Henry Eliot is a writer. Since 2011 he has run the map-magazine Curiocity with Matt Lloyd-Rose, available in bookshops across London and online at www.curiocity.org.uk, and they are currently creating a book of unusual city maps to be published by Penguin in 2016. www.henryeliot.co.uk. This is the 13th article in our regular series “My London”.
London is a city of many metaphors, not all of them complimentary. For Patrick Hamilton it’s a monstrous congested body; for Dickens it’s a creeping, pinching cloud of fog; for George Eliot it’s a prison.
Recently I entered a random prize draw and amazingly won tickets for a helicopter ride above the Thames. Below me, London was spread out like a model village, with tiny cars and people between the buildings. I’d flown above London once before: when I visited UCL’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis on Tottenham Court Road. They had let me try their ‘Pigeon Simulator’ where you stand in front of a huge screen and fly through the London skies by tilting your body and arms, swooping like a pigeon between the virtual chimneys of Battersea Power Station. The real aerial experience was more thrilling but also surprisingly disconcerting. The famous landmarks looked so helplessly small amidst the sprawl. From that inhuman perspective, in the artificial silence of noise-cancelling ear defenders, I didn’t recognise my city. It was the jolt of seeing a loved one through a stranger’s eyes.
It made me realise that my London is a street-level experience, not a bird’s-eye-view. For me it’s a city of memories: as I walk through London I’m constantly reminded of stories I’ve read, heard or experienced. I also find it a positive, generous-hearted city, not a monster, a fog or a prison. I think those analogies do my city a disservice, so I decided to set out in quest of a better metaphor.
I live off Stroud Green Road near Finsbury Park, so my first stop was Pizzeria Pappagone. I was sure my favourite Italian restaurant would be an inspiring place to plan the quest. If you haven’t been before, it’s a ‘nice’a place to stuffa your face’, as the waiters’ T-shirts remind you.
London as Lasagne
Lasagne was invented in London. The recipe for ‘loseyn’ appears in The Forme of Cury, a collection of late 14th-century medieval recipes by ‘the chief Master Cooks of King Richard II’. Don Pappagone might debate the claim, and it’s true that tomatoes didn’t arrive in England until a hundred years later, but whatever the case, lasagne is a useful metaphor for discussing London as a series of layers. This has always been my primary impression of the city: storeys of stories.
Geologically speaking, the béchamel at the bottom of the London lasagne is bedrock sandstone, created when the British Isles were still on the ocean floor. Then there’s a 200-metre seam of impermeable chalk lasagne; the ragù is a 150-metre layer of sticky, grey-blue London clay; and finally there’s a sprinkling of quartz gravel. The next tier is a crust of human deposits, created over the last 10,000 years, and in some places up to six metres deep. This is a compacted chronology, which you can read in places like the rings of a tree. A thick red line of oxidised iron, for example, marks 60AD, the year that Queen Boudicca razed Roman Londinium to the ground.
A lasagne’s layers are not watertight, and the same is true of London: as each generation rewrites the palimpsest, there are some locations that refuse to be overwritten. I like paying my respects to the London Stone, that mysterious, immutable block of oolitic limestone that rests behind a grille in the wall of the WHSmith’s opposite Cannon Street Station. When the shop is open I squeeze behind the magazine rack to get the best view. It has been here since time immemorial. Some claim it was a druidic index stone and an ancient site of human sacrifice, but John Stow admitted in 1598 that ‘the cause why this stone was set there, the time when, or other memory hereof is none’.
With blue plaques abounding and street names such as such as Knightrider, Wardrobe and Clitterhouse recalling bygone activities, it’s impossible to walk through London without sensing the layers of history. But this is not the end of my quest, because the lasagne metaphor would suggest we’re basking in a top layer of melted Parmigiano, which doesn’t feel right. Waiter!
