So: the last London. It has to be said with a climbing inflection at the end. Every statement is provisional here. Nothing is fixed or grounded. Come back tomorrow and the British Museum will be an ice rink, a boutique hotel, a fashion hub. The familiar streets outside will have vanished into walls of curved glass and progressive holes in the ground. The darkened showroom of the Brick Lane monumental mason with the Jewish headstones will be an art gallery. So? The Victorian theatre on Dalston Lane is already a windblown concrete slab with optional water jets propping up a reef of speculative towers nobody can afford on a buttress of failed enterprises, themed restaurants forever changing their allegiance and retail opportunities nobody is rushing to take up, despite those elegantly faded CGI panoramas of satisfied customers who never lived in the world as we know it. So? I’m trying to teach myself the grammar of a terminated city in which every sentence begins with a confident clearing of the throat: ‘So …’ That’s the entry code. It’s as if you’ve been shoved onstage, without lines, in a play you’ve never read. Smile brightly. Bluff like a politician in a glass booth being manipulated by semaphoring black-suited attendants with clipboards. So? ‘All for the best in the best of all possible Londons,’ says the mayor, says the minister, says Joanna Lumley. ‘All for the best,’ say the entitled, the connected, the stakeholders, the investors and the profit-takers.
That insignificant ‘so’ has moved with the times. When my children were teenagers, ‘so’ meant ‘so’. So!!! So what? A hormonal challenge. Now it’s a signifier, a warning bleep letting the recipient know that nothing that follows has any billable consequence. The speaker, the spokesperson, the hireling expert, is not accountable. Language in the last London is a negotiation, a spin of terminological inexactitudes. We are losing the ground beneath our feet. Slipping and sliding on subordinating conjunctions, we are disorientated. We feel as if we are falling as we walk, reaching out for anything cold and hard and more than a week old. In his book Vertical: The City from Satellites to Bunkers, the geographer Stephen Graham quotes Hito Steyerl, a German video artist: ‘Many contemporary philosophers have pointed out that the present moment is distinguished by a prevailing condition of groundlessness.’ Call it ground-zero vertigo. Non-specific paranoia. Territory, as soon as it can be adequately surveyed by drones, or hard-hat visionaries in helicopters, from heights where even the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park looks great, is only there to be explained, improved, colonised and captured. So? So? So what?
Figures as different as Charles Dickens, Henri Poincaré, and Ingmar Bergman, working in disparate fields in different times, all shared a passion for their work, a terrific ambition to succeed, and an almost superhuman capacity to focus. Yet when you look closely at their daily lives, they only spent a few hours a day doing what we would recognize as their most important work. The rest of the time, they were hiking mountains, taking naps, going on walks with friends, or just sitting and thinking. Their creativity and productivity, in other words, were not the result of endless hours of toil. Their towering creative achievements result from modest “working” hours.
How did they manage to be so accomplished? Can a generation raised to believe that 80-hour workweeks are necessary for success learn something from the lives of the people who laid the foundations of chaos theory and topology or wrote Great Expectations?
I think we can. If some of history’s greatest figures didn’t put in immensely long hours, maybe the key to unlocking the secret of their creativity lies in understanding not just how they labored but how they rested, and how the two relate.
Katie Kitamura’s third novel, A Separation, is about the end of a marriage between two wealthy white people, both of whom are writers. On its face, this premise sounds like a joke about clichés of the literary novel. The easiest way to make fun of an MFA student is to depict someone who has never been married, writing about the breakdown of a rich middle-aged couple’s marriage. And little reveals the insularity of novelists’ social backgrounds than the insistence on writing about people with their same unlikely job, as though being an author were some everyman profession. If anything at all shouldn’t still work, it’s both of these premises.
When Alys Fowler set out to paddle around the waterways of Birmingham, her home city, in an inflatable pack raft, she knew only that she needed an adventure. She had been stuck in a city too long, stuck in a job, stuck in that happyish way that is almost enough. She dreamed of taking off to explore the far reaches of Bolivia or the mountains of Central Asia, but this was real life, and she had tight finances and a chronically ill husband; she had to scale it back. Perhaps, she told herself, she could discover a new world right there on her doorstep. She bought herself a boat and a bus ticket and went to find out.
There is truly an astounding wealth of material here, cultural artifacts that add up to an ironclad allegory for the plight of urban African Americans in the ’80s, which serves to point the way to where we are now.
These poets ask how can we escape or overcome the past. By staring at it, they seem to answer, as into a mirror, until we catch up to what made us.