Category Archives: Whimsy

Time among the bargees

On my latest blog for the Canal & River Trust, I wrestled with the contradiction of time when living aboard a vessel geared towards slowness but where there is always something to do. You can read it on the excellent Waterfront blog, and I’ve also reproduced an edited version below.

Canals slow time. That’s the impression you get when travelling aboard a boat, or while lingering on a towpath watching boats trundle past, leaving behind the fading ghost of a wake like the dissolving grin of a Cheshire Cat. When you are around a canal, the world seems to breathe more slowly and time hangs heavy in the air. This sense of slowness is built into the very fabric of the canal system. Boats move leisurely, on water that dawdles, through canals that took decades to build, alongside towpaths where no trace of the car can be detected. Stillness is everything and it is everywhere. No wonder the passage of time seems to dwindle to a stroll.

Yet within this, there is also a glorious contradiction – one that defines other facets of the canal experience. Canals slow time but they also made the world faster. The canal is among the slowest forms of transport imaginable. The official speed limit is an ambitious 4mph – most barges would lose a race to a sugared-up toddler on a scooter – but it was also, at its inception, one of the most advanced instruments of the industrial revolution, something that brought the veneration of speed into the modern world. When the canals were built, boats could move no faster than the horses that pulled them, but they were also a drastic and sudden lurch towards the future, introducing the mass transportation and long-distance inter-connectivity that would ultimately reinvent the country by making a god of speed following the arrival of the steam engine. That’s what you’re getting with a canal. On the surface they are sluggish, but with them came vast societal changes that were rooted in an onrushing lust for ever-increasing velocity, a desperation to get beyond the present.

Speed is addictive, but so is the clock-stopping slowness of canal life. It’s partly because the slowness is all-embracing, transforming your perception of the world around you and placing you in an enveloping bubble where time doesn’t matter or exist. It’s in the placidity of the water, it’s in the pace of movement when you travel and it’s in the fact that you are segregated from roads, where the rapidity of cars brings guilt and context. On a boat, nothing happens faster than walking pace.

There’s another contradiction at play here. The boating lifestyle would seem to make a virtue of loafing, but on a boat there is always something to do. There are the tedious chores of everyday existence, from cooking and cleaning to laundry and washing up. There are those DIY tasks you never quite get round to completing but which are harder to avoid on a boat, where every inch of space is vital and every irritant multiplied accordingly. And there are the boat specific jobs, the rivets that hold it all together – the filling of water tanks and coal scuttles, the cleaning and setting of stoves, the changing of gas canisters. This is what occasional boater Jerome K Jerome was thinking about when he wrote Idle Thoughts Of An Idle Fellow. “It is impossible to enjoy idling thoroughly unless one has plenty of work to do,” he said. “There is no fun in doing nothing when you have nothing to do.”

On a boat, endless peace and eternal activity sit side by side, a paradox that reflects the dislocating but therapeutic experience that comes from living in a pre-industrial time capsule that prompted the Industrial Revolution. Some researchers feel there are genuine psychological benefits to be had in this combination of water and slowness and canal boats also relate to the concept of ‘slow travel’, which celebrates travel over arrival.

That notion is embedded into the way canals operate so when BBC 4 announced a Slow TV season it made sense for this to feature a two-hour boat trip along the Kennet & Avon Canal broadcast in real time. When screened in May 2015, the programme drew an audience that was double BBC4’s usual viewing figures. All this, for what was little more than a camera stuck to the front of a boat. There was no commentary, no cutting, no music, no presenters, no Prunella Scales and Timothy West – just the occasional box of written text to highlight points of interest along the journey. It was a restful alternative to the typical television experience and a perfect reflection of what travelling by boat is like, without the stress of having to navigate locks or steer the thing yourself. This is life on a boat. It slows time. So calm down and drift.

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Graham Taylor: City slicker, ballet lover

Graham Taylor, who has died aged 72, is the single nicest famous person I have ever interviewed. I met him in a City boardroom, where he was doing risk analysis for somebody who was about to buy a football club. It was a pretty unlikely location, but the conversation was even odder. Taylor had just given a talk to Dance East about leadership, and we were there to talk about ballet.

