This is one of four beautiful maps in SPB Mais’s book published in 1939 celebrating the 50th anniversary of the London County Council – the central shaded green area being the area covered by the LCC.
‘What both the interwar topographers and the situationists recognised was the transformative potential of large numbers of people regularly stepping outside the matrix, taking to the streets and walking, becoming active participants rather than passive spectators.’
“To the believer in the influence of the environment – and I am certainly one – it comes as something of a shock to discover that what we are pleased to call the suburban outlook – that is, the narrow outlook of the stereotyped – is shared by the owners of castles in the Cheviots and studios in Chelsea, and is actually rather rare in the suburbs which are supposed to engender it. The truth, I thought, must be that the suburbs are not quite so uniform in character as they are made out to be.”
This is the opening to a chapter on the London suburbs in England’s Character by SPB Mais (1937). I keep coming back to Mais – I think he is one of the most resonant forebares of this art of wandering around and recording your thoughts about what you have seen. That must have been why I took this book down off the shelf this evening.
Mais’ ‘suburb-hunting’ started out in Harrow with its gasometers and he praises North Harrow for a “surprising moment of courage in building a series of dazzling white flats with green tiles, recessed balconies, multitudinous glass, and terraces fronting a communal public unfenced garden.” Sounds like he’s describing the now Grade-II listed Pinner Court designed by local architect HJ Mark and completed in 1936 at the time Mais would have been writing the book.
Large chunks of Pinner and Rayners Lane have now been placed in a conservation area to protect its modernist and art deco inspired buildings and streetscapes – and it seems that HJ Mark was at the centre of this suburban Bauhausian outpost, particularly in Eastcote Town Centre.
This makes me wonder whether Mais, a self-professed ‘man of the hills’, was in fact a closet modernist, further evidenced by his belief in the influence of the environment it re-enforces my vision of this tweedy BBC radio presenter of Microphone At Large as a proto-psychogeographer. Was he drawn out to Harrow to discuss the modernist project with Mark and take a topographical ramble through the dreamscape that Marks had created in the Harrows and the Weald.
More modernist wonders of the suburbs can be seen on the brilliant Modernism in Metroland website.
Did the last walk and the last broadcast in the first series of Ventures and Adventures in Topography on Resonance 104.4fm – and thoroughly enjoyed it. The walks with Nick have been priceless, and for the two of us it has been the bringing together and public sharing of a long held passion for old topographical books.
The whole series is being repeated daily at 4.30pm on Resonance 104.4fm from today (you can also listen online at www.resonancefm.com/listen)
And now all the podcasts are available for download from our blog
Here’s a video I hastily shot and edited from that last walk, back to my home territory in the Chilterns with some audio excerpts from the radio show
Footage from a walk from Slough to Beaconsfield using the 1931 walking guide It Isn’t Far From London by SPB Mais. Audio recordings from the radio show Ventures and Adventures in Topography on Resonance 104.4fm. The reading is by Heidi Lapaine with music from The Three Chronology. Other music is by Electric Monk.
First thing I’ve shot on my sanyo xacti cg10 – very much doing it on the hoof concentrating more on the sound for the radio show
You can no more see England from a main arterial road than you can see her from the air. What you can see from the newly constructed roads is a garish rash of scarlet, the unhealed wound of a land laid waste.
Hikers travel on foot, but they see nothing of England, for two reasons. They travel too fast, and they walk, as starlings fly, in multitudes.
It is not enough to travel on foot. You must learn to saunter as Charles II, Richard Jefferies, W.H. Hudson, and Edward Thomas sauntered, and you must learn to saunter alone.
You travel alone, not because you are unsociable, but because you are sociable. In a crowd you just nod in passing to the shepherd or road-mender. When you are alone you make friends with every passer-by. All England talks to you.
You travel alone, secondly, to meet yourself. All the rest of the year you are part of the machine. You work with the herd, take your pleasures with the herd. But alone in the quietude of the country you find yourself. You are at last finding out your own tastes, testing your own unforced reactions.
So make up your mind to be bound by no programme, to travel with complete irresponsibility, to start nowhere in particular, and the odds are that you will catch a glimpse of England that is vouchsafed only to the privileged few.
What you are looking for is as elusive as the faery music of the piper at the gates of dawn. What you see may be incommunicable to others, but it will provide you with a vision that may well alter the whole of your outlook on life.
Solitary, slow, and wayward are the keywords.
In England you cannot go wrong so long as you keep to the unknown.
You and I are likely to go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green, but our ancestors lie buried in the long barrows that strew the banks of Minchinhampton. Where they are traces of earliest man there is beauty.
So if you would find loveliness, tread the ancient tracks that top the Wiltshire downlands. The smooth green undulations will soothe your harassed mind as nothing else can.
It is impossible in the hurly-burly of the market-place to acquire or to keep any values at all. Only when we are striding the high hills alone can we take stock of ourselves, our desires, and our relation to this world and the next.
Abridged from ‘England’s Character’, SPB Mais 1936, pgs. 14-22.
You can read Pt. 1 of SPB Mais’ Proto Situationist Manifesto, Advice for Derivers (circa 1930), here
This blog’s been quiet for a while, sorry, but I have been awoken from my slumber by the excellent Mr Tregaskis. So for you my friend, this, from SPB Mais (one of the arch proto-psychogeographers / crypto-topographers) on his topographical adventure through Harrow (1937):
“I descended from this dignified, unspoilt village past Matthew Arnold’s lovely home, Byron House, into the Weald with reluctance, for I kept on running up against that nightmare of a gasometer. In the end I took a bus and drove through all the other Harrows. To my great surprise as I wandered down Oxhey Lane…I found a gloriou common of bracken and silver-birches on both sides of the road. I was on the ridge of the hill with glorious views southward over all the Harrows. At least, the view would have been glorious had it not been for my discovery that the monstrous Harrow gasometer had suddenly spawned. I had been sufficiently harassed by the sight of one. But now there were two.”
The inability to appreciate the beauty of a gasometer nestling in the landscape does make me wonder whether, rather than being a prophet, Mais was actually a bit of a phillistine. When they recently pulled down the Edwardian gasometers in High Wycombe the old people lamented their passing. The rusting gasometers on Leyton Marshes are a key feature of the areas topography(like the pylons). They are merely the modern (or not so modern) descendants of the windmills that I read in Understone today sat down on the corner of Francis Road and Newport Road. I wonder whether Daniel Defoe complained bitterly about the cursed windmills that blighted his view.