Category Archives: Twitter

Getting lost in London: an experiment on Twitter

I recently gave a talk at the Design Museum about walking, and so I  talked about getting lost in London. This is an edited version of my talk.

Five years ago I got my first smartphone and everything changed. I was in Paris on a day trip and I got lost, but instead of doing what I’d always done, which is walk around, try to work out where to go by following my instincts while surreptitiously staring at a map upside down and trying not to look like a tourist, I went straight to my phone, clicked on the map app and immediately located myself – right down to the direction I was facing in. I realised then that I’d never be able to get lost in a city again – or at least until I came up with the idea of an experimental social media walk for the Design Museum, in which I would try to get lost through the misguidance of complete strangers on Twitter.

But let me digress a little.

Getting lost is a valuable experience. Your senses are sharpened, you see more and remember more. I’m sure that getting lost sharpens the imagination – some might say that it’s only by getting lost that we can find ourselves or some such pseudo-psychogeographical bullshit – but my interests are more material. Getting lost is fun. It’s interesting. It’s a great way to explore a city and learn how it is put together.

When I was growing up I was terrified of getting lost in London. When I blogged about my typical Saturday trip as a teenager from the suburbs to London, I was surprised at how repetitive those day trips were, what a narrow furrow I ploughed. My friends and I were only interested in records, clothes and football fanzines, so we’d get the train to Victoria, then the tube to Covent Garden, walk up Neal Street, along Shaftesbury Avenue, up Charing Cross Road, along Oxford Street, down Berwick Street and back along Shaftesbury Avenue to Piccadilly Circus, stopping at various shops along the way. We did this week after week, never straying from these paths.

The other day, I was watching a TV documentary about the sengi, which is a sort of African elephant shrew, and it talked about how these rodents construct runs for themselves in the long grass. These pathways give them a sense of safety, of security, but they can also become a trap: when predators or bush fires arrive, the sengi can’t escape the routes they know so well.

That’s a bit like how I was in London.

That changed when I moved on to a boat in Lisson Grove and began to explore the surrounding streets, getting more familiar with the way London knitted together and using the towpath as a sort of guide rope like a mountain climber. This was partly a matter of circumstances – I had lots of time and little money, so it was cheap to walk and I could afford to take my time getting anywhere, following whatever route seemed most interesting and appropriate. This is what first gave me a sense of the scale of the city, and how endlessly fascinating it can be – the domestic architecture, the quirky shops, the street furniture, the plaques to people you’ve never heard of, the sudden squares – but mostly the curious nature of the topography, which is neither gridlike nor quirkily medieval but something in between, with loads of random curves and bends, making it very hard to navigate.

Later, I conducted more ambitious, planned walks. I walked from St Paul’s to Hampton Court, 26 miles along the river, criss-crossing bridges to stay on the Thames Path. I walked the course of the buried Effra from Gipsy Hill to Vauxhall with a dowser, who used a sort of oversized Allen key to trace the path of this ancient river and in the process got us thoroughly lost in a council estate in Stockwell during a snowstorm. Most memorably, I walked underground from King’s Cross to Blackfriars following the river Fleet with a pair of urban explorers, who spend their spare time breaking into drains.

Spring walks in London: river Effra

In more recent years, opportunities for walks have diminished and I’ve rarely got lost. That’s partly because of the tyranny of the smartphone. With a phone, you always know exactly where you are and the sugary appeal of the web makes it almost impossible to avoid clicking.

So when the Design Museum got in touch, I began to think about walking and technology and wondered whether the power of the smartphone could be harnessed for good: could I use the phone to help myself got lost? I conceived the idea of a walk that would be guided by social media. I’d take a starting pointing – which was obviously the Design Museum – and then ask my followers on Twitter where I should go: left, right or straight ahead. Every now and then I’d take a photograph but otherwise I wouldn’t reveal my location until the end.

The results were mixed. Part of the problem was one of integrity. Should I ask people directions at every single junction, or only ones that looked kind of interesting? I soon realised I couldn’t ask at every single junction, as there were so many of them, and some of them just took me straight back to where I’d come from, or to somewhere I already knew, or on to a long straight road with no end in sight. Conversely, sometimes I’d see a really interesting side street which I couldn’t explore because my followers didn’t send me down it.

Another problem was that my phone is quite old so has a tendency to crash. That meant I stood at a junction on Old Jamaica Road for about ten minutes turning the phone on and off and on and off and on.

The final problem was simply and fairly obviously that staring at a phone while walking, even if this is being done in the service of getting lost, makes it almost impossible to absorb the sights around you and relish the experience it’s all been designed for.

But I did enjoy the interaction with other people – occasionally I’d post a picture and those who recognised it would send me information about the building or street, tell me something interesting about the area, historically or personally. Others talked about doing similar experiments, sometimes in cars, with the passenger telling the driver to turn left or right at random. And while I didn’t get lost, there were definitely several occasions where I didn’t exactly know where I was, until twitter, rather brilliantly steered me back towards the river, which seemed a fitting place to end. The biggest surprise was that I only covered just over a mile in 45 minutes.

walk

There are other ways of getting lost or just exploring London in a more chaotic fashion. The members of the London Psychogeographical Association once explored Globe Town in Mile End using an old US Civil War battlefield map. Somebody once attempted to see how far they could travel from Trafalgar Square without ever crossing a road – he managed to go 17 miles before he began walking in circles somewhere in Hackney. Another acquaintance composed a series of walks that were both complex and rather beautifully simple – he’d walk from the first street beginning with A in the A-Z index to the last beginning with A, then do the same with every other letter in the alphabet.

