My Lost City – Electricity & Ghosts

Released by Metamatic Records in March, 2010

(by John Foxx)

I hadn’t listened to the recordings that have just been released as the My Lost City album since they were made, over twenty years ago.

When I played them I was struck by the way they evoke a time and a place – and how I’d been unaware of this when they were made. Then they seemed like fragments, unfinished and unsatisfying. A stop on the way to somewhere else. Now they seem like a time capsule discovered from under the streets. Made by someone else. Like an old radio tuned into a long gone station. Curious psychic electricals, crackling distantly from the speakers.

They were recorded in Shoreditch, East London, early to mid 1980s. Then, Shoreditch and Spitalfields were abandoned, dark and forgotten, yet only a step away from the City of London, the country’s financial dynamo.

The place informs the music, even though I was not fully conscious of this at the time. These recordings were discarded, lost, and only survive because of an archiving Robin Harris and Steve Malins’ enthusiasm for them.

In 1979 I’d been invited by someone who knew someone in the Guinness Trust, to purchase an almost derelict courtyard from Fournier Street. Behind battered metal doors lay a concealed world – a cobbled yard with stables and a complete detached Georgian house – filthy and perfect. The price was £50,000 and I couldn’t afford it.

A little later I came again with friends and we bought an old department store not far away, on the corner of Holywell Lane and Shoreditch High Street. This was 1981.

At that time the streets all around were empty. Some might have been mown, cobbles full of loosetrife and grasses. There were many derelict buildings. Walls were blackened by soot and a couple of hundred years wet filth. Since it had been a department store, our building had been empty for ten years. It had a couple of birch trees growing from the upper storeys.

The Spitalfields fruit and vegetable market was winding down and would later close. The square it occupied would soon be taken over by ragged groups of alcoholics around makeshift old drum braziers, fuelled by wood pulled off nearby buildings.

The area was strange, powerful and lost. Layered soot blackened the walls and the low bridges. Roaring traffic neutralized the Commercial Road. Step away from that and there was a zone change into something awful and forgotten and complex and bare.

In this part of East London I could walk myself into communion, enter the vague electricals – the voices of shadows, a palimpsest of sense memories and associations, not all of them my own.

I walked constantly through all these places. In the rain, the dark, the heat. Winter and summer. Breathing in the air. Exchanging molecules. Investing the streets and places. Being invaded in return.

Across from the studio, I watched a seedy stripper collect tips in a glass beer pot. In a pub nearby, a huge room full of tiny, bright, flying birds, caught casually out of the smoky air and released again by the hands of breeders and traders. The only nearby grocer was a Bangladeshi, his formerly derelict shop carried a couple of newspapers, a few sweets and two bottles of milk. Gareth Jones and I would occasionally have a drink across the road in the Ship and Blue Ball where Biggs and the others planned the great train robbery. From here I would cross the psychic border into the steel and glass of the financial zone, then into the Archaic Modern of the Barbican, with its dark gardens and labyrinths of corridors and walkways.

Then, this part of the city was a grim place, but I’d come from an even grimmer North. I’d wanted to live in London since I was eight years old when I was brought here by my father. He worked as a miner and spent several years’ earnings from the pit on two holidays in London, where we all cheerfully spent the lot. He’d loved London too and had missed it, since being there occasionally during the War.

Those visits changed my life. I was immediately at home – recognised it all. A glimpse of life outside the soot and the coal smoke of Lancashire. I still remember the places we visited then – and their lost atmospheres.

I still often walk down Store Street, just off Tottenham Court Road, because I remember walking there with my mother and father over fifty years ago. That street in particular remains unchanged in certain parts and I still use it for time travel.

There are places in the city that have their own time zones. Time does not operate in the usual way there. I see my mother and father aged twenty walking together. The cafe is still open and I’m sitting behind the glass window. Now older than my parents.

Daniel Farsons made a TV programme called Farsons London in the late 1950s or early 60s. It was a magnificent series and one of the first programmes I remember taking a real interest in (apart from Quatermass and The Pit, and The Strange World Of Gurney Slade). It confirmed my desire to go to London as I watched it from a very dark, wet and smoky Lancashire, before the Beatles burst out into Granada.

Farsons explored all the odd, seamy and fascinating aspects of London – including the East End, and presented it as an unknown and mysterious place, exotic as an Attenborough exploration of the Amazon. He was a perceptive, brave and curious man. He was familiar with Soho and a friend of Bacon and Freud. Everything he has written and made is indispensible to a real understanding of the true texture of those places, times and events. This was London before I got there, even though I just managed to coincide with a little of it – another sort of Lost City.

Often, now, when I wake up in the night, I need to ask – London or New York? Paris or Rome – or Tokyo? I need to take a few moments to recover something of my previous day before I know where I am. The legacy of years of touring.

When I went to Italy, then New York, I realised that many sections of the northern cities had been built on patterns supplied by Rome.

