Walk to the West End

I needed to pay a visit to Housmans to trawl for ‘research materials’, that was the excuse anyway. I had half an eye on a visit to Leather Lane to fish at the other end of the cultural spectrum at the stall of mass-market magazines at rock bottom prices. But as I started out towards the Lea Bridge Road to catch a No.55 something nagged at me, an urge, a need for a little something else to blow out the cobwebs and get the creative juices flowing. The urge to drift, in the general direction of Kings Cross but essentially “to be bound by no programme”.

I took the standard route to Leyton High Road. There was birdsong in Coronation Gardens, dark clouds over the Lea Valley, the geographical feature I had to cross one way or the other. I found verdant cottages in Dunedin Road where a side road had been blocked with piles of rubbish like Jeremy Deller had dropped by to do a re-enactment on a small scale of the Claremont Road protests. Roar of traffic on Ruckholt Road. The freshly mown pitches on Hackney Marshes whilst over the road is a knotweed wasteland framed by distant suicide tower blocks. The River Lea runs through beautiful somehow, eddying, banks overgrown with poppies and wildflowers. You could imagine the Mississippi ‘River Rat’ Kenny Sawney rhapsodising his way along catching fish and cooking them on a bankside campfire. No wonder otters have moved back in.

Along the Eastway, the eastern entrance to the City is still via woods and bandit country to be approach with trepidation after dark. On temporary metal fencing around overgrown land an ominous “London Development Agency (LDA) Compulsory Purchase Order under sections 12(2A) and 12(2A)(b) of the Acquisition of Land Act 1981″. Beside it is the “Notice of Hearing, To the Defendant, Persons Unknown, Clerkenwell and Shoreditch County Court Claim No. 7EC03125″. These two important documents have been shoved inside plastic document wallets and loosely wedged in a fence half obscured by weeds on the side of a motorway flyover. The LDA are begrudgingly fulfilling their legal obligations. The law is a minor hurdle to these fellas, they’ve got an Olympics to stage and only £9billion to spend on it. I wonder whether Acquisition of Land Act 1981 is able to be subverted to reclaim and collectivise redundant factories as workers in Argentina have done to startling effect using that country’s compulsory purchase laws.

Over in Hackney Wick the art deco public baths with its separate entrances for Men and Women has been converted into a community centre. I duck into St. Mary of Eton with its great tower. I pick up a copy of ‘neighbourhood focus: hackney wick’ which announces that Hackney Wick is “the new Shoreditch” (that’ll account for the lower case lettering then). Heaven help them, in five years tops they’ll all be priced out by the ‘arts-led regeneration’, the community centre will be converted into loft apartments and the Costcutter will be a branch of ‘Fresh and Wild’ charging £3 for a thimble of pureed grass. If that doesn’t finish the area off, there are plans to drop the Olympic Media Centre in ‘The Wick’.

When I was living in a squat up the road in Well Street in the early nineties the idea of an Olympic Media Centre in Hackney Wick would have been too surreal a vision for even a die-hard space cadet like ‘Mad Martin’ (when he’d overdone the pharmacopia he gave the kids of the estate great entertainment by running over the rooftops of the 6-storey blocks of the estate. It was not unusual to find him on your balcony four floors up holding a geology hammer wanting to discuss the writings of William S Burroughs).

I find myself in Victoria Park. Sinclair country. Out of respect and humility I shall say little about crossing this park where I used to come of a kip and a few pages of Dirk Gently whilst on the Dole. Instead I recommend you read the early chapters of his seminal work ‘Lights Out for the Territory’. Although, I wonder how the plans to transform Victoria Park into a “21st Century Pleasure Garden” went on a water-logged Bank Holiday weekend.

‘The village’ of Victoria Park is all espresso bars, canopies, and yummy mummies pushing designer babies. It was on the way there in ‘92-’94 to be honest, aside from the shooting in the pub by the park gates in the middle of the afternoon one day.

