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The Deep Hum (at the Heart of It All)

March 23, 2014 | by Faber Social

Tags: Andrew Weatherall, Extract, Michael Smith

Michael Smith was not an attendee of R. D. Laing’s ‘Anti-University of London’, situated in Hoxton’s Rivington Street in 1968. He did not buy Post-New Romantic kecks from Willie Brown’s Post-New Romantic kecks shop situated in Hoxton’s Charlotte Road in 1982. As far as Soho’s concerned, he was never called ‘Cunty’ by Muriel Belcher * on entering the Colony Rooms and never settled Julian MacLaren-Ross’s bar tab at the Highlander. He never shared a snifter at the Gargoyle with Nina Hamnett. He is, however, part of a recent history of the demi-monde that frequented (and in some cases still frequents) Hoxton and Soho. He has witnessed the gentrification and franchise sanitation of two personal bohemias.

There are two ways to deal with the loss of a personal bohemia. The first, easiest and most soporific is nostalgia: a vision of a probably non-existent Arcadia with all hardship and regret expunged. In some this is fuelled by an envy of the young. Nostalgia is one of humanity’s default settings, and has been for countless generations. I would imagine the original denizens of sixteenth-century Soho (though it was admittedly not known by that name until some years later) complained that the sport (in their case hunting) was not what it had been, just as the denizens of sixties Soho bemoaned the fact that the sport (in their case characters and carousing) was not what it had been. And so on, and so forth. Paradoxically, although nostalgia can be mentally debilitating for its practitioners, it is also part of what attracts the next generation of demi-monde to a particular locale. A demi-monde that brings an area to life and, more often than not, eventually brings property developers to the area.

The second way is the path of wistful resignation with a homeopathic droplet of cynicism. This is Michael’s Smith’s way. This is the way of Unreal City. Metaphorical battlefields are revisited and old skirmishes are put into context when Michael is drawn back to London after a seaside sabbatical; drawn back by the irresistible hypnotic hum of the metropolis. All great cities resonate, and it is to this exquisitely dangerous frequency that the true flâneur will always be tuned. Michael Smith’s London is still rich infable, cloaked not in a hankering for an unattainable past, but rather wrapped in self-awareness. An awareness that he is a small part of the perceived problem, and that nostalgia is not only an attempt to drown out inner guilty voices – it can also drown out the sound of the hum: what Michael describes as ‘the deep hum at the heart of it all’.
An awareness that, as Joe Kerr puts it in the Introduction to London: From Punk to Blair, ‘The London of today is the authentic city of other people’s perceptions and ambitions.’ An awareness that leaves Michael Smith proud to have served, but anxious to embrace new sensations, to be part of as yet unwritten histories. A realisation that fuels the truly exciting musician, artist, writer in his or her search for new pastures to churn into battlefields. A realization that drives Michael Smith.

Andrew Weatherall

* On reflection, I think Mr Smith has been on the receiving end of this colourful sobriquet.

— This extract is taken from the foreword of Unreal City by Michael Smith, available to buy in paperback here.