Exploring the Invisible City

9 November 2012 | Kate Griffin | Literature

Exploring the Invisible City

Kate Griffin explores the limits of urban fantasy in advance of the Invisible Cities event at Foyles Charing Cross Road, co-hosted by London Calling and The Kitschies - Saturday 17th November

Cities are full of the unseen.  The very function of a city relies on it.  As a commuter, a shopper, a reveller, a worker and a resident, the very basis of life in a city is reliance upon a whole system functioning whose component parts, you never perceive.

Sometimes you get hints of it.  A power line falls in Norfolk and for a few, infuriating hours, Camden is without power and the locals sit around playing board games by candlelight or gossiping on the sofa, waiting for a restoration of TV, computers and bulbs bright enough to read by.  At 2 a.m., trying to get home for the night, your way is blocked by convoys of giant branded trucks, their back wheels beeping, an electronic voice declaring, ‘Stand clear, vehicle reversing’ as they crawl towards squares of light framed in metal grills on the side of the supermarket which, being now open, you realise you’ve seen every day, but never noticed.   A beggar surprises you by speaking from a street corner – good night, good night -  a cash point lets you down, temporarily out of order, and suddenly you realise you don’t quite know how you’re going to buy breakfast with the 29p left in your purse.  At 5 a.m. the maintenance men on the underground rush to finish their hidden, deep-tunnel repairs but someone dropped a spanner in the dark and now a hundred grimy faces crawl through the gloom in search of this one tool and by 6.30 a.m. the track cannot open and the train cannot run and by 7 a.m. fifty angry callers are on the line to BBC London explaining how disgusting it is, how appalling that they buy their over-priced tickets but the trains never get them into work on time.

Where there was no graffiti on the wall when the lights went out yesterday, today there is, new paint drying on old brick.  Somehow, yesterdays newspapers have vanished from the streets, and today’s ragged rags of tattle are already looking chewed around the edges.  A bin is empty, the rats disturbed, and the moss growing in the cracks between the roofing tiles looks, today, just a little bit greener than before.

Cities are full of the unseen, and even the consequences of hidden lives become, over time, so mundane, so much a natural part of the order of things, that we forget to notice.  Given our extensive myopia towards the miraculous, mundane functionality of urban life, the fantasy writer really doesn’t need to make much of a leap, to throw magic into the mix.  After all, we’re already blind to so much in the city, who’s to say that magic isn’t merely another part of the wonders we ignore?


Kate Griffin ( is the name under which Carnegie Medal-nominated author, Catherine Webb, writes fantasy novels for adults.  An acclaimed author of young adult books under her own name, Catherine's amazing debut, Mirror Dreams, was written when she was only fourteen years old, and garnered comparisons with Terry Pratchett and Philip Pullman. 

Stray Souls is the first novel in the new Magicals Anonymous series, set in the same hidden London underworld that Kate so successfully brought to life in her Matthew Swift novels.


Join Kate Griffin, Tom Pollock 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 ( 17 November, 6.00 - 7.30 pm. Free, but ticketed (contact

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