I had no great expectations of the encounter, but I’ve never forgotten it. There was, from the start, a complete lack of front mixed with gentle humour. “People think I’m retired from football,” he said. “But I haven’t. I’ve just retired from football management and that ought to please them enough.”

As he talked about ballet, something else came through, a genuine love and admiration for dancing that he expressed in completely unguarded fashion, something that seemed so strange and wonderful for a man of his age and background. I’ll always remember one quote he delivered, for the way he spoke as much as what he said. It came with a naivety or openness that was rather beautiful. “I’m no expert,” he said. “But Carlos Acosta and Tamara Rojo at Covent Garden, when they dance in Romeo And Juliet, I would deny anybody, anybody, to tell me they don’t know what passionate unbridled love is. I’m not saying I shed any tears, but boy was I close.”

He talked thoughtfully about the differences and similarities between ballet and football, offering his perspective as a player, manager and fan. He was decent, interesting and normal, but what was most remarkable given his previous experiences with the press was that there was none of the usual sense of distancing performance you get in interviews, whether it’s with a film star in a hotel suite or a caramelised peanut seller being vox popped on Oxford Street. Everybody is always aware they are being interviewed, and they always react ever so slightly to the situation, almost placing themselves outside the experience as if they were observing and monitoring their own responses. This separation of reality and performance can be fractional, but it’s happened with everybody I’ve ever interviewed, even close friends. It’s an entirely natural defence mechanism, and one that I have grown so used to I notice it only subconsciously.

Taylor, astonishingly for a man who had been treated so viciously by journalists in the past, had none of this. There was no distance, no performance, no separation, no judgement. It was just him.

After the interview, he walked with me to the nearest station rather than waiting for me to disappear as pretty much any other interviewees would do. Again, it was a simple moment of niceness I’ve never forgotten. We talked about Didier Drogba all the way to Blackfriars station, before heading our separate ways on the District Line.

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On the buses: the first ten routes

Recently, I’ve read a couple of good stories about London bus nuts. There was one on City Metric about the nice German bloke who wants to travel every route and another in Guardian Cities about the guy who wants to ride 200 in 24 hours – though as he only has to ride one stop on each, I’m not all that convinced.

This got me thinking about my own bus travelling endeavours. It began while I was dozing through a meeting on the eighth floor at Time Out, Tottenham Court Road. We were brainstorming ideas for the section I edited, The Big Smoke, and increasingly aware of my own non-contributory silence, I suddenly found myself picking up a thread. Somebody had suggested, I think, doing a piece about the towns at the ends of every tube line, but my brain decided to take this basic concept several steps further, from the realm of the relatively sane into that frightening place where logic, stupidity and over-ambition combine.

“Why don’t I take every bus in London?”

“In numerical order.”

“End to end.”

The fear hit me straightaway. What had I just said? Why had I said it? But Gordon, our voluble editor, was the sort of man who liked to greenlight six impossible ideas before breakfast, and he was enthusiastically in favour. There was no going back on this: On The Buses was born. Every week, armed with a camera, notepad, pen, all-in-one transport map and the desperation of a man with a large hole in his flatplan, I’d leave my colleagues and trot off to some godforsaken corner of London to catch a bus that would take me to some other godforsaken corner of London, where I’d then find the only way to get back to civilisation was via the bus I’d just got off.

In the end, I chose to embrace the reality of my bus-travelling future. There were positives here, I told myself. I could get to see parts of London I’d never usually visit, and as a writer it was an interesting challenge, having to write what was essentially the same column every week while keeping it fresh and amusing. You don’t realise quite how many buses go through Trafalgar Square or Oxford Circus until you decided to write about every single one of them.

I also thought that in difficult times for the print trade this was a handy insurance against the sack: there were several hundred routes in London and surely they couldn’t get rid of me until I’d finished them all?

More fool me. A year or so later, Gordon was replaced by another editor, a man who I’d guess has never ridden a bus in his life and simply didn’t understand why anybody would be interested in such hideous things when you could simply get the BBC to hire you a cab to whisk you from the TV studio to Primrose Hill. We were rarely on the same wavelength, and in one of our first meetings he asked how many bus routes I still had to do. About 650 I told him. ‘I was worried you might say that,’ he replied. Like a man waiting for the No 68 on Herne Hill and spying the X68 coming up the road, I knew precisely what horrors lay ahead.

