Sewer, sump, swamp: drowned Londons
Matija Keser, London Underwater, post-apocalyptic wallpaper
The prospect of drowned cities is a significant part of the rhetoric of climate change: from recent maps issued by the Environment Agency showing the catastrophic flooding that might result from increased tidal surges, to Google Earth’s Flood Simulation software that allows one to picture the effects of apocalyptic rises in sea levels on London’s iconic buildings, the tops of its skyscrapers the only visible reminders of the city beneath. At the same time, both recent literature and, to a lesser extent, television, have enlarged these powerful images into fully-fledged narratives: from the eccentricities of Will Self’s The Book of Dave (2006), where a 100-metre sea-level rise reduces London to the settlement of Ham, which is now the top of Hampstead Heath; to the turgid TV film Flood (2007), when an enormous tidal surge overwhelms the Thames Barrier, flooding the whole of central London.
Map issued by the Environment Agency in 2014 showing the flooding of London due to future tidal surges
Google Earth Design (2011), London under 80m of water
Yet, the submerged city has long been a significant trope in the literary destruction of London, and going back to these precedents enlarges and complicates the meanings of contemporary prospects of urban flooding. In the literary imagination, the submerged city is a representation that acts as a metaphor for a wide variety of processes, whether the revenge of nature, the unconscious mind, the return of the past, or the processes of ruination. Here, I focus on three literary visions of drowned London: as sewer, sump and swamp.
Richard Jefferies’s After London (1884) is an ur-text of the post-apocalyptic genre, a deeply strange book that channels the author’s expertise as a naturalist, his neo-medievalist yearnings and his hatred of industrial modernity. In this novel, the cause of the end of London is unspecified, but Jefferies’ text hints at vast geological upheavals that have resulted in England becoming unrecognisable: a vast lake surrounded by pastoral landscapes and a chivalric society of feuding nobles. Yet, overshadowing this otherwise bucolic post-apocalyptic England is what remains of London: a toxic wasteland that nobody comes out of alive. When the novel’s hero, Felix, accidentally ends up lost in the former metropolis’s poisonous miasma, he experiences a city both drowned and petrified:
‘As he advanced, the remnants of buildings increased in number…In some places the crystallised wall had fallen of itself, and he could see down into the cavern; for the house had either been built partly underground, or, which was more probable, the ground had risen. Whether the walls had been of brick or stone or other material he could not tell; they were now like salt.’
As revealed by Jefferies, London has literally been drowned in its own wastes: first the city’s crumbling buildings choked its rivers, creating a stagnant swamp; then the ground rose and the sewers came to the surface, further poisoning its already foul waters. In this vision of submergence, London’s vertical structure (the characteristic Victorian high and the low, the above and below ground) is flattened, but this leads not to redemption (as it might in socialist narratives) but extinction. If the cataclysmic forces that precipitated the end of London were beyond human control, the city’s toxic afterlife was a direct indictment of the vertical city’s environmental and social degradation.
As After London demonstrates, the idea of submergence grows out of an awareness of the city’s multiple layers. If these layers must normally be imagined to be seen in their totality, then at certain times, the city’s vertical structure might be inadvertently revealed, such as in the aftermath of the Blitz during the Second World War. Perhaps nowhere are the war ruins of London evoked more strongly than in Rose Macaulay’s 1950 novel The World my Wilderness. Here, the city’s ruins play host to adolescents, namely the exiled 17-year old Barbary and her half-brother Raoul. In this novel, which drew on Macaulay’s intimate knowledge of wartime London, the ruins of the Blitz are a refuge for traumatised children who have yet to work through the catastrophic upheavals they have just experienced. In the City of London – where over half of its buildings were either damaged or destroyed by German bombs – the city’s layers are temporarily revealed, creating a spectral landscape of half-exposed cellars and caverns, staircases reaching to the open sky, and abundant vegetation reclaiming the ruins.
In Macaulay’s ruined London, the underground spaces act as a sump for what cannot be accommodated in the post-war world, namely the unhealed traumas of the recent return to savagery. Indeed, the submerged city points to the disturbing notion that this sump of savagery might indeed be the bedrock of civilisation, rather than a temporary aberration:
‘No civilisation lasted more than a thousand years; this present one, called western culture, had had its own say and was due for wreckage, due for drowning, while the next struggled inchoate in the womb of the ensuing chaos, till slowly it too would take shape and have its day.’
The memory of savagery forms a key ingredient in perhaps the most powerful literary vision of submerged London: namely J. G. Ballard’s 1962 novel The Drowned World. Widely seen now as prophetic of climate change, Ballard’s novel uses the image of the drowned city to reflect on how humans might adapt themselves to cataclysmic changes in the environment. Set many decades after an intense increase in solar radiation had led to massive temperature rises and the melting of the polar ice caps, a small party of scientists are leading a reconnaissance trip before joining what’s left of humanity in the arctic – the only inhabitable zone left on the earth. All else has reverted to the Paleozoic period: drowned by the rising seas and now subject to boiling temperatures, London has become a tropical swamp of flora and fauna that had evolved accordingly: giant iguanas now reside in former office buildings which are smothered under silt; enormous mosquitos plague the visitors; and the whole steaming environment secretes a ‘terrible stench….the sweet-compacted smells of dead vegetation and rotting animal carcasses.’
Ballard’s hallucinatory vision of a submerged London in turn haunts the main character of the novel, Kerans, who, like others in the book, is experiencing his own inner evolution as he eventually yields to his residual Paleozoic self and becomes one with the new environment (even though that undoubtedly leads to his premature death). In Ballard’s view, the drowned city mirrors our own unconscious minds, that is the ‘inner space’ of submerged desire, historical memory and as yet undreamt of possibilities. For Ballard, accessing the submerged world holds the the key to redemption – it makes room for an alternative consciousness to emerge that may chart new trajectories of history into the future.
Sewer, swamp, sump: very few of the recent imaginings of how London will be affected by climate change offer such a rich diversity of representations as these. Yet, if Ballard is right, they are all caught up in a ceaseless exchange between the material and the mental. The submerged city is always to some extent a mirror of our own submergence; if it drowns, we too must drown.
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