Category Archives: Paranormal

Dame Thora and the Killer Coat

London has no shortage of unusual ghost stories, from the Bald Chicken of Pond Square to Scratching Fanny of Cock Lane. Many of these unhappy shades choose to haunt Theatreland – and why not? If you’re looking for a spooky place to hang around scaring the living daylights out of people, you couldn’t do much better than a dark and gloomy playhouse.

Among the city’s many theatrical ghosts are William Terriss at the Adelphi and Covent Garden Underground Station, Sarah Siddons at her old house in Baker Street and the World War I soldier at the Coliseum. For those seeking less highbrow entertainments, Nell Gwynne was said to appear in the Gargoyle Club, a strip joint in Soho.

My personal favourite, though, involved the late and much-lamented Dame Thora Hird. In her long career, she played many roles, but is perhaps most famous for her long run on Last of the Summer Wine.

Long before that, she trod the boards in various venues, including a stint at the Embassy Theatre in Swiss Cottage. Here, in 1949, she played a lead role in a costume drama called The Queen Came By. Like many theatres, the Embassy had a store of old-fashioned costumes. Miss Hird was outfitted for her role as a seamstress with a short velvet jacket pulled out of a box of Victorian clothing that had been in store.

While it was initially a perfect fit, during the run she experienced a degree of discomfort – at first just a little tightness under the arms, which grew worse and worse even after the jacket had been let out. Worse still, the brooch she was wearing felt as if it was sticking into her throat. Attempts to adjust it were futile, and when the show moved to the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End she simply did away with the painful piece of jewelery.

Yet still the jacket caused discomfort. The tightness was particularly noted around the neck. The Stage Manager tried it on, and felt the same. The Director’s wife felt a similar pinch, and when she took it off she had painful red marks around her throat, consistent with an attempt at strangling. When Thora’s understudy, whom Miss Hird described as “very psychic,” tried it on, she saw a vision of a teenage girl wearing the jacket in her bathroom mirror that night.

Eventually it was decided that the jacket itself had to go. But before it did, a cast member named Frederick Piffard, at the instigation of esteemed periodical Psychic News, decided that a seance was the only way to get to the bottom of this mystery. On the last night, after the final curtain, it was organised. Instead of indulging in the traditional last night pasttime of getting roaring drunk, the cast, crew and three mediums held the seance on stage in front of an invited audience.

Almost everyone who tried the jacket on reported the same sensation of strangulation, one even needing to be revived with water. A couple off the street, too, felt the hands of a mysterious assailant when asked to put the garment on. No conclusions were reached as to the identity of the spectre that had apparently taken residence in this coat (not least because the audience was rather more sceptical than the mediums and happily voiced this fact), but two of the mediums reported an image of a young Victorian girl violently struggling against an unknown assailant.

Speaking personally, at the risk of sounding disrespectful to the late Dame Thora, I’m not particularly convinced. There have been some pretty hard-to-explain ghost stories that I’ve heard of, but this one could mostly be accounted for by a too-tight jacket and hysteria. Theatrical folk prone to hysteria? Surely not.

As for the jacket itself, apparently it made its way to America. So watch out next time you’re vintage shopping and you come across a bargain, I guess.

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Filed under 20th Century, Arts, Covent Garden, History, London, Occult, Paranormal, Psychogeography, Theatre, West End

Beneath the Grave – Ghosts of the Central Line

Good evening, fright-fans, it is I, Tom, your extravagantly-cleavaged Master of the Dark [picture inadmissable]. As Halloween approaches with the inevitability of death, I thought an appropriately-themed entry might be in order. As last year’s entry on the ghosts haunting the Northern Line was so popular, I figured I might continue the theme with the hauntings on the old Central London Railway or, as the kids call it nowadays, the Central Line. Mind the gap…

Northolt

You’ve all heard of the Beast of Bodmin, but did you know there was a Beast of Northolt? In the early 1990s, there were several sightings of a big cat alongside the Central Line between Northolt and Greenford. Accounts vary as to the species of cat, although most seem to settle on “puma.” Whence it came and how it got to Northolt without being noticed remain to be explained.

