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City of secrets, city of mystery

16 November 2012

Urban fantasy author Tom Pollock explores the lure of mysterious cities as part of our Invisible Cities week

A city holds many secrets. I’ve lived in London for nearly a quarter of a century but it would be ludicrously hubristic for me to say that I’d walked a tenth of its streets, or experienced even a fraction of one per cent of what was really going on inside its porous borders.

But that said, for me the magic of any city resides not in its secrets, but in its mysteries -  a related, but quite different thing,Mysteries are secrets with trailing edges, tantalizing threads on which our minds can pull to unravel even greater stories, each one of which is a city unto itself, with narrative-thread highways, character-commuters, and its own threads to be pulled. An endless stacking-doll succession of narrative. 

The difference between secrets and mysteries is the difference between the invisible city, and the glimpsed city.

Urban life is crammed with such glimpses, such suggestions. Take the most obvious example: names. Names have power. That’s something we understand instinctively, I think. We don’t need our mythologies to tell us it, although many of them do. Cities have a greater concentration of names than any other kind of space: names of people, of areas, of pubs and streets. London alone has Bleeding Heart Yard, Shoulder of Mutton Alley, Ribbon Dance Mews. You’ve barely read the words off the peeling enamel signs before your brain’s pulling the thread, asking the question:

How did it get called that?

A gap opens up between what we see and what we know, and, instinctively we fill it with speculation, with story. Names are to stories what unearthed pottery fragments are to ancient civilisations, or DNA trapped in amber is to dinosaurs - more than merely evidence, a means to begin reconstructing the whole. 

And it’s not just the names. From the strange announcements over tube PAs to the tower block that stands empty for years despite being sited on prime riverbank real estate, those mysteries are everywhere. They are invitations to theorise. The city makes us all into urban scientists.  

Cities are dense inkblots of significance, paradises of conspiracy. As metaphors, they’re as flexible as they come, gloriously polysemic. A city can help you tell almost any kind of story there is, especially fantasies. After all, cities are crammed with hidden cul-de-sacs, elliptical graffiti, odd ordnances, rusting riverside hulks, derelicts, dreams, improbable architecture, absurd little shops, murder, charity, churches, money, penthouses hundreds of feet above the ground mirroring the sewers hundreds of feet below.

If you can’t find magic in all of that, well, you’re probably not trying very hard.

 

Join Tom Pollock, Kate Griffin and Mark Charan Newton at Foyles for Invisible Cities - an explanation of urban fantasy and beyond. The event is hosted by London Calling and The Kitschies (www.thekitschies.com). 17 November, 6.00 - 7.30 pm. Free, but ticketed (contact events@foyles.co.uk). http://www.foyles.co.uk/Public/Events/Detail.aspx?eventId=1696

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