Sewer, sump, swamp: drowned Londons

29 08 2014

Matija Keser, London Underwater, post-apocalyptic wallpaper

Matija Keser, London Underwater, post-apocalyptic wallpaper

The prospect of drowned cities is a significant part of the rhetoric of climate change: from recent maps issued by the Environment Agency showing the catastrophic flooding that might result from increased tidal surges, to Google Earth’s Flood Simulation software that allows one to picture the effects of apocalyptic rises in sea levels on London’s iconic buildings, the tops of its skyscrapers the only visible reminders of the city beneath. At the same time, both recent literature and, to a lesser extent, television, have enlarged these powerful images into fully-fledged narratives: from the eccentricities of Will Self’s The Book of Dave (2006), where a 100-metre sea-level rise reduces London to the settlement of Ham, which is now the top of Hampstead Heath; to the turgid TV film Flood (2007), when an enormous tidal surge overwhelms the Thames Barrier, flooding the whole of central London.

Map issued by the Environment Agency showing the flooding of London due to future tidal surges

Map issued by the Environment Agency in 2014 showing the flooding of London due to future tidal surges

 

Google Earth Design (2011), London under 80m of water

Google Earth Design (2011), London under 80m of water

Yet, the submerged city has long been a significant trope in the literary destruction of London, and going back to these precedents enlarges and complicates the meanings of contemporary prospects of urban flooding. In the literary imagination, the submerged city is a representation that acts as a metaphor for a wide variety of processes, whether the revenge of nature, the unconscious mind, the return of the past, or the processes of ruination. Here, I focus on three literary visions of drowned London: as sewer, sump and swamp.

Sewer

Richard Jefferies’s After London (1884) is an ur-text of the post-apocalyptic genre, a deeply strange book that channels the author’s expertise as a naturalist, his neo-medievalist yearnings and his hatred of industrial modernity. In this novel, the cause of the end of London is unspecified, but Jefferies’ text hints at vast geological upheavals that have resulted in England becoming unrecognisable: a vast lake surrounded by pastoral landscapes and a chivalric society of feuding nobles. Yet, overshadowing this otherwise bucolic post-apocalyptic England is what remains of London: a toxic wasteland that nobody comes out of alive. When the novel’s hero, Felix, accidentally ends up lost in the former metropolis’s poisonous miasma, he experiences a city both drowned and petrified:

‘As he advanced, the remnants of buildings increased in number…In some places the crystallised wall had fallen of itself, and he could see down into the cavern; for the house had either been built partly underground, or, which was more probable, the ground had risen. Whether the walls had been of brick or stone or other material he could not tell; they were now like salt.’

As revealed by Jefferies, London has literally been drowned in its own wastes: first the city’s crumbling buildings choked its rivers, creating a stagnant swamp; then the ground rose and the sewers came to the surface, further poisoning its already foul waters. In this vision of submergence, London’s vertical structure (the characteristic Victorian high and the low, the above and below ground) is flattened, but this leads not to redemption (as it might in socialist narratives) but extinction. If the cataclysmic forces that precipitated the end of London were beyond human control, the city’s toxic afterlife was a direct indictment of the vertical city’s environmental and social degradation.

Sump

As After London demonstrates, the idea of submergence grows out of an awareness of the city’s multiple layers. If these layers must normally be imagined to be seen in their totality, then at certain times, the city’s vertical structure might be inadvertently revealed, such as in the aftermath of the Blitz during the Second World War. Perhaps nowhere are the war ruins of London evoked more strongly than in Rose Macaulay’s 1950 novel The World my Wilderness. Here, the city’s ruins play host to adolescents, namely the exiled 17-year old Barbary and her half-brother Raoul. In this novel, which drew on Macaulay’s intimate knowledge of wartime London, the ruins of the Blitz are a refuge for traumatised children who have yet to work through the catastrophic upheavals they have just experienced. In the City of London – where over half of its buildings were either damaged or destroyed by German bombs – the city’s layers are temporarily revealed, creating a spectral landscape of half-exposed cellars and caverns, staircases reaching to the open sky, and abundant vegetation reclaiming the ruins.

