Arriving in London7 min read

An essay by Wu Qi, translated by Allen Young

Ed: Over the last years, partnered with Paper Republic, we have run two seasons of translations from One Way Street Magazine (单读) , a quarterly literary magazine that grew out of the iconic Beijing bookstore of the same name (read more of its history here). To put a cap on it, after various home takes on China, here is a short essay by One Way Street editor Wu Qi on his impressions of London, which first appeared at NeoCha.

The first thing I noticed about London were the chimneys. On the outskirts of town, each and every residential building, large and small, is crowned with a brick-red or pale-yellow stack, darkened to a coal black by years of smoke – a silent relic of the Industrial Revolution. As my train pulled into Liverpool Street Station, the tangle of tracks, taut wires and cellular equipment converged onto a single path, and my ignorance was lulled by a strange physical familiarity: if, on the outside, the station was an airy structure of brick and iron that set the tone for London’s past, on the inside it was just a dark tunnel lying at the end of some quiet country scenery.

As the train entered the station, the sun disappeared for a moment, and the light in the car cast everything in a dimmer light, blurring and thickening the colors. Then daylight streamed through the glass ceiling again, and almost as if on command, everything returned to normal. The train slowed to a halt, the tunnel retreated out of sight, and a din of voices began to rise. Everything took on a hallucinatory quality, and only then did I understand the shadowy, mysterious train in a painting by JMW Turner, or the terrifying locomotives of the films of DW Griffith. I could almost imagine myself as a Dickensian apprentice from Northern England, who had set out on a long journey to London to seek his fortune.

Sometimes how you arrive in a city matters more than your stay there. After that trip, I didn’t have much interest in describing London’s grandeur or desolation, which are all too evident. Endless pages have been written on the subject: nearly every angle has been covered, and usually been exaggerated.

Sometimes how you arrive in a city matters more than your stay there”

As the birthplace of urban modernity, London can easily satisfy your every need. It has the world’s most international language; a cultural life that never rests; politeness and reserve; antiquated buses still diligently making the rounds; people of diverse ethnicities living in their own class-marked districts. The city seems to embrace and connect everything. Well-trained vegetation in parks and public spaces appear in moments of fatigue or heartbreak, while graffiti here and there flashes out like a dagger amid the order, faithfully striking a discordant note. All this is, of course, the urban life we’re familiar with today. From Europe and America to Asia and Africa, streams of people are entering these orders and structures, as if on an assembly line. London is no longer unique – or rather, it preceded other cities.

The surfeit of writing and attention given to London may have subconsciously influenced me. In many modern countries and regions that bloomed late – including the relative laggard Spain, within Europe’s borders – travelers from afar have played a role, even a leading role, in the discovery of the local culture. Yet London’s story has been written mainly by its own people. Among them was Henry James (1843-1916), an American who settled in Britain and once described the capital as “the spoiled child of the world.” Keenly aware of the strict hierarchy of society there, the extreme division between rich and poor, and the bleakness of scraping by in the metropolis, he nevertheless stood by its side. He wrote:

All England is in a suburban relation to [London] … Thanks to the tremendous system of coming and going, to the active, hospitable habits of the people, to the elaboration of the railway-service, the frequency and rapidity of trains, and last, though not least, to the fact that much of the loveliest scenery in England lies within a radius of fifty miles – thanks to all this [a Londoner] has rural picturesque at his door and may cultivate unlimited vagueness as to the line of division between centre and circumference. It is perfectly open to him to consider the remainder of the United Kingdom, or the British empire in general, or even, if he be an American, the total of the English- speaking territories of the globe, as the mere margin, the fitted girdle.

This haughty, exclusive veneration of cities runs through the entire 19th century, throughout continental Europe, and continues to influence us today. Yet this historical stage is hard to prolong, and in the cities there are crises everywhere you look: dreams of the countryside have never really come to the rescue, and imperial boundaries are vanishing. We 21st-century latecomers to London should learn to skirt around these illusions. After all, James also said the city was “as indifferent as nature herself to the single life.”

As the birthplace of urban modernity, London preceded other cities”

It felt as though my arrival by train in London opened up a sort of alternate space and time, whisking me down a different, accidental branch of road. Along the way you can see how several small, belly-like mounds rise from the horizon at the border of town and country; how the light is refracted through the air in different ways on brick and glass; how road barriers, sandbags, fences and debris alongside the tracks create a scene of utter desolation; how rows of warehouses, parking lots and Lidl discount stores stand guard on the city’s fringe, with trademarks and logos as their banners. You can see how, on the highways in the distance, goods trucks outnumber cars, and near the villages people take leisurely rides on bicycles. You can see how every stop is almost identical, like a miniature version of the central station, with just two platforms.

The British television series Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams has an episode that takes place in a station like this: when people reach a dead-end in their lives, they hop off the train and walk out toward the little villages in the open countryside. In this place, which appears on no map, time stops the moment before tragedy occurs, offering a fresh beginning.

This conceit may not be so fictional. The new centers and peripheries of our lives are being hashed out even now. London, like any other large metropolis, is no longer a fixed location, and even if we persist in calling such cities “centers,” they are simply convenient transit points to somewhere else. They extend in countless directions, and even themselves are in flight.

Language and writing today, while cutting one path after another through modern life, have also reached a sort of impasse. We easily slip into talking about love, loneliness, the lost meaning in our lives, ultimately repeating the same themes with only minor variations. We once again ask what the city center ultimately holds, and beyond the city, what broader, more distant spaces are possible. The “empty metropolis” does not refer to a material emptiness, nor even a spiritual void, but rather to the fact that “urban consciousness” is no longer so ready-made, can no longer be summed up in such offhand Jamesian hindsight. We naturally assume these things are all close at hand, but the closer something is, the harder it is to describe. ∎

A longer version of this essay originally appeared in Chinese as the introduction to One-Way Street Magazine no. 18, ‘The Empty Metropolis: Special Issue on Contemporary British Literature.’ This translation first appeared at NeoCha, has been edited for length, and is reproduced with permission. Click here to read the original Chinese.