Earlier this evening, while mum washed up in the kitchen and dad sat in his chair falling asleep in front of the latest news of bombs and missing children, I wrote the following phrase in my journal: ‘This is a city built on pain’.
Too simple. There must be more than just pain and suffering.
I am not an anarchist, and I am not a communist and I do not like limiting myself to the political categories people are so fond of. The boxes we cram ourselves into trap us; the lid locks. That should be obvious to anyone.
But I do care about people. I try and care about all people. It is people that I love about this city. What is a city without people? A city is people, and people are its corpus and its blood and plasma and bone and sinew and teeth. And this city, London, is the place of my birth, it is the place where my family’s stories sprouted and grew strong and spread like vines and ended up with one of the story’s tendrils bearing my name. Bearing Gary’s name also. My brother and I, we see the city. We try and see it for what it really is, and slowly, so slowly, but inexorably, we are succeeding. Imagine an image swimming into focus through the eye of a telescope trained on a distant tower-block; or the shock of third-world villager, her life spent with fuzzy vision in an imagined country, given glasses for the first time. The things to see are there and were always there, but you need the tools to see them. Whilst looking for the great god Pan, I may have found something else. Something able to coax overblown statements like, ‘This is a city built on pain’ from my pen. How could words, just symbols on a page, convey the true nausea and ecstasy of the physical world?
Words fail me often, but what I am writing here, this is me trying to get across the city that we can see. London incognita: our home.
London, I know, is built on blood. The blood of Empire and the countless thousands the Empire enslaved and exploited. And the blood of London’s own people too. The blood and sweat and struggle of everyone who came here, or worked here, fell in love here or was beaten up and died here.
At night, I walk by the River Lea near my family home and I imagine the darkness hides the truth of the river, and it is a flow of warm crimson liquid, pumping towards the Limehouse Cut and into the Thames itself, then out into the estuary and beyond into the North Sea.
At night, I struggle to sleep. I dose myself with alcohol on too many nights, but I make myself sound a victim or something worth pitying there. That isn’t true. I like the drink, and it likes me.
I drink because there’s a price to pay for seeing too clearly. My days are spent in a waking dream of Wat Tyler and the Gin Alley riots, of Spring Heeled Jacked and the judderman, of hulking atlas bears on the Hackney marshes and the men who wear their skins. I see deformed and furred mastodons on the ice of Doggerland, and I have recurring visions of a blind creator god jerking its arms out towards me by a deserted stretch of the New River Path in the cold days of February. There is too much of London for me to see now, as busy as a work of Hogarth’s, as terrifying as the violent and lonely nights the inmates of Bedlam must have endured.
I collect stories. I feed on them. I am addicted, hungry all the time.
I need to learn all that I can, while I still can.
I’m writing down as much as I can about the Huguenots, the Jews, the Romans, the Irish, the Italians, the Indians, the West Indians, the gypsies.
I need to know their stories and so somehow understand my own.
How long would the true book of London be? The thought terrifies me. And how, in some way, these words I write in a cheap journal from the local newsagent, as mum clears the kitchen and dad dozes, are part of the true book of London. The book of London incognita.
I think about my own mongrel origins. It gives me strength. I am nothing pure.
There is London cognita, and London incognita, and I know which city I live in.