Marble Arch

If you should find yourself leaving Marble Arch late at night, when the station is quiet, you may find yourself being followed up the escalator. Several people have reported a sinister man in 1940s clothing who they sense close behind them on the escalator and see out of the corner of their eye. Upon turning around completely, the man vanishes. Again, no explanation has been offered as to who this restless spirit might be.

British Museum

Perhaps the most unlikely ghost out of the many on the Underground was sighted at this now-closed station. The ghost would, so the story goes, appear at one end of the platform and walk to the other, wailing mournfully. What marked this particular spectre out, however, was the fact that he was dressed in the clobber of an Ancient Egyptian. Being the intelligent and probably very sexy reader that you are, you’ve no doubt figured out why there might be an Ancient Egyptian haunting British Museum Station. To be more specific, the Egyptian is said to have some sort of link to the so-called Unlucky Mummy (pictured right), a sarcophagus lid in the Museum that is said to be cursed. This is just one of many legends attached to it, the most interesting of which says that it was responsible for sinking the Titanic.

Even bearing in mind that I’m a sceptic, I’m inclined to take this one with a pinch of salt. The accounts are lacking in detail and only emerged shortly before the station was closed down. I’m inclined to believe it was the invention of a journalist looking for a spooky story. Nevertheless, the story persists, albeit with the ghost now haunting Holborn. Why Holborn and not the closer Russell Square or Tottenham Court Road stations? It is a mystery.

Chancery Lane

Chancery Lane has plenty of secrets of its own, but in the tunnels between here and Holborn, there’s said to be one more surprise. During the 1960s,drivers stopping at signals here would often be freaked out by the appearance of a man standing next to them in the cab. Apparently some sort of fellow crewman, he would be staring straight ahead, and would vanish as soon as the train pulled away.

Bank

I covered the manife-stations (see what I did there) at this stop in last year’s entry, but I thought I’d mention that it’s a haunted station on the Central Line for those pedants who’ll leave comments if I don’t.

Liverpool Street

This terminus is built on the site of a plague pit and one of the several incarnations of the notorious Bedlam. The building of this and neighbouring Broad Street Station involved the disturbance of many final resting places, so really it would be surprising if there were no hauntings here. Sure enough, Liverpool Street and environs are said to be haunted by the ghastly screams of a woman.

The most popular suggestion for the screamer is one Rebecca Griffiths, an inmate at Bedlam in the late 18th century whose illness included a compulsive need to hold on to a particular coin. Upon her death, one of the staff (who were not known for their selflessness) stole it from her lifeless fingers and Rebecca’s inconsolable spirit searches for it still.

More recently, in 2000, the Line Controller sighted a man in white overalls in the tunnels who should not have been there. He sent the Station Supervisor to investigate, who found nothing. What made this particularly peculiar was that the Supervisor found no man down there – even though the Controller could see the man on the CCTV screen right next to him.

Bethnal Green

I’ll finish with the Easternmost of the haunted Central Line stations that I’m aware of, and one of the most frightening hauntings. This one is traceable to a specific incident that took place on 3rd March 1943. As often happened in the East End at that time, when the air raid siren sounded, the local people made for the Tube station. Unfortunately, on this night it had been decided to carry out a test-firing of an experimental new type of rocket in nearby Victoria Park. Panicked by what sounded like a very nearby explosion, the crowds surged forward. A woman on the stairs lost her footing and fell, taking several others with her and causing further panic, which in turn worsened the stampede and the crush inside the station. 173 people were killed in the disaster, crushed or asphyxiated. For reasons of morale, the Bethnal Green incident was covered up until 1946.

