Under London: New Fiction By John Foxx

To celebrate the publication of the first book of short fiction by former Ultravox frontman John Foxx, the Quietus proudly presents 'Under London', an exclusive extract from the collection, for your reading pleasure

It began with a landslip in central London – in the forecourt of the British Museum.

A cavity in the road opened very slowly. People backed away, fascinated and horrified as the tarmac crust split and widened, the railings fell in and the turf tore open.

    Exposed water mains gushed and sewers cascaded from all sides of the fissure. Electrical cables flashed and cracked and the pillars of the museum’s façade leant at crazy angles, before toppling across the stone steps.

    The nearest buildings along the adjoining street were next, collapsing one by one in clouds of dust. The entire forecourt and much of the museum eventually slid down into a huge pit; trees, antiquities and all.

Eventually the subsidence ceased, revealing what appeared to be a vast, rounded marble edifice lying just under the crust of London tarmac and turf. It was smooth, but its surface was grimy with soot, as if it were some relic of a time before coal fires were made illegal.

A similar landslip in Holloway uncovered what appeared to be a great heft of a jointed wing – and each soot-stained feather was longer than an inter-city train.

All along Piccadilly to Hyde Park, long deep rifts in the pavements spread slowly through South Kensington to Chelsea and across the park, then through St John’s Wood and Camden, up to Hampstead Heath.

Another huge marble projection became visible under the streets near Trafalgar Square tube station. Nelson’s Column came down, the pillars at the front of the National Gallery shifted, so that underground and overground train services to Charing Cross were completely disrupted.

Similar disturbances were reported right across the city, as far as Clapham in the south, Richmond in the west and Hampstead in the north.

    In the financial zone, the Bank of England was finally realised as a ruin – not quite so picturesque as that envisaged in the nineteenth century by the artist, Gandy, for its architect, Sir John Soane. Most of central London had become unsafe. The city was almost at a standstill.

The subsidence occurred so slowly and at such a uniform pace that few casualties were reported. Although many buildings eventually collapsed and parked cars continued to slide down into the rifts, it all happened so slowly that most people were able to exit the roadways and buildings safely.

The television news buzzed with speculation – experts gave opinions, citing earthquake, volcanic activity, recent weather disruptions and tectonic plate movement as likely causes. Every expert had a different theory.

The most revealing information was broadcast by the BBC. Filming from helicopters over London clearly showed the extent of the subsidence. From the perspective these images allowed, it became possible to comprehend something of what had actually been going on.

    Eventually some of the huge marble objects revealed by the landslips became recognisable, though immense in scale. It became apparent that all the huge uncovered objects were in fact connected.

    What the film showed was the outline of an unimaginably huge figure lying underneath the city. It had wings. A vast marble Angel.

In the huge pit where the British Library had once stood, the side of a great head was visible. Its hair, tangled in the foundations of buildings at the perimeter of the pit, was a mass of curls, reminiscent of the deluge drawings by Da Vinci.

The Thames had been breached at Barnes by a gigantic foot, which diverted the river around it. A Kensington Palace eruption was found to be the projecting tip of a giant wing feather. Great marble fingers emerged from bracken and earth in the woods at Hampstead Heath.

The BBC also broadcast a digital model of the Angel – extrapolated from the landslips, the exposed parts and the new topography of the city – superimposed over a map of London. It was calculated to be at least a hundred times the size of the Statue of Liberty. The head alone was bigger than Wembley stadium, and its wings spread through Barking on one side, and Harrow on the other.

    The strange thing was, everyone who saw that one particular rendering felt it was oddly familiar, that they somehow ought to know it well.

We were all completely overawed by the massive scale of the thing. Crowds gathered to stare in silence in the places where parts of the Angel had been revealed.

    Then the BBC reported that a heartbeat had been detected, as well as pulses in the limbs and extremities. Their pace was extremely slow, about one beat per week, but the Angel appeared to be alive and dreaming. REM was detected – although this, too, was far from rapid. It also seemed to stir very slightly from time to time.

    The upheavals across the city were likely to have occurred as it turned in its slumber. At that point, no-one knew if it might turn again. Or even if it might eventually rise from its sleep.

Then several weeks passed without any sign of further movement. Monitoring scientists reported the heartbeat had slowed right down to less than one beat per month – and the interval between beats was gradually lengthening. The Angel appeared to have settled back into its slumber.

After some frantic consultation, the government felt secure enough to reassure the population that the situation was now stabilising and would be dealt with swiftly by the civil authorities. A marathon emergency sitting was convened between all political parties. Teams of experts and scientists were brought in.

It was clear that the Angel was inextricably tangled into the fabric of the city, so it was unanimously decided that the only possible solution was to cover it up. Any attempt to remove such a huge mass of material would surely destroy the rest of the capital.

It was also acknowledged that the city must now be reorganised and rebuilt around the Angel’s new position. The entire topography of the centre of London had altered – even the route of the Thames had been permanently diverted.

    So, we buried it again. Concreted around it. Covered it up with earth and rubble and tarmac.

    Earthmoving and construction machinery were mobilised across Britain and Europe and marshalled into an unprecedented reconstruction programme. Road, rail and underground systems had to be rerouted, and after the raw infrastructure was completed, it would also be necessary to landscape many parts of the city, on a scale exceeding the wildest dreams of Capability Brown. Mature trees were to be transplanted, uncovered rivers and tributaries diverted, lakes created, bridges built and entire hills and valleys formed by monolithic earthworks, some would become houses and workplaces, some would replace disrupted squares and parkland.

All this took place some years ago, and since that time there have been many speculations about the origins of this Angel – none of them completely satisfying.

    As someone living in the city at the time, I naturally have my own thoughts on the matter – as does everyone you meet. Cab drivers have a glorious time of it, of course, but even the most reticent Londoner will have their own theory and expound it at any opportunity.

    Whatever the true picture might be, the discovery of the Angel has unified the city like nothing since the Blitz. We all have it in common now, and we have no choice but to live with it.

The Quiet Man: Short Stories By John Foxx is published by Extra Thrust

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