Posts Tagged ‘walking’

Houses, parks and secrets

December 20, 2010

Yesterday I decided that I’d had enough of being ill and stomped along Parkland Walk, a long and narrow strip of nature reserve that stretches along an old railway line, from Finsbury Park up to Alexandra Palace. Originally a suburban offshoot from the main line, there were plans to incorporate this bit of track into the Northern Line, under the rather romantic name ‘The Northern Heights Plan’. Unfortunately, the onset of the Second World War put a stop to the idea, and the line subsequently dwindled – with its last passenger train in 1954 and last freight train in the 1970.

It’s a beautiful walk, and one which provides the added satisfaction of getting somewhere, cutting through the houses far better than pavemented streets. And it was especially beautiful yesterday, bleached white with the snow, which lay thick on the ground and neatly lined along branches, sprinkles of powder wafting off with the slightest breeze.

There are several extraordinary things about this strip of park – the old station platforms, the heavily graffittied bridge, the views down across roads, train tracks and out across the skyline. (Please excuse the awful photos which were taken on my mobile and don’t begin to do it justice.)

But what really strikes me about the walk is that houses are rarely out of sight. Rows of suburban roofs spread out from behind the trees, the mess of branches only thinly screening their windows and gardens.

I wonder whether the houses are pleased with the changes to this strip of land. Now the window frames aren’t rattled by passing trains, now their brickwork doesn’t pass by in a flash to vacant-eyed commuters. Now lazy chatter drifts towards them over the trees and they can hear children playing, perhaps the occasional misfired snowball might splat against a wall. Perhaps they’d be allowed a wry smile when hearing the harsh pants of joggers, or the fizz of graffiti artists’ aerosols, at work on the railway bridge. They stand over this land with incredible knowledge. They have seen and heard everything that’s happened here; they know its past, its secrets.

Jenny Erpenbeck’s magnificent Visitation tells the story of a house in the German countryside, from its construction to its eventual demolition, and the different people who have lived in it over time. It is a novel in which things are always being hidden – people in crates and secret cupboards or behind a pile of wood, silverware sunk in the lake, porcelain buried in the garden. And this pattern of hiding things is a strand in the more intricate pattern of filling gaps. Concrete is poured into the cavity of a tree to give it support – something which reminds me of Rachel Whiteread’s concrete sculpture House, which renders the negative space of a house.

Because a house, in some sense, is just a gap to be filled – a surprising amount of space caught within four walls. And its occupants, as they come and go through the years are the fillers of this space, making their small marks and indentations as they live in its rooms, sit in the garden, hide in its cupboards. Nothing is hidden from the house – it knows every hiding place better than anyone, it is party to every secret.

While Whiteread’s House shows the interior space of a house so marvellously, it omits the space outside its four walls. In Visitation, the remit of the house spreads down through its garden to a lake. A house doesn’t exist independent of its site, but is affected by what goes on outside, the sounds, the happenings, the changes.

And so while these houses that line Parkland Walk have certainly been keeping an eye on what goes on inside, privy to all sorts of daily domestic dramas, they’ve also got an eye outside – watching this space undergo an astonishing change from railway to park. I bet they have some stories to tell.

 

Night haunts

December 6, 2010

There are Australians living in the flat beneath me. They have developed a habit of throwing parties, with lots of people and lots of very loud, appallingly rubbish, music, courtesy of Spotify (it’s always especially annoying when adverts rise up through the floorboards). But, rather peculiarly, their parties take place during the day. Yesterday’s one lasted from three o’clock in the afternoon to ten at night. My afternoon of reading the papers, drinking tea and eating cake had the vile soundtrack of drunken shouting-singing along to Christmas songs, and naf Latin American music punctuated with repeated inflections of ‘Oo, oo’.

I wonder if they’re stuck on Antipodean time – if, for them, the party kicked off at 2a.m. and was a rave that lasted all through the early hours. Or perhaps they want to keep their nights free for other things.

London nights are full of secrets. Their life is rarely mentioned, rarely even noticed, aside from the neon-bright-lit drinking side. Sukhdev Sandu decided to explore it and his book Night Haunts, just out in paperback, throws a more subtle light on this rather shady time.

Sandhu spends his nights with a wide variety of Londoners – from mini cab drivers to Samaritans, graffiti artists to office cleaners, sewer flushers to Thames bargers. Each chapter is the most poetic of investigations. Even in moments where Sandhu voices his outrage at popular treatment of some of these night haunters, such as cleaners and mini cab drivers, is with a mellifluous tongue. Mini-cab drivers, for instance:

sustain the contemporary London night … And yet, perhaps because of their wavering accents, or the general pall of disrepute that hangs over them, and despite recent regulations that means [sic] they must fill out reams of official paperwork to prove they’re not illegals, they are dismissed as qat chewers, stubbly lechers, illicit sharks, conmen who fiddle the companies for whom they work as well as their hapless passengers.

His beautiful language elevates his subjects, his muses. Their accents, ‘wavering’, make them sound sensitive, uncertain, on the verge of tears, a sharp contrast to the harsh, fast-paced, insults of ‘qat chewers, stubbly lechers, illicit sharks, conmen’. His language is almost argument enough that other Londoners need to stop treating these people like scum.

Aside from these moments of rage, Sandhu’s prose is usually remarkably tranquil. Nights are slow and dreamlike, even when he’s in a helicopter, chasing criminals with the avian police. Then, Sandhu focuses on the beautiful vision of the city spread out beneath – ‘the panoptic sublime’ – rather than dwelling on the pressure of listening to six radio channels at once.

