London: What Cities Tell Late at Night

On July 3, 2011 by admin

Akhil Katyal

During late evenings, just before the cemetery closed for the public, you could always notice guys cruising each other. Often returning home on a bus, if you took the fun ‘long-cut’ through Abney Park, you could have guys ask you local addresses as very improbable conversation starters. Imagine being asked by someone for ‘146 Manor Road’ when he is sitting on a bench bang in the middle of a cemetery with no particular hurry to go anywhere.

All this was far too exciting for a place, whose founders had after all, in their long train of inspirations, taken their cue from the Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith’s dreary pastoralism in his 1770 ‘The Deserted Village’. A few years back during my Lit Hons years in Delhi, I had suffered his ‘Sweet Auburn, loveliest village of the plain / where health and plenty,’ he fantasized, had ‘cheered the laboring swain’. Those who set up the cemetery in Massachusetts, model for Abney Park behind my house, had very consciously cited Goldsmith’s poem in its architecture, flora and landscaping.

Now in a strange turn, my room window looked onto Goldsmith’s dreamland, twice-removed. At nights, I heard its many birds and a rare guy or two who must have jumped the gates to get in. During  those nights when I called my friends, I joked about living next to a cemetery and laughed about my own room with a view.

Over the next two years, I had moved to the inner city Kings Cross. Although it is synonymous with its two arterial rail stations, till the late 80s it had also been ‘notorious’ as a run down red light district, as a place where it was very easy to get drugs and as a site where the British pop scene had thrived in the now defunct 80s clubs.

Till large scale regeneration projects began to give a face-lift to Kings Cross, and litter it with a boring office architecture, it had a look of a post-industrial district, with vacant lots, disused goods and redistribution yards, some social housing and obsolete tube stations. Not for very long now, if you walk north of the station, you can very easily notice the imprint of the second world war, of a city that was oncebombed out.

That is now rapidly changing. In its revamp mode for the 2012 Olympics, London is a paradise for the developers’ lobby. Billions of pounds are being invested to make the semi-derelict parts of Kings Cross into a commissioned sort of haven for mainstream culture and commerce, introducing tens of new streets and squares, pushing for a well-packaged vision of an affluent urbanness. An insular, instant city is being culled out of a haphazard history of dereliction, poverty and cultural experiment in Kings Cross.

The last set of my late night walks in this city take place in this fast transforming neighborhood, mostly in the parts immediately north of the two stations. They take me past this specific landscape of London that is now disappearing in a city poised on the verge of a mega-budgeted sports event.

A sort of event that even as it inspires a superficial cover of a very old kind of nationalism in its host nations, even as it pushes obscure sports and athletes into limelight, what it really does and depends on, especially since the mid-70s, is activating a very global circuit of corporate finance, of high-end property developers and of international broadcasters fighting over television rights.

The games themselves pose as a national crisis-point, and policies and public expenditure that any other time would not go uncontested, are steamrolled in a rush of preparation. They become a rallying point for a very untimely national pride. And cause displacement among poorer communities, ejects squatters, have a questionable impact on sports among the lower-class youth and spend outrageous amounts of public money on projects whose benefits rarely trickle down below the developers lobby, the well-advertized sponsors and those few who can afford the white elephants after the games.
My last set of night-walks happen in a city that is itself dream-walking into this giant spectacle of the Olympics.

This often takes me along the course of the inner city Regents Canal, about two hundred years old, whose waters, long obsolete now for ferrying goods after railways and lorries, are used as a coolant for the high voltage electricity cables that run alongside it and power the inner city.

The canal meanders through the heart of Kings Cross’s regeneration project, with the construction sounds now spilling over into the several moored houseboats. People jog or cycle along the path till late in the evening, avoiding it at night for fear of mugging.

It was on this particular path, on an early June night this year, that I had noticed a rough-sleeper using a plastic sheet, probably the material of some publicity banner, as a blanket. Her sheet had a large imprint of that spaced-out 2012 Olympic logo on it. Its raw lines and colours had settled in the shape of the sleeping body, moving slightly with her breathing. 

For the longest time, I had thought that the cities look their most beautiful at night, peaking at dawn. Lately, it has begun to look like that during nights our cities become more difficult, more agitated. Night time isolates the pressure-points of the city, where it is hurting the most. And just before dawn, it seems, it poses these starkest challenges to us.

Akhil Katyal is a poet and writer from Delhi, now working from London.  He is also finishing his doctoral work at S.O.A.S., UK.

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