London Clay by Tom Chivers – a collage of words on journeys through the Deep City

London Clay by Tom Chivers

“It feels like moving through a collage” says a friend to Tom Chivers as he moves through part of London. This is a suitable way of conveying what this unusual book is truly like. It is a collage of impressions, discoveries, facts and references to fiction. It is not a book of maps, but we now have apps for those. It is not a straightforward history of London or any part of it, but there are historical facts, markers that London has been a city for a very long time, and that people have helped to construct the layers that may well be now virtually invisible except to someone who is carefully looking, and even then it might on be an impression that survives – of bathwater remnants of an otherwise lost river. 

This is not a detailed examination of the lost rivers, tunnels or other remnants and layers of London past – there are other books which tackle those. What Chivers manages superbly is to give an essence of a place, whether a sewer or an area of more open land. His own memories of it, what he is told by a guide or other bystander, the legends of what lies behind the place name, or how it has changed. Social history, geography, geology and so much more have all contributed to this unique book, such is the level of research that Chivers has undertaken, yet it flows in a narrative that is attractively discursive. Any reader who wants to check on the facts can consult the twenty pages of notes at the end of the book, which contains citations for literary quotations, technical journals and even recordings of appropriate music. This is a fascinating read for the armchair traveller and anyone who is fortunate enough to be able to retrace Chivers’ steps around London. I was extremely pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this unusual book.

The personal element of this book also lends a friendliness to this book. Firstly in the people that Chivers encounters, some of who are professionally involved with an element of London, some who have just taken an interest over years. There is also a lot about his own life, family and background. A poet and writer who has used his expertise to organise and lead events around London, he studies maps in order to compile his own versions, and has managed to compose this book, a collage of words. He also reflects on the context of his writing, in a pandemic with attendant lockdowns and pressures on his and nearly every other family. So much is different; hearing a church bell he wonders which church is open during the strict days of lockdown, even the runners in the park stick to certain routes acceptable in a time of lockdown. There will be a time when we are all fed up of stories of what we did in lockdown, but I think at the moment people are still keen to know how others filled the weeks and months of isolation, and this book tells of how little traffic on the Thames has affected the banks and environment. 

This is a vivid and impressive book about London, that which is visible, and that which is hidden deep. At the beginning of the book Chivers says he is trying to compile his own map or guide, but acknowledges that it is a city that is constantly evolving, changing and developing, and that he can only gather so much evidence of this city, “This path. This earth. This broken sacred ground”.