I slope past The Albion where I got horribly drunk one night in a lock-in and ended up drinking with, by accident, the couple who had once lived in the council flat I was squatting. “Ere, he’s squatting in our old flat!” the lady gaffawed to all and sundry across the pub. They managed to wangle a nice little ground floor flat facing the Park so there were no hard feelings (for the intrepid, I wrote an article about this time in ‘Labour Left Briefing’ in 1993, ‘Sad Grads’. For film producers, I have a stonking screenplay based on some of the more colourful aspects of this era and the ‘unconventional’ approach of Hackney Housing department).

I give a nod to the old estate which is getting a long-overdue make-over, note that the launderette that was the inspiration for my screenplay and where my mate Kate lived in a flat above, has made way for a Lidl, meaning either my script was strangely prophetic or I got it all wrong when I had it making way for an amusement arcade (‘Flashing Blips’).

Round London Fields where more yuppy hutches are being erected and down the hopelessly gentrified Broadway Market (I did debate with an imaginary ‘aspirational’ friend about whether the delis and gastro-pubs were an improvement or an example of middle-class colonisation of what was once and staunchly working-class area with a very strong, now nearly extinct, culture all of its own that had no use for olives and pomegranate juice).

I join the Regent Canal here and can’t let go, my metronomic step carrying my along past the slideshow of estates with orange boarded-up windows (quite attractive actually) and on the other side, yeah more ‘luxury’ developments. I’m not going to go on and on about this, take a look at the Islington Working Class Association website instead. By the time I reach Angel at 1.10 my hip joints are reminding me that I haven’t stopped walking since I left Leytonstone at 10.20am. I rest on a bench in Colebrooke Road gardens and remember two things: 1. That Douglas Adams lived here somewhere, 2. That the residents got very upset by people defecating in the bushes.

It’ll be easy enough to drop down to Housmans from here but I have a strong urge to push on westwards, to turn this into a ‘Sandwich Man’ style odyssey. I move on in search of lunch.
I get distracted by Borders. I hear that they’ll all be gone soon, these American book warehouses and replaced by branches of Starbucks selling books. Only capitalism could come up with an arrangement like that. I sit down with a copy of Mute magazine; I’m too tight to pay a fiver for a mag so I’ll just have read the good bits here. There’s an interesting article by Kate Rich on commons, about Amy Balkin’s ‘This is Public Domain’ and the Morningstar Ranch where Lou Gottlieb signed over the deeds to God when the State tried to evict him meaning that they had to indict ‘God’ in the legal proceedings.

Down Chapel Market in full swing and lunch in Alpino. I realise that it could appear that I’m stalking Iain Sinclair as he stops here on his Regent Canal stomps but really I’m just hungry and sentimental (I enjoyed 3 years living over the road till last year).

Past the estate and on to Housman’s for a good old rummage. I emerge about 40 minutes later with Tom Vague’s ‘London Pyschogeography, Rachman Riots and Rillington Place’, the Anarchist Federation’s free leaflet on ID cards, a copy of Labour Left Briefing, a Class War poster and two badges for a friend (‘Hated by the Daily Mail’ and ‘I Am Spartacus’). Good haul for a £5.50. Technically speaking my work is done and to be frank my legs are sore despite the bacon roll and apple pie at Alpino. But I have to go on, the ‘fugue’ is in control (ref: ‘London Orbital’).

Past Camden Town Hall, Judd Street, it’s a lovely day, justification enough for staying on the move. The Aquarium Gallery in Woburn Walk and the Indian Restaurant where I celebrated the birth of my first child alone with a top class curry complete with brandy after. Through to Fitzrovia, enigmatic area this – Patrick Hamilton country and parts still feel down at heel. The old Middlesex Hospital is all boarded up prior to the inevitable ‘mixed-use redevelopment’. A film crew is taking advantage of the deserted wards and operating theatres. Cleveland Residencies has the look of the kind of place where Hamilton’s young ladies of dubious morals boarded.

Wigmore Street leaves me more convinced than ever in the need for a Class War. Strange that, because turning into Marylebone High Street I don’t feel the same level of anger, more a kind of mystification. The designer Polo shirted couples spilling out of Waitrose and making for their Chelsea Tractors don’t come across so much as hateful but stupid, “you’ve been had” I think, “blowing all that money here, just because you’ve been told it’s the place to shop”.

