November 28th, 2011 | Published in Articles
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‘Smoke and Mirrors’ was written in February/March 2011, some months before the London riots and the birth of the Occupy movement. Many of the essay’s themes, such as the mythic significance of the hill where St Paul’s Cathedral currently stands and the magic of the rebel territories north of Moorgate, London’s history of urban resistance and insurrection, the medieval power base of the Corporation of London and the notion of zombie march as protest theatre have all come to public prominence since the time of writing.
An abridged form of the article has recently been published in The Wanton Green by Mandrake of Oxford, and the full essay will be serialised on Bang the Bore over the coming weeks. Each section will be illustrated with photographs taken by the author on psychogeographical drifts around the square mile, and accompanied by a selection of audio tracks reflecting the various themes of the essay.
All cities have magic. You just have to find it. For some, London is a mechanistic urban grind. A compassionless engine powered by seven million dreary and disillusioned lives that trudge back and forth across the city in their tremendous rush hour waves. Spilling out of holes in the ground each morning to labour at deskbound servitude or whatever menial task has been allotted, moving paper around for unknown masters, tinkering with abstract systems, selling anonymous product, keeping the machine well greased and oiled. Whatever you can do to keep the slow trickle of funds coming in. Whatever you can do to stay afloat.
Counting off the hours with cups of tea and cigarette breaks, we make it through the day until the silent bell rings and its out again into tumultuous streets to fight the last desperate battle of the day. Tramping over the corpses of neighbours, co-workers, future partners, ex-lovers. It doesn’t matter who they are. Through the commuter glaze, all heart and personality are boiled out, reduced down, distilled away in a perfect alchemy of intent. All that matters is your destination. Nothing else is real. With invisible machete you hack through a forest of meaningless bodies moving in space. Your space. It’s best not to think of them as people. We bare our fangs and claws, and rend our way through the crowds. Those who fall behind, the weak, elderly or infirm, will be torn to pieces by berserker salesmen and maenads from accounts. Try to ignore them as they crunch underfoot. Doesn’t matter, needn’t be.
When you’re a Londoner, the daily gauntlet of roaming tourists, charity muggers and free paper vendors becomes a background static. Possessed by an atavistic cruelty bubbling up from the back brain, you no longer even see them as individual people anymore, just a white noise of interference and delay. Fleeting mayflies to be crushed against the oncoming horror of your concrete overcoat. It’s the law of the jungle down here in the London heavy.
Like water down the drain, you flow along with the current of bodies, down the old Masonic channels in the manner that has been preordained by your rulers and betters. Now that the city is done with you for the day, you can disappear down the plughole again back to whatever hovel you crawled out of, and you do. Scurrying down below into an underworld of brutal florescent lights and clinical white tiled walls, disembodied voices and corridors that seem to go on forever. On entering this domain, you must leave something of yourself behind, and as a half-person begin your descent into a very British purgatory.
Time works differently down here. Nothing is fixed and nothing is certain. Two minutes can extend or contract in any direction, as you stand in perpetuity on the platform waiting for your salvation. Implicit rules and unexplained codes govern permitted behaviour. No talking to strangers, no eye contact, stand on the right, keep your head down. At every angle you are assaulted by enigmatic hoardings, offering mysterious products and services that may not exist in the world above, or perhaps pertain to some parallel London that shares an underworld with the one to which you belong.
Tin worms burrow through the darkness at measured intervals ferrying flesh and bones around an ancient maze. At peak hours the underworld becomes a frenzied night of Pan. Here in London’s dreamtime, the sickness of the City is inescapable. Fear, futility and frustration growl beneath a thin membrane of civility and threaten to burst through in vivid paroxysm. There is no deliverance in this place. No sunlight ever reaches here. Carriages arrive and peel back their doors to reveal a grotesque mass of bodies pressed close to one another in immodest physical intimacy. Its individual constituents rendered sexless and neutered, in close embrace yet utterly apart. Hundreds packed together in an obscene collage of limbs, and sweat, and longing, but entirely divided, infinite miles from one another. It is a perfect glyph of the City. A dense Lovecraftian shamble that you must join.
The tunnels of the underground trace a boorish path through boneyards, plague pits and thwarted resting places for the dead. The air is thick with spirits down here. London is built on two thousand years of corpses, the sedimentary remains of the dead piled atop one another like a ghoulish layer cake of fossilised lives and forgotten cities that once were. On the tube, you are never far away from a skull or a rib or a thighbone. Spirits abound on the London Underground. Dead Roman centurions trying to puzzle out the implications of the East London line extension. Regency swells unwittingly trapped forever on the circle line, unable to breach its magical barrier. Victims of blitz, and fire and homemade bomb howl through the endless tunnels, snared in their death rattle, nothing left of them but a scream in the dark. Lonely suicides pack the platforms of their demise, hoping for a fleeting glimpse of the loved ones they left behind. A thick soup of spirits caught in the gap and pleading for blessed release. But to the Londoner, these old ghosts are just another nuisance trying to take up more of your valuable time. Sorry mate, got somewhere else I need to be. Keep on walking. It’s somebody else’s problem, but somebody else never comes.
Make no mistake, London is at the mercy of a seething tapestry of forces jockeying for space and power. Cast amid scavenging wolves, you must join the throng and fight over scraps that might fall from the table of your masters. If you are not already, by birth or circumstance, near the top of this food chain then you are simply here to provide a service. You might fool yourself that your life has some greater meaning or independent purpose, but the cold truth of London is that you’re only here to make up the numbers of an expendable work force. A pool of labour drafted in from far and wide to serve the needs of the tiny minority for whom this city is a playground.
Your basic human needs and liberties are further compromised each passing year, and all you can do is weather the changing winds as more is taken from you. Instability and uncertainty have become normalised, something to laugh about as the bills come in and the taxes bite, and the simple securities of home and family seem increasingly tenuous to maintain. Survival in this environment means selling something of yourself for an illusion of security. It means cutting a deal with faceless acronymed entities and entering into lifelong salaried servitude in honeycombed glass and metal hives that tower above the natural landscape. Sectioned off from one another in cubicles and symbiotically connected to complex mineral life forms, we make a black transaction, trading the substance of ourselves to an anonymous master in return for our subsistence.
London divides us by its sheer size and geography. You do not have enough time for even those closest to you, and you find yourself rationing out your affections like whiskey during wartime. The scale of the city is so immense that it fractures our relationships, but so densely populated that friction and opposition are inevitable. We keep our distance from one another, because it’s the only way we know how to claw back any space for ourselves. We pretend we can’t hear deafening cries for help and studiously avoid desperate glances that try to pierce our armour. Secure in our portable shells we make uncomfortable contracts with our conscience and cultivate a necessary callousness for the faceless shambling zombie hoards that fill every street. Every day is the same. This is London. We are the dead.
All cities have magic. You just have to find it. This vision of London is a spell. A tawdry confidence trick built on misdirection and silver patter. Hoodwinked by City glamours and West End theatrics, we only see what we’re told to see, but spells are made to be broken.
Article by Stephen Grasso
A printed version of this article – distilled into potent shot glass form – appears in The Wanton Green, a collection of essays on the magic of place, edited by Gordon Maclellan and Susan Cross, and published by Mandrake of Oxford. All author royalties have been donated to Honouring the Ancient Dead, a British network organisation that advocates respect for ancient pagan human remains and related artefacts.