Out to Claybury


The plan was simple and quite ‘unplanned’ – return to Wanstead to check out the ominous gothic building at the end of Nightingale Lane then make my way across to find the River Roding and follow it up to Claybury Hospital. I’m taking some advice from Ian Bourn’s seminal Leytonstone film ‘Lenny’s Documentary’ (1979): “cause people round here are always cracking up, after which they go to Claybury Hospital”. I’ve been feeling the pressure at work lately, under a bit of strain, so I’m going to reverse the process, I’m going to Claybury to avoid cracking up.

Once back in Wanstead, only a 10-minute walk from Leytonstone but you get the feeling that you are now in Essex. Maybe it’s the small boutiques and Webb’s Gastrodome with its menu of “Moules and Frittes, Chicken Curry and Rice, Sausage and Mash”. Nightingale Lane is a step back in time, the newsagent has a hand-written sign advertising for a “Paper Boy/Girl”. The view up the narrow lane rising to a redbrick gothic building instantly called to mind a mental image of Edinburgh or Glasgow, in the way that you have impressions of places you’ve never been to but just seen on the telly and in pictures. As I reach the top of the lane the pub on the corner goes by the name of The Duke of Edinburgh (as do hundreds of other pubs outside the Scottish capital, I know).
 
Once I find a way into the grounds of the gothic beast on the hill the inscription above the door tells me that the foundation stone was laid by Albert Prince Consort for this home for the orphans of British Merchant Seaman on 28th June 1861. It’s a grand building, must have cost a bit, maybe the Victorians weren’t as bad as they are sometimes made out to be. Like a lot of places it seems to have mutated into Clock Court ‘luxury apartments’ – one of the most over-used combination of words in London (I’ve been in some and they’re just apartments, no gold taps, marble worktops, no bling, nothing that the residents further up the Roding Valley in Chigwell would recognise as ‘luxury’).
Thomas Archer wrote glowingly of the Orphanage in his 1870 ‘The Terrible Sights of London’. “When that sweet little cherub who is traditionally amid lyrically represented as sitting up aloft to look out for the life of poor Jack, is relieved by the next watch, and makes a short excursion for the purpose of stretching his wings, it may reasonably be inferred that he hovers lovingly over the neighbourhood of Snaresbrook, in Essex, and perches occasionally on the tall spiral tower of that magnificent building, where 136 children, the orphans of merchant seamen, are maintained with loving care.” What he describes is far from a terrible sight: light and airy dormitories, varnished pine, good ventilation, harmonium music drifting through the hallways, the children free from even the smallest ailments, a healthy supply of good food and water. It is as if the children have been compensated for the loss of their fathers at sea by being transported from the squalor of Victorian London dockland slums to Xanadu.
One of the apartments is on the market. The Rightmove website describes the interior of this supposed ‘des-res’ (£524,995) in far less glowing terms than Archer’s asylum:
“FEATURES
Split level apartment
Converted Orphanage
Mezzanine bedroom
Bedroom with en suite
Many period features
We are delighted to offer for sale this two bedroom converted apartment which we believe is part of an old Victorian (1860’s), orphanage for the children of merchant seaman. The property which forms part of a listed building, has a wealth of fine features which have to be seen to be appreciated. Communal Entrance”

From here I wade through a quagmire of suburban banality to get to a footpath that takes me into the Roding Valley Park. It’s about 100 yards wide, has a motorway overhead, pylons, and at this point no sign of the eponymous river.

I move on along through spindly Birch trees buffeted by the wind and the motorway noise – something I won’t escape for the whole four hours walk.
 
Instead of coming to the river I emerge at the centre of a knot of motorway flyovers with an enormous metal pylon rising in the centre – a Ballardian wet dream. Charlie Brown’s Roundabout. I commit my second climate crime of the day when I buy a pork pie from Tesco (not the pie, the shopping in Tesco. The first crime was buying non-rechargeable batteries from Poundland – 12 for a quid!).
 
