City of the ‘Docks:’ How the London Docklands Development Plays an Important Role in the “City of the Mind”

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      Penelope Lively’s City of the Mind, really expresses a point of view of London that most seem to overlook.  And in two words that would be “big business.”  This concept of doing what is right morally and what is right for “business” goes hand in hand in the mind of Architect Matthew Halland.  On one instance, he is definite on his morals not to evict the residents out of their homes and destroy sites of such history for it would be a terrible thing to do.  On the other hand, he is almost left with no choice to some extent due to the ruthless harassment he receives from the evil, developer who will stop at nothing to make poor Matthew reconsider.  In our reality, (which I would soon later found enough evidence from my excursion to the Museum of the Docklands in London), these ruthless tactics would result in the homelessness of over 50,000 people, throughout the 1980’s.  But it is not just about the people who reside in these buildings but the history these buildings have to offer.

      An example of this history being demolished can be seen in Chapter three, when Matthew has a bit of banter with one of the construction workers. The passage starts off when the narrative depicts:

“Matthew stopped to peer through the peephole in the woodwork, to find himself eyeball to eyeball with a helmeted construction worker, who opened the gate.” …”Looking for someone?” “No. Just curious. [Matthew]” …”There was a wasteland of mud, the bulldozers backing and biting.” …”What’s all this going on? [Matthew]” …”Paved precinct. Shops and that.  We’re taking the bodies out. [Construction worker]” …”Bodies? [Matthew]” …”Churchyard.  Thousands of them. [Construction worker]” …”Where will they go? [Matthew]” …”They’re to be re-interred in a big cemetery out Wembley direction. [Construction worker]” (37)

Now I have nothing against cremation but if these bodies were buried in this churchyard that is most likely a burial under their final wishes.  With that being said, it shows a disrespect for the dead in this churchyard by moving them as if they were pieces of trash that need to be brought to the dump.  This also takes away the historical value this churchyard may have in the local area in London where it is being bulldozed.  And for what for the profit of commercial value over historical! It is really shows the audacity of ruthless developers and businessmen. And I do agree we need commercial development to take place in order to have the cities themselves accustom to their citizens. On the other side of the coin development can damage the lives of the residents and the history that resides in their area.

     In the end, the development of London’s Docklands region was an example of the negative side of development more so than the positive side of development during the time the novel was published.  Forced evictions, increase in homelessness, increase in poverty were just a few of the problems that resulted from this development project.  However, the point of this post is to show that things have changed through the utilization of looking what it was like in Lively’s time. And the area (since 1997 at the earliest) has been reviving into top financial districts with Canary wharf and its boardwalks, museums, restaurants and pubs galore.  Despite the crookedness behind these developments, it did help build an area that, historical value or not was, slowly dying economically and that is what might have brought the Docklands wharf to the greatness they’re at right now.


Heraclitus and City of the Mind

“You cannot step twice into the same river, and yet you do. It has carried you away, and yet you stand on the bank, looking at the point of your own departure” (21).
This excerpt aligns Matthew’s struggle with perception and understanding of London to the ideas of 5th century BCE philosopher Heraclitus. Heraclitus theorized that the universe was in a state of constant flux, that is was ever-changing. This line that Matthew says in the novel is Heraclitus’ phrase exactly. What is interesting though is that the subject of change is inverted between Heraclitus’ philosophy and Matthew’s.
If we visualize Heraclitus’ statement, the self is consistently identifiable. The molecules of water that touched your feet when you first put them in flow down the river, into oceans, replaced by new water from countless places, but somehow the river is still the same river. Conversely, the consistency of the self is not considered in Heraclitus’ explanation. The self remains to observe the subjective nature of the ever-changing river.