What comes across again and again is a Them-versus-Us attitude, a division of those special few who do things during the night, and all the other Londoners with their 9-5 commutes and office jobs:

Aborigines. That’s what Papa, one of the cleaners at Tottenham Court Road station, calls the tens of thousands of commuters who skelter past him as he sweeps the Underground floors. He suspects they may belong to another civilisation. Racing, frowning, dashing – always in flight to some profoundly important destination. Even the girls with scanty dresses or the mascara-clad boys out to pout at Nag Nag Nag seem to be in a rush. Their speed makes them, in his eyes, insubstantial. Hollowed men and women. ‘They are ghosts,’ he announces, ‘Dead spirits.’

The cliché of the urbanite, always impatient and in a hurry, is given fresh resonance here. By moving so quickly, under the illusion that it is because they are so important, have such pressing tasks to do, the commuters actually make themselves ‘insubstantial’, ghostlike.

The image reminds me of old photographs which relied on long exposure times, where sometimes one can spot the faded outline of a person, half-caught on camera, half-too-impatient to stand still.

Look at the blurry head and faded body of the chap by the door of H. Brooks & Co, for instance. (The photo is from the magnificent Lost London by Philip Davies, a large tome filled wtih similarly haunting photos.)

You must be still and patient to count, to matter, to have an impact, Sandhu seems to be saying. And that is exactly what so many of these night haunters do. They stay still, cleaning the station, or an office, all night; they patiently wait for their cargo to be loaded on to their barges, ready for transport down the Thames; they sit and listen for hours to people on the verge of suicide, who phone them at 5a.m.; or they watch over insomniacs, plugged into breathing machines, giving them a rare good night’s sleep. It is ironic that these people who are still and patient and make such a difference to London are invisible to us. Really it should be the commuters, in their endless blurry rush, who have little substance.

Night Haunts has certainly made me see the night differently. Now, as I am drifting off to sleep, my mind doesn’t wander down the road to Dalston where I imagine the trendies out partying, or over to the West End and high heels tottering across vomit-smelling sticky floors. Now I think of those overlooked people of the night, who are cleaning offices, or culling foxes, or flushing sewers, or the Tyburn nuns – one of whom will be praying for Londoners, kneeling in a night vigil just a short step from Oxford Street.

Now I just have to wonder what it is, exactly, that the Australians downstairs are doing with their nights. I suspect they’re probably just watching telly.

Ramblings

November 15, 2010

Last Monday was my birthday. Hence the absence of a post up here. (That and the fact that my energies had gone into a post for the Spectator, which you can read here).

I spent my birthday going on walks – one across Hampstead Heath in beautiful sunshine; the other along part of the London LOOP in the sheeting rain.

‘Which way are we going?’ everyone asked me as we gathered by a corner of Hampstead Heath, bleary-eyed, clutching a thermos of hot toddy, early on Sunday afternoon. I had no idea, so we set off kind of diagonally right, and wandered more-or-less aimlessly, half-hoping to find Kenwood.

It was such fun stomping around the Heath, nattering away, letting conversations meander along whichever bendy course our thoughts seemed to be following. And, of course, there are the views. Whenever one gets up on a hill, away from the centre of London, it’s stunning. It was heaven standing on top of Parliament Hill, eating chocolate biscuits, looking at the greying sky over London’s skyscrapers after sunset. Then someone said, ‘My socks are wet, where’s the pub?’

Out on the London LOOP, we walked through woods with stunning geometric displays of straight-trunked hornbeams, endless piles of autumn leaves, and toddled alongside pretty muddy streams, even a Medieval moat.

It seemed to be an uncanny coincidence (see this old post for more on the nature of coincidence) that, when I got home from the rather wet, windy walk, while still half-thinking about how wonderful walks are, I sat down to read a book and saw the following:

Rambling was a favourite metaphor for thinking and writing … It suggested a leisurely excursion without a distinct goal, and with time to take in the view. It was a principled opposition to the stern linear progress Lytton Strachey so admired in Edward Gibbon, whose readers were not invited ‘to stop and wander, or camp out, or make friends with the natives’ and it opposed, too, the straight lines and rigid grids that had come to define modern design.

This is from the charming, beautiful, and strangely addictive Romantic Moderns by Alexandra Harris, which has pleasingly just been shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award. In this particular instance, Harris is writing about a talk that Virginia Woolf gave for the BBC in 1937, which Woolf titled, ‘A Ramble Round Words’.

It seemed so serendipitous to be reading about the word and idea of ‘Rambling’, when just returning from birthday walks, which were really rambles – leisurely excursions without distinct goals and with time to take in the views.

Of course, Woolf meant rambling in a metaphorical sense. Her diverting walk is around words, not woods – hers is a meandering path of thoughts. But one of the best things about going on an actual ramble, is that then one’s thoughts ramble along as well.

Etymologically, rambling meant travelling from place to place, without a fixed aim, ‘roving’, slightly before it meant to wander aimlessly in thought. But there is a mere sixteen years in it – from 1624 to 1640. Perhaps it was during this time that people began to appreciate the link between aimless walks and aimless thoughts.

It is a relief to see that Woolf, with her Romantic sensibilities, lifted ‘rambling’ up, away from other rather pejorative meanings of ‘rambling’ – first of all, in 1551, ‘irregular in shape’, and then in around 1645 ‘inelegant’, ‘disjointed’, ‘loose’.  Woolf evidently saw ‘rambling’ as something to be celebrated, to be encouraged. And irregularity in shape does, as Harris points out, utterly oppose the ‘straight lines and rigid grids that had come to define modern design’.

It wasn’t until 1700 that ‘rambling’ was used in association with madness, in the sense of ‘delirious’, ‘raving’. And this is a meaning that Harris doesn’t pick up, in her saner appreciation of the word.