The river at last.
Two hundred yards on from the mayhem I get a clear view of the Claybury Asylum water tower above the scrub. Iain Sinclair came out this way when writing ‘Rodinsky’s Room’, as the disappearing Jewish Hermit had a sister committed to the asylum. I think he posited somewhere that Rodinky’s annotated A-Z used the tower as its central reference point.
There’s a moment in every walk when it takes off and transcends the familiar and banal. The motorway was behind me for the first time. All there was now was a path snaking into bare trees and the top of the tower poking from a wooded hill in the distance. Carrier bags fluttered from branches like an ominous warning sign, adapted spirit catchers.

I cut across sodden marsh and round a muddy cricket pitch where snoozing sightscreens are buffeted by the stiff breeze. My denim loafers had been doing so well (don’t talk to me about walking boots, I’ve been having all manner of problems in that department – do footwear manufacturers sponsor topographical ramblers?). Now they are more like water-skis than anything else as I slip and slide over the mud into Claybury Park.

The view from the top of the hill is one of the finest in London, even surpassing (just) the one Nick showed me from Jack Straw’s Castle in Hampstead. It’s like the vista of Florence from Fiesole. A perfect place for a mental hospital. I’d been pre-warned about the inevitable conversion into luxury apartments when I’d checked ‘London Orbital’ for references last night (I’m figuring – mental hospital near the M25, got to be something in there). On page 167 Sinclair describes how he turns up at the gates the day the diggers moved in. Still, I’m determined to get a closer look. I plunge through the muddy tracks into the woods of hornbeam, oak and beech (natural habitat for a child of Bucks). Water runs in deep rivulets down the bank form small brooks and streams. Chigwell (which is where I am as it transpires) means ‘Kings Well’ and S.P Sunderland reports that there was a medicinal well here in Saxon times (maybe that accounts for the asylum). Now the tower is oddly elusive. I’m right below it but it is out of sight. I stop to ask directions from a lady walking a black Labrador who used to work there when it was a hospital. But for all my exertions I fail to breach the perimeter fences which I bet are far better secured now it is the private domain of Repton Park executive homes than in its asylum days.

When I emerge, mud-splattered on Tomswood Road I’m greeted by a sign that says, “Welcome to Essex”. Not more than 10 yards later I’m engulfed in a mock Tudor nightmare, more security gates, 4x4s at rest waiting for the school run, even a Ferris Bueller red Ferrari. The Prince Regent Hotel proudly advertises its Abba Tribute Night on 3rd March for £28.95. This Georgian hotel, when not hosting corporate ‘away-days’, is the venue for boxing bouts.
There is a W14 bus in the lay-by that would shortly be heading back to Leytonstone and as I’ve achieved my target I consider hopping on, but no, my metronomic stride won’t stop, clearly my mental health has not quite been revived.
A Victorian water pump has been restored and given a plaque by the local Woodford historical society, marking the point of the Saxon bridge that crossed the River Roding. I see the River beneath the beast of the M11 and rejoin the path. In the dip of the embankment you are shielded from arterial roads either side and the motorway above. The noise is migraine inducing and unrelenting. Crossing at Charlie Brown’s is a near death experience, either they run you down or you wait so long on the roadside that the pollution gets you.

The pylons hold hands over the water and the cables elegantly curve to the river’s bends. There’s no mobile phone signal. It’s a world within a world.
As I reach the castellated pumping station at Wanstead I’m pushed into an underpass system that seems to mirror the gyratory above. My legs have gone numb from the knee down. It is only at this point that I realise that I haven’t broken my stride since leaving home four hours ago, not stopped or sat down once, not even for the statutory pint. I allow the underpass to guide me away from the Roding and onto the Central Line instead.

Why is Will Self’s column in The Independent called ‘PsychoGeography’?

