Return to Caledonian Park, Islington

Caledonian Park

I first spotted the top of the clock tower in Caledonian Park from the street that ran in front of the estate where I lived on Barnsbury Road. A tantilising white spike rising above tree canopies spied on the way to take my toddler to the swings in Barnard Park. All roads led to that spot from the high ridge running north from Pentonville Road. Copenhagen Street ran down one side of the estate, on which stood the King of Denmark Pub, one of the estate blocks was even called Copenhagen House – all in honour of the illustrious history of the area in the shadow of the clock tower that had previously gained notoriety as Copenhagen Fields, named after a forgotten Danish noble.

The tower stands on a hillock rising from a sacred plain that stretches across the floor of the Fleet Valley reaching out at the foot of London’s Northern Heights. This is where William Blake saw the golden pillars of Jerusalem in his ‘drama of the psyche’,

The fields from Islington to Marylebone,


To Primrose Hill and St John’s Wood,


Were builded over with pillars of gold,


And there Jerusalem’s pillars stood.

Blake the Druid having visions of Jesus wandering in the lush pastures now built over, and being rebuilt once again transitioning from puking out the stink of noxious trades and railway smog to new blocks built of solid Capital rising amongst the fields of Victorian houses and council estates. You need to look carefully for the gold pillars of Jerusalem. The poet’s feet in not so ancient time must have walked those same Barnsbury Streets laden with myths emanating from the springs gurgling to the surface of the pleasure gardens which in turn had taken the place of oak groves and it is believed, Merlin’s Cave (also the name of a 70’s prog rock venue near where the cave is said to have been).

Market Estate

Market Estate 2004

I’d carried out a survey of sorts 10 years ago, baby strapped to my chest, old Olympus 35mm camera to make the visual record of the trip. The local newspapers had been full of horror stories about the area. The decaying Market Estate that wrapped itself around the three sides of Caledonian Park had been declared ‘Hell’ by its residents, a young boy, Christopher Pullen, had been killed by a falling door. There were reports of collapsed ceilings, exposed wires, boarded-up windows. Sex workers pushed north by the Kings Cross redevelopment patrolled Market Road and operated amongst the park undergrowth. Two prostitutes from this beat had been brutally murdered. A £41million regeneration scheme had been drawn up to demolish the estate, improve the park and restore “the historic symmetry of the site”, reopening the north-south axis.

New Clocktower Place Islington

New Clocktower Place 2015

I set out again on a sultry May Day weekend, following the footsteps in reverse of the huge demonstration in support of the Tolpuddle Martyrs that had mustered on Copenhagen Fields in 1834 before the 40,000 protestors headed for Whitehall. The martyrs are commemorated with a large mural on Copenhagen Street and the local police station sits ironically in Tolpuddle Street. In 1795 an enormous gathering of Chartists, 100,000 strong, met at the Copenhagen House pleasure garden. A radical spirit permeates through the damp soil here working its way down the valley to Holford Square where Lenin plotted the Russian Revolution.

Today the atmosphere is muted. There is the bleak humour of the Breakout Café opposite the gates of Pentonville Prison. Market Road appears free of streetwalkers replaced by students ambling along the pavement to the ‘Prodigy urban student living’. The park where the sex workers plied their trade is now the scene of picnicking families and gentle kickabouts. Hawthorn blossom drapes over the Victorian railings that had contained the vast Metropolitan Cattle Market that moved here from Smithfield in 1855 – the ‘smooth-field’ itself a place of medieval vision and congregation. Is there a subconscious need to slaughter cattle on sacred ground?

Market Estate Mural

Market Estate Mural 2004

The clock tower had been built for the cattle market both of which had been overshadowed in their day by the famous Pedlers Market. It was considered one of the great wonders of London. The topographer HV Morton described the scene in his 1925 book The Heart of London – a friend picks up an Egyptian Mummy, Morton is offered a human skeleton for 10 shillings. The painter Walter Sickert proclaimed it his idea of heaven. A fella by the name of Jack Cohen had a stall that by the terrible magick of this zone became Tesco supermarket.

