Why I Blog

London Loop Uxbridge

This is something I’ve composed in my head I number of times in the past but never actually written, mainly because of the feeling that it somehow has to be definitive – that once placed here on my blog will be cast in stone. Which of course is nonsense, and ironically the freedom to evolve ideas as they occur in a public forum is one of the reasons I started blogging in the first place 14 years ago. So I’m just going to freewheel it a bit here. Please bear with me. I’m not even writing this on a document first, just typing it straight into the blog.

I published my first blog on 7th July 2003. I was coming to the end of 4 weeks paternity leave and had read an article in the Guardian about a new platform called Blogger. The blog post was a variation on an article I’d pitched to The Guardian’s G2 section and they’d rejected on the basis that it was a few days too late to be newsworthy enough. So the new self-publishing platform seemed like the ideal alternative to the commissioning process. I stuck a version of the piece there and I don’t think I’ve pitched an article to anyone ever since.

The birth of my first child also meant re-evaluating my priorities. I’d been half-heartedly doing some occasional stand-up comedy, more as a means to develop and showcase my writing rather than try and build a career as a comic (in fact when approached by a representative from mega-agency Avalon after my third gig I turned them down – which in retrospect was a stupid decision). Doing stand-up had come out of the satirical comedy revue show I’d written and directed (and later performed in) which then gave its name to the blog – The Soapbox Cabaret. As a new Dad, working full-time in a low-paid job, blogging would allow me to continue my work without spending evenings in half-empty rooms above pubs. There was a strong political dimension to my work back then, which seemed to fit with the nature of blogging at that time so it seemed like a good match.

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This articlation of my blogging started a year later on 7th June 2004. I think it came from the desire to write more about the world around me, vignettes from the streets. I’d kept a regular journal since I’d gone backpacking 10 years before, my backpacking journal became a walking journal when back schlepping around London – so I wanted my blog to become more reflective of that, rather than the polemicising and satirical asides of my first blog. This very quickly became my more natural home.

I got some local press almost immediately. Funny to think now but blogging was still a bit of a novelty in 2004. Social media was still in its infancy really – there was no Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. New platforms would launch then fold in a couple of months. It was quite a volatile but exciting digital landscape. I also started getting comments on those early posts – something that seems to have dried up in recent years whereas most of my interaction now comes on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook, reflecting wider online trends. (Anyone remember internet forums ?- they seemed to have died a death along with Friends Reunited and MySpace).

In some ways I feel like I’m at a pivotal point at the moment – it’s 4 years since my book was published, I’m freelance now so constantly on the look-out for work, the baby who I had sleeping on my shoulder as I wrote those first blog posts is now a strapping teenager. I’m in my mid-40’s not my early 30’s. But the blog has been a constant through all of this. When I try to unpack the course of my – I hate to use the word ‘career’ but I can’t think of an adequate alternative – over the last 10 years or so, many wonderful things have happened.

The graft in those half-empty pubs paid some dividends when I went to work for my old comedy pal Russell Brand’s production company. One of my briefs was to look after his online platforms. Turns out TV professionals didn’t have much experience of blogs, social media and online video back then (I’d started a YouTube channel in 2006 just after it launched) and so it came in very useful – particularly when we went to America where they’d embraced the digital realm much earlier than in the UK which was still focused on ‘legacy’ media. I made my own documentaries that were shown at festivals and in cinemas. I produced and presented a radio show. Then I got a book deal with Harper Collins – an incredible moment. The shape and tone of that book, the basic idea, came directly out of this blog.

It’s only now, in this moment of reflection trying to untangle it all, that I realise all those wonderful things, and many more, grew out of this blog.

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So in some ways I find myself at a similar point to where I was on paternity leave in 2003. I’m a stay-at-home Dad, the kids still come first. I don’t have a publisher for my next book as yet. My primary creative output is this blog and my YouTube channel. I still get knock-backs for proposals and applications – getting institutional support hasn’t gotten any easier. Blogging has been an ever-present, the activity that has carried me through, and keeps me going. I feel incredibly fortunate to have had your support as readers, sympathetic ears.

