'London's main characteristic is an absence of form. Its thirty-three boroughs have busy districts running through them like veins, with no visible hierarchy, and neighbourhood ties remain inexplicably close. Because Londoners have a strongly pronounced sense of home, where you live counts more than who you are.' Bryant mostly lived inside his head. Remember the facts, he told himself, they like facts.
'We have six royal parks, 160 theatres, 8,600 restaurants, 300 museums and around 30,000 shops. Over 3,500 criminal offences are reported every day. Poverty and wealth exist side by side, often in the same street. Bombings caused slum clearance and social housing, rupturing centuries-old barriers of class, turning the concept into something mysterious and ever-shifting. London is truly unknowable.'
Bryant looked past his under-dressed audience to the swirling brown river. The Japanese boys were bored and cold, and had started taking pictures of litter bins. One of them was listening to music. 'A city of cruelty and kindness, stupidity and excess, extremes and paradoxes,' he told them, raising his voice. 'Almost half of all journeys through the metropolis are made on foot. A city of glass, steel, water and flesh that no longer smells of beer and brick, but piss and engines.'
He lifted his silver-capped walking stick to the sky. 'The arches of London's Palladian architecture lift and curve in secular harmonies. Walls of glass reflect wet pavements in euphonious cascades of rain.' He was no longer addressing the group, but voicing his thoughts. 'We're heading for winter, when a caul of sluggishness deepens into thanatomimesis, the state of being mistaken for death. But the city never dies; it just lies low. Its breath grows shallow in the cold river air while housebound tenants, flu-ridden and fractious with the perpetual motion of indoor activity, recover and grow strong once more. London and its people are parasites trapped in an ever-evolving symbiosis. At night the residents lose their carapace of gentility, bragging and brawling through the streets. The old London emerges, dancing drunk skeletons leaving graveyard suburbs to terrify the faint of heart.'
Now even the hardiest listeners looked confused. They spoke to each other in whispers and shook their heads. Their guide seemed to be straying from his topic: 'A Historic Thameside Walk'. The Japanese boys gave up and wandered off. Someone said, rather loudly, 'This tour was much better last time. There was a café.'
Bryant carried on, regardless.
'London no longer suffers from the weight of its past. Now only the faintest resonance of legendary events remains. Oh, I can show you balustrades, pillars and scrollwork, point out sites of religious and political interest, streets that have witnessed great events, but to be honest there's bugger all to see. It's impossible to imagine the lives of those who came before us. Our visible history has been rubbed to a trace, like graffiti scrubbed from Portland stone. London has reinvented itself more completely than ever. And whoever grows up here becomes a part of its human history.'
He had completely lost his listeners. They were complaining to each other in dissatisfaction and disarray. 'That concludes the tour for today,' he added hastily. 'I think we'll skip question time, you've been a truly dreadful audience.' He decided not to bother with his tip box as the mystified, grumbling group was forced to disperse across the windy bridge.
Excerpted from The Water Room by Christopher Fowler Copyright © 2005 by Christopher Fowler. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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