Posted in London on Sunday 6th September 2015 at 10:09pm
It had been a busy month of excursions already, and it was impossible not to suffer the slight financial disquiet which always seems to ensnare me at such times when faced with the prospect of a weekend in London. But it had been a while since we'd ventured up here on a joint visit - and when some very old friends from the US had announced they would be in town, it turned out to be possible to extend one of my now regular monthly walking trips to ensure we got to meet up. In fact, things had taken an even more fortuitous turn a week or so beforehand when we spotted that Iain Sinclair would be speaking at the Design Museum during the morning of my trip. After a good deal of prodding and persuasion which is always necessary to get me to spend money on what my unconscious anxieties deem a luxurious non-necessity, I quickly reorganised things, booked a ticket and shelved a planned walk until the next trip. The Northern Heights could wait for a while.
I set out early, leaving a pleasantly autumnal morning at home and finding myself in a damp, mist-shrouded city. Surfacing at Tower Hill, the top of the White Tower was above cloud level and the ever-growing city skyline seemed to loom weirdly out of the mist. I realised I'd need to brave the rain to get to my destination, and decided to strike out for the south bank right away. Strangely, I realised that this would involve my first ever crossing of Tower Bridge. As I wandered under the vast towers I tried to mentally catalogue my walks in this part of the city, but I could genuinely never recall crossing the bridge by any means. It seemed impossible, but thinking of the focus of my walks over the years it was entirely likely. It became pretty clear that I didn't know my way around this part of the world when I got to the southern shore. I knew the Design Museum's location due to a very recent walk which ended near here, but it still took me a while to figure that the only way down to the embankment without a long detour were the stairs in the middle of the footway. Once beneath the bridge, I ducked around the corner into the tall warehouse blocks of Shad Thames, finding a spot to get coffee. I was experiencing all the usual apprehensions of attending an event like this - the sense of intellectual inadequacy, the oddly proletarian fear of not 'acting right' in a cultural venue. I shook it off as far as I could - I was going to hear perhaps my favourite living writer speaking for the first time since 2009. Eventually I managed to administer the necessary internal slap to get myself moving, and headed for the Design Museum. Handing over my ticket, I realised I was probably the first one here and found myself directed upstairs to a gallery curated by the Spanish footwear company Camper, entitled Life On Foot. I browsed the exhibition for a while, savouring the shoe-shop smell I'd experienced as a child but have studiously avoided ever since. It's clear the brand is irreverent, innovative and interesting - but to be brutally honest, their line in bright, casual shoes wasn't my thing. I looked at my dusty but much loved walking boots - possibly the most I'd ever invested in footwear, and silently thanked myself for overcoming the urge to save money just that once! By far the most interesting part of the exhibition was the section on new approaches to walking the city - it was here that Iain Sinclair's involvement had been secured, and his work sat alongside other attempts to alter the walker's view - including some neat 'games' involving technology and walking. Alongside this, under a crazily-angled roof beam sat about twelve small chairs. This was going to be an intimate occasion it seemed.
The talks began with Peter Watts describing a Twitter-guided excursion from the Design Museum. In short, he let his followers direct the action at each decision point, and wandered according to their whims. He talked a lot about method - should every junction be a decision point for instance? What about decisions which would clearly create a circle? Interestingly he travelled only a short distance from the museum and ended up back at the river - its magnetism ever present. Iain Sinclair followed with a less structured and more conversational talk given the small audience. He described his pre-digital engagement with the city and compared Peter's walks to Situationist practice, before taking a long, discursive ramble through his recent walk covering the London Overground project, the post-Olympic legacy in London and the privatisation of space he'd experienced when trying to swim in the highest pool in London, buried somewhere high in The Shard. The session was to be followed by a signing, but the small crowd seemed to drift oddly away, so I plucked up the courage to present a very old, battered copy of Lights Out For The Territory, appropriate because it was one of the texts which set my walks on a rather less travelled path many years ago. Iain generously signed the rough old paperback, and given the lack of any other punters indulged me in a short but interesting chat. We parted with a handshake, and scurried off in our separate directions - both with new walks to consider, and old haunts to linger on. I found it a little difficult to settle into the day after such an interesting and challenging morning, and found myself wandering back over the bridge to eat, watching the river and the tourists, before heading for our hotel for the night deep in the City. After checking in I wandered out for coffee, finding myself close to The Monument and the coffee shop I'd used for years on my city jaunts - mercifully still open at the weekends. Checking news from home, we scheduled our meeting in London for later and I decided to strike out on a bus trip east. I was still oddly spooked by my morning, so I didn't wander far, disembarking at Limehouse and wandering the grounds of St. Ann's church for a while, before getting the DLR back into the city for a quiet evening, the novelty of getting to meet up in London not lost on me.
