London is haunted like no city. Below the visible carapace, stone and steel and glass, there’s the buried sediment of lives, inch under mortal inch, bone-riddled and apocalyptic: city of punk and pea-soup fog, Blitz city of blasted husk-houses and brickdust, industrial city of blackening smog and infernal engines and hunger, cursed city of fire and plague where the bells tolled for death without end, Roman city razed by Boudicca and built again higher.
London is grey—a rough alchemy of stormlight and brumedark, friars and ashes and fumes and gunpowder and drowsing grave-angels and newspaper pages and the shadows of a Rembrandt. From different aspects it’s high and proud-headed or crouched beastwise. In winter it’s dour with rain and the wind’s unslaked bite; in summer the sun bores through the Thames in lathes and planes of greenish-white, cleaves the water into jewel-flaws, cracking it to reeling brightness. A place for the crowning and killing of kings; and for too-tame pigeons.
It’s a thousand cities quantum-flickering into view. The city of ancient abbeys and the White Tower, the medieval arches of Great St. Bart’s and lewd hulking gargoyles. The imperious city of clocktowers and Westminster and Chancery Lane barristers. The underground city of the Tube, with its thrumming warrens, humid reek of bodies crammed close, Sherlock Holmes blazoned on the wall-tiles at Baker Street. The afterdark city of all-hour newsagents and fox-screams and nightbuses, picturehouse lights and casinos, Hamlet treading the boards of the Globe, the call to prayer drifting down Whitechapel Road, birds bickering on Wormwood Scrubs Common, a conclave of candlelit barges on Regent’s Canal.
The city of tough poetry and swagger: Heygate’s alien ruins, East End dark halls thundering grime’s pulse-jerk-drums like steel and fury, the syncopations and stairwells of Dawson’s Heights council estate, Brixton’s hectic markets amid dorsal ridges and dunes of concrete, the jagged steel-toed nostalgia of Camden backstreets. The city stained with old empire; and the city of new multitudes, three hundred languages.
London is mercurial, metamorphic, risen from ashes with a right hook of a look in its eye. It’s an unsleeping monument to survival and life’s fearsome bright burning, a vastness to contain all things; a creature of old scabrous heart and brave clamouring blood and silver tongue, defiantly singing.