The flat was all windows, with the streets below like a black moat glittering with lights and sounds. Like living in a tv, or swinging overhead in a gibbet – it felt like that too sometimes. Girls on the corner, tourists, hookers, hipsters, artists, long-grey-bearded Bengali grandfathers, gangs of kids: everyone flowed around the front door, beneath the windows. The streets were distraction, motion, like the gas and water rushing through the pipes beneath the city.
The downstairs hallway was strangely quiet, considering. When you opened the door the immediacy of the street was always a surprise. You never knew what you would see there. Back then, you would see bands carrying instruments, long-haired in broad-brimmed hats, ravers with running makeup in party frocks stumbling home or wearily continuing a night out without sleep, faces transparent. Sometimes big groups of Asian teenagers in sharp suits, hair slicked back and shining, slapping each other’s shoulders and laughing, blue shirts, mauve shirts, gold chains. Sometimes old imams, or men from Essex out hunting for curry. Occasionally someone right outside your door, about to knock, or trying to break in.
In Whitechapel on a Saturday morning I’d sit by the window in my bathrobe and watch the street. Ash from my cigarette would fall onto my thigh and onto the floor, and metres away big groups of tourists, art students, families would walk past under the window. Sirens would scream past to the Royal London Hospital. London kept interrupting. I stubbed out cigarettes in the ashtray and wrote it all down. But I felt like a fraud, copying the idea of being a writer from the people in the past I admired, the writers I loved. Draining my idea of their lives into my own. A bad copy. But I had to try. What was good was the window, the street, the city reaching out beyond it. I realised what I saw in the city around me was all just the process of changing. Ageing. But the details, the way it happened, the stories, it all felt important to me.
For a time, it was working as a freelance legal clerk, going to trials, writing down everything that was said, going into the cells, speaking with the defendants. This was all part of the great dissolution, the draining away. Thoughts rushing, hope and meaning drifting off out of reach like steam into some other place in the fight to make money and live.
It was a strange other world in the courts, the cells downstairs, defendants behind bars – it felt like a warning. The world of newspaper stories and fear made flesh and concrete. The first days heading out to courtroom hearings in satellite towns were steeped in a sense of sad inevitability and system, draped in an oversized suit my dad gave me, needing to be on time, freezing in November morning not-quite light, hanging from the tube and train handrails, soggy newspapers, grey escalators crowded with other half-sleeping bodies, all dreaming of the end of the day. Returning from among the drab endings of petty criminal careers and youthful mistakes in suited court rooms, agonising detail, real sentences, real prison, and stepped into the swirling smoky mystique of the little room that I shared with my girlfriend who sat surrounded by books and drawings on the bed. The straight grey lines of the day relaxed, and everything flowed into a soul-rich warmth and peace. This too was all part of a dissolution, one situation giving way to another and another, freedom and labour gradually falling into silence and memory.
At the window I watched as up and down Brick Lane came so many faces and people that it really felt like the whole of London was packed into that space, eternity present in a moment, moving to and from money, making it and losing something in the process, missing out somehow. More and more, as time passed in the city I realised that people were really chasing something else. I don’t think any of them knew what it was. Reaching into the past and recreating it from a lack of knowing what else to do. But not getting it quite right, more and more money appearing from somewhere, the city feeding and growing fatter as its people got poorer and were whirled away from their destinies into the lives it needed them to lead for its own sake. And more and more, that sense of what was right grew darker, more and more unkind, a narcissistic self-consumption becoming an epidemic. The copy everyone created for themselves, of themselves, a version of living was all anyone had, the original a forgotten idol on glossy paper. And it was ours, ours, ours, mine, mine, mine, no trespassing on the individuality of anyone’s dream of designer prams and art deco shop fronts, property portfolios and buying to sell, buying to rent, children and homes and holidays all ticks in boxes, a life you kept in the back of your mind even when you had it, a treasure you only glimpsed from time to time, like a prisoner. What dreams: everything you could want without the time to enjoy it, or a dream of an ideal past returned, the way things used to be, when we had time, when we knew each other. A million cities, 70 million cities, each guarded jealously by its sole inhabitant.
