A Scandal in Bohemia

Summary of Class Conclusions (I’ll write up a discursive version as soon as possible – I’m only putting this up temporarily to help you compare Conan Doyle’s original “A Scandal in Bohemia” with A Scandal in Belgravia (BBC1, 2011).


•Irene has own space – own house (very different from earlier women) Bryony Lodge, Serpentine Avenue – Garden of Eden – Eve? Serpent? •She manipulates space outside – New Woman – identity not just tied to home •She hides in public space (she inverts the secret spaces) •Fluid – more equal •Sherlock Holmes city not zoned so rigorously as Mysteries of London •Sherlock’s area – the homosocial masculine space of 221B information sharing – he can invade her space but not she his (she can only get to outside the door) •The gendering of space


•Is Irene’s femininity viewed differently than if SH himself had narrated it (SH has low opinion of women’s wit- until end)?  •Watson’s masculine narrative control •Professional masculinity v aristocratic –Intellectual and goal oriented v. wealth and objectification of the world –Irene chooses professional •Irene likes freedom of dressing as a man •The Woman = her name? What Sherlock believes a woman should be, the only one worth mentioning • The Woman V . women  (contradiction)


•Opposite of Sweeney Todd –Money is only a means to achieving satisfaction – •Sherlock wants to be paid the picture not money •The price of information is desire [what does this mean? It’s a wonderfully ambiguous phrase!] •Economics also = control of circ of info •Reputation as information •Value depends on satisfaction not the labour that goes into it

The String of Pearls, sentimental romance and moral free trade

illustration for the famous Dibdin-Pitt theatrical version

Another fascinating and very funny class saw us explore the anonymously manufactured but quite delicious pie which contains Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet street (as later theatrical adaptations advertised him). Serialised in Edward Lloyd’s The People’s Periodical in 18 parts over the winter of 1846-7,  it participates in folk culture, urban myth, feeds off other texts (especially Dickens) and very quickly, helped by the theatrical adaptations which rapidly followed its original publication, makes its own urban confection, as Robert Mack has detailed in his The Wonderful and Surprising History of Sweeney Todd: the Life and times of an Urban Legend (Continuum, 2007).

Your initial questions were very revealing of how the text operates. They were very much concerned with how the plot developed, with Sweeney’s motive of particular concern to you.

Unable to identify an author, we started by looking at the context that the story appeared in. Besides focussing on Edward Lloyd (for detail on him turn to the excellent Robert Mack edition entitled Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street) and the ever more densely crowded mass market of the 1840s, we also considered how the story should be read. The String of Pearls marks itself out as a “romance” straight away. Now the distinction between the romance and the novel drawn by David Masson, professor of English literature at University College, London, is often cited. He wrote “when we speak of a Romance, we generally mean ‘a fictitious narrative, in prose or verse, the interest of which turns on marvellous or uncommon interests’; and when we speak of a Novel, we generally mean ‘a fictitious narrative differing from a  romance, insomuch as the incidents are accommodated to the ordinary train of events, and the modern state of society’ (British Novelists and their Styles, Macmillan, 1859, p. 36). What’s not then mentioned is that not only does he go on to say that the distinction isn’t really important, but that the romantic elements of the novel are “medicinal” and connected with nature! Counter to “novels of real life” he sets the following:

In these days especially, when so many of us, cooped up in cities, and chained to this part or that of the crowded machinery of complex civilisation, have all but lost our acquaintance with our ancient mother earth, and hardly known even the overhanging sky, except in ribbands over streets, and as giving picturesqueness to chimneys – is it not well, is it not medicinal, that as much as possible, in the page so fur novelists, as in those of our narrative poets, we should be taken away in imagination from our common social haunts, and placed in situations where Nature still exerts upon Humanity the unbroken magnetism of her inanimate bulk, ‑ soothing into peace in the quiet meadows, whispering of the unearthly in the depths of a forest, telling tales of the past in some solitary crumbling ruin, moaning her sorrow in the gusts of a moor at midnight, or dashing the eternal monotone of her many voices against the embattled shore?  (Masson British Novelists and their Styles, 1859, pp. 37-8)

