Reflections on London

The process of crossing over into a new year seems to put many in the mood for reminisces. This year, as in previous years, I found myself thinking about London. 2015 was the year I returned to London, after a three-year hiatus, but the journey felt very much like a dream, as if it never occurred. The London I remember is still the home I knew years ago, not the spectacle I encountered as a visitor.

In the early days of my stay in London, everything was fresh and precious. London was like nowhere else. The university seemed an interruption, and in the interstices between seminars, I rushed from museum to museum, shop to shop, with the urgency of one who was all too aware of mortality. It was impossible to stop – every day presented new opportunities and new temptations. The city was with me even in the confines of my room – first a small dorm room in Camden with a view of the ubiquitous London planetree; next an elegant Regency house in Hampstead, with a partial view of the Heath; and finally, a flat in Bloomsbury, with a view of Georgian rooftops and the BT Tower which, when seen from afar, always signaled the location of home. Those were solitary days of urban wanderings, bookshop-hopping, instant noodles and freezing winter nights. I was always conscious of my luck and privilege, as I am now conscious of the impossibility of returning to those abodes.

The London I knew was a city of words. There are scrolls of paper that run down the sides of buildings, along the columns or pinned to the doors, inscribed with the words of Londoners. On overcast, foggy days, on buildings by the Thames, we read about Dickens’s ubiquitous fog, “up the river…down the river, where it rolls defiled among the tiers of shipping and the waterside of a great (and dirty) city.” Crossing Westminster Bridge, we read Wordsworth’s love song to the “ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples” of London, “bright and glittering in the smokeless air.” On weekdays during rush hour, pushing past the crowd, we glimpse Eliot’s “Unreal city” inscribed on the Golden Jubilee Bridge. During the daily commute, we read Heaney’s words on the walls of the Underground, describing us, the commuters – “half straggle-ravelled and half strung/ Like a human chain”. While running errands on crowded Saturdays, we see Shelley’s lament scrawled on the greyish façades of Oxford Street: “Hell is a place much like London”. On Primrose Hill, we find Blake’s words, now engraved in stone: “I have conversed with the spiritual Sun. I saw him on Primrose Hill”.

One walks through the streets wrapped in words. The walls are palimpsests and each generation adds new words by new Londoners. Layer upon layer of text, until nothing is decipherable.

For a period of time, I lived opposite Dickens’s old house; two minutes from Yeats; five minutes from the Shelleys’ temporary abode; two squares away from Virginia Woolf; three squares away from Eliot’s Faber office. For one year, I also stayed in the house that once belonged to the painter Paul Nash. True to my role as a bibliophile, I frequented bookshops new and old, and compiled my own catalogue of literary spots. That was one of the best parts about living in such a city, the cultivating of pleasant associations with spots in the metropolis. In London I understood the power of psychogeography, the ways in which places trigger something in the mind. Spots became sacred for their connection with beloved writers and artists. Visits to churches and graveyards became pseudo-pilgrimages. London was thus, for a time, a place of love.

There are places to which it is impossible to return, places barred by impenetrable walls of immigration policies, walls built higher and higher each year; places that have changed beyond recognition; places that have sunk beneath the weight of memory. I have always known that London, like some mythic destination, was a place I would lose as soon as I left. In my final months in the city, right before the London Olympics, I took in the city with a kind of frenzy or hunger, like one who did not have long to live. The photos from those months are still unsorted. It is difficult to think about London, or write about it, even though I continually attempt to do so. The city is irrepressible, even as I try to evade its control of my imagination.

After my departure from London (and after failed attempts to apply for another visa), I came to the despairing realization that not only can I not return to London, I do not belong there, have never belonged there; that this city, grand, literary and inspiring, belongs to others; that the words which have guided me for so long have never been intended for one such as I, an outsider, foreigner, alien. The city is not mine, and its narratives – contemporary or past – will never be mine. To whom does London belong? That is a question for another time.

Vestiges of London are always with me – in the hundreds of books on the shelves; in the clothes collected from the shops I frequented; the postcards on the walls; the book bags that can only be found at Daunt Books. Perhaps it is there in the words I write, or perhaps the writing is an ongoing attempt to reclaim a place that has never been there, a place to which it is impossible to return.

Of Catfish and Catastrophe

Namazu-e-Earthquake-catfish-Japan6The defeated catfish outstretched on the table divides post-disaster Edo into two distinct groups – those in the upper half of the picture, including builders, who benefit from the disaster; and those in the lower half, including wealthy merchants, who suffered greater losses.

The long catalogue of disasters that have struck Japan’s capital has long daunted those unaccustomed to the tremors of the earth. On 11 November 1855, a 6.9-7.1-magnitude earthquake destroyed most of Edo (precursor to modern Tokyo). Estimates of death ranged from 7000 to 10,000. Eighty aftershocks per day continued to shake the city for nine days after the initial tremor.

Although there were no newspapers published in the city (since the shogunate forbade public comments on the regime), within a few weeks of the disaster, hundreds of earthquake-related woodblock prints appeared, many of which featured a giant catfish, namazu. These fascinating prints, called namazu-e, offer a window on the socio-political consciousness of Edo in the final decades of the Tokugawa period, and bring to the fore disaster’s capacity as an agent of social change.

