Archive | May, 2012

Hangover Square Revisited

29 May

Walking in Circles, Part 1: North Woolwich to Grove Park

21 May

On Sunday, Ferdy and I walked the first leg of the Capital Ring, an officially sanctioned trail that circumlocutes Inner London like a large and slightly jagged biscuit tin (well how else do you think I drew the circle on the map?).

The keen-eyed among you may remember my account of our walk to the mouth of the Lea back in March; I perhaps didn’t stress it enough at the time, but it was one of the best London adventures I’ve ever had. Considering I’m easily entertained enough to call a trip to the offie at the top of my street an ‘adventure’, that really is saying something, though I’m not sure what. Anyway, on that trip, we were following nothing but a geographical feature- a river, obviously- and ignoring any restriction put in our way. We even got shouted at by some Welsh guy for trespassing. I don’t think he could’ve cared less, but throwing one’s weight around from time to time is always quite satisfying.

My point is that when we decided to follow a (very long) designated path, we had to come up with a reason why we weren’t thinking for ourselves, jerking one out in the name of psychogeography. I thus had to invent a few:

1) To superimpose something so inherently logical as a circle (or something approaching one) over a terrain as defiantly illogical as that of London seemed an idea too weird not to experience first hand, particularly as it skirted the fluid border between the decay of the outer-inner city and the edgy gentility of the innermost suburbs. Our progression on the first day did indeed defy all notions of rational urban planning bar the retrospectively-defined Capital Ring scheme itself.

2) I can’t speak for Ferdy here, but I am an extraordinarily intellectually lazy individual. If something isn’t planned out for me, then however inflated my delusions of grandeur, I just can’t be arsed. I sit at home and think about lentils and The Bee Gees. I am as of last week unemployed, a status which I am currently relishing. That said, I’m terrified of stasis; the last time I found myself with six months to kill, I did exactly that until I hit upon a plan to walk the course of London’s Underground network. No great gains in the field of research were made, but I nonetheless got at least a bit of exercise. For the moment, having a strategy- even if it’s someone else’s- is an incentive to get out of the house.

3) Prior to 1990, when the Capital Ring was first laid out, our route would have seemed near-completely arbitrary. Prior to 1919, it would have been read as the path of a lunatic. This appeals to me enormously. The Capital Ring defies all logic but its own- and what could be more London than that?

Will this do? I hear total silence (bar C’est Chic in the background), so I’ll begin:

We arrived at George V DLR station, which I had never before visited, in blazing sunshine. It soon became apparent that this most grandiosely-monikered of railway stops bore little resemblance to its Paris Métro namesake: like much of the London Borough of Newham, the residential area that surrounds it seemed to have been constructed in great haste, with little thought as to the people who were going to one day inhabit it. After twenty minutes or so of walking in circles, a guy in a black suit asked us if we had two minutes to talk about Jesus: we said we didn’t, but we would like to know how to get to the Woolwich foot tunnel. Realising we were bound for hell, he pointed us in the right direction, and also alerted us to some very sinister satellite dishes. Could these be anything to do with the “giant sonic weapon” the military were planning to deploy on the Thames during the Olympic Game, I wondered til Ferdy told me to stop being a cock and help him find the tunnel entrance.

London is a big place; that much is obvious, but through the routes we use every day, it’s easy to forget quite how big. It was only after crossing under the Thames through the recently-reopened Woolwich foot tunnel and emerging in the South that we started to understand the enormity of path’s span. We trudged down Woolwich Church Street before breaking off into Maryon Park for a sandwich and a re-enactment of that scene from Antonioni’s Blowup

I used to live five minutes away from the extraordinary parc des Buttes-Chaumont in Northeastern Paris, and something of Maryon Park’s sculpted and manicured wilderness reminded me of it like no other place I’ve ever been to in London. According to Patrick Keiller, André Breton used to organise surrealist outings to the Buttes-Chaumont, and I can sort of imagine neo-psychedelicists converging on Maryon Park for similar purposes (whatever they might be); from the barren main drag in Woolwich such a sealed-off environment was practically unimaginable, and its hills and craters- far from acting as reminders of some long-forgotten industrial past- only serve alienate the park yet further from its peripheral urban context.

