Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Late Night London

What cities tell late at night

The American painter George Bellows had the habit of painting his early 20th century New York at its frontiers. At frontiers of all kinds.
Where the southern tip of Manhattan ended abruptly in Battery Park, leaving a flush of urban concrete just outside his canvas frame, just behind his line of sight. And in front of him, lay the bay that had ushered in centuries of New York's immigrants.
Or where the morning snow settled onto the Hudson river, just that moment when the city-scene became an unlikely landscape. Marked by long stretches of untouched snow but also the necessary manual toil of shoveling.
Or at those points where the city grounds were dug deep to lay the foundations of the tumorous growth of Babel-like modern Manhattan, giant excavations at night, scripting the back-story of its construction, the less glamorous story of labour which makes cities.
Bellows chose these edges of the city, these frontier points. Points where it came apart at its seams. Points at which the city involuntarily started secreting, started telling secrets. Less able here to sustain its surfaces, the city told the deeper stories of its making, of its real stakes and contradictions.
The night is just such a frontier. It is the edge that the city visits every few hours, an edge from where it looks different, where it behaves differently. Where all that goes on during the day is set into relief, made unfamiliar. And posed as a disconcerting question.
The nights in London had always felt a little unfamiliar to me. Before they had been anything else, they had been disorienting.
In the fall of 2008, I had come to London from Delhi for my PhD. The longer winter nights around that time of the year had taken me by a surprise.
With a mental clock habituated to another part of the hemisphere, the London sunset had come as a very unreliable cue for arranging work and play. It came too late in the summers, I felt, and it jumped the gun in winters by rushing in too soon.
After three years of living in London, now when I am about to leave, I do not think I have fully mastered the art of telling the time by the daylight. This slight but persistent disorientation had already made the nights in London more odd, more unexpected and always more revealing.
The nights became the perfect entry-points to a new city, ways of coming to grips with all that was peculiar and unexpected in it.
Walking around late at night in my neighborhoods - whether it was Stoke-Newington in the borough of Hackney or the more central Kings Cross - became a way of working out the balance-sheets of my days, of trying to get my head around them. Loitering  in the city as a way of reflecting on it, of inhabiting it, as a way of taking stock of it.
In mid-20th century Bombay, the Urdu writer Ismat Chughtai had worked out her most difficult questions by taking long walks in the city, by getting a little lost in it. 'मैंने अपने बड़े उलझे मसाइल लंबी चहलकदमी के दौरान सुलझाएं हैं, कहानियां एडिट की हैं, बुरे वक्त टाले हैं। अब भी जब सुई अटक जाती है मैं मरीन ड्राइव पर समंदर के किनारे चौपाटी की तरफ चलना शुरू कर देती हूँ (I have solved my most difficult problems while loitering about for long, I have edited stories this way, stalled bad times. Even now whenever I get stuck I just start walking along the Marine Drive next to sea towards Chaupaati)'.
Loitering at nights had come as a life-saver for me. It was always through a bit of aimless walking that any moment of excitement was cautiously grasped, that any event of happiness slowly sunk in, that what often seemed like inconsolable grief got somehow dispersed.
Cities are more malleable at nights, they fight back less. The less tensile terms of the day get twisted at nights, they flow into something far more leaky and unselfconscious.
What happens at night is that which exceeds the day, that which is its unresolved precipitate. That which the day has not been able to soak back in, under roofs or behind walls. What gets seen at night is that which which the city has not been able to accommodate, to fit into itself fully.
Over these three years it became less and less surprising to see the nooks of the most affluent streets in London being slept in by people who have fallen through the nets of housing benefits of a dwindling welfare State. As of this year, about four thousand people in the city, who in the language of the non-profit charities and the Mayor's office are called 'rough-sleepers', spend nights in public parks and streets.
Each making unlikely shelters out of back-stage doors of the West End, niches of shop-doors at the Strand, park-benches once they are empty out in evenings, or sitting in the open-air near the cash points in hope of some unpredictable middle-class generosity.
Whenever I passed the guy who sat near my hostel, opposite the King's Cross station, he never called out the usual 'spare some change'. Never even hawked his pile of Roddick and Bird's 'Big Issue', a magazine inspired in the early 1990s by New York’s ‘Street News’, sold by the homeless to share profits with its publishers. Instead he always asked the many passers-by: 'could you spare half a million pounds, sir?'
