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China Miéville’s dreamlike tour of London in crisis

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London’s Overthrow captures the tense atmosphere of a capital waiting to explode, writes Dave Sewell
Issue 2322
China Miéville's dreamlike tour of London in crisis

Cities in a state of tension, driven mad by nightmares in the run-up to some great catastrophe, are one of the defining motifs of China Miéville’s fiction.

In London’s Overthrow the author has decided that real life London has started to catch up with that vision. In a series of night-time walks across the capital in winter last year, he paints a city that’s ready to explode.

Advertising chokes every available surface, like the red Martian weed from HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Arrogant new skyscrapers thrust up into the city’s skyline, as its poorer classes are driven out to the suburbs.

The whole public sector is on strike. And anti-banker protesters have set up camp outside St Paul’s Cathedral, itself rebuilt after the Great Fire of London. Miéville comments that it is “a grassroots response to one cataclysm in the splendid shadow of another to another”.

The book is an extended version of an essay from the New York Times. For the benefit of a transatlantic audience it assumes almost no knowledge of the city.

This brings a refreshing starkness to some of the discussions. Miéville describes the “mooncalf formation” that is the Liberal Democrat party. He compares the moral panic against a “feral youth” to “a traumatised hamster” trying to eat “its children”.

Parakeets

Miéville takes in everything from the free running craze of “parkour” to the city’s wild parakeets. This fits seamlessly with sharp polemics against Victorian levels of inequality and the impunity of the cops and the contested legacy of the riots.

The book’s title, London’s Overthrow, is taken from an 1830 illustration that arsonist Jonathan Martin produced in his cell at the Bedlam asylum. He was the brother of famous apocalyptic artist John Martin.

If it all sounds a bit gloomy, it’s only half of the story. Hope and horror coexist—there’s as much to celebrate as there is to condemn.

In the shadow of a resurgent far right thrives the world’s most successful example of multiculturalism. The story of grime music emerging in Bow is about racist policing as much as musical innovation.

To Miéville, Tottenham’s Broadwater Farm estate—known for the riot in 1985—is “startlingly beautiful” for all its poverty. A discussion of the housing crisis is rounded off with a talk with an optimistic squatter.

The book’s tone reaches neither despair nor defiance, but tension. It’s written with the rhythm of opposing armies mustering for battle—of stormclouds waiting to burst.

It’s not for everyone, if only for the fantasy-writer tone. It’s also debatable whether there’s enough new material compared to the magazine to justify the purchase. But for a dreamlike tour of crisis-wracked London, this little book will be hard to beat.

London’s Overthrow by China Miéville is out now on Westbourne Press, £7.99. Go to www.londonsoverthrow.org for the web version.

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