Night. Lights on. The lights that glide in jewelled columns, red and white, that make glowing caverns of the windows opposite, that rake the bedroom ceiling in long yellow shafts. And in the sky, the dead and dancing sky, there are a million yesterdays. “Why are there stars?” the child asks her father. He shakes his head, pulls the curtains to, and goes. It is late; she should sleep. And in any case he has no answer.
London; Monday; eight-thirty. Matthew Halland, delivering his daughter Jane to his estranged wife, waited in the car, engine running, until he saw the front door open. He sat watching, one hand on the gear lever. He glimpsed Susan. He saw the door close. He accelerated away, carrying the child with him in his head–the sound of her voice, that downy cleft in the back of her neck, the small milky crag of her new front tooth. She was eight years old, and amazed him.
And then as he turned from the side street into a busier one, as the traffic gripped and slowed him, as he halted for the lights, she began to slip away. The twinge of loss was swallowed in a rising tide of impatience–twenty to nine, the morning at his throat. The city had him in its current; yesterday withdrew. He switched on the car radio, rummaged with one hand in his briefcase. He made plans and decisions–get to Blackwall in time for a good look round before the site conference, have a session with Jobson about that staircase at Cobham Square. Jane returned for an instant–her sleepy voice, “Why are there stars?” –and simultaneously he caught sight of the moon, a pale morning moon hanging above the city, sinking, drowned out by day. And at once time dissolved and he flitted to a moment when, as a boy, he saw the surface of the moon through a telescope, pitted and shadowed, a tangible landscape. That same moon, then and now.
And thus, driving through the city, he is both here and now, there and then. He carries yesterday with him, but pushes forward into today, and tomorrow, skipping as he will from one to the other. He is in London, on a May morning of the late twentieth century, but is also in many other places, and at other times. He twitches the knob of his radio: New York speaks to him, five hours ago, is superseded by Australia tomorrow and presently by India this evening. He learns of events that have not yet taken place, of deaths that have not yet occurred. He is Matthew Halland, an English architect stuck in a traffic jam, a person of no great significance, and yet omniscient. For him, the world no longer turns; there is no day or night, everything and everywhere are instantaneous. He forges his way along Euston Road, in fits and starts, speeding up, then clogged again between panting taxis and a lorry with churning wasp-striped cement mixer. He is both trapped, and ranging free. He fiddles again with the radio, runs through a lexicon of French song, Arab exhortation, invective in some language he cannot identify. Halted once more, he looks sideways and meets the thoughtful gaze of Jane Austen (1775– 1817), ten feet high on a poster, improbably teamed with Isambard Kingdom Brunei and George Frederick Handel, all of them dead, gone, but doing well–live and kicking in his head and up there guarding the building site that will become the British Library. And then another car cuts in ahead of his, he hoots, accelerates, is channelled on in another licensed burst of speed. Jane Austen is replaced by St Pancras.
Thus he coasts through the city, his body in one world and his head in many. He is told so much, and from so many sources, that he has learned to disregard, to let information filter through the mind and vanish, leaving impressions–a phrase, a fact, an image. He knows much, and very little. He knows more than he can confront; his wisdoms have blunted his sensibility. He is an intelligent man, and a man of compassion, but he can hear of a massacre on the other side of the globe and wonder as he listens if he remembered to switch on his answering machine. He is aware of this, and is disturbed.
The city, too, bombards him. He sees decades and centuries, poverty and wealth, grace and vulgarity. He sees a kaleidoscope of time and mood: buildings that ape Gothic cathedrals, that remember Greek temples, that parade symbols and images. He sees columns, pediments and porticos. He sees Victorian stucco, twentieth-century concrete, a snatch of Georgian brick. He notes the resilience and tenacity of the city, and its indifference.