The Lamb New North Road
After the Second World War there were no signs of the 2000+ market stalls and the loud banter of the traders. Robert Colville describes a state of “weed-covered dereliction” in 1951 with the four grand market Gin Palaces looking “gaunt”. None of the three that remain still trade as boozers. The White Horse and The Lion have been converted to residential while The Lamb has progressed from “gaunt” to abandoned, aluminium grills filling in the gaps between the wrought iron filigree that adorns the entrances. It’s difficult to summon up the clamour of the masses that flocked here for political gatherings and market trading. The only people by the still standing market gates are a couple with a toddler scuttling over the gravel path on a scooter.

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The builders of the new housing that has replaced the Market Estate – Parkview, have conceded defeat to the resonance of the Clock Tower and opened up that north-south axis, the low-rise blocks folding back discreetly trying to stay out of view. The failed modernist development of the previous scheme had attempted to contain and frame the tower at one end of a wide-open cracked paving-slabbed piazza. The beautiful mural depicting the heyday of the Caledonian Market didn’t even want to be there anymore when I last visited and was peeling off the wall in a bid for escape. The power of the clock tower, and the final acknowledgement from the planners that the estate was an architectural mistake, smashed those Le Corbusier inspired concrete pillars to the ground. A street name commemorates the short life of Christopher Pullen.

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York Way flops over the apex of the rising ground at one end of the park and estate where the surviving Corporation of London blocks sail the skyline. This ancient thoroughfare previously known as Maiden Lane that EO Gordon, a century after Blake, dreamt linked the Pen Ton Mound near Copenhagen Street with its sister Holy site on Parliament Hill, and saw druid ceremonials process northwards to celebrate the solstices. In this vision York Way was one of the principle roads not of a New Jerusalem but a New Troy built by the war refugee Brutus. It now leads to a New Kings Cross.

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This article was originally published in Stepz psychogeography zine which can be downloaded here

The Cyclist and the City: Cyclogeography interview in the saddle with Jon Day

When I opened the envelope containing Jon Day’s Cyclogeography (a beautiful object – pink cloth cover with embossed white and electric blue text) I wondered whether it was a provocation. I’d been sent the book on the basis of my writing about London walking and here was a text penned from the point of view of the one of the natural enemies of the urban rambler. With cycle couriers able to obtain speeds around the tight grid of Soho streets that even Jeremy Clarkson could only dream about you are more likely to be mown down by a bike in some parts of London than a motor vehicle. Puce-faced commuting cyclists shrink-wrapped in lycra and riding the Tour de France in their imagination have now rendered the towpaths of the Regent Canal and the Lee Navigation unwalkable. But I was intrigued by the occluded world of the bike couriers – you see them flash by like sprites but rarely is their society penetrated.

Jon Day makes the solid case for this book up front. After starting to learn London from the saddle during stints working as a cycle courier he began to read the city too and soon noticed that London had been claimed as a walker’s city with precious little from the perspective of the cyclist. As militant a pedestrian as I am, Day soon convinced me that whereas a walker will seek out London’s buried rivers by reading the runes of old maps, for the cyclist the contours of the river valleys are unavoidable, detected not by a dowsing rod but by tightening calves at the end of 80-mile day on the pedal. Not only does the Courier’s livelihood depend on an intimate knowledge of every street and alleyway between the Elephant and Camden and the East End to Hammersmith, but also their very physical survival. They are compelled to live in harmony with the city.

Cyclogeography portrays an intense relationship between the cyclist and the city – nearly elevating the courier to the status of the great hoarders of London lore – the Black Cab driver. Day makes such a beguiling case for the city of the cyclist that I asked him to take me for a ride, at my insistence away from traffic through the Olympic Park and beside the River Lea. It was one of the more challenging interviews I’ve filmed, but that was the point.
This is an important and unique London book – you should read it.

This article originally appeared in 3:AM Magazine

A chat with Iain Sinclair in the basement of the London Review Bookshop

Iain Sinclair was launching his latest book, 70×70 – Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked In 70 Films so I got the opportunity to interview the great London magus in the basement of the London Review Bookshop. This was the second time I’d interviewed Sinclair, the first was for my documentary, The London Perambulator in his Hackney home 6 years ago almost to the day.