New York is a European town and its architecture is an evolution of Italian architecture. Manhattan has towers just like San Gimignano in Italy, and the buildings are built of stone and brick and cement, in the Roman fashion – as are the mill buildings of Manchester and Liverpool. So these lost cities were predicated on other lost cities all over the western world. This is how Rome is in New York – and Manchester.

All these places are now my lost cities. As I grow older I realise this experience – of the city gradually becoming lost to us – is universal. We are always part of a succession, which extends far beyond our lifetime, into the past and future.

Even if we remain in the same town or city, we gradually come to use it differently. We will also become conscious of our generation moving on, occupying different, wider or narrower areas of it, and abdicating another space for the succession of generations to come.

This reminded me of seeing my friend Richard Woiczeck become projectionist at the local Odeon Cinema when we were both around fifteen years old. As I stood there in the projection booth looking down the film beam, I had a great feeling that this was a seismic shift of status for our generation – from being kids in the cinema to being a projectionist. If you could do that, you could do anything.

We came to Shoreditch in 1981 because buildings were empty and cheap and the rest of the city was close by. This was our time of succession. The previous waves of industry had vacated the area. We moved into our half derelict shell – the old department store.

The place was full of interesting rubbish and the cellar occasionally flooded an inch or two at the far end from the holy well it was built over. The well is pre-Christian and pre-Roman, part of the system of a hundred or so rivers and waterways concealed under London and forgotten. London is also a city of lost subterranean waterways.

Not just underground rivers. All around, under the streets, are the enormous plague pits of Spitalfields. They extend under the buildings and roadways – thousands of corpses, many in undiscovered burial grounds.  

Recently archaeologists examining these remains caught strange diseases, still alive in the bones. Of course they were swiftly cured by antibiotics. But this introduces a real operable and terrifying connection across time.

Further down, the archaeologists found a Roman tomb – A Woman Of Note complete with gold and jewels. In the strata beneath her tomb are the remains of sacrificial altars and other pre-Roman structures.

I was reminded of Nigel Kneale’s ideas of Hobbs Lane in Quatermass and The Pit . . . half forgotten things under London . . . still active . . . still manifesting effects . . . modern implications of ancient things beneath the streets that we assume are irrelevant from our small perspectives.

Kneale’s ideas in The Stone Tapes are relevant too as they concern the abilities of stone and other materials to record and transmit psychic memories. After all, this is no more preposterous than the recording of sound and video onto iron dust and solidified petroleum.

Between and after the two World Wars, Lancashire had been a hive of psychic activity. I grew up listening to daily tales of exorcisms, manifestations, transferences, seances and other mystical activities. Then spiritualist churches and front room faiths spread as fast as drugs do now.

It fascinates me that almost all the inventors of modern media had initially set out to discover methods of communication with the spirit world – to intercept and send voices and images via The Ether. Instead they arrived at radio, television and electricity. We still use these old spirit terms to describe them – Medium, Ether etc (Link)

After we get over our present baroque phase of theoretical physics, I hope we might get back to the Victorian and Georgian spirit of tabletop experimentation and minute, detached observation. The kind of inquiry that yielded the discovery of gravity and evolution, and the nature and power of magnetism and electricity.

Much may still remain to be discovered – events transmitted and recorded on physical materials; psychic patterning from surrounding geometries; memories carried genetically; undiscovered effects of variant electrical and magnetic fields; the nature and relationship of time and gravity to magnetism and natural electricity – and so on.

There also seems to be a profound connection between electricity and ghosts – after all, what are the images of film stars and the sound of their voices being endlessly replayed, but modern ghosts? The bodies are long gone but Monroe, Bogie, Chaplin, WH Auden, Burroughs, Sinatra etc are still haunting us.

Meanwhile, Shoreditch and Spitalfields was a kind of ghost town – one that I recognised straight away. Post industrial, empty . . . blackened buildings patterned on versions of architecture from ancient Rome. Trees growing out of the windows . . . It was like Lancashire after the dissolution of those dark satanic mills. I’d grown up playing in the ruins of overgrown mill buildings, among slag heaps and aabandoned lead mines and chemical waste pits. Felt right at home again. Full circle again.

At this time I was not aware of Ian Sinclair, the first modern writer perceptive enough to investigate the strange nature of the area, then Peter Ackroyd.

They both wrote exclusively and perceptively about its unique, lost, disconnected and undiscovered aspects. Capturing the essence of a part of the city moored to other modes of consciousness – the lost dynamo of the churches, the interpenetrating layers of time and memory, and the unconscious fear of contagion the streets retained and manifested.

In the basement studio, Gareth Jones and I set up a laboratory of effects – long delays and tape loops and echoes. Then I began to sing into them, attempting to recover some of the sensations of dispersal I’d experienced singing in churches as a boy.

I’d been fascinated by the effects of echoes from church and cathedral walls since I sang in a school choir and had noticed that the buildings altered our performance by emphasising or suppressing certain harmonic frequencies.