He sees, too, that the city speaks in tongues: Pizza Ciao, King’s Cross Kebab, New Raj Mahal Tandoori, Nepalese Brasserie. And he hears another clamour, a cacophony of sound that runs the whole gamut from Yiddish to Urdu, a global testimony reaching from Moscow to Sydney by way of Greece and Turkey and remote nameless birthplaces in Ireland or India or the Caribbean. The resonances of the place are universal. If the city were to recount its experience, the ensuing babble would be the talk of everytime and everywhere, of persecution and disaster, of success and misfortune. The whole place is a chronicle, in brick and stone, in silent eloquence, for those who have eyes and ears. For such as Matthew. Through him, the city lives and breathes; it sheds its indifference, its impervious attachment to both then and now, and bears witness.
He climbs the heights of Pentonville Road, listening to Manila, seeing the fretwork of wrinkles on an old man’s neck, the tiny horned plaits on the head of a black baby, suspended between intimacy and invisible distance. He is exposed to everything: to what is here, and not here, to what is no longer here but only in the mind. And now it is nine-fifteen and he is impatient, restless at the hindrance of metal, tarmac and humanity that lies between him and his office, between him and the day ahead. He drums his fingers on the steering-wheel, achieves another hundred yards, halts and drums again. At the Angel crossroads he contemplates the airy wasteland of orange cranes, scaffolding, hoardings and battered buildings clinging to their last days of existence, everything coming down and going up simultaneously, it seems. He notes a late Victorian fa”ade–red terracotta Gothic arches, capitals with acanthus–what has it been? Bank? Pub? Glassless, backless, one-dimensional, it has weeks or months left, at most. Its columns are plastered with torn posters: Uriah Heep, The Dog’s d’Amour, Boxing: Anthony “The Terminator’ Logan, Jazz & the Brothers Grimm. In front of it two children cling to balloons like silver cushions, a man with Rasta hair crowded into a roomy beret waits to cross the road. For thirty seconds Matthew is at one with all this, and everything that it implies, and then he is off down City Road. The moment is gone, irretrievable, and with it the conjunctions, the jigsaw of time and reference.
He liked to be at his office by nine-thirty, and today was not. At twenty to ten he dropped his briefcase beside his desk, shuffled through the mail, reached for the phone, scowled sideways as the door opened.
“Matthew, I’d just like to’”
“I’m not here.”
“Forgive me, I must be hallucinating. I’ll come back when you are.”
“I’ve got a site conference at Blackwall. I’m off again at once. I only came in to collect stuff and make some phone calls. This afternoon, Tony, OK?”
“I’ll come to Blackwall with you,” said Tony Brace. “Too long since I took a look. Knock on my door when you’re ready.” He went.
The architectural firm of James Gamlin and Partners occupied the top three floors of a renovated nineteenth-century warehouse in Finsbury. On the ground floor was a row of shops–stationers, newsagent, locksmith, dry cleaners–and a dental surgery. The partners, five of them, along with associates and other staff, made regular use of the stationers and newsagent but would only have patronized the dentist (grimy windows of opaque green glass, eroded brass nameplate) in desperate circumstances. Up aloft, in their empire, all was sweetness and light, the carpets smelt new, the pot plants, sprayed twice daily by the receptionist, gleamed with well-being. The chairs for waiting clients were of discreetly good design; on the walls were striking black and white photographs of the firm’s most valued projects. The junior members worked in an open-plan area, bright, light, airy, quietly humming and clacking with new technologies. The partners, such as Matthew and Tony Brace, had individual offices. James Gamlin, once an enfant terrible of post-war architectural innovation and now something of a grand old man, was in semi-retirement and tended only to pay infrequent and interfering visits which required tactful handling and a certain amount of self-control all round.
Matthew made three phone calls, had a word with his secretary, gathered up papers and alerted his colleague.
“Why the interest in Blackwall? I thought you hated the place?”
“It has a certain awful fascination.”
Tony, one of the original partners, specialized in restoration and conversion. His interest in the firm’s big commercial developments, of which the Blackwall site, in Docklands, was perhaps the largest they had ever taken on, was tinged with genteel disdain, but sensibly pragmatic. James Gamlin and Partners had to make a living.
“I want to see how they’re dealing with that sill detail in the cladding on the upper levels,” he explained, as they got into the car.
