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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An evening perambulation of the wells and springs of Clerkenwell

We gathered at the NFT bar for the sake of expediency. Pete, Cathy, Dave and Nick. The ground between the South Bank and the beginning of the trail of wells and springs was also full of interesting diversions and a few more water references.

We first detoured through the courtyard of Somerset House with the fountain playing in the sunset. Then we headed along to the Old Roman Spring Bath in Strand Lane that I’d found by accident on a lunchtime wander. Through a half-open gate and down the Surrey Steps into Strand Lane, an anachronism, blocked off at either end. We peer through the basement window into the Roman bathing chamber fed by springs on Hampstead Heath according to S.P. Sutherland.

We moved along the Strand and I pointed out that St Clement Danes had a holy well in its grounds (now beneath the law courts) where pilgrims bound for Canterbury used to stop for a drink.
“Where were they coming from?” someone asks.
“Over there”, I gesture towards Trafalgar Square.
“And then they’d head on to Dartford Services”, adds Nick.

We duck through a door on Fleet Street into the otherworld of the Temple. Oddly, beside me, none of the group has ever been here. It’s one of those London sites so obvious that many people give it a miss when they can’t find the entrance. We wander the lanes and make for the Templar Church sadly too late for the talk by Robin Griffiths-Jones the Master of the Temple on “The Da Vinci Code – Facts and Fictions”. This church was one of many common features in both Dan Brown’s potboiler and ‘The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail’, the similarities of the two books sparking a legal row that played out over the road in the Royal Courts of Justice.
We linger for a while enjoying the peace of this city within a city. The group want to explore further, but we’re constantly frustrated by looked gates and closed doors.

We exit and head along the lanes behind Fleet Street towards Bride Lane. Up through a vast 80’s development boasting a gigantic lump of rusting sculpture and we find the back of St. Brides. My book, ‘Old London’s Spas, Baths and Wells’ by S P Sutherland (1915), refers to a pump that dispensed water from the holy well, located in the eastern wall of the churchyard. Nick gives me a bunk-up to peer through an iron grate, which scratches the palms of my hands. Then he spies water marks on the wall below a small metal plate. It’s inconclusive.

We move on past the Friday-night-full pubs that spill out onto the pavement. Nick has been told about some engraved friezes in the modernist beast of the Daily Express building. We tailgate a departing employee and last barely 30 seconds before being nabbed by security. We ask about the friezes. “I have no idea what you’re talking about he says.”

Into Shoe Lane, this is just a functional route into Clerkenwell. We cross Holborn viaduct and into Ely Place, with St Etheldreda’s hosting a plush party in the crypt. Through a small wooden door in the wall at the end and we stand in the twilight of Bleeding Heart Yard. Outside the entrance to the posh-nosh The Bleeding Heart restaurant I recount the story of Lady Hatton who danced with the devil here one night, next morning she was gone except for her still warm heart pumping out blood over the cobbles.

On to Saffron Hill, one of my favourite lanes that head up to Clerkenwell Road. I’ve frequently walked at night up Shoe Lane, Saffron Hill, Herbal Hill to Rosebery Avenue without seeing a soul. Tonight is no different. There are a few drinkers in The One Tun and I capture a group photo of the walkers outside. The One Tun has a long board proclaiming its great antiquity and links to Charles Dickens. (I wonder how many pubs in London claim to have been frequented by Dickens? Nearly as many as those that claim Dr Johnson as a former patron and fringe towns where Dick Turpin was alleged to have holed up). He probably sank a few in here whilst he was writing Oliver Twist as he placed Fagin’s den here on Saffron Hill. It was a dodgy old place back then. Now it’s all design studios and loft apartments. We find a piece of 1950’s municipal architecture at the end which we argue about. Nick loves it, Pete has an affection, Dave can see its merits, I think it was built to just about last 40 years and should be pulled down to make way for a Saffron plot, Cathy thinks we’re hilarious (on one of her blogs she lists ‘geeks’ as an interest).

We cross the road and duck down into Farringdon Lane. It’s always just that bit darker down here. The Clerk’s Well is marked with a blue plaque on the front of no. 14-16. You don’t have to be an etymologist to decipher this one. No room for Clerics to perform their Mystery Plays on the pavement now, although Radicals will gather round the corner on the Green for Mayday.
We don’t linger long and head up the banks of the Fleet. There are a few calls for a food stop which I’d scheduled a bit further along the route. A detour is mooted but nobody wants to miss out on Spa Green and the view back from the corner of Rosebery Avenue.

We slide along Bowling Green Lane, where boozers have been gastropubbed and come to the Spa Fields, now a grubby playground but once the site of dramatic political gatherings; most notably a large mustering in 1816 of the followers of Thomas Spence which resulted in the leaders of the meeting being charged with High Treason. The old Borough of Finsbury is again a political battleground as the Islington branch of the Independent Working Class Association lead the fighback against the sell-off of community assets to Council backed property speculators.

