Arriving in London
by Wu Qi
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.” Neocha is pleased to present this English translation.
My first time in London, I seem to have gone by train. Of course I flew into Gatwick first, catching a train to Liverpool Street Station and changing there for a line to the suburbs, without getting out in London or seeing what it looked like. Only on the second day, now more relaxed, with my luggage and the more obvious indications that I was a traveler back at a friend’s place, did I officially set foot in the city. Such an experience is entirely different from getting off a plane and hurrying straight into town, lugging a suitcase and looking for your hotel, still reeling from the shock and the unfamiliarity.
So different, in fact, that the first thing I noticed about London were the chimneys. On the outskirts, 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 the train pulled into Liverpool Street Station, the tangle of tracks, taut wires, and cellular equipment converged onto a single path, and my ignorance of the place 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. We entered, 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 that painting by J.M.W. Turner, or the terrifying trains of the films of D.W. Griffith. I could even 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 ad nauseam, and usually exaggerated.
As the birthplace of urban modernity, London can of course 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—it seems to embrace and connect everything. Well-trained vegetation in parks and public spaces appears 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 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, London simply preceded other cities.
In my trip I also arrived long after many others, and the surfeit of writing and attention given to the country 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. One of 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, the extreme division between rich and poor, the bleakness of scraping by in the metropolis, he nevertheless stood by its side:
all England is in a suburban relation to [London] . . . It is the spoiling perhaps of the country, but it is the making of the insatiable town, and if one is a helpless and shameless cockney that is all one is obliged to look at. Anything is excusable which enlarges one’s civic consciousness. It ministers immensely to that of the London-lover that, 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 he has the 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 nineteenth century—runs through continental Europe, and continues to influence us today. Yet this historical stage is hard to prolong, and in the city center there are crises everywhere you look: dreams of the countryside have never really come to the rescue, and empire’s boundaries are gradually vanishing. We twenty-first-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.”
So it felt as though my detour around London, my unplanned commuter trip, opened up a sort of alternate space and time and whisked me down a different, accidental branch of road. On that road 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, shipping trucks outnumber cars, and near the villages people take leisurely rides on bicycles. You can see how every little stop on the way is almost identical, like a miniature version of the central station, with just two empty 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 there and just walk out toward the little villages in the open countryside. In this place, which appears on no map, time stops the moment before the tragedy occurs, offering a fresh beginning.
This story may not be so fictional: history really always does return. The new center and periphery are being hashed out even now, an issue our current generation needs to start to face. London, like any other large metropolis, no longer means a fixed location, and even if we persist in calling such places “centers,” they’re simply convenient transit points to somewhere else. They extend in countless directions, and even they themselves are in flight. This issue of One-Way Street has been a circuitous journey. We passed through London, entered Britain, and brought back five writers who had never been translated to Chinese. Their works are scattered like light in the open country: some are pressing toward the city center, some are wandering on the unglamorous edges of Europe, some of them are flying to the islands, and some have returned to Asia, where they were born.
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 just about love, loneliness, the lost meaning in our lives, ultimately repeating the same themes with only minor variations. Through the work of our British contemporaries, we can once again ask what the city center ultimately holds, and beyond the city, what broader, more distant spaces are possible. The “empty metropolis” of our title does not of course 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.
Of the writers who have written about London, I’m particularly partial to Charles Lamb (1775-1834). Lamb spent his whole life in London, and his intimate familiarity with the city shows through in his words, though he often traveled farther afield, too, and was a sort of eternal outsider. He writes, “I had long been used not to rest in things of sense, had endeavored after a comprehension of mind, unsatisfied with the ‘ignorant present time,’ and this kept me up.” This spirit kept him up as he shouldered his small family’s heavy burden—his mentally ill sister murdered his mother—and the petty bourgeois life of a sensitive spirit seeking fame in London. “Endeavoring after a comprehension of mind” may also help buoy us as we find our own way.
