The Remapping High Wycombe book “Journeys Beyond the Western Sector” is finally available, through Lulu.com. The purpose of the project was to re-map and re-imagine the town as it was going through a period of redevelopment. The idea was to create a kind of parallel scheme, a psychogeographical vision of the area. The book takes the form of several walks or ‘dérives’ – some following prepared routes based in significant sites or old borough boundaries, others using the principles of generative psychogeography. There is a DVD to accompany the book featuring footage from the derives and some interviews we conducted intercut with archive film of Wycombe, which we’ll send to anyone who wants one.
This is a very interesting interview with Iain Sinclair. Both writers will be reading in London soon, Ballard on Thursday and Sinclair in October sometime at Tate Britain appearing with Nick Papadimitriou.
We cross onto the flats from Bush Road near a tree which has had its trunk burnt hollow. My 3 year-old explores. Into Wanstead Park over a dried-up brook (Aldersbrook?). We come before a mighty oak, the kind that arouses pagan senses. H says “It’s just so feminine, it’s fertility, like legs spread open”.
We come to the Heron Pond where the light reflects off the water and ripples on the underside of the leaves of a low hanging oak. Wanstead House is gone but the avenue of trees remains to the Temple.
The grand house that was visited by Elizabeth I, Samuel Pepys, Horace Walpole, from where Mary Tudor rode into London to be crowned, gone, a grassy mound. Joggers and cyclists, two power walkers with iPods. “Several Martyrs were sought out from the Forest during Mary’s reign…. John Rogers the first of them….” (‘Epping Forest’, W. Addison 1945).
Down to Marsh Lane Playing Fields with H, Nick and the kids. I’m keen to see their reaction to the former Lammas Lands. It’s a perfect late summer’s day, walking weather, great for a 14-miler, but not with a 3 year-old and a pram.
We enter the fields via a council estate off Oliver Road and over a bridge across the Dagenham Brook. Nick points out Purple Loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) growing on the bank. A red dragonfly darts here and there. Starlings swoop across the sky gathering for migration (Nick reckons they’re bound for Siberia). Windswept long-grasses brush up against giant pylons which send black stripes across the brilliant blue sky. Nick and my 3 year-old look for caterpillars on the Marsh Ragwort. Purple-flowered wild peas. Great heavy bunches of elderberries.
Nick rubs some Yarrow in his fingers – “used for stanching bleeding” (it was also known as Soldier’s Wortweed). There’s Black horehound and Burdock. I’m looking out for the legions of foragers that Richard Mabey wrote about in yesterday’s Guardian. But the only other people around are a family on bikes and two joggers. The Leyton & Leytonstone Guardian reported last week that this is one of the least visited open spaces in the Borough. Even Nick, who the great Londoner writer Will Self claims knows London better than anyone he knows, has never heard of it. Will it remain so unspoilt as the Olympics take over the Lea Valley?
The 3 year-old fills his pockets with stones and chases Nick up Marsh Lane.
(plant identification courtesey of Nick. He gifted me his copy of ‘Pocket Guide to Wild Flowers’ by McClintock and Fitter, 1956 at the end of the day so hopefully I’ll be able to bring a greater appreciation of the local flora to the blog in future).
I sit here at 12.15pm with “Off the Map” spinning on the turntable, Pete Molinari’s signature pressed into the cover but 25 minutes ago. In old media terms this is ‘hot off the press’. I’ll transcribe my notes as honestly as possible.
8.45pm What’s Cookin presents Pete Molinari’s album launch at their night in the upstairs room of the Sheep Walk E11. One end of the room is like an altar to Tex Mex/ Americana via Honolulu (maybe the link is obvious to those in the know but I don’t remember seeing Johnny Cash in a Hawaiian shirt) – gold lame pleated drapes, garlands of flowers hanging from the ceiling, potted palms and ferns, red flower fairy lights, 1950’s lampshades and candle-holders. It’s ‘Blue Velvet’ without the psychosis, a corner of Graceland, a forgotten country singer’s trailer pulled up on a dustbowl roadside. Not a face in the room under 30, lots of sideburns and the odd quiff, charity shop shirts. The two fellas in front in discussion about a song playing – the be-quiffed one gets up to speak to the DJ, examine the sleeve notes, returns to his friend, argument not settled he goes back to the DJ for clarification. The boys are character studies not used for Nick Hornby’s ‘High Fidelity’ (Cusak was too relaxed, not OCD enough) – vinyl obsessives who could sail through the notoriously impossible Record & Tape Exchange Staff Entrance Exam (I failed twice).
