pre-election limbo, shaking down recidivists, invading crack dens that relocate before the snatch squad has the sacrificial dealer banged up, sniffling in the cells. A major disappearance is the railway bridge that once carried, along with promos for George Davis and Reggie Kray, passengers from Dalston Junction to Broad Street: a lovely aerial view of industry, canal, domestic and commercial property, Shoreditch to City. You saw, precisely, where you were. For a token fee (often no fee), you became a privileged spectator. Now grander plans are afoot and we have the block developments, the dust and noise and cancelled rights of way, to prove it. All that is left, raw stumps heritaging the memory of the bridge, is a set of pink, circular pillars, topped by flat pedestals on which nothing stands. The pillars have been customised by inelegant spray-can signatures, the aerosol equivalent of the dog’s upraised leg.
From the canal – the deleted Gainsborough Film Studios (revamped with waterfall steps and angular apartments), faded trade signs on brick (designed to be read from passing barges or trains) – we emerge on the heights of Islington: that famous view down towards the crazy, bat-chewed spires of St Pancras. An example of architecture intended to be fabulous, but unworkable. Grey spikes on red brick. A thousand Gothic revival windows with a yellow hard hat in every one of them. There is a residual nostalgia for grunge, smack, crack, skunk, discarded rubbers, black-glassed massage parlours, begging bowls, flea-bitten dogs, muggers, shunters, fastfood banditry, snoop cameras optimising car-fine revenue in the name of that corrupt god, ecology. The area stinks: of hair in hot fat, man-sweat, spastic movement. Of non-specific fear leaking out of surveillance monitors. The urban condition: suspension of reality. A multitude of travellers avoid touch and collision. They apologise. Or argue the toss with uniformed invaders of privacy. The whole mess is underwritten, yet again, by a notional futurology. The Radiant City that is still to come, Brussels-connected, Euro-buttered. And somewhere, behind all this, Antony Gormley has a factory-ashram dedicated to processing naked Gormley off-cuts which are required everywhere to validate oil-rich Cities of Culture: deserts, airports, highways, retail parks, museums and malls. Gormley is not a sculptor of consoling monuments, a grief technician healing trauma. He is a hands-on mystic, a philosopher of otherwise unconsidered spaces: roadside mounds, riverbank platforms. He works ahead of the next development. Challenged about the obsessive reproduction of his own body shell, he replies: ‘I want to confront existence.’
We can’t get at the memorial wall: a stacked trolley has been parked in front of it, brightly coloured bundles of today’s giveaway publication. free launch issue! A TV guide that morning commuters are unwilling to accept. Tourists, staggering under John Bunyan packs, are reluctant to add to their burdens, but suspect that it might be compulsory. They take the magazine, sniff it, and bin it as soon as their benefactor has moved on. Rucksacks are SAS-issue, Bergens last seen on Falklands War footage: travel is now a military operation, an endurance test. Most of tonight’s television schedules, it appears, are given over to the Hitler franchise. He may have lost the war, but he’s walking away with the ratings. Two and a half hours of Hitler in Colour, followed by Uncle Adolf (a ‘fact-based’ drama focusing on the Führer’s clammy relationship with his niece Geli Raubal). BBC2 is offering The Nazis: A Warning from History. Otherwise, it’s all snooker. And repeats of Dad’s Army.
The panels advertising the war dead are invisible to through-shuffling station users, clients of apathy. The false ceiling doesn’t help. Nor the perch of CCTV cameras keeping vigil on the permanent queue for the cash machine. Search the list for a lost relative and you are bang in the middle of the surveillance frame. Cameras are spiked like hedgehogs. Anybody withdrawing money, buying a railway ticket, is guilty. You are in the station’s memory loop, on tape: part of the involuntary cinema of metropolitan life. This occulted corner is designed to be restless, to keep you moving. It bristles with the ‘Security Awareness’ notices that signify a contrary condition: the impossibility of free transit. Exhausted travellers spurn the memorial plaque: 11 columns with around 86 names in each.
