Thursday, June 14, 2012

South London: Behind the Scenes of the Universe

In his entertaining shaggy-dog tale of a book 'The London Adventure or the Art of Wandering' (1924), Arthur Machen (1863-1947) mentions having 'some mission to execute in waste portions of the world down beyond the Surrey Docks. I took an omnibus at the other end of London Bridge and went, I think, by way of Tooley Street, into something unshapen that I had never visited before; into places that might have been behind the scenes of the universe; bearing, indeed, much the same relation to the ordinary London view as do the back of the backcloth and the backs of the wings to the gay set that the audience admires from the stalls. Everything was shapeless, unmeaning, dreary, dismal beyond words; it was as if one were journeying past the back wall of the everlasting backyard'.

Machen's whole point is that even here 'in this arid waste', his spirits were lifted by an unexpected fig tree , 'a veritable verdant mountain'. But his rather snotty attitude to South London is fairly typical of many writers on the matter of London in that period, and indeed in most periods. Still the idea of South London as 'behind the scenes of the universe' is not entirely inaccurate, since it was certainly true in Victorian and Edwardian times that much of the wealth which enabled Westminster and the City of London to flourish was created in or travelled through the factories, workshops and docks of  East and South London.

If London is a theatre, the eyes of writers may generally have been on the stage of royalty, 'high culture'  and parliament, but it is precisely 'behind the scenes' where the work is done that sustains the illusion.

1 comment:

Claudia said...

I think London is a perfect stage for walkscapes and flaneurs. I have been recently reading about Debord's Theory of the Dérive. Just wandering through the streets of the city and our borrough is an empowering instrument of knowledge. Thank you for this post.