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

Read the introduction to this series

Home, finally, and for good, for now. I pace our small living room, carefully carrying this little bundle, shushing him to sleep. Time begins to slip around, become fluid. I play The Necks’ "Mosquito/See-Through" on repeat. As each of the two tracks takes an hour, and is composed of repetitive fragments in the first place, placing them on repeat seems like a very odd thing to do. It feels an odd use of the interface. They are almost inherently ‘on repeat’, structurally. "Mosquito" just sounds apt, its trickling percussion and twinkling piano possibly conducive to re-creating womb-like conditions. As far as I know. Sod all that new age nonsense of whale song and ambient electronica for the baby. Wombs sound more like Sunn O))) as I understand it. Apparently new-born babies like white noise, so I mentally reconfigure the space in the apartment accordingly, as we seek out promising areas: the hum of the fridge; the extractor fan in the bathroom; the water heater by the kitchen; we move towards taxis as they turn round outside the window. Raymond Scott’s 1963 classic ‘Soothing Sounds for Babies’ might be investigated later, but just for fun and just for me. Our friend M reminds me that nice tasteful wooden toys are for the parents and kids love those horrible garish plastic horrors that make unpleasant noises and probably consist entirely of toxic components assembled by child labour.

For now an Aussie piano trio is all that’s required. "See-through" is just as good, not least for the way the sense of space is articulated. The track is composed of great swathes of silence sitting amidst pools of shimmering noise – presumably lending the porous allusion in the title. It feels, structurally, like encountering a loose lattice of Diller+Scofidio blur buildings in an endless ocean. While Ollie is briefly asleep on my chest, I’m reading James Cook’s ‘Hunt for the Southern Continent’ (in the beautiful Penguin Great Journeys edition), which also suggests this idea that the track might be a meandering route-less voyage, chancing upon mighty ice masses amidst a vast fathomless sea of nothingness.

The Necks' See-through, reimagined as a voyage through a lattice of floating blur buildings

Again, the sheer length and fluid formal qualities of the music distort my sense of time, proving a perfect accompaniment for this continual circuit of the room. Having lived in the same place for over 4 years, the room now becomes familiar in new ways. I see new details, and reconsider the space, just as our imminent move to Australia – meaning many belongings are now in a crate in Wembley, ready to be container-shipped across that great Southern ocean – and the arrival of Oliver has reconfigured the room, and its primary functions. What was once a wall of vinyl and art & architecture monographs is now dominated by a tall shelf of nappies, babygros, muslin cloths and a changing table. This is a good thing, but before Oliver arrived, the room was in a limbo, and felt half-naked as a result. (A half-naked limbo might sound appealing, but isn’t in this case.) Now Oliver has moved in, it feels more alive than its ever been, with entirely new, and very bodily, functions. It works. But what’s actually going on is that this room is suggesting the next room, which will be in Sydney, Australia. Its change in function is its last act, and as I pace around I fantasise instead about living in a Jean Prouvé Maison Tropicale, hoisted up on the hills above Bronte beach. Despite our endless circuits of the room, we’re already moving on.

I will be sad to leave the Mews itself, too. Earlier, I’d carried Oliver up and down the sunny Mews, the sling pacifying him and therefore me, my free hand hoisting up a copy of James Cook, who was at that point sailing north from Antarctica, thoroughly annoyed with the lack of prospects amidst the giant icebergs.

The London mews is a near-perfect urban form for living in, certainly in this city: relatively high density but low-rise scale; a semi-pedestrianised space that safely swallows up cars, without passing traffic; capable of being spruced up with pot plants and small trees; tucked in between larger roads and streets, so generally amidst services and shops. It seems like an un-coiled version of the continental European apartment block. It’s the closest thing London got to that fine form. Instead of a square of apartments surrounding a shared internal courtyard, the mews takes those same apartments, unfurls them and lays them down end on end with a shared drive. It’s not quite as efficient, but close, and with similar civic qualities.

A Bloomsbury mews like ours is generally a little more functional, utilitarian that its West London alternatives in Chelsea and Pimlico. It has fewer of the wooden plant boxes and garage conversions with more garages used as storage for local businesses. The Korean grocer around the corner on Store Street employs a garage for storage here. Closer, a cleaning company called Sparkle Cleaning equips its vans with products first thing every morning. The other garages are used as parking space, and rarely to do with the flats above.

Gower Mews

Gower Mews has been here since at least 1792. I recall seeing it on maps of the city at the excellent ‘London – A Life In Maps’ British Library exhibition that I visited with R+J last year.

It’s clearly visible on Harwood’s "PLAN of the Cities of LONDON and WESTMINSTER the Borough of SOUTHWARK and PARTS adjoining Shewing every HOUSE", from 1792. It is clearly shewn here.

Gower Mews on Harwood's 1792 map

But I don’t think it’s on Rocque’s "An Exact Survey of the Citys of London, Westminster, ye Borough of Southwark, and the Country near Ten Miles round" from 1746.

There’s a couple of layers of history visible in the brickwork of the Mews. One side looks Victorian – recessed sash windows, flush garage doors, and a garret-level top floor. The other looks more inter-war – metal frame bay windows, recessed garage doors, flat roof. This side could be post-war bomb damaged houses rebuilt, but the style looks slightly earlier than 1950s. It reminds my mother of the 1930s blocks in the far North London of her youth. So perhaps it is interwar rebuilding; but what bomb damage from World War 1? There was some bombing of London in WWI, from zeppelins raids. (What a romantic way to trash half a street – in a zeppelin raid. I’ve walked past this great plaque on Farringdon Road many times.)