Japanese folk explanations attributed earthquakes variously to the movement of a giant creature that supported the earth (usually a dragon/snake, ox or fish); the movement of a deity or giant supporting the earth; the shaking of a subterranean, load-bearing pillar; or the careless movement of human ancestors. There was also the notion, derived from Chinese philosophy, that earthquakes result from the temporary imbalance of the forces of yin and yang that are embedded in the earth. However, from the late seventeenth century onward, the notion that a giant subterranean catfish is the true cause of earthquakes gained more currency. While pre-Lisbon theodicy placed responsibility in God’s hands, the Japanese placed it in the hands of namazu, the catfish. It was said that the catfish lay under a stone at Kashima shrine, at the easternmost point of Honshu; when the god of the shrine neglected his duty of holding down the catfish, the creature would awaken, thus causing tremors.

Around the time of the Ansei earthquake, the god of Kashima might have been particularly negligent, for the earthquake hit at a time of seismic instability throughout Japan – in 1853, an earthquake destroyed a castle in 1853, another struck near the imperial shrine in Ise in 1854, and two tsunamis in 1854 caused thousands of deaths along the Pacific coast. Was all this the work of the giant catfish and of divine negligence? The people of Edo rejected the idea of pure contingency, and viewed the 1855 catastrophe in the context of drastic political change; in other words, human agency played a significant role in the coming of the disaster. For the Japanese, it was telling that the disaster followed so closely the visits of Commodore Matthew Perry in 1853 and 1854 (a period that had seen its fair share of natural disasters); the opening of the ports suddenly destabilized the shogunate system that had ruled in Japan for 250 years, and the expansion of foreign relations was resented by some. Social and political order was weakening (later to be replaced by the centralized state in 1868), and the Tokugawa shogunate was on the decline. Assigning blame to the divine authorities was in some ways a veiled criticism of the authorities governing the nation, who were increasingly unable to take care of the people, and as a result of the government’s negligence, cataclysmic events have occurred.

Namazu-e_-_Kashima_absent-mindedThis print interprets the disaster as resulting from the negligence of Ebisu (the god of fishing and commerce, asleep in the foreground), in whose care Kashima had left the city, seen burning in the upper half of the picture, as Kashima on a white horse rushes back in a panic. Namazu is depicted as a terrifying force of destruction, yet from its cavernous mouth falls golden coins, signaling the post-disaster redistribution of wealth.

Society was equally shaken by the other events that occurred in a period of great volatility, including crop failures; epidemics; the Tempo famine of 1833-1837; riots and popular revolts. The severe fractures in Japanese society were becoming more apparent. The namazue prints, which emerged in the aftermath of the Ansei earthquake, in part responded to the general atmosphere of instability. The catfish depicted in the prints were not punitive, but were more frequently sympathetic. One of the major themes portrayed by the namazue was the redistribution of wealth and the rebalancing of society. Common among the prints were depictions of the catfish forcing wealthy men to spew out coins, thus contributing to the charity funds that would help rebuild the city. According to Kitahara Itoko (Japanese historian on disasters), public registers listed the names of all donors, with the wealthy contributing more. While prosperous tycoons hoarded goods and wealth during the Tokugawa regime, society became imbalanced. Namazu restores the free circulation of money, so that the economy, like the vital forces of nature, would flow freely, thus avoiding stagnation and the festering of greed. In other words, disaster restored social health by correcting an imbalance. The subversiveness of this message meant that the shogunate soon banned the printing and distributing of namazue prints.

Namazu_01The merchants in the upper right-hand corner can be seen holding an abacus, and dividing their wealth to aid the impoverished masses, or to assist with the reconstruction project

The prints also showed how some social groups, such as builders, had benefited from the cataclysm, since their skills were rendered indispensable by the devastation. Thus destruction was followed by renewal, and in the collective sharing of loss and the communal efforts of reconstruction, a ‘disaster utopia’ (Kitahara) was created – akin to the rustic paradise depicted in von Kleist’s ‘Earthquake in Chile’. In stark contrast to the brutality that followed the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, the Ansei earthquake facilitated the utopian dream of restoration and restructuring. Namazu, as depicted in these prints, was not so much the cause of the earthquake as its visual manifestation of social change – a reminder that the question of community lies at the heart of disaster.


Further Readings

Bates, Alex, ‘Catfish, Super Frog and the End of the World: Earthquakes (and natural disasters) in the Japanese Cultural Imagination’, Education about Asia, vol. 12, no. 2, (Fall 2007).

Sand, Jordan, ‘Diary’, London Review of Books, 28 April 2011, <;

Smits, Gregory, ‘Shaking Up Japan: Edo Society and the 1855 Catfish Picture Prints, Journal of Social History, vol. 39, no. 4 (summer 2006), 1045-1078.

Smits, Gregory, ‘Conduits of Power: What the Origins of Japan’s Earthquake Catfish Reveal about Religious Geography’, Japan Review 24 (2012), 41-65.


