London is built in our image. It mirrors not only the fluid bodies of the living, but also the legions of dead who, contrary to general belief outnumber the rest of us several times over. For every one of us bringing London to life, many others are forgotten and buried, organic fertiliser for the city’s growth spurts, their material existence thickening the London layers.
No wonder then that we try to interpret and represent London as a physical form. Not only is it made of bodies – 80,000 unmarked under pocket-sized Paddington Street Gardens to take a single, staggering example – but becomes in itself a body. Cable, wires, fibre and pipes are lymphatics, circulating essential lubricants. The Tube is a mesh of capillary vessels, a needle’s depth below the skin. The lost rivers are veins and arteries: the Fleet, fat, blue, swollen and bulging under Holborn Viaduct; the Tyburn, an artery buried deep in the subcutaneous fat layer, thin and throbbing.
If the high brows at Hampstead and Parliament Hill, and the twin horns of Norwood and Shooter’s Hill are London’s temples, the opposition of north and south is inevitable. London is a two-headed city, each holding the other in balance. Another head belongs to Bran the Raven King, the city’s talisman, buried under the White Mount at the Tower of London.
So London is also a Siamese city, a doubled anatomy, fused across the Thames basin. The giant twin sons of Albion, Gog and Magog, keep watch on church and law from the tower of St. Dunstan-in-the-West, and preside over the Corporation of London in the Guildhall. The Corporation is the body of bodies: all joined together as one to exercise its peculiar dominion over London’s heart.
Two hearts match the two heads: St. Paul’s on Ludgate Hill, with its folk history of cathedrals, Diana, lunar temples and megaliths; and Westminster Abbey, a corresponding temple, belonging to the sun and Apollo. Southwark may quibble, but London is a dual entity. Its perpetual motion is sustained by the perfect dichotomy: two bodies, male and female; one city.
First published in Curiocity D: London Dissected (June 2013)