Perhaps the ultimate rambling book is Adam Foulds’ The Quickening Maze. I don’t mean rambling in the 1693 sense of ‘waffling’, ‘loquacious’ – his is a short, neat little book, which one might well expect from an author who is also a poet. Although its shape masquerades as regular – split into different seasons – within these section breaks are numerous small disjunctures as the narrative jumps from one character to another. Irregular in shape in a marvellously creative way.

But what makes The Quickening Maze such a wonderful rambling novel is Foulds’ magnificent portrayal of patients in a lunatic asylum, including John Clare. Foulds avoids clichés and glib generalisations, giving each individual a unique, resonant voice. Here he is on a patient who refuses to eat:

to eat was to join the ordinary world of bodies and murder, of lust and destruction, was to swim through the world like a worm through soil

It’s certainly the most poetic description of an aversion to food that I’ve ever read.

The ramblings of mad minds are most keenly distilled in Foulds’ portrayal of John Clare. Clare, famously the ‘peasant poet’, loved nature and in The Quickening Maze he goes for walks in Epping Forest, which surrounds the lunatic asylum.

As he rambles through the forest, he scrutinises it – taking in the view. Rather than needing a panorama, microscopic focus is shown to be just as astonishing. Clare passes, for instance, a blackbird with its ‘daffodil-yellow beak, sharp as tweezers’, or notices ‘the glaring, hooked darkness of holly buses, the long whips and shabby leaves of brambles beneath them’.

And Clare’s mind wanders, rambles, just like his feet. But Foulds shows that these rambles aren’t always pleasant meanders; they are increasingly extreme flashes of madness. Clare thinks he is Byron, is periodically overwhelmed by the desire to fight, is convinced he has two wives … he is definitely mad.

I don’t think that my ramblings around the London LOOP, or Hampstead Heath had the same intensity of Clare’s. I was too busy shoving biscuits into my own beak to notice the tweezer-like beak of a blackbird. Perhaps that’s a relief. I don’t think I want to be rambling in a mad way. But although I was too late for blackberries (picking one, he ‘ate it so tart it made his palate itch’) we did pick a generous pocketful of sloes to add to gin. And, well, perhaps, wet and exhausted after our measly four miles or so on the LOOP, our walk echoed Clare’s final walk in The Quickening Maze, where he leaves the asylum and heads towards his home, Helpston, Peterborough:

He just had to keep walking, boring through, shouldering the distance with the low grunting strength of a badger.

Who knew once one reached the horrid age of twenty-seven, badgerdom would be so close?

 

The Sea, The Sea

September 3, 2010

I’m sorry not to have posted for a little while. I’ve been on holiday in Jersey, happily surrounded by the sea. And by rather a fortuitous coincidence, I happened to be reading Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, The Sea. Thanks to Jude Law.

One day, a few months ago, Jude Law comes into the bookshop and I find myself serving him. He takes it upon himself to make conversation and says that he is reading a newly published collection of Iris Murdoch’s wartime letters, A Writer at War.

I am completely floored by the encounter, and stand there bright red, grinning and staring at him. I may have bad facial recognition (see this post for a rather embarrassing encounter) but there is no mistaking Jude Law. ‘Iris Murdoch,’ I think, ‘I must find something interesting to say about Iris Murdoch.’

But, as it happens, I don’t need to, as Jude Law continues to talk about her without needing any of my input. Apparently she is his favourite author and he has read absolutely everything that she has written. He says that she is so modern, and I’m so dazzled that I am unable to come back with anything other than, ‘Yes, um, so modern.’

I’m quite fond of this little story. It’s one of those stories that I use to try and prove that working in a bookshop is not only really fun but also rather glamorous. But it came back to haunt me the other day, when I was recounting it to a new acquaintance at a dinner party.

This young lady was unimpressed by my anecdote. She found it hard to believe that I had nothing to say about Iris Murdoch. (Mind you, she didn’t have a whole pile to say about her either.) I tried to reassure her that I had indeed read a couple of her books – but annoyingly it was a little while ago and I couldn’t say very much about them. My case was worsened when someone else started talking to me about Lee Child, and I found myself chatting to him about this rather less highbrow thriller writer and his character Jack Reacher.

‘I see you are better versed in Lee Child than Iris Murdoch,’ she said, somewhat archly.

I tried to explain that I hadn’t actually read any Lee Child, but this didn’t seem to help things.

So I resolved to read some more Iris Murdoch. Frankly I love my Jude Law story, and I’d hate to be too scared to retell it for fear of being criticised for my lack of Murdochian wherewithal. The next time that happens I’ll be able to drop in something about Prospero or Buddhism or something else suitably silencing.

Well yes Prospero and Buddhism do feature in The Sea, The Sea but so do boiled onions and the flavour combination of almonds and apricots. And, strangely, I found myself eating these two rather idiosyncratic dishes while I was in Jersey.

Charles Arrowby, the narrator of The Sea, The Sea, is a famous old theatre director who decides to retreat from his London life of fame and glory to a funny little house by the sea. He has rather eccentric tastes in food – insisting, for instance, that boiled onions are a dish fit for a King – and a great deal of unfinished business with a menagerie of ex-lovers.

The book is written as though Charles is writing his memoirs and indeed the Prospero thing is because Charles (in his typically self-inflated, self-absorbed view) compares himself to Prospero abjuring his magic and retreating from the world. I imagine Iris Murdoch having a little snigger at the image of such a silly pompous man trying to look sufficiently magisterial as Prospero, with cloak and staff.

The book is about retreating from the world, or trying to. Because, inevitably, Charles doesn’t manage to retreat from the world – his world follows him up to the little house by the sea, so that as the book draws near its climax several people are staying with him – so many, in fact, that there isn’t room for them all in the house and one has to sleep outside.

