Deciphering London

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DECIPHERING LONDON

WORDS AND PHOTOGRAPHS BY FERNANDO SDRIGOTTI

What is London but an ungraspable collective hallucination we all dream together, asks Fernando Sdrigotti.

“The true identity of London is its absence, as a city it no longer exists...”

London, Patrick Keiller, 1992

You have to come to London to figure out how to leave it behind. Like marrying your high-school sweetheart, so that you can get over her, you need to be in this old, grey and thankless city to at least begin to move away from its sphere of influence. It is the cross borne by many a peripheral existence, this pull towards the centre. To go after culture, money, stability, any or all of them. So at the end, if you are lucky enough, you reach some core and realise that it wasn't there either, that life is a succession of things and places that make no sense at all.

If you are in London there is a 90 per cent chance you aren't from around here and the centripetal forces of history (or money, or boredom) pulled you to this city. Perhaps, like me, you grew up in a provincial town in the Global South. Perhaps you were born just some miles away from the Bells of What-have-you. If you were actually born here it is most likely we have never bumped into one another — peaceful co-existence in London is granted by our ability to edit and cancel people at will.

But hardly any beginning starts here. That is the cross London bears — almost everything is in transit in this city. Most of us come here to mourn our own cultures from a smug vantage point, and London's cold indifference guarantees we will succeed at this. At least at the mourning.

As soon as you arrive in London you start an impossible process of departure. Impossible, for how could you ever fully depart from a city to which you never fully arrive?

London was for me an imported Promised Land, a line of flight, a metropolis inhabited by shoe-gazing Brits with a sensitivity vibrating on the same wavelength as mine.

What is London but an ungraspable collective hallucination we all dream together? A city that reinvents itself anew every day. A city that, in its greedy and megalomaniac self-fabulation, constantly erases itself in order to be rewritten. By itself, of course. By who else?

Until the day when there is nobody left to read the writing, London will continue to edit, rewrite and delete this or that other part. One day it will cross us all out, even those of us still able to pay our rents: Londoners.

What would the shape of post-human London be? What would London be but a melancholic and slightly schizophrenic lump of concrete with parks?

Chrissie Hynde crossing Chelsea Bridge in 1986, worried about someone getting her wrong. Joe Strummer, Mick Jones, Nicky Headon and Paul Simonon, down Battersea Park in 1979, singing of nuclear errors on a rainy night. The London of “West End Girls”: the aerial shots, the terminals, the young and happy drunks, Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, beautiful and taciturn and hip before hipsters turned up and moved to Shoreditch to unleash The Organicalypse. Or the London of “Walking on Sunshine”: a grey London of Tower Bridge and the Docklands, probably dreamed by an American mind. Or the grey and Thatcherite London of “Ghost Town” — so close to London today. And I could go on.

My London is the result of an early abuse of ’70s and ’80s British popular culture: imported photography books, late night MTV Classic shows, a collection of 900 CDs by the age of 14 — all the moderate privileges of being a middle class Argentine kid (at a time when the overinflated national currency allowed overseas pleasures). I hallucinated my London in a suburban home in humid Rosario, zapping a remote control and flicking through the pages of mags I could barely understand. London was for me an imported Promised Land, a line of flight, a metropolis inhabited by shoe-gazing Brits with a sensitivity vibrating on the same wavelength as mine. This is the London that brought me to London and that I could never find in London.

Sometimes I wish I had already arrived and departed. Other times I hope our meeting will never take place, that the spell will persist, because I have never left the place where this nonsense started. When I get homesick, I not only get homesick for my home but for the idea of London I created while I was there. London, in the meantime, couldn’t care less. Who knows what London thinks. Who knows where London really is.

I don’t.