Change and decay

<strong>Derelict London</strong>

Paul Talling

<em>Random House, 224pp, £9.99</em>

For a place really to count as a great city, someone has to have fantasised about its destruction at least once. Be it Babylon or New York City, the visions of its palaces and public buildings covered in moss or scattered into broken pieces are part and parcel of the city's power. Although it has quainter pleasures, much of the appeal of Paul Talling's excellent little book Derelict London is in how it seems to trace the skeleton of a dead city while it is still in apparently rude health.

Compared with Talling's long-running website of the same name, with its labyrinthine catalogue of what exactly is rotting in whichever borough, postal district or suburb, this is a breezy book, with a manageable selection of buildings, sites and objects for perusal and excursion, fitting easily in a handbag or coat pocket. This isn't to suggest that its pleasures are in any way predictable, however - this is a London which takes in such obscure and recherché des tinations as Grays, Ladywell, Silvertown or Colindale. There are only a few entries that cover the territory of either the conventional open-top-bus tourist (closed sex shops as Soho cleans up, a Tube station that was too common for Mayfair) or the itinerant hipster (a couple of abandoned pubs in Shoreditch).

Derelict London features short profiles of selected sites, with a page of accompanying text. Talling exhibits a welcome lack of moralising or sentimentality, both of which could so easily go with the territory. The selections mingle the middlebrow glories of the grandiose ruin with the quotidian "eyesores" that local newspapers like to start campaigns against. It could have done without the faintly knee-jerk dismissal of "concrete monstrosities" and the concomitant assumption that all Victorian pubs are unique; but the facts and histories here are usually curious at least.

Still, it's the photographs - detailed but never slick - that make this a worthwhile trudge through the wasteland. The images that hit first, and hit hardest, are the most surreal and depopulated, the ones where it seems vengeance of some sort has been ventured upon the capital. A Bermondsey council block, occupied by squatters after the tenants were shipped out, with its frontage ripped clean off, revealing a series of empty, brightly coloured rooms. A church in Romford Road, consumed by nature. A car in a Feltham railyard, almost effaced by the foliage growing out from inside it. Rivers choked with tyres. These sorts of spaces evoke the "Zone", the alien, damaged post-industrial landscape captured in Andrei Tarkovsky's 1979 film Stalker. There's a Soviet T-34 tank sitting in a patch of SE1 wasteland that would replicate a similar scene in the film, were it not for the graffiti and camouflage offering evidence of life going on around it.

There are many reminders here of the catastrophes to which London has already fallen victim: fragments of the architecture of 1940, the severe pillboxes that were to house gunmen in the event of the German invasion of Britain, and which now seem to be ports of call for cider-drinking, graffiti-writing youth (there's little more that's adolescent, in the best possible sense, than the love of ruination) and several concrete bunkers, such as the Citadel by Horse Guards Parade, an amazingly harsh and uncompromising structure for such a location, masking its brutality with a few creepers. There's a palpable fear and desperation in a sign pointing to "Shelter for 700" in an unassuming suburban street - suddenly making suburbia's placidity and ahistorical calm seem distinctly precarious.

Romantics may be disappointed by how well-used these ruins are, in their way. Budding Shelleys might baulk at the omnipresent graffiti and fly-posting and the barbarous boarding up of windows and doors to deter squatters. This in itself creates its own Gothic architecture, one made up of metal shuttering, windows you aren't able to see through, and ubiquitous surveillance. The compensation might come with such pictur esque classics of ruination as Abney Park Cemetery and its fellow relics of the Victorian culture of death, or the crumbling Sphinxes of Crystal Palace.

Talling's photographs don't quite capture the way that many of his picks loom over places of great wealth and smugness. Industrial ruins such as Battersea Power Station or the Millennium Mills on the Royal Docks stand as pugnaciously decomposing hulks, albeit subject to fierce corporate bidding. This being London, the contradictions and incongruities are all. A glassy new building dwarfing a dilapidated pub retains far more poetry and mystery than would the restoration of said pub, or its conversion into "luxury apartments", or even worse, the retention of its facade as the frontage to a new building as a misbegotten gesture at "context". In a city so devoted to making fast money, and busily fighting a one-way class war under the rubric of "regeneration", sweeping undesirables and their buildings away to the outskirts, it is almost comforting that relics and ruins still cling on to its landscape, throwing workaday time into a spin. As much as it is an inadvertent vision of how London might look after a catastrophe, Derelict London is valuable as a document of the one going on right in front of us.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Moral crisis?