But Iris Murdoch also gives us James – Charles’s cousin – who is a counterpoint to Charles throughout the book. He is a soldier turned Buddhist, who goes about his life in London with a great deal more composure that one imagines Charles has ever had. He has spent a great deal of time in Tibet, and has even mastered some ‘tricks’ from his time out there, such as being able to increase his body temperature just by sheer concentration. He pops up at different points in the novel and, just as Charles is always overblown, melodramatic, ridiculous, James is always calm, poised, focussed. He is no hermit – and indeed Charles’s theatre friends all take to him – but he is always slightly withdrawn, slightly removed from the situation. It is as though James has managed to retreat from the world while still being part of it. This is something in which Charles never succeeds.

I suppose that my little retreat from the world wasn’t entirely successful either. While I, like Charles, swam in the sea every day, went on long walks, and left my phone off most of the time, I also spent most of the time chatting away to, playing games with, and generally larking around with the fiancé’s family. And it was so much more fun doing everything with a big crowd of people, rather than in self-absorbed isolation. Luckily for me, the crowd of people wasn’t at all like the swarm of angry/loving/crazy exes, that invades Charles’s seaside house.

In fact, it was when I got back to London and was trying to get lots of things done, wandering the streets from cobbler to cleaner to bike fixer, without anybody to natter away to, that I felt momentarily alone.

I know that the anonymity of a city is a cliché, and so is the fact that this can result in urban life being a lonely experience. But this anonymity can also feel like a haven of solitude, something that can be reassuring and quite grounding. And so I agree with Iris, in her example of James as opposed to Charles.

Who needs to head off alone to a little house by the sea in order to retreat? All one needs to do is go for a walk through Soho, where  the cacophony of background noise can be rather soothing. And, if one really succeeds in zoning out, all that noise can sound just like the lapping of the waves of the sea.

In praise of eccentricities

August 23, 2010

The other day, a muggy drizzly grey London Saturday, the fiancé and I went for a swim in the bathing ponds on Hampstead Heath. As I was breast-stroking as fast as possible, trying to stop intense burning pain squashing my lungs and hoping that soon I might get some feeling back in my near-frozen limbs, I said to the fiancé (who was calmly, happily, paddling about) that this was rather an eccentric thing to be doing.

After what turned out to be rather a refreshing swim, we shambled along the Heath, bath towel-wrapped swimming costumes under one arm, books section of the newspaper under the other, quite exhaustedly dragging each other up the hill en route to the nearest place that would serve us a burger. My outfit of sundress, cardigan and trainers was proving rather too optimistic for the post-swim chill and my lips were rapidly turning blue. The fiancé was wearing one of his shirts with several holes in.

We passed several other Heath walkers.

Some were wearing sports kit and jogging along or power walking with fearful determination. There were also dog walkers, groups of friends going for picnics, kite-flyers, kids skipping along beside tolerant parents. But nobody looked like us.

Gosh, we both thought at once. We are an eccentric pair.

Now I actually feel rather pleased about this. I have long ago come to terms with the fact that I am quite an eccentric girl. (See this post, for instance, for my childhood belief that I was a prophet.) It is such a relief to have found someone who will put up with my eccentricities, even allow them to flourish, and occasionally indulge in them himself. Really, what are the chances?

And I think that perhaps now is the time to praise a book which I’m particularly fond of, which is particularly eccentric.

I first read Jane Gardam’s A Long Way From Verona on a colleague’s recommendation when I had my tonsils removed back in March. It is one of the most charming books I have ever read, and goes up there in my Top Five books of all time. It is even as good as Edmund du Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes. Praise indeed.

It is one of those books that I deeply want everyone that I care about to read, because it is so utterly wonderful. In fact, I have started rereading it with the fiancé – now we take it in turns to read bits aloud to each other. A fittingly eccentric way for it to be read.

A Long Way from Verona is, strictly speaking, a children’s book. Although the publishers have packaged it up in the same style as Jane Gardam’s adult novels, like the highly-acclaimed Old Filth, so perhaps they think particularly highly of it too.

It is the story of Jessica Vye, a rather precocious thirteen-year-old girl in wartime Yorkshire, who is certain, ‘beyond all possible doubts’, that she is a writer. The book is indeed written as though it is by Jessica herself, and is full of such quirks as occasionally spelling out the way a teacher says her name (‘Jessie Carr’), and self-conscious pointers such as ‘I will now proceed in letters. For a time.’ These letters, incidentally, are extremely funny – full of phrases like ‘You are a clot.’

I often try to sell this book to customers – parents/grandparents/aunts/uncles searching for something for their eleven-year-old daughter/granddaughter/niece (who is often called Florence) to read. (‘She’s really extraordinarily bright, a very good reader, far above her peers …)

‘I’ve got just the thing.’ I say, thrilled at the prospect of passing this gem of a book into receptive hands.

‘Ah, right. What’s it about then?’ they ask when I fish it down off the shelf, slightly perturbed by the fact that it’s a) not about Vampires, or b) not 1984, or c) that they didn’t read it when they were eleven.

I try to explain the basic plot and they look nonplussed. And then I say that really it’s just such a wonderful book because it’s so charming, it’s so funny, it’s so quirky, it’s so …

Well it’s just so perfectly eccentric.

And the good ones buy it, and come back and tell me that Florence did indeed love it. And the bad ones raise their eyebrows and buy something as unimaginative as Pride and Prejudice instead.

I do hope that you might be a good one and endeavour to get hold of it, not for Florence, but for you. It might even encourage you to do something as eccentric and enjoyable as go swimming in a muddy pond, in the rain.

Well Mabey I won’t go to the party

May 31, 2010

‘So doesn’t working in a bookshop all day mean that the last thing you want to do in your free time is read?’