London as Spaghetti
In 1965, when Birmingham’s Gravelly Hill Interchange was dubbed ‘Spaghetti Junction’, a similarly dramatic infrastructure project was in the pipeline for London. The ‘Ringway Scheme’ envisaged four simple, concentric motorways dividing and surrounding the capital like gastric bands, the innermost of which was to have had elevated carriageways on concrete pylons carving conveniently through Camden, Greenwich, Brixton, Battersea and Shepherd’s Bush. The scheme was on the brink of execution, when an outburst of public horror caused the GLC to reconsider and eventually abandon the plan in 1973, consigning central London to its long-established road layout, a network so complicated it physically swells the hippocampi of drivers of black cabs.
The situation is the same below ground. If you look at a geographical map of London’s Underground system it looks like a plate of multi-coloured spaghetti, a maze of flailing strings. London is a labyrinth, with routes that duck and dive and interconnect with each other. Mazes and labyrinths fascinate me. Hampton Court has probably the best-known maze in London, but there are examples at Crystal Palace, Chiswick House and Leyton Coronation Gardens as well. The black-and-red maze on the Warren Street station platforms is one of my favourites: it’s designed to take just longer to solve than the average wait between trains. Harry Beck’s iconic tube map of 1931 was inspired by the topological networks that form the basis of maze theory, and it’s no surprise that the world’s most prolific maze designer, Adrian Fisher, designed the bus ‘star’ maps found in London bus shelters. Indeed the Turner Prize-winning artist Mark Wallinger has recently installed a black-and-white labyrinth in every one of the Underground’s 270 stations, as an ‘analogy for the millions of journeys that are made across the Tube network every day’.
When I’m overwhelmed imagining myself sliding around a tangled Bolognese maze, I join the ranks of London psychogeographers. These counter-cultural adventurers are no fork-twiddlers: they prefer to cut through their spaghetti in a straight line. They might choose to follow pigeon fly-lines from Lincoln’s Inn Fields to Battersea Park, or trace esoteric symbols on a map and tramp them on foot. In 1925, Alfred Watkins identified a number of ‘ley lines’ running through London: ancient, perfectly straight tracks linking alignments of sacred sites. I once walked a London ley at the vernal equinox, from the summit of Parliament Hill to Bryn Gwyn, the White Hill of the Tower of London, where the buried head of Bran the Celtic Raven God used to protect this kingdom from invasion. The trouble with straight spaghetti, however, is that it’s raw, and rather inedible after a while. I think it’s time for another metaphor.
London as Macaroni Cheese
I know I’m in danger of stretching the pasta thin. The waiters at Pappagone’s are beginning to comment on my eccentric ordering.
Horace Walpole wrote in 1764 of ‘the Macaroni Club, which is composed of all the traveled young men who wear long curls and spying-glasses’. A macaroni was an 18th-century metrosexual, a dandy who ‘exceeded the ordinary bounds of fashion’. Today we have equivalent terms for cultural anomalies of both sexes: hipsters, slicksters, goths, toffs, techies, Trekkies and Cumberbitches. In fact London has so many minorities, identities, tribes and trends, it would be hard to find anyone who isn’t some variety of macaroni.
We live in a remarkably tolerant city. Over a third of Londoners were born outside the UK: we have the second largest immigrant population of any city in the world. Londoners speak over 200 languages and follow a broad spectrum of religions. The East London Mosque is one of the largest in Europe and Neasden’s Shri Swaminarayan Mandir was once the largest Hindu temple outside India.
It hasn’t always been plain sailing. London’s first race riot took place in 1517 and as recently as June this year, Britain’s most senior police officer, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, admitted that the Met Police could still be described as ‘institutionally racist’. On 27 June, however, more than 750,000 people attended the Pride parade in London, the only annual event that warrants the closure of Oxford Street, overseen this year by policemen with rainbows on their cheeks. The next day, a smaller but no less dedicated crowd marched for Pagan Pride, with broomsticks, floral crowns and heathen hammers.
London today is a place where you can express yourself freely and where you can usually find others who want to express themselves in the same way. Macaronic Londoners of all races, creeds and colours rub along in a warm cheesy sauce, affirming their right to choose their own beliefs and celebrate our rich diversity.
My quest is hopeless. I’d need a shelf of pasta shapes to describe my London; it turns out it’s too big for any one wheat-based formato. Or perhaps this pizza section of the menu will yield fruit. London as Quattro Stagioni? I’ll get back to you.
By Henry Eliot