From 1981 onwards, however, there were reports of an extremely unnerving nature from the station. Staff working late at night spoke of hearing screams – at first one or two, then more and more, clearly identifiable as women and children. These screams would go on for up to fifteen minutes before dying down.

There you have it, readers. I hope you enjoy your Halloween this year and whatever you do, don’t have nightmares…

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Filed under 18th century, 19th century, 20th Century, Bloomsbury, Disasters, East End and Docklands, Flora and Fauna, Hackney, History, London, London Underground, Museums, Occult, Paranormal, Suburbia, The City, Transport, West End

Fortissimo

A friend of mine recently introduced me to the strange world of Forteana, suggesting that it was the sort of thing that would probably appeal to me. She was right in this belief – in fact, I’d come across the work of Mr Charles Fort before. I’d often passed the house in Bloomsbury where he lived in the 1920s while studying at the British Library (it’s on Marchmont Street, marked with a silver plaque, if you’re interested). I’d looked into the work of this fellow, and discovered that, unconsciously, I was already familiar with it.

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by weirdness – ghosts, alien abductions, monsters in lakes, the lot. Believed in most of it, too. It was only when I got a bit older, developed the ability to think critically and learnt the difference between “true” and “things you really want to be true” that I developed that healthy level of scepticism that has prevented me from, e.g., giving heinous amounts of money to a homeopath every time I get the sniffles.

Charles H Fort is legendary in the circles that take an interest in strange phenomena – in fact, he more-or-less invented the concept of paranormal studies (or Forteana, as such studies are often called in tribute to the man). It may come as little surprise to sceptics among you to learn that he was not a scientist himself – in fact, he was a writer by profession. As anyone who’s read Dianetics can tell you, few things are more irritating than a writer who acts like he has scientific expertise without any actual academic study.

However, he did read widely. From a young age he took a great deal of interest in science. Like Yr. Humble Chronicler, he would appear to have been a science groupie rather than an actual scientist. He was born in New York in 1874 and, from a fairly young age, showed an independent streak (which I think is a polite way of saying “obstinate little bugger”).

His interest in science, combined with his rebellious tendencies,logically led him to take an interest in anomalies that science couldn’t explain. Anything weird and paranormal seems to have entered this field of interest, from spontaneous human combustion to rains of fish to UFOs. The only thing uniting his collection of oddities was the fact that science did not have a definitive explanation for them.

This, disciples of Fort are keen to emphasise, was the point of his work – that science does not have all the answers, and we shouldn’t mindlessly accept the opinion of the scientific establishment. This, I think, is a very fair point. After all, some of the greatest scientific discoveries in history have come from going against what is generally accepted as truth. It used to be accepted that the sun revolved around the earth and that ants have eight legs, but now we know better. Similarly, what we now consider to be a scientific truth may tomorrow be equally discredited.

Unfortunately, it’s here that Fort’s lack of a scientific background makes itself evident. The trouble is that, for all his impish mischief, Fort’s assembly of strange phenomena doesn’t really say anything to the scientific establishment that the scientific establishment doesn’t already know. No legitimate scientist would claim to have absolutely all the answers. Even theories that are pretty well established are constantly being refined and modified as new evidence comes in – consider the effect that the discovery of DNA had on studies of evolution, for instance.

In fact, I’d argue that a lot of the time, it’s the Forteans themselves who more closely fulfil the stereotype of the stubborn and short-sighted student of science. There is a tendency among believers in paranormal phenomena to say “If not X then Y,”  e.g. “If those lights in the sky are not any of these things, they must be alien spacecraft!” That is to say, they have no evidence specifically for their conclusions and don’t admit to the possibility that there may be yet another explanation that hasn’t been considered. This, to me, is just as narrow-minded as outright denying the existence of flying saucers, sea serpents, the Duck Beast of Wincanton &c, &c.