The point of the conveniently located information kiosk is to soothe panic by establishing a small island of calm in an ocean of chaos. There are no porters. High boards, with mythical destinations, click and spin like fruit-machines. The nature of the information that the laminated informers are allowed to give out is a secret: they can’t tell you what they don’t know. And they don’t know what they do tell you. They are conduits; relaying, to correctly delivered personal applications (in English), smooth and unflustered evasions. They offer therapy, analgesic reassurance, not hard facts.
‘Fire?’ said the man, affronted. ‘What fire?’ The woman, younger, knew something about it. ‘Ask Wally,’ she suggested. But we’d done that, sought out the station’s longest-serving uniform, in our earlier quest for the placement of Hadman E. Don’t trouble Wally again. His local knowledge is a badge of honour. The infamous underground fire, from 1987, shames the place; bad times best forgotten. We slither down the ramp towards a labyrinth of subterranean corridors. ‘There was a fire,’ the woman shouts after us. ‘The station burnt to the ground.’
We find no trace of this still potent fable. Plasterboard panels disguise earlier walls. There is no obvious plaque, no memorial to that loss of life. But, as we emerge into daylight, into Euston Road, I spot a mature functionary, younger than Wally, a man standing very still. A rare official who knows exactly where he is. The man explains: the memorial to the King’s Cross disaster has been removed, put into store. Refurbishment. If we search hard enough we’ll find an information poster: a memorial to the memorial. The fire on the Piccadilly Line escalator, on 18 November 1987, killed 31 people. The plaque has been taken to Acton, the London Transport Museum’s depot, where it can be viewed, by arrangement, on ‘open weekends’. The fire memorial, we are promised, will be returned. ‘It will be reinstated on completion of Project in a public area of the station.’ And there is one thing more: ‘We will employ experts to reinstate the name of Mr Alexander Fallon on the plaque, previously identified as unnamed victim.’
Fires, rail crashes, bombs and blitzes: the mainline stations, unconsciously, have become our museums of melancholy. With the passage of time, monuments lose their original function, of giving place to the honoured dead, and become street furniture, obstacles, curiosities. Decommissioned memorials are offered for sale to private collectors on the internet. Or they are removed to the National Memorial Arboretum in Staffordshire, a theme park of redundant symbols: lions, bears, eagles. There is even a ghostly white, blindfolded man who Peter Ashley thinks might be a late tribute to soldiers executed for walking away from the battle.
The next station, on our walk to the west, leaves us frustrated. The marzipan-and-betel-juice grandeur of St Pancras is impenetrable, ring-fenced, security-guarded. You can visit the old station on Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. and 1.30 p.m. And of course I do. In recent times, the vast corridors, decaying public rooms and dramatic staircase have been a favoured set for fashion shoots and music promos. The Spice Girls were launched here, and a dank basement was converted into an opium den for Johnny Depp in the film version of Alan Moore’s From Hell. The war memorial remains off-limits while the conversion takes place that will magic the former servants’ quarters into luxury apartments for the Manhattan Loft Corporation and the rest into a flagship Marriott hotel. St Pancras is not about going anywhere, not now: it’s about architecture – once admired, later despised, now restored. It’s about the Channel Tunnel Rail Link: yet another grand project. ‘The largest transport hub in Europe’, so the brochures tell us. The station was bombed in 1917, but the trains kept running. Our mistake, it is evident, is in living in the crease between the antiquated fog of a city that blundered along (privileges for the privileged) and a city that is promised, but which never quite arrives (leaves on the line).
When the monstrous makeover is completed, the twin stations, eco-park, repositioned gas holder, hotels, canalside flats and developments will make this ‘one of Europe’s most accessible locations’. Accessible to hype, fast money, Olympic dreams and every cell and splinter group of international terrorism. Because now the terrorists, like other businessmen and corporate foot-soldiers, bond at white-water rafting sessions or convenient gymnasiums. For the moment, in the lethargy of future boasts and current frustrations, we join a straggle of flustered passengers carrying bags down a ditch between building sites. Red and white plastic barriers are conceptual artworks moonlighting as blast-deflecting shields. Hurt buildings have been bandaged for elective cosmetic surgery. Wind puffs gauze like the last breath of a dying man, puffs red dust around our feet. There are no memorials in the temporary station. Present wars are unmentioned and old wars forgotten. A ‘Security Policy Statement’ promises full CCTV coverage of public areas and the ‘physical security’ of all plant and equipment.
