an archaeology of the present

I’m doing a talk with Cathy on Wednesday 21st at Wycombe museum about the Remapping High Wycombe project. I’ve just been reviewing the powerpoint, seeing how we’ve presented our work to different audiences in the past, working out how we’ll pitch it this time. The interesting thing is that regardless of the audience when we talk about the derive, and “encountering the unknown facets of the known, astonishment on the terrain of boredom…” (Greil Marcus), it always gets a good reaction and people become intrigued about the process. It’ll be interesting to see how the midweek lunchtime audience at Wycombe museum react and what they’ll latch on to.

We’ll also show a map we made from comments posted on the Knowhere Guide, which are quite negative and focus on the violence and racial tension that some people pick up on in Wycombe, and see how people respond to that. Our Mytho-Historical Map is our response:

This talk will bring the project to a kind of conclusion, a year on from the Significant Sites event (almost to the day). We’ve to-ed and fro-ed on this but with the imminent publication of the written material (via Lulu) and hopefully a Dvd to go with it, we can draw a line under the work and move on to something new. Although, I think I’ll still find myself being drawn back by the psychogeographical articulations of the area.

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The London Explorers’ Club

The London Explorers’ Club was founded by W. Margrie in 1930 “to study London in all her moods and phases”. In 1933 he published ‘The Diary of a London Explorer’, part autobiography part manifesto on behalf of the club.

“We look into London’s kitchens and backyards as well as her front parlours. When we visit a building we are concerned not with dead stone, wood, and metal, but with the dramas, romances and personalities that the wood and stone represent. Every institution we have explored, from a cathedral to a brewery, symbolises mankind’s aspirations and strivings for a better and fuller life.”

Margrie also put a heavy emphasis on the fact that the Club was “jolly, human and creative”.
Wearing a spray of London Pride as their emblem they combed London “to discover the romances hidden in her ancient buildings, the sorrows in her slums, the unexpected beauties of her streets and squares”.

In a statement to the press they declared their mission: “We shall see London in all her moods, and not only her beauty but her ugliness as well. We shall try to recapture her histories and memories, seeing all there is to be seen by the flare of the gas-jet, by the light of the moon, or from the electric arc-lamps”.

In the first 3 years of its existence the LEC visited 180 Places including: Croydon Aerodrome, Headquarters of the Fire Brigade, Merrie Islington which was “not as merrie as it used to be”, Caledonian Market, Historic Deptford guided by the vicar of Deptford, Samuel Jones’s Camberwell Beauty Mills which specialises in gummed paper, and Peek Frean’s Biscuit Factory.
They embarked on an All-Night Ramble Through Central London, an act recently repeated by an artist to much media interest. Their nocturnal derive included the City, Covent Garden, Adelphi Arches and parts of the West End. Margrie wrote that “One of our objects is to study London in all her moods. London at 2am is very different from London at 2pm. Central London on a fine summer night is a fine place for poets, dreamers, musicians, lovers, optimists, and explorers. It is romantic, lovely, and mysterious.”

Another of their stunts was The World’s Greatest Treasure Hunt where competitors had two hours to identify twenty-four representative City institutions and a quotation. The hunt started at Mansion House and finished at Monument Station; and the clues included: 1. A church associated with Cockneys. 6. Insurance institution associated with a bell. 9. Historic institution associated with blood and beef. The winner would be crowned The Champion Londoner.

They pioneered the idea of the Topographical Race. Starting at Trafalgar Square and finishing at a restaurant in Holborn competitors had to visit ten institutions, “those spending the least amount on buses and trams would stand the best chance.” The institutions on the circuit were Bedlam, Boadicea Statue, Fire Brigade HQ, Friend’s House, Lambeth Palace, Law Courts, Mount Pleasant, new B.B.C House, St. George’s Hospital, and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Margrie rounds off his book by proposing the formation of a Metropolitan Free State to replace the LCC. As a member of the left-wing Independent Labour Party it appears to be a forerunner of Red Ken’s GLC, “a central co-ordinating authority for the whole of greater London”, but would also include “five or six home counties, and the Thames”.