Billy Childish’s discovery of Pete Molinari in Chatham is like a Medway re-invention of the Jeff Buckley creation myth (but give me Molinari any day). And the tone of the evening is given a distinctly Medway feel by the when the mic is taken by Wolf Howard doing a set irreverent-punchline poetry. Delivered in 1981 this would be great, quite good in ’85. Amusing for 5 minutes in 2006. The room love him, he has them quiet and laughing – with a gig audience that is an incredible achievement. I realise that my two years of running and MC-ing a poetry night (Brixtongue) has made me hate live poetry. But his book title “Journals of a Jobseeker” is much better than the one for my forthcoming self-publication “Mink City Journals”, I may have to reconsider.
There is something wrong with my bladder – every time I piss I want to go again. I was one of the first in the room, now it’s packed but I notice that I have about 3 feet of space all around me, maybe one of my boys peed on my trousers today (they certainly have poster paint on them), or is it that a man scribbling in a notebook scares people. This evening makes me wonder whether the counter-culture has the ability to manifest itself physically anymore. As soon as a gathering happens that on paper marks the cultural fringe, it becomes ‘reasonable’ and ‘ordered’, filtered and mediated. If such a thing as a counter-culture still exists it must be in cyberspace, from a bedroom or a park bench via WiFi.
I guess Kris Dollimore isn’t with the Medway Mafiosi as he plays his blistering Blues to a noisy room that the poet had pin-drop silent. The noisy corner should take their cue from the great Bluesman Billy Childish who stands rapt in the performance.
The Blues and the beer are getting me into the spirit of the evening at 10.30pm. A fella in a suit drunk dances away. In this most multicultural of boroughs the audience is 99% white – that’s an observation not a criticism.
Molinari starts up with a broken-hearted voice, a Dylan comparison does him no justice at 40 years distance and the fact of living in this Blair-World where to wear a red hat and sing folk songs is to get you on some MI5 watch-list. I think back to the arc-lights I saw flicking off the shore line as I passed through Chatham on a train early one morning – if you were looking for cultural references here you’d be bound to look West, to plaid-shirted pioneer stories, coast to coast journeys hopping on and off freight trains. The M11 outside the pub is recast as The Lost Highway. The duets with Billy’s wife Julie are beauty itself. I’m lost, I’m sold, I’m off the map.
Writer and Deep Topographer Nick Papadimitriou explains some of his theories about the sacred landscape of the London Borough of Brent, and his idea of ‘deep topography’.
In the footsteps of Harold P. Clunn – The Face of London
We arrange to meet at the Black Friar, 7.30pm Friday night. Jerry and Dave take a bit of coaxing to get them out of the arts & craft splendour of the pub but me and Pete are chomping at the bit (Pete has also already had a couple of hours after-work boozing). Up Queen Victoria Street and we resist the temptation to visit one of Keiller’s most iconic ‘London’ shots around the back of St. Stephen’s-by-the-Wardrobe. But dead opposite we feel compelled to inspect the odd statue rising up from the platform of the brutalist Baynard House (home to the first System X digital exchange). The sculpture is called ‘Seven Ages of Man’ by Richard Kindersley, inspired by Shakespeare’s ‘As You Like It’. From most angles it seems lost against the plant room behind, grey cast aluminium against a grey concrete backdrop, at best it calls out to the spire of St. Stephens.
We go through the Kubrick-esque passageways and down onto the Thames Path. Underneath the Wobbly Bridge Jerry relives the recent Social Cinema event that took place there.
It must have been this detour that made us miss the Temple of Mithras because we arrive at Cannon Street without passing it. We quickly find the London Stone, although it’s hard to believe that this is possibly the city’s most important monument, its foundation stone. It’s hiding behind a grill flanked by an array of sportswear adverts – Nike, Adidas, Puma, New Balance. Various stories have been put forward about its origins but I’m settling for the theory that it was the index stone for the stone circle that stood where St. Paul’s now rises.