This blog post has gone on a bit, thanks if you’ve made it through this far. It’s come out a bit drier and more earnest than I would have liked but that’s the nature of the beast. I could save it and review later but that would just be an excuse to consign it to the digital bottom drawer.

Thanks for your support through all of this – it’s hugely, colosally, appreciated.

Right, I’m off out on a walk then I have to finish off another proposal before the kids get home from school and we sit round watching Meme compilations on YouTube.

Walking The Thames from Waterloo to Putney

This was a walk of many wonders, starting on Lower Marsh behind Waterloo Station and linking William Blake at Lambeth with Blake at St. Mary’s Battersea where he married Catherine Boucher in 1782. I saw the same view from the church that Turner studied and believed I saw his chair until someone in the know told me otherwise after watching the video. I walked on the Thames foreshore coating my boots in riverine mud and marvelled at the Buddhas in Battersea Park. The horrors of Nine Elms had a duty to be logged for posterity, added to the early impressions I noted in This Other London. Crossing the Wandle where it makes its sacred confluence with The Thames I vowed to return and walk the Wandle Trail as I had planned to do for This Other London but went to Tooting Common instead (taking in Nine Elms and Battersea). And the ending where I accidentally found myself attending Evensong at The Leveller Church of St. Mary’s Putney.

Nine Elms London

Nine Elms

St. Mary's Battersea

St. Mary’s Battersea

On a personal level though one of the most rewarding echoes came after  I’d packed the camera away and headed for the train home. Stopping for a mooch in the second-hand bookshop near Putney Bridge Tube I find a copy of Bruce Chatwin’s What Am I Doing Here that I instantly buy. I was delighted. Back at St. Mary’s Battersea I recalled walking here with Iain Sinclair during the shooting of London Overground, we schlepped on through Clapham Junction to Lavender Hill where Iain told the story (also in the book) of Andrew Kötting buying a copy of Chatwin’s collection of essays which Iain later annotated and deposited further along the route. I told my son the story and he said that perhaps this was Iain’s copy. It hadn’t occured to me, I checked, but alas no.

River Wandle at Wandsworth

River Wandle at Wandsworth

Alan Moore and Iain Sinclair on London mythologies and the power of place

“Everything that we are is reflected in place and we reflect everything that is in the locations that are around us”

– Alan Moore

“All this is about place and about intersections of place, people, collisions, collaborations, the whole thing”, adds Iain Sinclair referencing The House of the Last London where this fascinating conversation took place.

A sketch map by Brian Catling hanging amongst various images from a 1974 exhibition at the Whitechapel Gallery, Albion Island Vortex, featuring Catling, Iain Sinclair, and Renchi Bicknell, provides the original link between Iain Sinclair and Alan Moore. They talk about how fellow writer Neil Gaiman had sent Alan Moore a copy of Sinclair’s early self-published book Lud Heat which Alan found hugely inspiring. Lud Heat drew Alan Moore into the world of London mythologies at the point when he was starting work on From Hell.

Lud Heat map - Iain Sinclair and Brian Catling

Lud Heat map – Iain Sinclair and Brian Catling

“You could unpack an awful lot of From Hell from these lines on this drawing” – he says gesturing to the map.

Iain Sinclair explains how he’d sketched out the map on a napkin in a pub and handed it to the artist Brian Catling to turn it into a proper drawing – the one that hangs on the wall in Whitechapel. It’s a map that not only inspired Alan Moore but a whole generation of psychogeographers.

The conversation takes so many twists and turns through various stages of their careers, delving into their practices and inspirations, recalling previous expeditions and excursions, happenings and events. Iain talks about the recent walk we did from Shooters Hill to Woolwich that will form part of a film we’re making about Watling Street. They also preview the poetry event they would perform that evening in Lambeth alongside Catling and Allen Fisher. It was a real joy to behold and capture in this video.

 

Chilterns Walk from Princes Risborough to West Wycombe

Rarely have I gone to track down a view glimpsed from a train, but in July I headed back out from Marylebone to Princes Risborough bound for a wooded ridge that fizzed past the train window on a journey to Birmingham in April. I’d quickly screenshot the map on my phone showing that the hill was rising above Hempton Wainhill near Chinnor and vowed to return.

