Ordering How To Build A City


Just a quick note to say – if you haven’t already got a copy of my debut book, How To Build A City, please do consider ordering one! Not only will it make me very happy indeed, it will also contribute to Salt Publishing’s campaign to get themselves out of the red.

It’s a beautifully produced hardback with a cool cover that will look smart on your bookshelf. You can order it through your local bookshop or on Amazon. However the best way to get it is probably by ordering online from Salt. I understand they’re currently sold out, but presumably another print run is on the way very soon.

If you would like a signed copy, please drop me a line (and a cheque) and I will send you one by first class post for £12.99. It’s a bit cheaper on Salt’s website, but then you don’t get that authorial touch!


And here’s a sample, excerpted from ‘Seven Varieties of Knot’:

First, open up the ends, revealing
each strand. A confluence of paving ;
steps, a wall, then a garden. Rampant
squash overrun the vegetable plot.
Beetroot, cabbage, deadly nightshade.
Charmaine protects the tubers ; she
weaves them six feet deep. A field splits.
Vaults, once overcrowded, house
shears, mower and gardening gloves.
Lean a headstone by the wall, just there.
      [The shroud knot]


Launch of How To Build A City

My first collection, How To Build A City (Salt Publishing), is being launched on Saturday 13th June at The Slaughtered Lamb in Clerkenwell. Joining me to launch their own new books are Luke Kennard and Abi Curtis. Ross Sutherland will also be appearing, in the combination-lock role of poet/compere. It’s shaping up to be a good night.

Saturday 13th June, 8pm (readings 8.30-9.30)

The Slaughtered Lamb (downstairs)
34-35 Great Sutton Street
London EC1V 0DK (Map)
Nearest tube: Farringdon/Barbican

Free entry. Books will be available to buy on the night.

There’s a Facebook event page here

GB Poets

Sarah Butler has blogged last night’s GB Poets event at the Poetry Library (part of Poetry International). I was reading with Bogdan Tiganov, Valeria Melchioretto and Sascha Akhtar. The stage, I mentioned, was the third most unusual I’ve read on (after the window of an old curiosity shop, and a pub toilet) – a multicoloured, tiered affair on five steps. Part of an installation by Sintra Tantra who also designed the backdrop, inspired by the artwork for the Festival of Britain in the ’50s and emblazoned with ‘GB’. A more suitable 2012 logo, I suggested. I read ‘this is yogic’, excerpts from ‘The Terrors’ and a shortened version of ‘How To Build A City’. The latter captured by Sarah’s notes:

A city full of scars. Scuff marks. Flat pack, dotted lines, screwdriver, spirit level. A station pointing east. Space portal. Words easing in between bricks, through gaps thin as credit cards. Kerb. Vista. A trio of estate agents battling names. Or a body perhaps: blood, arteries, bones.

Tall Buildings

Last night I attended a talk at Bishopsgate Institute entitled ‘A Brief History of Building Tall in London’, given by Susie Barson of English Heritage (I missed the second half, which was given by Rosemarie MacQueen). Barson’s talk was an engaging, if necessarily brief, overview of building tall from medieval to modern London. She spoke well on the Tower, St Paul’s (old and new), Gilbert Scott‘s Midland Grand Hotel (St Pancras), Senate House, and the new ‘Eastern Cluster’ of skyscrapers. I was particularly interested to hear about the way the London skyline has been shaped by persistent restrictions imposed by city authorities on planners and architects – often for practical rather than aesthetic purposes (eg. fire regulations in residential buildings).

However, I left feeling a little annoyed. As Barson’s talk came to an end – and the focus to contemporary concerns – it became increasingly obvious that she, and some of the audience, represent a particularly militant form of architectural/cultural conservatism. Now don’t get me wrong; English Heritage is an important agency who do vital work in preserving historic sites and ensuring that developers take a sensitive approach to their task. But I couldn’t help but think that Barson’s vision of London was not one I shared. She spoke of how English Heritage have developed a quasi-scientific ‘methodology’ for the protection of urban skylines (most famously, views of St Paul’s from key positions). Yet her own disgust at the current building boom in London revealed a more subjective approach. She really let the cat out of the proverbial bag when complaining that one of the proposed skyscrapers (I think it was Heron Tower) would blot out her view of St Paul’s from where she lives – I quote, ‘the heights of North London’.

