London: City of Disappearances
Iain Sinclair ed.
London: Hamish Hamilton, 2006.
£22.50. 656 pp. ISBN 13 978 0 241 14299 8.
Reviewed by Hugh Clout
Places change through time just as memories of places come and go, with the experiences of childhood being pushed to the back of one’s mind in adult life, only to return again more vividly when the retirement pension is being drawn. As a Londoner born and bred, whose started life near the city centre, lived for forty years in various locations in north London, only to move to the southern suburbs twenty years ago, I have much experience and memories of the city. I am told that the noise of bombing raids toward the end of the war prevented me sleeping on many nights in my early months, driving my poor mother to distraction. A few years later, I remember being taken by her on bus journeys to various parts of the bombed out City, including the devastated environs of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, where weeds and wild flowers flourished in the ruins of office buildings. A repeated and particularly horrible journey involved taking the tram—with seats on the upper deck that could be adjusted to face in either direction—to the hospital for sick children in great Ormond Street to have some childish ailment sorted out. Then as a schoolboy, I took the trolleybus each day northward from one suburb to another to attend grammar school: I well remember my shock and disbelief when my fare increased from ½d. (half one old penny) to 1d. When the school relocated, I had to travel by tube or take a long journey by double-decker bus. As a student, I attended university in London and went on to teach there throughout my career. My daily journeys to UCL changed as I moved between flats and eventually bought a place of my own. Similarly, my office in the university has been relocated several times necessitating a change in Underground stations and subsequent walks to my place of work. Failing lifts at Russell Square demanded an agonizing walk up countless stairs from the very deep platforms, whilst ease of arrival at Euston required dicing with death as one attempted to cross the Euston Road racetrack.
Against my lifetime’s experience of London, I must set my academic trajectory that has involved historical geography and urban history. I have been fascinated by what researchers have discovered about the city and I have conveyed their findings to countless numbers of undergraduates and members of the general public. But I am not a specialist on London, since my genuine research has always been in France. Hence, I come to London: City of Disappearances with a distinctive intellectual baggage that is not exclusively obsessed with the “facts” of the city’s past but is aware of academic contributions made by archaeologists, historians and other scholars. These contributions are, of course, different from the imagined worlds contained in many of the essays and short entries that Iain Sinclair has assembled from almost sixty authors. In his own words: “The book of disappearances assembled itself as a deflected autobiography … Friends and friends of friends sent me the missing chapters of a book I was incapable of writing” . Many sections are fictional and are the products of their author’s imagination, whilst others have rather more of a ring of reality to them. From the preceding sentences, it is not hard to guess which kind of entry appealed to me. Not that works of fiction have no place in my brand of urban history /historical geography: far from it. They can illustrate theories and enliven alternative explanations, and, as such, are highly valuable, but these imagined worlds are different from the message of more conventional historical study.
Sinclair writes of London as “a map of opportunities”  and his volume is organized into a dozen sections, of which some are emphatically spatial. He begins with a clutch of essays and short entries under the rubric “West End Final” that focuses on Soho and the Charing Cross Road. Then follow, “Eastending,” “South of the River,” “Northern Lines,” “Going West” and “Edge Lands.” Injected into this geographical matrix comes a suite of writings on “Bibliomania” (serious writers and journalistic hacks), “Secret Histories,” “Old London” that has genuinely disappeared (except of course in the memory), “Objects of Obscure Desire,” “Bad Noise” and an intriguing cluster on “Terminals” embracing main railway stations and the record of death.
From this rich array of writing, I have selected a handful or two of items that have particular appeal. Four essays by Rachel Lichtenstein, Kathi Diamant, Anthony Rudolf and Patrick Wright discuss the disappearance of the Jewish East End, the almost terminal decline of the use of Yiddish, and the diaspora that has carried Jewish residents to northern and north-eastern suburbs. South of the Thames, Alan Moore’s essay “Unearthing” weaves a sustained evocation of Shooters Hill into an account of the strange life of Steve Moore. “London Flesh” by Michael Moorcroft offers an almost ghostly story of highwaymen, trams and thick fog on Hampstead Heath where the threat of body snatching looms. This theme also appears in Sarah Wise’s essay on the crumbling cottages and quaking graveyards of “Nova Scotia Gardens” in Bethnal Green that were displaced by the insertion of Columbia Square. Anna Sinclair’s “Ernest so far” is a detective story involving a hunt for evidence on war memorials dedicated to railway workers as well as in tantalizing archives. A comparable quest emerges in Ruth Valentine’s quest to discover the life circumstances of Catherine (Katherina) Muller who spent much of her life in an asylum. On the edge of London, Nick Papadimitriou ventures into the mysterious landscape of Bedfont Court Estate, “a colony of derelict smallholdings set up by the Middlesex County Council in the 1930s” , and sporting some rather attractive farmhouses, that is threatened by the expansion of Heathrow airport and the construction of Terminal Five.
“Racist Sparrows” by Bill Drummond brought me up with a start since it involved two men walking “a straight line across London from north to south, passing through Charing Cross station” . To my amazement it involved a string of places where I have lived on various occasions and through which I travelled each day during my north London existence or, more recently, as an adopted south Londoner still working in Bloomsbury. Even more amazing is the fact that this line is the route that I and my partner drive each weekend as we visit elderly, frail relatives. They are due to enter a care home in Battersea this very weekend and so the route will disappear from our weekly routine and will fade in our memories. Every reader will have a favourite selection and, I imagine, will depart from a very different starting point from my own. Without doubt, London: City of Disappearances contains an array of superb and evocative writing that exemplifies to a variable degree the imagined worlds of the city and the personal experiences of spatial encounter. Devotees will recognize that some items have been republished, with due acknowledgement, from other sources.