If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Can you describe the mood of London as you feel/see it?
London’s spirit remains intact in defiance of very dispiriting times. The increasingly chasmic divide between rich and poor is shameful. Then there is the fact that London voted emphatically to remain in the EU and the UK as a whole did not. But I reject the inference that London is somehow intrinsically elitist. To me it has always come across as a place where pomposity is a cardinal sin, and where there is a high base level of respect and tolerance in the way people interact. This manifests itself in everything from the way Londoners stay out of each other’s way in a packed Tube carriage during rush hour to the immensely moving pragmatism and humanity with which they rise to recent challenges such as the terrorist attacks in Westminster and Borough and the appalling Grenfell Tower fire.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
There are many. Live for long enough in a city of London’s size and diversity and you might inhabit several of its many villages, which become the repositories of archived memories from different phases of working or domestic life. Ideally you can then move on when one set of streets has become overpopulated with memories (and the good ones can be heartbreaking too, right?). There’s a tree in Hyde Park under which I will always be drinking myself sick at age seventeen. A pub on Clapham High Street, another in Maida Vale, and a bench in Grosvenor Square where I will forever be experiencing the harrowing breakups of my twenties. An alley off Victoria Street where I am still hearing the news of my first book deal. An archway in Southwark where I am marshaling the courage for a marriage proposal. A spot by the river outside St Thomas’s hospital where I stand in tears smoking a cigarette while my wife recovers from a miscarriage inside. Perhaps when I’m older I will take self-indulgent, sentimental tours through places where I know memories will play out, listening to suitable pieces of music to accompany the imagined sight of my younger self getting to grips with it all.
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?
It’s all the past Londons the present London contains. These are of course so obsessively channeled by Moleskine-toting flâneurs and psychogeographers as to be almost over-noticed, but still—there’s a lot of amazing stuff underground. There are for example twenty-one tributaries of the Thames, all culverted or otherwise concealed, largely for reasons of sanitation. Their presence is now evident mainly in place names, but they’re there if you know where to look. The Westbourne flows through a pipe over the platforms of Sloane Square tube station. The dip in the road where Piccadilly passes Green Park marks the site of a former bridge over the Tyburn. And of course it’s fun to walk down Fleet Street and know that the Fleet runs somewhere beneath you, and picture it above ground, perhaps in Jonathan Swift’s pungent description:
Sweepings from butchers’ stalls, dung, guts, and blood,
Drowned puppies, stinking sprats, all drenched in mud,
Dead cats, and turnip tops, come tumbling down the flood.
What writer(s) from here should we read?
Virginia Woolf, Zadie Smith, Iain Sinclair, Michael Moorcock, Charles Dickens, Peter Ackroyd.
Is there a place here you return to often?
There are lots of nice restaurants I used to frequent when I worked in advertising. Returning to them is always a pleasure, though a prohibitively expensive one now that I write for a living rather than dreaming up ways to sell Rice Krispies. Happily I still have friends who work in advertising and they still have corporate credit cards.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
The London Library absolutely stinks of literature, and is also a good place to spot eminent writers in their sleep. Many pubs. I am fond of The George in Southwark, which is London’s only remaining galleried coaching inn, and mentioned by Dickens in Little Dorrit.
Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
For several years my wife and I ran a stall at Borough Market selling produce from the Orkney Islands. We had a storage depot in the labyrinth of subterranean chambers beneath London Bridge station, which I think have now been run through by the no doubt crystalline, Fortress-Of-Solitude-style foundations of the Shard building. I became enraptured by this place. You could enter from one street and reemerge on another many blocks away. Every new chamber held a surprise: evidence of an illegal rave; a family of urban foxes; archive boxes full of the moldy papers of defunct companies. One housed huge vats that had formerly held fortified wines destined for the London clubs, which had yet to pass through customs.
Where does passion live here?
Public transport (after about 9:00 p.m.).
What is the title of one of your works about London and what inspired it exactly?
My novel Wreaking was partly born in the cavernous arches described above. In particular I found inspiration for one of my characters, Roland, in a man who lived down there in a caravan. He’d worked on the construction of the Channel Tunnel, cleaning his hair with washing-up liquid at night as it was the only thing that would shift the grease that dripped constantly onto his head from the massive boring machine he operated during the day. When work on the tunnel was completed he got a job working for the London Underground, specializing in graffiti-removal and the cleaning of trains and tracks after “one-unders” (the expression Tube workers use to describe fatalities). At night he would repair to his caravan, venturing out into the arches with an air rifle to shoot vermin. He didn’t say much.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside London does an outside exist?”
Returning is always exhilarating. I get caught up in it for a day or two. Then I retreat to the countryside to get back to work having reminded myself that my head is far less cluttered when I’m away.
James Scudamore is the author of the novels Wreaking, Heliopolis, and The Amnesia Clinic. He has received the Somerset Maugham Award and been nominated for the Costa Award, the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, the Dylan Thomas Prize, and the Man Booker Prize.