Henry Eliot is a writer. Since 2011 he has run the map-magazine Curiocity with Matt Lloyd-Rose, available in bookshops across London and online at www.curiocity.org.uk, and they are currently creating a book of unusual city maps to be published by Penguin in 2016. www.henryeliot.co.uk. This is the 13th article in our regular series “My London”.
London is a city of many metaphors, not all of them complimentary. For Patrick Hamilton it’s a monstrous congested body; for Dickens it’s a creeping, pinching cloud of fog; for George Eliot it’s a prison.
Recently I entered a random prize draw and amazingly won tickets for a helicopter ride above the Thames. Below me, London was spread out like a model village, with tiny cars and people between the buildings. I’d flown above London once before: when I visited UCL’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis on Tottenham Court Road. They had let me try their ‘Pigeon Simulator’ where you stand in front of a huge screen and fly through the London skies by tilting your body and arms, swooping like a pigeon between the virtual chimneys of Battersea Power Station. The real aerial experience was more thrilling but also surprisingly disconcerting. The famous landmarks looked so helplessly small amidst the sprawl. From that inhuman perspective, in the artificial silence of noise-cancelling ear defenders, I didn’t recognise my city. It was the jolt of seeing a loved one through a stranger’s eyes.
It made me realise that my London is a street-level experience, not a bird’seye-view. For me it’s a city of memories: as I walk through London I’m constantly reminded of stories I’ve read, heard or experienced. I also find it a positive, generous-hearted city, not a monster, a fog or a prison. I think those analogies do my city a disservice, so I decided to set out in quest of a better metaphor.