A Psychoanalysis of London Life

Loose yourself in this London, get intoxicated in the tumult of experience and emotion that one feels traversing and moving around this great city. Experience London through a trite rendition of its sights and sounds, a contemporary snapshot of its physiognomy, smooth your hand over the surface consciousness of this city, the city portrayed on websites and guide books, in vox pop interviews in The Evening Standard and Time Out, and in everyday chats with friends and family over the dinner table. Gently heat your experience, bringing that tumult with which only your subconcious is familiar, to the surface for reflection and consideration. Dig a little deeper to denied feelings, events, behaviours, shock and shame, to here the the unutterable uttered and the ineffable effed. I am interested in people, emotions, feelings, not places, not lonely buildings and facts, not the lonely world of art and not where to eat and drink.


A Sociology of London Life

Understand London. I am not just interested in the sensation of staring into a kaleidoscope. Some people want to get lost in London and never wake up, they want to believe there is only chaos in London. However in the ongoing social and material struggle for existence, survival and predominance, the relationships and juxatpositions between men and between men and resources are patterned. I want, boringly to some, to analyse what gives rise to those patterns, what underlies if not determines our interactions, experiences and culture. I am interested in the intended and unintended consequence of pre-planned organised action, the work of financiers, politicians, the police, the state, the socially networked brain that has developed in the space known as London. I want to look at the way people group together and attempt to classify one another, form allegiances, rivalries and hostilities, in their attempts to stick their finger in the deep crust pie, in the circulation of resources that is London. I am interested in the attendant processes of power, violence, hysteria, charm and seduction.

Arguably one of the key dynamics in London has been the prioritisation of attaining and amassing material wealth, over conservatism and preserving a sense of history. In some ways then London represents a will to power, money, innovation, being a leader, doing something better, being the best, whilst sacrificing stability, community and family. It is a psychological disposition, that all those that get sucked into the city, or come willingly, get propelled into. People with families, people who have given up on the struggle for betterment, tend to move out of London to settle down and attempt peace with the world. Tired of London tired of life it is said, but life here, is a euphemism for getting one up on the crowd.

These patterns, this culture can have an enduring, historic, dimension. London’s nature can endure longer than the life of one man, or the life of the oldest man, and for all practical purposes, to the extent that one’s own life is everything, endures forever. Attempts are made by each established generation to guide, educate, train, reward and force the incumbent generation to the bottom of the established generation’s pile. The result is that the predispositions, cultures and feelings which emerge repeat themselves, albeit in modified forms, so that the outcomes of those who live in particular environs of eighteenth century London are repeated by those livng in the same environ during the twenty-first century.

However I do not say these historic patterns are essential, I do not accept that. I refuse the notion that there is an essence to London. I refuse the notion that there is an essence to any place. There is nothing essential about London, no pre-ordained destiny to fulfil, no underlying essential dynamic, no magic vapours rising from the clay, no mystical force built into the fabric, air or people of London, that means life in London always has to be the same. I don’t want to you to think that I am one of those types who thinks that London has some essential quality, which I am going to reveal to you. To suggest that would be to suggest that London, is some constant feature of the universe, immune to the shifts and changes in energy that defy human comprehension, a resting place of God, that it somehow structures and shapes everything else, even the furthest flung galaxies and stars.

The human capacity for creativity, to force through a dream of a better world than the one offered, to renegotiate his or her conditions and juxtapositions, together with the ever changing nature of human relationships, the stream of immirations into and emigrants out of the city, new materials, technologices and resources, creates at the very least resistance, cracks and stress to the established orders, and sometimes ruptures, deaths and displacements to those very natures said to be of London. Therefore, whilst all places, including London, can be said to have an enduring character, it is a character, which is historically, socially and materially contingent, a nature not set in stone, but instead in the will, power, machnisations, movements, alliances and imagination of a constantly changing world population. So, whilst it has often been considered that London has a birthright to be the city of trade, material greed, dynamism, constant change, we know there is nothing to stop it from becoming a provincial backwater, in a land, that no longer matters. During the 1970s the corporatist politics of the government of the day empower labour vis-à-vis capital and led to very many standoffs, strikes and shut-downs, London began loosing its way as a trading and wealthy city, all of which accompanied a fall in London’s population, the city experiencing a net loss of one million during the 1970s, so that the population of London in 1981, standing at 6.5 million, was less than that of 1911. Further illustration of this point is provided by Henry Vollam Canova Morton who noted that the night life of London, which one might ordinarily have expected to have been replayed in various guises since the city’s inceptions in sites like the West End, Shoreditch and Camden, was in fact a Georgian invention owing to the invention of gas and the establishment of a police force. And not wishing to overegg the omelette there were several points in London’s long history that the city was gutted and destroyed and did not rise up, irresistibly, like a Phoenix from the ashes. Instead it fell into ruins. The idea that the London has a two thousand year history is simply not true.

London, then, like everywhere and anywhere, has no essential dynamic, no pre-ordained destiny to fulfil. The very fact that some people suggest London has immutable features perhaps says more about the ego and insecurities about the authors than the reality of the city. And on this point I will concede that believers in the myth of an essential London are often those who arrive traumatised by attack and oppression, determined to fulfil some flight of fancy form insecurity and inconsistency. Let London be my guarantor, my anchor, a city of hope, fortune of vive la difference and tolerance. That London has long been a city to rejuvenate hope is not disputed, that it is essentially so is a myth. Nevertheless the myth and peoples’ wanting to believe in the myth comes to play a part in fuelling the socially contingent enduring reality of the city, which some confuse as essence. In fact London’s Bubble Economy is fuelled on optimism, delusion and hysteria, for years the city has been a place where dreamers have come to dream.

