Alex Davies begins Londonstone (2009) with a curiously incomplete line from Bob Dylan’s Mr Tambourine Man (1965). ‘Though I know’, as the famous song goes, ‘that evenins’s empire has returned into sand’. Wedged assuredly in the cultural memory, these lines are often said to gesture towards some form of hallucinatory urban experience – the ‘cold turkeying’ of drug users as they negotiate the streets. But Dylan is rarely such a transparent artist. ‘The sand’ the ‘evenin’s empire’ ‘returns to’ in the song also ‘vanishes from his hand’ in the same verse. The experience is not only ‘urban’, but entirely transitory. ‘I have no one to meet’, Dylan continues later, ‘and the ancient city streets too dead for dreaming’. Dylan’s famous lyric strikes a mournful note in terms of Davies’ poem. Rather than an aimless wandering, Dylan is searching for direction ‘far from the reach of crazy sorrow’. ‘Let me forget about today’, he quivers, ‘until tomorrow’. It is at this moment, perhaps, that Londonstone is most deliberately registered. Hallucination is present in the poem, but there are no drugs in sight. It makes sense, therefore, that Davies’ text literally begins with an explosion. This ‘bomb’ represents the terror attacks that took place in July of 2005, when four individuals detonated explosives in their backpacks leading to the deaths of 52 people. ‘AVOID LONDON’, read the signs on the M52 that day, ‘AREA CLOSED’. Davies’ city is not only hallucinatory, but devoid of effective habitation. It is into this maelstrom that Dylan’s need for guidance, his need to forget, seems so urgent. ‘Each noise/ a massive point’, writes Davies of this anxious city space, ‘each person/ a pendulum’ (5).
This is the reality of London post ‘7/7’ as the strangely imitative abbreviation now goes. Full spectrum dominance is registered in a spiralling cycle of violence on the home front. Sealed bins, and trigger-happy policemen, attest to this unreality. ‘Terrible times’, as Davies writes, ‘expect bleeding’ (7). Bill Griffiths weighs heavy on this urban scene, his Spilt Cities (1999) a deliberate assonantal score in the background. ‘Pavement musk tossers’, writes Davies in full Griffiths mode, ‘tug-lust-horse-tail-till-shit-tusks’ (5). ‘This is not the smooth language of the managed word’, William Rowe once wrote on Griffiths’ own work, ‘things jut into consciousness, where the formless meets shaping forces: goal, psychiatric hospital, city’ (158). Londonstone is in the grip of events that bring this anxiety to the forefront of public life. ‘Madness’, as Davies divines it, ‘madmen’ (7). The text takes its cue from Griffiths’ own plastic language formations. This is an urban language morphing with the demands of the city – shrinking and expanding under its very conditions. ‘Spooling conundrums’, as Davies writes, ‘bony Carbonite Maneuevers,/ hansom cabs & Deerstalkers’ (6).
Much like in Griffith’s original formulations, then, behind this chaos lurks an unmistakable odour of menace. ‘Our idols’ idols’, as Davies has it, ‘sculpted/ recycled’ (8). Those behind the levers of power in London are secured within an historical imago of their own making, ‘recycling’ a vision of themselves forever played back in the grand exteriors. Indeed, Davies’ texts make perfectly clear where the violence visited on London will be felt after the smoke has cleared:
War ceremonies paint one colour,
St Paul’s furious boudoir,
Crossed out ad nauseum,
All who attend
Are four score and more (9).
In the grip of the ‘war on terror’ London becomes a distinctly monochrome place. The Manichean battle of the future is between the dysfunctional dictates of St Pauls and the rest. ‘Sputum / Mucus’, will be the raw materials that determine the health of the body politic, ‘cheek swabs / shoeprints’ (9). As a consequence Davies’ London is a phantasm of nervous voices. The real measure of the city only comes into being via the witterings of its inhabitants. ‘I’m petrified of having a fat Labrador’, confesses one, ‘damn you and all you stand for’ screams another (8-9). In the schizophrenic tension between these voices lie not only the key to Davies poem, but also the heart of any city. Privilege, and disconsolate rage, exist discretely together as point of fact. ‘These are the things’, continues the poem, ‘that keep me awake at night’ (13).