Negotiating passage to Euston, the last of the Euston Road triad, a Sickert among stations, we inspect the steroidal and broken-backed Blakean geometer by Eduardo Paolozzi, on his plinth in front of the British Library, in the pertinent shadow of the Novotel. Naked Newton (sponsored by Vernon’s football pools) is the true architect of this warped vision. Here is a proper symbol for the corporate city, Blake’s Jerusalem reimagined by a committee determined to cover every cultural shift and marker. The giant’s compasses make their terrible calculations in the dirt of building works. In his prophetic poem, Europe, Blake writes that it is the ‘mighty Spirit . . . from the land of Albion, nam’d Newton’ who alone has the power to sound ‘the Trump of the last doom’.
The courtyard of the British Library is a grazing ground for muggers: dozens of harmless and woolly academics, waiting to be let in, clutch very obvious laptops, software in soft bags. They have adapted to the concept of the forum, the civic space dressed with its sculptural prompts. They sit where they can, on low walls, on the curved stone benches of a bijou amphitheatre dressed by eight Gormley rocks: The Planets. The Gormley zone validates the development, a cultural imprimatur: serenity, medieval cosmology making its treaty with contemporary physics. Planets as humours, as our guides and mentors. Human dust led to acknowledge its own mortality, the infinite spaces within the smallest cells of our bodies. Body parts are pressed into Gormley’s cannonballs, his rocks on plinths; arms, legs, hands. The eight stones are like calcified lumps recovered from the ashes of Pompeii or Herculaneum. Living traces imprinted on basalt.
Beside the amphitheatre is a box hedge, in which is contained a gold-red tree, a Japanese acer; a tree of sharp-edged coins. You can’t approach the tree through the maze of the tightly clipped hedge; it is closed off, solitary. This tree, too, has its plaque; it is a living memorial, planted on 12 June 1998: ‘To commemorate Anne Frank and all the children killed in wars and conflicts this century.’ The plaque quotes from Frank’s diary: ‘I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness, I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy me too.’
At this point, my pedestrian anecdotes of what was found at Euston, Marylebone, Paddington, Victoria, Charing Cross, Waterloo, London Bridge, Liverpool Street, became suddenly redundant, overtaken by the events of 7 July, the four London bombs. With four more to follow, exactly two weeks later. Explosions seemingly orchestrated by Newton’s compasses: north, south, east, west. Contemplated in this setting, alongside Gormley’s Planets, the numerology was disturbing. The original expedition, recording the names of dead railwaymen, the erasures, was a hallucination, a sleepwalker’s fugue in the lull before the attacks on London which would use King’s Cross as the trigger for a malignant chain reaction.
By 14 July, transport was moving, the Number 30 bus trundled up the hill from King’s Cross as I walked down, once again, to the station. There were more pedestrians, certainly, more rucksacks, but bus passengers were as stoic, preoccupied, chemically adapted as ever. They looked forward, impatiently, to the forthcoming Harry Potter, a device for blotting out the view from the window. A weapon, a comforting weight in the lap. Potter makes use of Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross: trainee wizards have to learn how to pass through the solid barriers between platforms 9 and 10. They are capable, I suppose, of circumventing surveillance systems. The invisibles of the real city do not appear on CCTV until they are dead, until it is all over and a suitable fiction of the past is being edited by politicians and judiciary.