“The fixing fillets spring back if you’re not careful. Quite exciting. They nearly had a nasty accident last week.”
“I hope everybody’s insurance is in order.”
And so long as it is, thought Matthew, striking out into City Road again, give or take the odd Irish navvy is really of no consequence. Not that that is what Tony means at all–he is no more cold-blooded than the rest of us, merely prudent. Well, there hasn’t been a fatality on a Docklands site yet, and if and when there is, it won’t be the first sacrificial blood shed in this city. He saw for a moment, in the mind’s eye, a sequence of bodies toppling from buildings, squashed under brick and stone and timber–Roman slaves, squat medieval peasants, eighteenth-century labourers. Uninsured, poor sods.
“Maybe we should have tucked a spare criminal under the foundations.”
“A Roman custom. To placate the gods.”
“How very unpleasant,” said Tony, after a moment. Matthew, who had known he would say that, or something similar, accorded himself five points on a private scoring system. He both liked Tony and was intermittently exasperated by him. The conjunction with workmates is a curious one–associates as randomly achieved as neighbours or relatives-in-law, and frequently as crucial to well-being. You spent more time with the people you worked with than with your friends. Or with your child. Matthew had known this man for ten years, day in, day out; he knew his opinions on everything, the extent of his wardrobe, the way he combed his hair. He knew his way of life. Tony Brace lived in Richmond, in circumstances of impeccable domestic content. Matthew and Susan had visited, in the early days of their marriage; driving home, they had mocked the d”cor and the connubial complacency. Thinking of this, Matthew felt ashamed, and faintly envious.
They were moving now through one of the city’s most turbulent areas of metamorphosis. Gaunt shells of nineteenth-century buildings, delicately shrouded in green netting, stood alongside huge spaces bright with the machinery of construction: yellow cement-mixers, orange bulldozers, immense elegant cranes in yellow, red, green, blue–dinosaurian monsters unleashed to wreak their mechanical will upon the London clay.
“Bishopsgate Jurassic,” said Matthew.
“Nothing. An association that sprang to mind. Silly, really.”
“Oh, I see–the bulldozers. Yes, they are rather, aren’t they?”
They were stationary again, at a big junction, at the hub of things, crowded by cars, buses, pedestrians nipping through where they might, crowded by brick and stone and concrete and by glass which soared here into the sky. A sky loaded with rain, against whose grey surface there shone on one side the white spire of a church, across which crawled, soundless, a glinting aircraft.
“This city,” said Matthew, “is entirely in the mind. It is a construct of the memory and of the intellect. Without you and me it hasn’t got a chance.”
“It seems to me to be managing quite well. This bloody traffic is real enough. What time did you say your meeting was?”
“Eleven. I’ll be all right. What I mean is that significance is in the eye of the beholder.”
“Shouldn’t you be taking a right at these lights?”
“I’m going to try some creative back-street work. Now, for example, what does that wall mean to you?”
“Well–Georgian brick. Probably once the churchyard wall, now gracing the private car park for this office block. A rare survival given that all this was flattened in the Blitz.”
“Exactly. And here you are bearing witness for the wall, so to speak.”
“Are you sure this is going to get you back to Aldgate?” said Tony.
“With any luck it will.” Matthew swung round a corner and into the traffic again.
“It’s this interesting combination of silence and eloquence. Depending on what the viewer happens to know. And the tenaciousness. That particular stack of bricks occupied the same space in, maybe, 1740. The same bricks, in the same place, looked at by different people. That, to me, makes a complicated nonsense of the passage of time.”
“Talking of which, it’s past ten-thirty. There’s no left turn at the end here–had you realized?”
But Matthew, now, is on another level, caught up by his own perception, his fancy, by the reflections in his head of all that is around him. He is, for a few instants, disembodied–aware of himself as subsumed within the crowd, the horde of humanity that has sifted through the city, and died, and been reborn. He is both sobered, and uplifted. He is alone, and at the same time less alone. He sees that time is what we live in, but that it is also what we carry within us. Time is then, but it is also our own perpetual now. We bear it in our heads and on our backs; it is our freight, our baggage, our Old Man of the Sea. It grinds us down and buoys us up. We cannot shuffle it off; we would be adrift without it. We both take it with us and leave ourselves behind within it–flies in amber, fossilized admonitions and exemplars.
