On tautness

I continue to investigate the question of what can make being in a particular place better, and am still fascinated by the idea of revealing the historical layers of a place. I picked up Penelope Lively‘s City of the Mind a few days ago, which is a wonderfully contemplative book about London, both from the perspective of psychogeography and its physical fabric, where the past is so intricately interwoven with the present. It is remarkable for its spareness and clarity, and is a good lesson in how to strip away unnecessary furniture.

It’s a book where very little happens, but people think and notice a lot. The protagonist is an architect concerned with both historical conversions and new build skyscrapers, which means that his view of the city is constantly shaped by other past Londons. As he walks around the city he’s always looking up, noticing the details of brickwork, and these historical layers bleed into the prose around him – his story is interleaved with interstitial scenes from other people who have inhabited the same places at different times. The book becomes a meditation about the physical city, has space to consider where things came from before they were here, where people came from:

“It is 2:21 and Matthew Halland is at last reaching Cobham Square. It is also, in another sense, 1823, when the square was built, and when a considerable tonnage of bricks was hauled from brick fields not too far away and assembled into walls of Flemish bond, some shrouded in stucco, some not, most of which still stand precisely as they were constructed. Matthew drives around the square impatiently searching for a parking slot.”

The shifts in time are simple – unexplained, but clearly signposted in the prose. This first timeshift is signalled by a tiny explanation and a date – we’re still largely in Matthew’s head. A few pages later is the first proper one, heralded only by two empty lines in a book that otherwise marks its paragraphs with an indent only. And the fact that we’ve slipped to a different time creeps up on you – we start with the familiar and timeless but then:

“Coming into the square, Jim Prothero sees that the trees have almost lost their leaves. He stands for a moment, tired at the end of his day, the noise of the print works still ringing in his ears, and sees the sparse branches, with the small blunt buds from which, eventually, spring will come. The world is turning still, here in the dishevelled, stricken city. There is glass over the road, where windows were blown out last night, and a crater in the next street where the UXB fell a month ago, but the leaves are falling.”

So in those three sentences we establish that this is a man who sees the same signs of spring I see, but in an unrecognisable version of my city where streets violently change on a daily basis. And there are three paragraphs of his London and then two empty lines and then back to “Three twenty-eight (and 1823) as Matthew Halland gets back into his car in Cobham Square, and starts the engine…”

It’s so precisely written that no other signalling or explanation is really required, and the process of realisation as you read those three sentences feels like a little flowering of understanding, an aha! that wouldn’t have taken place if the paragraph had been headed ‘Cobham Square 1942’. It becomes part of the rules of the book that timeshifts will happen, and you start to read alertly when new characters are introduced to understand where and when they are. That attention is rewarded with more tiny moments of revelation, almost a little game the author is playing with us.

So it’s a book where not much happens, but things are constantly shifting. Perhaps it’s partly about how the city is a physical repository of memory – we are constantly remaking its fabric, but the signs are there if you know where to look.