If my writing here seems even more quasi-academic and onanistic than usual, I think I can attribute the excess pomposity to the fact that I recently read Michel de Certeau’s 1980 theoretical work L’Invention du quotidien, 1. Arts de faire, an ultra-convuluted maze of critical navel-gazing and systematic paranoia. In its most famous chapter, Marches dans la ville, de Certeau gives us a foucauldian formula of what it is to walk in the city- namely, a consistent war of attrition between the ‘strategies’ superimposed onto the urban topography by planners and civil institutions and the ‘tactics’ that the (preferably Catholic, white, middle-aged and male) stroller adopts whether wittingly or not to circumvent them. In a sense, de Certeau’s theory is an atypically positive manifestation of 1970s-style conspiracy theorising; the Us v. (the invisible) Them paranoia is present and correct, but his ideas of constructive disobedience propose an-all too rare counterpoint to popular theories of subliminal ‘Soft Power’. My gut feeling was to avoid mentioning Marches dans la ville or indeed any other loony conspiracy text at all cost; as de Certeau would have it, though, somebody else’s strategy had thrown us right into the mise-en-scène of the daddy of paranoiac European cinema.

Walking through this soon-to-be-gentrified clearing, I half expected a young David Hemmings to jump out of the bushes and start harrassing us. Even the place names on this first leg of our circuit seemed to suggest some connection to mystery and probable intrigue; Severndroog Castle, Falcon Wood, Shooters Hill: familiar- dull, even- to any resident of this part of South East London, but for us, upper-middle class tourists reading fantasy into maps and signposts, it was a promise of exoticism unknown (or at least long-since lost) to our respective neighbourhoods of Brixton and West Brompton.

Incredibly, though, some of the landmarks did live up to their colourful names. Severndroog Castle, is an 18th Century folly erected to commemorate the bombardment of Suvarndurg in Maharashtra, India. The somewhat bizarre anglicisation of the name is retrospectively rather unfortunate given nearby Thamesmead’s starring role as the home of chief Droog Alex in Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange: I imagine few visitors to this dilapidated castle will be able to resist picturing it as a likely spot for ‘a bit of the old ultraviolence’. Brrr.

‘Are we hippies?’ Ferdy asked, with more than a hint of desperation as to the utter pointlessness of our trip. I didn’t know- but we did look pretty weird, dressed as we were in Swedish Army surplus jackets, louche white shirts and standard-issue skinny jeans. The uniform was, I should add, unintentional.

Oxleas Wood, in which Severndroog Castle is situated, put me in mind of another Parisian locale, this time the parc de Belleville, just to the south of where I used to live. Little staircases work their way up and down Shooters Hill, and the seldom-remarked altitude of London’s bottom-right quarter suddenly makes itself apparent. You can see out to Kent from here- and it still seems a very, very, long distance away from where you’re standing, let alone from the obelisks of Canary Wharf and the City, just visible in the other direction. I can somehow imagine the people at Foxtons reading this and embarking on a campaign to turn North Eltham into the “Paris of the South East”. Throw in the Crystal Palace transmitter, just out of shot in the photo above, and  it’ll even have its own Eiffel Tower.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of the rest of the slog didn’t throw anything to rival this section. For a long stretch, from Falconwood through to Mottingham, our route took us mostly past rows of grandly-titled suburban semis, only two of which I nosily endeavoured to photograph:

You could be somewhere up in the Rocky Mountains, stuck in the early scenes of a bucolic M.Night Shyamalan spookfest. Only the prominently-parked Black Cab gives an indication that the photographer is an unemployed fantasist on a day trip through the suburbs of South East London.

I don’t know about you, but I’m quite taken with the thought of Five Witches living together and only leaving their dinky Californiette by night to terrorise the god-fearing populace of Mottingham…

We did, though, take a detour from the route to check out Central Eltham’s no.1 weirdo-attraction. The Eltham Orangery is a bizarre little urban monster. Formerly joined to the long-gone Eltham House, it’s an extraordinary bit of Georgiana complete with a Grade-II listing, located right on the contested car-park border between branches of Lidl and Marks & Spencer.

You can see from the photo that the dividing line between Lidl and M&S’s respective realms seems to think it’s a baby Berlin Wall; too young just yet to have sprouted its first coils of barbed wire but already sufficiently insecure about territorial integrity to have pushed up a double row of bollards. I do, of course, realise that I’m writing utter crap here (perhaps I should’ve avoided Maryon Park and its pop-paranoia connections altogether), but the idea of Marks & Spencer issuing a range of uniforms for its in-house secret police is just too glorious to suppress.

We finished up at Grove Park railway station, pathetically tired and practically incapable of speech. On Hungerford Bridge, as the train waited for a platform to clear at Charing Cross, we were treated to the spectacle of the World’s worst busker loudly yelping his way along to Paint with all the Colours of the Wind:

Phew. That’s that- for now. If you’re as idle as I am at the moment, stay tuned for more bullshit; next time, we’ll be walking the ring from Grove Park to Streatham Common via Crystal Palace. Any sight-seeing suggestions would be more than welcome…

Why English nationalism is going nowhere fast

5 May

Outside the Lord John Russell pub, Marchmont Street, WC1