The Way of the Topographical Rambler

Finally got my hands on a copy of Gordon S Maxwell’s ‘The Fringe of London’ (pub. 1925). I first perused it in Amwell Books (Maxwell goes to the village of Amwell in Chapter 1) but was put off by the £35 asking price. It then took over a month to get a copy via inter-library loan, but I stupidly only photocopied the chapter on Maxwell’s encounter with the last minstrel in the hills near High Wycombe. I had a copy coming from Canada that got lost in the post. A friend then offered to lend me his copy but he left it in Monks Park whilst retracing Maxwell’s footsteps to the same place. So finally picking up a copy of this magical crypto-topographical text via ebay was a moment to be savoured.

The introduction is titled; ‘Ventures and Adventures in Topography’; it’s subtitled: “On rambling round the outskirts of London, and the unexpected turns, trials and triumphs that lie in the path of the wayfarer”. An Edwardian ‘London Orbital’ (someone I know mentioned Maxwell to Iain Sinclair who appeared never to have heard of him). It reads like a manifesto for the psychogeographically-minded. In 1925 Maxwell wrote:

“The borderline between folk-lore and fairy-tales is not more nebulous than that between topographical research and “nosing about.”
To confess to the study of folk-lore and topography is to be thought somewhat of a savant, but to own that you like fairy-tales and exploring old buildings, or anywhere fancy may lead you, is to risk being considered of rather peculiar tastes by some people, yet I challenge anyone to prove a distinct dividing-line between the two things. “

“There are two ways of topographical hunting: one is to follow the “scent” of a clue, and the other is to go into the unknown to find what may be. Each way has its own charms and surprises. “

“The true rambler must never be afraid of committing the crime of trespass; fair words are a better help than fast legs. “

“A great point for the rambler to remember is not to believe anything he is told, or at least to commit it to paper, without verification. “

“There is an interesting game I often play. I call it “The Topographical Detective.” It is tracing houses and places in well-known books which the author took as a model but hinted at rather than specifically mentioned. “

“The way of the topographical rambler is sometimes hard, often muddy, usually interesting; but never dull.”

I see Maxwell as part of a trend in topographical writing that seems to span from the 1920’s and ends with Geoffrey Fletcher in the 1960’s. During this time you have people such as SPB Mais with his call to the hills to walk and commune with the spirits of the air, HV Morton sniffing around the flea markets and alleyways of forgotten London, William Margrie’s London Explorer’s Club, Fletcher’s ‘Offbeat London’ of public loos and strange street-lighting and many others, most notably E.O Gordon’s ‘Prehistoric London: Its Mounds and Circles’ (I blog this from the top of Penton Mound). I think there’s definitely a link between these writers and the neo-psychogeographical revival led by Stewart Home, Sinclair and Patrick Keiller in the 1990’s.

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Haven’t blogged here for a while because I’ve been occupied with another project in High Wycombe http://remappinghighwycombe.blogspot.com. I’ve been working with my sister carrying out a psychogeographical survey of the town, doing various derives and some straightforward walks. It threw up another link in my ‘Autopobiography': writer B.S. Johnson who lived in Claremont Square, Islington and also Gordon Road, High Wycombe. I was reading his novel ‘Albert Angelo’ for its topographical descriptions of Islington when someone emailed me to tell me that his book ‘Trawl’ (also in his ‘Omnibus’) had a long description of parts of High Wycombe.
We capped off the project with a long walk circumnavigating the town in the spirit of Iain Sinclair’s ‘London Orbital’ and Andrew Kotting’s ‘Galivant’ sending back 10 second video clips via mobile phone to an installation in the town centre where they were displayed on a screen. This worked really well and is something we may repeat.
But now I can return to the Islington streets, tracking their moods and atmospheres, and anything else that takes my fancy.

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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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Through Temple Bar into Paternoster Square. There’s a Mussolini-like modernism about it. Neo-classical fascist. It’s a cold Sunday night and a few souls criss-cross the asymmetrical space, it could be Rimini. I feel like a shape in a Di Chirico painting. It is ghostly and out-of-place which fits this city of dislocation. I’m pulled in strange directions from one side of the square to another, then under a portico which has sprouted concrete umbrellas from its ceiling.

I escape the vortex inside Paternoster Square and find myself looking into Hat and Mitre Court EC1, 10 yards long, chain-link gate, fragment of mediaeval street plan. Not a soul around. Brewhouse Yard, gleaming new and empty. The news from Clerkenwell is that loft development kills the street. The only flaneur round here is the deli of that name on Farringdon Road.

At Borat’s shop a 12-year old talks into his mobile phone. “That’s CID just gone past”.
“How can you tell?”. “I know, right”. They’re in a heightened state. Training their Bull Terrier to attack. Small time criminals in embryo.

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Dobney’s, Penton Street

Penton Street, N1

“Upon the site of Dobney’s Place, at the back of Penton Street, stood an old house, having a bowling-green, and tea-gardens, with ponds, &c. similar to those at White Conduit House….”
This strip is in the midst of a make-over whilst White Conduit House remains a locked up dodgy boozer.

J. Nelson’s History, Topography, and Antiquities of the Parish of St.Mary Islington in the County of Middlesex, pub 1811 also has a nice note about topographical writing:
“The study of our National Antiquities has called forth the talents of the most eminent scholars; and it is generally admitted, that writings on this subject, combining Historical remark with Topographical illustration, are calculated to convey a knowledge of our domestic concerns in a way the most entertaining and instructive.”

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Grays Inn Road-North Devon

Grays Inn Road Mansions

Dulverton and Dawlish Mansions just up from Holsworthy Square. I’ve checked their alignment with their namesakes in the South West and it yielded no clues to the mystery.

Update: 10/01/2006
Eileen Reid sent me the following by email:
Re all the Devon connections in Rosebery Avenue, etc. They’re there because the developer James Hartnoll was of Devonian extraction. Born in poverty in Southwark, he died worth more than £400,000.. not very psychogeographical, I’m afraid. But true. There was an article in the Camden History journal in 1980 all about him.

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Liberty lies in your feet

It was Elm Street WC1 that set me free and took me through the square that wasn’t there. Holsworthy Square is merely a block of flats with a courtyard. Holsworthy, a town in north Devon, another link in the Rosebery Avenue connection that includes Exmouth Market, Bideford, Braunton, Dulverton , Dawlish, and Barnstaple Mansions.
The Gunmakers closed its doors as I got there, Duke of Yorks was kari-effing-oke. Disillusioned I wandered into Mount Pleasant, then Elm Street. As I strolled onto Grays Inn Road I sensed a more urban ambience, Bloomsbury’s poor cousin. Endless possibilities open up. Should I finally try the Calthorpe Arms? Nah too snug, a real regular’s pub. Further up the Queen’s Head was geezers playing pool and the Percy Arms remains boarded up.
I end up in the comfortable pseudo-trendy Clockwork atop Pentonville Road full of relaxed vibes for the Blank Generation. There are exactly ten people in the place, maybe it picks up the sad souls who can’t get into Salmon & Compasses and the Elbow Room? Upstairs from 10-3am is Skrew! Nu-Electro Dirty Disco & Sleazy Punk with DJs T-Lady and The Real Joan Collins. Dobney’s Tea Gardens, White Conduit House and Busby’s Folly have been replaced by pubs hastily converted into bop-bars, demi-clubs of the Annam ilk that draw the City clerks north and leave them scattered on early morning puke-and-piss-splattered pavements just as in the days that Victorian inheritances were squandered on gin, races and whores and written about by Oliver Goldsmith.

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