As time passed and the city changed, something ebbed away. The artists, everyone was shipped out and replaced with richer copies of these people, ordinary clothes replaced with expensive versions. What were once beaten up clothes, old jackets and boots found anywhere, charity shops, markets, they were all now established as trends, marketed on billboards and buses, and copied by the new people. Radical thoughts fallen victim to recuperation, glimpses of life, or change, movements, passion, surges of excitement, a taste of reality only momentary, quickly absorbed into the orthodoxy. Gone. It happened in day to day objects, in people, in language, the loss of authenticity, in the taste of food, in everything. Not just cultural icons, Che Guevara t-shirts and Lenin mugs, but everything. Gestures, turns of phrase, guitars, sounds, styles of thinking, music, relationships, love, sex, escape and revolution. Copied and sold, bought as identities and used for social currency, everything made safe. Dangerous objects taken from the children and replaced with a plastic copy, no sharp edges, no real function. No escape.
People were driven to ape some captured authenticity that had gone before. To look real, to find something, to feel meaning. But quickly it became about power, trying to be realer, to have more significance than others. So it had the opposite effect. It was the great ouroborous, the serpent eating itself, trying to find the real was just a cliché, as soon as you tried it was destroyed, the negationism so contrived it ran in circles, just passing time in oscillation.
And the new people were all ease: cloaked in the past, gliding into the future on a runway of money. The past had been made into a commodity and was being consumed, bite by bite. Those people before, trying to do something real, or at least, something that seemed realer: (memory seemed realer compared to this sad, strange present.) The musicians, painters, the writers who were venerated for their sacrifice: their turning away from an easy life because they couldn’t give in to living like that, living as part of an uncomfortable official system, the American dream gone global, all heroism gone. It was as though they’d been drained into an artificial copy in the future, a simulacra, their decisions and paths observed, purchased and emulated by ad agency workers, cool consultants, anyone with money or a lack of vision – those people who transform culture into commerce. There was a great draining away, vitality fading, clichés and catchphrases, hi-fiving in percussive code, large white grins of hungry teeth biting into popup burgers. The rough edges of true life stiffened and smoothed over into an elitism of form and action that overrode their original contents, pulled apart by the unstoppable forces of financial gravity like the black hole at the heart of the Milky Way had started to pull at the very air we breathed.
Nobody can describe the experience of a planet consumed by a black hole – nobody lives to tell the tale. But as we undergo it, this loss of matter and life to the corporate mechanism from which even light cannot escape, we should describe it – even just for ourselves, as a record of our loss. The pre-narrative of ending: life in a 21st century metropolis.
What is the city now, who is it, what is it doing? This great Cthulhu fed by its networks of money and intention like chlorophyll to a throbbing plant. City of Rapid Minutes or the City of the Infinite Hour: everyone chasing, hunting, hustling, waiting, rushing. Desperate for the energy to carry on doing it.
Gradually the process of duplication – of the copy hatching and eating the membrane and the husk and even the mother that was the reality that made it – it was all clearer and clearer. Half-built towers grew higher on old plots of waste ground in the East End, piles of rubble disappeared, flattened into polished granite entryways, the half-built edges were all straightened, mirrored glass rose high into the air, money and its power took over that other kind of yearning, the yearning of the soul to whom money exists only as a way to keep the body from dying.
Around me, London’s buildings morphed and changed. Ancient Roman foundations and tombs, all ancient places feeding into today, their infrastructures and developments, the skyscrapers growing up and up like weeds on a rich manure. At night, outside, on the railway bridge the trains echoed in and out, and away into silence. The City of Everything Before Nothing, light then dark, fortune then misfortune was all around, and we sat stranded, locked inside a lamplit little cell, somewhere in the midst of it all.
Martin Dean is a writer and poetry editor at minor literature[s]. Follow him on Twitter @martin_c_dean