In Macaulay’s ruined London, the underground spaces act as a sump for what cannot be accommodated in the post-war world, namely the unhealed traumas of the recent return to savagery. Indeed, the submerged city points to the disturbing notion that this sump of savagery might indeed be the bedrock of civilisation, rather than a temporary aberration:

‘No civilisation lasted more than a thousand years; this present one, called western culture, had had its own say and was due for wreckage, due for drowning, while the next struggled inchoate in the womb of the ensuing chaos, till slowly it too would take shape and have its day.’

Swamp

The memory of savagery forms a key ingredient in perhaps the most powerful literary vision of submerged London: namely J. G. Ballard’s 1962 novel The Drowned World. Widely seen now as prophetic of climate change, Ballard’s novel uses the image of the drowned city to reflect on how humans might adapt themselves to cataclysmic changes in the environment. Set many decades after an intense increase in solar radiation had led to massive temperature rises and the melting of the polar ice caps, a small party of scientists are leading a reconnaissance trip before joining what’s left of humanity in the arctic – the only inhabitable zone left on the earth. All else has reverted to the Paleozoic period: drowned by the rising seas and now subject to boiling temperatures, London has become a tropical swamp of flora and fauna that had evolved accordingly: giant iguanas now reside in former office buildings which are smothered under silt; enormous mosquitos plague the visitors; and the whole steaming environment secretes a ‘terrible stench….the sweet-compacted smells of dead vegetation and rotting animal carcasses.’

Ballard’s hallucinatory vision of a submerged London in turn haunts the main character of the novel, Kerans, who, like others in the book, is experiencing his own inner evolution as he eventually yields to his residual Paleozoic self and becomes one with the new environment (even though that undoubtedly leads to his premature death). In Ballard’s view, the drowned city mirrors our own unconscious minds, that is the ‘inner space’ of submerged desire, historical memory and as yet undreamt of possibilities. For Ballard, accessing the submerged world holds the the key to redemption – it makes room for an alternative consciousness to emerge that may chart new trajectories of history into the future.

Sewer, swamp, sump: very few of the recent imaginings of how London will be affected by climate change offer such a rich diversity of representations as these. Yet, if Ballard is right, they are all caught up in a ceaseless exchange between the material and the mental. The submerged city is always to some extent a mirror of our own submergence; if it drowns, we too must drown.





The afterlife of objects: the Coalbrookdale gates

9 02 2012

1. The Coalbrookdale gates at the International Exhibition in 1862

When the Coalbrookdale Company exhibited a lavish set of ornamental cast-iron gates at the International Exhibition in London in 1862, they were building on a well-established reputation for ‘artistic’ castings. Celebrated by the Illustrated London News as ‘pure and rich in character’ (1), these gates were probably created as a gift for Queen Victoria to guard her rural residence at Sandringham; evidenced in their combining of highly naturalistic motifs – flowers and leaves – and the Prince of Wales’s feathers braided in a wreath of laurels over the centre of the gates. The eminent Victorian sculptor, John Bell, designed the figures standing atop the pillars as well as some of the other Coalbrookdale exhibits shown behind the gates – a statue of Oliver Cromwell and an ornamental umbrella stand.

In the event, it seems that the Queen snubbed the offer of the gates for her Sandringham estate – the story being that, on seeing the gates at the Exhibition, she took offence at the nearby statue of Cromwell and, by association, decided that all the Coalbrookdale Company’s products might be tainted with republican sympathies. After the Exhibition, the gates and the Cromwell statue went back to Coalbrookdale and languished there in a warehouse for many decades.

2. Warrington's heraldic motifs incorporated into the gates

3. The gates with Macfarlane's new lamps, installed in 1895

Yet, both objects had an afterlife. In 1893, Frederick Monks, a wealthy iron founder from Warrington, discovered the gates at Coalbrookdale and offered them as a gift to his home town. They were re-erected at the entrance to Warrington’s town hall, the royal regalia replaced with the heraldic motifs of the town (2). At the same time, the Glasgow iron founder, Walter Macfarlane, erected many ornamental lamps in the town, including two flanking the gates, as well as a new railing extending around the park surrounding the town hall (3). With a great deal of civic ceremony, the gates were opened on 28 June 1895 – the date of Warrington’s most important annual festival, Walking Day, when garlanded children paraded around the town in a visual spectacle of civic boosterism (4). The gates quickly became a source of local pride, the product of an act of personal philanthropy that provided an aesthetic and decorative reference point in a disheartening urban landscape. They also proved to be a spur for similar acts of public giving and Monks himself bought the Cromwell statue for Warrington in 1899, with another local bigwig, Sir Peter Walker, donating a lavish ornamental cast-iron fountain, made by Macfarlane and installed in the park beyond the gates (5).