This led to a long term speculation about the origins of music and its continuity – even its evolutionary trajectory – through whales singing in the oceans, using them as resonators to communicate and attract males over vast distances – to us – singing first in natural caverns. Then caverns of our own devising called cathedrals, making a kind of music in which our selves – as well as our voices – may be dispersed and reconfigured by the architecture.

I wanted to make some secular equivalent to church music, using an electronic medium as architecture – one that would maintain some continuity with that old form and beyond it, back to its evolutionary roots in the oceans.

This music also had to operate forward in time too, as a sort of hymn to the great cities and new architectural spaces, in which versions of nature are beginning to emerge, as cities become our natural habitat.

My lost city extends out into sections of London, Paris, Rome, Tokyo, Manchester and New York. In Tokyo recently I got lost in Shinjuku and then came upon the theatre I’d once performed at twenty years ago. Ghost hotel down the street where I’d met an old girlfriend. Seemed only a few hours ago. On a visit to New York, I realised The Bronx and the Village of thirty years ago have gone, and with it the places and atmospheres I foolishly imagined were permanent. Streets in Paris I explored forty years ago are still there but their function has altered.

On Brick Market – and in Paris and Brussels flea markets, I used to pick up ghosts and take them home.

Old super-eight movies of forgotten families and lost lives, washed towards the markets by the tides of the shifting city. Manchester has seen a succession of ghosts and transparent faces sliding away into the dim light of day. Many places of my childhood now lie under motorways and housing estates and wrecked woodland.

I once saw someone in Rome from twenty years ago and she had aged not a moment. I’ve spent ten years trying to figure out what happened that day. I think there are cycles and singularities of events that are much stranger and more subtle than we can imagine or understand yet.

My Lost Cities. When I walk there now, I find another layer of time and place and another layer of stories that has been laid down in the threads of the old grey suit.

Of course Spitalfields and Shoreditch have changed beyond recognition since 1981. New buildings, again over the old plague pits. Christ Church is cleaned and restored and many of the coffins and the Roman artifacts have been removed from beneath it. But there is still an uneasy feeling that this is just the surface of things. The city is shifting constantly and we are gently moved along with it.

There are places were time is artificially sealed in, at least for a while. Dennis Severs bought a house in Folgate in the 1960s and refurbished it back into the Georgian era from materials found in skips in the surrounding streets. He was really the first one to demonstrate some of the areas stranger qualities. He would organise ghost tours, so that stepping into the house was like entering the Marie Celeste – clay pipes with the proper tobacco still burning; food of the period still on the stove; authentic clothes strewn upstairs – as if the occupants had stepped out for a moment during a typical evening.

I remember exploring an empty house in Fournier Street. Mysterious foreign presence in the panelled workshop upstairs. Rest of the house dim and vacant. The small back yard backed onto houses of Puma Court, and was covered with a greyish layer of pigeon shit that was over two feet thick.

I also explored a shop on Brushfield Street (now occupied by a well-known author). In the attic bedroom was a ghostly divan bed, covered in plastic sheeting. No rats in the basement, as later reported by said author. A gentle, self-enhancing fiction. Lots of foxes around though. I used to see one old vixen every morning near the market when I was making my way home around 3am.

I lived in Brune Street not far from Christ Church, for several years. The building was called The Soup Kitchen For The Jewish Poor. Also built over plague pits and tube tunnels.

Gilbert and George immaculately dressed in vintage clothing, often walked beneath my window on their way to breakfast in the late mornings. Years later, as the area filled up with celeb artists, I would see Tracey Emin and the Chapman brothers and others in the pubs and streets nearby. Around 1998, Jeanette Winterson moved into a house by the market, having beaten my bid for the same property while I was away in Italy!

I began to realise the place was being colonised and was no longer lost and forgotten. It was losing the ghostly aspect that had attracted me to live there in the first place. This was a good thing really but I didn’t want it bright and modern. I liked it the way it was.

Of course, everyone has their own city, their own routes through it, and the connective and associative places that make up its geography. This is where we merge with the architecture and the streets, become a multitrack recorder of communal and individual memory.

The cities are much more fragile and evanescent than we can imagine. They could easily topple in a few days from disease, or lack of supply of water or food or fuel, yet it is most likely they will continue to grow and alter, and we will continue to invest our small lives into their fabric.

Despite our delusions of individuality, I suspect we are really a swarm organism, still constructing the coral reef. And just as we may ask ourselves which is the real organism, the bee or the hive – in the end, the cities may prove to be our real organism – and they will certainly outlast us all.

For a brief while, when we first moved in to the building at Holywell Lane, one part of the basement walls discharged tiny, coiled insects covered in spiky black hairs. They smelt strange and looked like those Redon drawings of occult familiars. I wondered how they could exist in those walls, and how long their kind had lived there.

It was in that basement, the outer walls permeated by the holy well and returning Thames water containing the dissolved molecules of plague and Roman archaeology and chemical waste and a million interwoven coincidences and god knows what else, that I recorded these pieces of music. On tape made from iron dust embedded in the solidified extract of prehistoric forests. I like to imagine that Kneale would have been amused.

Sunday, March 6th, 2011 JOURNAL