He swings the car left (Tony, at his side, bleating on unheard), registers but hardly sees a girl in a red coat, a helmeted wet-suited figure on a motorbike (Pony Express), the rearing black horse logo outside a bank. He thinks only of eyes seeing, million upon million pairs of eyes, recording the same world, the same images. He thinks of all these conjunctions of knowledge and experience, these collisions of what is known and what is felt which flame within the head to create a private vision, but a vision which is coloured by the many visions of other people, by fact and error and received opinion and things remembered and things invented. We can see nothing for itself alone; everything alludes to something else. And Matthew is caught now by the allusion of these streets, as he glances at that blackened brick wall, at the remnant of a Victorian fa”ade amid the office blocks.
Before him is a canyon of fire. The man hesitates–even he, who has trodden the inferno of these streets for hours. He sees the firemen at work on a building at the far end: a figure swarming the black ramp of a ladder, the silver arcs of water against the stark facade and at the windows that bloom with flames. He sees glass shower to the ground; he sees the gas main shooting up in a geyser of white fire, the pavements which creep with scarlet tongues. He sees a tailor’s dummy sprawling from a shattered shop front; he sees the defiant white horse of a pub sign; he sees the blackened carcass of a car.
He tilts his warden’s helmet down to shield his eyes and walks into the furnace, picking his way through shattered glass, rubble, the tangle of the firemen’s hoses. Further down the street, a roof sags, collapses with a roar, and a fountain of flame shoots fifty feet into the sky; a blizzard of orange sparks showers upon him. He shelters for a moment in the lea of a phone box, wipes his burning eyes. He is beyond reaction, beyond thought, he is responding simply to each minute as it comes, to the demands that each minute brings; direct someone to a shelter, visit and encourage those already in another, mark and report a UXB, locate and report each new outbreak of fire. But there are no new outbreaks now–the City is one single fire, from Old Street to Cannon Street, from Moorgate to Aldersgate, the flames jump now from one building to another, they need no bombs to feed them (though the bombs still come, he hears at this moment the great thud of an oil-bomb, and the ground seems to lift beneath him). Above are huge incandescent clouds, choking orange smoke rolls all around, one building spouts flames that are green and blue, another has set free a flock of great black birds, charred sheets of paper that come flapping and dying down the street. The whole place crackles, spits and roars, elemental and unleashed; only the rhythmic throb of the pumps and the clanging fire bells are the faint and desperate reassurance of order, of sanity, of human control.
This is the worst yet. It has risen, the infernal crescendo, since early evening. A bugger of a night, a right pasting we’re getting, the bastards have pulled the plug on us all right: there is no language yet to confront it. People are grim-faced, too busy, afraid, exhausted, to assess, to do anything but what has to be done. He has seen sights tonight that will be with him to the end of his days. A four-storey building with roaring crimson windows which suddenly bulges outward and collapses like a house of cards. A cat carrying a kitten, silhouetted against firelight, picking its way along a window ledge. The spire of St Bride’s lit from within like a lantern.
He leaves the shelter of the phone box and heads on towards the firemen, to whom he must report the urgent need for more pumps in Cheapside. The black figure at the top of the ladder is still playing a hose into the furnace that yesterday was a bank; the others are damping down a neighbouring building not yet fully ablaze, two men together fighting the heavy brass branch, from which, as he approaches, the fountain of water suddenly dies to a trickle. They curse and swear in frustration; the hydrants are running dry. The man on the ladder is swarming back down, the superintendent is shouting instructions–they will back off, shift to another hydrant. The warden delivers his message; the superintendent bawls back above the din: “Tell them I can’t bloody do anything for them–I need everything I’ve got on this lot.” And then for a moment the group of men stands silent, beaten, staring at the building in front of them whose bricks glow, etched in sparks–a building with arched ecclesiastical windows, constructed in the 1860s, maybe, a home to commerce, to insurance companies and to accountancy firms and to banks. The firemen are smoke-blackened, red-eyed; water streams from them, cascades down the waterproof hoods attached to their tin hats which always make the warden think, wildly, inappropriately, of beekeepers. He was a country boy, once, in some other incarnation. And now is Jim Prothero, a thirty-five-year-old print-worker and part-time warden, husband and father. And in the midst of it all there comes into his head, suddenly and wonderfully, a vision of his child–her snub nose, her spare bony little body. There’ll be an end to all this, he thinks with sudden clarity, one way or another. It’ll be over, in the end.