4. The opening of the gates on Walking Day, 28 June 1895

5. Ornamental cast-iron fountain installed in the park behind the gates in 1899

Yet, the story doesn’t end there. For, in March 1942, all these cast-iron objects were at the centre of a fierce debate when the War Government required that many towns and cities remove their cast-iron fittings to be reconstituted as munitions. It seems that the citizens of Warrington willingly gave up the ornamental fountain to be melted down but resisted attempts to do the same to its railings and gates. Residents objected to the brutal assault on their private property and the mess that was often left behind. While many of the town’s gates were being made into guns, the Coalbrookdale examples survived, perhaps because they now represented the town as a whole, rather than any one individual; and they continue to do so today, providing a vision of luxurious abundance in an otherwise rather nondescript post-industrial townscape (6).

6. The Coalbrookdale gates today





Ruins as memorials

5 06 2011

B-29 engine at Higher Shelf Stones, Peak District

England’s Peak District is a beautiful area of wild moorland and wooded valleys; but it’s also a graveyard for over 50 aircraft – mainly Second World War planes that crashed in poor visibility on the western edges of the Peak’s bare moorland. These tragic remains now attract ‘baggers’ in the same way that the Scottish mountains do and there are many websites and even books listing the wrecks and their precise positions in the often featureless landscape.

1. Wreckage of Meteor aircraft, crashed 1951 on Siddens Moss, Peak District

2, Memorial in wreckage on Siddens Moss

I came across my first wreck by accident, while trying to find my way over a desolate stretch of moorland in the area around the Black Hill in the far north of the Peak District. First, I came across single pieces of metal (1), shredded and twisted, and then, following their trail, I found recognisable parts of aircrafts – bits of wing, engine and fuselage – heaped together in a shallow gully. Finding this wreckage suddenly invested the landscape with a enigmatic sense of tragedy – an unknown story that obviously involved violent death. More striking was the discovery of a small memorial – a cross and a poppy – embedded in part of the wreckage (2). After returning home I found out the story of the wreckage: two Meteor aircraft had collided in mid-air in 1951 and crashed on the moorland, killing both pilots.

3. B-29 wreckage on Higher Shelf Stones

4. Wooden crosses in wreckage at Higher Shelf Stones

Many of the Peak District’s aircraft wrecks are also memorials. A much larger wreck at Higher Shelf Stones near Glossop is very close to a popular walker’s path and it consists of the ruins of a B-29 aircraft, which crashed in 1948 killing all 13 people on board (3). Amongst the wreckage – including almost intact engines, wings and wheels – are countless memorials, made up of a mixture of crosses, using stones gathered from the moor (4), bits of wood or even parts of the wreckage itself, and poppies arranged around the engine parts in scarlet wreaths (5).

5. Poppy wreath on an engine at Higher Shelf Stones

The iconography of these memorials is the same as those used for war memorials and many of the aircraft were used during wartime or carried veterans when they crashed. Yet, the effect of this iconography amongst these wrecks is very different from its more common counterpart – that is, cenotaphs and poppy-wreaths that form the focus for acts of civic remembrance. Here, unchanging ceremonies present the past as if it were static, undisturbed by the erasing nature of time and the duplicity of memory. In these Peak wrecks the memorials become part of the ruin: wooden crosses are scattered by the wind (6), poppies devoured by rain, stones sunk into the bog. As such, even as they bring to mind past lives obliterated by a violent event they also participate in the inevitable process of ruin itself.