We duck into Oxford Court to have a look at the Catrin Gwyndwr memorial garden, Dave’s part Welsh so the link to the great Owain Gwyndwr has particular resonance for him. Whilst we’re craning to take photos of the garden through the locked gates Jerry calls us over to look at an enormous empty office block that we later discover is the defunct Barclays Clearing House. Open windowed, darkened it is almost an invitation. Jerry wants to go in. Reclaim this colossal building for the night. We peer over the wall into a deep pit which at first looked like new foundations but Dave spots the signs of an archaeological dig – a partly excavated curved wall and tiers mud and brick beneath ground level. Jerry goes over the wall, it’s about 30 feet down, he balances on an old metal light fitting prepared to jump the rest of the way down. It’s only when we convince him that we’re not going to follow him ( security, CCTV, getting out) that he comes back up – peeved.
In St. Swithin’s Lane a cleaner mops marble steps in the dusk. I wander into the reception of Rothschild’s, the tapestry I’ve been admiring through the window is genuine the security assure me. When I re-emerge Pete, Jerry and Dave have disappeared. Gone. I wait at the end of the lane, do a wide lap of the block down King William Street and back along Canon Street. Dark lanes heading off at all angles. They’ve disappeared into the night, consumed by the London Monster. Then they appear back in St. Swithin’s Lane right at the spot where I’d left them. We move on.
Pete photos a birds nest in Change Alley. Down Bengal Court, the George and Vulture (Est. 1600) Thomas’ Chop House the brass plaque rubbed bare. In St. Michael’s Alley we find the site of London’s first coffee house, conveniently converted into a pub – we pop in for a pint. The Jamaica Wine House sits in the basement, marked by a fantastic art-deco-ish black lantern. We are in a nest of alleys and courtyards, potted Bay trees adorned with red ribbons on the boughs, red & white around the trunks, a lovely garden with tall willowy trees, distant church bells, not those of the Hawksmoor tower of St. Michaels Cornhill that we slide past.
Along Leadenhall Street, through the market which prompts Jerry to talk about Walter Benjamin’s ‘Arcades Project’. There are still a few stray drinkers outside The Lamb Tavern. Benjamin is an appropriate reference as this excursion is certainly more in the spirit of the flaneur than any kind of psychogeography or Sinclair-brew earth mysteries explorations.
At 21 Lime Street the eastern wing of the second Roman Forum is being excavated. Around it business continues as normal in a manner the builders of the Forum would have approved of. We pass under the Lloyds Building. Jerry hates it. I take Pete’s lack of photography as agreement. Over the road St. Andrew Undershaft stands in the shadow of the Gherkin (30 St. Mary Axe doesn’t have quite the same ring).
On Beavis Marks we’re following the line of the London Wall which takes us round to the bus station at the end of The Minories. I’m flooded with memories and associations – this was my first proper view of London, travelling up on the Green Line in 1989 for my first day at City Poly. I recount stories of our occupation of the Polytechnic buildings for 2 weeks in ’91- locking the provost out of his office, he came back fuming with riot vans and the deputy commissioner of the City of London Police who merely said that it appeared that we engaged in a legitimate act of protest and couldn’t do anything. When it ended (after many lentil stews, mass meetings, the national press, sleeping on classroom floors etc.) it was because of the Christmas holidays not the law.
Round by the old student union bar in Fairholt House (where I served in the bar, DJ-ed and performed twice with the legendary Garatholdens) Tubby Isaac’s (1919) is packing away his famous whelk and jellied eels stall. We go round into Commercial Street and into the grounds of Toynbee Hall “the seat of English radicalism” (Jerry), the place where Ghandi made his famous comment when asked what he thought of British civilisation that “it would be a good idea”. It’s after 11pm but Jerry gives us a quick East End tour (that neatly ends in a late licence pub) – the old Soup Kitchen for the Jewish Poor in Brune Street (“the last remnant of the old Jewish East End”), Tenter Ground where the Jewish weavers hung out their cloths, and most intriguingly The White House in White’s Row where local folklore has it as the place where Tory MP Stephen Milligan actually died of auto-erotic asphyxiation, not a posh flat in South Kensington as reported. It is also the house where notorious London criminal Jack Sheppard grew up. At all points round these dark streets resonating with histories of poverty, crime and struggle we are buzzed by an army of trendily clad twenty-somethings drawn east by the folklore created by the likes of Gilbert & George and Tracy Emin. We bring these worlds together by ending the evening at midnight at the Ten Bells in Spitalfields.
View Pete’s photos on his Flickr page
note: the title of this post is a reference to Harold Clunn’s classic book ‘The Face of London’.
Look out for a future posting probably called ‘Doing a Kent’, confusingly, again in the City, in homage to William Kent’s ‘London for Everyman’ (1931) and ‘Lost Treasures of London’ (1946).