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The City and the Writer: In London with Owen Hatherley

By Nathalie Handal

Special City Series/London

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.

                      —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities


photo credit: Agata Pyzik

Can you describe the mood of London as you feel/see it?

The mood of London depends very much on whereabouts in London you are. I live in East Greenwich, so the mood is quiet and slightly lost; the mood in Soho, Romford or Belsize Park might well be quite different. As compared with other cities, the question is a bit easier to answer—compared to Warsaw (which comes to mind mainly because I spend about a quarter of my time there), say, or various other European cities, there's something weirdly despondent about London; it's sold itself willingly and knows it, and that shows—the creaking infrastructure, the enormous expense, the sheer difficulty of the place; there's always that sense of regret when you arrive from elsewhere, especially if you're arriving at Luton Airport. That “oh fuck, I'm back in London.” The saving grace is the knowledge that there's another London you don't know about, somewhere you haven't visited, either for a long time or at all—in Finchley, in Kew, in Forest Hill, in Croydon, in Silvertown, in Brixton, wherever, there's somewhere that will be different to the place that is depressing you. London is multiple cities, pulled slightly reluctantly together by the tube.

What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?

My heart has only been broken in other cities. There's something about the grayness of London that is always reassuring, that stops it from being too upsetting.

What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most of the city?

The most extraordinary thing is probably an absence—the lack of the port, the fact that for centuries London was an absolutely enormous port, and now all of it comes into Tilbury where nobody is looking. This probably had the most profound effect on the city of anything that's happened in the last fifty years, and now it's almost impossible to imagine London as an industrial port city; and the concomitant riverside landscape of yuppiedromes is the most unfortunate recent consequence of that.

The most extraordinary detail that's actually still there is the tube. The fact that people don't look at it is proof of its efficiency, perhaps, but that aside it's the most beautiful urban public transport system anywhere outside of the former Soviet Union, and I've often taken friends around just to see specific things on the Underground—the futurism of the Jubilee Line extension, the seedy, Lavatorial art nouveau stations of Leslie Green, the themed tiles on the ‘60s Victoria Line, Paolozzi's murals at Tottenham Court Road, the capacious arches of the original 1860s cut-and-cover stations like Baker Street, the doorless trains on the East London Line extension, and most of all the interwar stations of Charles Holden, from St James' Park with its mini-skyscraper and Epstein's sculptures above, to the gorgeous little brick cathedrals of Oakwood or Sudbury Town. It's a whole city in itself, and despite the lack of loos, the privatization and the lamentable lack of solidarity shown by commuters towards tube drivers when they go on strike, sometimes I think it's a better city than the one above it—certainly a more egalitarian one.

What writer(s) from here should we read?

Ian Nairn, a writer on architecture who wrote mainly in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and whose Nairn's London is the best book written about London, full stop. Like most of the best London writers, not actually from London.

Is there a place here you return to often?

Yes, the list is too long for here, really—but perhaps the place I return to a lot at the moment is the back end of Westminster, where it fades into Pimlico. An almost forgotten place, with great cafes and beautifully designed social housing in a far better state than it would be in Hackney.

Is there an iconic literary place we should know?

No. London writing is full of the misconception that because Blake was here or because Dylan Thomas drank himself to death in this pub that makes it inherently interesting.

Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?

See answer to questions 1, 3 and 5—cliché as it probably is, London is all about its hidden cities within the city. That's its saving grace.

Where does passion live here?

Indoors, behind the net curtains.

What is the title of one of your works about London, and what inspired it exactly?

London has I suppose a walk-on part in both of my books, though it isn't the focus of either; it gets more than enough attention as it is, and I prefer to write about the rest of the country (without ever actually wanting to move out of London). In Militant Modernism, it's the post-war GLC estates (for better and worse—Ferrier, Thamesmead, Robin Hood Gardens, Spa Green) and the Barbican, and in A Guide to the New Ruins I write about Greenwich and Woolwich, as towns with their own distinct identity which manage to live within London quite happily—a lesson to the rest of the country, to the incredibly damaging pretension of, say, Eastleigh, Gateshead, West Bridgford, or Salford that they aren't part of Southampton, Newcastle, Nottingham and Manchester. It's like London is the only city in the UK which is allowed to be a metropolis. There's several other cities in the UK that could and would be metropolitan, that could be real rivals to London, if they only had even a fraction of the public investment in infrastructure that London has received, if they were treated as wholes in the way London is.

“Outside London does an outside exist?”

Of course it does, though an outside London exists in London quite happily.

Owen Hatherley is a writer and researcher based in South East London, a regular contributor to Building Design, Frieze, Icon and the Guardian, and the author of Militant Modernism (Zero, 2009) and the provocative new book A Guide to the New Ruins of Great Britain (Verso, 2010). Check out his blog:

NH’s Discovery of the Month: Although London’s East End has changed quite a bit since my postgraduate days at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London on Mile End, thankfully the Whitechapel Gallery is still what it’s always been, edgy and vibrant (if in London Oct 14, 2010-January 2, 2011, go see the work of the Lebanese artist Walid Raad). I think of the poet Benjamin Zephaniah when in the East End. And I am always on the look out for Rachel Holmes, Head of Literature at The South Bank Centre. Anything she’s involved with, I’m interested in.

Published Nov 17, 2010   Copyright 2010 Nathalie Handal

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