* * *
“I said I hoped things were going reasonably for you on the domestic front.”
Matthew edged the car into the flow of traffic round Tower Green. He recognized from the delicacy of Tony’s tone that they must have entered a different conversational territory. This was condolence time: older man to younger.
“Not too bad,” he said briskly. “The flat was pretty ropy when I took it on, but I’ve slapped paint around and so forth. And it’s a decent size. Jane’s with me there every other weekend.”
“Still, you must miss that house. Lucy was saying the other day how nice you and Susan had made it.”
Not the most apt of comments, thought Matthew. Bricks and mortar and furnishings are the least of what one misses. Well meant, though, I don’t doubt.
There was a silence. They were in Whitechapel Road now; tower blocks cohabited with the struggling remnants of the old East End. Asian Supermarket; Bangladeshi Welfare Association; The Horse and Jockey. A new development like a clutch of shining white silos rose above a grubby nineteenth-century terrace.
“No chance of a ” rapprochement?” said Tony.
“None whatsoever, I’m afraid.”
Tony sighed. In sorrow or disapproval? “Pity. There it is, then. Do bring Jane to see us sometime.”
“It was simply that the marriage ran out of steam, you know,” said Matthew. He felt provoked to further comment, was exasperated with himself even as he spoke. “Went dead. I don’t have anyone else in mind, and nor does Susan, so far as I know.”
“Oh, quite,” said Tony. “One hadn’t supposed ” Not that it makes the situation any better, I imagine.”
No, it certainly doesn’t. Too right it doesn’t.
“As I say, we’d love to see Jane. She might enjoy the deer in Richmond Park.”
“I’m sure she would.” The deer, the river boat, you name it. This city is laid out for entertainment; that is its function. On alternate weekends we sample the city, Jane and I; parks, museums, funfairs, the zoo. We are instructed and amused. Millions are spent on our edification and our enjoyment. A good deal is spent by me. There must be no time to brood, to regret, to question. And in any case we are both energetic people and inquisitive by disposition. It is just as well I am not obliged to spend this precarious section of my life in the middle of Dartmoor.
“I must say,” said Tony, “nothing would induce me to live down here.”
They are entering Docklands, the land of promise, the city of the new decade, of the new century. It is a landscape of simultaneous decay and resurrection; glass, steel and concrete rear from the mud and rubble of excavation. The meccano outlines of cranes preside as far as the eye can see, the completed buildings are monolithic glass structures in whose serene surfaces of smoky grey and greenish-blue there float the soft mountain ranges of the clouds. Below them, the few surviving terrace houses of Limehouse, of Poplar, of Shadwell seem to crouch in some other time-band. The docks themselves still glint pewter in the sunshine–that ancient sequence of inlets and harbours: East India Dock, Surrey Docks, Canary Wharf, Millwall. The names alone have resonances that range over time and the globe–the spice trade, India, tea, rice, copra, jute, clippers and schooners, frigates and men o’ war, whales, coal and timber. This place is hitched to Bombay and Calcutta, to Singapore and Hong Kong, to Jamaica and Trinidad and Greenland and Suez. In the empty waters lies the beached carcass of a barge, defunct at the feet of the bright cranes. Commerce has always presided here; the place has always looked forward, round the next corner, into the next decade, as men have turned a shrewd gaze upon the world and seen where to put their faith and their investments. Fortunes have been made from pepper and timber and rum and silk and from exploitation. The figures toiling now on scaffolding and catwalks or down there in the mud have a long ancestry. A place of work; a place of wealth.
