The World Transformed at Labour Party Conference, Brighton

The last time I attended Labour Party Conference was also at Brighton but in 2000. I wrote and performed an ensemble political cabaret show at The Greys pub to an audience of party delegates and apparatchiks escaping the conference proper. Among the cast of 4 of The Soapbox Cabaret that night was a young up-and-coming comedian, Russell Brand.

So it was fitting that on my return to Conference that Russell should be there – but this time not performing The Song of the Spin Doctor dressed half in drag, but speaking soberly at a morning meeting about Addiction alongside Labour’s Shadow Health Spokesperson John Ashworth. The most notable thing that has changed in those 17 years though, wasn’t me or Russell, but the Labour Party. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party.

Admittedly I avoided the actual Conference and stuck to Momentum’s brilliant fringe event, The World Transformed. Even the most tedious sounding events had queues stretching around the block like a gig by the hot new band or the release of a Triple A console game – except it was a bunch of people you’d barely heard of debating how to build stronger links with the Trade Unions. Chunky Mark, The Artist Taxi Driver, said “it’s a Conference but it’s like a f*cking festival mate”, when I interviewed him in the street outside a massively oversubscribed event where scores of people were turned away.

At an evening event, Governing from the Radical Left, John McDonnell was greeted onstage with a standing ovation. Paul Mason prowled the space like a glowering rock star. McDonnell summed it up best when he said the Party felt optimistic once more (when was the last time?).

Brighton pier sunset

When I’d decided to max out my credit card all those years ago to take a comedy show to the Labour Party Conference (I ran the show for a week in Bournemouth the previous year, 1999, also starring Russell) it came out of the frustration of my first Conference in 1997 as an international delegate. The first Conference after the landslide General Election victory that had returned Labour to power after 18 dismal, divisive, bitter years. It should have been a massive party, a celebration – there should have been a sense of optimism. But there was none – just a dampening of expectations. On Monday it felt like the carnival had finally arrived in Brighton, 20 years late, not to celebrate a victory, but to prepare for one.

#TWT2017

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.

Walking the Metropolitan Line Finchley Road to Northwood

Kilburn Station bridge

I needed to cover some mileage after an August of relatively shorter walks. To that end some sort of constrained walk was required where I could just follow a pre-ordained route or path – a road, river, trackway, railway, or something more esoteric or abstract that avoided an undue amount of map reading. The Metropolitan Line appealed as it would take me out to the edge of London being one of only two lines on the Underground that ventures outside Greater London (the Central Line is the other and that wasn’t running east from Bethnal Green due to new track being laid at Leytonstone).

I caught the Overground to Finchley Road and Frognal and made my way the short distance to Finchley Road Tube Station on the Metropolitan Line. Examining the map in the Station I figured that anywhere past Pinner would be a bonus – it was 1pm, I was leaving late as ever.

This first section to Wembley Park is one of the longest gaps between stations on the Underground – the longest being further along the Metropolitan Line between Chalfont & Latimer and Chesham at 3.9 miles – although Finchley Road to Wembley Park can’t be far behind. My walking route stuck fairly close to the track as far as Neasden where I then had to take a series of loops around Neasden Rail Depot, then along the North Circular, before crossing and heading up Blackbird Hill and reconnecting with the Metropolitan Line at Wembley Park Station. This two station leg of the walk clocked in at 9 miles somehow, which I’m still struggling to understand.

Metroland 2017

Slicing through West Hampstead, Kilburn, Willesden Green and Dollis Hill to Neasden was a slideshow of late Victorian and Edwardian railway suburbs bisected by traffic-clogged High Roads blackened by pollution. The tube trains rattled by behind the tall houses at the end of the gardens, heard but rarely seen from the street. It was a drizzly Sunday, a premature end to the summer, few people about.  There were early signs of Metroland suburban villas in Brondesbury and Kilburn, redbrick medievalism, rookeries of accountants that spawned a generation of soap opera actors and rock stars. I wonder who lives there now.

Wembley development
Nascent high-rise blocks are going up around Wembley Stadium, I still miss the old towers, that new arch just doesn’t have the same grandeur. Soon the once historic home of football will just be a feature in another ‘area of opportunity’ dwarfed by the ‘safety-deposit boxes in the sky’.

After checking in at Preston Road Station, which looks oddly like it was plonked down on someone’s house when they relocated the station from across the road in 1932 and shortened the name from Preston Road Halt for Uxendon and Kenton, I cross John Billam Sports Ground to Woodcock Hill. The leaves on the trees that flank the Tube tracks are along turning bronze and amber, autumn seems to have arrived early this year, the price for that early burst of hot summer that feels long ago.

Harrow-on-the-Hill town centre was not flattered by the grey spittle celebrating the closing of the shops. I needed a cup of tea and a rest so headed to the shopping centre food court where long queues formed at Subway and Burger King so I crossed back to the Costa Coffee by the Tube Station and watched the shoppers evacuating the Town Centre like the fall of Saigon.

Pinner Court North Harrow

Pinner Court

Leaving North Harrow I spotted an opportunity to make a long-delayed visit to Pinner Court – an art deco development of apartment buildings described in SPB Mais’ 1937 book England’s Character. Mais describes an expedition ‘suburb hunting’ in north-west London and writes of a “surprising moment of courage in building a series of dazzling white flats with green tiles, recessed balconies, multitudinous glass, and terraces fronting a communal public unfenced garden.” When I first read this 6 years ago I used the internet to track down the location of the flats at Pinner Court and planned a trip that I never made – it was slated as an episode of Ventures of Adventures in Topography, then a chapter of This Other London but remained elusive. Finally standing there on the unfenced public garden out front as described by Mais it didn’t disappoint. The building, designed by architect HJ Mark and completed in 1936 would have been gleaming new when Mais visited, it still sparkles even in the rain.