Lodge Hill Princes Risborough

Lodge Hill

It was a walk that delivered with almost every step, picking up the Ridgeway just south of Princes Risborough and following it past the tumuli on Lodge Hill. There I met a young man walking the length of the Ridgeway and I plugged him for tips for when I eventually set out on my 25 year old plan to walk this ancient path. The Ridgeway is ridiculously rich with prehistoric sites – I passed five Bronze Age tumuli in the space of a couple of miles around Bledlow Wood. The sense of walking into the past is profound on the Ridgeway and here it intersects with the equally (if not more) ancient Icknield Way.

The Ridgeway near Chinnor

The westward views from Chinnor Hill were stunning and here I walked off my OS Map 181 onto a much smaller scale older map I bought on ebay years ago. The previous owner evidently shared my interest in prehistoric sites and had circled all of them on the map.

The Ridgeway

Walking along a chalk ridge path through Radnage flicking tall wallflowers childhood Chilterns memories flooded back in a rush of images and feelings, a mashup of out-of-sync recollections – driving round lanes with my Dad listening to John Peel, coming home from backpacking wondering what to do next, racing our Jack Russell to the pigeon Dad had shot from the sky, sunsets over the M40 towards these hills from further down the valley at Wooburn Moor.

St. Mary's Church Radnage

A chance encounter with a lady in a lane led me across her field to St. Mary Radnage with its restored 13th Century wall paintings. A beautiful, mystical spot to stop and reflect.

West Wycombe

I’d run out of food and water by the time I ascended West Wycombe Hill and the famous Golden Ball and Hell Fire Caves. I was shown around Dashwood’s Church as they closed up after a cake sale and told how it was a collage of architectures Sir Frances Dashwood had seen on his Grand Tour in 1763 including the now destroyed temples of Palmyra.

West Wycombe Church

I took refuge in the haunted George and Dragon on West Wycombe High Street dining on beer and crisps before slogging along the A40 into Wycombe. Before hitting the town centre, I stopped off to pay homage to the sacred River Wye as it flows gently through Mill End Rec near where my Mum went to school all those many years ago.

Iain Sinclair – The House of the Last London

The House of the Last London

Last Thursday to the opening of Iain Sinclair’s installation at Gallery 46 in Whitechapel – The House of the Last London. The double fronted Georgian terrace behind London Hospital converted into a gallery is in prime Sinclair territory, the ideal spot for a gathering of artworks and artefacts mapping the great London chronicler’s collaborations from the 1960’s onwards. Among those in the house are Andrew Kötting, Chris Petit, Susan Stenger, Brian Catling, and Effie Paleologou.

The House of the Last London

The Cave of Memory – Iain Sinclair

I’d delivered some reproduced pages from my journal when Iain Sinclair walked through Leytonstone for his book The Last London (the exhibition is timed to coincide with the book’s publication) with photos of Iain stapled in celephane wrappers. Iain gave me a walk through with the artworks lying on the floor waiting to be hung. The wall in the photo above was a partial recreation of exhibition Iain staged with sculptor Brian Caitling at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1973 – Albion Island Vortex. Chris Petit arrived to install his House of Memory in an attic room – we carried furniture from his family home up the narrow flights of stairs discussing the state of London.

The House of Memory Chris Petit

The House of Memory – Chris Petit

Lud Heat map - Iain Sinclair and Brian Catling

Lud Heat map – Iain Sinclair and Brian Catling

I predict Room 7 – The Cave of Memory, will become an Iain Sinclair shrine over the course of the exhibition which runs till September 17th. People will sit on the floor beneath Brain Catling’s sketch map of the sacred geometery of London reading re-issued copies of Lud Heat, originally published by Iain Sinclair’s own Albion Village Press in 1975. We passed the site of the printers just off Balls Pond Road on the nightwalk for our London Overground film January last year, Iain lamenting that he no longer possessed any of the original editions.

