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
Wycombe on a wet half-term Monday. I’m here for a lunchtime concert at All Saints Church of music by poet and composer Ivor Gurney by Jacobine van Laar and Marisa Thornton Wood. I’ve been mildly obsessed with Gurney since I discovered his connection with the town during the Remapping High Wycombe project – not just that this fascinating overlooked cultural figure had lived and written some of his most haunting compositions in Wycombe either side of the First World War, but that he was inspired by his long walks, manic fugues from London to Gloucester and the walk I plan to recreate from Wycombe to Gloucester which he did over two days in late February 1920. I’d tentatively planned to carry out the walk on the anniversary but lack of planning and my inability to cover the 60-odd miles in two short February days meant postponing till summer.
I killed some time wandering familiar childhood streets, devastated by the building of the Eden Shopping Centre – a place that must win the award for most misnamed location ever, perhaps they were playing opposites day in the planning office. We’d feared this when doing our project in response to the redevelopment over 2004-05 but to see it first-hand was depressing. The once thriving High Street dead, Poundland, Iceland, charity shops. The Octagon Centre – the town’s original shopping mall now relegated to the back door of the new scheme with empty units and a few bedraggled shoppers sheltering from the rain. White Hart Street shops boarded up, vacant, the same pattern creeping like a weeping rash round Oxford Street to Frogmore. The Kebab Centre has somehow survived the retail blitz but little else. The guts totally ripped out the town by a covered mall with a particularly big Marks and Spencer, a muffin shop and bowling alley.
In the new Waterstones I picked up a copy of a book I’d seen reviewed a while back and placed on my To Read list purely on the basis that it was the story of a man’s relationship with a stream somewhere in England. At the cashdesk I opened the cover to find that the subject of Charles Rangeley-Wilson’s Silt Road wasn’t just any stream anywhere but the river that ran through Wycombe (pretty much under the Waterstones in fact) and along the valley floor through the village where I grew up – the sacred River Wye that gave its name to the town and the road where I spent my formative years. The river that drove the mills along its course from West Wycombe to Bourne End. Near its banks was a holy well, a site of pilgrimage. Romans seeded oyster beds in its clear spring waters. I used to paddle in it as a kid and we rode inner-tubes over the weirs by the viaduct. I’ve played Poo Sticks with my children from the bridges that cross the river where it skirts the perimeter of Wooburn Park.
After Jacobine and Marisa’s haunting Gurney recital I set out along the stream in the driving rain. I’d left home in my trainers for some reason, well my boots were still caked in mud from my schlep across Gilbert’s Slade the day before and I didn’t want to wear muddy boots to the recital. Pretty soon my trainers were soaked through and several balletic slides in the mire crossing the Rye coated my feet in thick mud.
The rain would ease up, I was sure. I’d been sent Silt Road as a gift from the book genie and a message to make this pilgrimage. By the time I reached Kingsmead the rain was coming down in thick watery rods smashing me across the head and shoulders. I remembered my Nan’s saying that Dad had told me on the phone just the other day, ‘February fills the ditch, black or white I don’t care which’. My Nan would have been chuffed to bits – the ditch was full to the brim.
I skated across the swamp-like rugby pitches heading for shelter on the far side only to get there and discover it had been built by someone with an odd sense of humour – the sunken floor filling up with rainwater like a fish pond.
It couldn’t be any grimmer or greyer as I approached the viaduct at Loudwater – unrelenting hometime traffic kicking up plumes of water. I started to regret embarking on this river walk – it’s not as if I haven’t done it hundreds of times before. I pass into Wooburn, past the street where I grew up – Wye Road. A number 37 bus pulls up at the bus stop bound for Wycombe and the train back to London – too much to resist.
On the turbo powered train into Marylebone I open Silt Road. What on earth compelled this award-winning nature writer to pen an entire book about a short stream running through an industrialized valley on the outskirts of High Wycombe?
The book opens under the grey M40 viaduct at Loudwater with a two-page monochrome photo, “Standing under the motorway along which the cars and trucks drummed and rushed and from which the rain spilt in a streaking line, I felt a fascinated longing for this imprisoned stream. And now I feel this stream running through me.”
Whilst waiting for a video to render the other day I turned round and took Vol.1 of George Orwell’s Collected Essays and Letters off the shelf and opened it at random on Orwell’s letter to his friend Dennis Collins dated 16th August 1931. The correspondence wasn’t concerned with Orwell’s investigations into the condition of what he refers to as the ‘Lower Classes’ in the letter but ‘a ghost I saw in Walberswick cemetery’.
Collins lived in Southwold where Orwell spent time at his family home, across the River Blyth from the ancient village of Walberswick. He produced the hand-drawn sketch (above) of Walberswick Churchyard, where the ghost sighting took place, to illustrate the experience which occurred at 5.30pm on 27.7.31
“I was sitting at the spot marked X, looking out in the direction of the dotted arrow. I happened to glance over my shoulder, & saw a figure pass along the line of the other arrow, disappearing behind the masonry & presumably emerging into the churchyard. I wasn’t looking directly at it & so couldn’t make out more than that it was a man’s figure, small & stopping, & dressed in lightish brown; I should have said a workman. I had the impression that it glanced towards me in passing, but I made out nothing of its features. At the moment of its passing I thought nothing, but a few seconds later it struck me that the figure had made no noise, & I followed it out into the churchyard. There was no one in the churchyard, & no one within possible distance along the road – this was about 20 seconds after I had seen it; & in any case there were only 2 people in the road, & neither at all resembled the figure. I looked into the church. The only people there were the vicar, dressed in black, & a workman who, as far as I remember, had been sawing the whole time. In any case he was too tall for the figure. The figure had therefore vanished. Presumably an hallucination.”
He then goes on to talk about making arrangements to go hop picking and the fate of some tramps he’d met.
I’ve always thought of Orwell as such an arch rationalist that it came as a real surprise that he even entertained the notion that what he’d seen was a ghostly apparition.
When I wrote the original draft of this post and scheduled it for publication today I had no idea that it was the anniversary of Orwell’s death in 1950 – spooky coincidence
Offended by the high prices in a second-hand bookshop – £6 for a battered paperback of a recent edition of William Burroughs.
Then I find a copy of my own book.
Deeply offended that it’s only £3.50 for a hardback in pristine condition & signed.
… By way of Croydon
Supping down some Jamboree in Leytonstone Wetherspoons (does it matter what they are actually called) fresh from Lea Bridge Road so clear from the waters of the Lea I can count my fingers gripping the glass on the far side of the ale – I turn the page and there’s my old walking partner Nick Papadimitriou working himself into a chapter about Corso, and Dylan Thomas dying in New York.
When we were schlepping round industrial estates in Park Royal and Perivale I always saw it as a Beat quest.