In a bid to shore up my position  – or possibly I was just being provocative – I then wrote a long feature about other bus enthusiasts. Early in my journeys, I’d received a letter from a woman who was also riding every bus and then during one idle afternoon in the Time Out library, I’d discovered an old bus column written by Alexei Sayle. Clearly there was both a history and a present here; it was living heritage. Exploring the internet further, I discovered there were several of us, including several retirees, plus a lovely bloke called Ben, and an artist, doing a project. Look, I was telling the editor: we are a tribe. We are on trend. People really do like buses.

It made no difference. Within weeks, the column was axed. Within months, I was too. The bus dream was over, and I’d barely made it into the 60s.

For those who care, here are the first ten On The Buses. More available on request.

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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.

Park football

I recently played my first football match for about a decade, so thought it would be a good time to revisit this article, which originally appeared in the Independent On Sunday in around 2003. This is an edited version.

“Can we join your game?”

It’s an action stopper every time. The match shudders to a halt as everybody sizes up the newcomers, two lads in Italy shirts with heavily accented English working their way round Regent’s Park like free transfers looking for a kickabout.

“Can we join your game?”

Well, it’s not as simple as that lads. This might look like two dog-eared teams in mismatched shirts puffily chasing a flaccid ball over a softball pitch, but it’s actually an evenly tied humdinger, a finely poised 4-4. Pick the wrong Italian, and that satisfyingly tight and edgy tie could turn into a 10-4 romp. And who wants that?

Welcome to the world of park football, when London’s green spaces become a mass of under-athletic over-enthusiasm. Just after 7pm, gangs of kids and grown-ups who should know better mob up at tube stations – Regent’s Park, Hyde Park Corner, Marble Arch, Clapham Common – and descend upon the nearby park to seek their pitch. Bags become goalposts, talents are weighted and teams carefully picked, and, after token warm-up, the game is on.

And what a game. Pitches are warped, with non-existent boundaries so that the keenest players will go haring off after the ball into the far distance; fouls are rare, with every physical challenge followed by an apology; headers are met with open mouths and closed eyes; teams are mixed in race, sex, size, language and ability. The only unifying factor is that everybody is playing for the hell of it. It’s fun.

This can change when you find yourselves a couple of players short for a decent game among yourselves. You need at least four-a-side for a proper match, so if only seven of you have turned up there are two options. Rope in a pair of eager passing Italians to make up the numbers, or – more thrillingly – challenge another group short on numbers playing elsewhere in the park.

Possible match-up are scrutinised and whispered conferences abound: what about them, they look crap. Don’t ask that lot, they’re wearing shinpads. Check them out, they’re all in Tottenham shirts – they must be rubbish. Eventually the challenge is thrown down, considered, debated, accepted, and the teams line up. At first it is tentative, nervy, almost polite, as you test each other out, softly sparring like virgin boxers. Then your opponents realise how crap you are, and thrash you 9-0.

In these circumstances, there are only two ways to lose: to some awesomely gifted foreign language students who score countless goals of great beauty and raise your spirits with their relentless exuberance; or to some ultra-competitive English accountants who celebrate each methodical goal with high fives and crush your spirit with their relentless commitment.

Indeed, it is almost terrifying how many cultural stereotypes are encountered on these pitches; stocky, tricky southern Americans who want to beat half-a-dozen players before scoring; willing but limited Scots; talented but retiring east Europeans; willing but limited English; pass-heavy Spaniards; clueless Australians playing rugby. All are represented on this uneven playing field.

Here young and old, black and white, join together to bond in unexpected teams. And, most tellingly, here are the Asian footballers that we are told do not exist, playing huge, joyful, eager games and raising the question why no player from the subcontinent has yet broken through to play top level professional football in this country. Well, they’re out there, in London parks, having fun with us and wondering why their role models all play cricket.

“In winter, we hibernated”: Christmas on a London canal

I wrote this piece for the Canals & River Trust about winter when I used to live on a canal boat in London.