On London pavements where it is easier to get people to spare change than attention, he had worked his way. Got eye-contact with the sheer improbability of his wish.
When you heard that sort of money being called out at dusk, during one of your own slightly aimless strolls, it seemed part of the late evening dreaminess of the city. But dreaminess, in both its particular senses. Not only  dreamy as something obscurer, less clear, but also as something wilder, of a kind of dreaming that is done hopelessly, without measure.
It is this element of dreaming that is most evident at night. Dreams of all kinds, wakeful and sleeping. Whether the most intimate, the most political or those common but difficult ones which brings these two strands together.
Most often, this dream finds itself a specialized night script, the urban graffiti. Something which is almost always written at night, the form of expression that always needs that particular window of time, that particular stretch of darkness to come to be.
In November 2010, I was walking near the LSE down the Southampton Row. This was a few nights after the Tories had hyperventilated over the broken glasses at the Millbank headquarters. It had been damaged during the students’ protests against the Coalition’s tuition fee hikes.
I had noticed a young guy in a blue jumper and run-down denims messing with a public sign attached to a street-light pole. Two or three deft movements and he seemed done with his job. 
He had noticed me coming and before jogging off, had given me a strange smile that signaled, what seemed to me, something between solidarity and suspicion.
As he went off, I went near the sign to notice what he had done. He had used a thick black marker on the yellow triangular sign meant for heavy trucks: 'Low Trees' it had said. In his version, 'Tr' was struck off and replaced with a glaring 'F'. 'Low Fees'. Ignored by the parliament about a month later when it did pass the bill for the hikes, the reworked sign still stands on the street. Like countless others, it is still being looked at.
Night graffiti gives home to that language which is slowly pushed out of the political corridors. It gives shape to the most troubling questions facing the public, to their most hopeful dreams. And it is the time of night when city walls become canvasses, become political broadsheets doing the good old work of shaping public opinion.
These night dreams take you in all possible directions. In my first year in London, my ground floor room-window opened into the house backyard which, despite a small fence, ran alongside a 19th century cemetery called Abney Park, situated bang in the centre of my neighbourhood of Stoke Newington.
For centuries, a village near London, Stoke Newington, 'a new town in the wood', had only recently joined the expanding boroughs of the capital in mid to late 1800s. As cities expand, outlying villages tend to become urban neighbourhoods. What was once used as a safer political haven, because it was away from London, by the 18th century pamphleteer Daniel Defoe, afraid of arrest or attack, is now in the second zone of the city of nine concentric zones, one of its rapidly gentrifying neighbourhoods, with steadily rising real-estate prices.
In Abney Park, which I stared at often from my window, aged graves lay tumbled about in what was also once the most famous arboretum this side of the Atlantic. Around the year 1840, the Protestant London Congregationalists had modeled their non-denominational burial grounds in these park lands on the blueprint of Mount Auburn at Massachusetts, America's first 'garden cemetery' founded almost a decade earlier.
About two centuries later, the Abney Park cemetery was, if you don't mince words, a mess. Passed over by the preservationists, the graves of Isaac Watts, the 18th century English hymn-writer, those of the Booths, the founders of the Salvation Army and memorials of the many in the area who were hit in the Blitz were sinking into wild sort of disarray, lots of frenetic vines and shrubs, litter and rain-slush. A very confused version of the sublime that was originally intended.
When I first started walking about this graveyard-cum-park, it had already long rediscovered itself. It was a favorite among the late evening drug-peddlers who favored its deeper sections that were in turn avoided by the parents with perambulators and families out on a picnic. Lately, the geography of Abney Park had already redistributed itself through a stingy middle-class vocabulary of better and shadier parts.
During late evenings, just before the cemetery closed for the public, you could always notice guys cruising each other. Often returning home on a bus, if you took the fun 'long-cut' through Abney Park, you could have guys ask you local addresses as very improbable conversation starters. Imagine being asked by someone for '146 Manor Road' when he is sitting on a bench bang in the middle of a cemetery with no particular hurry to go anywhere.
All this was far too exciting for a place, whose founders had after all, in their long train of inspirations, taken their cue from the Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith's dreary pastoralism in his 1770 'The Deserted Village'. A few years back during my Lit Hons years in Delhi, I had suffered his 'Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain / where health and plenty,' he fantasized, had 'cheered the laboring swain'. Those who set up the cemetery in Massachusetts, model for Abney Park behind my house, had very consciously cited Goldsmith's poem in its architecture, flora and landscaping.