The question was posed to me by a stockbroker at a rather smart drinks party where I was one of about three people there who weren’t bankers or lawyers. This question came after the stockbroker had already said how boring it must be to work in a bookshop and that he only read five or six books a year – all of them thrillers (‘like John Grisham’) and ‘only when I’m on holiday on a beach somewhere’.

So, given that it was more than clear that the last thing he wanted to do in his free time was read a proper book, even though his job wasn’t anything like working in a bookshop (although ‘it’s really interesting, it means I get to meet all these really important people and grill them about their companies’), I’m not really sure from whence his logic sprang.

He used the comparison of working in a biscuit shop, and no longer wanting to eat biscuits. I pointed out that if one worked somewhere like Harrod’s Food Hall, one would still want to eat lots of delicious food. And how could he imply that all books were as similar to each other as biscuits? (Although, to be fair, if he is used to only reading thrillers for two weeks a year, that might explain it.)

Last night was a peculiarly apt time for him to ask me that question. I shall try to explain why working in a bookshop makes me want to read more than anything else.

In yesterday’s lunchbreak, I finished reading the Review section, left over from Saturday’s Guardian. I’m sure I’ve already mentioned that this is my favourite bit of newspaper in the world ever. As I was coming to the end, I stumbled upon a phenomenal review by Ian Sinclair of Richard Mabey’s The Unofficial Countryside, reissued for the first time since the early 1970s. It’s a fascinating article; you can read it here.

This book is an investigation into the wildness of London – marginal sites of dereliction where nature can once again take hold. And not always so marginal – Sinclair quotes Mabey, ‘The first summer after the blitz there were rosebays flowering on over three-quarters of the bombed sites in London, defiant sparks of life amongst the desolation.’ He describes The Unofficial Countryside as a ‘pivot’ between nature writing and psychogeography. A combination of walking and writing, exploring and documenting.

I jumped up after lunch incredibly excited. I had glanced the book in the shop and couldn’t wait to get back and have a closer look. A mere two minutes after reading the review, I held the book in my hands. It’s smooth cover was decorated with a pleasingly grimy picture of an electricity pylon surrounded by grey-green land. I flicked through – thick paper, several hand-drawn illustrations. I skimmed a few paragraphs of the prologue – Mabey’s account of the book’s origination, on finding un unexpected scattering of countryside by a canal in London’s suburbia, after ‘what they call a normal working day. Bitching at the office, brooding over lunch.’ He drew comfort from ‘a brilliant spike of purple loosestrife’, and the incongruously peaceful atmosphere that made it feel natural to exchange greetings with a bicycling worker, ‘as if we had been in a country lane’.

My excitement soared. Gosh what a beautiful object I held in my hands. How perfectly written. How hopeful. ‘The trees can live next to the cranes’, he writes. This is probably going to be one of the best books I will ever read. I rushed straight up to the till and bought it, with my generous staff discount.

I didn’t even go and stash the book away in my bag downstairs, but kept it out, next to the till, reminding me of what was waiting for me as soon as I finished work.

But, of course, I couldn’t hurry straight back home and read my new book. I had to go to this drinks party, on the other side of London. Can I really be bothered? I asked myself. Do I really need to go? I’m sure I’ll see everyone soon in any case. And wouldn’t it be just heaven to go home and read this book? Wouldn’t I learn more from reading it? Wouldn’t I enjoy it more than making small talk for a couple of hours?

No no no … I was firm with myself. It is ridiculous to not show up at a party at the last minute, with only the excuse of needing to read a book. I’d be giving up an evening of seeing my friends, of chatting to them, catching up, discussing ideas, gaining my own experiences rather than living vicariously through someone else’s.

And so I went to the party. And I got chatting to this stockbroker. And he really thought that being surrounded by books all day was boring. That talking about books all day was nothing much. And that spending so much time breathing in the books meant that I’d be desperate to escape them. If only he knew that I’d much rather have been reading the book I’d just bought. And that I was able to own this book – this magnificent, life-enriching object – so soon after discovering its existence, entirely thanks to working next to it all day long. I can only hope that he feels the same about buying and selling equity.

How to cook – canals and novels

May 17, 2010

When I was cycling home at the weekend, my back wheel suddenly went clonk. It was completely bent out of shape, jammed against the brake, and I had to half-carry half-drag it the rest of the way home, which luckily wasn’t too far.

I took it into the marvellous Lock 7 bike shop where they said they’d fit a new wheel and I could pick it up later on. Incidentally, I cannot recommend Lock 7 enough.

A couple of hours later, I walked over to pick up my bike. I went along the Regent’s canal, a quiet, secluded path, lined by water on the one side, wild foliaged fence on the other. There was near silence except for the occasional tinkle of a bicycle bell, the rush of water as a lock filled up, an occasional pant of a lycraed jogger, an overheard snippet of conversation as people wandered past.

There were no decisions about which way to go, whether it would be quicker to go right and then left, or straight on and then the next right. The canal is a set route and takes all of those decisions out of one’s hands. I just got on the towpath and walked, knowing that it would lead me, eventually, to the bike shop.

On the way back home, I decided not to cycle along the canal. It’s a bit slow, a bit too meandering, too many pedestrians in the way, I thought. No, I’ll go on the streets, it’ll be much quicker. There were cars, speed-bumps, traffic lights, decisions about which turning would be best. I had to concentrate rather hard on everything that was going on, rather than just enjoying the journey. Yes, it was quicker, but far less pleasant.

I think that these two different journeys can be used to explain many things. Not least why I don’t cook properly.

You see, people who cook the right way decide they’re going to cook something, don’t worry about it taking a while, begin at the beginning of the recipe and then end up with the finished dish. Essentially they go along the canal. There are no distractions, no interruptions, no decisions; they follow the steps set out for them and everything goes smoothly.

