Does London Exist?

the precincts of central London

Among the mountain of topographical books that I found in Hay last weekend the one that I bought was A Guide to the Structure of London (1972) by Maurice Ash. I was hooked by a glance at these amazing maps and the chapter titles:
1. In search of London’s identity  2. The skin of an onion?  3. The geography of conflict  4. Journeys and sojourns  5. A strategy for identifying London  6. Town trails

types of housing tenure, 1966

Ash opens by asking the question of whether London exists, “There is just one question to be asked before one begins a book on the structure of London: Does London exist?”
Due to the diversity between Deptford High Street and Hampstead Heath and lack of common interest he wonders if “the entity of London is a fiction”.

the central spaces of importance for conservation

I would love to imagine Ash in conversation with Patrick Keiller’s character  Robinson in a grubby formica-tabled worker’s cafe, or perhaps at Brent Cross Regional Shopping Centre. In Keiller’s film, London, Robinson posits that “the true identity of London is its absence, as a city it no longer exists … London was the first metropolis to disappear” (you can watch this part of the film here at 3.44)

plan for the South East, 1967

Ash suggests that we should think of London as a region rather than a city, a region that has consumed the Green Belt and moved beyond. He identifies this new area of London the “Outer Metropolitan Area (the OMA), which for statistical purposes at least is bow taken to extend from beyond the Green Belt to about 40 miles from the centre of London”.

strategic plan for the South East, 1970

The book ends with six journeys through London that illustrate the thesis within the book: walking circuits in South London around Elephant and Castle, inner East London from Stepney Green, and inner West London from Earl’s Court; and then wider sweeps by car north and south and the outer metropolitan areas.
I wonder what following the same journeys today would tell us about whether London actually exists or is merely a fiction?

maps reprinted by Ash from Research Paper SRI, September 1966

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golden hour

SANY1962

This was the view west from Blackfriars Bridge at around 7.30pm this evening

Sany1962

SANY1971
We walked via St Andew’s Hill and looked in at Wardrobe Place where the plane trees reach over the Georgian buildings in defiance of their life-spans, soon to expire.

Sany1971

 

Paternoster Square felt like the living civic centre that the architects probably hoped for – the Italinate piazza where families take an evening passeggiata

paternoster.mov Watch on Posterous
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Scenes from an East London garden

Last year I thought I’d do my bit for the dwindling bee population and plant some borage after nurturing 4 or 5 plants from seed. This summer they came back with a vengeance entirely covering a previously barren plot of dusty lifeless soil. The borage patch is now alive with bees.

Look at them here getting absolutely sozzled on nectar, sucking it in till their little furry cheeks puff out. That’s probably not what they do at all but they seem to be in some sort of elevated state as they dance between the translucent blue petals bumping into each other like inebriates staggering home from the pub.

After attending Pestival in 2009 I vowed to let my garden become a bit more untidy to allow the insect universe to flourish. I let the herbs go to seed and now this small kitchen patch is bustling with hexapoda activity.

I saw this  butterfly jockeying with a bee for the best position on the flowering mint. I’ve had a go at identifying the butterfly without luck – I’ll take a punt that it’s a variety of Skipper.

There’s an element of jeopardy feeding here as it is the domain of a greedy-gutted spider that has spun his super-sticky web across the entire bed. The other day I saw him capture a wasp, wrap it in web then carry it off to hang from the underside of a mint leaf. Such efficient slaughter. My young son informed me that the spider would inject a poison into the wasp’s gut that would liquify it and allow him to suck it up much as the boy slurps down a smoothie.

A ladybird and a flying ant both took a promenade along the wicker arch that supports the sweat peas, largely indifferent to each other each, peacefully co-existing – maybe we can learn something from them (but not the spider perhaps).

 These yellow flowers have emerged quietly in the shade of the overhanging ivy. Consulting R.S. Fitter’s Pocket Guide to Wild Flowers (1956) tells me that they’re a Ragwort of some kind I like the idea that they’re  Hoary Ragwort simply because of the name, although they’re most likely Marsh Ragwort, meaning that the seeds could well have come home with us from a walk on Leyton Marshes or Wanstead Flats.

