Third 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. In this series of dispatches, 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, his first and second reports as well.)

A great city is built upon conversations. Some days ago, a European friend and I were finishing up a meal in a more or less generously priced restaurant of the high streets, discussing things which can really only be found here in England (these conversations occur): some cashmere jumpers of a particularly conservative cut; consummately simple wooden chairs, ludicrously overpriced in America, yet known from the bottom up by every English schoolboy or girl. Europe spills over with these chairs and woollens. They are things we need not even need. Fifteen minutes away from this conversation, on the darkened avenue known as Wigmore, these objects of desire materialize in the shining rectangle of one lone illuminated shop window. The jumpers in question are draped over the backs of the very chairs I was describing, as if they had been hermetically sealed in a corner of reality, expecting our passage to unfold into existence. This mercantile mise-en-scène provides an exact answer – although a bit too coloured and luminous – to the images evoked in conversation. My friend would only understand later that I had not seen them here first.

As I previously let on, I believe London is a city of superimposed states, containing other cities within itself. Wherever one looks south of my neighbourhood’s streets, one encounters the towers of Canary Wharf, an urban island constructed around the basins where ships hailing from the Canary Islands once landed. Its electro-lit silhouette, whose centrepiece is a döppelganger of Montreal’s Place Montréal Trust, inevitably reminds me of a Canadian downtown core. There are more than trees for felling north of the 49th Parallel. Another visiting friend, a Russian filmmaker by calling, informed me that it is the self-same Hungarian conglomerate, whose main office is located in Toronto, that is responsible for these living pillars of corporatism. Apparently, the meetings of its board of directors are still run in Hungarian, and the upwardly mobile young careerists of the New World must initiate themselves in the arcane arcs of the altaïc languages if they want to talk money with their bosses.

Some days ago, the arc of a night bus brought me further north than I had previously ventured, along unexpected gradients, where the streets widen and the city, made fuzzy by rain and a fatigued mind, starts to resemble, for a North American such as myself, Pointe-Saint-Charles or Boston. At one of the first stops, a swishing dripping troupe, in their nylon windbreakers, with heads held down and plastic bags in hand, filed into the double decker. At first, they appeared to me as prisoners on parole, cruelly let out at midnight. Then I thought of the immigrant workers thronging the Montreal mills, and I asked myself if these nylon-coated craftsmen were responsible for the niceties of English cashmere. Sometimes, it’s better not to ask any questions. I had unwittingly taken the priority seating. The wet crew would doze behind me, heads nodding and hair dripping, until their stop, at which point they would snap back into wakefulness and step off, in a routine so familiar, I told myself, that it could even overtake them in the deepest sleep. For my part, I would only recognize London again as we passed by the fogged-up windows of the Hackney baths, which for a long time now have been transformed into a community centre, and should therefore have no such vapours to show.

Time also sometimes loses its footing. For some of us, that is the perfect excuse to dance. On some weekends, I like to go to The Palm Tree, a small family-run pub, in shades of red and rug, like a serene version of a David Lynch dreamscape. The Palm Tree stands in the middle of a wooded park, between Regents Canal and the railway bridge where the whistle and bang of the first fall of a V1 resounded in 1941. Once-young musicians continue to play the jazz they love under the photo likenesses of their former selves, pasted at the prow-like head of the bar. The barmen remember very old jokes. We had a cocktail barman, but we had to give him the sack, he was all mixed up. Ha … ha. At the urinals, after the show, the bassist, who reminds me a little of a Dutch cinematographer, asks me where my accent is from. He encourages me to hold the note. Don’t lose it, man.

The Palm Tree Pub in an improbable snowfall. (Photographer unknown)

At that time, I am hosting a visiting musician friend from Montreal, who is elated at his colleagues’ work that night. As we make our way back home, I inspect, as I do every evening, what offering has appeared in the corridor near my door. That night, a young man of rather imposing stature lies on his flank, an orthopedic cane still strapped to his wrist. Sporting incident and liquid ecstasy? He seems rather comfortable, snoring on the red carpet. Hush hush. We can handle this. No reason to disturb him. Or the Saturday night ambulance men. The morning after, there was only the cane left. Objects had reclaimed their empire. Energies harmonized. Image dematerialized.

The night after, my musician friend and I become the ghosts of a Quebec City hotel room: a literary festival has invited me to make an appearance from afar. Behind the bathroom door, the sound of water running in the shower warms the room up with a fleeting presence. Take off your shoes. Tread softly. In the midst of life, I found myself, by obscure twists and turns, in the city of London. I hover on the television screen, entertaining small groups, attentive and faceless silhouettes perched on the bed, with orations on life at the Meridian, and the night I spent sleeping in a room in that faraway hotel. Take this room. Rotate it 90 degrees, counter-clockwise. Subtract an appropriate number of floors (6). And you will feel as if you’d been there with me. It is four in the morning at the Greenwich Meridian. As I evoke the redness of things shedding away from us, trusting the Olympic installations for added effect, reality plays a trick on me: apparently, the stadium and its tower stop glowing red at the early hours. Light moves in ways foreign to our will.

Here I was, in two places at once, the Stratford skyline and the sky over Quebec at my back, and I found myself thinking of my eventual return to the inevitable, immense winter. I have read in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando the description of an iced-over Thames, where there once rose, at about the place where the pedestrian tunnel dips under the Thames along the Meridian, the tents and ice palace of a winter fair. Orlando, then still a boy, fell for the cheating love of a Russian princess, who was to cut through the heart of this Orlando Delicato, opening up the gash through which would emerge the woman he would become. I did not know that Virginia was not making it all up. Once upon a time, the London winters were as potent as those of Quebec. The river covered up with a cold floor, on which one could skate or skid from one end of the city to the other. The tents, the palace, were there. In 1814, a furred elephant traipsed for the last time from one end to the other of this bridge of ice, and the winter once and for all gave in to the waters.

Curiouser and curiouser. I shall conclude with some news about my back’s crispation, which is, let us say, thawing. Not long after my last acupuncture treatment, an unknown Asian lady left a musical message on my home phone, which is normally visited only by the droning of the robotic servants of local banks and real estate agencies. I think it wise to respect phantom power, so I saved this message as a reminder of the pain that is fading around my shoulders. My osteopath is well-acquainted with my acupuncturist, and, even in her absence, he entertains a heated debate with her. This Friday, he attempted to balance my energies by applying the cranial method, delicately sliding his hands under my surfaces, looking for leverage to reset my flux in motion. How old are you? … Your water levels are now at 60 percent. A passing grade. However, I had the distinct impression, as he held me in position, of being an aqueous volume, a plane of water or a gentle chemical bath whence an image of myself was struggling to emerge. I felt discrete currents uncoil and flower within me. I wondered how I would feel when I found myself standing up again. At our last meeting, my doctor explained that the body’s harmonics, the resonance of our meridians with our nervous central system, works at the speed of sound or so, but that a recent experiment had proven that the signal triggered by a LASER beam striking the surface of the foot travelled to the brain at the speed of light. Our bodies play hopscotch with our thoughts. When I found myself standing up again, I started to think of the divergent speeds of beings and things, and the way their frequencies strike a chord or fade away – of what remains still, what spills over, what shines, sometimes sings. Old songs are all the same age. This the river knows.

notional agent, London, Day 126

Go on to Canty’s fourth report.