Lively shows Matthew’s experience with the problem in a different light, when she writes “‘this is a pile of bricks. Carefully arranged bricks, I grant you, but a pile of bricks none the less. You may call it a late Georgian house with a neo-classical portico and Coade stone dressings. Others might just call it a house. A Martian would call it a pile of bricks, if he had got as far as identifying a pile or a brick’” (p. 26). Here, the external realm is constant. The “pile of bricks” remains physically the same, but instead reflects the fluctuations of the ever-changing consciousnesses of the people around it. The people in City of the Mind are Heraclitus’ river; the rest of the world, such as architecture, is Heraclitus’ self. The pile of bricks appears to change according to how people perceive it, and eventually does change according to architectural need, both of which are necessary attributes of the people, not of the building itself. Matthew constantly struggles with the idea that he and his ex wife were once good for each other, but then, suddenly, they weren’t. The marriage was an institution, a pile of bricks, something he could identify, but he and his wife are people with fluctuating needs and perceptions.
Matthew states at several points that great architecture arises out of utility. The inevitable failure of their marriage was a simple failure for the structure of the marriage needed to change because of the changing needs, the utility. One half is lost down the river, because neither will ever change at the same rate – and as Heraclitus made clear, change exists. Matthew sees the city work the same way. Although he describes it as an organic being, it only appears so because it must adapt in utility. He himself is in the business of re-purposing buildings that can no longer function as they were originally intended to, and it takes phenomenal effort to change these buildings. If the body is controlled by the needs of the mind, and the city functions for the needs of the body of the people, then the city must be a function of the mind. Hence the title, City of the Mind (or another interpretation of the title, anyway) !

City of the Mind

He sees that time is what we live in, but that it is also what we carry within us. Time is then, but it is also our own perpetual now. (9)

One of the greatest things about this book is that Penelope Lively blurs the lines of time in order to make the readers think about their own perpetual nows. In Henri Lefebvre’s article, “The Production of Space,” he talks about architecture it derived heavily by space. This is mimicked in Lively’s novel because the architecture provides context to the main character, Matthew Halland, and to the readers. As Matthew walks through the city, either by himself, or with his daughter, he is constantly noticing the changing atmospheric space of London. However, what stays the same is the architecture. The beauty of London is that there is a unique blending of old and new. Beautiful glass buildings are put up next to majestic brick ones.


A photo I took on a walking tour of “The London Scene” that depicts the two types of buildings next to each other.

This kind of marriage between old and new are exemplary characteristics of London and of what Lively is talking about in her novel. Existing along with this marriage is the idea of a heterotopic space, multiple levels of time existing in a single space. There are flashbacks of other people’s lives that have walked the same streets as Matthew and have lived in the same place as him, but there are also flashbacks of his own life. There are several different layers in existence of the same space. I’m beginning to think that London is just one enormous heterotopic space because I have mentioned this concept in these blog posts, but also in a couple journal entries for another class. And I think that’s a huge example of the Englishness on display in London. However, Jane’s accident and the accident of the little girl are related through the layers of time and space and are tethered together in a related moment. There is a unison between the two circumstances, but also a disconnect because one girl lives while the other does not. This kind of connection probably happens a lot in real life, with one occurrence potentially happening on the spot of a same occurrence. It’s all about the history of the space and the different people that have stood in the same spot throughout the years.

That particular stack of bricks occupied the same space in, maybe 1740. The same bricks, in the same place, looked at by different people. That, to me, makes a complicated nonsense of the passage of time. (8)

Another really interesting concept presented in this novel is the idea of spatiality and what it means if something happens outside of your small bubble. What I mean by this is the conversation that Jane has with her dad when she asks him, “Where are you when I’m at mum’s house?” Jane cannot physically see her father, so does he actually exist? “She turns from the window to face him. “That’s not what I mean,” she cries. She is frustrated and intent. “I mean- I can’t see you, I can only think you, so you aren’t there.”” It’s a strange concept to think about and even more so to convey, but the idea is that things do continue to happen and change even when they are outside of our own personal range.

