[This was first published on the Literary Platform.]
My great-great grandfather was born in a workhouse in Smithfield. My great grandfather ran a café on the corner of Market Road and Caledonian Road in Islington, cooking breakfasts for the herdsmen and abattoir workers who laboured in the Metropolitan Cattle Market. I have nothing of theirs. No possessions; no photographs.
Yet, I have a fleeting sense of what their lives might have been like from the stories that were passed on by other family members: my great aunt describing the Zeppelin over Finsbury Park during the first world war; my grandmother’s close shave with a Messerschmitt thirty years later; my grandfather, a fireman during the blitz, telling me about taking to the sewers around St Paul’s cathedral one night in December 1942, when he and his crew had to escape the inferno that surrounded them.
Peter Ackroyd, author of the wondrous London: A Biography, views the city as a living, breathing organism. And anyone who has discovered Edwardian or Victorian wallpaper buried deep in the fabric of their living-room, examined the flagstones around Tower Hill worn smooth by millions of footsteps, or realised that the ceiling above them in a gin palace was brown from nicotine rather than by design, will be familiar with the sensation that Londoners are not in command of the city, merely transient custodians.
Yet, it’s surprising how rarely we hear the voices of ordinary Londoners. We go about our frantic business with gusto, overhearing snippets of conversation, falling in and out of love, encountering people and things in both planned and serendipitous ways. Cities are an on-going social experiment that engage, entertain and challenge us in ways that offer insight not just into our environment and culture, but also into whom we are as individuals.
MyLondonStory was just an idea that revolved around trying to capture these personal narratives until I met Andy Fowler and Kevin Brown. As part of the creative agency Brothers and Sisters, they are responsible for the ground-breaking StreetMuseum app: hold up your smartphone in one of a number of locations in London and an image of the place as it once was will be laid over the contemporary image, offering users a way of viewing the city of the past by means of what Andy and Kevin call a ‘dreamlayer’. The platform offers an inventive and compelling way of re-encountering the city, enabling the user to take a glimpse of a bygone era – to connect with those who have stood on the same spot and experienced the city in a different way.
Technology now allows us ways of publishing in new and exciting digital formats – and the ability to geolocate them. By plotting stories from different eras on a geolocated platform we can create layers of experience that act as a narrative about the city. The same location where someone first learned their mother had died could be the place where someone else first ate pizza, another person watched the moon landing and another first arrived with their family from the Punjab. The aim of MyLondonStory is to provide a platform for these experiences to be recorded as high-quality longform stories that offer a deep-dive into the vast and diverse range of experiences that make up the city.
In our first issue Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Matt McAllester joins the hunt for a lost child in West Hampstead, playwright Julie Mayhew recalls an encounter with a glamour photographer searching for talent, New York Times dining section writer Jeff Gordinier recalls encountering the Rolling Stones as an 11-year-old on a visit from California, and Bill Dunn walks from Brixton to the South Bank while tripping on magic mushrooms. Each of the stories offers a vivid insight into the deeply personal motivations and idiosyncrasies of the writers as they interact with the metropolis.
Each is a microcosm of life in a larger entity that illustrates that it isn’t just momentous events that shape the contours of the city: simply by getting up every morning and going out into the world we are part of a continual process of change, one that predates us, and will go on, unabated, long after we have left our own modest mark on our surroundings. Each of us has our own – unique – London story.