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.
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.
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?)
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.
Malcolm Hopkins from Housman’s Bookshop and producer/ sound artist Nick Hamilton (who made the rather brilliant Foot and Mouth series) have just started a new show called Lost Steps, on Resonance 104.4fm. I’ve nicked this blurb off their website:
“Lost Steps is a series of weekly radio programmes, exploring lost London. Over the weeks, Malcolm Hopkins will be inviting a spectrum of invited guests to discuss and appreciate aspects of London literature and culture we seldom get to hear about; seldom reaches the mainstream media, and is often neglected as time passes by. London’s history is steeped with obscure and often clandestine reference.”
There have already been some fascinating broadcasts which you can catch-up on here: http://www.loststeps.org.uk/Broadcasts.php I’ll be joining them for an episode in November which I had better prepare for I suppose.
Stumbled upon the brilliant Penguin podcasts via Will Self’s website. They are getting me through the recovery from a knee arthroscopy I had done last week that has caused the title of Iain Sinclair’s Millennium Dome essay, ‘Sorry Meniscus’ to loop continuously through my head.
The pick of the bunch has to be the series of podcasts from Will Self’s reading of ‘The Book of Dave’ at the Bloomsbury Theatre. Nick Papadimitriou, a good friend of this blog and regular contributor of comments under various pseudonyms, is credited in the book for the topographical research he provided. It is after all a book that both draws on and adds to the mythology of the city that Nick knows more about than virtually anyone else I know.
There’s also an interesting podcast by Steven Johnson, author of The Ghost Map, who talks about Placeblogging – of which I suppose this very blog is at times an example. The blogs that Johnson is really talking about are those more intimately linked with the daily minutiae of a community – and the value of the pooling of the kind of amateurised specialist knowledge that they represent.
Whilst mentioning Podcasts I hope to start a regular podcast under the National Psychogeographic banner with Nick Papadimitriou when I can tie him down. Watch this space for details.
The idea has been with me ever since I first picked up a copy of E.O. Gordon’s ‘Prehistoric London : its mounds and circles’ – to walk between the mounds on the summer solstice. In her criminally under-celebrated book Gordon describes how the mounds and circles of the British Isles are the remnants of a lost culture. No news there when looking at the solstice celebrations at Stonehenge (30,000 pagan celebrants this year), but London?
The only acknowledgement of the significance of these sites was a record of The Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids forsaking Stonehenge in favour of performing ceremonies at Tower Hill in March 1963.
I confess that resonance was added by the fact that at the time I lived yards away from Penton Mound at the top of Pentonville Road. But what vision of the city would be formed by perambulating between its founding sites – the great monuments that were at the centre of a thriving city long before the Romans rocked up.
Westminster/Tothill to Bryn Gwyn/The Tower of London to Penton/ New River Upper Reservoir to The Llandin/ Parliament Hill – a day to achieve it in.
In its original formulation this would have been a grand ritual unifying the city led by the nation’s Druids. In this inaugural event it maybe fitting that it is a family affair – just me and my sister.
I meet Cathy on Broad Sanctuary at 2.15pm after a detour to the Widescreen Centre to pick up a role of TriX black & white Super 8 film to attempt a film of the ritual – a 3 minute in camera edited film. We are delayed longer than planned at Westminster – get caught up with the small good natured demonstration on Parliament Square in support of the Iraqi people. We blow the cover of the supposed Heritage Wardens who confess to being GLA employees spying on the demo (there are barely double figures present). We move on over Westminster Bridge leaving the Royal Gorsedd and cut behind County Hall haunted by the spindly Wicker Man that they call The London Eye. Then its down Roupel Street, Union Street and into the quiet. We ponder upon the fetishisation of dereliction as we marvel at some beautiful crumbling relics – one a stone doorway with the word ‘OFFICE’ carved into the lintel adrift in an empty street. I realise that with my focus being on the film it cancels out words – my notebook virtually empty – the whole 2 hour wander to Tower Hill only inspiring a single note – ‘Great Maze Pond SE1’ which I take to fit in with the pagan theme of the derive (mazes being created in oak groves and markers of places of druidic ritual).
We spend little time at Tower Hill/ Bryn Gwyn – along with Westminster/ Tothill – as I feel an overwhelming urge to deny the desecration of the sites by the invaders – the so-called Parliament at the ancient place of congregation and communal law-making and the Prison on the site of the British people’s fortress where the severed head of Bendigeid Vran, first king of this island, is said to be buried. I record them on camera but we move on enjoying the calm City streets.
Into Barbican from Moorgate through the halls and out into Whitecross Street guided by Hawksmoor’s spire on St Luke’s. On Goswell I show Cathy the Mount Mills fortification and we follow the Cromwellian defences through Northampton Square and out to face Lubetkin’s Spa Green Estate. We skirt its perimeter and I then point out the Mount Zion Chapel – redolent of a riff in Gordon that links the British Mounds to their spiritual cousins in Palestine (a few years ago I emailed Mount Zion Chapel to enquire what had guided the location of their chapel – I received no reply).
Cathy leaves me at the Penton to complete the final leg alone. It’s 7.30pm and I should stop for a cuppa somewhere but Islington at that time on a Saturday is geared up for one thing only. Also as I push on along Penton Street I’m too awash in a sea of memories of my happy years spent living here. The Penny Farthing has been given a confused make-over and is now a restaurant serving an odd combination of pizza and sushi – I suppose they don‘t attempt to trade in on the pub‘s heritage as the true home of cricket – the pavilion for the club that would become the MCC after they moved across town to Marleybone. Change takes on odd forms – a tattoo parlour has opened next to the corner shop that supplied me with cans of beer and emergency nappies.
Down Copenhagen Street and walks (and blog postings) past come back as do trips to playgroups and the wonderful library on Thornhill Square. I get second wind.
Turning the corner into York Way I shoot some of the old station posts that seemed to have survived the coming of the Eurostar. Then the vista of the day – the cleared scorched earth west of York Way – a train slowly moving across the land below three enormous silos – I consider running off the remainder of my film here – a Tarkovskian landscape worthy of its own 50ft of TriX.
Gordon relates York Way’s original name, Maiden Lane to its purpose of leading people to their places of congregation (Maiden Lane that runs through Covent Garden lines up with Parliament Square). I note the street name of a sorry backstreet behind a warehouse – Vale Royal – the last indicator of the rich mythology linked to this area from Boadicea’s last stand to the first Christian Church (in the world!).
I’ve now decided to keep going without a stop till I ascend the top of the Llandin – a continuous yomp from the south end of Tower Bridge. Up along Brecknock Road where the dark ridge of Highgate Woods marks the horizon. Down through Dartmouth Park and I’m there on Parliament Hill Fields. I must be hallucinating because I see a white robed Druid atop the hill – yes. I grab the camera and zoom in – not a Druid but the freshly painted white monument to right of free speech that exists here. I do a kind of stop-frame dance around the stone till the film runs out and the journey is over – 50 feet of film, 10 miles and 6 hours walking.