Foul Deeds and Deep Topography


The other evening I went to meet Nick Papadimitriou for coffee in Hampstead – at our regular rendezvous – The Coffee Cup. He slides a hot-off-the-press copy of his book ‘Foul Deeds and Suspicious Deaths in Barnet, Finchley and Hendon’ across the table to me. I ask him to sign it. “Bollocks to Psychogeography”, he writes.
Any thoughts that this is a standard local history text are quickly banished on page 1. “In order to ‘frame’ the zone within which the murders described in this book occurred I undertook a series of long walks crossing the borough in order to examine the site of each killing”. At the risk of deeply offending the original Deep Topographer, this fits many people’s definition of psychogeography.
“…. a quiet yet brooding power lurks in our hilly region of serried rooftops and arterial roads. A walk down the Hendon Way from my home in Child’s Hill, in April 2007, revealed traces of the old Hendon Urban District Council sewage farm still visible in concrete culverts and the raised lines of a buried aqueduct at Brent Cross.” Pure Deep Topography.
Nick takes what could have just been the lurid recounting of some murders culled from the local archives and produces a detailed study of the topography, psyche, neurosis, and mythology of the region of his birth. It has all the qualities of the books that both he and I love, the commissioned walking guides to the fringelands of London that went far beyond the brief of describing the locations of footpaths and towpaths to put forward a heightened sensibility, a new way of connecting with the suburban landscape.

My film about Nick is finally taking shape. I did another cut on Thursday where a sequence from our walk from Finchley to Arnos Grove shot last February was added, “suburbs are just the dream of a mushroom god”, Nick lays forth whilst looking at a neat row of Edwardian villas. The challenge still is to feel that Nick’s world is done justice, that the film takes us some way to seeing what he sees and experiences. I’ve spent this evening spooling through a couple of hours of archive footage to pull out about 90 seconds of choice cuts. The contributions from Will Self, Iain Sinclair and Russell Brand seem more priceless with each viewing. The experience feels as epic as our longest walks together.
Once this is done I look forward to going back out walking with Nick – without a camera.

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Forest to North Circ

Late Sunday afternoon and I’m overcome by the desire to strike out through the forest. Maybe it was my father calling me up earlier in the day asking to speak to Fieldfare and then berating me for my recent lack of walking.
I live a good 20 minutes walk from the edge of Epping Forest so to bring it closer I decide to head up along Forest Road, a pastoral row of cottages with nattering birds and flower festooned gardens.

A clockwise spin around the Hollow Ponds in the rain with a polystyrene cup of tea from one of the roadside huts and then through the trees emerging opposite The Forest – a row of beautiful Victorian houses overlooked by the fourteen grand-a-year Forest School.
Back through the woods and as I start to revel in the sylvan beauty of it all I’m confronted with a psychedelically decorated concrete underpass, and worse, an intersection of directional signs. ‘Waltamstow – Redbridge – Chingford’, not a choice so much as a warning, a rambler’s Russian roulette, I was looking for a state of fugue, not an example of poor post war urban planning.
I end up changing my mind twice – first in favour of Chingford, then Redbridge. This delivers me to a promenade that runs beside the majestic North Circular – a road to which Deep Topographer Nick Papadimitriou is symbiotically attached. You can’t walk beside such a road (which at the time I confess I mistakenly identify as the M11 – maybe that’s a Leytonstone thing – all motorways become the M11, all motorways are the M11). This brilliant path is raised high along the cutting giving a grandstand view of the metal pods hurtling past with the dark hills of the forest rising in the distance.

