Sunday, 18 December 2011


'Underground: the title of a painting of great beauty. It is before you now. Notice how the blue and red lines of light reach out in wonderful curves and ovals, while a great yellow circle completes the design. It is a masterpiece of formal fluency and, although the people of Mouldwarp are considered to be devoid of spiritual genius, there are some who believe this to be their sacred symbol of harmony. It is true that certain spirit names have been deciphered - angel, temple, white city, gospel oak and the legendary seven sisters - but the central purpose of the painting is still disputed'. (1)

'lines along the third dimension indicate
connections through time: here, the King's Cross fire
leads to wartime bivouacs on station platforms
and further still, to children singing on a sunlit hill' (2)

'The Guests are scattered thro' the land,
For the Eye altering alters all;
The Senses roll themselves in fear
And the flat Earth becomes a Ball' (3)

1. Peter Ackroyd, The Plato Papers, London: Chatto & Windus, 1999, 26.
2. Michael Donaghy, 'Poem on the Underground', Collected Poems, London: Picador, 2009, 196.
3. William Blake, 'The Mental Traveller' (1863). 

Images: Harry Beck's London Underground map (the original version was drawn up in 1935); and Simon Patterson's lithograph The Great Bear (1992), which places me in Max Wall, just along the line from Tony Hancock and Bernard Manning. For a detailed version of Patterson's lithograph, and some thoughtful perceptions by Maeve Conway Fried, see here. For short essays on Patterson and The Great Bear, see here and here. Thanks to Sebastian Groes, The Making of London: London in Contemporary Literature, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Monday, 5 December 2011


I have been reading Sukhdev Sandhu's brilliant book Night Haunts: A Journey Through the London Night (Verso, 2010), an Artangel commission exploring and articulating the experiences of some of those people who inhabit the city's nocturnal edgelands. Avian police. Cleaners. Samaritans in a Soho call centre. An exorcist. 'Flushers' in Joseph Bazalgette's drains below London. Mini-cab drivers. 'Graffers' (graffiti artists). Bargers. An urban fox-hunter cum suburban sniper-marksman. 'Sleep technicians' researching insomnia and apnoea in a hospital ward. And the nocturnal prayers of the nuns of Tyburn and a friar in Camden Town. As an ec-centric map of London, it provides a startling displacement of the familiar, exposing shadowlands and invisible under-worlds, and offering a compassionate critique of some of the day-world's blind spots.

"It's rare nowadays to hear anyone talk about 'night time in London'. That phrase, and its suggestion of a distinct, cordoned-off territory in which we may immerse ourselves in strange possibilities or make ourselves susceptible to off-kilter enchantments, seems rather old-fashioned. It has been emperilled by New Labour's vision of London - a blinging, pigeon-free, glass-fronted, private-finance-initiative-funded, cappuccino-sipping, Barcelona-mimicking, Euro-piazza festooned, Vanity Fair-endorsed, live-forever, things-can-only-get-better fantasia. The city in recent years has witnessed a bevy of real-estate moguls, foreign investors and film directors trading in a slicked-up form of commodity urbanism; equally, the 'London night' has morphed into, and been rebranded, as 'London nightlife'' (12).