The Bones of Shepherd’s Bush

From the air Westfield looks like a vampire jellyfish, suckered across the face of Shepherd’s Bush. Its security-patrolled halls are an anti-city, where past and future have been put on hold leaving only an eternal, air-conditioned present. Oddly enough, this is an entirely appropriate use for a place that has hovered in-between, an otherworld for a hundred years and more.

Nicholas Royle’s classic London novel, The Director’s Cut, was published in 2000 in a city that is becoming harder to recognise by the moment. Royle’s London was decaying, seedy and haunted, struggling to recover from its recurring post-war dizzy spells. It is a novel of dereliction and decline, unspooled film stock, VHS, snuff movies, and white noise. It is also a novel of forgotten spaces – lost cinemas, the demolished Blue Posts pub on Hanway Street, and the borderlands where Shepherd’s Bush decays into White City.

In the 1990s the land between Wood Lane and the West Cross Route, north of Shepherd’s Bush Road, was just another site no-one could be bothered to tidy up. It was occupied by disused sheds, long, once-white, suspended on stilts over the tube lines underneath – a place only an author like Royle, with his location scout’s eye for a potential set, would light upon. It makes the ideal hiding place for his character Munro, holed-up on the site of a long-forgotten extravaganza.

The sheds were the Tall Buildings, exhibition halls built for the sensation of its era, the 1908 Franco-British Exhibition. All London was desperate to visit its wildly popular entertainments.  They saw the real Senegalese village, inhabited by real, chilly Senegalese; they marvelled at the twenty wedding cake stucco palaces set among lakes; they watched snake charmers and sorcerers in the Indian Pavilion; they gaped at the life-size sculpture of Edward VII made of butter; and most of all they queued for the Scenic Railway, the Spiral, the Mountain Slide and the famous Flip-Flap, the most terrifying ride in the world. Some of them even went to the Olympics, staged next door by the organisers as an afterthought.

The immaculate white halls and the exhibition buildings straddling Wood Lane crumbled gradually away over the rest of the 20th century. Their long, slow decline ended in 2003, when the Tall Buildings made way for Westfield and the entertainments of a new century. The only reminder of 1908 is a Japanese Garden, tucked away in Hammersmith Park. The Director’s Cut is the ideal novel for a city constantly made and unmade by change, good at forgetting but better at remembering. Royle’s London belongs to the ‘90s, but it still lives, breathes, splutters and hacks from his pages. After reading it Westfield feels different, less pristine and antiseptic, more vulnerable and temporary. We know that it too will eventually come into its own as one of London’s lost places.

First published in Curiocity C: Celestial London (November 2012)