Tom Chivers. London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City. London: Doubleday, 2021. RRP £20 hardback.
Finally, after 7 years of Turbulent London, I feel like I have made it as a blogger. This sense of achievement is because a few weeks ago, I received my first review copy of a book. Top tip: giving me a book is a pretty sure fire way to get on my good side! I really enjoyed reading London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City, which will be released on 9th September, and I would say this even if I had had to pay for it.
Back in 2013, writer, arts producer and Londoner Tom Chivers used the British Geological Survey website to modify a Collins Streetfinder map of London, tracing the city’s geology over the buildings, streets, and open spaces that we are familiar with today. Over the next decade, he used that map to follow the routes of London’s lost rivers in an attempt “to find the essence of this place; to understand the city as a living, breathing landscape” (Chivers, 2021; p.3). London Clay is the result, 8 essays which are not just an attempt to make sense of London, but also the author’s own life. In some timescales, those of urban development and an individual life, for example, 10 years is a long time. A London neighbourhood can change beyond recognition in a decade, transformed by the forces of gentrification and capitalism. Chivers gets marries, has 2 children, and lives through Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic over the course of his explorations. In terms of geological time though, and even in relation to human history, 10 years is nothing at all, a blip that barely registers. In London Clay, Chivers blends these different conceptions of time well, shifting back and forth between the geological past, human history, and his own life story with apparent ease. Chivers’ love for London is palpable, and permeates the entire book.
The structure of London Clay meanders through the city like the buried, forgotten rivers that Chivers’ searches for. It also meanders through Chivers’ own biography; starting with his young adulthood in Aldgate, then jumping to his childhood in Herne Hill and Norwood, then skipping forward to his current family home in Rotherhithe. The book is beautifully produced; as well as the striking cover, each section is accompanied by an illustration, and each chapter starts with a map. The maps, created by Clare Varney, are worthy of note; ignoring most modern roads and streets, they focus on geology, river courses, ancient roads, and a few key landmarks, showing London in a way I’ve never seen it before, both familiar and disconcerting at the same time.
Perhaps because of the nature of the book, the essays that I enjoyed the most are the ones that I have a personal connection with, for example Dead River, which traces the course of the Neckinger through Lambeth, Southwark and Bermondsey. I lived in Borough and Elephant and Castle for 2 and a half years, and I used to walk through the Rockingham Estate, which sits on the mysterious Rockingham Anomaly, twice a week to get to my Zumba class on Great Dover Street. At the time, I had no idea that I was walking over a peat-filled depression in the terrace of gravel which surrounds the Thames. Chivers’ hopes that the book will inspire readers to “think about what lies beneath your feet and by doing so reveal new ways of looking at the world” (Chivers, 2021; p.7). Edinburgh, where I live now, is certainly a city with some interesting geology going on, but London Clay left me thinking more about my past than my present. This is no bad thing – Chivers himself seems a bit surprised at where the book took him and what it became.
London Clay: Journeys in the Deep City is a well-written, well-presented, engaging book, in the same vein as Mudlarking by Lara Maiklem and Scarp by Nick Papadimitrou. If you enjoy books that combine history, travel, and memoir in ways that complicate otherwise familiar places, then you will enjoy London Clay.