“Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter.”
— you know who.
Sick little eyes, peering out across victorian rooftops and the smashed innards of an old butcher’s shop. This is me; poised, falling like one of those melts who tumbles dumbly into a black hole and is cursed to remain there, just as the physical fact of their body is pulverised into the sicko lump of a singularity. Uff! I stomp and retch in a solemn way here on earth, ready to enjoy my larger overall surface area. For now.
By night I walk into the kitchen and turn the taps on and glance out of the window, my eyes roving across the dark mass of architecture and heavy space beyond. An unblinking turquoise glimmer penetrates the gloom. Two neon letters: P R. In days past (before the pandemic), the full length of this sign was illuminated: P R I M A R K. A beacon of Gatsbian angst and longing. I have looked upon it and wept. I have looked into it and felt nothing.
But at some point over the past weeks, the majority of the sign was shut off (or so I believe), or the bulbs finally gave out and died. I M A R K, swilled and spat into the sink of London. The lights went out. But they did not go out entirely.
So it exists only as a stutter; a palatized mouthing gesture whose pouting p is followed by the expansive bark of its unanswered r. Each night, this neon phoneme enters a broken phase; a barbiturated memory that is already devoured, and fantastically incomplete. I find it sad, mellow - what Jeppe Ugelvig calls the “seductively sensual” aspect of the retrofuturist techno-metropolis. Neon calls to the city’s future, just as it makes lewd gestures and winks at us. It says SoHo and sex. It says “all night.” It says kitsch. It says gaudy and hot. I think of it flickering beneath rainfall. Neon is never subjected to heat.
Writers and artists might have found some solace in this neon-lit night - in its company of despair. For insomniacs (I count myself among them), it is the night that affords an open scroll; a vessel in which the ligatures and practices of the day are suspended, and become literally inaccessible. In these moments we find Louis-Ferdinand Céline, seeking a mollifying auto-collapse in the folds of darkness: “I crawled back into myself all alone, . . . because I had brought a new kind of distress and something that resembled true feeling into my solitude.” In his Journey to the End of the Night, it is the daytime that brings with it garish and inconsiderate truths; “wondering how you’ll find the strength tomorrow to go on doing what you did today . . . those attempts to escape from crushing necessity.” By night, the insomniac finds only one necessity - sleep. Everything else becomes an expanded field.
Above the dark and unblinking forms of the city, these things that are glimpsed through my window, I witness an eye swimming. I think immediately of Le Corbusier’s famous definition of the Reine des Arts as “the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light.” Here, beneath the dull pout of the Primark sign, the masses of stone and brick are not brought together but sent spiralling into oblivion. We might jump in.
Years ago, this part of Wood Green was subject to a pretty gargantuan redevelopment that saw much of its historic heart remade in blood-black brick and curvaceous concrete. The shopping village that finally arose was mired in tiring controversy, and would come to resemble a sort of over-bearing hulk; an explosion frozen at its point of maximum detonation. I look at it sometimes and sort of mouth wearily like a fish. it is a ww1 tank run aground in a trench, filled with fetid water and body parts.
In its angular, red-brick massing, there emerges a connection with other post-war shopping centres of similar repute; Lewisham, Brent Cross. The muddy red and concrete becoming something of a theme of 1980s retail, as much a fortress (dominating the sky) than a garden. In 1981, the shopping centre was opened by the queen. Later it caught an IRA bomb.
sadness. it’s something about the tall and narrow gates which loom on either side of the crushing valley of wood green high street; coated in a shadow as cold and chilling as the shadows of the surface of mars. there is a shop which sells only chips, which fills the air with a deep, retching smell of just too much chip oil. sometimes a man empties the oil and scrubs the friers. the smell remains. Recently I chatted with a store owner who has rather optimistically opened a cafe next door to it.
— can you smell it in here?
— no (I lied)
— I’ve lost my sense of smell. Got accustomed to it.
So much amassed weight of metal, brick, plastic, glass. There is a cheap fervour and dirty history buried here; bubbling up through the pavements. It’s an interesting part of London because there is always so much going on, and so little that might be considered (in that oafish de Bottonian manner) of “beauty.” The shopping mall is swollen and foul and grim. And there might be a kind of beauty here; a tell-tale, day-time recollection of the nightly despair of the morbid insomniac, the ‘night walker’ of the city’s medieval past - a figure whose motivations (in the manuscripts) remain vague, even while their behaviour was reviled. The city used to exist under a permanent curfew. The night was a time to seek refuge, not communion. In being un-pretty, it has confidence - loudness. And you’ve got to love this.
PR. The sign is pointless except as a reminder; I cannot act toward it, only picture the day that it heralds. At 5am (awake, not waking) you become intensely aware that soon the shop will creak into activity, as it has done 7,000 times or more before. Delivery lorries will arrive, reverse, disgorge. Staff will arrive, blinking, tired. Security systems checked off, footfall increased. There will be the slow tidal crash as till drawers open and close. The blink of a point of sale. At 5am, and latter - the daytime touches the night. This is where you feel most guilty, in this overlapping moment; a day cheated of its sudden arrival. You have seen the daylight get dressed.
PR calls forward in time, but not far. It calls toward a flattened future of daily procedures. Of habits and necessities. But for a while, in the depths of the inky black, you feel the solemn and companionable thrill of sharing in its glimmer - thrown out just for you. Under its stare, you might not tan or feel the warmth. But it’s not that kind of light now, is it?
In Necropolitics, Achille Mbembe articulates a conception of “biopolitics” which creates the “capacity to define who matters and who does not, who is disposable and who is not.” Today, the state of exception is also this “nocturnal body,” pressed into service to define who will be spared, and who sacrificed. In an age of raging pandemic, the headlines might decide who shall become the “sacrificial hero.” Mawkish politics decide who is allowed to bring the poor and the excluded into their home, and subject them to death. Arenas such as the area lit dimly by the light of Primark are not wealthy areas of power and exception. This is an area of London subjected to years of poverty and exclusion. This is a place from which people rise early on night buses and travel to middle-class homes, office buildings, hospitals - to clean, to wash away the fallen matter of those who wield power. The shopping centre has created a deep incision in time and space. Nobody asked the people who lived here and survive here whether they wanted this cloying beast dropped down upon them. A centre which, to be seen on the horizon from leafy Highgate, must create canyons and deep and insufferable stink and shadow at its base. PR throws light around it, but only enough to illuminate the base of the elephant’s foot. By day it is an exterminating light.
But by night, this limp turquoise grapheme reveals something of its own self-horror, its own abjection. scrawling its name into the cold stone of a prison cell’s wall: I AM HERE. I LIVED, SOMEHOW. The future has arrived, before us - but only a future of clothes rails, too-strong electric light, the impatience of a sales queue, a blank changing room (door closed, the curtain pulled). A future of procedures that exist across a flat and unending plane. By night, we find succour and guilty acceptance in its murky, chucked-out glimmer, a space that exists outside of its daily violence, its gaudy tumult. And this too recedes; swallowing the futures that lie ahead of it. And we answer its call, going to it like the dead.