I love maps of London, I do.
For some quality chill-time I like a tray of Bendicks Bittermints and my 1913 edition of Bacon’s Up To Date Atlas and Guide. I firmly believe it is the contemplation of (or better still being in) the landscape of London itself – that paradigm of healthy consciousness – which keeps my mind in shape. And as to Harry Beck’s serene yet kinetic design for the Tube Map, coupled of course with Edward Johnston’s pure and vestigial typeface, why, I find looking at that almost as relaxing as two paracetamol and a candlelight wank.
Why this should be part of me I don’t know. Perhaps it’s to do with the layout of the streets, or the quality of the light in the capital. I discovered it had this effect on me in my late twenties. I wish I had discovered it sooner.
I’ve always been a bit inward looking. I have an obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) which has nothing to do with germs or cleanliness, but manifests itself as the perceived inertia and unbalance of nearby objects which I might or might not have touched. It’s a ready-to-wear menace when you’re trying to get something done, and I regard this OCD the same way the Bowden family regard Robert De Niro in Cape Fear.
But all this mind-mesh and low mood stuff is what you get when you’re born in the year of Halley’s Comet. It started for me aged ten, when we moved to a countryside idyll which was well placed for forestry, but poorly placed for anything like a bus stop. Or friends. Spending my formative years in rural isolation engendered an insularity and loneliness which I knew would never be cured by joining a drama club. So as soon as I left school, that’s what I did.
Not-for-profit theatre, as they prefer to call it, was a furrow I ploughed with a mixture of Stanislavskian Method and masochism well into my twenties. Just walking through the door was like posting a selfie: The comments about being too ugly to play the role – or to procreate – would soon start coming. ‘By the time you’re thirty you’ll be earning so much money it won’t matter what you look like’, was one particularly sensitive piece of advice I was given. (I’m still waiting to hear back from Noam Chomsky about whether that qualifies as a back-handed compliment).
It was during one particularly alienating rehearsal that enlightenment struck. I was stood with my back to the wall of the rehearsal room when a train rumbled by and shook the place. That train was on its way to London. London wasn’t twenty million miles away. The journey wouldn’t take two days. (I wasn’t averse to using litotes).
Fuck me. I would stick my finger up to the theatre and spend my time main-lining it up to London, to the smoke and to the fumes. So I discovered that rather than sit lonely on the edge of an amateur production of Measure for Measure, I would prefer to sit significantly less lonely in a pub on the edge of London.
And that was what I did for a few revelatory months. London became for me a bronze and concrete astrolabe with which I navigated the uncertainties within my head.
But they say things get worse before they get better. And my mind, which over the years had been serving me whiffy hors d’ouevres of mild depression, was about to plate me up a properly rank main course.
I had to have an operation on my knee. It went OK, but afterwards I was given a wicked prescription of drugs to deal with the inflammation and pain. In particular there was one strong opioid tablet, chamfered ominously like a rectal torpedo, but which, the pharmacist assured me, was an oral preparation. On the plus side, it numbed the pain a proper treat. On the minus side, it made me think there were giant, sentient avocados in the garden doing modern pentathlon.
Everything turned a shade of brown and I thought I was going to dissolve into the carpet. I could never seem to walk the right number of steps to the kitchen sink, either I’d walk into it, or would have stopped too far away to reach it. Which is a proper bastard when you’re trying to make a cup of tea.
My GP was very good and put me in touch with the local mental health crisis counsellors who offer home visits. And travel in pairs. They called the next day.
‘Hello, I’m Lucy and this is my colleague, Janine. Don’t worry, she isn’t here to act as bouncer in case you freak out completely, she’ll just take notes.’
We awkwardly settled ourselves down and I noticed that Janine felt the same way about her canister of mace as I feel about my wallet – curiously uncomfortable in the back pocket when you’re sitting on a firm sofa. She transferred it to the coffee table.
‘Your doctor tells us you’ve been feeling a bit off-colour,’ said Lucy. Janine, pen poised above her pad, yawned and kicked off her boots.
‘Please tell us how you’re feeling.’
Well, they did ask.
After about half an hour describing five second’s worth of florid thought, the next time I looked at Janine her wrist was in a bandage.
‘It’s normally a problem to get people to describe how they feel,’ Lucy said. ‘You seem to be the opposite.’
‘One other thing,’ I said. ‘I think my avocados have got Olympic potential.’ Lucy and Janine looked at one another.