One wonders how seriously Fort himself intended his theories to be taken. His sources were often very dubious, he seems to have simply taken every record of weirdness at face value with no discrimination between scientific studies and anecdotal evidence. Some of his followers view him as a genius shining a light on the falsehoods of the scientific establishment, others view him as a Swiftian satirist out to troll everyone. Perhaps the final word on the matter should come from the man himself.

My own notion is that it is very unsportsmanlike to ever mention fraud. Accept everything. Then explain it your own way.

Make of that what you will.

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Filed under 19th century, 20th Century, Bloomsbury, History, Lies, Literature, London, Museums, Notable Londoners, Paranormal, Science

London Lit: Neverwhere

I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to finally get around to writing this entry. If I’m going to be meta about it, this is actually one of the first entries I planned to write, and that must have been, what, two and a half years ago? Daaaamn.

So yeah, Neverwhere. One of the best-known works of urban fantasy and one of the best-known London novels, I think I’m being fair when I say these things. Neil Gaiman’s first novel and my personal favourite.

The story is fairly simple – our protagonist is the slightly Arthur Dent-esque Richard Mayhew, a relative newcomer to London. One day he comes across what he thinks is a wounded homeless girl and offers to help her, only to swiftly and unwittingly find himself drawn into a bizarre and fantastical version of the city existing below and around our own – London Below. Worse, the girl – Door – is being pursued by a couple of bizarre and apparently time-travelling assassins. And so we find outselves journeying through London-as-filtered-through-Neil-Gaiman’s-brain.

If any of you saw the superb Gaiman-penned Doctor Who episode, ‘The Doctor’s Wife,’ you’ll recognise the hallmarks. Strange people living in a thrown-together world and plenty of whiplash between scary and funny. If it was a movie, it would probably be directed by Tim Burton. Hence we get bizarre scenes like the visit to Earl’s Court. That is to say, an actual Court held by an Earl. A medieval court on an Underground train. There’s also an Angel called Islington and an order of Black Friars. Oh, and you get to learn the real reason why you should Mind the Gap.

For those of you familiar with the history and mythology surrounding the city, there’s even more. From abandoned Tube stations to a throwaway reference to Gog and Magog (blink and you’ll miss it), it’s very clear that Gaiman’s done his homework in researching his fantasy world.

My first exposure to the phenomenon, oddly enough, was not via the book. It was over a decade ago, on TV. You see, Neverwhere was originally developed as a fantasy TV series at the behest of none other than Lenny Henry. This was long before the revival of Doctor Who, and so the general attitude towards fantasy on TV was that it was all a little bit silly. As a result, the whole thing looks a bit cheap and naff. Which is a pity, because it’s really not. There is some superb location filming, including the use of Battersea Power Station, HMS Belfast, Down Street Station and the old Post Office Underground. The cast features some interesting before-they-were-famous faces, including Paterson Joseph, Tamsin Greig and Peter Capaldi (as the aforementioned Angel Islington). It was a bit weird, to be sure, but it piqued my curiosity and I went out and bought the book. And I was hooked. I’m told that the version in print today differs somewhat from that 1997 publication, so I should probably buy the new one as well. Not that I’m a fanboy or anything.

It’s not the only urban fantasy set in London, nor is it even the first. But it is perhaps the best-known and tends to be very highly rated – China Miéville, for instance, lists it as an influence on his own London fantasies.  I think the reason for its success is that it never takes itself too seriously.  The characters are strange, often scary, but strangely likeable – I want to see more of the sinister Croup and Vandemar, for a start.

As I say, Gaiman is clearly familiar with the folklore and history of London, but you don’t need to be in order to enjoy the book. It’s my experience that a lot of the more well-read authors want you to know just how clever they are and their work suffers as a result. In the case of Neverwhere, a passing familiarity with the city will see you just fine. And having read it, you may want to increase that familiarity.

That’s a thought – has anyone ever done a Neverwhere tour?