I carry this slightly superior air past Daunt books which nearly makes me pass it by, luckily I caught a glimpse of the glass dome at the back. I would have regretted missing it’s galleried travel room at the back stacked with pamphlets and chapbooks. I even got a phone call from bookdealer Chris Berthoud by chance.

The walk is coming to an end, but still I stop off in Paddington Street Gardens where children play amongst the tombstones. I cross over to Mayfair and see the new defences around the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. I was watching the footage of the violent, bloody 1968 anti-Vietnam War protests that happened here. The Golden Eagle hovering over the Embassy roof seems to be keeping a watchful eye over the troublesome London mob. I read a while ago that the Yanks have had enough of protestors and archaic tenancy agreements, they’re off out to the sticks to hide behind an even bigger perimeter fence. We’ll be able to have our square back.

It’s the final statement in this walk through the story of ‘property’ in London. The travellers’ site by the allotments, the LDA Compulsory Purchase Order, Hackney gentrification, Council Estates turned over to Housing Associations, flats condemned and boarded up to keep out squatters, Georgian and Victorian parks and squares, the hospital converted into executive apartments and exclusive (chain) retail outlets, the estate of the richest landowner in the realm, the foreign embassy with its fences erected to keep us out.

I make it to Oxford Circus by 6pm,a full working day spent on the move, and more accomplished than 8 hours at the desk gazing out the window looking for inspiration. Severe delays on the Central Line, I come crashing back to reality.

Out to Claybury


The plan was simple and quite ‘unplanned’ – return to Wanstead to check out the ominous gothic building at the end of Nightingale Lane then make my way across to find the River Roding and follow it up to Claybury Hospital. I’m taking some advice from Ian Bourn’s seminal Leytonstone film ‘Lenny’s Documentary’ (1979): “cause people round here are always cracking up, after which they go to Claybury Hospital”. I’ve been feeling the pressure at work lately, under a bit of strain, so I’m going to reverse the process, I’m going to Claybury to avoid cracking up.

Once back in Wanstead, only a 10-minute walk from Leytonstone but you get the feeling that you are now in Essex. Maybe it’s the small boutiques and Webb’s Gastrodome with its menu of “Moules and Frittes, Chicken Curry and Rice, Sausage and Mash”. Nightingale Lane is a step back in time, the newsagent has a hand-written sign advertising for a “Paper Boy/Girl”. The view up the narrow lane rising to a redbrick gothic building instantly called to mind a mental image of Edinburgh or Glasgow, in the way that you have impressions of places you’ve never been to but just seen on the telly and in pictures. As I reach the top of the lane the pub on the corner goes by the name of The Duke of Edinburgh (as do hundreds of other pubs outside the Scottish capital, I know).
 
Once I find a way into the grounds of the gothic beast on the hill the inscription above the door tells me that the foundation stone was laid by Albert Prince Consort for this home for the orphans of British Merchant Seaman on 28th June 1861. It’s a grand building, must have cost a bit, maybe the Victorians weren’t as bad as they are sometimes made out to be. Like a lot of places it seems to have mutated into Clock Court ‘luxury apartments’ – one of the most over-used combination of words in London (I’ve been in some and they’re just apartments, no gold taps, marble worktops, no bling, nothing that the residents further up the Roding Valley in Chigwell would recognise as ‘luxury’).
Thomas Archer wrote glowingly of the Orphanage in his 1870 ‘The Terrible Sights of London’. “When that sweet little cherub who is traditionally amid lyrically represented as sitting up aloft to look out for the life of poor Jack, is relieved by the next watch, and makes a short excursion for the purpose of stretching his wings, it may reasonably be inferred that he hovers lovingly over the neighbourhood of Snaresbrook, in Essex, and perches occasionally on the tall spiral tower of that magnificent building, where 136 children, the orphans of merchant seamen, are maintained with loving care.” What he describes is far from a terrible sight: light and airy dormitories, varnished pine, good ventilation, harmonium music drifting through the hallways, the children free from even the smallest ailments, a healthy supply of good food and water. It is as if the children have been compensated for the loss of their fathers at sea by being transported from the squalor of Victorian London dockland slums to Xanadu.
One of the apartments is on the market. The Rightmove website describes the interior of this supposed ‘des-res’ (£524,995) in far less glowing terms than Archer’s asylum:
“FEATURES
Split level apartment
Converted Orphanage
Mezzanine bedroom
Bedroom with en suite
Many period features
We are delighted to offer for sale this two bedroom converted apartment which we believe is part of an old Victorian (1860’s), orphanage for the children of merchant seaman. The property which forms part of a listed building, has a wealth of fine features which have to be seen to be appreciated. Communal Entrance”