When we walk through London, we experience the old and the new, the people that have walked here before us, and the idea that things are happening outside of our immediate bubble. It relates to this course because that idea of heterotopic spaces defining Englishness. What is brilliant about London is that it is the blending of different times, different cultures, different people. A quote from the book is “the city speaks in tongues”- this provides context to the idea that London has become a place of different cultures and different expanses- a series of heterotopias. There are always multiple layers of spatiality happening in a place. I’m aware that this isn’t McVicker’s class, but I think defining Englishness comes down to the idea that spatiality is a key concept in the overall explanation of Englishness.

This book “writes London” on that it gives us literal places that Matthew is seeing, we’ll see, and people have seen for many years. It also gives us a clue into the history and culture of a city like London.

It’s a long video, but if you have time to check it out, it’s Penelope Lively talking about how the study and appreciation of history influences the writer of fiction, which relates directly to this novel and to our entire course of study. It’s also really interesting to listen to her speak, she is such a posh British lady!

Her part is from 5:45-46:00

The Mind’s City

What is it like to be an architect moving among the meeting of old an new that is the city of London? Imagine the dialogue that would occur in the mind of a man whose training is to build.
First I would like to address what it is to create something, to build up something from scratch. The be an architect is to conceive of a space. This space is created with a purpose, a function. It can be political, personal, communal, but ultimately it is a concrete place that will be made into a space by the objects and people within its walls. It seems a heavy task, especially in London, to create a new building, a new opportunity, a new space. In the novel Lively writes, “This city,” said Matthew, “is entirely in the mind. It is a construct of the memory and of the intellect. Without you and me it hasn’t got a chance.” Matthew goes on to explain that, “significance is in the eye of the beholder.” London is tradition intermixed with the new but how is this important unless the people that surround this history and tradition treat it as such. The architect in this novel is surrounded by St. Paul’s and its glory, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament with their stately existence. He is confronted with the history and transnational identity of the docklands and as a creator of the new, he must try to achieve a place in a world that values the old.
Matthew, struggling with a divorce, the loss of love, and a complete revamp of what it is to be a father, is confronted with what can be sacrificed for success, development and expansion of wealth. The docklands are the central space for these questions. What is the significance of the setting of the docks of London? If you look back into history you can see that the docklands was the heartbeat of London. It is a place for trade, bringing in goods from all around the world and providing London with comfort and a new, worldly identity.
In the book there are many moments of reflection and contemplation while walking through the streets of London. Reflection on reality and unreality as well as the what is present and what is past and how those all intersect. In the novel, Matthew’s young daughter poses an intriguing idea.
“Jane says, ‘Where are you when I’m at Mum’s house?”
Matthew, startled and wary, abandons his paper. ‘I’m at my office. Or here in he flat. Or seeing somebody about something.’
She turns from the window to face him. “That’s not what I mean,’ she cries. She is frustrated and intent. ‘I mean — I can’t see you, I can only think you, so you aren’t there.’”
This is fascinating to me that Lively uses a child’s innocent and curious mind to capture one of the primary themes of the book. Perception of the things around us. It is titled City of the Mind for a reason! Matthew’s young daughter asks where someone or something is when they aren’t in sight. She asks the impossible question of what existence in the mind is. Does her father carry on when she can’t see him in front of her? Does Matthew’s London only exist in his mind?


“The City of the Mind” By: Penelope Lively

“The City Of the Mind” By: Penelope Lively


The novel “The City of the Mind” By: Penelope Lively shows several different ways of “Mapping Englishness”. This novel provides a tragic historic reference to the Blitz. On page 119 it describes the Blitz, “The whole sky is a brilliant orange, with the plump shapes of balloons floating against it as clear as by day, and incandescent columns of smoke boiling upwards, grey-black touched with red. The scarlet blizzards of sparks, the drifting clouds of red embers; the silver arcs of water jets against the banks of smoke. The shrill descending whistle of high explosive bombs, and then the dull prolonged boom, shuddering away into silence.” That is a very descriptive passage on what they Blitz experience was like for Matthew. This reference in the story to the Blitz is a very important part of Englishness. It describes the tragedies that thousands went through in London.