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Filed under 20th Century, Film and TV, Islington, Literature, London, London Underground, Occult, Paranormal, Psychogeography

Carry On Vamping

It’s been a long, long day at work, comrades, so you may have to once again forgive me for being self-indulgent in the absence of time to research a decent blog entry. Yes, I do research these things. Shut up, I totally do.

So anyway, today I’m going to talk a little bit about comics. Now, comics are big business these days – think of the number of comic book movies that have come out in recent years. Iron Man, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Scott Pilgrim, Green Lantern, Kick-Ass, Watchmen, 300, The Dark Knight, X-Men: First Class, the list goes on and on.

Yet there’s one comic that, notably, doesn’t seem to get as much love from Hollywood as it ought to. In Britain, undoubtedly the best known comic is the weekly anthology 2000AD. Now, granted, unless you’re a comics afficionado, you’re not likely to have heard of many of its stories other than Judge Dredd. But it’s been one of the most fertile grounds for the nurturing of comics talent around. Some of the best-known creators in comics have spent time working on 2oooAD. Alan Moore, Mark Millar, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Kevin O’Neill, Jamie Hewlett, Brian Bolland, Pat Mills, Simon Bisley, John Wagner, Dave Gibbons – all have, at one time or another, worked on the comic. Some still do. Yet the only films to have been based on 2000AD titles have been the appalling Sylvester Stallone version of Judge Dredd (ironic, given that Stallone was a source of inspiration for the creation of the character) and an obscure sci-fi horror film called Hardware that was plagiarised from a short story. There’s a new Dredd movie in the works at present, which looks a lot better than the Stallone one, but we’ll see.

The thing is, though, there are plenty of other stories the movie makers could be plundering. The punky up-yours philosophy of the comic has thrown up some concepts unlike anything else in the mainstream press. There’s ABC Warriors, the misadventures of a group of elderly robots on Mars. Strontium Dog, a sort of X-Men for Thatcher’s Britain about a mutant bounty hunter and his Viking partner. Nikolai Dante, the bizarre and swashbuckling adventures of a thief and swordsman in a far-future Russia that’s mysteriously reminiscent of the 19th century. Personally, I think the cyberpunk adventures of the pun-happy assassins of Sinister Dexter would be tailor-made for an Edgar Wright adaptation.

And then there’s my personal favourite – Devlin Waugh. Even by the standards of 2000AD, Devlin is a bit of an odd character. Set in the same post-apocalyptic world as Judge Dredd, Waugh is an arse-kicking exorcist working for the Vatican. Oh, and also, he’s a vampire. So that’s two of the boxes ticked for box office gold – comic books and vampires.

What makes him unique as a comics character is that while he is an occult expert and martial arts badass, he is also a middle-aged, flamboyantly camp aesthete. Openly gay and just as openly shallow, with a taste for watercolours and vintage fashion. Think Oscar Wilde with more vampire-punching.

He is, in short, the first Chap superhero. In the early 1990s, when he first appeared, he was also perhaps the first gay mainstream comics hero (no doubt some comics expert will come along and tell me different, hence the qualifying “perhaps”). Gay characters in comics are something of a touchy subject, often coming across as a cheap publicity stunt, a pointless piece of tokenism or as a slightly embarrassing stereotype. Oddly enough, I’ve never seen any of these gripes brought up by 2000AD readers. This despite the fact that, as I mentioned, Waugh epitomises the most flamboyant excesses of camp. If I were to suggest a reason, I’d say that perhaps it’s because the character is not just gay. He’s selfish, lazy, misanthropic, arrogant and preening, and proud of all of these things. The fact that he sleeps with men is a minor point. Or maybe it’s simply the fact that he is so brazen about it – his homosexuality is not presented as a novelty or a freakshow, but something that he does. Just as James Bond has his eye on the ladies, so Devlin Waugh has his on the gents.