Everybody has a dream. For London cabbies, it’s ‘riding the green wave’ – that is, to hit only green lights when driving along the Euston Road, surfing the inner city highway entirely unhindered by reds and ambers. For boat dwellers, the dream was a little different: we wanted to ride the red arc, to light a fire at the start of winter that would keep burning until spring, a constant five-month blaze that required no further feeding from firelighters or matches.

I’m not sure anybody managed it. There were rumours about the more calloused boaters, the ones who could measure out their boat life by the decade and bled pure diesel. I know I didn’t. Far from it. For the first few years I lived on my narrowboat at Lisson Grove, I could barely keep a fire alight for a single night. I blame it on my stove, a gargantuan pot-bellied top-loader that was far too big for my tiny boat and practically impossible to control no matter how diligently I layered firelighters, kindling, newspaper and coal, or fiddled with the grate, trying by fractions of an inch to get the perfect draft. Instead, it would burn ferociously hot, so much so that if I wished to sleep amid the inferno I would have to fling open the back and front doors no matter what the weather outside. Invariably, I’d wake icily at 3am to find the fire burnt out, and bury myself in blankets until dawn. A cold boat was not a pleasant place to spend the morning; often I’d have to break the ice that formed in the sink overnight.

Later, I acquired a more controllable stove and would pride myself on keeping it burning for weeks at a time. This allowed me to appreciate the smothering splendour of boat life in winter. For half the year, living on the canal was an outdoors and sociable affair. This was partly a matter of comfort. Boats are largely made of glass and metal, so get very hot very quickly. It’s like living in a car. To combat this, doors were always open and much time was spent on deck, gossiping with neighbours. This easy familiarity would lead to impromptu barbeques that became boozy weekends, with individuals dropping in and out as the mood struck but the essential body of the party remaining intact from Friday evening to Sunday night.

Then in winter, we hibernated. Returning in the evening gloom, even before you reached the canal, you’d catch the homely smell of smoking coal. The towpath would be still, and on every boat, doors and curtains would be closed against the cold, chimneys puffing cheerily away. While summer was a buzz of conversation, hailed hellos and clinking bottles, the sound of winter was the stolid rattle of a coal scuttle being filled. We still visited each other, enjoying wine and warmth and admiring our neighbours’ stove-lighting technique, perhaps exchanging views on the best type of coal to use. But this was an altogether more internal time, drowsy days spent deep within the boat, and, as winter peaked, in contemplation of the view outside. Almost every year the slow-moving canal would freeze grey-white, startling, beautiful, and so close at hand it felt as if your boat had moved overnight to another planet. This virgin layer of ice would gradually get more battle-scarred as the kids from the local estate attempted to smash the surface with increasingly oversized objects, graduating from stones to bricks, until with inevitable surrealism, you’d wake to find a shopping trolley embedded in the ice.

Although our winters were essentially insular they were not entirely so. Many boaters spent Christmas Day on the canal, staggering sociably from boat to boat, admiring each tiny decorated fir and fairy lights slung along gunwales. And, for the Millennium, we held a party every bit as spectacular as any summer barbeque, watching the Thames fireworks from Primrose Hill and spending four solid days carousing, before, one by one, we slipped away, to see out the rest of winter from the cosy comfort of our floating dens.

New London writing, or What the fuck is psychogeography anyway?

I don’t think anybody, with the possible exception of Will Self, really knows what psychogeography means but that doesn’t mean there’s not a lot of it about. For years, the London writing landscape has been dominated by three masters of the genre, the Ackroyd-Sinclair-Self trinity (in this interview, Self distinguishes between their different approaches) – it’s hard to find a book in the Museum Of London bookshop that doesn’t have an intro penned by one of them – but that is starting to change. In the past year or so, three books have been written by debutant writers that take a broadly psychogeographical approach – you can tell this by the use of words like ‘palimpsest’ and liminal’ –  to the city or patches thereof but are happy to present it in a more approachable, less LRB-approved style.

The man above is Nick Papadimitriou, and his Scarp is the most Sinclairian of the three, written by a man obsessed with a small parcel of land on the city’s northern border. ‘I’m trying to get below the surface into something that’s moving in my mind as much as in the landscape,’ he says, which doesn’t say a great deal and is therefore as neat a summary of his obscure methodology as you are likely to find. Scarp is a wonderful book, a brilliantly obsessive and beautifully observed celebration of the meditative quality of what Papadimitriou calls deep topography and the rest of us know as walking. It’s also classic psychogeography in that you read it in the knowledge that a significant proportion of the theorising is total codswallop, but at least it is entertaining codswallop, an intriguing combination of the occult and broad generalisations about place drawn from a tiny physical space.