Doesn’t sound like the same kind of romance as The String of Pearls to me! But The String of Pearls  IS a romance in another sense – the “sentimental” sense. I won’t repeat here what we covered apart from the hilarity engendered by someone saying “Love Conquers All” (which wonderfully sums up the sentimental romance) and remind you first of the significance of the dog who has a – key word – sympathetic relation to his master (and in the first illustration, to Johanna)  and of Colonel Jeffery who not only feels for and with Johanna but is also a good friend to Thornhill: “My friendship for Mr Thornhill, and gratitude, as you know, for the great service he has rendered to us all, will induce me to do my utmost to discover him” he says.  For more detail on the values of the “sentimental” I’ll refer you to the chapter on “Literature of the Kitchen”: Cheap Serial Fiction of the 1840s and 1850s” in  the Blackwell Companion to Sensation Fiction edited by Pamela Gilbert. There the development into the nineteenth-century mass market of what had been originally an eighteenth-century upper-class mark of distinction is more fully explored.

Now, here is a summary of your very rich comments on economics, space and gender.

The economic aspects of the story are, as always, complex – but less so than in G.W.M. Reynolds’s Mysteries of London. You very well pointed out that the string of pearls itself which Lieutenant Thornhill is carrying to Johanna from her beloved Mark Ingestrie – which we later find out is worth the enormous sum of £10,000 – comes from a sailor’s successful “voyage to India”. “[W]here he got them I have not the least idea, for they are of immense value” says Colonel Jeffery to Johanna about Mark, as well he might. We can’t imagine that they just fell into his lap: presumably he undertook what in London would be regarded as some dirty dealings. But since these dealings took place in India, the text doesn’t seem to care (what happens in India stays in India – except for the valuable produce!). The pearls in London are merely a symbol of Mark’s financial and imperial success. In gender terms this marks him out as a real man!  Without them his masculinity would be compromised. Sweeney Todd, the strange outsider whose body and its “cachinatory effusions” terrify people, wants to participate in that. The question remains what “that” is though. Is it Mark’s masculinity? Without money Mark is feminised – he becomes a captured Gothic maiden imprisoned in an underground vault. The text thinks that an outrage against nature, and of course rectifies matters in the end. But how far is money merely a sign of masculinity?

For you pointed out how business and the passion for profit underlie the whole text in more ways than simply proof of gender. The String of Pearls doesn’t condemn profit wholesale.  Rather, it points out that there is a good approach to profit and a bad one. Obviously Sweeney Todd’s and Mrs Lovett’s approaches to it are bad. On the other hand, the farmers who have sold their cattle for a profit at Smithfield aren’t morally condemned (just because Sweeney “polishes them off” doesn’t mean they get what they deserve). Mark Ingestrie’s dubious gain of the string of pearls isn’t condemned either. Mrs Lovett is condemned on the other hand because she exploits her worker too much – without sympathy. She is clearly a brilliant business woman whose main profits come from wholesale not the personal retail sales to promote which she flaunts her charms. She is somehow in possession of a marvellous technology whereby one worker can produce thousands of pies a day. She has entered into a very profitable business – not sexual – partnership with her most important supplier. All that is admirable. But, to recall the words, of David Masson, she “coops  up” her worker in the (manu)factory without pity, and “chains” him “ to this part or that of the crowded machinery of complex civilisation.” She and her supplier exploit people mercilessly, use up their bodies and throw them in a heap when they have no more to give (literally)  underneath St Dunstan’s Church without stopping to consider what their victims feel or the emotional consequences of their actions.

And then we had fun reading metaphorically the human flesh stripped from bodies and recycled into pies sold for profit as like the way Lloyd’s authors regularly raided the private property of other texts (most famously Dickens) and recycled them in altered form, served them up as literary confections in Lloyd’s very own literary factory in Salisbury Square – which is situated just off Fleet street, and not far from Smithfield meat market, and near to where Sweeney Todd and Mrs Lovett had their shops.

