Wednesday, April 23, 2008


Literature and history has provided us with a great many metaphors and images for London: a dark city, a labyrinth, a forest, Hell itself, a battleground, a ritual chamber, a market. TS Eliot used one of my favorites, simply referring to London as the 'unreal city,' a place that couldn't possibly exist and yet somehow does in spite of itself.

London is unusual in that the founding of the city can actually be traced to a specific period of time; in this instance, the landing of the Romans and the conquest of Brittania, where Londinium was a key military supply point and fortress. After the Romans withdrew, the city weakened and eventually passed from importance as the Saxons and Britons squabbled over control of pieces of what Rome left them. It wasn't until the late Dark Ages that London once again became important, and has continued to grow in importance ever since. It is arguably a city like no other, and certainly one of a select group which only includes New York, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Tokyo - and others one would no doubt argue belong in this set. Cities where things happen, events that trickle down into the rest of civilization. Vast centers of moneymaking and culture.

While many poets and sociologists no doubt have arguments as to why this is, I would offer a rather simple solution that the sheer numbers of people in these places offer no other possible conclusion. In less flowery language, it's the 'million monkeys' principle: they'll eventually produce something, be it Shakespeare or this blog. Or something entirely new.

And that's the problem I've found with trying to describe London in any of the metaphors I've encountered: they're too specific. The very thing that makes London so unique is that (as the quote at the top of this blog says) it really does contain everything. It in and of itself is a metaphor for the existence and condition of our entire species. That's some crazy mojo, dude.

The metaphor I've come to apply to London is that of a vast organism. Similar to the movie Pi, where the narrator describes an impossibly complex system 'screaming with life,' that is how London appears: a place where due to the sheer numbers you will encounter anything and everything, from the very best to the very worst humanity has to offer. In the scant few months I've been here I've seen people do heartless things to defenseless and crippled homeless people, and I've seen incredible displays of compassion for total strangers. If there is a representation of the city as anything, it's an extension of what makes us human: it's like a vast series of cells with the people as various organelles running to and fro, and the cells working together to make the organism work.

London isn't a tree or a creature or even some Cthulhoid monster that I might call it if I were less imaginative and observant. It's more like one of those massive underground fungus' scientists have discovered, something so ancient that it's hard to conceive that it started as a few simple cells and now covers miles of space. But that's exactly what London is: nothing more or less than the people that live here and make up the city. If the organelles were to stop working, London would simply cease to be and quietly slide back into the earth, awaiting the next militaristic expedition that realized the Thames would make a good shallow port for landing supplies.

I must admit the seduction of making London more than this. It is an inspiring city in all of its massed urban glory, and one that cannot help but fire the imagination in ways you'd never conceive. It is - unreal.

1 comment:

Roger Whitson said...

From Aidan Dun:

London. A Medusa outstretched on a riverbank,
her thick tresses snaking out of a million chimneys.
Where is the finite horizon of this city?