The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

The Last London


The London Review of Books has a brilliant, sprawling, melancholy essay by author and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair titled ‘The Last London’. It’s difficult to know what to quote from the essay as it touches on so many interesting, diverse things, but this passage about London in science fiction is perhaps most appropriate for here: 

In 1909 [Ford Madox] Ford published an essay titled ‘The Future in London’, a provocative vision of a planned last city, a London circumscribed by the sixty-mile sweep of a compass point set in Threadneedle Street. He anticipated the urban planner Sir Patrick Abercrombie in reading London as a series of orbital hoops, ring roads and parkland. Brought to life on the edge of the river, this port settlement has always been a magnet for outsiders. It was constructed that way, developed to draw in the scattered tribes, the hut dwellers, to establish the importance of a river crossing. A satellite of Colchester, it was 100 AD before Londinium became a significant entity. And then it was lost, abolished, pulled apart, before it grew again.

Ford Madox Ford’s Edwardian pipedream is ahead of its time. He sees that Oxford and Cambridge and the south coast are all part of the London microclimate. He sees the river coming into its own as an avenue for transport. He envisages escalators and moving pavements, and a population enriched and civilised by incomers. He presents himself as so much the English gentleman that he is doomed to spend most of his career in chaotic exile, in France and the US. Ford is self-condemned, like Wyndham Lewis. His London is as fantastic now as the Magnetic City, protected by river and man-made canals, in Lewis’s The Human Age trilogy: ‘The blank-gated prodigious city was isolated by its riverine moat.’

The compulsion to imagine and describe a final city runs from Richard Jefferies, with his After London; or, Wild England (1885), through Ford and Lewis, to the drowned worlds of J.G. Ballard and Will Self, the dystopian multiverses of Michael Moorcock and China Miéville. Fredric Jameson, considering postmodernism, talks about the ‘hysterical sublime’: a sort of Gothic rapture in contemplation of lastness, the voluntary abdication of power to superior aliens. This was heady stuff for my own compulsive beating of the bounds, an exploration of neural paths and autopilot drifts through the City into Whitechapel and Mile End. One of these haunted dérives brought me to the window of a bookshop in Brushfield Street, alongside Spitalfields Market. The shop, of course, is gone now and the proprietor dead. I zoomed in on an item with a striking riverside skyline on the dust-jacket: Last Men in London by W. Olaf Stapledon, published in 1932. Here was a more intimate coda to the better-known Last and First Men (1930). I had to carry the book home.

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