Literary London: Post-, Ex-, Trans-, Neo-?

By Luckhurst, Roger | English Studies in Canada, June-September 2005 | Go to article overview

Literary London: Post-, Ex-, Trans-, Neo-?


Luckhurst, Roger, English Studies in Canada


THE OTHER DAY, ON THE COMMERCIAL ROAD, just past Aldgate where the street suddenly changes from the wealthy private corporate zone of the City of London into one of the main drags of the poorest local borough in England, Tower Hamlets, I witnessed a time-honoured London tradition. (1) One man, insensibly drunk on the pavement, was approached by two Russians, who expertly rolled him first one way then another, fishing wallet from one pocket and cell phone from another. As they stood up, they were stopped by a Bangladeshi man, remonstrating with them over the supine body. The boys had already spirited their loot away: in dumb-show, they held out empty hands and patted their empty front pockets with affronted innocence before walking away. My bus inched on from this tableau towards Stepney and Limehouse, those historic centres of migrations to London. The twentieth century began in the East End with dense populations of Russian and Eastern European Jews. They began to disperse slowly from the ghettos of Whitechapel after the peak of the 1930s, to be replaced from the early 1970s by refugees from the Sylheti region of Bangladesh. Now the twenty-first century has seen a burgeoning new population of Russian and Eastern Europeans again, partly escaping poverty, partly religious persecution and the ethnic wars of the 1990s. And East Enders continue to roll drunks, a sport born of economic desperation.

In the large industry of contemporary writings about London, such an incident might be written up in two ways. The first could be called the "Gothic" mode, best represented by Peter Ackroyd's monumental tome, London: A Biography. "The nature of time in London is mysterious," he asserts (661), pointing out spooky repetitions and strange inheritances across the centuries, and hinting at a magical theory "of that territorial imperative, or genius loci, which keeps inhabitants in the same area" (141). London is a haunted city, subject to spectral invasions from an unquiet past. Its present occupants are driven by compulsions they barely understand, conjured by the spirit of the city itself. For the theory of this London, see any number of critical works by Julian Wolfreys; for the avant-garde practice of it, read the novels and urban investigations by lain Sinclair. Ackroyd has made a popular career out of Gothicizing London. Yet for all this apparent steeping in history, the result is curiously ahistorical--Ackroyd emphasizes a cyclical, mythical London, an "irrational place which can be organized and controlled only by means of private ritual or public superstition" (216). To read the event on Commercial Road in a more materialist way would be to turn to the second contemporary mode: London as the global city, revived from its long-term decline in the last twenty years to become a central economic and cultural node of new transnational flows of capital, information, and people. Global London means high finance and lowly poverty cheek by jowl. The city is, claims the newly created Greater London Authority (established in 2000) in its recently published London Plan, "the world's most economically internationalised city" and "the most culturally diverse city in the world" (par. 1). In terms of the statistics of migrant populations, the latter claim is untrue (Miami and Toronto top those lists), but aggressive self-promotion is integral to every global city now. So this is also the postcolonial London claimed to have come into being in the post-1945 era by the two books under review. That these books have appeared virtually simultaneously, and just a year behind Sukhdev Sandhu's history of London's Black and Asian writers, suggests that a certain critical mass has gathered behind the idea of a postcolonial London.

The term "postcolonial" is of course extremely contentious, often with its theorists arguing quite entrenched positions, but Ball and MacLeod eschew obscurity and navigate the reader through their respective understandings of the field with lucidity.

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