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Leadville: A Journey from White City to the Hanger Lane Gyratory. By Edward Platt. Why did it take me so long to read this?

July 20, 2016

Leadville

I think I decided to read this because I’m contracted to write a chapter in a book c0-authored by people who are way cooler than me.  Perhaps the only thing I can bring to the table is a sense of biographical contiguity.  I think I may have lived closer to the core subject matter of the book than some of the other sharper, wiser, and more perceptive contributors to it, and this happenstance I am determined to exploit.

The fascination of the book is the discovery of life where life should not be possible.  Just as biologists are fascinated by the possibility of life at the bottom of Lake Vostok in Antarctica, so the possibility of life clinging to the A40 between White City and Hanger Lane hardens our conviction that we cannot possibly be alone in the universe.

In the 1970s (or more accurately, in the decade following the partial but fatal collapse of Ronan Point in 1968), Le Corbusier ceased to be Imaginer in Chief of the vertical motorised city and was replaced by J. G. Ballard.  The effect of these great arterial roads is to divide and to separate and to reconfigure time and space in new ways.  The A40 joins London to Oxford but it separates East Acton from West Acton in unfathomable ways.  The Westway and Western Avenue creates dysfunctional looking habitats which still manage to function.  There is nothing more inspiring than a city that is meant to be dystopic but which survives.  The 1970s were New York’s most depressing decade, and yet produced its best films.  The stubborn loyalty of the denizens of the Western Avenue to their street is what makes this book so wonderful.

On the Western Avenue, all life is here, even where life seems impossibly loud and polluted and aesthetically impossible.  Nearly everyone has come from somewhere else and somewhere else could be anywhere in the world.  Houseproud pensioners, surprisingly conservative squatters, the angry, the acquiescent and the bewildered all live cheek by jowl.  And they are being evicted.  The Avenue itself (peculiarly suburban and arboreal term for a concrete gridlock) is to be destroyed.  Except that at the end of the book, the incoming government abandons the plans.  The evictions and demolitions were all for nothing.  The narrator is troubled by the inability of officialdom to acknowledge any sense of monumental (or human) waste associated with this process.  He becomes fascinated by a character called “Robin Green” (names have been changed to protect the hilarious).  Robin Green is a retired town planner whose meticulous devotion to duty has predicted all that has happened and – having been removed to distant Hayes and Harlington – takes quiet but immense satisfaction in his own intellectual vindication.

The narrator of this book is almost carless.  His car withers and dies as his exploration of the road progresses.   Many of the residents of the Western Avenue are carless too – like many many Londoners – defined by traffic which they have no stake in.  It was a swelteringly hot day in London when I read this book – a couple of days ago – the kind of day which, if repeated more than six times in a year would make large scale investment in air conditioning seem viable.  A sense of oppressive and polluted heat pervades this book – it’s a book about those for whom climate change is a living reality.  And yet they keep living.

If this book had been written 300 years ago, it would have been written by Ned Ward. There can be no higher praise.

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