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?
In this moment of austerity and uncertainty, the feeling is down but not out. As when Dickens walked these streets, childhood poverty once again lives next door to grotesque wealth. But London is one of the most culturally diverse and tolerant cities in the world and this is how the majority of its inhabitants feel they want it to stay.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
This two-thousand-year-old city’s calling is to souls, not hearts. If you experience heartbreak in London, it will keep the pieces and give them back to you later, when you are ready.
What is the most extraordinary detail one that goes unnoticed by most, of the city?
After the Great Stink of 1858, civil engineer Joseph Bazalgette built the Victorian sewer system that still, remarkably, continues to stop a twenty-first-century megapolis of nearly nine million people from collapsing into an ocean of our own ordure.
What writer(s) from here should we read?
As many as we possibly can in one lifetime. From the refugees, political exiles and immigrants like Doris Lessing who passed through or made the city their home to the Londoners born and bred like Zadie Smith, of the generation who resuscitated the dying, sighing late-twentieth-century London novel.
Is there a place you return to often?
The Thames. The river is the best way to be alone, unplug, and think in the midst of one of the densest conurbations of people on the planet.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
Hercules Road in Lambeth, home to radical visionary London people’s poet William Blake, who died unknown in 1827. Blake’s first biographers Alexander and Ann Gilchrist, whose 1863 Life of William Blake saved the poet and Paradise Lost from near complete obscurity, explain why:
At the end of the little garden in Hercules Buildings there was a summerhouse. Mr. Butts calling one day found Mr. and Mrs. Blake sitting in this summerhouse, freed from “those troublesome disguises” which have prevailed since the Fall. “Come in!” cried Blake, “It’s only Adam and Eve you know!” Husband and wife had been reciting passages from Paradise Lost, in character, and the garden of Hercules Buildings had to represent the Garden of Eden . . .
Are there hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
The river is London’s invisible city, hidden in plain view. The Thames has its own rules. It’s neither feminine nor masculine and it flows with contradictions. It’s one of the cleanest urban rivers in the world but full of hidden histories, lost lives, and dirty secrets.
Where does passion live here?
Passion needs no locale in the time of the online world. Don’t be fooled by the old sepia-tinted imperial heritage sights, the postmodern cement and glass, and the conurbation of twittering villages—it’s all built on the same mud. Real passion here lives where it properly should: in the working people and their poets who struggled for centuries to build a democracy.
What is the title of one of your works about London and what inspired it exactly?
Eleanor Marx: A Life (Bloomsbury, 2014). As it’s biography, she inspired it. And maybe it’s because she’s a Londoner.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside London does an outside exist?”
London is all outside. With a past built on the self-aggrandizement of imperial rape, plunder, massacres, and genocides literally burnt from the historical record, London came to be a city of exiles, diversity, and hope. The contradictions continue: so many come here to escape human scrutiny and judgement in the most electronically surveilled city on earth. London pride sometimes verges on smugness and myopia about those it leaves behind, both within and outside its city limits.
Rachel Holmes is the author of Eleanor Marx: A Life, serialized on BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week and shortlisted for the James Tait Black Prize. Her biography Sylvia Pankhurst: Natural Born Rebel will be published by Bloomsbury in 2019. Her previous books include The Hottentot Venus: The Life and Death of Saartjie Baartman, The Secret Life of Dr. James Barry, and—as a commissioning editor—I Call Myself a Feminist and Fifty Shades of Feminism.