The normal queues of transients, many being ostentatiously frisked by dozens of yellow-jacketed police, or by station security in gooseberry-custard tabards, were infinitely extended by mourners. They waited patiently, with plastic water and floral tributes, for their turn in the small garden of remembrance that had established itself around a tree in a fenced-off corner of the station frontage, between Euston Road and York Way. Despite the sombre aspect of the witnesses, this multi-faith shrine felt Mexican: a mass of conflicting colours, adapted football shirts, written-over flags, pink bears, white dogs. Sunlight dazzled on cellophane. The trunk of the sturdy whitebeam disappeared into a mound of banked flowers. A woman in a Red Cross uniform stood beside the tree with a Kleenex box held discreetly behind her back. At the point of entry, further boxes of two-ply tissues were stacked, ready to cope with an outpouring of confused emotion. An unnoticed accident of railway architecture, a suitable nowhere, was the sanctioned memory site, a cloister of mummified flowers. The death of Princess Diana was the template for public grief in the city. A fence, protecting a royal palace, buried in carnations, lilies, roses, professionally packaged, or lavender bunches picked from private gardens. Now this generally off-limits walkway was the focus for ranks of cameras which were forbidden access, held back; interviewers interviewed each other, talked to the police, yawned, waited. The faces of the missing, some serially reproduced, were flyposted on plasterboard and the glass partitions of bus stops. In phone boxes, portraits of the vanished competed with cards for prostitutes. Some were slick laptop productions, others as crude as punk-era fanzines. ‘Can You Help?’ One sad triptych of video-grab memories, highlights in a lost life, displaced a tattered flyer for the now forgotten tsunami disaster.
Shortly before midday, I return to the plaza of the British Library. A gang of men, shirtless, loudly tattooed, uttering very audible obscenities, are playing pitch-and-toss in the Gormley amphitheatre. It lends itself very well to this activity. Nervous tourists steer around the sunken pit and make for the open-air café. But then, quite unexpectedly, as the two-minute silence is announced, the gamesters freeze and draw themselves up as if on parade. The tourists, bemused, are caught midstride. They are Lowry figures, black against the red brick, the chequerboard squares. London is unused to such silence, no squad-car sirens, ambulances, drills; the Euston Road in gridlock stillness without the undertow of frustration and peevishness, phone-babble, honking. The stillness of something sucked from the atmosphere, a breath taken and held. Two minutes, then, is a long, necessary time: in which to experience Gormley’s projection of the emptiness of our bodies, the difficult mechanism of standing firm on a piece of moving ground.
This seemed a day to circumnavigate the Channel Tunnel Rail Link building site, the flattened and protected acres around the stations. Familiar loops at the back of King’s Cross and St Pancras have been off-limits for years; only glimpses from trains on the elevated North London line give a sense of the progress of this immense work of civil engineering. Rookeries such as Somers Town have long ago vanished and the dust heaps are an urban memory invoked by fresh piles of rubble, giant cranes. Marooned and disregarded, at the secret centre of all this activity, stands St Pancras Old Church, on its mound above the now submerged and piped Fleet River. The developers and consortiums and quangos associated with the grand scheme held many private and semi-public meetings, discussions, presentations. They were careful not to appear as earth-rippers, mindless exploiters of the fabric of the city. Every new block had its eco-park shadow, every piracy an artist in residence. The poet most deeply implicated in the visionary geography of King’s Cross was Aidan Dun. His long meditated cycle, Vale Royal, was published in a handsome limited edition in 1995. Dun was invited, and indeed paid, to address the developers. ‘Kings Cross,’ he pronounced, ‘has exerted a magnetic attraction down the centuries. The artists, the poets have made this forgotten place royal with their presence.’
Given Dun’s poetic manifesto, based on a reading of Blake, an interpretation of the pattern of hills and rivers, the events of 7 July can be seen as the inevitable consequence of our refusal to remember, our communal amnesia. Blake’s city of gold, its pillars aligned with London topography, has been wilfully set aside. The legends of Chatterton and Rimbaud, of Shelley, their association with Old St Pancras, are forgotten. Dun recognises that pastoral invocations of the Fleet River, its swimmers, cattle, fishermen, are no more than nostalgic engravings hung on the locked church in the teeth of the coming storm. ‘The bitter-sweet stench of the combustion of child-flesh/ floats through London streets.’ He sees a repeated pattern of sacrifice deriving from our refusal to recognise the originating myths of this spurned site. ‘The poisoned flower of a military necropolis,/with perfumes of sulphur.’