I bought the Independent this weekend for the Eric Rohmer DVD’s and naturally came across Will Self’s column in the magazine. I have heard of it before but not paid any attention. I always assumed the title to be a bit of a joke, a comment on the over/mis-use of the term by a man who knows what it really means. But as I read yesterday’s cloumn, a meditation on “Travelling light”, the inappropriateness of the title irked me. Self was sailing too close to genuinely psychogeographical waters, questioning notions of and approaches to travel. What was Self playing with here?

I’d seen him jibe Iain Sinclair for his perceived mis-use of the Debordian idea of “The study of the specific effects of the geographical environment (whether consciously organised or not) on the emotions and behaviour of individuals”. (Guy Debord, ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’ 1955) for Sinclair’s brew of earth mysteries and East End esoterica. Mr Self had even squared the two ideas of psychogeography in his review of Sinclair’s masterful ‘London Orbital’ (along with ‘Lights Out for the Territory’ and Stewart Home’s LPA newsletters held up as the canonical texts of Anglo-Celtic psychogeography). He’d quite neatly defined what he thought the Situationists were up to when he wrote:
“The situationists of Left Bank Paris undertook their derives in an altogether aimless fashion. These urban rambles, guided by Guy Debord, a pisshead mystical Marxist intellectual manque (presumably holding up a cheap bottle of wine, the way a London tour guide lofts an umbrella), were aimed at deconstructing the urban space. The cities – according to these filthy flaneurs – had become merely factories for the production of soullessness, and it was their duty, by lying about drunk on the Ile de France, to liberate Paris from its collective obsession with work, consumption and industrialised mass “leisure”.
And he brilliantly summarises what Sinclair was up to:
“But across the Channel and 40 years on, Sinclair has made of psychogeography an altogether more productive, if decidedly less millenarian, field of study. While Ackroyd is a shameless antiquarian, a John Stow de nos jours who stomps through time and space kicking up the fossilised imprints of styles and modes, Sinclair, on the other hand, has at least a half-belief in full temporal simultaneity.

So what exactly is Will Self up to with this column? Where does his PsychoGeography fit in to all this? Surely he’s not throwing his lot in with the crew who produce such aberrations as the Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel and the Time Out book of London Walks.

Ah, Sunflower!

To the Renoir to see Iain Sinclair and Robert Klinkert’s 1967 film ‘Ah Sunflower!’. The film is semi-legendary, an important part of the Sinclair narrative. He’s written of how the cash he received from the German TV company WDR paid for his Hackney house. The story of the filming became Sinclair’s first (self) publication ‘The Kodak Mantra Diaries’.

The Renoir is sold-out, midday Sunday. I see Iain in the foyer, and we briefly talk about my film of Nick Papadimitriou, ‘Beyond Stonebridge Park’, that he has kindly screened excerpts of at ‘City of Disappearances’ events. I foist a copy of my Wycombe book, DVD and DHPS newsletters upon him. When I point out the Nodules of Energy reference that I took from his ‘conversation’ with Will Self at St Luke’s in 2004, he seems amused by the application of this formula to High Wycombe rather than Bunhill Fields.

He’s enthusiastic about the gathering, the numbers, the energy enlivening the corporate monocultural concrete of the newly de-generated Brunswick Centre. We should stage another Congress of the Dialectics of Liberation, at the Roundhouse, 40 years after the original, open up the secret London, an all-nighter, Iain says. It seems plausible, it seems like the right moment, the backdrop being Iraq rather than Vietnam, Blair for Wilson.

Sinclair introduces the short film selection as “what some people might call ‘Deep Topography” – a term outlined by Nick in our film. He adds the definition that it’s a “going back into the City and looking at it in a kind of structuralist way.”

Ah, Sunflower!, exceeds expectations, the casual camerawork, the capturing of Allen Ginsberg in full flow delivering mantras and propositions of a kind of psycho-politics that seems ripe for realisation.

Iain’s 1972 film ‘Maggid Street’ gets a rare outing, a surreal Brakhage-inspired gothic tale, a minor masterpiece. Sinclair has hours more of unscreened 8mm footage waiting to be unleashed, Bolex diaries of Hackney’s transformation in the 70’s.