Next up in This Other London by John Rogers, a lighter but similarly intentioned account of ten walks – ‘a plunge into the unknown’ – around fairly random parts of London that were previously just strange names on old maps to the author, a film-maker and good egg. Rogers has none of the astonishing familiarity with his territory as Papadimitriou and he makes a virtue of this, imbuing the book with the joy of new discovery. It is, as a friend noted, a salute to the rewards of simple rambling, of going somewhere unusual and just strolling, or flaneuring to use the specific vernacular of psychogeography. As an alternative guide to London walks – or an inspiration to do the same yourself – it is a marvel.

Finally, came Gareth Rees‘s Marshland, hallucinatory, speculative non-fiction about the marshes of Hackney and Walthamstow that combines Scarp‘s deep knowledge about a specific locality with the dry wit and accessibility of This Other Land. Again, Rees is fond of that psychogeographical turn of phrase – ‘There is no final draft of London’, being a particularly fine example – but laces it with humour as he explores this odd landscape of rave holes, filter beds, football pitches and reservoirs (and a fascinating landscape it is too), mixing in a bit of fiction and even offering an audio soundtrack. Rees has a tremendous, natural, written voice and the book fairly skips along. I loved it.

All three books are a lot of fun and that is the great, dirty, secret of psychogeographical writing – it is hilariously fun to do as you train your brain to make grandiose statements about people, place and history that you are fairly sure won’t stand up to any great inquisition but look fucking brilliant on paper. Bill Drummond’s neat summary of psychogeography is perfect – ‘An intellectual justification for what I have been doing most of my life’.

I do not consider myself to be a psychogeographical writer (and here I express some of my dislike of it), but that’s not to say I’ve never indulged in it myself of occasion (as here, when writing about Wappingness), particularly when asked to do so by property developers, who seem to love this style of writing as a way to signify their deeper engagement with the city they are hoping to exploit.

By my experience then, psychogeography is used as much to shift property as it is to expand and combine the frontiers of space and mind, which is perhaps inevitable in London, where any amount of folklore and fauna only really has any value if it can be seen to have a positive effect on land prices. I’m not entirely sure that this is what Guy Debord was hoping for when he first conceived his theory, but given that he’s long gone there’s not a great deal he can do about it.

Situationists at the Sailors' Society in London during the 4th Conference of the Situationist International. Those assembled included (from l. to r.): Attila Kotányi, Hans-Peter Zimmer, Heimrad Prem, Asger Jorn (covered), Jørgen Nash (front), Maurice Wyckaert, Guy Debord, Helmut Sturm, and Jacqueline de Jong. To ensure that the proceedings were kept away from any contact with artistic circles or London newspapers, the conference took place in Limehouse, "a district renowned for its criminals."

Guy Debord’s Situationists in Limehouse, in search of Wappingness and investment opportunities.

Phyllis Pearsall and searching for truth in the A-Z

I’ve written before about the urban legend surrounding Phyllis Pearsall, and her oft-repeated claims that she created the A-Z by walking every inch of London streets even though she could have just picked up the London street atlas created by her father, Alexander Gross, a few years before.

Pearsall related how she single-handedly created the A-Z in a pair of self-published unreliable memoirs and this became the definitive account after the publication of this biography. The story of Pearsall’s life has now been made into a musical, The A-Z Of Mrs P, at Southwark Playhouse.

The veracity of Pearsall’s claims is robustly challenged by her half-brother, Alex Gross, who has created a website dedicated to establishing the truth behind the creation of the A-Z and the key role played in it by his and Pearsall’s father, Alexander Gross. The image below comes from Gross’s map and show how much it looks like the A-Z. An excellent comparison of the two maps can be found in Peter Barber’s London: A History In Maps.

