Uncanny cities

It’s not unusual for me to go several months without posting on here, but the period from July 2019 to July 2020 with only one post is a notably long gap.

I wasn’t absent from blogs in this time: I set up a new one in March. This was my response to a situation: I had been teaching a short course in an Adult Education college in London which was suddenly cancelled by the pandemic. I was unhappy about leaving the course, naturally, but unprepared to attempt the move into online video teaching at such short notice. (I have since been teaching very successfully online: it can work very well, although the social side of classes is much missed.)

view over abandoned railway line in Hackney, looking to the City of London, in 2005
Dalston Kingsland, seen from the 38 Routemaster, October 2005 (photo: Ben Pestell)

The course was called, ‘The Urban Wanderer’, and it was a way to try to pick through the trends in the literature of walking the city which has become such a fashionable industry lately. When classes were cancelled, my response was to continue the course, as best I could through a series of blog posts, where I would set out my initial thoughts; and students were invited to respond with their own walks and comments. It was no substitute for the back-and-forth of classroom discussion, but satisfying in its own way.

I wanted to address the ‘big names’, which led to a rather Eurocentric/dead white male reading list, so I consider it as laying the historical groundwork, rather than giving a detailed picture of where we are now. I hope to have the opportunity to extend the course in future.

Here are links to my main pieces on that site, and I’ll shortly re-blog my favourite:

The Last Wave

To ‘Pages of Hackney’ last month for a book launch. Pages is a great small independent bookshop I’d not visited before (it opened around the time I left London), with a lively programme of events and extensive second-hand department in the basement. The launch was held in the basement, where I found myself sat next to a display cabinet of pulp erotica. A couple of boxes of LPs were in another corner, and there was so much wine that bottles were stacked up the stairs.

The launch was for The Last Wave, the debut novel by Gillian Best. It centres on the life of Martha, told through the alternating first-person narratives of her family, neighbour, and Martha herself, jumping across time, non-chronologically, from her childhood, and resolving in a symbolic doubling involving her granddaughter.

The opening chapter is set towards the end of the story, boldly breaking the narrative arc by revealing the story’s trajectory, thus placing the novel’s emphasis on individual moments in a family’s life. As each chapter changes voices through the book, we are brought into lives which contain some joy and plenty of regret, and I had a better time with some members of the family than others. I was most won over by the granddaughter, Myrtle, whose combination of drive and wit optimistically counterbalanced the anxieties of adulthood.

The novel is weighted by what one might think of as hot topics for a newspaper: not just Alzheimer’s, but also cancer! Not just post-war sexual repression, but also twenty-first century lesbian coming out! But Best deals with delicate themes authoritatively, avoiding crassness, and with some subtly powerful detail, as in a quiet observation of death’s bureaucracy. When siblings Harriet and Iain are shown a catalogue of cremation urns, Harriet’s thoughts turn unexpectedly to the copy-writer: ‘I thought about the person who had had to write the copy for the brochure, to quietly and sombrely extol the virtues of a gold-plated urn over a simple and understated china white urn. […] It was absurd’ (283-84).

The sea, specifically the English Channel, provides a persistent backdrop for the book, whoever the narrator, and whatever the time-period. Martha derives spiritual strength from the sea, but this remains elusive to those around her, and the sea stops short of taking on the archetypal or transcendental status of a character itself. Yet the book begins with an archetypal image, introducing a terrifically tense opening chapter inside the mind of Martha’s husband. John reaches out for the absent Martha in their bed, her whereabouts unknown. This is a motif that goes back to the ancients: Menelaus does it to the absent Helen in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (424-5); more recently, Mr Ramsay does it in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (Time Passes §3). Best takes this image and embellishes it with items from the world she has created – the sand, the seabed – making it resonate freshly.