In the end, we concluded that The String of Pearls was in favour of free trade tempered with sympathy.  This is exactly the position of Adam Smith (1723-1790), often regarded as the apologist, theorist and High Priest of free trade. Some have seen him as the theorist of profit for profit’s sake, but in fact his position was much more sympathetic. His two most famous books, The Wealth of Nations and The Theory of Moral Sentiments, when read together (as they should be), make exactly the point that the drive for profit needs to be balanced against feeling and sympathy for our fellow creatures.

Our discussion of space was almost as complicated — and because this blog is already very long indeed, I’ll postpone discussion of that to the next instalment.

Hope – the real Mystery of London?

One thing about G.W.M. Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London that is impossible to question is that much of it is very visceral.

Doesn’t the unflinching detail of the murder of Polly by Bill while their children look on generate a physical reaction in the reader? It’s rapid but not glossed over so that Reynolds makes us see it in front of us. I am always nauseated while reading it, and afterwards when thinking of it. It makes me angry.

Reynolds is using the technology of print to transport us to places, to make us witness to scenes, that our bodies might otherwise never experience. But it’s not a distant understanding – it’s not the experience of the city that the London Eye gives us. In such moments, technology does not mediate and distance us from the world, but wounds us, hurts us – but in thoughtful ways that are very different from the wounds that, were we to witness these scenes in real life, would so traumatise us that we couldn’t think. Reynolds harnesses the technology of print to make us viscerally present and analytically distant at the same time.

He uses the technology to transport us not only to the past but to another part of the city we couldn’t otherwise visit and be safe, and to other states of thinking and feeling.

How does this tie in with what we discussed today?

You heard about the technology and economics of the mass-circulation text, an example of which Reynolds’s Mysteries of London most certainly was. You heard how London was the most obvious place to produce and distribute such a text, but also how London can’t be seen as an entity complete in itself: you heard a lot about Paris too, and how Reynolds was inspired by his life in Paris and by his knowledge of French literature, especially of Eugene Sue’s phenomenally popular feuilleton, the  Mystères de Paris. You also heard about other mysteries of other cities – New York, St Louis and others around the world. The Mysteries of London is just one of many city mystery texts.  The French Mystères feeds into it and it in turn communicates with others, just as Victorian London was a city that existed not simply in itself but communicated with the world. London is the city of circulation, of coming and going, of paths, of adventures, of constant transformation, of multiple plots and multiple plottings, where identities as well as texts migrate and change. Movement, transport is the process that defines this London.

You also heard about Reynolds’s involvement in politics. I particularly mentioned  Chartism and I stressed the politics of Chartism’s interest in representation both in terms of representation in government and in terms of representation of reality.

The questions you asked were as follows:

•What is the reason for the prologue? •What is the reason for cross dressing? •What happened to Eugene? •Why focus on Wealth / Poverty? •What is the origin of the writing style? •What happens to Richard? •How does this text represent London? •How does the text end?

I added queries about gender, economics and space, and we combined the questions to form 6 topics, one for me to answer (what happened to the characters) and 5 that you discussed: the prologue, gender, economics, style, space. The answers to all these cumulatively will answer more specifically your question about “How does  this text represent London”.

The prologue you said set up binaries in order to question them, perhaps deconstruct them, to show that Wealth / Poverty were not absolutes but rather a question of circulation. This notion is set up right away: the opening sentences narrate how “Civilisation” moved East to West – and so may well move on in the future, perhaps again further west to the US.

Gender, we agreed, was a vexed category in The Mysteries of London. It opens with a cross-dressing heroine who isn’t condemned for her transgression. She gets into trouble not for her cross dressing but just because she happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Eliza theatrically feels the rain in the slums near Smithfield Market

Gender is straight away shown as socially performative: Eliza is performing the part of Walter in public while her sex remains, in private for her, never in doubt. It’s the city that enables such gender masquerade (and, indeed, masquerade in general). On a less liberating note, poverty in the city seems to brutalise and unsex mothers – as we see in the case of  Polly who intends to put the eyes out of her daughter with beetles. You had bigger problems in defining how the text defines masculinities – even though there are more men than women in the extract we read! But doesn’t the same apply to men as to women? Don’t we see men masquerading? Think of how the City Man Montague (= Eugene) takes advantage of the anonymity and constant circulation of the city to adopt an identity that is not his, to make money – and an identity – out of air.