Knowing the name of the plants that spring up in your garden changes your relationship with them – they’re no longer just a weed but have a heritage and a mythology – there’s a popular belief that Ragwort can kill horses (not by sneaking up and strangling them but if the horse eats its own body weight of the intensely bitter leaves).

Apparently Ragwort is a favourite of the stripy caterpillar of the cinnabar moth which I spotted over on Wanstead Flats recently, then when down in Devon last week saw a few of the post-pupa moths themselves marvellous black and red wings lighting up a deep Devon hedgerow.

One of the most surprising things to emerge from the ground this year is a triffid-like pumpkin plant, legacy of leaving last year’s Halloween lantern to rot on the edge of the vegetable patch that has no vegetables (until now). Two grasshoppers have taken up residence on its great bristly leaves – or are they crickets. I haven’t heard them sing yet.

Here are some more photos – all taken with the space of about 20 minutes

Update @ 21.30: This fella just came and joined the party and hop out across my foot as I was watering the borage

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The Book Genie

I like to imagine there is a spirit that guides my fugues at times – that rewards me for surrendering to its lure. The rewards come in the shape of stumbling into unexpected corners of the city at the end of unpromising schleps. But sometimes they come in the form of books. Today I succumbed to the fugue and found these four books virtually side by side on the same charity shop shelf.

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Rising in the East (1996) unlocked the door. A book of essays on East End regeneration written in a pre-Cool Britannia London – when to talk of a renaissance of the East may still have sounded optimistic or opportunistic. The first eager read turned up an essay on the importance of the North London Line Overground train at a time when it was fighting for its life. I skimmed the first few pages of this thesis as I glided eastwards from Haringey to Leyton on one of the brand new trains running on the 160- year old line. ‘Traversing the Great Divide: The North London Line and East London’ the essay is grandly titled, by Bruce Jerram and Richard Wells, and such is their passion apparent for the NLL that they produced this brilliant diagram demonstrating how it arcs West – East across the capital, or as it was viewed at the time from “a rich desirable west to a poor, dull, possibly dangerous east”. With the stations being upgraded, gleaming pre-graffiti trains and the East London Olympics at the end of the North London Line, it looks like they won their argument.

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The Romance of London from 1910. The first pages pouring cold water of talk of the myth of King Lud but all the same acknowledging Tacitus’s observations that in AD61 he finds London “celebrated for the gathering of dealers and commodities”. A Roman refuting the idea that the Romans founded our city.
A guide to Camden written at the height of Britpop and an archeological examination of the relationship between town and country in Roman Britain (wonder whether urban sprawl was an issue back then?)

Westminster – day after the election

College Green Westminster day after the Election from fugueur on Vimeo.

Last night I had been filming Bob and Roberta Smith reading from his journals at Tate Britain and decided to walk along Millbank to Westminster to get the tube home. As I reached College Green, outside the the Houses of Parliament I came across the encampment of news crews still trying to untangle the mess of the General Election. It was 8.30pm, and there were only a few teams still broadcasting.
The was a strange feeling of tranquility hanging in the Westminster air, it was all very calm and quiet. Inside nearby rooms men, educated at the most expensive private schools in the country were working out who was going to be in charge. Earlier Bob and Roberta Smith had shown the audience at Tate a postcard from his recent show called ‘I Should Be In Charge’ – his painting of this declaration is on display in the windows of the Hayward Gallery just over the river from Westminster. Bob would make a brilliant Prime Minister
I contemplated whether I should get my camera out and film, and it was then that I recalled the scene in Patrick Keiller’s brilliant film, London, shot on the day after the election of the Conservation government in 1992. I have none of Keiller’s finesse nor a 16mm Bolex but felt I had had a duty to run off a couple of minutes of tape as an homage to Keiller’s opus.

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