Gower Mews later side

Time for another quote on the way London redevelops itself, this time from Churchill:

"London is like some huge prehistoric animal, capable of enduring terrible injuries, mangled and bleeding from many wounds, and yet preserving its life and movement."

But I have no evidence that one side of the Mews was rebuilt for any other reasons than a spot of dry rot.

The Mews is sandwiched between a few great bits of architecture, on different scales. A dimpled canopy over the atrium on the Imagination building behind us, converted by Ron Herron from an Edwardian schoolhouse in the South Crescent of Store Street.

Dimpled canopy of Herron's Imagination Building, from Gower Mews

Bedford Square is to the right (I can hear the wind rustling through its trees as I type); and there’s a wonderful view of the imposing Senate House in front, gleaming in the sun during the day and well-lit at night. I’ve written about Senate House in some depth before. I’ll miss it.

Senate House, late afternoon, from Gower Mews

It’s the quietest place I’ve ever lived in London, despite being bang in the middle. Far quieter than Stoke Newington, Clapham, Shoreditch, Fitzrovia … I repeat this hymn to quietness, noisily, until Celia can stand it no more.

We’re right at the end of the Mews, with a view up back up the street. Perfect for people watching, and over the 4 years I’ve lived here, I’ve built up a detailed picture of who lives where, speculating as to what they do, sometimes giving them fake names I won’t reveal here. It may not be surprising that ‘Rear Window’ is one of my favourite films. This Mews isn’t that diverse for London, but it’s still diverse, and that diversity is one of the things I enjoy the most about living here.

There’s an opera singer a few doors down on the left. How Bloomsbury. We’ve often heard her warbling up and down the scales during the day. If it’s who we think it is, she’s pregnant too. (We can’t confirm the opera singer is the person we see leaving the flat, having never seen her sing. She just looks like one.) I say congratulations to her, and she asks how long I’ve been in the Mews. I reply "4 years". They’ve been there 10 years. "The last bargain in London", she claims, smiling. (Many London conversations between strangers turn quickly to property.) They’d only noticed me recently, she laughs. She thinks that’s "Very London".

Upstairs are our wonderful Finnish neighbours plus 8-month-old Alvar, who are moving to Helsinki about the time we move to Sydney. There’s an American-British couple up the road have a had a baby recently too. We’re beginning to repopulate central London. There’s a couple of little old ladies further up. Adjoining to the left is a flat of 4 impossibly cool Japanese students, who pop out at night to smoke; glamorous in the way that only Japanese students could be, apparently with a different outfit every day … And so on, and so on, up the Mews.

Steven Johnson has written about the social cohesion that a baby affords. As he put it, "children strengthen the connective tissue of urban streets." I don’t mean to suggest that social cohesion is only possible via toddlers. Indeed it would be unutterably lazy, selfish and careless to rely on a baby to engender good civic behaviour; equally, folks without babies are entirely capable of creating their own ‘connective tissue’ in cities, thankyouverymuch. But it’s certainly true for us that our neighbourhood has become something we’ve engaged with more, as Oliver approached. Our street has tilted on its axis slightly, as our lives have.

Even before Oliver, I felt more at home – actually in a neighbourhood – than at any other point in my 10-year history in London. I actually know my neighbours. The note of surprise there is very real. I’ve never had that in London before.

And yet I think the one of the little old ladies who lived next door to the left may have died recently. The one I used to say hello to as she peered down from her living room window. I’m not sure. There were reports of a hearse one morning, and I just haven’t seen her at all recently. The picture frames are still propped up on her window sills, but the curtains aren’t drawn at night. So the social binding is so loose that a neighbour can die and you don’t know about it. Indeed she might not be dead. This, it seems to me, might be a condition of an archetypal contemporary central London street.

For Jonathan Raban, the anonymity of the city has been a theme through many of his books, from ‘Soft City’, via ‘Hunting Mister Heartbreak’, to his recent ‘Surveillance’. It is a great pleasure of cities, the ability to lose oneself in a crowd, in a street. Equally, Richard Sennett’s point I quoted earlier – learning to live and interact with strangers – is also fundamental. ‘Rear Window’ is poised on this contradiction between anonymous observation and visible participation. It’s this fluid, homeostatic balancing act of life – it’s up to you how you choose to live your life, but always in the context of others – that makes the urban experience so rich.


Other pieces in this series:
A birth, in 13 places

1. Scan; Private clinic, Harley Street, Central London
2. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, UCLH, Huntley Street, Central London
3. Active Birth Centre, Tufnell Park, North London
4. Antenatal classes; 1A Roseberry Avenue, Central London
5. Bloomsbury Birthing Centre, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, UCLH, Huntley Street, Central London
6. Delivery Room 1, Labour Ward, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital, UCLH, Huntley Street, Central London
7. A&E, UCLH Main Building, Gower Street, Central London
8. Amenity Room 6, Nixon Suite, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital (part of UCH), Huntley Street, Central London
9. Café Deco, Store Street, Central London
10. Transitional Care Unit, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital (UCLH), Huntley Street, Central London
11. Home, Gower Mews, Central London
12. Bloomsbury, Central London
13. Registry Office, Camden Town Hall, Central London


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