In terms of style, you noted the redundancy of the style, the padding.  I’ve heard this before and your examples were very good but I’m not entirely convinced by how it’s the defining characteristic of the style: after all, the plots are swift moving and very ingeniously interlaced (even in the extracts you read, you saw Montague as Eugene, the wife-murdering Bill as one of the men who threw Eliza into the Fleet in chapter 1).  One of the most important experts on Reynolds, Anne Humpherys, reminds us that aspiring writers in the nineteenth century were advised to characterise like Dickens and plot like Reynolds (listen to the interesting BBC radio  documentary on Reynolds here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/r3docs). You also stressed the intense realism of the style. It’s here that I want to return to the murder of Polly by Bill. Isn’t the realism and the detail supposed to move us – to shift our mental and emotional positions? Its investigative realism of the kind that it was possible to read in the newspapers at the time is a very specific kind of representation of reality. It seeks to encompass all – from the luxurious boudoir in upper Clapton to the hell of Upper Union Court, from the polite language of the middle classes to the slang of the criminal underclasses. It seeks to represent all – just as the Chartists wanted everyone (well, all men) to be represented in Parliament. The style is in this sense democratic.

Space, we agreed, was heavily zoned into safe and unsafe areas. This applies as much to the bijou villa in Upper Clapton – the private boudoir where men don’t go (unless they are helped by the technologies of Reynolds’s writing and the illustrator’s burin) v. the public parlour where guests are received – as to the city at large. Eliza’s big mistake is to get lost and wander into areas she shouldn’t have been. She needed the technology of a map, just as Richard needed a moral compass – such as Reynolds’s own text is providing – to help him avoid the wiles of Mr Chichester and (a chapter we didn’t read) of Mrs Arlington’s “Salon”. Without technology, they are lost. You also pointed out the key difference between the suburbs and the centre of the city: the safety and health and space of the suburbs where the Markhams and Eliza have their dwellings v. the crowded centre where, even if as in the Park, the environment seems safe and attractive and natural,  moral corruption lies in wait just as bodies are threatened by disease and violence in the slums nearby.

The question of economics I thought was the hardest question of all. What economics is Reynolds promoting? The answer was very well explained: free circulation of information and money. In other words, Reynolds promotes free trade, though not a dishonest form of it where trickery and deception are employed to ensure the greatest profit for a few. No: he’s in favour of clear representation of what is put into circulation and how it is put into circulation. That ties up – perhaps bizarrely – to the emphasis on the representation of the underworld, including the sewer which was the Fleet at this time. Let’s think of this in relation to Eliza and her alter-ego Walter. At the end of chapter 3 s/he does the morally correct thing: as “an unknown friend” s/he alerts the potential victim to the plot to rob him. In other words, she puts information into circulation. But before that, she herself has been thrown into circulation first by the storm into the narrative, and then by Dick and Bill who throw her into the Fleet Ditch – the sewer which leads out of the city into the Thames and death. In other words, they try to stop her circulating in the city. S/he saves herself, however, and immediately – before the end of the chapter – starts circulating again.  Now isn’t this what wicked greed is in the Reynolds  —  the stopping of circulation, the arrest of flow and its transformation into accumulation?    The idea is based on the Romantic priority of nature over culture, of the countryside over the city.  Economics in London should be like the natural flow of pure water; instead, the reality is a filthy sewer polluted and blocked by City Men, swindlers, gamblers and other criminals.

What has this to do with London? Couldn’t this apply to any city? Yes, of course. That’s why, to cite the title of an excellent book edited by Celina Fox in 1992, “London” is a “World City.” Reynolds’s London stands for all corruption, all pollution, all crime. And its realistic and democratic representation  may itself represent for us the hope of a different, better future.

