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Made in White City

How The Arts Dream of Apocalyptic London

This is the way our month-long exploration of Imagined Cities ends: not with a bang, but with the destruction of London. Our guest editor, Darran Anderson, picks over the ways in which the city's familiar skyline has been imagined through the lens of future disaster. At times cathartic, at times strangely comforting, the process of transforming the capital into a dystopia has always been one that reveals more about the present than the future. 

WORDS - Darran Anderson

The end of the world has come around again. An authoritarian age of dubious populism and indeterminate length has begun. The death of objective truth is bemoaned, even by its killers. Nuclear weapons tests go awry. A 70-mile-long crack forms in an Antarctic glacier. The temperatures and the seas are rising. Hieronymus Bosch makes a comeback.

A recurring tendency online is to compare the brutal absurdism of the actual present with fictional dystopias of the past, and conclude that things are now worse or at least more grotesque than they had envisaged. At least in Blade Runner there was the prospect that “a new life awaits you in the off-world colonies.” Cautious of a media and establishment that had downplayed impending doom, we tend now towards hyperbole. Yet studying modern eschatology, you begin to realise how much of it is not actually based on trying to warn but rather, paradoxically, trying to comfort.

Take London and its numerous destructions.

In the Autumn of 1522, the Prior of St Bartholomew was said to have fled the city for the highest ground in Middlesex. He took with him servants, wagons filled with food, and, somewhat surreally, boats. For several years, rumours had been circulating through the capitol, stoked by astrologers and charlatans, that the end was nigh. An alignment of the planets, predicted for February 1524, would see London engulfed by a colossal tidal surge, they claimed. By the time this came to pass, or rather failed to, 20,000 people were said to have fled the city. It’s easy to mock such credulity from our supposedly superstition-free age, but in fact our lives are still dominated by doom-laden hearsay.

Walter Nessler PremonitionWalter Nessler's 1937 painting, Premonition.

Deriving from the Ancient Greek for ‘uncovering’, fantasies of the Apocalypse reveal the moods and preoccupations of the societies in which they are dreamt. Laughing at those who fled the Martian invasion of Orson Welles’ radio broadcast of War of the Worlds in 1938 (far fewer than the thousands often reported), we forget that the very real shadow of bombers was then cast over the world. The bombing of Guernica had taken place the year before. The Japanese terror-bombing of Chongqing was continuing as they listened. When Walter Nessler depicted a devastated burning London in his 1937 painting, Premonition, he did so because the democracies of Europe were continually ignoring the warnings. The pathos of the Spanish Republican poster emblazoned, “If you tolerate this, your children will be next,” with a child killed by fascist bombs, turned out to be true. Welles’ incitement was also a weathervane. Dread and anxiety, in 1938, were neither rare or misplaced.

Plague woodcut

It’s relatively easy to envisage the apocalypse in London because the city has survived many close encounters. It’s there in the historical record: the layer of ash that marks Boudicca’s burning of an earlier incarnation of the city, the plague woodcut with a triumphant skeleton emblazoned “Lord Have Mercy on London” and “Keep Out,” Pepys’ diary accounts of the Great Fire and Wenzel Hollar’s before and after maps of the destruction, Herbert Mason’s photograph from the roof of The Daily Mail's offices near Fleet Street showing St Paul’s somehow surviving the Blitz. Real and prospective threats of invasion and destruction have loomed large. Some are military based. Some are bacterial. Often the two are conflated, with dehumanised swarms or plagues of invaders – or simply immigrants. Contagion is at the heart of these panics, manufactured or otherwise. The Great Plague of 1665 was widely believed to have originated on Drury Lane with patient zero, a Frenchman, opening an infected box of Turkish silks sent from Amsterdam. It was no coincidence that the Second Anglo-Dutch War was being waged at the time. It was beneficial to some to stoke an atmosphere of paranoia and xenophobia towards both the outsider and the enemy within, and so it remains. 