I also recently discovered a book – Ways To Wander, which has a series of ideas about walking from writers and poets. I liked several especially No 26, which is a version of the twitter walk only using a wooden spoon. You take a spoon, throw it in the air, then walk in the direction it points until you hit a wall, when you do it again. Continue for as long as appropriate.

I quite like the lo-fi nature of that. Perhaps that’s the best way to get lost in London. Leave your phone at home, carry a wooden spoon, and wander.

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The nature of London: Clay by Melissa Harrison

‘It wasn’t much of a park, really, more a strip of land between the noisy high road and the flats… Despite its size and situation the strip of grass was beautiful – if you had the eyes to see. The Victorians had bequeathed it an imaginative collection of trees; not just the ubiquitous planes and sycamores, and not the easy-care lollipops of cherries either, but hornbeams, service trees, acacias and Turkey oaks with bristly acorn caps like little sea anemones. It was alive with squirrels, jays and wood mice, while in spring thrushes let off football rattles from the treetops, and every few summers stag beetles emerged to rear and fence and mate, and begin another perilous generation among the logs that were left to decay here and there by government decree.’

‘Clay’ by Melissa Harrison

Next to my computer is a small round stone my daughter brought to me from the garden. If I was to pick it up and throw it at the bookshelf, I could hit any of a dozen novels set in London,  all of which carefully detail the grimy, grey, green-free streets of the post-industrial capital. They could be set in Soho (‘Adrift in Soho’ by Colin Wilson) or Kennington (‘London Belongs To Me’ by Norman Collins), Bloomsbury (‘Scamp’ by Roland Camberton) or Bethnal Geen (‘King Dido’ by Alexander Baron). I love some of these books dearly (all of the above) while others I find unforgivably bad (er, ‘Saturday’ by Ian McEwan) but they all inhabit essentially the same milieu – a London of narrow streets and Victorian houses that block out the sky, paved streets, traffic, pubs, smoke and people. This is the written London, or at least the London most experienced by writers in London which they then transfer to the page at the exclusion of almost anything else.

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None of them, then, do what Melissa Harrison has done with ‘Clay’, which is write a novel about nature in London. The plot, a slight but melancholic meditation on freedom, is really just a MacGuffin for this, Harrison’s real heroine. There are a number of non-fiction books enthusing at the way trees, weeds, flowers, foxes and immigrant parakeets coexist alongside largely uninterested Londoners – try ‘The Unofficial Countryside’ by Richard Mabey or ‘Scrap’ by Nick Papadimitriou – but by placing nature so firmly in the foreground of her novel – and the book is rich with descriptions on each page of everything from pine cones and owl pellets poo  [Harrison tells me that owl pellets aren’t poo] to rain clouds and long grass –  Harrison has managed to achieve what every London fiction writer surely dreams of: she makes you look at the city around you with freshly opened eyes.

I am perhaps a little biased – and not just because I know Harrison through Twitter (where she introduced herself to me by announcing she’d varnished a duck). The book is set in a part of London that I know already, a park based on Rush  Common, a strange, thin, scraggy strip of parkland that follows Brixton Hill from St Matthew’s church down towards the prison. I’ve always thought it a scrawny, rather pointless piece of grass but through her characters – a small boy called TC, a Polish farmer called Jozef and a grandmother Sophia – Harrison shows how much life can be concealed a short walk from a traffic-clogged A road. It gives an unexpectedly life-affirming twist to an otherwise sad but beautiful book, that resonates far louder than its slim size would suggest. Is it a new London genre? It’s certainly a welcome change from the norm, though I doubt whether many other writers would have the knowledge, passion and skill to recreate it so impressively.

The perfect sentence

‘She caught me jacking off on uppers the night RFK got shot.’

While this may not be the perfect sentence, it’s certainly James Ellroy’s, encapsulating all of that writer’s thematic obsessions and stylistic tics – sex, death, drugs, fame and shame – in twelve words and 16 syllables. Just think how good he’d be at Twitter.

It appears in his latest book, ‘The Hilliker Curse’, a flawed but fascinating memoir, and it could stand for every other line written by this flawed but fascinating man.

And it got me thinking. Do other writers have a single sentence that can be used to blithely summarise their entire output?

Perhaps Orwell’s famous, ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen’ for the crisp prose and sense of the familiar, subtly wronged.

Or Wodehouse’s, ‘Ice formed on the butler’s upper slopes.’

Or Cormac McCarthy’s, from ‘Blood Meridian’, ‘They crossed before the sun and vanished one by one and reappeared again and they were black in the sun and they rode out of that vanished sea like burnt phantoms with the legs of the animals kicking up the spume that was not real and they were lost in the sun and lost in the lake and they shimmered and slurred together and separated again and they augmented by planes in lurid avatars and began to coalesce and there began to appear above them in the dawn-broached sky a hellish likeness of their ranks riding huge and inverted and the horses’ legs incredibly elongate trampling down the high thin cirrus and the howling antiwarriors pendant from their mounts immense and chimeric and the high wild cries carrying that flat and barren pan like the cries of souls broke through some misweave in the weft of things into the world below.’

Well, nobody said it had to be concise.

Secret London: the riddle of the Farringdon spoons

I first saw these spoons several years ago stuck on a wall in a miserable stairwell under Farringdon Road near Mount Pleasant. Nobody seemed to know anything about them or where they came from – the only reference I could find is a passing mention in this interview with the Greenwich Phantom on Londonist.  

I walked past them again the other day and tweeted about them. An answer came back within half-an-hour (from @mrrylln), who said: ‘They have been up there for about 10 years. The stairs were used by heroin addicts a lot… hence the spoon H-shrine.’

Not the most romantic of explanations, but an explanation all the same. Chalk up another one to Twitter.