The Summer of 1871: Ouida and Mario

Today it’s the first day of the 4th Annual conference of the Victorian Popular Fiction Association. As always, I’m attending and giving a paper. This year’s conference theme is “Hard Cash” and it’s prompted me to think about exchanges where the medium isn’t “hard” at all.

Perhaps strangely, I started wondering about the possible prompts for Ouida’s move to Italy, her increasing interest in politics and in how writing can have a social impact. In 1871, she left for a tour of the continent. The tour turned into a life-time’s decision: from 1871 until her death in 1908 Ouida was to live in Tuscany. Her decision to live in Italy (Florence at first) was motivated, according to her early biographers, by her infatuation with the opera singer Mario who had a villa just outside Florence. Ouida was over 30 and some biographies (and still some more recent critics) have described this as an adolescent passion, a symptom of how popular culture can’t grow up.

As usual, I want to query such a response. As far as I’m concerned, such an understanding is the slave of history and stereotypes. It still continues as a trope that keeps the “soft” – in this case, women and popular culture – in its place. Just the other day I heard someone, who should have known better, reduce this representative of women’s creative engagement with a system that didn’t exactly treat her well (while profiting immensely from her labour)  to a stupid ignoramus “with hundreds of lovers” and no idea of how to manage her money (oh for goodness sake!).  To begin revisioning Ouida (and indeed the despised “soft” in general), I want to consider more carefully what actually happened in the summer of 1871. Not many letters from Ouida survive from this period and certainly she left no revealing diary, but by shifting our point of view slightly we can increase our understanding of history and its operations by thinking about what is at stake in dissing too glibly such excluded and derided figures.

In the first place, Ouida’s enthusiasm for Mario was shared by hundreds if not thousands. It was a collective passion. Mario had fans. The Victorian society hostess Lady Dorothy Nevill remarked on how Mario used to create ‘a perfect furore’ when he appeared, and The Leader in 1854 noted that he had what today would be called ‘stalkers’. Lady Geraldine Somerset recorded his farewell performance at Covent Garden on 19 July 1871 in her diary:


Mario in the role in which Ouida saw him in July 1871: Ferdinand in Donizetti's *La Favorita*

The scene of enthusiasm is difficult to describe, he was in glorious voice and acted quite magnificently. They gave him a tremendous reception, and at the end of the fine 3rd act [of Donizetti’s La Favorita], the ovation was beyond anything I ever saw, the whole house rose to receive him, waving handkerchiefs and hats, shouting showering wreaths and flowers upon him. P[rincess] A[ugusta]’s wreath was the first thrown and she threw it beautifully. HRH [the Duchess of Cambridge] threw him her bouquet and he caught it in his hand in the air as it reached him, so prettily that there was a roar of applause at it. P[rincess] M[ary Adelaid] caught up my bouquet round the corner of the box and threw it to him! Again and again and again he had to come forward, five or six times…

[after the last act] ‘a really delirious excitement, the whole house standing – quite a choking sight! He was quite pale and really overcome… the public were determined to see him yet again!! And called and shouted so he was forced to come on, in his dressing gown and stood all ému, only able to press his hand to his lips to express his emotion.

The almost equally breathless Times account of the performance confirms the ‘overwhelming’ delirium of an audience in which – to the amazement of the correspondent ‑ men were as ecstatic as women.

Ouida was there too and threw Mario a bouquet. Hers had an ivory cigarette case inside it inscribed with the following in mock-Dante Italian:

Pietosi dissero gli Dei

Oda la terra una volta la musica

Del Ciel, e labbre toccaro di …


In English it reads less elegantly: ‘In pity the gods said “May the earth hear once the music of heaven”, and they touched the lips of … Mario.’