On that occasion we’d talked off camera about Iain’s elusive film collaborations with Chris Petit that had been originally broadcast on Channel 4 – The Cardinal and the Corpse and The Falconer, now impossible to find on DVD or YouTube and Iain had invited me to watch them with him there and then on VHS. But I’d had to pass up this golden opportunity as the strong painkillers I was taking following knee surgery were making me dizzy and nauseous and it had been a massive effort to get through the interview without passing out on his floor.

Those Petit collaborations had eventually been screened in the 70×70 season put together by King Mob to celebrate Iain’s 70th birthday – a year of 70 films which had been mentioned in Sinclair’s books, and screened in venues both obscure and grand, some of them joining the ranks of the disappeared before the season had been completed.

The 70 x 70 book is more than just a record of this filmic dérive around London, it is a repertory cinema season on paper, the SCALA brought back to life in print; a revival of the world of wall-charts peppered with classics by Fritz Lang, Douglas Sirk, Godard, unheralded oddities, all-nighters interrupted at 4am by a punk band to keep you awake. But it is also a form of autobiography, weaving a path through Sinclair’s life and work as he discusses the background to each selection, or “an accidental novel”, as he describes it.

So we chatted not just about the book. We spoke about Iain’s early years in London as a film student and eager cineaste, the Paul Tickell film for BBC’s Late Show that captured the world of Downriver when it was still provisionally titled Vessels of Wrath. This rare 20-minute gem included memorable scenes of Sinclair reading aloud in the still semi-derelict Princelet Street Synagogue and the notorious bookdealer Driffield scavenging for rare tomes in Gravesend and Tilbury.

He discussed his collaborations with Chris Petit and Andrew Kotting. It led us to the subject of John Clare and the idea of ‘fugue’ walking, “… to do it purposefully, if that’s not a contradiction, seems quite an important way of dealing with a city that is a series of defended grids and official permeable ways that you can drift through that lead you to the next supermarket”.  Walking, Sinclair told me is “absolute”; “The silence of just moving, hearing your own footfall, listening to the city, watching the city, drinking it through your pores”.

The interview came to a natural conclusion as the camera battery ran out just after Sinclair had recounted a pavement confrontation in Hollywood with a Warren Oates lookalike. The event organiser seized their moment and moved in as went to my bag for a spare. I could have kept asking him questions all night and Iain is so amiable and tolerant you sense he’d sit there patiently answering, but upstairs Chris Petit, Gareth Evans and Susan Stenger were waiting sat before a packed audience for the 70×70 launch event.

70×70 Unlicensed Preaching: A Life Unpacked in Film is published by King Mob

This article was originally published on 3:AM magazine

Beyond Stonebridge Park

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Thoughts on The View from the Train: Cities and Other Landscapes, by Patrick Keiller, Verso, 2013

Through his series of feature-length ‘Robinson’ films, Patrick Keiller has provided the gold standard for artists ‘subjectively’ interacting with the built environment for around the last 20 years since London went viral after a run at the ICA in 1994. Keiller had perfected an essayistic style of his own through a number of earlier shorts that juxtaposed a humour-tinged fictionalised voice-over against a sequence of static general views of landscapes. The essays in The View from the Train follow Keiller’s journey through film from 1980 to the most recent manifestation of his enigmatic character Robinson, charting the evolution of his practice and thinking. If you have watched his films, and in my case continuously re-watched, then it is impossible not to conflate the two. As you read, the fruity Shakespearean tones of Paul Scofield’s narration on his two best-known films, London and Robinson in Space, start to emanate from the page. But it soon becomes clear though, that Keiller’s voice is not so much the archly camp thesp but his friend and fellow flâneur Robinson, a more fastidious, intellectual character.

He embraced the Surrealists’ “feeling for nature” to be found in the street, the radical subjectivity of poeticising the world around you to bring about the changes that you desire to see.