A misconception of apocalyptic literature is that it is always fundamentally meant as a warning. At times, it clearly is. 1984 was written in 1948. Room 101 came from BBC Broadcasting House, where Orwell had worked. The Ministry of Truth was based on Senate House, which had housed the Ministry of Information. Doublethink and newspeak were already rife in contemporary journalism and politics, and not just in the Soviet Union. Orwell’s warning was that the rot was already here and would worsen without drastic intervention. When he placed the “glittering white concrete” pyramid ministries onto the London skyline, he did so to warn that if this tendency continued towards completion, it would last for millennia. The dread is rendered architecturally not in a panopticon that sees everything (telescreens already serve that function) but in its opposite: the eyeless windowless exterior of the Ministry of Love, “the really frightening one.” A black hole on the skyline.

Wenzel Hollar fire before and afterWenzel Hollar's before and after panorama showing the Fire of London destruction.

Orwell’s stark warning was less unique at its time than we might now think. Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon was a chilling account of Stalin’s Old Bolshevik purges that reads like a real-world 1984, while Zamyatin’s We was an important influence as “a study of the Machine, the genie that man has thoughtlessly let out of its bottle and cannot put back again.” 1984 was, however, more grimly prescient than most forecasts that followed, those kitsch dystopias where people have numbers instead of names and everyone wears future togas in Oscar Niemeyer-esque cityscapes. The warning in these works was often that reason would prove to be inhuman when taken too far. In hindsight, their fear of and faith in rationality is rather touching. They didn’t account for the fact that human beings are not always rational agents, even when it’s in their own interests. What they underestimated was the usefulness of dystopian visions. The form has function. Visions of marauding outsiders bolster those who are manifestly insiders. Doomsday prophecy is now big business.

One of the roles of the apocalypse is as a form of distancing. Having fictional death and destruction come to familiar places is not just cathartic, it is comforting precisely because it is not happening. It underlines our cosiness. In this sense, it is a conservative form masquerading as a radical one. The master of this style was John Wyndham. It has been noted how parochial Wyndham’s visions of the end-times seem, yet it’s perhaps for this very reason that they are so memorable. The Day of the Triffids offers almost an open top bus tour of central London. Wyndham understood that all it took was a seemingly minor alteration to make the familiar suddenly menacing, namely a mass vanishing. Cities do not just contain people, they are people. Though they may retain every structural similarity, emptied of people they become something else. A doppelgänger. 

Herbert Mason St PaulsHerbert Mason's photograph showing St Paul's Cathedral emerging from the Blitz.

The deserted hospital in which The Day of the Triffids begins was borrowed for the opening of the film 28 Days Later. In an age when we’ve grown numb to most CGI extravaganzas, there is still something genuinely startling about seeing Westminster Bridge empty in the film. It's an ominous scene, but a strangely beautiful and enticing one, combining the otherworldly character of the sets in The Day the Earth Caught Fire with those real sublime moments of staggering through the city just before dawn when it feels uninhabited. Who among us has not imagined what it would be like to be in an empty city, to roam anywhere and do anything, unaccountable and without the silent constraints that bind us in daily life? It is a libertarian fantasy that pops up again and again in fiction. Tellingly, we are always the maverick and never part of the mob. No longer functionaries but a frontier folk. We transition from precariat to aristocrat overnight. All it takes is the destruction of everyone else.

Wyndham had learned much from H.G. Wells. Their horrors still resonate, partly because they happen in identifiable, even quaint, settings. We may not be personally familiar with the sandpits of Horsell Common near Woking where the Martian meteorites crash-land at the beginning of The War of the Worlds but Wells nevertheless counts on our familiarity with such a pastoral suburban scene. He knows we are primarily bystanders. He knows we are creatures of comforting tradition and routine. The false sense of security he builds up – “An enterprising sweet-stuff dealer in the Chobham Road had sent up his son with a barrow-load of green apples and ginger beer” – amplifies the horror when the situation takes a turn for the worse. The invisibility of the heat-ray which incinerates the crowd adds to this. This is the essence of disconcertment, the moment when a diverting spectacle becomes horror, when the pressure suddenly drops, a fear that is both primordial and modern, the panic when the ice starts to crack or a fire is discovered in the building or the ship begins to list. When normality absents itself and our civilised selves are swept away in fight or flight and we stampede past others for one more gasp of breath.