6. Cross and wreckage on Mill Hill, Peak District

7. Mangled radiator at Higher Shelf Stones

We might even argue that the wreckage itself is a more powerful memorial than the later additions. Left where it fell in the landscape, it is overtaken by nature: the metal surfaces become strangely contorted by rust and weathering (7), moss and grass grow through the pierced surfaces, and sheep make use of hard surfaces as convenient places to relieve an itch (8). In its ruined state, this wreckage speaks both of a past event – one that is tragic and violently immediate – and of its subsequent return to a much slower time, where it accumulates the stories of the landscape itself.

8. Sheep's wool on an axle, Mill Hill





The Vienna sewers

22 05 2011

1. The river Wien, Vienna

The prevailing image of Vienna is of a city of pleasure: the opera, waltzes, refined luxury etc. Yet, like all modern cities, it has an underside – real underground spaces that allow the city to function: from its bland yet smoothly efficient underground railway to its invisible system of sewers built at the end of the nineteenth century.

2. Scene from The Third Man (1949)

Vienna’s sewers transcend their everyday domain largely thanks to one defining representation: Carol Reed’s film The Third Man, made in 1949 and written by Graham Greene. Like all of Greene’s work, The Third Man explores human depths – unconscious motives, hidden political and personal treachery, and death – which are symbolised by, and return through, the ultra-rationalised spaces of the Vienna sewers just after the Second World War. It is here, in a celebrated sequence that the black marketer Harry Lime is cornered and finally shot by his one-time friend, Holly Martins (2). Throughout the film, the Vienna we know today is barely recognisable – here the city is battle-worn, barely more than a collection of ruins controlled by a disparate group of foreign occupiers.

3. Scenes from The Third Man projected on the sewer walls

Today, with the help of Vienna’s sewer authority, the Third Man tourist agency have cashed in on the film’s reputation and opened up – for paying visitors – the section of the city’s sewers that was actually used in the film. Descending the lotus-like manhole used by Harry Lime in his attempted escape, you enter the same murky world he inhabited. Here, montage from the film is literally projected onto the walls of the sewers (3), sounds from the film appear from unexpected crevices, and strategic lighting gives added drama to the spaces. It’s a themed excursion into the underworld that could be accused of hollowing out the originality of both film and sewer space.

4. Foul water meets clean water

5. Passages between the sewers

Yet, in reality, the raw brutalities of the sewers win out, with their grotesque stench, hostile spaces and foul rushing flows. In one space, chocolate-coloured water merges before one’s eyes into clean water in a mesmerising display of slowly-shifting eddies and whirlpools (4); in another, labyrinthine passages confuse in their topographical strangeness (5) (as they do so powerfully in the film); while, in the submerged river Wien – used by Lime to move swiftly and unnoticed between the city’s four occupied zones – is revealed as an astonishing, vaulted cavern, receding seemingly infinitely into the darkness (1 & 6). Here, with spectacularly appropriate lighting and ominous sounds, patches of graffiti can be made out along the walls of the tunnel: signs of the present-day successors of Harry Lime – those who yearn for freedom of movement and a brief respite from the oppressive rationality of the world above.

6. The river Wien under Vienna





Brickopolis: under Manchester

30 01 2011

Manchester walks offer an occasional tour titled ‘Underground Manchester’. From my past experiences in London, these tours promise much in their titles but usually deliver very little as regard actual subterranean space, so beset are official tours with stringent safety regulations. At its start, this Manchester tour seemed to fit the pattern: a long ramble through the city streets, with the guide talking about Manchester’s underground, now sealed off and inaccessible. However, half way through the tour, things took a dramatic turn as the party of 35 mainly elderly visitors descended an 80-ft staircase beneath the Great Northern entertainment complex, an ultra-modern, ultra-bland building housed inside what was previously the gargantuan Great Northern warehouse – a Victorian building that stored industrial quantities of cotton in the Victorian period.

The entrance chamber in the former canal

At the bottom of the stairs, we entered the former Manchester and Salford Junction Canal, built in 1829 underneath the city centre from the Rochdale Canal to the River Irwell to transport goods between the Great Northern Railway Warehouse on Deansgate to Grape Street, near to what is now Granada Studios. The 17-ft high tunnel of the former canal still visibly sweats and drips, fogging my camera lens immediately and making photography difficult. Sparsely lit, this space was where thousands of Mancunians would have entered during the Blitz to escape the German bombs that fell on the city from 1940-41. Inscribed on the wall are the remains of the official instructions to these reluctant troglodytes – rules as to how to behave in this most unusual of environments.

