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Unreal city, full of dreams: Storytelling in the City of London

30th August 2023 by Lauren Randall

By Andrew Quick

Unreal city, full of dreams

My first real encounters with the City of London took place in the late 1980s.  I was in my twenties and worked in Leeds for a theatre company whose season ran from September to May.  In the months between I needed to find work and I had a friend who was the office manager of a large architectural firm based just off Tottenham Court Road.  So, for a few summers I found myself running drawings across the different districts of London, collecting the post, filing jobs, running errands for architects and engineers, sometimes just being the bag carrier for meetings.  One of the developments the firm was working on was the City of London School for Boys whose building looked over the Thames. It was being converted into offices for a multinational bank. I remember wandering the empty school corridors, spending time in the assembly hall, reading the names of famous alumni on plaques that adorned paint-peeling walls.  I also got time to wander the streets of what I called the old city, the original heart of London, and I wondered at its heady mix of old and new, its quiet alleyways and busy thoroughfares, its extraordinary churches, its squares, and windy streets, that always reflected the medieval template that everything was built upon. The street names: Cloak Lane, Fetter Lane, Bread Street, Wardrobe Place, French Ordinary Court – each with a complex history, each with at least one story to tell.

That was nearly forty years ago. A different time. A different city. A different me. The great thing about working on Follow Me Into has been the opportunity to revisit this extraordinary place.  I say this because when I visit London, which is pretty frequently, I rarely end up in the actual the City of London, the Square Mile that defines its limits. So, walking the streets again, looking for locations for our project, one of the artistic contributions to the City of London’s Bartholomew Fair Festival, has been a real joy. It’s a walk back into the past, not only into the story of my own life, but also into the stories that make up the city itself.

Our outdoor projection work has always been tied to storytelling, to trying to connect to something that is intrinsic to the place, the specific environment we are working in, to entwine the personal with the historical.  Sometimes these connections are obvious and sometimes they are more fragile, tenuous.  But they are always there. In Follow Me Into we have selected figures from history, each with a unique connection to the city, each with a unique story to tell.  I think in our planning we have always imagined the projections as being a little like encounters.  You know, when you stumble across something, something that connects with you and then makes sense of something you always knew was there, but not fully discovered or realised.  Of course, the City of London is full of these stories, and such encounters.  They teem within the fabric of the streets, the buildings, both old and new.  We just have to find a bit of time and space to pause and listen.  I suppose that is one of the aims of this project.  Not just to tell stories but to create a moment where people’s routines are interrupted for a moment and they are invited to see what they think is familiar in a new light.  

I have always loved that line of Eliot’s from The Waste Land written in 1922: ‘Unreal City,/Under the brown fog of a winter dawn…’, which describes the crowd crossing London Bridge into the City of London. He was referencing a line from the French poet Baudelaire, who wrote these words some fifty years earlier: ‘Unreal city, full of dreams,/Where ghosts in broad daylight cling to passers-by.”  Follow Me Into is not a ghost story, but it does resurrect figures from the past and lays claims to the power and hold of dreams, of how to live a just and full life, to be what you want and could be.

With a week to go we are very excited to see what the reaction on the streets of the city will be.  It’s always the litmus test of the work.  It’s been a great project to work on and a great festival to be part of. We hope some of the stories we have unearthed manage to be like Baudelaire’s ghost and cling for a second or two and allow us to dream a little. We will see.

Follow Me Into is commissioned by the City of London for Bartholomew Fair 2023. Find out more here.

Photo by Ed Waring.

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