Day of the triffids
A poster for the 1962 film adaptation of The Day of the Triffids.

There are always those who reject reassuring views of the future. Determining the charlatan from the prophet is difficult, given how often the two intermingle. Reflecting and amplifying the pre-war atmosphere of jingoism and suspicion, William Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910 envisaged a German invasion of England. It anticipated paralysis and chaos: “They knew that all business was at a standstill, that the City was in an uproar, that there was no work, and that food was at famine prices. But not until German cavalry were actually seen scouring the northern suburbs did it become impressed upon them that they were really helpless and defenceless.” Groups form in defence alongside regular troops, the Whitechapel War-to-the-Knives, the Kensington Cowboys, and the Southwark Scalphunters. The results however are catastrophic. St Pancras and the British Museum burn. “Around the barricade in Holloway Road the street ran with blood... The quiet squares of Bloomsbury were in some cases great yawning ruins... The scene was weird and most impressive. London had fallen.” Le Queux was wrong in foreseeing an invasion but war did erupt four years after his prediction. He was more accurate in predicting that barrages from above would force people to take shelter underground, and how these refuges could quickly turn into death-traps as would happen in the drownings and suffocations in Balham Station in 1940 and the crush at Bethnal Green station in 1943.

War of the worlds h g wells

When the undeniable truth eventually arrives to Wells’ London in the form of marauding tripods, the citizens are unprepared and panic breaks out. Trains are swamped. Riot police are overwhelmed. People are crushed on Bishopsgate Street. Barges collide under Tower Bridge. An exodus from the city begins, “Over Ealing, Richmond, Wimbledon, it would have seemed as if some monstrous pen had flung ink upon the chart.” Another meteorite falls at Wimbledon. Carbonised bodies lie strewn along Fulham Road. The atmosphere is recognisable but changed, still there visually but remnants of a lost earlier world to which return is impossible; a feeling not unlike grief, “curiously like a Sunday in the City, with the closed shops, the houses locked up and the blinds drawn, the desertion, and the stillness.” 

Star Trek Into DarknessThe London skyline in Star Trek: Into Darkness.

Regardless of whether we can suspend our disbelief in alien invaders, Wells’ tale resonates at these moments partly because we suspect we will likely one day feels this sense of stricken loneliness in surroundings that were once comforting to the point of boredom. The recognisability gives real form to fear. So too does it give catharsis. Note Wells’ mischievous situating of the denouement with a pack of dogs tearing a Martian corpse to pieces in the pleasant environs of Primrose Hill. Jeff Wayne goes even further in his musical adaptation, with the haunting Richard Burton-narrated Dead London sequence bursting into dance music. This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a disco.

A view of the macrocosm is evident all through The War of the Worlds, being partly a critique and reversal of the British Empire. Equally, though, Wells focused on the immediate personal ground-level view of London. He cycled the routes of the planned invasion and took pleasure from inflicting fictional doom on his fellow citizens: “I completely wreck and sack Woking - killing my neighbours in painful and eccentric ways - then proceed via Kingston and Richmond to London, which I sack, selecting South Kensington for feats of peculiar atrocity.”

Joseph Gandy Bank of England
Joseph Gandy's prescient illustration of the destruction of the Bank of England.

Throughout his work, Wells made a point of predicting the future and The War of the Worlds, for all its flight of fancies, is no exception. He anticipated, for instance, the blackout of the Blitz to follow, “We lit no lamp for fear of attracting the Martians,” and the surveillance techniques that would be improvised facing real adversaries, with figures spying from church towers. His predictions of genetic engineering, lasers, tanks, mobile phones and expeditions to the moon elsewhere came true but, perhaps more significantly, his writing indirectly altered the future, in ways we could term both utopian and dystopian. The rocket scientist who “ushered in the Space Age,” Robert H Goddard, began his career in aeronautics after reading The War of the Worlds as a young man, while Leó Szilárd is said to have conceived of the nuclear chain reaction after reading Wells’ The World Set Free

Perhaps there’s a sense of engaging with an otherwise detached or exclusive city by imagining disruption or even destruction. Increasingly alienated from traditional senses of belonging and at the whims of forces, from the market to the internet, that seem labyrinthine and morally opaque, disasters give form to the formless. They are terrible but they are palpable, distinct, the cutting of an impossibly convoluted Gordian Knot. “It's much easier to imagine the end of all life on earth,” as Slavoj Žižek points out, “than a much more modest radical change in capitalism.” 

