Bleeding London by Geoff Nicholson

The Overlook Press 1997 347 pp. 23.95

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


As we learn from Geoff Nicholson’s new novel, London, like all cities, is mythical, "created in the image of each of its inhabitants, newly imagined with each new citizen, with each new attempt to describe it." Bleeding London follows three of these citizens and how their lives intersect, a series of seemingly random connections, a combination of happenstance and the inevitable.

Mick Wilton is one of Sheffield’s finest, a book-reading ex-bouncer, a thug with imagination, whose stripper girlfriend, Gabby, is raped at a private party. The gallant Mick sees it as his job to move to London for a few weeks, hunt the men down, and give them a measured dose of what he thinks they have coming to them. An unwilling inhabitant, he found London "hard and scruffy and cold and affectionless, a place where terrible things happened or were made to happen; and the sooner he could cease contact with it the better."

His vague wanderings put him in contact with Judy Tanaka, a London-born, half-Japanese sexual adventuress, who finds in Mick a diffident participant in her private scheme to create her own private sex map of London. As she says, "There are an infinite number of maps that could be drawn of London; not just sex maps but death maps, crime maps, drug maps, maps of resistance and insurrection, of liberation and oppression, murder maps, suicide maps."

More to her liking is Stuart London, the married, forty-year-old managing director of The London Walker, which provides walking tours of the city. For him, London "contains all the data from which the ideal city might be constructed; a visible, hard city, a city of forking paths, no city of angels." Judy initiates an affair with Stuart, and her increasingly bizarre sexual needs cause him to break off their relationship. He does find himself changed, however, and initiates a private quest to cover every street of London on foot, "continuing his affair with the city, pursuing it, wanting to possess it."

Nicholson uses the action of the book as a means to meditate on the relationship between the body and the citizen body. Like Hobbes before him, he understands that "a man is like a city, a site of erasures, of subsidence, in-fill, subdivision and occasional preservation orders. But there is no blueprint, no foolproof map, no essential guidebook."

Perhaps the most compelling image of this body/city analogy is found in Judy Tanaka’s fantasy, straight out of Kafka: "Sometimes I think I’d like to be tattooed … All across my back. With a map of the London Underground system. Or perhaps not just a tattoo, more a form of scarification, so that the scar tissue would be raised, a little like Braille, to represent the lines and the stations. And I could stand naked in the entrance halls of tube stations and blind men and women would come up to me, and run their hands over me, over the tattoos, until they’d worked out their routes. Maybe they wouldn’t even need to be blind."

Mick, Stuart, and Judy are all driven by internal forces they can’t seem to control: chivalric vengeance, the lust for completing an ultimately trivial achievement, a desire to link the physical body with the brute indifference of the metropolis. As Mick totes up his list of humiliated rapists, as Stuart completes his walk of London, as Judy seeks to litter the city with her conquests, their lives intersect one final time.

Tied in their own idiosyncratic way to London, they learn that "The city … must always be a palimpsest, a series of erasures, of new beginnings, obliterations, of temporary preservation and misguided reconstructions. Much of it is guesswork. There is no authorized text."

London exerts a curious hold over contemporary British writers, from Nicholson to Martin Amis to Peter Ackroyd. All see the city as a hieroglyph which, if deciphered, will reveal some hidden link, a covert connection that unites us all. If the city, in its roadways and buildings, unwittingly creates its own conjunctions, these artists see London as a mirror of their own fictional achievement in ordering the chaos of human imagination through literature.

Nicholson’s aggressive plotting, like that of his countryman, Will Self, rubs our noses in the gritty vulgarities of the characters’ private lives. Bleeding London seeks to shock, but also to demonstrate the transcendence hidden behind the smudged maps we all make of our lives.