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A summary of Gross’s argument can be found here. Gross is hugely critical of the story Pearsall created. He is adamant that Pearsall was operating at the direction of her father to update his already existing London street atlas and is dismissive of her claims that she walked the streets for 18 hours herself, or delivered early copies of the A-Z herself by wheelbarrow. I have no way of telling whether Gross is accurate in his own recollections, but I know that his skepticism towards Pearsall’s claims are shared by Peter Barber, who is head of the map collection at the British Library.

Gross is scathing about Sarah Hartley’s book on Pearsall, Mrs P’s Journey, claiming it has more in common with ‘chick lit’ than it does biography (never having read either ‘chick lit’ or Hartley’s book, I cannot pass opinion on this). Gross also casts a withering eye over Pearsall’s own books about her life in great detail. There is also considerable biographical material on Gross’s relationship with both his father and half-sister, later describing her as ‘urbane, witty, and utterly personifying the spirit of the English eccentric’, something that goes a long way towards explaining why her version of history has been so widely embraced by the British public.

Know London

City-lit London

This is an edited extract of an introduction I wrote for City-Lit London, a superb anthology of London writing, from 2009.

I don’t really know London. This despite having lived and worked within the collar of the M25 for my entire life, something that is simultaneously a source of great pride and creeping shame. I’ve explored it, sure. I’ve gazed down at dawn on drowsy Londoners from atop a thirteenth-century church tower in Hackney. I’ve listened to the hum of traffic passing overhead from deep within the buried Fleet River beneath Holborn Circus. I’ve walked the Thames one Sunday afternoon from St Paul’s to Hampton Court, been to the end of more than half the tube lines, sniffed Billingsgate Market’s early-morning buzz and fed the black-tongued giraffes at London Zoo. I’ve even travelled every bus from 1 to 50 in numerical order, a task that’s taken me to every point of the compass from Debden in the north-east to Fullwell in the south-west (no, I’d never heard of them before I started, either). But I still don’t know London. Not really. There are vast tracts of its urban geography that are a total mystery to me, a no-man’s land, vacant lots, blank space in my internal A-Z.

This is not an unusual condition. Indeed, it might even be a necessity for living a sane, balanced London life because most of the city’s residents seem to suffer from it, some quite contentedly, perfectly happy to stay within the few square miles where they live and the West End where they work. This could be because there is simply too much London to handle ― too many streets, too many people, too much history, too many inconsistencies. The London cabby, scientists say, has developed a larger-than-average hippocampus ― the part of the brain that processes navigation – simply to cope with all the information. One of them, Fred Housego, even won ‘Mastermind’ in 1980.

Most of us don’t even try to deal with all this geographical sludge. In Soft City, Jonathan Raban’s charismatic study of the modern city from 1974, he noted: ‘The Greater London Council is responsible for a sprawl shaped like a rugby ball about twenty-five miles long and twenty miles wide; my London is a concise kidney-shaped patch within that space, in which no point is more than seven miles from any other… I hardly ever trespass beyond those limits, and when I do, I feel I’m in foreign territory, a landscape of hazard and rumour. Like any tribesman hedging himself in behind a stockade of taboos, I mark my boundaries with graveyards, terminal transportation points and wildernesses. Beyond them, nothing is to be trusted and anything might happen.’

This is a common way of behaving, retreating within self-imposed borders and putting up the fences to the darkness on the other side. It’s captured by Tarquin Hall’s passage from Salaam Brick Lane and the stark single-line confession: ‘Most of London, the city of my birth, was as foreign to me as Prague’. The bard of Cricklewood, Alan Coren, explored a related theme in typically whimsical fashion in which he imagined his intended tour of all the London landmarks he has never actually visited – the Tower of London the Monument and the Serpentine — having decided to leave that sort of thing to the tourists.

No wonder and no shame. If you’re born in Harrow, what should you understand of Harlow? If you live near Crystal Palace park, why would you need to know Hampstead Heath? How many Londoners have ever toured the Houses of Parliament or been into the Whispering Gallery of St Paul’s? The greatest area of neglect is the City — if you don’t work within that glorious square mile that contains all history from the Romans to the Credit Crunch why would you ever have a reason to go there? Londoners leave it to tourists and bankers.