There’s talk of re-staging the event somewhere, in one of the Curzons. If you don’t make it, the DVD is available from The Picture Press (mailto:info@thepicturepress.co.uk. Beat Scene has also republished ‘The Kodak Mantra Diaries’ (I think Dolly Head Books has one of the ultra-rare originals).

Iain Sinclair will also be at the NFT on Feburary 27th interviewing Andrew Kotting after a screening of Kotting’s new film ‘Offshore (Gallivant)’ – book early if today’s anything to go by.

Iain Sinclair has written about the experience of making the film on the Guardian’s arts blog

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Maptalks and Iain Sinclair Talks in the City of Disappearances


I’ve just come across this new monthly night of discussions called Maptalks taking place on my old patch at the Betsy Trotwood. They’ve managed to rope in Geoff Dyer for a discussion about Festival Culture on 11th october. Most relevant to this blog though is the Disappearing London theme sometime in November (“London: a constantly changing city where the past sits side by side with the contemporary. Londoners have a need to document the derelict, the curious and the pie and mash shops that make up our cityscape.”)

Which leads nicely on to the Iain Sinclair edited ‘London, City of Disappearances’ published on October 25, featuring a wonderful piece by the quasi-mythical Nick Papadimitriou (last seen disappearing into a water conduit somewhere beyond Stonebridge Park). I think Sinclair’s also found room for Will Self, JG Ballard, Michael Moorcock, probably Stewart Home, and all the usual suspects. There are going to be loads of events around the launch:

THURSDAY OCTOBER 19 SUTTON HOUSE. HackneyIain Sinclair: Talk on ‘London: City of Disappearances’ 7.30pm

WEDNESDAY 25 OCTOBER’ TIME OUT’ issue focussing on ‘London: City of Disappearances’

THURSDAY 26 OCTOBER LONDON REVIEW BOOKSHOP 14 Bury Place, LondonWC1A 2JLIain Sinclair: Reading

TUESDAY 31 OCTOBER BISHOPSGATE FOUNDATION& INSTITUTE 230 Bishopsgate, London6.30 – 8.30 pm.Launch.Chair: Gareth Evans Open evening: with brief presentations from: Rachel Lichtenstein. Patrick Wright. Sukdev Sandhu. Iain Sinclair

THURSDAY 2 NOVEMBER Iain Sinclair: reading at THE SPITZ. Spitalfields market

FRIDAY 3 NOVEMBER TATE BRITAIN Late at Tate 6.30 – 8.00 pmProposed discussion. Iain Sinclair. Alan Moore. Miranda Sawyer. Will Self.Rachel Lichtenstein. Sukdev Sandhu. chaired by Tim Marlow projection work by Susanna Edwards

WEDNESDAY 8 NOVEMBER GREAT NORTHERN HOTEL, PETERBOROUGH. at 7.30 pm. £7.Iain Sinclair: reading ‘ Edge of the Orison: In the Traces of John Clare’s “Journey out of Essex.”(info .01778 342766)

TUESDAY 14 NOVEMBER MUSEUM of LONDON 6.30pm Susanna Edwards. Iain Sinclair. Art Happens: ‘London vs the Suburbs’

And if you want to buy any books by Iain Sinclair or about a disappeared London, Chris at Dollyhead Books has some real gems.

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Writing the Great Necropolis