John Martin PandemoniumPandemonium, by John Martin, showing the Houses of Parliament.

Destruction seems to follow the tourist trail. In the spring of 1942, the Luftwaffe undertook the Baedecker Raids, supposedly to obliterate every building in England that had received three stars in the German tourist guide. Alien invaders have followed suit, aiming for symbolic as well as administrative and military targets. Their explosions are extra photogenic. It’s often part of an apocalyptic film’s advertising campaign to have a poster or trailer with an iconic detonating landmark. This has gone so far as to appear part of city branding. In Star Trek Into Darkness, the future London under attack is pitched as a dynamic one where parametric architecture and the glut of skyscrapers has continued like a hyper-modern yet oddly dated juggernaut; medieval Bologna with hovercars. It’s notable that only the diminutive but dignified St Paul’s grounds the city as an identifiable place. In Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, the Millennium Bridge is laid waste by Death Eaters. Here is a capital open for business, even if that business happens to be pilgrimages to sites of imaginary atrocities.

Thom Yorke The Eraser The album sleeve of Thom Yorke's The Eraser, showing a powerless King Canute attempting to save London from flood.

Post-apocalyptic works are about more, however, than casual nihilistic destruction. Cities like London invariably become places of siege and sanctuary. Holden’s Senate House also served as a refuge in The Day of the Triffids. In a time before skyscrapers, it stood out as a monolith, profoundly modern and yet as monumental as any ziggurat. There is an awe to it, in both Old and New Testament senses. For Wyndham, it was no longer a dread sentinel but a beacon to which people gather: “I could see a bright beam like that of a searchlight pointed unwaveringly upward.” At times of crisis in cities, we seek castles or even caves. Senate House is a fine approximation of both and given its stone, rather than the steel and glass facades that followed, it was built to last. Post Art Deco, we find Goldfinger’s Balfron Tower as a Brutalist refuge in 28 Days Later. The aim in both is a temporary bolthole before escaping the city entirely. Ironically, the challenge of our real future has been how to afford to remain.

John Atkinson GrimshawJohn Atkinson Grimshaw's London.

We tend to think of cities as spatial entities, but there is an even more significant dimension that is often overlooked: time. Joseph Gandy gazed over his working partner John Soane’s plans for the Bank of England and produced a still-astonishing depiction of what it would look like in ruins in the future (it was criminally demolished in 1920). It’s something of a cliché to point out that every building contains its own ruins and in the hands of Albert Speer’s patron, ‘ruin value’ was a sign of psychotic megalomania. What might this actually tell us, though? There’s the innate Ozymandian warning against hubris. The memento mori aspect to civilisation that tells us of where our sins and failures will lead. The biblical element in John Martin’s paintings and Blake’s now-lost ‘A Vision of the Last Judgement’ is true to the latter – it is a judgement on the immediate surroundings. A modern-day equivalent exists in the neo-Expressionist woodblock-style designs of Stanley Donwood’s for Thom Yorke’s The Eraser, where the sea engulfs the London skyline as an ineffectual King Canute tries to command it. 

All prophecies are inherent critiques, yet they don’t necessarily need to be doom-laden. The opening line of Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines can be read simply for the joy of the writing: “It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea.” Alternatively, it can be seen in the tradition of speculative visions like Ron Herron’s Walking City for Archigram or even, at a push, a nod to the frequent accusation that London is a brain drain vortex for the rest of the country. 