Faded instructions to wartime shelterers

In fact, this space is but a portal into an extraordinary subterranean world, completely unlit, slippery underfoot, and filled with rubble. That the group was allowed to enter these spaces was remarkable enough, and they felt every bit as wild and alien as other underground spaces shut off from public view. With almost hostile indifference to my top-of-the-range camera, the cavernous spaces appeared and reappeared in fantastical moments of sublime architecture, such as a great brick arch spanning one of the caverns with an almost impudent sense of the outlandish.

The brick cavern

What these spaces are testament to is the fundamentally subterranean quality of the modern industrial city. For Manchester was quite literally hollowed out and refashioned by the quintessential Victorian material – brick – manufactured in such quantities as to remake the very earth itself into a space that Piranesi could but dream of. The vastness and inhuman quality of these brick spaces does not fit with their conversion to shelters for anxious wartime residents (in contrast to the rather more homely chalk tunnels of the Chislehurst caves in London, also used to shelter thousands during the Blitz). In fact, one anonymous artist – perhaps one of the unfortunate wartime shelterers – has scrawled an image of the devil on one of the walls, as if representing the being most well-suited to live in this nightmarish world. If the Victorians modernised cities like Manchester by remaking its subterranean spaces, they also created, through those very spaces, a world that seemed reminiscent of something far more ancient.

The devil's own realm





The underground at war

5 01 2011

Corridor in Paddock, the alternative war rooms below Dollis Hill

Underground spaces take on heightened significance during times of crisis above-ground, particularly wartime. When cities are threatened by war, subterranean spaces are mobilised in new ways: as places of shelter, secrecy and production. During the Blitz in London in 1940-41, the normal associations of the city’s underground – darkness, danger and death – were dramatically reversed: the workaday Tube became immobilised by crowds of people sleeping on the platforms; new tunnels were dug to house munitions workers; the government built underground rooms to house their war operations; and church crypts, vaults and even coffins were used as places of shelter.

Sleeping in a coffin in a church crypt in wartime London

The Cabinet war rooms – now a popular tourist attraction – were built under the Treasury in Whitehall in 1939 and remained in operation throughout the Second World War. They were in fact the successors to another set of war rooms, constructed in Dollis Hill in north London and known as ‘Paddock’, which can still be visited by the public twice a year. The original war rooms were abandoned in 1939 in favour of a more central site but they remain today in their original state, albeit in the advanced stages of decay. In contrast to the comfortable experience of visiting the Cabinet war rooms, complete with underground cafe, visiting Paddock is disconcerting. Standing empty for 70 years, stalactites now hang from the ceilings and rise from the sodden floor; piles of rubbish and mud fill the rooms, while the furnishings rot and rust unchecked. Without the explanations given in the restored Cabinet war rooms, these spaces take on a nightmarish, uncanny quality: rooms meant for equipment recede into the darkness, their odd-shapes feeling alien and disorientating; and relics from the intervening years – 1970s Coca-Cola bottles and fire extinguishers – speak of other stories of illicit exploration.

The Cabinet war rooms under Whitehall

Paddock: the first Cabinet war rooms

The battery room at Paddock

Old drinks bottles and decaying doors at Paddock

In fact, the spaces at Paddock feel more akin to the countless post-apocalyptic film sets that have defined cinema since its early-20th century beginnings. They seem to speak of a disaster that is yet to happen, where even underground spaces are no longer safe from destruction. Post-apocalyptic films such as Day of the Dead (1985), Threads (1984) and The Road (2009) provide differing causes of annihilation – zombies, nuclear war and an unidentified cosmic strike – but they all use bunkers as an initial means of escaping apocalyptic destruction. However, in these pessimistic visions of the future, the underground is eventually overwhelmed by the apocalyptic forces above or, alternatively, by social breakdown below. Experiencing the decaying spaces at Paddock reminds us forcefully that it is impossible to escape the consequences of war, even if their sanitised counterparts under Whitehall continue to celebrate that very escape.








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