It’s not possible to walk beside a motorway without thinking both of Nick and his North Circ obsession (I once witnessed him clasping his hands and declaring his love for the road from the top deck of a bus as we passed it near North Finchley – I have this beautiful Brief Encounter like moment on video), and Iain Sinclair’s magisterial book ‘London Orbital’. The combination of these two references makes it futile to even consider writing about the experience of walking beside a motorway, so instead I stand on a footbridge and think about the documentary series of motorway walks that I plan to pitch to bemused commissioning editors (note to commissioning editors: come on – it’ll be great) – I just need to work on getting Clarkson onboard.
As I see the sign announcing Stanstead airport I momentarily plan to propose a walk out to the airport – then realise that the other member of the triumvirate of great contemporary psychogeographers, Will Self, has perfected this practice to the extent of boarding a plane, flying to another continent then continuing his walk into the city centre (no small feat in LA or New York – more of this when I get round to blogging my recent trip to LA).
I’m further drawn along the roadside by the sight of a cluster of tower blocks rising in the distance like some kind of proto-Croydon. Where can it be?
Turns out to be South Woodford, lovely old Tory South Woodford and a development being misbranded as Queen Mary’s Gate by Telford Homes (“at the forefront of East London regeneration”). These developments always seem to have a fortress-like appearance, the outpost of a colonial power, in this case City capital. But with the credit crunch starting to bite it’s not so difficult to imagine the potential ghetto-isation of such ‘prestige’ communities.
I amble down George Lane which feels like it belongs in Boscombe or Ventnor, particularly on a lazy Sunday evening – so I stop for gelato and take it on the tube home with me.

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Iain Sinclair in the Lea

Just been sat in The Heathcote reading the excellent article by Robert Macfarlane about a “circumambulation” of the Olympic Park with Iain Sinclair. The inspiration seems to have been as much to visit the sites in Stephen Gill’s photographic record of the site in his book ‘Archaeology in Reverse’, as it was to be guided through this well trodden edgeland by the man who arguably put it on the psychogeographical map, Iain Sinclair (since the publication of ‘London Orbital’ in which Sinclair walks up the Lea Valley with fellow celebrity psychogeographer Bill Drummond, you can barely toss a paper aeroplane made from a LPA newsletter in the vicinity of the Lea without hitting a pot-bellied anorak wearing pale-faced fella with a satchel and a notebook). It’s impressive that their tour of the Olympic Park should start in Kings Cross a good 2-3 miles away. But maybe this was to induce a fugue-like state by the time the zone was reached. At that point Sinclair says to Macfarlane, “Right, are you ready for the zone? From here on in it’s pure Tarkovsky.” An although he’s referring to the landscape he could also be referencing the way that Gill’s photographs, taken on a 50p camera, call to mind Tarkovsky’s book of polaroids in the way they capture smudged light over blighted panoramas.

Although Macfarlane doesn’t express it as such, the very nature of the circumambulation is a significant ritualistic act – one again made famous by Sinclair’s M25 trek. When we started the Remapping High Wycombe project we performed the same rite – stalking the contested zone, the redevelopment site (see research video below). Our journeys radiated out from here but always as perimeter hugging drifts, so by looking in from the edge we gain a new perspective on the subject – a motive found in Andrew Kotting’s Gallivant and Jonathan Raban’s Coasting.

It’s interesting that Macfarlane picks up on Gill’s awareness of the activities of the surveyors, the advance guard of any development, and their “street graffiti” spray painted on the ground. He brilliantly describes the way that you are drawn to their strange markings, “you become suspicious of their heavy encryption, the landscape of interventions that they annotate and enable”.

He talks about the “improvised ecologies” among the rust and pollution in the way that Nick Papadimitriou talks of “unofficial ecology parks” sprouting in the corners of disused parking spaces. And the title of Gill’s book ‘Archaeology in Reverse’ calls to mind a phrase that I purloined from a review of Keiller’s ‘Robinson in Space’ of ‘archaeology of the present’.

This is great topographical writing and its connection to what is already an entry in the catalogue of disappearance and the use of a ritualistic circling seems to be further evidence that work such as Gill and Sinclair’s (and mine and many other practitioners), call it psychogeography of deep topography or whatever, is a kind of cognitive behavioural therapy for dealing with a unsympathetic re-rendering of our environment. Unable to stop the abuse we resort to a form of relief, a way of making sense of it, and working out the pain, as Nick says in ‘Inside Deep Library’ that like standard therapy, you must embrace the pain in order to move forward.