Margrie then spells out his grand vision for the new city state: “It is my supreme ambition to be the first Prime Minister of this Metropolitan Free State. When I realize my dream I shall emulate Mussolini and give Londoners plenty of dramas pageants and shows to wake them up”. He promises that under his rule “For the first time in London’s history Londoners will take an interest in their city and province, and all London will become as merry as a Peckham bye-election.”

This mixture of a form of proto-psychogeography allied to visions of a utopian future have echoes of the Situationist movement that would follow some 25 years later, although instead of drinking absinthe in Montmatre they supped tea in Camberwell.
The London Explorers’ Club seems to be a forgotten entity but lives on in the upsurge in interest in the hidden secret city led first by Geoffrey Fletcher and lately by Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd.

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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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Tuesday night Dérive

In Gough Square EC4 there’s a homemade sign which reads “BEWARE DIVE-BOMBING SEAGULL IN SQUARE”, with a photo of the bird. There’s the noisy chatter of afterwork drinks in the legal chambers of Gunpowder Square. In Shoe Lane I look through the windows at suits in corporate drinking dens built into the ground-floor levels of glass and steel office blocks – cathedrals of capital with alcohol on-site. It’s 9.25pm and still light.
Turn right, still Shoe Lane, and now it’s dirty gothic and the back of a Wren-like church where I can see a bricked-in door that at this subterranean level must have been an entrance to the crypt. Cab driver sleeps in the back of his Taxi with the engine running under the viaduct.
I take the steps down into Saffron Hill from Charterhouse Street. The rule for my dérive is simple, go where it looks interesting, head for uncharted territory.
Greville Street runs east to west and looks ripe with pubs and eats. I drift on north up Saffron Hill. “THAI CAFÉ AT THE ONE TUN”, Bombardier bunting and Budweiser neon in the windows. It’s too early to hit the beer, I haven’t found familiar territory yet, the dérive is still on and this place doesn’t look so appealing. There’s a painted sign on the wall telling its history: The One Tun was patronised by Charles Dickens and is mentioned in Oliver Twist as “The Three Cripples”, a One Tun is 252 gallons or 4 hogsheads and Saffron Hill takes its name from the Saffron crops that grew here in the eighteenth century. A large white Cadillac is parked opposite advertising the Venus Table Dancing Club. There’s a stone plaque above a metal door with two crossing shields one bearing a swan with L&Co. underneath and the other a ship and the date 1726. It looks like an old warehouse (for saffron?) – there’s a sign advertising flats for rent. As I get near Clerkenwell Road loft apartments take over, familiar territory is in sight.
I hit Hatton Wall and the dérive is effectively over. I could go in the Deux Beers Café Bar but I’m no fan of the Belgian beer crowd so I duck down Eyre Street Hill to The Gunmakers where Maxim conceived the machine gun over a pint. I’ve cruised this place two or three times and been put off by its apparent clubiness but tonight it’s quiet enough to draw me in. I sit under framed photos of a young Albert Finney circa Saturday Night Sunday Morning and above is Samuel Beckett naturally enough. The sixties music is not loud enough to blot out the design-speak from a nearby table. One fella uses the word “über” a lot as in “she has this über über über cool job,” and someone says that “it’s vital we have ownership of the paradigm.” This is Clerkenwell. You could throw a crisp at the Ben Sherman offices from my comfy seat in this roughed-up Social chic pub which works in a kind of way that would make old Albert feel at home. I finish my pint of IPA.
On Amwell Street at 11pm I pass Boris Johnson Tory MP and editor of The Spectator pushing his bike yelling into his mobile phone “So much for the intellectual powerhouse of the Labour backbenches.” The sweaty crowd spilling out of Filthy McNasty’s (yes it is filthy and it is nasty)give him worried looks like he’s some kind of nutter. On Penton Street a northern TV Comedienne is debating with the guys from the Chinese take-away about who’s responsible for the bag of rubbish split open on the path. There’s more than a touch of midsummer madness around.
I pop into Borat’s for a chat and come away with can of Holstein Pils. Get home and email The Guardian Diary page with my Boris story.

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