And then there are the contradictions. This is the city that features some of the wealthiest real estate within some of the most deprived boroughs in the United Kingdom; the city whose ships helped spread English around the world but is now home to more than 250 different languages and has schools where the native tongue is barely spoken; the city that when called upon to appoint a new mayor, replaced a left-wing, working-class, car-hating socialist with a right-wing, public-school educated, neo-Thatcherite motoring correspondent, two iconoclasts who seemed to have nothing in common bar a quick wit and mutual contempt for orthodoxy. Who can get their head round that?

So, how can you learn to master this metropolis, the first great city of the modern age and still the world leader in art and commerce? Well, you could follow in the footsteps of Phyllis Pearsall, the creator of the single greatest London book – and one that is understandably omitted from this anthology – the A-Z. In the 1930s, Pearsall claimed to have walked every one of London’s 23,000 streets – that’s around 3,000 miles of serious perambulation – in her determination to produce the most comprehensive map of London that is humanly possible. It’s almost certainly an urban myth, but the conceit is admirable.

Alternatively, you could save on leatherwear and consult some of the other classics of London literature, those writers who have made it their business to understand the city, or at least their particular patch of it. After all, will anybody ever show off Soho like Colin McInnes, or capture Camden like David Thomson? Virginia Woolf’s West End is so beautifully developed, so perfectly drawn, so hyper-real, it almost dwarfs the genuine article. And Monica Ali’s Brick Lane places it as firmly on the tourist map as Big Ben and the Wheel, so you can tell yourself that there really isn’t any need to check it out for yourself.

London books allow you to travel in time as well as space. McInnes’s Soho is the good one, the one we’ve all heard about from the 1950s, when it was still raw, neon-lit, jazz-fuelled and edgy rather than a shallow cluster of over-priced restaurants and drunken daytrippers wondering where all the loucheness has gone (it’s still there, just, in secret drinking clubs and members’ bars hidden behind nameless Georgian façades). And Thomson’s Camden is one on the verge of massive change, a working-class district of pubs and markets that is about to experience the first invasion by the middle-classes that will recondition the area beyond all recognition, setting off a chain reaction of gentrification around London’s inner suburbs from Notting Hill to Islington. For those of us who only know these places in their current incarnation, this stuff has an extraordinary archaeological value that their authors could never have intended, like the background of family photographs that show furniture and fittings everybody forgot about long ago because they never bothered to record them.

But that’s not to say things were so much better in the old says. Indeed, one of the most important things about this volume is that it emphasises the current prodigious strength of London writing. Yes, there’s Dickens and Woolf and Conrad and Wilde and Conan Doyle – as there should be – but there’s also Ackroyd and Sinclair and Self, the titanic trinity of contemporary London writing. Since the 1980s they have done more to resurrect the concept of London writing as a standalone genre than anybody since the Victorians, when London, the New Jerusalem, was seen to embody the contradictory values of Empire and became a rich source of fiction and journalism. They have encouraged the rediscovery of some of the lost classics of London literature and fostered the climate in which anthologies like this one can flourish. In their wake, modern classics have followed, from Justin Cartwright’s snappy satirical novel Look At It This Way to Sukhdev Sandhu’s invaluable nocturnal jaunts into the belly of sleeping London in Night Haunts. This regained respect for London writing also allows the voice of the new Londoner to be heard — the 27.1 per cent of the population that the 2001 census considered to be non-native-born ― through authors such as Xiaolu Guo, with her faux-naïve extracts from A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers. In Rebecca Taylor’s ‘London Lives’ we even meet one of these recent arrivals in the form of a young brother and sister who travel to London from Poland to begin their new lives, part of the huge wave of Eastern European immigration that has transformed the city in recent years.

It is authors from this final category who could provide some of the finest and boldest London writing of the twenty-first century, because they will come to the city with a fresh mind and open eye, prepared to live and work in those parts of London that are closed by personal choice to most natives. None of them, of course, will ever really get on top of London, even if they choose to stay here for the rest of their lives — but every little bit helps. And if you put all the fragments together, you may one day get something close to the full picture, the London that we all love, even if it’s not the one we know.

The South will rise again: trivial recruits needed

I have agreed to captain a South London team in Londonist‘s Londoner Challenge at the Museum of London.

To spare me complete humiliation at the hands of teams from the North, East and West, please apply to join my team so the South can come an apologetic third. Details here.