John Atkinson Grimshaw

In Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, what was once London is a kind of submerged memory, surviving only in snatches of nursery rhyme and the Chinese whispers of mythic oral tradition –  “London town is drownt this day / Hear me say walk a way / Sling your bundle tern and go / Parments in the mud you know.” In Richard Jeffries’ After London, it has sunk into the earth – or rather the earth has grown up around it. In such versions of the future, the cause of our downfall has been shrouded by the passage of time as much as the buildings have crumbled or been absorbed. Fragments remain in memory and language, like forms of archaeology. Stories remain, however altered they are through repeated telling. In Will Self’s The Book of Dave, the ramblings of a London cabbie provide the sacred texts for a future society – a claim that would be clearly absurd next to the doctrines of a Galilean carpenter or an Arabian merchant. What is retained is some sense of a curse, that something terrible took place here and humanity fell. It is not for nothing that John Martin used the Houses of Parliament as the basis for his depiction of the diabolical city of Pandemonium in Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Through culture, a degree of time travel in London is possible, highlighting subjective experiences of the city. The evocative illuminations of John Atkinson Grimshaw’s paintings differ greatly from Gustave Doré’s apocalyptic soot-choked engravings, yet their Londons are contemporary. At other times, echoes resonate across great swathes of time. In The World in Winter, John Christopher briefly resurrects the practise of frost fairs on the Thames, which occurred during the so-called Little Ice Age, petering out in Victorian times. The fortified colonised area around medieval Dublin known as The Pale is revived within London. Barriers and machine gun posts stretch from Chelsea to the Tower with everyone outside left to fend for themselves. The most immediate feature Christopher took from the past is that the land we are on has already seen an Ice Age. 

Gustave Dore Seven Dials
A contemporary of John Atkinson Grimshaw, Gustave Doré, saw the same city in a rather different light. Here is his illustration of Covent Garden's Seven Dials.

Other writers have been inspired by ideas of deep time or deep history. In The Drowned World, J.G. Ballard revives the Triassic period of 200 million years ago. London becomes a tropical lagoon six storeys deep, teeming with wildlife under a burning sun. Almost swallowed entirely, the city becomes topography, “The tree-covered buildings emerging from its rim seemed millions of years old, thrown up out of the earth’s magma by some vast natural cataclysm, embalmed in the gigantic intervals of time that had elapsed during their subsidence.” The land bridge with the continent is re-established. We are returned “to the earliest beginnings of the world, when vegetation rioted on the earth,” as Conrad put it. This once was, and when you think in deep time, it may well be again. We will be long gone, for course, but even in our lifetimes we have seen how quickly nature reclaims urban space in abandoned settlements like Pripyat and Pyramiden.

Old Bailey V for VendettaThe Old Bailey meets a bad end in V for Vendetta.

The fear may not be that the world will end, but that we know it won’t, not in our lifespan at least. Life will carry on with all its complexities and challenges. Today there are fragments of dystopian Londons at locations through-out the city. Traces of Brasil’s Department of Records in the derelict Millenium Mills site. The Old Bailey, blown up in V for Vendetta still stands, as do the Houses of Parliament. You can walk through scenes from A Clockwork Orange along Thamesmead’s Binsey Walk or in the walkways under York Road roundabout by Wandsworth Bridge. The gloriously-retrofuturistic BT tower, once taken over by “bored teenagers” radicalised by the alien Xel in Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future, still stands. The city is built from stories. The alternative Londons of Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Mieville’s Un Lun Dun work because they seem almost close enough to visit (“Turn right into Hanway Street, left into Hanway Place, then right into Orme Passage”). The idea of warped mirrors or dark subconscious incarnations of the city work because of the real semi-buried things they reflect. 

Even the barely-recognisable future incarnations contain something of the world of today; the authoritarian future-shock of Judge Dredd’s Brit-Cit, the Babble Machines (and, it must be said, the racism) of Wells’ The Sleeper Awakes. The film adaptation of Children of Men seems to be synchronising so closely to our own time it’s almost painful to watch. Yet London is one distinct place where a stand against all this might well take place because it has been a plurality hiding behind a single name. In the London to come, what remains of the present city will be studied. They will envy, pity or even loathe us depending on the part we played in what unfolds between then and now. And they will no doubt consider all the ingenious ways we convinced ourselves, as distraction or absolution, that the future would not arrive at all. That future London has already begun.

This piece is part of our Imagined Cities month, guest-edited by writer and urbanist Darran Anderson

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