What is the meaning of these gifts that are showered on popular artists such as Mario? What is the meaning of the ecstatic applause that follows their performance and the rapt silence that the nineteenth century audience learnt to give during it? Certainly both are in excess of any ticket price or contracted payment the artist receives. The artist and the audience give and also receive in a very curious economics, very different from the hard-headed exchanges of capitalism. For her most recent novel,  Folle-Farine (which was to come out in late August 1871, immediately before she left London) Ouida obtained £900 from her publisher Chapman. This was a considerable advance from what she’d received for her early novels, but not that much compared to her fellow literary stars Mary Braddon and Wilkie Collins (and indeed, George Eliot). Perhaps what she participated in in Covent Garden was another way of conceiving the exchange that is “Art”, music, literature — a collective, communitarian conception. Perhaps also a political one? It’s an economics where “cash” isn’t “hard” in the sense of reducible to conventionally agreed quantities. If that is what the conception of art is not, what is it? How are we to understand it positively?

(to be continued)

G.W.M. Reynolds’s Mysterious London

It’s hardly surprising that cities demand technology to make sense of them: after all, they are products of technology. Even the most ancient ones (which to us would have been no more than small towns) depended on technology for their creation and maintenance. A former director of the Archaeological Institute in London, Vere Gordon Childe,  listed the technology of writing as the 6th of 10 essential ingredients in an ancient  city (you can see the whole article dating from 1950 here: http://faculty.washington.edu/plape/citiesaut11/readings/Childe-urban%20revolution%201950.pdf). Writing was necessary to record the division of labour – for in cities not everyone works in the fields or hunts to support themselves. Rather we share resources. Tasks are divided amongst us as some people are better than others at certain things. Some plan or dig irrigation canals (or Victorian sewers) and get given food by the people who grow more and better crops as a result of the irrigation (or money to buy food in Victorian times). Others again specialise in regulating this division of labour and the sharing of resources.  The scribes who wrote down who had done what, who owned what, who exchanged what for something else in what proportion (labour, cattle, wheat) are amongst these regulators of society. Does the same go for *fiction* writers?

A hard, an impossible, question perhaps. But I’m intrigued that I felt compelled to start thinking about cities and technology by going back to the past – exactly as G.W.M. Reynolds does at the opening of The Mysteries of London.

I’m never sure of how to take those opening paragraphs though. They talk about the move of “Civilisation” from the East to the West. Straight away London is put into a huge historical time frame, exactly as I’ve done above. Are we to understand that history halts in London, that “Civilisation” has come home to stay? Well, no. That’s one of the many interesting things about Reynolds’s mammoth serial – it and almost everything it describes is always on the move. No sooner do we hit “Civilisation” than we find its necessary counterpart “Vice”, then Wealth – and Poverty. These binary oppositions don’t seem to fix each other in their places though. Rather such oppositions seem to enter into a dialogue with one another. We see the virtuous, effeminate young man in Smithfield but it doesn’t require much careful reading to realise that that he is is a she. Eliza travels across gender binaries – but how easily? Gender is a major concern of the text. While the  The Mysteries are very explicit about the nature of “WOMAN”, the nature of masculinity is vexed too: already in chapter 2 we find the two brothers, the elder descending into the city below the hill, the younger remaining on its height.

What other binaries does Reynolds present us with in this text? Sometimes it seems to me that the whole text is very strictly organised on a series of binaries. But the binaries don’t  comprise fixed pairs of opposites. Rather they are in constant dialogue with one another, and keep transforming as a result of that dialogue – dialectic indeed.  However, I do wonder if there are less obvious but more fixed binaries that this text is organised upon.

I’m thinking of a binary that I set up in the first Mysteries of London blog: technology and the body. I claimed we needed tech to understand the city as a whole. The Mysteries can, of course, only exist as a result of the technologies of writing and printing, but it’s a very curious and uncomfortable – perhaps ungainly – use of  that technology. It came out as a serial in weekly parts of 8 pages, with an illustration that headed each weekly part.

You might expect each issue to follow a pattern of, first, reprise to remind readers who the characters were and what the plot was, followed by further plot developments, and then a cliff-hanger at the end. But it’s obvious from looking at where the pages end that this was not the case. It was quite normal for each weekly number to end in the middle of a sentence! The above image, the first page of a weekly part, shows very clearly, even if you can’t read the words very clearly, that the 1st sentence is a run-on of a sentence begun the previous week. The issue number is printed at the bottom of the page (the above is number 42).

