From my archive: On being haunted in the city

I was thinking today of my friend Bukola, who left this world just over 20 years ago this month. It made me dig this piece out, which I wrote ten years later, which was published in the CUCR magazine Street Signs in Autumn 2008. The Paul here is Paul Hendrich, who died tragically young ten years ago, in January 2018.

It is at train stations that I am most often visited by ghosts. Yesterday, at Waterloo East, I saw my friend Paul pushing his daughter in a buggy. As he came nearer and his image clarified, I realised that of course it was not him – those sideburns, that orange shirt belonged to another man – and a wave of grief hits me, thinking of the friend I no longer have, but especially the father his daughter no longer has.

Less frequently now than before, but still with surprising regularity, I see Bukola at London Bridge station, a glimpse amongst the crowds boarding and alighting from the trains in and out of the city. Sometimes her hair is cropped short, sometimes bleached yellow, her smile a white dazzle amongst the blur of passengers.

Bukola was my close friend for four years, nearly fifteen years ago.

I find her present too in Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy, a book she lent me which I have been unable to finish but still morbidly pick at from time to time. It reminds me of a grim few days when I struggled with it in the inauspicious environment of the surgical in-patients ward at King’s in Camberwell. The memory of my brief hospitalisation inevitably triggers the far grimmer memory of later visits to Bukola in the psychiatric wing in the tower of Guy’s in the final months of her life. The muted television. The nodding inmates endlessly sipping tea and repeatedly tapping barely smoked cigarettes in the ashtray. The lack of privacy these men and women had.

Bukola’s copy of the Trilogy has passages underlined and highlighted. I have no way of knowing if she emphasised them, or bought the book second hand, already notated. I find arcane significance, clues to her death, in these phrases and paragraphs: depressing images of urban anonymity, paranoid fantasies of being followed along city blocks, Manhattan’s cityscape as an illegible labyrinth.

The regularity with which Bukola comes to me at London Bridge, I think, has to do with the survivor’s guilt associated with suicide: perhaps if I’d acted differently, if I’d held out the hand of friendship more fulsomely, more unconditionally, she would have made different decisions. I think of Bukola, as Antonin Artaud described Van Gogh, as suicided by society.

Her imagination, her creativity, her energy burnt too brightly, too vividly, too intensely for this world. I have no doubt that the everyday drip-drip of racism was part of Bukola’s illness, the non-verbal geographies of suspicion and interdiction that black Londoners navigate; in her episodes, Bukola frequently experienced herself as a black dog.

Bukola, though, was passionately metropolitan. Unlike many other native Londoners, she did not take the pleasures of the city for granted, and she used to enjoy taking me and my friend Johnny – small-town provincials – through the estates of Nunhead where she had been brought up, or pointing out the obscure root vegetables in Peckham
Rye market, or teasing us for acting like bumpkins at Soho post-production parties she snuck us into.

I thought then I would never lose the wonder of the metropolis, the bedazzlement and sensory overload in the face of London’s hugeness and variousness, of the city sublime. But over the years I find myself cultivating what the sociologist Simmel called the blasé attitude, the shock-resistance techniques of the urbanite – the defence system Bukola never mastered. And with that blasé attitude comes a little less wonder.

Until she appears again from out of the throng at London Bridge.

 

 

Gidley, Ben (2008) “On being haunted in the city” Street Signs Autumn 2008, p.17

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About bengidley

Senior Lecturer at the School of Social Science, History and Philosophy at Birkbeck, University of London. View all posts by bengidley

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