In the introduction, which gives the book its title, Keiller writes about a project he embarked upon in 1977 documenting what he describes as “found architecture” in set of 35mm transparencies. These were buildings glimpsed on daily commutes that caught his eye but were not “the result of conventional architectural activity”. He goes on to describe how he linked similar projects by the Surrealists in 1920s Paris to his own work. This interest in the Surrealists reinvention of the urban realm into an imaginative space is a subject that he returns to throughout the book and one that appears to be close to the heart of his practice. He embraced the Surrealists’ “feeling for nature” to be found in the street, the radical subjectivity of poeticising the world around you to bring about the changes that you desire to see.

Not far into The View from the Train I started to even forget that Keiller is a film-maker, rather as he describes himself in one of the more scholarly essays, “as an architect diverted into making films”. He explains how he sought to “explore the spaces of films” and through capturing architecture on celluloid create new built environments without ever laying a single brick. Film as a medium he tells us, “might be thought at least as compelling as an actually existing architecture of heightened awareness – an ecstatic architecture”.

Although the prose style is lucid and thankfully largely free of academic jargon the thinking behind it is thorough and well researched. That this then manifested itself in films that achieved a degree of commercial success, escaping the arthouse ghetto to play in West End cinemas and screenings on Channel 4, is a further testament to his skill as both thinker and film-maker.

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Keiller is often lumped into the psychogeography camp but here he reminds us that “the dérive is not an end in itself”, something often overlooked as urban walking has become synonymous with psychogeography as if it would merely be enough to go for a wander round the East End to shatter the Spectacle. He points out, “In London now, psychogeography leads not so much to avant-garde architecture as to gentrification”, and relates the way the Surrealists appropriated buildings and areas to the mechanics of modern property development as estate agents dream up new names and narratives for run-down districts to boost prices and draw in house-hunters looking for the new up-and-coming investment opportunity.

“In London now, psychogeography leads not so much to avant-garde architecture as to gentrification”

There is a gentle politics at work throughout difficult to locate on the contemporary Centre-right-Right spectrum, probably residing somewhere in the area vacated by the moderate rump of the Labour Party. The detailed analysis of UK Port Statistics that provided the theoretical spine of Robinson in Space makes fascinating and essential reading. The paradox of high unemployment vs. a healthy UK economic bank balance gets to the root of the problem of measuring success by focusing on GDP alone. And there are insightful analyses on the nature of inequality and even a Robinson-esque comment on the sexuality of Conservatism.

He consistently returns to a preoccupation with housing, particularly its dilapidated state. It was the subject of Keiller’s follow-up film to Robinson in Space, The Dilapidated Dwelling that comes across better in written form, for me, than it did on the screen. It demonstrates how the book is more than a companion piece to his films, the essays extending the scope of the “subjective transformation” of urban space achieved through the lens of a camera. Whereas Keiller states that his films “set out to criticize architectural space rather than simply depict it”, The View from the Train provides a detailed topography of the terrain on which his poetic realm is built.
Originally published in 3:Am magazine 21/12/13

Like a ‘grunge Keiller’

An article I wrote for 3:AM magazine about Paul Kelly & St. Etienne’s A London Trilogy dvd and my own London perambulations.

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“I first met Paul Kelly and Bob Stanley after a screening of their film Finisterre in 2005, recently released on a BFI DVD, A London Trilogy. I approached them in the foyer of the ICA enthusiastically thrusting forward my treasured copy of Gordon S. Maxwell’s 1925 ‘ramble book’, The Fringe of London. I’d been nurturing the theory that Maxwell’s lost classic was the missing link in the topographical tradition connecting the romantic walkers and flâneurs to the modern trend in neo-psychogeography, and had bothered all the usual suspects with my grand idea drawing a blank on each occasion. Paul and Bob similarly had never heard of Maxwell or the book and compensated by handing me a copy of the Finisterre DVD.” continue reading here

 

The radical tradition of urban walking – my article in the NewStatesman

radical urban walking

‘What both the interwar topographers and the situationists recognised was the transformative potential of large numbers of people regularly stepping outside the matrix, taking to the streets and walking, becoming active participants rather than passive spectators.’

Read the article here