For further evidence of the dubious activities of the ODA see this vid I made about the destruction of Marsh Lane Fields

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A Medway Cryptotopography

How did I miss the Hidden Medway blog for so long – utter negligence. Even allowing for the author’s natural reticence towards publicity (he posts comments on this blog using various pseudonyms) I should have come across it during my research for Reframing Maidstone. Particularly as I undertook a field trip in Maidstone with the blogger himself. Anyway it’s brilliant and I think a true example of cryptotopography – a notion I floated when we were working on Remapping High Wycombe – but here I think we have the truest example.

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Mystery Topographical Package and a visit to Deep Library

I was eagerly awaiting the post today – expecting an advance copy of Russell Brand’s brilliant autobiography ‘My Booky Wook’. Among its many virtues I think it will enter the canon of great London books – one particular passage where Russell leads a troupe of homeless men down a windswept Oxford Street in search of heroin put me in mind of a latter day Patrick Hamilton.
But along with said book came a slim brown envelope postmarked KT TW & GU. Inside a wonderful hardback Bartholomew’s road map of Britain ‘The Spotless Way’ – undated but most likely early 1950’s. Also a torn page from a book with a picture on one side of an old man of the road (the kind of character that Nick talks about in the video below) a man fused with his environment. On the reverse of the page a poem by William Barnes (the man in the picture?) ‘Aunt’s Tantrums’ written in rich dialect: ‘Why ees aunt Anne’s a little staid/ But kind an’ merry, poor wold maid!’. Also a leaflet advertising ‘Africa Contemporary Record – Available July 1975′.
No note, no name, no return address. I know nobody in that part of the country from where this was posted.
The resonance of the contents is multiple and profound. The Road Atlas and poem in dialect directly relates to a documentary idea I’m developing and yesterday got a call saying that I had a meeting to pitch the idea to a Tv channel. The title of the poem – I have an aunt gravely ill in hospital. The photo relates to the conversation I had with Nick last night.
Who could have sent it? A reader perhaps?

Last night I finally ventured inside Nick Papadimitriou’s ‘Deep Library’. I filmed an hour of Nick talking about his collection, a sample of it you can watch here. We’re polishing off a treatment for a full-length ‘Deep Topography’ documentary that we’ll shoot throughout next year. Please leave comments – we like them.

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Deep Topography in Leytonstone

More Deep Topographical musings from Nick Papadimitriou recorded and provoked by the National Psychogeographic Film Unit on a walk on the eastern fringe of London through Leytonstone and Wanstead.
After watching our first film, Beyond Stonebridge Park, Iain Sinclair screened an extract at the Royal College of Art alongside clips of films by Chris Petit, Andrew Kotting and Patrick Keiller – company we were pretty chuffed and flattered to be in. He then spoke about Nick and the film when doing an ‘In Conversation’ with Will Self at Tate Britain in October 2006:
“The cinema of John Rogers and Nick is like a combination of…. the physicality of Kotting with the Deep Topography of Keiller.”
Thanks for that Iain.

I am working on a fuller length film with/about Nick and his ‘Deep Topography’. The clip above is a kind of study or sketch, experimenting with a different form to the earlier more spontaneous pieces.

In this episode Nick muses on the “time arc of technology”, how the military are the ultimate “super tramps” and most likely read a bit of Richard Jefferies whilst on exercises, and the wonder of the wood ant.

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In Praise of Middlesex County Council

The Deep Topographer Nick Papadimitriou has just relaunched his website Middlesex County Council. It’s a brilliant piece of work. An honouring of the county “utilising prose and poetry, photographs and local history lore. ” Anyone who has seen my films of Nick will be familiar with his unique vision of that area of London only sometimes referred to by its proper name.
The films by the way are: A Blakean Vision, Deep Topography with Nick Papadimitriou, Beyond Psychogeography, From Dan Dare to Pornography

The River Run pages represent a detailed study of the rivers of the borough and are an essential read. I have for two years now always had a bundles of dog-eared beer-stained copies of some of Nick’s writing in my bag. The pages can be downloaded as PDFs so that others can too share this privilege.

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