London itself has countless byways, side streets that lie as far off the beaten path as the suburbs. For example, heading east from Whitechapel Gallery, in the eastern part of the city, through a largely South Asian and Middle Eastern area—historically this has always been an area of immigrants, and the earliest European migrants also settled here, giving a boost to the textile industry—you cross several parks, canals where boat dwellers moor, and cheap, modern residential areas . . . and scattered along the way you find several modern art galleries, where you sometimes can’t even find the door, and where no one pays you any attention anyway. Displayed inside are a series of self-regarding works of art about the status of women, the issue of refugees, lighting in prisons, car mechanics in Palestine, the rise and fall of the highbrow US journal The Partisan Review . . .
Incidentally, I finished writing this piece on yet another trip to London, and the experience of constantly arriving and departing has shown me that repetition, circulation, and movement can be also be a stimulus, a challenge, a creative process. Every departure is the origin of countless other departures. For One-Way Street, this is especially true: we’ve read Beijing, London, Australia—next we’ll travel to Latin America, to Scotland, to Ireland, to Africa.
以至于我最先注意到的，是伦敦的烟囱，郊外大大小小的民居无一例外地顶着砖红、鹅黄的帽子，经年累月，它们大多泛出烟熏过的煤黑色，是往昔工业革命留在今天生活里的一种沉默的事物。然后火车再次驶入利物浦中央车站，许多条铁轨交错，和撕扯的电线、基站一起，逐渐汇成唯一的路，此时，一种奇妙的物理性的熟悉镇定着我其实对它的一无所知——如果从外面看，这座火车站是一个砖铁结构支撑的透明大棚，过去的伦敦从这里开始起搏，从里面看，它不过是一条暗黄色的隧道，埋伏在平静的田园风光的尽头。进站之后，自然光线先消失了一阵子，车里的灯把周围事物的颜色照得暗沉、混杂、滞重，然后天光再次透过玻璃屋顶照下来，突然就规矩许多，像接受了指令似的，速度停止，隧道退却不见，人声突然鼎沸起来，一切恍如幻觉。这时候我才理解特纳（J.M.W. Turner）画的氤氲神秘的火车，格里菲斯（D.W. Griffith）电影里令人惊惧的火车，或者回到狄更斯的小说，把自己想象成一个 19 世纪从英国北方赶了漫长的路来伦敦谋生的学徒。
这些霸道的、单一的对城市的崇拜，穿过了整个 19 世纪，穿过了欧洲大陆，至今主导着我们。但这个历史阶段在今天也难以为继了，城市的中心危机四伏，田园梦想从未真正为它解围，帝国的疆界也逐渐消，。我们这些 21 世纪迟迟赶到伦敦的人，应该学会绕开这些幻觉。毕竟这话也是詹姆斯说的，“它就像大自然本身一样对单个的生命漠不关心”。
于是我在伦敦绕道、通勤的无心之举，仿佛打开了另一个时空，进入了一条偶然的岔路。在这条路上，你会看到地平线是如何像不平坦的小腹一样在城乡之间形成不同形状的隆起，砖瓦和玻璃如何在空气中造成不同的光线折射，路障、沙袋、栅栏和废弃的杂物如何在铁路两边筑成断壁残垣，和联排的仓库、停车场、廉价的 Lidl 超市一起，护卫城市的边缘，各种商标和公司 logo，成为它们的旗帜。你会看到在远处的公路上，货车永远比汽车多，而乡间的近处，只有悠悠骑着自行车的人。你会看到沿途每个小的火车站几乎都一模一样，是中央车站的微缩版，只有两排空空的站台，英剧《菲利普·狄克的电子梦》（Philip K. Dick’s Electric Dreams）有一集就设定在这样的车站，许多人遇到生命的难关，都在这一站跳下火车，走向原野和原野之中的小镇，在这个地图上找不到的地方，时间会在悲剧发生前的那一刻停止，让一切重新来过。