People like me, who cook the wrong way, go along the streets. They skim over the recipe and then decide to cook it their own way. They look for shortcuts, ways to make it quicker, and the process is filled with interruptions and distractions – other things that need some concentration while they’re cooking.

So, for instance, they begin chopping onions while on the telephone and then decide, impatiently, that it doesn’t need to be fried for ten minutes but that five will do. Later on, another shortcut can be made by not bothering to leave the mixture to sit and infuse for twenty minutes. They decide, while they’re in the kitchen, they might as put a wash on and unload the dishwasher. They cut as much time out of the recipe as possible, try to multi-task, forget where they’ve got to, and end up with a not particularly good dish, but prepared in less time, with a washing machine going full tilt and a dishwasher half-unloaded.

Why do I follow this second, worse, way of cooking? Why do I not decide, right, this evening I’m going to cook and not do anything else, and I will follow the recipe very carefully and not take any shortcuts? Why don’t I decide to enjoy the meanderings, the little moments of watching onions soften, patiently letting things infuse, the careful browning of the meat, the sudden smell of a burst of herbs?

The problem lies in treating recipes as directions rather than respectable pieces of text. Reading a recipe should be enjoyable, like following a plot, digesting a novel.

A recipe has its own special plot devices, structure, intrigue. Ingredients are brought together, mixed, left to simmer, transferred to a different environment. Adding chilli to onions shouldn’t just mean ‘make it spicy’, but should be more like introducing a fiery love interest to someone with many layers (to adapt a line from Shrek). When reading a book, it’s unthinkable to skip a few pages, add in one’s own bits, miss out a vital character. Now I can see, when I interfere with recipes, I’m bastardising the plot.

As soon as one thinks of recipes as mini novels, it’s clear that cooking isn’t about the final outcome, the end scene, whatever it is that has resulted from the mixing together of ingredients. Cooking is like reading. It’s about enjoying the mixing process, seeing what happens when something new is introduced, when things are left to simmer or, indeed, when everything gets rather overheated.

So perhaps it was wrong of me to think about cooking when I was going to and from the bike shop. Recipes aren’t merely ways of getting from A to B. If that’s how I think of them, then I’ll always be tempted to take a shortcut. But, luckily, I’ll never choose to miss a chunk of a good novel.

Iain Sinclair’s panoramas

February 27, 2010

A rather embarrassing omission was pointed out in my Top Ten London Books … Iain Sinclair. In my defence, I was going to include the brilliant and fascinating Rodinsky’s Room, which he wrote with Rachel Lichtenstein, but thought that, alongside Litvinoff, two Jewish East London non-fictions would be a bit much.

The Iain Sinclair book that’s all the rage at the moment is Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire, just out in paperback. I was lucky enough to hear Sinclair talk last week in part of a spate of paperback-publication-prompted events. He’s a fantastic speaker – engaging, intelligent, somehow managing to ramble along digressions yet remain focussed on an overarching argument – but what really shone out at me from a wealth of inspiration was his use of the word ‘panorama’.

Sinclair talked about the importance of finding new viewpoints in the city, places where one can look out over it, where one can enjoy a panorama. He mentioned the old derelict railway track that flew over East London, which had been an anarchic free space, allowing anyone to see the city from raised ground. It is a space which is now lost, as the disused railway is currently being redeveloped, rebranded as the East London Line. Sinclair also talked about Dalston’s old German Hospital, which he describes in detail in the book. It’s clear that, unlike most developments, Sinclair quite approves of what has happened to the German Hospital – originally a private house, then an Infant Orphan Asylum and then a hospital for London’s pre-war German community, before recently being converted into flats. He describes it as follows:

Cream corridors broad enough to push two gurneys in opposite directions, a Mondrian grid of window-panel reflections. And everywhere, at every turn as you climbed the stairs: views … Emerging on to the flat roof, I was dazzled by the verdant spread of Hackney, its railways and churches.

The hospital is somewhere that offers a panorama, a place where there are ‘views’, where one can see ‘the verdant spread’ of the landscape. It is clear that, for Sinclair, knowing where one stands in the wider landscape, how one fits into local geography is vital.

There is another panorama which shines in Sinclair’s writing, a historical one. The corridors are ‘broad enough to push two gurneys in opposite directions’. The building’s previous use is inherent in the dimensions of the building – the corridors are wide because there had to be sufficient room to manoeuvre hospital trolleys. This historical panorama is clear earlier on in Hackney, in his description of London Fields:

A blood meadow: London Fields. Public ground for the fattening of herds and flocks, Norfolk geese, before they are driven, by very particular routes to Smithfield slaughter.

Sinclair is prone to using the present tense for descriptions, bringing a space’s previous incarnation into the immediate moment. London Fields is transformed from a park to its earlier existence as a place for animals to graze on their way from countryside to Smithfield abattoir. Historical and geographical panoramas are combined as Sinclair shows this old use of London Fields to be linked to its position en route to Smithfield.

Panorama – what does this tongue-rolling delight of a word really mean? I looked it up in my weighty, wonderful copy of The Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary (worth every penny of the cripplingly-expensive price) and alighted upon various uses.

First, the obvious interpretation, still employed today: from 1801, ‘panorama’ has meant a ‘comprehensive survey’, expanding in 1828 to mean a ‘general … extensive view’. Yes, this is what Sinclair is talking about, seeing extensively, comprehensively, an overview.

But what about from 1709 to 1899, when the word was used to describe a ‘moving picture’, a specific type of ‘optical show’? An echo of this, now defunct, meaning reverberates around Sinclair’s text. Yes, Sinclair is seminally involved in Hackney’s community, but the way in which he describes the life, the past lives, of the borough, the documentary nature of his fic-faction, puts Hackney on show. Sinclair aestheticises Hackney, entertaining the reader with his ‘optical show’, his carefully-crafted picture, which moves at his walking pace.