I felt she was implying with that, and other statements, a sense of personal ownership over a view. But what about people who actually live and work in the centre of London, in the crazy, busy, messiness of it all? And, what with a recession and the Olympics around the corner, what about the city’s social and economic needs?

I suspect that this conservatism is inspired by a long tradition of skyline preservation. I’m thinking particularly of the way Renaissance representations of London by artists such as Van Visscher established a way of looking at the urban environment that incorporated elements such as perspective from the pictorial tradition. And then there’s the eighteenth century boom in all kinds of panoramas that Robert Barker called ‘a kind of pattern for organising visual experience’. You could also call it a kind of framing. I almost imagined the speaker last night holding up her fingers to form a picture frame, squinting through to find the perfect vision of London. But the city is to be lived, inhabited and experienced. It is a muddled, imperfect space full of bodies, interests, ambition and cash; not a picture postcard or a pastoral scene. Barson mentioned Canaletto in her talk, and here’s a Venetian master who, despite those unreal skies, really engaged with a burgeoning capitalist London, recognising that its beauty lay as much in disorder as order.

Barson described how coming across a skyscraper is like something ‘crashing down into the street’. She meant that pejoratively, but this is just the kind of urban experience that excites and challenges. The Gherkin is a good example and, whilst initially condemned from some quarters, is now very popular. If people want long vistas and avenues, move to Paris, where Haussman did what Wren couldn’t (his utopian vision of a post-Great Fire London was rejected due to the city’s complex system of land ownership, and a largely medieval street plan is maintained to this day).

Yes, there are issues with unrestricted urban growth, and yes, agencies such as English Heritage do need to make sure we’re developing in a way that is sensitive to the existing landscape and avoids problems such as sun-blotting. It’s also important that the city is not driven just by big money developers. But I for one hope that this cultural conservatism, based on a narrow and idealistic conception of the city as a picture to be gazed upon, does not come to dominate architectural discourse. I welcome the Helterskelter, Cheese Grater, Walkie Talkie and other strangely-monikered constructions.

Incidentally, I hope the Bishopsgate continues putting on events like this. I may not have agreed with Susie Barson’s talk, but it was thought-provoking!

‘How to Build a City’ published in The Edgeless Shape

Most excellent literary magazine The Edgeless Shape (‘a collection of new words and pictures’) has published my longish piece ‘How to Build a City’ as an A2 poster pull-out. Perfect for framing, or at least blu-tacking to the wall / any wall. It’s a kind of poem/essay/travelogue hybrid, set in and around Liverpool Street Station.

The poster itself is a thing of beauty, designed by Oli Smith. The magazine, also, is worth checking out – this issue contains interviews with Joe Dunthorne and Dockers MC, reviews of Will Self, Persepolis &c. Big congrats to all involved, especially Michael Donkor and Caleb Klaces, who edited my piece with great care.

London in film

Luke Heeley recently sent me a DVD of his London Triptych. Watching it made me think of the films I’ve enjoyed that are about and/or set in London. Not including period dramas such as Shakespeare in Love, which recreates the Elizabethan city with its brothels and playhouses, or film versions of London novels (eg. Dickens).

Cillian Murphy in 28 Days Later

Horror / Apocalypse / Dystopia

28 Days Later (2002)
28 Weeks Later (2007)
Creep (2004)
Clockwork Orange (1971)
Children of Men (2006)

London’s underbelly / Socio-realism

Breaking and Entering (2006)
Dirty Pretty Things (2002)
My Beautiful Laundrette  (1985)
Kidulthood (2006)
Cathy Comes Home (1966)
Made in Britain (1982)

Rom Com / Crime Com / Richard E Grant

Notting Hill (1999)
Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)
Withnail & I (1987)
How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)

And of course the recent – and brilliant – Bourne Ultimatum (2007) which used Waterloo Station as the backdrop to one of Matt Damon’s niftiest moments.

Any recommendations of others I should get my grubby mits on?