Pinner Court North Harrow

Pinner Court

I wished I had more time to loiter in Pinner, but the light was fading along with my stamina and to stop now would have been fatal. Carluccio’s was bustling and there wasn’t a table to spare in Cafe Rouge. There were a couple of inviting old pubs beneath the church on the hill. I pushed on along the road to Northwood Hills and was rewarded by another modernist wonder at Elm Park Court designed by HF Webb also in 1936.

Elm Park Court Northwood Pinner

Elm Park Court

The rain hardened as I approached Northwood Hill station. I dug my poundshop groundsheet from my rucksack and spread it on a wet bench and munched an dinner of bread and banana. I was tired now but determined to chalk off one more station so forced myself onwards to Northwood with its proud high street and war memorial. Luckily there was a comfortable friendly pub not far from the station where the locals watched the Belgium v Greece match. A singer with a guitar started playing cover versions to a digital backing track and people instantly got up and danced. The perfect end to a walk into Metroland.

Northwood Hills

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.

Aimless Wander from Leyton to Tottenham IKEA via Walthamstow

How did I find myself in the cafe of the Tottenham IKEA at 6pm on a Wednesday?  The large window is an almost perfect Lea Valley picture frame – the best thing in the store. The magnetic attraction of an IKEA cafe on an edgeland wander dates back for me to November 2009 recording an episode of our radio show Ventures and Adventures in Topography in Monks Park with Nick Papadimitriou and Peter Knapp. It was cold Sunday afternoon, we were damp and tired and found ourselves in the Wembley Trading Estate. We knew the only source of food and warmth in the area at that time on a Sunday was the IKEA Cafe. We dreamt of meat balls and made our way to the flatpack Valhalla. They’d sold out of meat balls of course.

#Cafe at #IKEA Tottenham

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Eight years later and on the other side of the North Circular the Tottenham IKEA Cafe had a good stock of meat balls but I had a ham and cheese toastie instead. This was a less structured excursion. I’d left home with no real aim other than just to walk – Tottenham IKEA had emerged in my mind as a waypoint – something to aim at. I took in the buildings of Lea Bridge Road, Leyton both old and those taking shape then marvelled at the architecture of Argall Avenue Industrial Estate. The football pitches at Low Hall were freshly marked out ready for the weekend fixtures.

I thought of Arthur Machen’s ghost hunting expedition to Tottenham in the early mystical years of the 20th Century. He also recorded journeys out to Edmonton and Ponders End as if they were the darkest reaches of the Amazon. And wandering the backstreets of Tottenham for the first time I felt as if I were in a remote part of London. I teenage girl approached me with a pair of size 4 trainers and tried to convince me to buy them for my children (how did she know I had kids?).

Leaving IKEA I jumped on the first bus that came along assuming they all went to Tottenham Hale and soon found myself heading towards Edmonton. I jumped off straight away thinking I could catch a 34 bus to Walthamstow Central and started walking along Montagu Road looking for a bus stop. I kept walking with no bus stop in sight. The light started to dim and I got that feeling of uncertainty when in unknown backstreets in the gloom – the desire to get clear, back to familarity or at least to main streets. I turned into Town Road after checking that it looked ok, there was something in the air that made me feel uneasy. I considered continuing along Montagu Road and taking a later turning but decided this was the quickest (safest) option. A bus came along, you have to flag them down round these parts, there are no bus stops. Off I went to Tottenham Hale thinking about Machen’s Tottenham story.

Montagu Road Edmonton

Later that night, around midnight, I checked the news online and saw a headline in the Guardian, ‘Man killed in north London shooting’ – I instantly knew where the crime had taken place. Of course I would be wrong, north London is a huge area. I scanned the article of the location of the killing of the ‘man in his 40’s or 50’s’ and there it was Bounces Road, one of the roads leading off Montagu Road just past Town Road, one of the alternative routes I’d considered when feeling the urge to get clear of the area, yards away from where I’d flagged down the bus.

Under Milk Wood

I recently spent a peaceful week in Lower Fishguard, staying in a cottage used in the film version of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood. This meant we had a steady stream of people peeping through the lounge windows as they followed the local heritage trail.

The Pembrokeshire Coast is absolutely littered with standing stones, burial chambers and stone circles, one local told me that most fields in the area had some kind of prehistoric stone artefact in them. An archaeologist I spoke to explained that Neolithic and Bronze Age people traveled from all over Europe following the setting sun till they reached the most westerly point to bury their dead, hence the location of the numerous stone burial chambers overlooking the sea.

Garn Wen burial chamber

 

We took a family walk up the steep hill to the Garn Wen burial chambers or ‘cromlechs’ overlooking Fishguard Harbour. They were absolutely magnificient – now looking onto the back gardens of a housing estate rather than gazing out westwards across the sea. It’s interesting to think that this ‘remote’ location was so connected to continental people who would have barely stepped foot on the land of ancient Britain but who came here to bury their dead, creating a deep bond between this coastline distant lands. It’s a magical, storied landscape.