Information on the Blitz. According to an online article, the Blitz caused “60,000 people to lose their lives, 87,000 people seriously injured, and 2 million peoples homes were destroyed.” “ In July 1940, The German air force began making daily bombing raids on British ships, ports, radar stations, airfields, and aircraft factories.”


On page 85 on the novel, Matthew and Jane visit the “Royal Museums Greenwich” National Maritime, Planetarium. Some information I found interesting on the history of the planetarium was, “The National Maritime Museum (NMM) was formally established by Act of Parliament in 1934 and opened to the public by King George VI on 27 April, 1937. It includes the 17th-century Queen’s House and from the 1950s, the Royal Observatory, Greenwich”. I believe this novel offers numerous historic information. It is definitely a key source to “Mapping Englishness”.


These historic places and references are what makes London the city it is today. The good things, like the historic history museum and also the tragic things like the Blitz. This history makes London what is now. People and their spaces shaped the city of London. The Blitz was an event that took advantage of London and made the people of the city live in fear at the time. The people of London had to shape their space to protect themselves. According to the article people were so afraid of their homes being bombed at night that some would sleep in the underground tube stations and others would sleep in “Anderson Shelters” if they could not protect themselves.

According to the novel on page 85, “For wait they must, along with everyone else, in the straggling unruly queue for admission to the Planetarium… There are waxwork figures of the great physicists and astronomers swept in turn by strobe lighting as the voice gives a rundown of their aspiration and achievements. Einstein, wearing a brown jersey and grey flannels, sits perched on a large glass disc, staring without expression at the polyglot and cosmopolitan crowd that shuffles past, eating sweets and sucking Coke through straws. Matthew finds this scene intolerably dispiriting.”

This passage here I believe is important to London’s Englishness and where it stands in the present day. It is pointing out how people are not even acknowledging historic and very intellectual people who changed are world. It is explaining how these monumental, and inspirational people are just being ignored by others. They are rushing past them like they are not important at all to history. I think it is also trying to say that the people may have been not paying enough respect to them.

These historic references throughout the novel trying Map Englishness and are a part of what makes London the city it is today.


City of the Mind


In several of the items that we have read for class a common theme has been change. These different, poems, or novels all depict how the city of London continues to change for better or worse. The novel City of the Mind by Penelope Lively continues that theme.    

There are several instances within the novel that nod to the change that the city continues to go through. It is even the protagonist Matthew’s job as an architect to design and create these new changes. There are subtle mentions to the ever changing city. One of these particular instances is just a passing phrase when Matthew thinks about his ex-wife Susan. On page 118 Matthew thinks about the changes to the city, “But this was all long ago, and in another country. Waterloo is still there, and the Embankment- he passed the precise spot, indeed, just the other day-but the place in which those thing happened is the country of his mind. He is elsewhere now, and must make what he can of it.” This passing thought, not only describes the countries ever changing nature, but how he himself has also changed. In a city such as London life is busy and people, and places are always changing. Matthew is able to look at his life in this moment and see how he himself has changed as well as the city.

Another instance we notice the ever changing city is when Matthew is heading to the Spittalfields. Matthew notes that the area has been occupied for centuries despite factors such as market volatility. He notes that the occupants and there choice of industry. On page 95 he observes, “Which has mopped up wave upon wave of immigration, from Huguenots to Jews to the Bengalis of today. Which has moved form silk-weaving to cotton and calico and eventually to the viscose, nets and cords offered now on the shop-front of a wholesale textile importer.” The wonderful thing about this novel is that instead of just saying that the city has changed Lively uses Matthew’s observations to illustrate to the reader how the city had changed. When you look at pictures of London there is the juxtaposition of the old and the new. You are able to walk by buildings that have been in the same location for hundreds of years, and then there are also buildings made entirely out of glass and concrete, which have only been there for a couple of years. In this image you are able to see the tower of London, and in the background is a glass high rise.