What can we make of these very technologically determined methods of story telling? Are we to understand that the serial is to be understood not as a serial such as we understand it but rather as a book issues in pieces — as a kind of book paid for in instalments that will only be complete when the title page is issued?

Is London like this book – graspable only in parts, in fragments that by themselves don’t make sense – that don’t even pretend to make sense?

Technology here promises wholeness, complete understanding — but does it really deliver? Do we really understand the city by circling the air on the London Eye?

The Mysteries of London

Don’t we always think of London as mysterious?

Who understands it? Who grasps it? Who sees it?

Isn’t the archetypal vision of London one obscured by a fog that prevents us from seeing clearly? It’s the Victorian London of Sherlock Holmes and other period dramas where buildings are misty and human bodies are obscured by the capacious swaddlings of coats and mufflers, bustles and crinolines, cloaks – and daggers.

Yet we insistently ask the London Eye – and soon the Shard – to give us a clearer picture. For didn’t the Eye immediately become one of London’s most visited attractions? In its first 8 years, it received 30 million visitors – the equivalent of half the population of the UK. Unable to make sense of the city on the ground, we want to rise above it to see the patterns the streets make, perhaps, or to bring back and share memories – “Oh, look! We went there last week!” – so we can integrate the city into our own life stories, or to stare at the hills beyond the city and so contextualise it in the landscape. In all cases we want to make London somehow manageable. But then the wheel descends and we emerge again into the hurly-burly of the street and riverside. Again we are plunged into a chaos of sense impressions that often seem to make no sense to us.

It seems we like technology to help us understand the city. Perhaps we need it. Perhaps we cannot comprehend the city with our bodies alone; we need technological prostheses.

Perhaps only cyborgs can grasp the city.

That’s not to say we can’t understand the city through our bodies — just not the city as an entity, as a whole, as a city. Of course we can understand some human interactions in the city; we can feel the unevenness of the pavement under our feet and with our hands the stone of the cattle trough in Clerkenwell Green, the gravestones in St James’s Church, the metal railings of Smithfield; we can smell the dampness of the Thames, the traffic pollution of Piccadilly, the roses of domestic and public gardens; we can see and admire the triumph of reason and engineering in the cupolas of the Royal Naval College and St Paul’s, and observe how the imposition of classical balance and authoritative order of the Bank of England is undercut by the visual chaos around it – an impotent and frosty father whose children are out of control.

The Bank of England

But these are only parts of the whole. We know we cannot generalise from these parts. Unlike in the ideal cities of the renaissance, or the feng-shui’d cities of China and Japan, or Roman new cities like Londinium, with their planned straight streets and systematised reasons why palaces are here, temples there and workshops elsewhere, we cannot predict what is going to come next in London. Metonymy – taking the part for the whole – may work well as a predictive tool in rationally planned cities (if we meet X, then we know Y and Z will follow) but it doesn’t work in cities like London . It’s too layered, too determined by palimpsests, too mired in history. If we meet X, K or M or L may follow — or even something outside the system altogether (e.g. のぞみ – “nozomi” – Japanese for “wish” or “hope”) .

Parts of the city cannot be taken as predictive metonyms, but as metaphors, standing for something else. The classical facade stands for controlling reason, the irregular space before it and the pigeons for unpredictability and fighting chance. The parts of London our bodies encounter need interpretation.

But who decides what that interpretation is? Can we give any meaning to any part? Who decides that “the classical facade stands for controlling reason”? What authority do they have to claim that? What methods did they use to make that interpretation? What methods can we use to determine the meaning of the parts of London we encounter? Can we really interpret the part of the city we experience with our bodies without technology, with our bodies and minds alone? Does the city tell us that our bodies are not enough, that we need other people and the props of technology to help us come to terms with it, arrive at a way to describe it, give it a terminology, understand it?

Surely this question and its implications comprise the fundamental Mystery of London.