We make a nod towards the site of the London Spaw, another of the popular resorts of the area that survived as a pub and is now somesort of restaurant. It attracted poorer customers than its more celebrated neighbours, who could drink the water for free but had to pay for the home-brewed Spaw Ale. “Poor Robin’s Almanack” reported in 1733:
“Now sweethearts with their their sweethearts go
To Islington, or London Spaw;
Some go but just to drink the water,
Some for the ale which they like the better”

The tower blocks of St John’s, Goswell and City Road line up in the sky in front of us. Markers in the night. No.6 Lloyds Row where the actual spring for the Islington Spa was found has been wiped out, the whole street seems to consist of a car park and the entrance to the Spa Green Estate with its Tunbridge Wells House in reference to the moniker of ‘New Tunbridge Wells’ that the spa earnt in theC18th. How influenced was Lubetkin by the location’s illustrious past? I’ve written on this blog before about how it was reported to have also been one of Cromwell’s Civil War forts. Fort, pleasure garden, utopian housing scheme, sink estate. Quite a history. The exterior is clad in netting and scaffold, a lick of paint, lipstick on the gorilla.

We turn into Rosebery Avenue, we find the highpoint of the mound, opposite Sadler’s Wells which is the most obvious of the other wells on our tour. The hunger is starting to bite in and we want to make sure we make it to Muratori before it closes at 10. We cut round past the front of the old HQ of the Metropolitan Water Board and the New River Head. Down Merlin Street where I hit Pete with E.O. Gordon’s theory that the Penton Mound that rises here up Amwell Street was Merlin’s observatory and he dwelt in a cave at its base. There was a Merlin’s Cave Tavern hereabouts till the early 80’s.

I have to make a dash into St Helena Street and run off expecting the others to carry onto the caff, but they scamper up the street behind me. There was allegedly a spring in the garden of No.3 St. Helena Street that belonged to Bagnigge Wells. St Helena Street has been reduced to alleyway, no number 3 that we can see although some Georgian houses do back on.
In Lloyd Baker Street we lose Nick but carry on to look at the block of LCC flats named after Nell Gwynne who was associated with Bagnigge Wells on nearby Kings Cross Road. Nick catches up with us. He’d gone round to No.3 to have a look over the wall for signs of a spring or a well but without luck.

Muratori is open and half-full. We get a long formica table by the window and peruse the ‘chips with everything’ menu. This place doesn’t disappoint. I’ve been wanting to come in for ages. It’s full of fruity banter between tables, friendly staff, TV showing CCTV images of Farringdon Road.

We emerge at 10.15 to complete the tour of the wells and springs. Over the road, down Calthorpe Street then into Phoenix Place where we stand locked in a stare with a young fox that clambers atop a wall a few yards away. We try to go into the Mount Pleasant Sorting Office carpark but a friendly chap stops us. So we hit him for a bit of local history. This roughly cleared site with a deep hole in the middle was once part of the post office but was bombed during the war. I looked this up and find that the parcel section was completely destroyed by a single bomb on 18th June 1943. This must be one of the last major bombsites in London. Not for long, he tells us, they’re going to build a new sorting office here and sell the other one off to a hotel chain or something. He runs through the owners of the brilliantly lit offices that back on from Grays Inn Road (I’ve speculated about these before on this blog). ITN, Channel 4 (news), News International, looking down on a bombsite.

We move on round the corner into the depths of Black Mary’s Hole. The origins are obscure. Either a well in the gardens of the convent of the Blessed Mary that became Black Mary after the Reformation; or more literally that a black woman called Mary used the dispense the water from the well. One writer, Chesca Potter, theorises that it could have been dedicated to the Black Madonna (still worshipped in Poland Nick tells us) who is a manifestation of the much older lunar goddess Black Isis. She also took a medium to the site who believed it to have been a sacrificial pit. This would tie-in with the likelihood that the area was used for pagan worship as Druids were known to have worshiped streams and wells – the river Fleet that runs nearby was known as the Turnmill Brook and the area is rich with springs. There is something about the darkness of this spot that adds to the plausibility of this idea. I’m sure there were more than a few believers in the heyday of Grays Inn Buildings site just above the hole.

Up along Grays Inn Road and I take the fellas over to admire the architecture of the London Welsh centre, which has a hint of Arts & Crafts about it mixed with mock-Baronial. There’s something wonderfully old-fashioned about this place. A venue for committee meetings, afternoon bingo, jumble sales, a village hall dropped in from the valleys. There is a lively function on inside, a lady wanders out and wonders what we’re looking at. We present her with our thoughts on the architecture. She’s just here for the monthly tango night and heads off home.