From here I wade through a quagmire of suburban banality to get to a footpath that takes me into the Roding Valley Park. It’s about 100 yards wide, has a motorway overhead, pylons, and at this point no sign of the eponymous river.

I move on along through spindly Birch trees buffeted by the wind and the motorway noise – something I won’t escape for the whole four hours walk.
 
Instead of coming to the river I emerge at the centre of a knot of motorway flyovers with an enormous metal pylon rising in the centre – a Ballardian wet dream. Charlie Brown’s Roundabout. I commit my second climate crime of the day when I buy a pork pie from Tesco (not the pie, the shopping in Tesco. The first crime was buying non-rechargeable batteries from Poundland – 12 for a quid!).
 
The river at last.
Two hundred yards on from the mayhem I get a clear view of the Claybury Asylum water tower above the scrub. Iain Sinclair came out this way when writing ‘Rodinsky’s Room’, as the disappearing Jewish Hermit had a sister committed to the asylum. I think he posited somewhere that Rodinky’s annotated A-Z used the tower as its central reference point.
There’s a moment in every walk when it takes off and transcends the familiar and banal. The motorway was behind me for the first time. All there was now was a path snaking into bare trees and the top of the tower poking from a wooded hill in the distance. Carrier bags fluttered from branches like an ominous warning sign, adapted spirit catchers.

I cut across sodden marsh and round a muddy cricket pitch where snoozing sightscreens are buffeted by the stiff breeze. My denim loafers had been doing so well (don’t talk to me about walking boots, I’ve been having all manner of problems in that department – do footwear manufacturers sponsor topographical ramblers?). Now they are more like water-skis than anything else as I slip and slide over the mud into Claybury Park.

The view from the top of the hill is one of the finest in London, even surpassing (just) the one Nick showed me from Jack Straw’s Castle in Hampstead. It’s like the vista of Florence from Fiesole. A perfect place for a mental hospital. I’d been pre-warned about the inevitable conversion into luxury apartments when I’d checked ‘London Orbital’ for references last night (I’m figuring – mental hospital near the M25, got to be something in there). On page 167 Sinclair describes how he turns up at the gates the day the diggers moved in. Still, I’m determined to get a closer look. I plunge through the muddy tracks into the woods of hornbeam, oak and beech (natural habitat for a child of Bucks). Water runs in deep rivulets down the bank form small brooks and streams. Chigwell (which is where I am as it transpires) means ‘Kings Well’ and S.P Sunderland reports that there was a medicinal well here in Saxon times (maybe that accounts for the asylum). Now the tower is oddly elusive. I’m right below it but it is out of sight. I stop to ask directions from a lady walking a black Labrador who used to work there when it was a hospital. But for all my exertions I fail to breach the perimeter fences which I bet are far better secured now it is the private domain of Repton Park executive homes than in its asylum days.

When I emerge, mud-splattered on Tomswood Road I’m greeted by a sign that says, “Welcome to Essex”. Not more than 10 yards later I’m engulfed in a mock Tudor nightmare, more security gates, 4x4s at rest waiting for the school run, even a Ferris Bueller red Ferrari. The Prince Regent Hotel proudly advertises its Abba Tribute Night on 3rd March for £28.95. This Georgian hotel, when not hosting corporate ‘away-days’, is the venue for boxing bouts.
There is a W14 bus in the lay-by that would shortly be heading back to Leytonstone and as I’ve achieved my target I consider hopping on, but no, my metronomic stride won’t stop, clearly my mental health has not quite been revived.
A Victorian water pump has been restored and given a plaque by the local Woodford historical society, marking the point of the Saxon bridge that crossed the River Roding. I see the River beneath the beast of the M11 and rejoin the path. In the dip of the embankment you are shielded from arterial roads either side and the motorway above. The noise is migraine inducing and unrelenting. Crossing at Charlie Brown’s is a near death experience, either they run you down or you wait so long on the roadside that the pollution gets you.

