City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.

Iain Sinclair contributes the foreward to the new Folio Society edition of HG Wells’s classic The War Of The Worlds, and last saturday’s Guardian Review (yup, still playing catch up) contained a juicy extract. I particularly like Sinclair’s observations on the location for the action, suburban London, and on the radical form of the novel itself. I’ll also quote liberally, if you don’t mind:

"The War of the Worlds is told with tabloid speed and the lovely poetry of the commonplace. The mood of The Time Machine, Wells’s first novel, published in 1895, is much more leisurely, post-prandial; a pre-Raphaelite fable with sinister shadows. Episodes unfold at their own pace, allowing space for lengthy digressions. The War of the Worlds happens in the world of fast news, telegrams, electricity. The false dynamic – of stock-market reports, global investments – is superimposed on slow-moving village life (pubs, horses, hedgerows). Railways are now more significant features than rivers (which prove no barrier to the advance of the Martian tripods). Terse reportage works like radio before its time. Cutting is rapid. Suspension of disbelief is immediate. The model is immaculate and can be adapted to any period at any time …"

"The page-turning impact of Wells’s narrative of invasion comes in short sharp bursts, breathless dispatches, as he lays bare the three strands of time: the now-submerged bucolic past of captured agricultural land, the present of imperialism in its boastful pomp (trains that run on time, swift communication, a splendid capital city), and a vividly imagined future of endless wars, ever-improving weapons of destruction, incompetent and mendacious government and media hungry to report everything that isn’t happening. Lists of place-names become, for Wells as for William Blake, a litany of significance:

"And all about him – in the rooms below, in the houses on each side and across the road, and behind in the Park Terraces and in the hundred other streets of that part of Marylebone, and the Westbourne Park district and St Pancras, and westward and northward in Kilburn and St John’s Wood and Hampstead, and eastward in Shoreditch and Highbury and Haggerston and Hoxton, and, indeed, through all the vastness of London from Ealing to East Ham – people were rubbing their eyes … and dressing hastily as the first breath of the coming storm of Fear blew through the Streets. It was the dawn of the great panic."

"Wells has received insufficient credit as a writer of rhythmic, incantatory prose, long-breath paragraphs to cut against his tight journalistic reportage. The War of the Worlds makes the journey from sensationalist incident to moral parable. Wells predicts an era when fiction and documentary will be inseparable."

This point about speed reminds of an early passage from the Simon Schama piece on the ‘Queen Mary 2’ I’d mentioned previously.

"It has been thus, as Stephen Kern, in "The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918", points out, ever since the orgiasts of speed at the turn of the twentieth century made acceleration the necessary modern ecstasy. In 1909, the Italian writer and artist Filippo Marinetti declared, in his "Futurist Manifesto," that "the world’s significance has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed." On an afternoon two years later, a sixteen-frames-a-second movie of the investiture of the Prince of Wales was developed in a darkroom on a British express train and taken to London, where it was shown the same night. Translated into military strategy by the overarmed Great Powers, as the historian A.J.P. Taylor liked to note, the imperatives of railway timetables drove the logistics of preëmptive mobilization. A pause to ponder was already a defeat. So modernity bolted out of the starting gate in 1914: Archduke shot, millions of men in grey and khaki precipitately herded onto railway cars, carnage began right on cue – before the Flemish mire slowed everything down and millions plodded to their doom." [‘Sail Away’, by Simon Schama, The New Yorker, May 31 2004]

Cunard was also part of this "feverish hurry-up", holding the Blue Riband for fastest transatlantic crossing from 1907 till 1929 (during which time White Star Lines’ attempt to wrest the trophy from them directly resulted in the Titanic tragedy) and yet Schama notes the irony and some joy in the fact that the QM2 is now the definitively slow way to get from London to New York.

The Guardian: Woking At War


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