Then there’s the world he inhabits. One suspects that Smith only set it in the Dreddverse to make the concept more saleable to 2000AD. The first Waugh story, ‘Swimming In Blood,’ revolves around an undersea prison that gets taken over by a centuries-old fast- evolving vampire with the help of the psychopaths in the maximum security wing and a swarm of cockroaches. This is the most mainstream story by far – later tales would involve snake women, time-travelling French dwarves, a bone golem, ancient astronauts, African fetishes, demon plagues and Devlin’s mum, all told in Smith’s stream-of-consciousness style with plenty of literary and folklore references for those who live for such things.

Actually, to be honest, I can’t see Hollywood picking this one up. Even though ‘Swimming in Blood’ would, I think, make a superb film (probably could be done for a reasonably low budget, too), can you really see the money-men signing up for a screamingly camp action hero? Ah well, a chap can dream.

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Filed under 20th Century, Arts, Film and TV, Literature, Not even trying to be on-topic, Paranormal

You’re Kraken me up

Ah, lazy bank holiday weekend, I’ve been celebrating with a substantial fried breakfast and heinous amounts of coffee. Be still, my beating heart – and it probably will. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.

I’ve just finished reading China Miéville’s Kraken, his most recent work of urban fantasy, you see. It’s taken me a while – I do, as I think I have said before, have a reading list as long as my arm.

I’ve talked about Miéville before in these pages, but to sum up – he’s a fantasy author with something of a cult following who writes work set primarily in an urban environment. Kraken, like his earlier works Un Lun Dun and King Rat, is set in a strange alternate fantasy version of London.

Our protagonist is Billy Harrow, a curator at the Natural History Museum. One morning, he discovers that one of the Museum’s star exhibits, a preserved giant squid in a tank, has vanished without trace. Almost immediately, Billy finds himself dragged into an utterly bizarre underworld of cults and magic, the target of a police unit dedicated to investigating weirdness, a church that worships the Kraken and a gang leader who happens to be a living tattoo. Oh, and the Apocalypse is coming. Make that Apocalypses.

What I would say marks this book out among Miéville’s work is the fun he has with it. He did have a few laughs in Un Lun Dun, but like so many adult fantasy authors who try to break into kids’ books, they came across as forced. Kraken, on the other hand, is written with a kind of 2000AD sensibility, a real sense of deliciously black humour. We are introduced to the Londonmancers, magicians who might best be described as pro-active psychogeographers. The Tattoo’s henchmen are the Knuckleheads, whose name is rather more literal than you might expect. Wati, an ally of the protagonist, is a spirit who can manifest in any statue or carving, right down to a Captain Kirk action figure. And there’s the rather disturbing question of what actually happens when you teleport a person…

For someone who’s made his name subverting the fantasy genre (he once described J R R Tolkien as “a wen on the arse of fantasy literature”), the author does get a lot of mileage out of playing with clichés. The best (and funniest) example of this might be when the foul-mouthed police magician Collingwood goes after Wati using spirits literally created out of copper stereotypes (“bring this little toerag in, overtime, nonce, slag, guv, sarge, proceedin long the eye street”).

This is London fantasy in the grand tradition of Neverwhere – Miéville has acknowledged his debt to Neil Gaiman in the past, and in particular has noted the similarities between Kraken’s Goss and Subby and Neverwhere’s Croup and Vandemar. However, unlike many works of London fantasy, this one plays off the incoherence of the city – the fact that London cannot simply be summed up according to any particular mythology or structure, that it’s many different places coexisting at once, perceived in many different ways by many different people.

As a Miéville book, it’s much more lightweight than most of his other work. If it has a major fault, it’s that there is perhaps too much going on – so much is thrown in by way of crazy ideas and characters that it’s hard to track down the central core of the book. When the big revelation comes at the end, it doesn’t make you think, “Of course! Why didn’t I realise that?” so much as it makes you think, “Eh? Where did that come from?”

In short, if you’re hoping for another The City and The City, you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re looking for a work of urban fantasy that’s intelligent and gripping and doesn’t take itself too seriously, then it comes highly recommended from me, for what that’s worth.

