Review: London: City of Disappearances

London: City of Disappearances was a quite lovely surprise. I picked it out of the local interest section of my library, expecting historical accounts of mysteries and enigmas: prized objects disappearing and turning up again in strange circumstances, that sort of thing. Instead, I got a collection of pieces about London and about disappearance, edited by Iain Sinclair and written, it seems, by his pals: short stories, essays, poems, autobiographical accounts, histories, everything from a long story by Alan Moore about a man who becomes so caught up in a mystical fantasy world of his own creation that he begins disappearing from the real, to a “Gazetteer of Disappearances and Deletions”, short factual sketches of demolished buildings and lost streets.

(I’m very tempted to start reading Alan Moore, now.)

The pieces are arranged in thematic/geographic sections – so there’s a section about the book world, about North London, about the historic city. The table of contents lists only these sections, not individual pieces; it’s a book designed to be experienced as a whole, cover to cover. Without traditional signposts to follow, you have to trust the editor to guide you through the text – so the reading experience becomes, aptly, a journey, and one in which the destination is not important.

This sense of wandering, a (partial) untethering from traditional textual signposts, is reinforced by the fact that a handful of semi-famous figures crop up repeatedly in the book, both as writers and the written-about. This is a transitory London, in which stories go unfinished and things and people and places disappear; where we see things only in part.

Is it true to my experience of the city? That’s a question that got me thinking about fragmentation: how we can never experience the city as a city. I’ve lived in London for a year and a half and I know it only as a string of specific locales connected to Underground stations. The Underground is wonderful, a little piece of urban magic, but when you use it you’re separated from the life of the city above; you have no idea what streetscape logic connects Liverpool Street with Bond Street. Victoria and Waterloo are ten minutes’ walk apart; on the Underground you might take twice that to travel between them. In this sense, London is a city characterised by disappearance, by the collapse of space – a city that’s not quite there. An unreal city, as T.S. Eliot might say.

Anyway. It’s late, and as always there are too many things to do. If you’re interested in London, in psychogeography, in ideas of the city, you’ll probably like this.

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