Lights Out for the Territory Image Journal - Iain Sinclair

Lights Out for the Territory Image Journal – Iain Sinclair

If you want to have an understanding of the evolution of English psychogeography – or more accurately neo-psychogeography – you could do worse than pay a visit to The House of the Last London. There are missing links of course – the copies of the London Pyschogeographical Association newsletters that Iain picked up at Compendium books, Camden for example – but you probably knew all that stuff already. The Lud Heat map is almost a key artefact – the merging of earth mysteries, mythology, folklore woven into the built environment, the lingering sense that there are hidden forces surpressed beneath the pavement, choked by property development and loss of memory. Iain Sinclair The House of the Last London

Iain’s 1960’s-1970’s Super 8 diary films spool round in one of the attic rooms with Sinclair’s voice collaged into a soundtrack. You look out of the window onto Whitechapel streets earmarked for demolition, as Iain remarked to me that day, ‘the perfect place for the House of the Last London’ as it too will soon be swept away and consigned to an archive of memories.

The Heathcote Arms Leytonstone to re-open in October

Heathcote Arms Leytonstone

Great news at last regarding our beloved Heathcote Arms in Leytonstone. The Electric Star Group have taken out a 20-year lease on the pub and are investing £500,000 to get the pub open by the end of October.

It’s been grim walking past this sacred watering hole every day seeing it empty and neglected for the last 6 months but you knew that somebody would see the potential to restore this legendary boozer to, well I can’t honestly say its former glory but at least a pub once again.

Electric Star have a great roster of pubs in East London including the Leyton Star (shame they changed the name though from the King Harold removing a visible reminder of the last Anglo-Saxon king’s strong links to the area). Their other pubs include The Star of Bethnal Green, The Star by Hackney Downs, and The Last Days of Shoreditch. I believe the Heathcote will become the Heathcote-Star.

Last week Rob and Steve from Electric Star told a community meeting at the pub their plans for the Heathcote which include a function room, big screen sports, pool and arcade games, upstairs hotel accomodation, food, and locals discount scheme. It will also be kid and dog friendly. Other Star pubs have hosted live music so I guess this might be in the plans for their Leytonstone branch. There certainly used to be great live music and comedy nights at the Heathcote so it would be fantastic to see this return.

Heathcote Arms campaign

photo from the Waltham Forest Guardian

The re-opening of the Heathcote is another great example of what can happen when a community comes together. When it initially closed in 2014 after being sold by Stonegate to property developers many people assumed that it would simply be converted into flats like so many other pubs in London. But a wide cross-section of the community came together (some of whom had never even been in the pub) to launch a campaign and get the Heathcote listed as an Asset of Community Value (ACV). Local MP John Cryer gave his unwavering support, CAMRA (particularly James Watson) joined the cause, and Waltham Forest Council adopted a pub protection policy. And now we have our pub back.

Great work to everyone involved in making this happen. See you for a pint in the Heathcote Arms in October.

The East-West Passage – Stratford to the City via Bethnal Green

Fresh off the train from Ramsgate into Stratford International I needed to stretch my legs so set off Westwards. Cutting down beside the Copper Box Arena and along the Lea Navigation towpath I crossed onto the Hertford Union Canal – which connects the Lea Navigation to the Regent’s Canal.

I emerged onto Roman Road as the sunset started to light up the blocks of flats above the shops. I follow the ancient London to Norwich route through Globe Town and Bethnal Green to the junction with Shoreditch High Street, itself the Roman Ermine Street striking north through the Hertfordshire countryside and beyond continuing north through Lincoln to York. On the other side of this two millenia old confluence is the narrow lane, Holywell Street associated with the Shoreditch Holy Well and the Holywell Priory, although the site of the Holy well has been reported as being in nearby Bateman’s Row.

I’m sucked into the belly of the Barbican, escaping across the modern A1 North Road and down Long Lane through Smithfield. I always get the shivers passing across the ‘Smooth Field’ as this is where my namesake, John Rogers the Martyr was burnt at the stake on 4th February 1555.

John Rogers Martyr

My feet lead me to the road that links me to the place of the my birth, the A40, and where John Rogers the Martyr was vicar at St. Sepulchre. I pay my respects to the great heretic then head for the Central Line at Chancery Lane.