Here’s to the upcoming release of Embassytown…

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Filed under Literature, London, Occult, Paranormal, Psychogeography

Unseeing for beginners

I’ve just finished reading a rather interesting novel. I have a reading list as long as my arm (though admittedly, I don’t have very long arms and I’m not including my collarbone or hand in that estimate), so it’s quite nice to actually read something simply for enjoyment. I miss doing that.

The book in question was The City and the City by China Mieville. This is a slightly bizarro novel that’s rather hard to categorise. Inevitably, it’s shelved under ‘Fantasy,’ because China Mieville is a fantasy author and therefore is not allowed to write in any other genre. But it’s not really fantastical. It’s set in a fictional place, true, but so was Hard Times. Beyond that, though, there’s no magic and no monsters – like the Gormenghast trilogy, it seems to be counted as fantasy whether it deserves it or not. Meanwhile, Salman Rushdie includes magic and demons and ghosts but is not fantasy. Go figure.

The book is set in two fictional city-states – the vaguely East European Beszel (which should be written with accents) and the vaguely Middle Eastern Ul Qoma. These cities are very different, culturally and economically. Beszel is in a slump, while Ul Qoma is an up-and-coming power. Beszel enjoys a friendly relationship with the USA, while Ul Qoma is blockaded. Ul Qomans and Besz wear different clothes, use different alphabets, eat different food, speak different languages, even the way they walk and gesture differs between the two cities. And to be in the wrong city without a permit will bring down the wrath of Breach, a sinister and mysterious police force – if you’ve breached, there is no measure that is not in their power to use against you.

But here’s where things get weird – Ul Qoma and Beszel occupy the same space. Certain areas belong to one city, and others to the other. Weirder still, there are areas of “crosshatching,” belonging to both cities. The boundaries between the two nations are purely psychological, with citizens of one being trained from birth to ignore or “unsee” the people, buildings and traffic of the other, with Breach maintaining the mental division by force.

The story revolves around a person found dead in Beszel, but apparently killed in Ul Qoma. And apparently no breach has taken place. Inspector Borlu of the Extreme Crime Squad investigates, and discovers that something very, very strange is going on. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that, like so much that Mieville writes, this one will mess with your head.

Now, you may be wondering why I’m talking about this book when it has almost nothing to do with London. It’s not set in London, it’s not even set in a place inspired by London (unlike most of Mieville’s other fantasy). The reason I think it’s appropriate is that, while it’s not a story applicable specifically to London, it’s one that’s applicable to the urban condition as a whole.

The concept of two different nations whose boundaries exist purely in your mind is, on the face of it, freaky-deaky. But think about the concept of “unseeing.” Think about it next time you walk through the city. Think about all the things around you that you simply ignore because they don’t concern you. On an obvious level, derelict buildings. Shops you don’t use. Streets you walk past but not along. How about the stuff you ignore on a cultural level? I don’t use the mosque. I pay no attention to the R&B night posters. I walk straight past the Polish delicatessens. The council estates might as well not exist. There’s no reason I should bear these things especially in mind, but equally, there’s no reason why I should be ignoring them. How can I consider myself citywise when there’s so much of the city, even within areas I know, about which I’m ignorant?

The concept of a hidden world that we ignore or don’t see is nothing new in fiction. Works like Mieville’s own King Rat, Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and hell, even Harry Potter use hidden corners of London as secret places. Yet The City and the City is, as far as I’m aware (tell me if I’m wrong) the first to actually suggest that there’s nothing magical going on there. And in that regard, it suggests that the responsibility to see or unsee is entirely our own. What aren’t we seeing? What are we being told to ignore?

In future, if anyone asks me what psychogeography is, I think I’ll just hand them a copy of this book and tell them to ask me again in a week.

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Filed under Arts, Geography, Literature, Only loosely about London, Paranormal, Politics, Psychogeography