Sunday dawned cool and bright, and I couldn't resist an early wander in the deserted city. I'd arranged to head west and collect our friends at 10, so I had time to do a circuit of the eastern precincts of the square mile finding myself drawn, unwillingly, to the Walkie Talkie building. Recently voted the worst building in London - but on what basis I'm still unclear as there are many contenders now - this odd thumb-shaped smudge on the horizon seems to intrude on every picture of the city, despite not being the tallest tower by some stretch. There is something about its arrogant, bulging presence which offends the eye somehow, not to mention the strange environmental effects its shape and bulk are causing. I circled it, eyeing it critically but honestly. It didn't look like a bad building to work in - but it was hard to ignore it. It will never quite feel like part of the fabric I fear, set aside from the cluster of towers as it is. I pressed on in a loop around Fenchurch Street and back to The Monument for coffee, before getting the tube west to Gloucester Road. The utter change in the environment was a strange shock - from glass and steel to stucco and porticos, I wandered into one of the specific type of hotels beloved of overseas travel agents and met friends I'd not seen for more than twenty years, it was a strange and rather special morning indeed. Wanting to give our visitors the tourist experience, we headed for the Tower via their first Underground ride and a short walk around the city. It was, as ever, crowded and frustrating to get around the attraction, but we covered a fair bit of ground including the obligatory crown jewels and an ascent of The White Tower which involved a lot more steps and stairs than I'd expected. Once we'd seen enough armour - and there is a surprisingly exhausting amount on show - we headed out for a very strange pub lunch in a very busy Fullers' outlet before escorting our friends back to Gloucester Road en route back to Paddington for our own homeward trip.
Reflecting during the trip home, I realised what a complicated relationship I have with London - tourist, walker, reader and writer of obscure little blogs - and how as my friends and family have become a global concern, it has become a canvas for showing Britain's history to them. This weekend I've managed to pack all of these roles into a single visit, so it's perhaps no surprise I felt a little disoriented at times. Next month, thanks to First Great Western's unusually well-timed special offer, my walks will return to their usual pace and solitary nature. While I look forward to wandering far more mundane locales, away from the tourist trail, I'll miss having company on my trek.
Posted in London on Thursday 3rd September 2015 at 7:09am
It's strange how once you've encountered an event, it's repercussions and associations seem to haunt you. A month or two back I wrote about a walk to Tripcock Ness, touching on the terrible events of 1878 when the Princess Alice sank on her return voyage from Gravesend with the loss of an estimated 650 lives. I first encountered this story in Iain Sinclair's 'Downriver' a decade or more back - and it has nagged at me whenever I've visited this part of the Thames. Since visiting the site in the summer though, I seem to have found more and more associations with the events of September 3rd 1878.
To mark the anniversary of what remains the worst public transport disaster in British history, I thought I'd link to Stephen McKenna's brief but beautifully filmed documentary about the Princess Alice:
I've had a home on the web for more years than I care to remember, and a few kind souls persuade me it's worth persisting with keeping it updated. This current incarnation of the site is centred around the blog posts which began back in 1999 as 'the daylog' and continued through my travels and tribulations during the following years.
I don't get out and about nearly as much these days, but I do try to record significant events and trips for posterity. You may also have arrived here by following the trail to my former music blog Songs Heard On Fast Trains. That content is preserved here too.