I cross the border into deepest darkest Hackney, a journey worthy of Conrad, taken aboard a 394 all the way from Angel to Homerton High Street. This journey should have its own blue plaque, a magical mystery tour through the fringe of the old City, through its plaque pits, burial grounds and hunting fields. White Conduit House, The Eagle, Shoreditch, London Fields. It’s a moving expo of public housing schemes from the best of the LCC 4-storey blocks built but idealists to seventies efforts fit only for crack-dens.
The purpose of my pilgrimage back to my post-Poly stomping grounds is to listen to London’s seer, Iain Sinclair sharing a platform with two other writers who use the city as their muse, Maureen Duffy and Ferdinand Dennis. The venue is a treasure, Sutton House that boasts to be the oldest dwelling in East London and I’m guessing that it’s C16/C17th. I remember it as the place I could never get into, kept impossible hours and my days back then were divided between the Job Centre, the library and Mare Street pubs.
Sinclair reads for perhaps 15 minutes but it’s long enough to deliver a few choice lines on how working in freight yards and parks he created a kind of “mythic geography” of the area; that his London is defined by invisibility and secrecy, and Mike Moorcock turned back at the river unable to cross the Thames heading south.
Duffy and Dennis offer slightly different visions of our great necropolis. Duffy has memories of the blitz and Dennis delivers fruity slices of the post-war immigrant experience. But as Duffy reminds us we’re all immigrants in London (in England I’d say).
It triggers off various thoughts. For me London is a city that dis-locates you rather than gives you a sense of location. So much is buried beneath our feet and behind the brickwork that echoes of past lives pulse up through the pavement and seep through the plaster.
When I walk to work I cross the River Fleet, “River of Wells”. Despite being beneath Kings Cross Road/ Farringdon Road there is a tangible divide when the river is crossed. Again when I emerge from Fetter Lane into Fleet Street the atmosphere alters as I enter the realm of Sweeney Todd and Samuel Johnson.
I came home from Hackney via the more prosaic No.38, one of the last surviving Routemasters and alight at the end of Essex Road. Homerton feels a million miles away, down below us on boggy ground while we swan around on the sacred Penton Mound.

Iain Sinclair & Will Self at St Luke’s Church 14.07.04

Should have blogged this ages ago but just didn’t get round to it.
They come out onto the stage of the restored Church, two living icons of English prose, and launch straight into Sinclair’s memories of St. Luke’s when it was derelict and overgrown. They instigate a tension between themselves but it appears to be largely an act for the audience. Will Self clearly loves Iain Sinclair’s prose and Sinclair is halfway through Self’s latest book. But the conflict they play with is that between the writer who carved out a living from his pen from his mid-twenties and still turns out hack columns for whoever’ll pay and the former Parks gardener, book dealer and underground writer. It also plays as Native Londoner versus Incomer. They play it well, Sinclair dodging direct references he doesn’t like. Self coming out with streams of incomprehensible Selfisms, dictionary-speak that the editor of the OED would be hard-pressed to translate.
Will Self inevitably gets on to the vexed question of ‘psychogeography’ and asks Sinclair how he defines his variety of psychogeography adding the aside that it doesn’t seem to relate much to the Guy Debord/Situationist idea. Sinclair acknowledges this and says he picked it up via Stewart Home and the London Psychogeographical Association and it gave him a convenient brand image for his obsession with Hawksmoor and Ley Lines. He doesn’t duck it, and when Cathy asks him what parameters he sets for his walks he has none, just goes out for a wander when he has the time. It confirms my doubts that ‘London Orbital’ isn’t psychogeography in its purest form but merely a walk with lots of literary and esoteric associations. Not quite the reconnaissance mission before the city is reclaimed that Debord et al cooked up in Paris. Sinclair says as much when he talks about “nodules of energy” -and gives examples of the area around St Lukes, the place where Milton died, house where Defoe lived, Hawksmoor’s obelisks.
It’s a vibrant chat, Self is entertaining and plays to the gallery. Sinclair gets in the odd jibes: “I can see all those columns from the years stuck in your back”. “That Iain is a frankly hostile vision”, Self retorts, “Unlike you Iain, I was writing fulltime from my twenties and had to make a living”.

We walk up Old Street afterwards, Cathy telling me all the negative stuff she had thought about Self before this evening, me setting her straight, giving a potted history of his career and about to recount his reprising of Hunter S Thompson on the campaign trail for his 1992 NewStatesman election coverage, when we stop to look at a pub and Will Self virtually walked into the back of us.

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