Contemplating Disaster

Disasters linger in cultural memory. Recent years have brought a long list of natural catastrophes, notably the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, typhoons in the Philippines, and the hurricane and tornadoes in the US. Reports of disaster circulated, and call attention to the cultural representations (photographs, narratives, eyewitness accounts) that record for posterity the personal losses and collective traumas suffered. And in the wake of drastic climate changes that threaten our world with further cataclysms, now is the time to speak of disaster. For a new research project, I am looking at the culture of disaster and the human capacity for reconstruction. The main goal is to undertake a comparative study between eighteenth- and nineteenth-century discourse on disaster and the current approach to catastrophe, particularly in the context of urban destruction.

The formidable forces of water, earth, wind and fire have brought some of humankind’s greatest cities to their knees – one only has to think of examples such as Pompeii and Herculaneum to be reminded that destruction was never far from human civilization. Disasters bring into question the durability of all human constructions, and starkly reveal the fragility of our cities. But aside from toppling buildings, disasters also disperse communities, and the reconstruction process is as much architectural as it is socio-political. When the grounds have stopped shaking and the fires have been put out, what then? Where do we start? How do survivors regain a sense of normality? What role does the international community play? And more importantly, how do we deal with the possibility of further devastation?  Philosophers and urban planners would like to see the ruined site as the locus of resilience. But the work of reconstruction is, in fact, much more complicated than this, as attested by the post-disaster rebuilding in Japan where, despite the three years that have elapsed, reconstruction remains a fraught process.

Over the next little while, I will explore various aspects of this topic. Any feedback or suggestion is very welcome!

John-Martins-The-Destruct-001John Martin, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, 1822

A Note on the Cafe


I recently came across a superb speech by sociologist Richard Sennett, about the virtues of the open city, and I remembered an earlier book of his that I read a few years ago, Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization (1996), which included a short note on the history of the Parisian cafe.

Modeled on the coffeehouse of eighteenth-century England, the Parisian cafe was once a place where strangers could converse freely, where gossip flourished, where radicals concocted schemes. The greatest concentration of such cafe-salons was in the Palais Royal. However, an experiment began there that transformed the cafe as a social institution – the experiment involved placing tables outside the wooden galerie du bois that ran the length of the Palais Royal. From that point on, the tables gradually encouraged less revolutionary conspiracies or sociable chitchat, and more casual observation. The cafe-goer was inspired to watch the passing urban scene as he/she withdraws into thought and detachment, to a space of solitude amidst the metropolitan throng. The most urban and urbane of places, the cafe is where one goes to contemplate the city that flows by endlessly.

‘Half an hour spent on the boulevards or on one of the benches in the Tuileries gardens has the effect of an infinitely diverting theatrical performance.’ Augustus Hare

The March of Bricks & Mortar

The March of Bricks & Mortar

My primary research project focuses on the modern city as a cultural and material phenomenon – specifically London in the early 19th century. Much of the London that still exists today is in fact ‘Romantic’ in the sense that many areas, buildings or monuments find their origin in the early 1800s – these include Regent’s Park and Regent Street; Hyde Park Corner & the Arch on Constitution Hill; Trafalgar Square; the National Gallery; Bloomsbury;  the (new) British Museum;  and the Royal Opera House. ‘Construction’ enjoyed the spotlight on the stage in the Romantic era. When the German prince, Hermann Puckler-Muskau, visited England for the second time in 1826, he remarked on England’s ‘universal rage for building’, which saw the acceleration of urban development and the advancement of architecture as a trade and profession.

But expansion was not always looked upon favourably. The disappearance of green spaces was one obvious consequence of urban sprawl. George Cruikshank’s popular 1829 print, ‘London Going Out of Town, or the March of Bricks and Mortar’ (see above) is a well-known critique of the urban developments that were encroaching upon the countryside surrounding London. The print shows an army of robotic bricklayers that have chimney pots for heads and picks and shovels for limbs, advancing towards rural Hampstead, building rows of grim factory-like houses on the way, and forcing trees and haystacks to flee for their lives. One tree cries out ‘Ah, I am mortarly wounded!’ Flying rocks and invasive black smoke also threaten the survival of the rural landscape. Urban sprawl meant not only that green spaces were gradually eroded but that familiar places would be irrevocably changed by these developments. The place that was once familiar is no more; as Baudelaire writes of Paris, ‘Le vieux Paris n’est plus (la forme d’une ville/ Change plus vite, helas! que le coeur d’un mortel)’.

Of course, this kind of critique of urban sprawl and nostalgia for the countryside is not new. London remains relatively green, in spite of Cruikshank’s critique/ warning, and the urban developments of London have come to be loved by the people. However, other cities might not be able to say the same. Today’s problem of urbanization is no longer confined to large metropolitan regions such as London, and the army is no longer composed of bricks and mortar, but concrete and steel. Everywhere we see uniform houses being constructed along new roads, skyscrapers reaching ever newer heights, promoting a vision of  prosperous, advanced modern world – a vision that is usually consumed voraciously. This is most evident in Asia – a subject for another post. But we must ask ourselves whether such developments, both in terms of the cityscape and social infrastructure, come at a great cost, something of which the Romantics knew only too well.

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