Part personal memoir, part lyrical meditation, London Clay takes us deep in to the nooks and crannies of a forgotten city: a hidden landscape long buried underneath the sprawling metropolis. Armed with just his tattered Streetfinder map, author Tom Chivers follows concealed pathways and explores lost islands, to uncover the geological mysteries that burst up through the pavement and bubble to the surface of our streets.
From Roman ruins to a submerged playhouse, abandoned Tube stations to ancient riverbeds, marshes and woodlands, this network of journeys combines to produce a compelling interrogation of London’s past. London Clay examines landscape and our connection to place, and celebrates urban edgelands: in-between spaces where the natural world and the city mingle, and where ghosts of the deep past can be felt as a buzzing in the skull. It is also a personal account of growing up in London, and of overcoming loss through the layered stories of the capital.
Written in rich and vivid prose, London Clay will inspire readers to think about what lies beneath their feet, and by doing so reveal new ways of looking at the city.
What I Thought:
I seem to have a fascination for the abandoned parts of our towns and cities – just this week I’ve been watching Secrets of the London Underground on Yesterday – so London Clay is right in my wheelhouse.
The idea of secret rivers, enclosed in the sewer system across London, exerting their influence on the city unbeknownst to the residents above has a sense of the mystical about it – helped, no doubt, by my reading Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series!
This book is an interesting animal, as it is not a memoir, it is not a text book or a book of poetry – it is very much all of these things and has elements of social and personal history within it.
Tom Chivers reflects on his own life as he traverses London looking for the source of some of these lost rivers, looking at the geology that forced them into being and the human developments that were shaped by them and, in turn, how the rivers have been shaped by humans. From pre-Roman civilisation, to the demolition and rebuilding of London, each chapter is a fascinating look at a city that is in a constant state of renewal.
It’s easy to see how the book is influenced by the author’s poetry – facts here are communicated clearly but always with an imaginative hook so that none of what could be dry information ever actually is.
At the very start of the book, Tom leads us on one of his walking tours through London, and that’s what the whole book has the feel of – that you’re heading off on a walk with a guide who knows what they’re talking about and whose love of the city shines through. It makes is a very comfortable read, with a real sense of familiarity, after all, we probably know the surface of a lot of these places, even if it’s just from TV, and delving deeper into the ground and the history is really fascinating.
And finally, there are many, many pages full of footnotes and further reading – enough to keep anyone busy for a while, but pick out any element of the book you like and there will be something that will further your knowledge there.
This is just a brilliant book in all ways – from the beautiful cover design and endpapers, to the personal and social history within – I highly recommend it.
London Clay is published by Doubleday.
About the Author:
Tom Chivers is a poet and publisher. He is the author of two pamphlets and two full collections of poetry to date, and is director of the independent press Penned in the Margins. In 2008 he was the Bishopsgate Institute’s first writer in residence, and has appeared widely at events and made a number of contributions to radio, including presenting a 30 minute documentary for Radio 4. He has collaborated with the climate arts organisation Cape Farewell and conducts immersive walking tours of London. Chivers is currently an Associate Artist of the National Centre for Writing.
Please note: I was sent a copy of this book for review. All opinions are, as ever, my own.