Magazine article The Spectator

Lost City

Magazine article The Spectator

Lost City

Article excerpt

UNTIL recently, a lively sub-genre of English literature was that devoted to London's creepier, darker back streets. Peter Ackroyd took us on a grim tour of early 1980s (and early 1700s) Shoreditch and Limehouse in Hawksmoor; lain Sinclair angrily traversed the weed-sprouting, rubbish-strewn streets of Hackney and Tilbury and what he called the 'sumplands' of Dagenham in Downriver.

Angela Carter peeked through the yellowing net curtains of dowdy south London, while Michael Moorcock beckoned us to explore the gentle sadness of peeling suburban avenues. Go further back and you will find Patrick Hamilton's malign vision of Earls Court, Arthur Conan Doyle's all-pervading fogs, Dickens's appalling rookeries. The point is that it is very hard to find examples of writers who have viewed London as a city of light.

But the creepier parts of town that have (perversely) inspired so many London writers and artists are disappearing. Those alarming, dilapidated streets at the back of King's Cross, for instance, have vanished, been pulled down and forgotten about in happy anticipation of the new Channel Tunnel rail link. What of Southwark, which used to be a reliably unnerving landscape of blackened brick and broken window? It's all been tamed (or Toted) up, streets gleaming like new buttons.

Downriver, there is Woolwich. Until very recently a stroll around this area, with its incredibly lowering views of the muddy Thames and stained grey concrete embankments, was guaranteed to throw a cold, damp towel of depression around the soul.

These days, one can wander along the newly landscaped riverfront near the old artillery and feel like a computer-generated image in a glossy estate-agent's brochure.

Melanie McGrath's recent book Silvertown, a haunting account of the life of her Eastender grandmother, is commendably unsentimental about life on that dark docklands peninsula. The area is now haunting for quite a different reason: with the advent of London City Airport, the gigantic Excel exhibition centre and countless waterside yuppie flats, the place feels like a silent science-fiction city. It is the opposite of dark: slivers of dancing light from dock waves bounce on to bright white surfaces so that one has to shield one's eyes.

The list goes on: from Haggerston to Hoxton, Deptford to Dalston, Essex Road to Erith Marshes, the more sinister corners of the city have brightened up beyond recognition. …

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