The alchemical metropolis


Albion, Albion, your children dance again

Digital Leatherette (1999) from writer Steve Beard is a curiously fractured novel, described as an ‘ambient hyperfiction’ and perhaps could be considered as a valid representation of the various intertwined threads of the current UK psychoegeographic scene. The book comprises of a series of distinct chapters documenting various shards of an apocalyptical cosmological narrative located in a cyberpunk styled London in the time of the last days of HRH Elizabeth the Second. William Gibson describes the novel as ‘an exuberant, neurologically specific neo-Blakean riff collage’. Themes within draw upon the diverse magical histories of illuminates such as John Dee, along with an array of mythological gnostic entities, UFO conspiracy theorists, anarchist cultists, the tangled esoteric writings of Blake and the verbose pontifications of post-modern theorists.

Each chapter is composed in a different manner, so we have a John Dee film script as penned by Quentin Tarantino, paranoid eschaton believers chatting on bulletin boards, dry television voice-overs describing a Royal renaissance in the UK combine, stark text adventure scenarios exploring the gnostic fringes of the magical universe, complex Elizabethan weather magic spells, the poetical musings of AI stock exchange supercomputers and the sordid phone conversations of MI6 operatives, all dancing watchmen over a throbbing populace set to erupt in dark bliss. The reader having experienced all of these exhaustive scripts has ‘travelled many a long dim city silent street’  arriving at the last day, as J Thomson once wrote.

Last Day © Mark Atkins (capitalism as apocalypse).

The keystone at the heart of the plot is the legendary London Stone, liberated by mischievous occultists who seek to realign the damaged ‘psychocartography’  of the city in order to manipulate the outcomes of the warring state. Iain Sinclair says of the stone’s present location ‘the new alignment hurts. It’s part of a process whereby all ritual markers of the original city have been shifted, not my much, by just enough to do damage; to call up petty whirlwinds, small vortices of bad faith’. This of course draws upon the complex envisaging of London as a turbulent multidimensional narrative. Symbolism is wrought upon every facade of the urban realm. There are nods to the mighty Michael Moorcock too and his exuberant ghost of Jerry Cornelius, hipster time traveller and misanthropist. He haunts these pages revelling in the apocalypse and musing from afar ‘I also have it on very good authority that the world is coming to an end. I thought I’d go home and watch it on television’. Peter Ackroyd’s ‘liquid city’ also weaves through the various chapters. His Hawksmoor novel in which London’s architecture is re-imagined as part of a gothic plot of diabolical sorcery provides a parallel backdrop to the techno-shamanic evocation of the vacant Battersea power station in Beard’s evocative rave chapter. Ackroyd’s architect character Dyer sighs, ‘I lack the World, for I move like a Ghost through it’, he can only manifest himself as the built environment, as plan and pediment. The structure echos Beard’s visionary DJ Voodoo Ray who casts her soul along galactic ley lines as telecommunication pulses.

The fundamental question after considering all these dislocated ramblings is to ask does the novel work in a coherent manner? I cannot answer in any sensible way. Much of the content is self assuredly derivative and a loving pop culture homage to particular exacting mythological trends. The story within is rendered as kind of obscure cinematic fiction, event compounded upon event. Architect Bernard Tschumi (mentioned in previous posts) has written extensively on the notion of the event city which ‘aimed to offer a different reading of architecture in which space, movement and events are independent, yet stand in a new relation to one another, so that the conventional components of architecture are broken down and rebuilt along different axes’. Beard’s London hence is a metropolis of instances lost somewhere between Debord’s spectacle and The Clash’s punk rock anthems. Joe Strummer once sang ’cause London is drowning and I live by the river’, the populace revels in the mutiplicity of the sinuous wanderings, cataclysms, situations and nodes. Each thread signals a particular aspect of the psychogeographic scene. Delve into this fast paced pulp fiction book with a well thumbed spotters guide in hand and enjoy the cartoon voyage into the alchemical mega city.



  1. Jerry Cornelius!!! A figure from the past! Old times of International Times and Oz Magazine!! I couldn’t say Long May they Live – because the both went/constantly teetered on the edge of ridiculous most of the time.

    Thanks for that – amongst the jostling urban cosmopolis of our contemp lives, these things still hold a place.

    1. Haha, yes a psychedelic time traveller, I would hazard he has dated rather badly , even though his strange persona is an appropriate character for a dark London which is formed from many ages, cultures and misadventures.

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