London Overgrown

This review was first published on Sceptical Scot.

The evening sun gleams on The Shard’s highest glass walls, the last to rise above the ivy now enfolding the rest of the tower. Tangling branches weave a delicate lattice over Regent Street. Sparrows flit through the leafy avenues of Soho. A spreading oak breaks through a third floor Shoreditch window.

The visions of a London Overgrown that inspire a new collection of soundscapes by ambient musician John Foxx might appear at first sight to be just another set of images of an apocalyptic future dreamed by a culture fearful of impending ecological catastrophe via irreversible climate change.

The tsunamis, storms and hurricanes that in recent years have devastated the coastlines of Idonesia and Japan, and flooded great cities such as New Orleans and New York, may be harbingers of still greater disasters to come as global warming gathers momentum. Dystopian images saturate popular culture, most vividly in the millenarian landscapes of movies such as The Road, City of Men, I Am Legend and Mad Max.

But London Overgrown’s perspective is refreshingly utopian, inviting the listener to welcome rather than fear the prospect of the introduction of nature into the city, suggesting a vision of the greening of the metropolis through design rather than sudden catastrophe. Foxx imagines the capital as a garden city of the future, a London made strange by the seamless integration of urban and organic textures. His liner notes envisage a plan for a ‘beautiful new overgrown city’ that has long haunted his imagination:

Perhaps this may be initiated gradually, by obtaining permission to allow a street or two to become overgrown, them it may come to be seen as a Post Carbon City, a way of greening London. Let’s practice vertical gardening all over buildings everywhere. Create the Hanging Gardens of Shoreditch, The Glades of Soho, encourage London to become a truly green city. Let’s resurrect Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens. Allow Hyde Park to spread through Soho to the river. Encourage Hampstead Heath to meet Richmond Park at its borders, via all the squares and gardens and rooftops, right across London…

London Overgrown is just the latest of many musical interpretations of the city Foxx has presented over a long career both as a solo artist and a founding member of the 1970s post-punk band Ultravox. His work obsessively explores the physical and spiritual geography of the city, moving in the same orbit as that of other contemporary observers of London such as Peter Ackroyd and Iain Sinclair, themselves heirs to a tradition encompassing Charles Dickens, William Blake and Daniel Defoe.

Foxx is fascinated by the ostensibly pragmatic infrastructures of the urban environment, with everything seemingly on the margins of the life of the city: underpasses, filter lanes, concrete islands, orbitals, industrial zones, neon signs, sodium street lights, a lone office worker glimpsed through a lit window. But for those who live in the city these very ordinary roads, buildings, cafés, plazas, parks, unremarkable in themselves, are layered with memories. Foxx’s London, like Wordsworth’s Lake District or John Clare’s Northamptonshire, is thick with associations, its everyday imagery entangled in the dreamworlds of those who walk its streets.

Nature and nurture

Here the city is conceived as a living thing, an ecology no less sublime than a Romantic forest or a mountain range, a site of perpetual conflict between constructed urban spaces and a nature ever ready to encroach and reclaim. Foxx notices the overgrown grass verge, the weed in the crack in the wall, the flowers spreading through an abandoned industrial zone, the birds nesting in the office towers.

In London Overgrown nature is no longer an uninvited guest on the periphery, but at the very heart of the city, as integral to its design as concrete, steel or glass. The music’s luminous electronic textures communicate the experience of gliding above verdant city streets suffused with a soft green ambience, shafts of sunlight streaming through gaps in the foliage, the hum of city life mingling with birdsong, clouds drifting silently above.

The shimmering musical lines convey a sense of luxuriant growth, running into and over each other like the tendrils of a tree, an effect emphasised by Foxx’s extensive use of reverb and delay. Commenting on the effect in a recent interview for Foxx said:

[W]ith London Overgrown the instrument I used most was an old DX7, and that can produce beautifully complex upper frequencies, so I simply enjoyed and went along with that. Many of the pieces were improvised using 30 second delays, and delays so long create their own ecologies. It’s like gardening. You let things grow. In the end I had a city that was completely overgrown.

Like much of Foxx’s ambient work the music has a meditative, monastic quality, bearing the influence of chorister schooldays:

I heard older music in church – the sung Latin mass, which was marvellous to hear and that oceanic feeling of dissolving into something greater than yourself. I also begun to understand how chants evolved by harmonising with your own delayed reflections from the architecture.

The impression is of Renaissance polyphony distorted, heard underwater, gently broken apart and transfigured by 21st century digital music software.

Feral cities

Foxx’s vision of an overgrown, organic London is a flight of the imagination, an image of some future city that may never be, but the idea of more closely integrating our rural and urban environments has some contemporary resonances.

There is growing interest in the concept of ‘rewilding’ the British landscape, popularised by George Monbiot’s book Feral: searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding, which advocates the controlled reintroduction of once common wildlife and plants to urban and rural environments. And the early 20th century ideal of the ‘garden city’ has resurfaced in contemporary British political discourse, politicians regularly evoking the image when promising major new housebuilding programmes. A major exhibition staged by the National Portrait Gallery last year explored the utopian vision that inspired the garden city movement, William Morris’s ideal of the seamless integration of town and country, pictured most famously in his News from Nowhere, a novel of a post-revolutionary London in which Trafalgar Square is transformed into a orchard and the Palace of Westminster into a manure store.

And one intriguing project, in the heart of the capital, seems straight from the thought world of London Overgrown. The Garden Bridge project envisages a footbridge that will stretch across the River Thames, from the top of Temple underground station on the North Bank to the South Bank. A garden will extend across the length of the bridge, interwoven by footpaths and seating areas, with trees, flowers, plants and shrubs positioned so as to frame views of the city.

It isn’t clear whether music will be played on the bridge, but in London Overgrown John Foxx has surely supplied the ideal soundtrack.

London Overgrown is available from Metamatic Records. The image of St Paul’s above is a detail from the CD cover. John Foxx and Iain Sinclair discussed their respective interpretations of London in a recent interview in The Quietus; see Capital Realism: John Foxx And Iain Sinclair Hold Court.