City Notebooks and the Mystery of the Moulting Moleskine

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Invited to an event at the Conran Shop supposedly launching the new Moleskine City Notebooks. I was hoping to blag a freebie, recompense for the moulting Moleskine that I’m using at the moment, chunks of pages falling out with nearly every excursion. I sent an email to Moleskine enquiring how this might have happened to such a legendary journal, it rather casts doubt on the claim that they were the choice of Bruce Chatwin on expeditions to Patagonia and Outback Australia when they can’t survive an afternoon stroll around Leytonstone.

The flier for the event, ‘Detour, The Moleskine City Notebook Experience’ boasts a quote from Walter Benjamin: “Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling…” By announcing the City Notebook with a quote from the great codifier of the art of the flaneur is to suggest some kind of link between the two, between the experience of allowing oneself to drift through the urban realm drawn by invisible forces into uncharted quarters, dormitory suburbs, slums and ghettos, arterial roadside communities, “journeys outside the timetable”. It seems to be touting to be the accompaniment to the ‘Mis-Guide to Anywhere’, and ‘The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel’, now that flaneury and psychogeography have become a new kind of weekend City Break bookable through the Guardian Travel supplement.

I had to go on a minor derive within the Conran Shop to find the Moleskine City Notebook, the exhibition having only a tenuous link. It opens with a series of fold out maps that venture no further East than Whitechapel, not beyond Camden to the North nor Kensington to the West. It is very much an open-top bus tour view of the city, a prescribed experience, one to fit neatly between the lines of the book. There are inexplicable detachable stamps with the word London on, to remind you where you are? It is the opposite of David Rodinsky’s annotated A-Z. Perfect for BUNAC gap-year students and Italian schoolkids on a two-week study tour. This is not the notebook of the followers of Walter Benjamin, Patrick Keiller’s Robinson, “the born-again flaneur”. The Conran Shop does sell those, Japanese exercise books at £1.95 a pop against £12.50 for the Moleskine. You can pick up a vintage Ward Lock Red Guide on ebay for around £3 (maps include London and 12 miles around and a Central London plan that covers from Kensal Green to the River Lea) and you’re off equipped for an experience more in tune with the quote on the flier.

I went into Foyles today to have another look at the City Notebook, to see if I’d been quick in my judgement and found something just as bad, The Wanderlust Travel Journal. My travel journals are some of my most treasured possessions, kept in a locked metal box. They were bought locally wherever I was with a note inside the cover to mark the spot “This book was purchased on 25-01-95 in a small shop near the post office in Ubud, Bali for 1200Rp (35p)”. They were filled with boarding passes, laundry receipts, bus tickets, wrist ties, prescriptions in Thai, phone cards, an envelope sellotaped inside the back cover for loose bits. The book itself was a souvenir in its own right, silver hard-backed exercise books in Indonesia, soft leather-covered Indian journals with a cord that wrapped round several times, Italian quadretti blocks. So I can not comprehend the Wanderlust Travel Journal with its boarding passes and various scribblings printed on the page, blank timetables to fill in. Soon they’ll go the next step and transcribe the whole experience to save you the trouble, with generic phrases such as ‘Budha’d out in Borobudur’.

But now I have a greater understanding of why my Moleskine is moulting – it prefers a sedantry life, clean country air, the odd carefully written out ‘To Do’ list, ‘Notes to Self’, not my furious scribbles on rainy city streets, sellotaped wildflowers, being plonked down on real ale covered pub tables. Mind you, I wouldn’t have minded hearing Moleskine’s explanation.

The London Explorers’ Club

The London Explorers’ Club was founded by W. Margrie in 1930 “to study London in all her moods and phases”. In 1933 he published ‘The Diary of a London Explorer’, part autobiography part manifesto on behalf of the club.

“We look into London’s kitchens and backyards as well as her front parlours. When we visit a building we are concerned not with dead stone, wood, and metal, but with the dramas, romances and personalities that the wood and stone represent. Every institution we have explored, from a cathedral to a brewery, symbolises mankind’s aspirations and strivings for a better and fuller life.”

Margrie also put a heavy emphasis on the fact that the Club was “jolly, human and creative”.
Wearing a spray of London Pride as their emblem they combed London “to discover the romances hidden in her ancient buildings, the sorrows in her slums, the unexpected beauties of her streets and squares”.

In a statement to the press they declared their mission: “We shall see London in all her moods, and not only her beauty but her ugliness as well. We shall try to recapture her histories and memories, seeing all there is to be seen by the flare of the gas-jet, by the light of the moon, or from the electric arc-lamps”.

In the first 3 years of its existence the LEC visited 180 Places including: Croydon Aerodrome, Headquarters of the Fire Brigade, Merrie Islington which was “not as merrie as it used to be”, Caledonian Market, Historic Deptford guided by the vicar of Deptford, Samuel Jones’s Camberwell Beauty Mills which specialises in gummed paper, and Peek Frean’s Biscuit Factory.
They embarked on an All-Night Ramble Through Central London, an act recently repeated by an artist to much media interest. Their nocturnal derive included the City, Covent Garden, Adelphi Arches and parts of the West End. Margrie wrote that “One of our objects is to study London in all her moods. London at 2am is very different from London at 2pm. Central London on a fine summer night is a fine place for poets, dreamers, musicians, lovers, optimists, and explorers. It is romantic, lovely, and mysterious.”

Another of their stunts was The World’s Greatest Treasure Hunt where competitors had two hours to identify twenty-four representative City institutions and a quotation. The hunt started at Mansion House and finished at Monument Station; and the clues included: 1. A church associated with Cockneys. 6. Insurance institution associated with a bell. 9. Historic institution associated with blood and beef. The winner would be crowned The Champion Londoner.

They pioneered the idea of the Topographical Race. Starting at Trafalgar Square and finishing at a restaurant in Holborn competitors had to visit ten institutions, “those spending the least amount on buses and trams would stand the best chance.” The institutions on the circuit were Bedlam, Boadicea Statue, Fire Brigade HQ, Friend’s House, Lambeth Palace, Law Courts, Mount Pleasant, new B.B.C House, St. George’s Hospital, and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Margrie rounds off his book by proposing the formation of a Metropolitan Free State to replace the LCC. As a member of the left-wing Independent Labour Party it appears to be a forerunner of Red Ken’s GLC, “a central co-ordinating authority for the whole of greater London”, but would also include “five or six home counties, and the Thames”.

Margrie then spells out his grand vision for the new city state: “It is my supreme ambition to be the first Prime Minister of this Metropolitan Free State. When I realize my dream I shall emulate Mussolini and give Londoners plenty of dramas pageants and shows to wake them up”. He promises that under his rule “For the first time in London’s history Londoners will take an interest in their city and province, and all London will become as merry as a Peckham bye-election.”

This mixture of a form of proto-psychogeography allied to visions of a utopian future have echoes of the Situationist movement that would follow some 25 years later, although instead of drinking absinthe in Montmatre they supped tea in Camberwell.
The London Explorers’ Club seems to be a forgotten entity but lives on in the upsurge in interest in the hidden secret city led first by Geoffrey Fletcher and lately by Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd.

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