I have not been to an audio-walk before. Especially not one that is described by its creators as an operatic guided tour of the city. “And While London burns” is actually a tale of catastrophe. Blatantly anti-capitalist, it narrates what many see as a conspiracy theory: the multiple ways that capitalism is destroying London. The leading character whose footsteps we are following is sharing the story of how he met his wife and then the way their marriage ended because she decided to leave him and London altogether. The audio walk is a strange marriage itself of politically charged information about the companies that economically rule the country with a couple’s love story that at times seems a bit cheesy.
There were many things that I loved about the walk and many that I did not regardless of the fact that ultimately I enjoyed it a lot and I would recommend it to both visitors and London’s natives. To kick off with the critique, I was not that convinced with the environmental catastrophe’s connection with the love story. I understand and applaud the intention of paralleling the city with the couple’s relationship. In some ways it helps the listener identify with it and evokes an emotional reaction. Apparently both the relationship and the city are sinking. However the way the script was written was a bit predictable. The fact that Lucy, the protagonist’s wife leaves a successful career in the city to cultivate an orchard in Cornwall does not really make her a radical. Most über-capitalists ultimately burn out and run off to the countryside where they continue their rather privileged lifestyles. Not to mention the husband’s declaration to “stay behind and love this city” which sounded quite sentimental.
I appreciated the amount of research that was obviously put into the project but the information given on the companies although generally interesting, at times came across as didactic and patronising. Ultimately the gap between the intense anti-capitalist speeches and the love story was not really bridged. This strong dipole, in my opinion weakened the experience considerably.
Having said that, I do admit that listening to it again on a different occasion it made me think that a city like London turns us all into cynics and what in other environments seems sweet, optimistic and humane, in London is often perceived as soft, weak and foolish. There is no doubt in my mind that a city is not only about buildings and their aesthetics, it is about politics and peoples’ stories as well which combined create a complex kaleidoscopic image. However the power games that are played in London in particular are able to affect economies of entire countries hence they belong to the premium league. Attempting to convey their extreme importance in an experiential way is a genius idea but its execution is very tricky.
There are naturally several positive things I wanted to mention about the walk. Firstly the music which along with the general atmosphere are truly haunting. There are also plenty of powerful moments in the experience. For example at Bank station where the intensity of the recording escalates and spirals in perfect synchronisation with the listener’s instructed circular frenzy. Similarly, the descent to the river towards the end of the walk is excellently combined with a sense of calm acceptance of the inevitable, right before the culmination of the opera.
The walk -apart from the objections mentioned above- was very enjoyable. Going though streets that I know well without knowing where I will be taken next was like a game. Following the instructions that at times were a bit cryptic resembled a lot a treasure hunt. Every time I was sure that I was on the right path, my joy was so intense that I felt like a child. It was brilliant to look at people’s faces as they rushed in and out of their offices while I was floating in a dramatic, musical world of my own. This feeling of being an outsider observing others was somehow very poetic. Not to mention little surprises, hidden views and pathways that I never saw before and I was delighted to encounter.
The experience left me wishing there were more audio-walks like this one (which by the way was recorded 6 or 7 years back already and could use a revision as a few things have changed since then). Lovers of cities and architecture, people who like to wonder and explore, well actually just about anyone could enjoy it. This is a wonderful art form, or rather I believe that it should be seen as one, because it truly manages to evoke emotions. The listener is directed around the city with a very specific goal. Isn’t this what almost any performance art attempts to do? What is unique about this particular medium is that the listener emerges in the experience as a performer him/herself without however feeling exposed to others. “And While London burns” is quite dramatic and certainly personal , and I guess anything described in these words is definitely worth while.
And While London Burns website here