The final sense of panorama, an ‘optical illusion … of a passing scene’ (in use from 1813), is the most disruptive. It points out the fiction, the falseness, the leap of faith, in Sinclair’s prose. For London Fields isn’t a ‘blood meadow’, there are no gurneys being propelled down the corridors of the old German hospital; his deft prose, loaded with historical resonance, creates an illusion. The past has gone, but Sinclair manages to momentarily recreate a ‘passing scene’ from it, by yoking it to the present. But the resulting panorama is no more than optical illusion, tugging at the unreal seams of what has been fabricated.

Perhaps this is why Sinclair’s prose is so often criticised as being too dense, too treacley to wade through. Every word is loaded with resonance – literary, historical, geographical – in an attempt to bring panorama to every description, every place. I am enchanted by his prose, wanting to believe in the illusion of a present-past-here-there synthesis of a moment, but, at the same time, the now is too real to allow the illusion to remain intact.

And what about the future? Where is this in the historical panorama? When Sinclair is asked for a poem that he’s written about the future, he says, in Hackney:

I can’t find a single poem that touches on the future. Everything is resolutely nudged by the now, under the drag of an invented past. I’m sorry, Harriet, I have no idea what the future holds. Or what it is… In Hackney we must train ourselves to exorcize the future.

Sinclair’s historical panorama is one-way, linking present with past, rather than with what lies ahead.

Of course, the future for Hackney is the Olympics. This blot on the horizon is what prevents Sinclair from looking forward to it. And, with the Olympics, comes the blue fence circumscribing the Olympic site, a monstrous interference with panorama. The fence hides the work being carried out on the soon-to be-Olympic landscape, prevents the process of change from being seen. As Sinclair says, in an essay that first appeared in the London Review of Books:

The current experience, in reality, is all fence; the fence is the sum of our knowledge of this privileged mud. Visit it as early as you like, first light, and there will be no unsightly tags, no slogans, a viscous slither of blue: like disinfectant running down the slopes of a silver urinal trough. The passage of the fence painters is endless, day after day, around the entire circuit, repairing damage, covering up protests. Trails of sticky blue drip into grass verges, painterly signatures: the plywood surface never quite dries, subtle differences of shade and texture darken into free-floating Franz Kline blocks.

All that people can see of the Olympics is the blue fence, so the fence is where they protest, and, in this sterilised zone, the protests are erased, painted over, denied a place on the landscape. The blue fence, with its endless cycle of repainting, prevents the ‘moving scene’ of panorama. One of Sinclair’s great objections to it is that it prevents walking, interrupts routes through the landscape, ‘suddenly there are places where you can’t walk freely’. It is an immobile block, breaking up the geography, endlessly present, unable to be yoked to any other moment in time. How can Sinclair look ahead to Hackney’s future, when all that can be seen is this homogenising screen of fakery, an ugly blot of enclosure, separation, naïve and arrogant resistance to any continuity of time or place?

The Great Outdoors

February 22, 2010

‘Do you like the great outdoors, you know, being out in the countryside?’ a young man from Norfolk asked me at a party the other day. We’d been talking to an American chap, who’d said he was longing to go to Alaska, to be out in the wild. The Norfolkian and I admitted that all we really knew about Alaska was that it was big, cold and had bears, and that Werner Herzog made a film about that guy who was eaten by one. The American looked puzzled. I don’t think he’d seen the film. And that’s when the Norfolkian, evidently realising that we needed to get the conversation beyond Alaska, turned to me and asked the question.

It’s a difficult question to answer. The countryside seems to be a bit like that cliché about Communism: wonderful in theory, but not in practice. I like the idea of nature, I love reading about it, but the real thing is often a bit of a letdown. I suppose, for me, the ‘great’ outdoors is in the city, not the countryside.

As Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway says, ‘I love walking in London … Really, it’s better than walking in the country.’ I’m afraid I can’t help but agree, especially the way Mrs Dalloway walks. As I mentioned in a previous post, her walking allows her mind to wander, dart from thought to thought, endlessly inspired by her catching sight of something new. London is paradise for the distracted mind, filled with a million different things to catch a roving eye, countless connections to be formed, infinite paths along which thoughts can meander.

Will Self writes about these London associations in a piece called ‘Big Dome’, which I read in an old issue of Granta (you can buy it here). For Self, however, this is an affliction rather than something to be celebrated. He calls it ‘claustro-agoraphobia’:

The city is filled in with narratives, which have been extruded like psychic mastic into its fissures. There is no road I haven’t fought on, no cul-de-sac I haven’t ended it all in, no alley I haven’t done it down. To traverse central London today, even in a car, even on autopilot, is still to run over a hundred memoirs.

Spending one’s life in London, one can’t help but form ‘narratives’ associated with various streets. But that’s what I love about it. How magnificent to pass through Soho and remember, as I stroll down Frith Street, an awful date I went on in Arbutus, hilarious drunken school nights spent at Cheapskates, an old friend’s birthday party at the Arabic Restaurant on the corner, an argument I once had about which street the Palace Theatre (now showing Priscilla Queen of the Desert, then showing Les Mis) is on – we strode across London together, all the way to the theatre, both determined to prove our point. All of those stories remembered from, more or less, just one street.

Perhaps Soho is cheating. It’s bang in Central London, of course there are hundreds of memories associated with it. But, for anyone who’s been in London for more than a year or so, pretty much every single part of London has a few thoughts associated with it. Even if one’s never been there, it’s on the tube map, a friend lives nearby or it’s come up in conversation.