The church on its mound now appears as a slightly embarrassed pensioner, hovering at the outer limits of the development zone. A protective wall of green has been erected by the Channel Tunnel Rail Link operatives, who also provide a ‘24-hour helpline’ along with a skirting of that ubiquitous red and white plastic: more blast-deflecting shields. A protected but half-hidden enclave, shady and attractive to picnicking urban transients. I’m drawn in – as I was, frequently, in the days when I worked as a railway postman. I went into the church for the first time on 16 May 1973. I made a note of the fact, of my viewing of St Augustine’s sixth-century stone under the altar cloth, the pattern of plain crosses. ‘The church,’ I wrote, ‘is part of that northern rail. It drinks from ancient Christian sources.’ A week after the first bombs, I have come back, by chance, at the one hour when the doors are open. Incense, taped chanting, dim light; a young woman kneeling, absolutely still, beside the rack of burning candles. She is Czech and leaves a message in the visitors’ book about how she finds consolation here. Private rituals are enacted with none of the theatre of the King’s Cross shrine: the flowers, shirt-offerings, colours. The church is stone and sand, everything bleached and smoky. Two men march in together. One, smart in a striped shirt, buys his candle, drops to his knees, makes his gestures, leaves. The other, filthy, tattered, angry, borrows the price of his candle, slumps, drops his head, staying in place for a few moments before reeling out. In the parish room, he kicks against the toilet door. The walls of the church are dressed with engravings, watercolours: Old St Pancras as it never was. The most unexpected icon is a photograph of the Beatles, posed in the frame of the west door. Ringo, George and Paul lounge against the toothed Norman arch, while John lurches at the camera, his raised fist a blur. It’s my belief that this shot derives from a session with the war photographer Don McCullin on 28 July 1968. It is referred to in the reference books as the ‘Mad Day’. The posthumous troop moved on a strange, random trawl across London, a version of the dictated geography of Aidan Dun or William Blake. St Pancras Old Church to Old Street Roundabout to Farringdon Road to Wapping Old Stairs, where Lennon lay on the ground and played dead.
St Pancras was a child martyr who gave his name to numerous churches, a hospital, a railway station. He is pictured on a wall-hanging in the sacrament house of the Old Church (from which the tabernacle was stolen in 1985). In his left hand he holds a Byzantine cross, an extension of the tau cross. An Islamist website claimed the bombing had made of London a ‘burning cross’ – with King’s Cross Station as the pivot, the gathering point from which the bombers embarked on their deadly missions. A failure on the Northern Line underground service ruined the conceit.
A green-shirted, ponytailed gardener, spotting me looking at the faded gravestone tribute to ‘one of the few Persons who came out of the Black Hole at Calcutta’, gives me the full tour: John Soane, William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, the Hardy tree. Building work now, as at the time of the construction of the railway, is causing havoc. Tombs are splitting, monuments leaning drunkenly, holes appearing in the earth. You could, stepping carelessly, tumble into a vault. The fabric of the city cannot be shaken, bored into, trenched, day after day, without cost. It is not always as banal as a Tesco superstore collapsing into a cut-and-cover railway tunnel. London is deafened, red-eyed, traumatised. Making the best of it. We are telling our stories to the camera as a public confession. Victims replay horrifying incidents as a form of exorcism. Accused men are watched and recorded by instruments designed to make no moral judgment. The city is paralysed while contrary fictions struggle for credibility.
Back on the canal, returning home, there are more walkers than ever, more bicycles. Nothing disturbs London’s sense of the absurd: an entirely naked black man exercises on a bench, stretching, bending, grunting, as he looks across the water at the unresolved development zone, the eco-garden and the cranes. Beside him, a middle-aged woman sits eating her sandwiches, ignoring the sweating man, folding down the corners of her tired Harry Potter (reread to oblivion in preparation for the coming event). As I approach Hackney, I record a black, newly stencilled slogan: fallujah london. bombs = bombs.