Now in a strange turn, my room window looked straight onto Goldsmith's dreamland, twice-removed. At nights, I heard its many birds and a rare guy or two who must have jumped the gates to get in. During  those nights when I called my friends, I joked about living next to a cemetery and laughed about my own room with a view.
Over the next two years, I had moved to the inner city Kings Cross. Although it is synonymous with its two arterial rail stations, till the late 80s it had also been 'notorious' as a run down red light district, as a place where it was very easy to get drugs and as a site where the British pop scene had thrived in the now defunct 80s clubs.
Till large scale regeneration projects began to give a face-lift to Kings Cross, and litter it with a boring office architecture, it had a look of a post-industrial district, with vacant lots, disused goods and redistribution yards, some social housing and obsolete tube stations. Not for very long now, if you walk north of the station, you can very easily notice the imprint of the second world war, of a city that was once bombed out.
That is now rapidly changing. In its revamp mode for the 2012 Olympics, London is a paradise for the developers' lobby. Billions of pounds are being invested to make the semi-derelict parts of Kings Cross into a commissioned sort of haven for mainstream culture and commerce, introducing tens of new streets and squares, pushing for a well-packaged vision of an affluent urbanness. An insular, instant city is being culled out of a haphazard history of dereliction, poverty and cultural experiment in Kings Cross.
The last set of my late night walks in this city take place in this fast transforming neighborhood, mostly in the parts immediately north of the two stations. They take me past this specific landscape of London that is now disappearing in a city poised on the verge of a mega-budgeted sports event. 
A sort of event that even as it inspires a superficial cover of a very old kind of nationalism in its host nations, even as it pushes obscure sports and athletes into limelight, what it really does and depends on, especially since the mid-70s, is activating a very global circuit of corporate finance, of high-end property developers and of international broadcasters fighting over television rights.
The games themselves pose as a national crisis-point, and policies and public expenditure that any other time would not go uncontested, are steamrolled in a rush of preparation. They become a rallying point for a very untimely national pride. And cause displacement among poorer communities, eject squatters, have a questionable impact on sports among the lower-class youth and spend outrageous amounts of public money on projects whose benefits rarely trickle down below the developers lobby, the well-advertized sponsors and those few who can afford the white elephants after the games.
My last set of night-walks happen in a city that is itself dream-walking into this giant spectacle of the Olympics. 
This often takes me along the course of the inner city Regents Canal, about two hundred years old, whose waters, long obsolete now for ferrying goods after railways and lorries, are used as a coolant for the high voltage electricity cables that run alongside it and power the inner city.
The canal meanders through the heart of Kings Cross’s regeneration project, with the construction sounds now spilling over into the several moored houseboats. People jog or cycle along the path till late in the evening, avoiding it at night for fear of mugging. 
It was on this particular path, on an early June night this year, that I had noticed a rough-sleeper using a plastic sheet, probably the material of some publicity banner, as a blanket. Her sheet had a large imprint of that spaced-out 2012 Olympic logo on it. Its raw lines and colours had settled in the shape of the sleeping body, moving slightly with her breathing.  
For the longest time, I had thought that the cities look their most beautiful at night, peaking at dawn. Lately, it has begun to look like that during nights our cities become more difficult, more agitated. Night time isolates the pressure-points of the city, where it is hurting the most. And just before dawn, it seems, it poses the starkest challenges to us.


Azar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Azar said...

Great read Akhil. It's quite illuminating in bits, and in other bits, you seem to have meandered a bit. Perhaps, this is intentional, intended to imitate your seemingly purposeless walks around London. Good stuff.

sunita said...


S said...

Hello Akhil, can I ask where you found the Chughtai quote? I'd like to cross-post the quote to my blog, and I thought I'd look for the piece from where she has been quoted.

Akhil Katyal said...

hey sorry for the delay. somehow i just saw this comment. it's very near the end of her autobiography 'kaghazi hai pairhan'. rajkamal prakashan. do read it if you have not read it before. it's brilliant!