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Posted: Thursday November 6, 2014
Second Report on the Instability of Cities

Daniel Canty, author of Wigrum (2013) and Les États-unis du vent (to be published in English by Talonbooks in 2015), is completing a six-month residency at the Studio du Québec, in London, England. Canty shares his reflections on some of the city’s foggy history and the sometimes foggy process of writing. (You may wish to read Canty’s early lines and first report as well.)

All photos by Daniel Canty

It has been more than one hundred days since I relocated to this city known for its fog. A few weeks ago, local authorities decided to expose its parliaments and subterranean reaches to the curiosity of its citizens, in order to ventilate, perhaps even dissipate, their mystery. It is a well-known fact that this city contains another City, whose obscure privileges, although they animate the beating heart of capitalism, hark back to the guilds and corporations of the Middle Ages. At that time, certain laws were applied only in hermetic courts, whose overseers avoided the metastasis and vexing obligations of the written word like the plague.

Great cities are also built upon conversation. As I ventured out to learn more about the program of this open city, by happenstance I met an architect at the Royal Institute of his trade, who explained to me as we walked out into the London sunlight that the legendary fog of London was mostly smog, and that the Clean Air Act (1956), which imposed restrictions on the burning of certain household fuels, was primarily responsible for the dissipation of said fog and the coat of grime hiding London’s true marmoreal colours. Four years earlier, over five days in early December, an anticyclone choked up the city’s atmosphere like a lid on a cauldron. The pseudopods of this asphyxiating cloud, this nausea-inducing, briny, yellow pea soup, slithered under every door, tormenting the empire at teatime, and wended their way through the movie palaces, interposing themselves between the silvery screens and their audiences … Those forced to go out made their way blindly from lamppost to lamppost, in streets blocked to traffic. English politeness stayed its proud course, and everyone would salute spectral passersby, unsettled by their shadowy allurements, wondering if they also weren’t well on their way to transubstantiation. As per the usual catastrophic narratives which the English relish, the subterraneans fared best. Only the trains of the most ancient and most profound lines continued to circulate freely, even though all that awaited those venturing back to their surface destinations was the same exit-less maze of mist. Authorities have recently revised the accounting of losses, and it has been officially determined that more than twelve thousand people lost their way and their lives in that December’s soup.

The rain has come back with the fall. Some mornings, the greyness envelops the new towers I see in front of my studio so perfectly that I can begin again to believe in the old mysteries of London. You will no doubt be enchanted to learn that the nocturnal litanies at the foot of my windows have gone the way of summer. But this seasonal exorcism seems to have displaced them inside the building, and into various inanimate objects. Some evenings the port, which is bored through the grey door at the far end of the corridor where my lodgings are located, glows and blinks, in an odd metaphor. At first, I refused to investigate its origin: a flickering bulb, left to its own devices by the morning cleaners. Sometimes, also, I find, in the crook of the corridor near my doorstep, incongruous configurations of objects, altarpieces assembled from the excess baggage of neighbourly realities.

Have I told you that I sleep on the hour’s edge? When I stretch out in my bed in the mezzanine, the soles of my feet rest on the prime meridian. Yesterday is on my left. Tomorrow on my right. Time is in the middle. Have I seen or dreamt of that moth, fluttering in beat with my eyelids and with the intermittent signals at the end of the corridor? That morning in the mirror, the holes in my jumper hooked my pupils. I brought it to a Romanian mender of my acquaintance, operating from a basement in Marylebone, and encouraged her to perform her magic. I thought I only had to stop seeing this moth’s work in order to make it disappear from me and the world. But the sign is not the thing, and the thing is not the think.

England, that Angled land, it must be stated, cultivates the tracing and love of limits. She adores growing shrubs and raising fences and partitions of all kinds, as well as spelling out, on every available surface, rules and reminders of property. Stand on the right. Walk on the left. Look both ways. Cross with care. Big Brother has shaved his moustache and retired from politics to quietly while away his time watching CCTV. The second floor closes at ten. The main hall at eleven. The sidewalk must be vacated at midnight. And so forth. The stochastic crowd spills over the Hall of Lost Steps. When the train leaves the station, everyone is back where they belong. Are you following me?

As you must know, half of Scotland has lost its big wager. And I could not help thinking that that City in the city has won again, and think of us all. In the public houses where the citizenry gather for a well-deserved break from the work-away week, a conversation launched with “I’m a Quebecer” was met with quick repartee. “Nah. You’re not a Québécois, you’re a French Canadian.” Hmm. “So, how were your vacations in Quebec City?” An Empire, despite its documented tolerance for the fog, cannot ever completely let go of certain ghosts. Once – at closing time, which always comes too early – I saw a young man of Indian descent raise his pint like a royal sceptre, only to let it fall into splinters at his feet. Another time, a man of fifty-ish years, thin as a whip, resolutely stood up to venture to the water closets, situated in my general direction. As it was about to meet mine, in a wanton breach of local propriety, his gaze seemed to fill with that pea soup of old as he stared ahead and fell from on high to await the ambulance provided at great weekly loss by the welfare state. On weekends, the multi-million-pound investment of the state in the rescue of its wayward citizens allows the City to sleep tight, safely tucked away from its misbehaving subjects, if such a description can be attributed, of course, to a thing that, truly, is no one.

For the first time, astronomers in Hawaii have established the exact location of our Milky Way: at the foot of the bridge of stars linking our stellar cluster to its nearest neighbour. They gave our cloudy abode the name Laniakea – lania, sky, kea, immeasurable. Fog manifests at various scales of being – we had better not dread its ability to illuminate. I spent a lot of time travelling through landscapes in my mind, head poised over the translucent membranes of paper, and I have recently deemed it appropriate to experiment with the virtues of deep tissue massage, punctilious acupuncture, and structural osteopathy, approaches by which the body ventures deep into its hidden cosmography. I am learning to watch my own back and I have the impression of shedding old layers of my self. I feel superstrings are unknotting within me. Case in point: at our last encounter, the acupuncturist applied gua sha, finely combing the cutaneous arc between my trapezius muscles. A string of alarming red clusters emerged from the depths of my tendons and muscles. In radio astronomy, red is the colour of what is moving away from us. Knowing this helps me hold my head up and walk straighter. It is 11:41 p.m. on Thursday the sixteenth of October 2014: the one hundred and eighth day of my stay along the Greenwich meridian.


P.S. There are days in the Underground when I cross paths with people who seem your very likenesses, and I must hold myself back from engaging them in conversation, probably for fear of breaking the spell that is, happily, holding me here, while bringing your ghosts back to me. Whomever they might be, my smile is also for you.

P.P.S. For those of you who have missed the first report, it has been filed – but can be retrieved at my discretion and resent to your attention.

Also see Canty’s third report, which is now available.