Matthew viewed it with increasing ambivalence. He had been involved with the Blackwall project at every stage, sometimes with excitement, at others in exasperation. He thought it an effective, efficient and not uncomely building. But now, as it began to rear into the sky, shooting its scaffolding and its concrete up thirty storeys over a matter of months, he found himself thinking incessantly of change and flux, of people as pawns, of the city as some uncontrollable organic force. Sometimes it seemed to him as though the building rose despite him, despite all of them, that to commit a pattern of lines to a drawing board had been to unleash an unstoppable power. Which was, at a mundane level, true: the requirements of contracts, penalty clauses, insurance policies, labour agreements committed the builders to an inexorable, predestined course.
They arrived at the site and parked the car. Heading for the site offices Matthew said, “Incidentally, I’ve got a name for this place. I’m going to put it to the client. Frobisher House.”
“Sounds quite nice. Why?”
“Because Martin Frobisher, the Elizabethan seaman, set sail from Blackwall to find the North-West Passage. It’s one of the epics of Arctic exploration. We’ll have a ship done in glass engraving for the main entrance doors.”
“You’d better get going on it,” said Tony. “They’ll be unrolling the carpets in a week or two, by the look of things.”
“That’s the whole point of fast-track.”
Down here, at ground level, there were walls and floors. Up in the sky, they were still pouring concrete. Five hundred workers, on shift-work round the clock; at night the machines continued to roll under arc-lights. Sixty million pounds and one year; the scale of late twentieth-century construction. The building was a great scaffolded tower glinting already with a patchwork of the turquoise glass that would eventually encase it, adorned with thick blue tubes down which roared spasmodic streams of dust and rubble from the invisible activity thirty floors up. At its foot, cement mixers endlessly churned in a wasteland of mud, heaped girders, timber, piping, monstrous cottonreels of coiled flex, a mountain of sand. Cranes swung with slow majesty. A man wheeling a barrow up a ramp seemed an archaic figure, out of place, a throwback.
Down in the site offices, Matthew became involved with the clerk of the works in a wrangle about non-delivery of essential materials. Tony Brace vanished with the site architect for a conducted tour. When they returned the wrangle was resolved, in so far as that was possible, and the site architect proposed a trip to the top of the building in the contractors’ lift.
There is wind up here, that you would not have suspected from down below. It tilts their plastic helmets and induces a sudden surge of elation in these three men, who have seen all this before, but are struck with wonder, lording it over the city, which reaches further than the eye can see, swallowed eventually in haze on this bright spring morning: the tower blocks snapping light back at the sun, the muddle at their feet, the old symmetries of streets, tiny creeping cars and buses. In the distance the Tower; beyond it the complex density of the heartlands, punctuated by spires, by soaring columns, a rainbow in pink and grey and white on the skyline. It is a world–entire, complete.
They point out landmarks, exhilarated and possessive. It is they, after all, who have made this possible–this new occupancy of space, this new claim upon London. They have added their mite–their tonnage of steel and concrete. The site architect is talking technology. Tony Brace peers into the haze in search of known points of reference.
But Matthew’s eyes are upon the river. He looks down at the wide, glittering and empty roadway. He sees it reaching away to Tilbury, to the sea, to the rest of the globe. Reaching into time and space.
“The stars are given by God,” says the uncle. “That men may find their way across the seas. Look, boy.” And he lifts the child upon a stool. “Look carefully. Hold it thus.” And the child holds the glass to his eye and sees a spark leap from the dark blue backcloth of the evening sky, and then another, and another. He steps back from the instrument, and the sparks vanish. There is just the sky, and the river, upon which craft are scattered like insects on a pond–twelve-legged, six-legged, and the two-legged skiffs that jostle in their dozens. But the boy gazes only at those with wings, the great, bellying butterfly wings that fill with wind, that take the vessels scudding downstream and out of sight.