London is not just a place, it is not a fixed entity, it is socially pourous. It is less a place which people belong to or in which people live, rather a hive of activity, of a certain type of activity. It is a particular flow of people and energy, which extends far beyond the geographical borders of the city, into the country and further on across the world, across well travelled routes, backwards and forwards. London clearly is the rest of the world as much as it is London. London is part of a greater whole, its commuter towns, England, the United Kingdom, the European Union, the world, and perhaps the wider cosmos. Industry flows into London from around the world. The walls of the Limehouse Cut, which connects the Limehouse Basin with the River Lea, are reinforced with some of the biggest screws and bolts you will ever see, all of them stamped with the word Frodingham, signifying the sweat of labourers from Scunthorpe, East Lincolnshire. Out of these flows of energy, resources and people, emerges a particular state of mind, cultures, predispositions, connections, interests and expressions, ways of seeing the world.

Yes, I am both dedicated to but repulsed by this Londoncentricness. I did commit myself some time ago to London, in a big way. London, and writing about London, is the drug of choice that I use to fill a void in my life. Writing can be, and is, an illness. But the idea of commiting onself to London, as if London is the one for me, is just a bullshit notion of projecting on to a city, the kind of relationship that one fails to have with real people. I want to feel that I could leave this city for love. I do not want to close my mind to the rest of the world and whatever else is going on, to opportunity and possibility, as if the rest of the world stinks.

The focus here, titularly intimated, is the twenty-first century, although inevitably to understand the now one needs, from time to time, to draw upon the past, and in particular that past which led us up to the now. And I don’t wish to imagine that this book is the final world or the only word on London. The immensity of London is certainly greater than any man can comprehend. Peter Watts, London journalist, said so himself:

I don’t really know London. This despite having lived and worked within the collar of the M25 for my entire life, something that is simultaneously a source of great pride and creeping shame. I’ve explored it, sure. I’ve gazed down at dawn on drowsy Londoners from atop a thirteenth-century church tower in Hackney. I’ve listened to the hum of traffic passing overhead from deep within the buried Fleet River beneath Holborn Circus. I’ve walked the Thames one Sunday afternoon from St Paul’s to Hampton Court, been to the end of more than half the tube lines, sniffed Billingsgate Market’s early-morning buzz and fed the black-tongued giraffes at London Zoo. I’ve even travelled every bus from 1 to 50 in numerical order, a task that’s taken me to every point of the compass from Debden in the north-east to Fullwell in the south-west (no, I’d never heard of them before I started, either). But I still don’t know London. Not really. There are vast tracts of its urban geography that are a total mystery to me, a no-man’s land, vacant lots, blank space in my internal A-Z.

It could be argued that the complexity of London is too much for one man to understand precisely because of the particular levels of stimulation, complexity, population and intensity. The struggle to grapple with such complexity is arguably demonstrated by the larger than average hippocampus of a London cabby. However in all honesty absorbing and processing information about the simplest of human interactions and situations, is beyond the mental capacity of most humans, one could say the same of the complexity of village life as Peter Watts suggests of London. Nevertheless, whatever your view, it is undoubtedly the case that there is so much more to life and life in London than any one man or book can write about.

What we are left with, therefore, is a pastiche of bits of rubbish picked up from the streets, a series of hypotheses of how life probably is. The more hypotheses we entertain the more interesting life becomes, but whether any of them are true or not is difficult to say. Most of this, then, is a house of cards, pure speculation, with one or two flimsy anecdotes to back it up. Its like Stephen Walter’s maps of London, built on trivia, local knowledge, stereotypes and myths. Having said all of that, this is more than just personal anecdote, or pscyhogeographic codswallop, it is a mad, manic attempt to bring together as many experiences as possible, to produce the ultimate summary, to provide the widest and most comprehensive sweep of 21st century London you’re likely to come across. It has involved so much processing of information, viewpoint, news and analysis that at times I have felt like a garbage van, a recycling plant. The purpose here, then, of this House of Cards, the one that you deign to inspect, is not to preach the truth, but to enjoy a good came of Canasta, that is to have a laugh, waste some time happily, empathise, reach out and touch the spirits which form and exist within the interstices of this grand urban emotional.

But where to start? Perhaps with a playful run over some of the psychogeographies, urban functional differentiations, driving forces, some of which are ancient, transcending generations and centuries. Investigating the particular flows of energy which constitue the city, mapping their reach and source far beyond the geographical borders of the city, into the country and further on across the world, across well travalled routes, backwards and forwards. Maybe the big and futile project of boiling down London to its apparent quintessence, its seeming function, differentiated from the rest of the world. Or to convey the experience of the tumult and emotion that one feels traversing and moving through this city. In summary, I want you to read this and to know London although you never once stepped a foot in it. Or I want you to know London in a deeper way even though you’ve never stepped a foot out of it.


References and Bibiliography

Henry Vollam Canova Morton (1929) The Nights of London, Methuen, London.

New London writing, or What the fuck is psychogeography anyway?, The Great Wen, A London blog, February 18th 2014.

Stephen Walter’s The Island London series.


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