The Haunted City
Emily Reynolds explores the way we build our memories around and in spite of the chaos of the surrounding cityscape, entwined with the architecture and the imbued memories of those who have gone before.
PHOTOS - Alexander Christie
“There is no place that is not haunted by many different spirits hidden there in silence, spirits one can ‘invoke’ or not. Haunted places are the only ones people can live in.”
What is a city? Functionally, we know how we would answer the question. It is the sprawling mass of a concrete estate, the staccato thrum of a high rise. Hospitals, fat with tubes and machines, plaster casts and pain; the high pitched whine of school playgrounds. A tumorous spread of shops and offices; banks, department stores, factories, warehouses. It is the delicate, chaotic tangle of infrastructure, the thick, slow momentum of a bus exhaust, the rattling comfort of a subway train.
It is more than this, though. We also know that it is more than this. The digital avatar of the street that sits on your screen as you try to navigate the world might be purely functional, but its real life equivalent is not. A street contains houses, of course: it contains cars, road markings, lamp posts, chewing gum, gardens, dogs, litter. The physical manifestations of material existence.
But streets also contain ghosts. The ghosts of people, of conversations, of scabbed knees; the clammy grasp of a held hand, a malicious thought that pops up again and again, triggered by the sight of the pothole you were scuffing with your foot when it first burst, unwarranted, into your consciousness. The city becomes a criss-cross of half-remembered anecdote; here is the street we first kissed on, here is the bar we sat in night after night, your head in my hands as if in prayer. Here, on an innocuous, invisible corner, is where we have our first argument, the paint on the wall we lean on staining your jacket and your jeans with a snowy spray of dust that sits quietly on you for the next week and a half. Each road lines up in a web of you-ness, the clumsy memories of past encounters permeating not only my thoughts but also my city, my eyes, my movements, my cells.
Moving to a new city – and, by extension, forgetting an old one – is an act of wiping your mind clean of this, forcing yourself into a tabula rasa of memorylessness. It works. You consume your new surroundings like a child, in thick, hot gulps; the triangles of graffiti, the stones on the ground, the way the sky seems bigger and more expansive than that of your last home, less oppressive. In the luxury of novelty you notice tiny details; the grates on the pavement, the way the typography of street names seems bolder, less stark, more present in its unfamiliarity. Your obsession with the quotidian escalates to a point of near psychosis, the 1970s tiling of a hallway bringing you to a state of giddy delight, an ugly concrete building enrapturing you to the point of near-speechlessness. There is a blankness that comforts you: not so much the absence of memory but the prescriptive presence of non-beingness, sitting between the stones of the road and inside the fat calligraphy of the street, in the hot openness of the sky.
“Places are fragmentary and inward-turning histories, pasts that others are not allowed to read... symbolizations encysted in the pain or pleasure of the body. ‘I feel good here’.”
“I feel good here” I breathe into the city. “I feel good here”. It’s less a proclamation and more a plea; please make me happy I whisper into the river; please protect me, taking a big brutalist block and shrinking it small, putting it in my pocket for good luck. It’s not that I want to be a different kind of me; I want to be zero. Less than zero, a big blank wall in a new-build block, a site that has not been subject to trauma or memory or past or action. And it works. I end my affairs, I give away my books, I move away. I feel good here.
But you can’t stop yourself from projecting onto these buildings, onto these pavements, onto these walls. A plane soars above your head, skywriting maybe or trailing a banner that jauntily reads remember - you can’t forget! The memories that start to gather at the foot of your new home might seem novel – different friends, a different lover, different heartbreaks, different nuances of pain – but they still belong to you; they still possess this essential you-ness, shaped by past cities and past homes, coloured and textured by your own subjectivity, which you think has shifted but hasn’t, which is floating in a stagnant amniotic sac that you refuse to let grow. You thought your memories lived in buildings – and they do. But they also live elsewhere; in your breath, your chest, your hands.
And unlike other types of memory, which can be ordered and timelined, which can be chronological, your memory of a city is fragmented, and necessarily so. Not everywhere is significant; not everywhere is a lost-your-breath-punch-in-the-face panic attack of recognition. Rather, it is jagged and uneven. Hairline fractures.
You write about it, because writing about it is an attempt to smooth this over, bring it together, pretend that maybe it has some kind of meaning. As if pain makes sense, as if pain isn’t in constant motion, an elastic band that snaps back onto your cold skin when you least expect it. You lay down a map of memory and try to point things out – look, here, at this cul-de-sac in Brixton. Look, here, at Shadwell Basin, sparkling and murky all at once. Look at this alley off Oxford Street, where we sat and talked about my boyfriend and how we were in love with other people and then kissed. Look here, and here, and here, where I tried in vain to die.
Left: Untitled Collage 1 - Father Daniel This is Your Life Album 1970; right: Untitled Collage 2 - Father Daniel This is Your Life Album 1970.
But nobody can read this map except me – and why would they even want to? Our collective memories are powerful, of course, but they never have the pinprick accuracy or the violent potency of the personal. Everything is squished down into a narcissistic microcosm of you, you, you, always you. You turn the corner and you see yourself again and again, wordlessly passing iterations of yourself that never came to fruition. “I had a flashback of something that never existed,” Louise Bourgeois said. “I want to re-experience the past, I try to reconstruct it. Sudden recollections that are awakened by the senses tell you more than emotions that are too vague or too overwhelming or too intractable.”
So what do you do? Do you escape, or do you surrender? You can’t decide whether you want to forget your memories, escape them, exorcise them, or whether you want to contain them and consume them, to drown yourself in them. You can’t decide whether to stay or to leave. You can’t decide whether you feel good here.
About The Photographs
Every place has a secret history; a history you won't find in textbooks or local news clippings. It lurks in family photo albums, appearing nonchalantly in the background of childhood snaps. Photographer Alexander Christie used to call White City home and he's on a mission to uncover and collect the neighbourhood's personal archives. Here he presents the beginning of his project.
He says, "Through approaching institutions and community groups in search of archival material, the project has reconnected with aspects of my own history as a former resident. Materials that relates to events, spaces or families come together to form consecutive narratives. Others are fragments of memories and have been treated individually as glimpses in to personal histories. The process itself varies from still life arrangements of archival materials, to altering images through manipulating the ink on the surface of prints; erasing details or sections of the image.
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