It wasn’t easy, but I persisted. I had to see the memorial to the King’s Cross fire in the London Transport Museum’s depot at Acton. The functionaries at this hangar were pleasant, helpful but somehow damaged: like combatants removed from the front line. ‘My back,’ said the milky-eyed man who led us to the aisle where the two memorial tablets were stored. The depot is an Ikea warehouse of transport memorabilia, docketed, wrapped and hidden away. The storeman fetched a stool so that I could photograph the slate panels with their 31 deaths. Andy Burdett, B.A. (Hons), Jane A. Fairey, B.A. (Hons): academic distinctions added to the scroll. Mohammed Shoiab Khan, Rai Singh, Ivan Tarassenko. The lettering is plain; the memorial, funded by the King’s Cross Disaster Fund, is protected by layers of plastic sheeting. The slabs will stay in this quiet place, this store, until the development at the station is complete.
The depot is uncanny. We are free to wander, free to examine whatever takes our fancy among the shrouded and unwitnessed exhibits, the preserved fragments of an earlier London. There are bucolic, Metroland lithographs by Lawrence Bradshaw and John Mansbridge. A black and white photograph of passengers on the upper deck of a bus: all white, women with tightly permed hair, men with white shirts and ties, no luggage, no burdens. Another era, so remote and self-contained: a lull between wars. Then there is an extraordinary device like an upended torpedo with a door in its side. This grey metallic husk is a bomb-shelter for one or two persons, members of staff only. The shelters were kept at ‘vulnerable sites’, so that railwaymen could enjoy the experience of being buried alive in a double coffin with an escape hatch.
Deep red buses gleam, their windows shine. Immaculate antiques like the 236 to Leyton High Road, by way of Highbury Barn, Queensbridge Road, Hackney Wick. London Transport is perfected at last: it doesn’t go anywhere. The horror of a collapsing system, the nightmare journey to reach Acton from Dalston Kingsland, is refuted by this citadel of wonders. We stroll down empty Underground platforms, a cinema of exemplary objects and no script. J.G. Ballard, in an essay on the film director Michael Powell, suggested that drama in the ‘serious’ novel of the future would ‘migrate from the characters’ heads to the world around them’. No interior monologues, no social satire: absurd and cruel happenings reported without emotion. This seems to predict the steady stare of the full-face snapshots on the Missing posters; the soft-focused video-pulls of suspects running, stumbling, ducking: in movement. Footage stitched together from mobile-phone improvisations. First you notice the camera on the rooftop and then the bomb goes off. The new fiction of the city is edited from unauthored fragments, while the self-serving fantasies of politicians are left to decay in obscure sheds and sponsored warehouses. Down on these virtual platforms, we go past the Crossrail prototype, past clean, cool trains that will never leave their moorings. And then Anna, who dislikes underground travel, notices that the sliding doors to one of the compartments are open. She hesitates, steps inside. She’s not alone. Others have preceded her. Dummies. The dead-in-life. Figures used to test bomb blasts: they are dressed, posed, cryogenically frozen. Among all of these stalled trains, in the silence of the vast hangar with its rounded roof, these are the only passengers, waiting patiently for doors that will never close. Summer dresses, accurate in every fold and pleat, in colour and flowered pattern, are made from plaster. Hair is too luxuriant. The vamp at the door, standing, even though there are plenty of free seats, is scarlet-mouthed. Eyes like a cat. A soldier sits, trying to make sense of a map of the underground system. A woman, grinning hideously, points at the floor. Another autistic smiler, open-necked shirt, grey suit, reads a Festival of Britain brochure. A real Londoner, on the razzle, splash of American tie, combs dead hair. They are, in the low light, more than realistic, but there has been a miscalculation: their feet don’t reach the ground. And here they remain, before the show begins or after it is finished, the ultimate audience. The ones who sit and smile, without memory, or time, or words. The ones who have no obligation to make sense of the city that contains them.