We’ve one last location to clock. Off we slip behind the Travelodge into St. Chad’s Place. Whiff of municipal men’s loo (visible through a broken window for voyeurs) and the pumping disco St. Chad’s Place bar, if I’d ever wondered what the word ‘bling’ meant then here it was heaving and lolling around inside. St. Chad is the patron saint of medicinal springs, the patron saint of our walk. Again this spot is marked by myth and legend, that the water sprung up through the ground on the spot that Edmund Ironside defeated King Canute. It opened as a medicinal spring and resort in 1772 had its heyday then was demolished when the Midland Railway carved up this vale.

We emerge through a dark narrow archway on Kings Cross Road, just along from the site of Bagnigge Wells at No. 63. The others head off to the station and I turn home up Pentonville Road acknowledging Penton Rise (Penton translates from Celtic as rising ground or spring; Henry Penton was the name of the developer who built the first houses here. Coincidence?) and Hermes Street as further references to water and springs as I pass them. As I stop in the corner shop near my flat to buy a bottle of beer, I realise that I’m completing the circuit. Opposite stands White Conduit House, a spring that served the Charthouse down in Smithfield and then became a pleasure garden with a maze in the garden. The spring and the maze, again signs of Druidic worship. It’s was renamed The Penny Farthing long ago, long after it gave birth to cricket and the MCC, and has been closed for the last year or so. I peer through the dusty window. The place has been gutted, a toilet stands alone in one corner surrounded by signs that this old pleasure ground and spring is about to come back to life once more, whilst I’ll be moving on from Penton Mound out east to Leytonstone.

Bibliography:
The London Compendium, Ed Glinert, 2004
The River of Wells, Chesca Potter, 1995
Inns and Taverns of Old London, Henry C. Shelley, 2004
Old London’s Spas, Baths and Wells, S.P. Sutherland, 1915

Black Mary’s Hole

I decide to go back into Black Mary’s Hole to take some photos. I enter from Grays Inn Road via Elm Street and discover that the ominous looking block sprouting military sized satellite dishes on the roof is in fact the offices of the Serious Fraud Squad (a building they appear to share with ITN). The offices are illuminated by strip lights, a swivel chair turned to face the window with a bulging folder sat half open. I wonder if this is the infamous George Galloway file.

Luckily the basement office stacked high with old IT gear belongs to the neighbouring building. Two fellas are sat there feet up. I move along a little down Gough Street, flash off, too far away to get a good picture. It’s freezing. A guy walks down the middle of the street with two dogs. This is a desolate dark lane. The office that I snap has a semi-deserted carpark beneath – a skip full of broken office furniture. It doesn’t take a wild leap of the imagination to see the murder of John Etheridge that took place here in 1766. Etheridge was driving cattle through the area and one of his bullocks strayed into a field belonging to William Floyd. Thomas Plymmer came out of the smith’s shop, struck him once on the nose, he collapsed and died.

From the top of Phoenix Place I look out over the lights of the huge carpark that house the post office vans of the Mount Pleasant sorting office. My great aunts Edie and Ethel worked here when they returned from South Africa in the 1920’s. The tower blocks on St John’s Street Goswell Road shimmer in the background, roughly on the spot of the old madhouse, the historic symmetry is instructive.

This dark pit between Calthorpe Street, Kings Cross Road, Farringdon Road, Grays Inn and down to Clerkenwell Road keeps drawing me in, night and day. It retains a medieval feel, even after William Floyd’s fields have given way to a roughly surfaced carpark and the sorting office has been dropped on Sir John Oldcastle’s orchard. C20th street lighting fails to illuminate the damp blackness that rises from the Fleet beneath the pavement. Alleys and lanes proliferate. There is an absence of people on the street after dark, you earn your passage through here and it stays with you.


The scene in Muratori on Kings Cross Road is one to catch. Faces alive. The waitress has the floor, animated, arms waving, she’s holding court, all the blokes in post office drag having their hearty dinners laughing. It’s like an Edward Hopper painting injected with mirth.

This morning, going up Mount Pleasant the covers start to come off the back of the infamous Grays Inn Buildings. It’s starting to look like just another block of luxury flats, a long way from it’s days as a notorious den of drugs and anarchists.

BS Johnson in High Wycombe

Did a classic walk in from Wycombe to Wooburn last week, along the River Wye. We’d gone down to do a talk to the Fine Art students at BCUC and I’d had this urge to walk home, chart the changes taking place to the area where I grew up as they manifest themselves along the river which gave the area it’s purpose and its identity.
But before I got onto the river I couldn’t resist a diversion to Gordon Road where BS Johnson satyed as an evacuee. Somebdoy contacted me via this blog to point out the long descriptions of Wycombe in his novel ‘Trawl’.
I started reading him because he lived in Claremont Square, Islington, just down the road from me, the top of Penton Mound. He writes about night-time schleps around Islington in ‘Albert Angelo’.
It’s another reference in my ‘autopobiography’.

You can read about the walk here: http://remappinghighwycombe.blogspot.com

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