Take Morden, for example, right at the bottom of the Northern line. If I were to go there – and, I hasten to add, I haven’t yet – I would think, as I emerge from the tube, of my friend who used to be writing a novel about the Northern Line, in which he described Morden as other-worldly, doubting its real existence. I’d remember a silly pretend argument I had with someone about the Northern Line, mostly inspired by my friend’s book-in-progress, in which I’d said that Morden obviously didn’t really exist as it was too far away, and I was told that yes that it really did exist, in fact he took his driving test there. The name would make me think of Lord of the Rings – is it the inspiration behind ‘Mordor’? Tenuous links, perhaps, but links nonetheless – paths that my thoughts can tread along, as I tread along, as yet unseen, streets. I doubt there is a single pocket of London with which I have absolutely no associations whatsoever. It’s the nature of the sprawling, maze-like city.

This doesn’t happen in the countryside. I can’t stroll through the woods and think, ah that was the oak tree where so and so said blah blah blah, and there’s the bush where whatshisname went and had a pee behind, and by that birch over there is where I tied my shoelace that time I went for a walk with thingummy. There is, I suppose, a giddy freedom in this untarnished mindscape. Thoughts can soar, free from association, solve problems, reach inspired conclusions, form lines of poetry.

Fine for Wordsworth and Coleridge, but actually I need city distractions for my brain to function at its best. While my mind meanders through memories, treading already well-trodden routes, another part of it freely darts off and somehow finds the solution to whatever problem has been bothering me enough to make me feel restless and want to go for a walk in the first place. I find that surface distraction tends to enable more important processes to occur subconsciously.

But then, in theory, I love the countryside. I love those books by Roger Deakin and Robert Macfarlane, rhapsodising about nature, writing so poetically about wild places and trees. Wildwood is one of my favourite books of all time, ever. I remember most fondly Deakin’s writing about walnut forests in Kyrgyzstan, filled with families decamped to harvest the walnuts, proudly presenting him with their prize specimens, everyone gorging on nuts, blackening their hands like charcoal.

The Running Sky by Tim Dee is another stunning book of nature writing. I recently read this beautiful account of a birdwatching life, mingled with poetry (Dee also co-edited The Poetry of Birds with Simon Armitage), and adored it, even though I had never been birdwatching myself. As chance would have it, I found myself in Suffolk’s Snape Maltings a couple of weeks later only to see a sign for a guided birdwatching walk that morning. Perfect, I thought, here’s a chance to experience something I know I’ll love.

We assembled at ten o’clock, a middle-aged couple plus dog, my mother and I, and, of course, our guide – a man from the RSPB. It was cold. We stood in the car park for a while, being told what we might see. Redbacks, gulls and some interesting water features, apparently. We then embarked on our walk, or shuffle, along a field. I was very excited, mostly because the RSPB man had lent me a pair of binoculars (the middle-aged couple had their own). The excitement wore off over the next forty minutes, as we shuffled along, painfully slowly, or stood still, painfully cold, peering through binoculars at a bunch of winged things in the distance, being told ‘those are redbacks, and those are gulls’. I’d rather read some of Tim Dee’s book any day.

It could have just been bad luck. Over Christmas, I was in Devon and came across a flock of starlings while wandering along the estuary by Budleigh Salterton. They were forming the most astonishing shapes in the air and I stood their transfixed. I didn’t feel the cold, or even a flicker of boredom, then. The starlings’ flight is an astonishingly beautiful, wonderful (literally) thing of nature. And, of course, there are others. Several. And, when written about with deft skill, these natural wonders can be utterly breathtaking. But I’m more impressed by instances of human endeavour.

I went to Dungeness, for instance, to see Derek Jarman’s garden. I’d just seen the Derek Jarman exhibition at the Serpentine and had been moved by his film Blue. I wanted to find out more about him and so made the pilgrimage down to this peculiar knobble of Kent. Dungeness is a strange and magnificent place, where bungalows squat on a shingle beach in the shadow of a nuclear power station. Derek Jarman’s garden, an eerie assembly of rocks, driftwood, found pieces of twisted metal, and local tough sea-resistant plants is incredible.

As it so happened, my visit to Dungeness coincided with a troupe of keen birdwatchers – around twenty of them, who were excitedly running after a particular bird, which hadn’t been spotted in Kent for several years. The thrill of the chase was palpable as they birdily hopped along the shingle, stalking the, apparently unconcerned, bird. They didn’t look at the fishermen’s cottages and bungalows, the nuclear power station, the lighthouse soaring stripily up into the sky, or the garden. They had eyes only for the bird. I had driven all the way down from London to see the garden, to visit the place which I’d heard to be so bleak and yet so valiant. I didn’t think twice about it. But I know I’d never travel for miles, as they had done, to see a bird.

And so walking in the city, where one is accosted with buildings, bridges, streets, squares, lights, statues … millions of things that have aesthetic value, is gorging at a feast of manmade wonder. Walking through the City (the financial bit) at the weekend, is astonishing. With the streets emptied of bankers, one can gaze freely upwards at the playful Lloyds building, the grand heavy décor of Leadenhall Market, feel the ever-present assertion of the Gherkin. I know I’d much rather walk there than through a peaceful, bucolic meadow.

I’m not sure I like the fact that I’d rather be outdoors in the manmade world than in nature. I definitely don’t like the fact that I prefer nature writing to nature itself. Perhaps I need to experience it via someone else’s associations, as I haven’t spent enough time in it to form my own. Or perhaps, unlike William Blake, I simply lack the imagination ‘to see a world in a grain of sand, / and a heaven in a wild flower’. But, for now, I’m more than content to wander amidst London’s ever fascinating, ever complicated maze, thrilled to let it grow ever thicker with association.