As I have been walking around the city since I have been here the idea of the interplay between the old and the new has taken even more shape in my mind. The London Scene’s walk with Katrina yesterday pointed out many of the spaces and how they have either been repurposed. How all of these ideas with the old and the new connect has a much more firm idea in my mind now that I have actually been in London a few days, and not just reading about these spaces from my room.

This is a link of just some of the building projects that are currently going on in London. This is interesting to see the plans for this place that is ever changing.


City of the Mind


“He has become, it seems, nothing but a pair of eyes, seeing this.”

City of the Mind by Penelope Lively gives a unique perspective in which the reader is able to view the city of London, not just through the mind of a native, but through the mind of an architect. This allows the reader to gain the perspective of the buildings, which are generally inanimate objects overlooked as simply small facets of the characters world meant to give aesthetic value. However, when we regard buildings as being able to have a perspective, we are able to see the city in a new light, breaking into the privacy of the many vectors that occur in public spaces and getting an unbiased view of how people interact in public spaces for hundreds of years. The city then is no longer laid out neatly into organized plots of spaces, but becomes a web of interconnecting lives layered over years stemming from the time the buildings were constructed all the way to the present. This is reflected through Lively’s keen ability to connect different eras and characters seamlessly, to show how all of our emotions and desires have archetypically remained the same, and that every human being desires to be loved, noticed, and to have a place in this massive world. The stars, like the buildings, are also key to Lively’s character development, as they are emissions of light that have overlooked the city, and all cities, for hundreds of years as well, in the same way as the buildings. The reader is reminded that each night we walk under the same stars, and each day into and around the same buildings, as people hundreds of years before and hundreds of years after us have and will do. Thinking of ourselves in such small terms in juxtaposition of the layers of time which are created in even just one space in our life, is an extremely humbling consideration; however, just to know that our thoughts, fears, and desired are echoed in every human being around us is comforting because it unites the human race, rather than separating it.

Lively unites the characters she chooses to create in her novel by reflecting similar situations in layers upon one another. These situations are typically ones that are defining moments in the characters’ lives. These moments are evoked by a character experiencing their entire future shift, or the possibility of it, and altering their entire world as they previously knew it. At the end of chapter thirteen, Lively depicts a scene where Jane runs into the road and is nearly killed by an oncoming car. Matthew explains hat “he lives, in that flash, the whole of it-her broken body, the ambulance, the hospital, the faces of strangers, tomorrow and tomorrow and the rest of life” (Lively). This is a defining moment for Matthew, while his daughter was not killed, he still has a flash of a possible future, and how fragile life is and how quickly it can be changed. This moment is then echoed in the following chapter, when the air raid warden states “in twelve hours nothing happens; in ten seconds, a street explodes into fire and dust” (Lively). Again, Lively uses this moment to portray the fragility of life. This chapter ends with the warden’s daughter dying, “he stands there. He has become, it seems, nothing but a pair of eyes, seeing this. He knows only this here and now, this sight. And it comes to him, in a long moment, that there will never be at time when this has not been” (Lively). Again, Lively emphasizes the moment that can come to define these characters, and how even though many years have passed in between the existence of each, the same things remain important and death and the fragility of life is still a constant fear. How fragile human life is, though, is ironic in juxtaposition with the buildings that surround them, which surpass their lives and overlook all of these tragedies.

Without human beings and these life-defining moments or even mundane daily activities, the buildings and brilliant architecture and spaces are simply hollow shells. The spaces that human beings inhabit only become noteworthy and meaningful because we bring the meaning to those spaces. In Virginia Woolf’s essay “Street Haunting,” she states “when the door shuts on us, all that vanishes. The shell-like covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughness a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye” (Woolf). That is to say, the central eye within each of us is what gives meaning to these places, this eye is what allows us to understand and inhabit the places that surround us. Lively shows that the spaces we inhabit, no matter how beautiful, would be nothing if there were not people to consider them beautiful or to inhabit and experience and exist within them.


Interesting Links:

Virtual Tour of London, can you map where we were?