James Bone’s The London Perambulator published in 1925 gave me the title for the documentary that I made about my co-host Nick Papadimitrou (before we did this radio show together). I hadn’t thought about it that deeply at the time beyond the appropriateness of stealing a title from one of the topographical books we share a love of.
This opportunity to review the qualities of the book, that Nick confessed hadn’t read prior to the series, confirmed it was an apt association. Bone’s view of the city was idiosyncratic and hard to pin down, he was drawn to the overlooked and maligned corners of the metropolis. He dreamed of having the keys to the spirit of London and preached the virtues of night-time perambulations in all weathers.
For our urban ‘field trip’ we chose the chapter on North O’Euston, the only real geographically defined part of the book. Nick is lost outside the edgelands. Whenever I draw him to the more traditionally imagined London he looks slightly at odds with it and I start to wonder whether it is solely his psychic projections that hold places like Edgwarebury together and with him in NW1 they will slip through some kind of vortex into oblivion.
On the other hand this is turf with which I am more familiar. I lived in a tiny flat atop Penton Mound for a number of years, lack of funds and the nature of life with young’uns meant that perambulating these streets (oft pushing a pram, and late night anxious-parent dashes to the out-of-hours GP at St.Pancras Hospital) was an essential part of my life.
Bone’s North O’Euston might now be called Somers Town. As self-proclaimed topographers we should know whether that name was in use in the early twenties when Bone was writing – but we don’t. It joins Notting Hill and Piccadilly in producing eponymous films when Shane Meadows set his Eurostar-funded film here.
The rendezvous for the walk was set by Nick as being by Paolozzi’s sculpture outside Euston Station. But such was the resident gloom that he and Pete merged into its gloopy form to such an extent that it took a phone call to locate each other yards apart. We gave in to the somewhat banal temptation to locate the position of the much-mourned doric arch of Euston Station and spooked a loitering commuter heading home to Nuneaton in the process. We then headed out into the streets around that still retained the “furtive, sinister spirit” described in The London Perambulator.
Bone saw this area, and that around the Euston Road’s sister stations of Kings Cross and St.Pancras, as being a “kind of debatable land”. This was a sentiment that we could only agree with as we ambled up Eversholt Street finding massage parlours, betting shops, a lap-dancing club and a shop supplying the needs of transvestites where Bone logged “pawnbrokers, bawdy houses, shabby hotels, and second-hand dealers”.
We were partially aided (or arguably handicapped) by a map in William Kent’s London For Everyman published at the same time as the Perambulator. I love this book and it was also auditioning for an episode in the second series of Ventures & Adventures should we be blessed with one. Using this beautiful colour plan we identified the “dingy crescent” where a notorious murder had taken place as Drummond Crescent, although Nick’s reveries here were abruptly interrupted by two young Spanish women trying to find the Place Theatre who wrongly assumed we might know where it was. We hadn’t the faintest idea and sent them off in the opposite direction, later to run into them, fuming and unappeased by my thoughts on how getting lost was the only way to truly experience a new city, “the production starts in five minutes” they countered.
Bone talked about how the population of this region moved about at night. Well that’s certainly changed, we barely saw a soul between Euston and Kings Cross as we drifted the backstreets often bickering about route, process and how I should indicate whether I was recording on the minidisc or not. I’d missed one of Nick’s quite wonderful riffs on how he first “moved to London from Finchley” as a callow youth – and he was none too pleased about it. I was just enjoying listening to him and momentarily forgot we were supposed to be recording for a radio show. I recorded virtually every foot-step and burp from then on.
field recording: st.pancras old church
We stopped in on St.Pancras Old Church surprised that it hadn’t got round to banning psychogeographers for their/ our appropriation of one of Christianity’s oldest sites as one of their/our most revered ‘nodules of energy’.
In Goods Way we saw how the scorched earth Kings Cross redevelopment had claimed the location of the flat in Mike Leigh’s brilliant film High Hopes, but has had the side effect of opening up one of the finest vistas of central London’s neon confetti.
It was around here that we lost Peter Knapp – consumed by the darkness around Kings Cross that has gobbled up so many wide-eyed adventurers. We now know that he emerged from this moloch unscathed, as his wonderful photos testify.
Through the new underpasses of ‘the Cross’, as the terminus in Sydney of the same name is known – also a place of prostitutes and bad drugs. We emerge in a shopping mall – no, it’s St Pancras Station, which seems to have borrowed its new ambience from Wood Green Shopping City as an ‘eff-off’ to Brunel’s Cathedral of the steam age.
field recording: kings cross – st.pancras
The walk would not have been complete without Nick correctly identifying a sewage system buried beneath an old covered alleyway leading off Phoenix Street. Our first obviously London and a night-walk chalked off in one.
Next, we’re off out to the fringes again in search of an ancient area seemingly populated by rooks. I’m taking extra minidiscs for this one, don’t want to end up tossed into the Roxbourne by a disgruntled deep topographer.
photos by Peter Knapp
Ventures and Adventures in Topography on Resonance 104.4fm Wednesday 5-5.30pm and repeated Monday 10-10.30pm