The pylons hold hands over the water and the cables elegantly curve to the river’s bends. There’s no mobile phone signal. It’s a world within a world.
As I reach the castellated pumping station at Wanstead I’m pushed into an underpass system that seems to mirror the gyratory above. My legs have gone numb from the knee down. It is only at this point that I realise that I haven’t broken my stride since leaving home four hours ago, not stopped or sat down once, not even for the statutory pint. I allow the underpass to guide me away from the Roding and onto the Central Line instead.

Solitary, slow and wayward – SPB Mais on how to see England (proto-Situationist manifesto pt.2)

You can no more see England from a main arterial road than you can see her from the air. What you can see from the newly constructed roads is a garish rash of scarlet, the unhealed wound of a land laid waste.

Hikers travel on foot, but they see nothing of England, for two reasons. They travel too fast, and they walk, as starlings fly, in multitudes.

It is not enough to travel on foot. You must learn to saunter as Charles II, Richard Jefferies, W.H. Hudson, and Edward Thomas sauntered, and you must learn to saunter alone.

You travel alone, not because you are unsociable, but because you are sociable. In a crowd you just nod in passing to the shepherd or road-mender. When you are alone you make friends with every passer-by. All England talks to you.

You travel alone, secondly, to meet yourself. All the rest of the year you are part of the machine. You work with the herd, take your pleasures with the herd. But alone in the quietude of the country you find yourself. You are at last finding out your own tastes, testing your own unforced reactions.

So make up your mind to be bound by no programme, to travel with complete irresponsibility, to start nowhere in particular, and the odds are that you will catch a glimpse of England that is vouchsafed only to the privileged few.

What you are looking for is as elusive as the faery music of the piper at the gates of dawn. What you see may be incommunicable to others, but it will provide you with a vision that may well alter the whole of your outlook on life.

Solitary, slow, and wayward are the keywords.

In England you cannot go wrong so long as you keep to the unknown.

You and I are likely to go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green, but our ancestors lie buried in the long barrows that strew the banks of Minchinhampton. Where they are traces of earliest man there is beauty.

So if you would find loveliness, tread the ancient tracks that top the Wiltshire downlands. The smooth green undulations will soothe your harassed mind as nothing else can.

It is impossible in the hurly-burly of the market-place to acquire or to keep any values at all. Only when we are striding the high hills alone can we take stock of ourselves, our desires, and our relation to this world and the next.

Abridged from ‘England’s Character’, SPB Mais 1936, pgs. 14-22.
You can read Pt. 1 of SPB Mais’ Proto Situationist Manifesto, Advice for Derivers (circa 1930), here

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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.

Catrin Glyndwr memorial

In an attempt to escape the South Bank crowds I headed over Blackfriars Bridge, up along Queen Victoria Street and found solitude. I ended up on Canon Street and drawn into Salters Hall Court. There I found the Catrin Glyndwr – St. Swithin’s Memorial, a small raised garden well kept, tranquil with a curved statue in the corner dedicated to Catrin’s memory. A Corporation of London plaque told the story of Catrin – taken to the Tower of London in 1409 with her children during Owain’s Welsh uprising due to her children’s potential claim to the throne through her marriage to the rebellious Edmund Mortimer. Four years later both her and two of her children were dead and she was buried in St. Swithin’s churchyard. The garden is dedicated not just to Catrin but to all women and children who suffer in war. It was a poignant find on the day when people marched in London calling for a ceasefire in Lebanon. Hundreds of empty children’s shoes were laid in front of 10 Downing Street to symbolise shocking scale of child victims of the conflict.

Jake Arnott short story about St. Swithin’s Churchyard

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