‘Do you have any thoughts that the television is sending you messages?’
‘It would have a fucking job,’ I replied, ‘I chucked it out the window yesterday.’
‘Good boy,’ they said together, and patted me on the head. It was time for them to go. Janine kicked away the pile of spent biros at her feet and I helped them load the stack of notebooks into their car.
It was good to talk, as Bob Hoskins said in The Long Good Friday. (No, hang on a minute, he was having someone macheted across the buttocks at the time, so it must have been the BT ads). But things took a turn for the worse. Putting my hands in water was giving me visions, but not in a good William Blake sort of way. In particular, I became fixated that I couldn’t understand short simple sentences, the type you might find in a newspaper headline. MAN HUMPS TREE might as well have been written in hieroglyphics, whereas the following shit, taken from a copy of Measure for Measure I hadn’t got round to chucking out, was slipping down as smoothly as a second glass of advocaat:
Of government the properties to unfold,
Would seem in me to affect speech and discourse;
Since I am put to know that your own science
Exceeds, in that, the lists of all advice
My strength can give you: then no more remains
But that to your sufficiency, as your worth is able,
And let them work.
The Swan of Avon had become my touchstone of sanity. It was quite something to be hydrophobic, crying, and reading Shakespeare’s sonnet cycle all at the same time. Fuck it, I hadn’t even been signed off work yet. Which was a pity, because I thought the man who mended the photocopier was an assassin.
‘Doctor, the photocopier engineer wants to kill me.’
‘Don’t worry, those printer-repair knob-heads couldn’t find their own arses let alone do anything else,’ she replied soothingly. Nevertheless she could tell this was serious, it was the first sentence I’d spoken in days which didn’t contain seventeen subordinate clauses.
‘We’ll try you on Haloperidol,’ she said. ‘It’s a proper Old Skool anti-psychotic. But you won’t be able to work on it.’
Sunshine broke through the windows and bluebirds started singing as she reached into the drawer for the sick notes. And after two weeks of reconciling myself to the standard laws of perspective, and realising that pizza menus didn’t need to be written in iambic pentameter to be intelligible, I started to feel well again. My knee wasn’t bad, either.
I couldn’t wait to be back within the comforting harness of a tight-packed metropolitan postcode. I needed the gloom of a Victorian pub, I needed sunlight on smoked brick, I needed to poke about in some junk stalls. I needed the capital.
Talk of the town
‘Petrol smells stronger the closer you get to London,’ my old friend Rick told me as he filled up at a Shell garage on the A3. It was a comment he didn’t care to elucidate on, but it was kind of him to be giving me a lift anyway. He’d fielded some pretty bizarre telephone calls from me over the past few weeks. Rick was headed for Slough, where I could have got the train on the Paddington line, but I asked him to drop me instead at Woking as I prefer the scenery on the line to Waterloo.
We were stuck on the forecourt for a while whilst we waited for a ninety year-old and his obliquely parked Lexus to fill and clear.
‘So what is this psychogeography thing you’re into then? Do you just wander pointlessly around London?’ Rick asked me.
‘I’d say aimlessly rather than pointlessly, mate.’
I explained to him the outlines of psychogeography, and emphasized it’s a somewhat elusive and controversial term that can mean different things to different people, but its central premise is urban exploration and the explorer’s personal, subjective response to the surroundings.
‘If you want to read about it I suggest London Orbital by Iain Sinclair or Scarp by Nick Papadimitriou. Though neither of those authors may wish to define themselves as psychogeographers,’ I added, confusingly. I think Rick was relieved when it was time to drop me off at Woking station.
‘Enjoy your urban drift,’ he called after me, employing a term which revealed he knew more about the subject than he was letting on. I didn’t have the heart to tell him this afternoon was going to be more about visiting a pub.
I never take a book on a daylight train journey: That’s what the window is for. The line upwards from Woking supports its own cloud structure and unique quality of light. Perhaps something to do with the resinous fumes of all those Surrey pines and the gamma ray money from St George’s Hill.
South London viewed from a train is for me a calendar and remembrancer. Which is a pretentious way of saying it’s a kick up the backside. For every opportunity I have declined a house has been built, and for every hand of friendship I have rejected there is to be seen a street. And the train is elevated high and the horizon is distant and time is passing quickly.
After Berrylands you should look out to the north where you start to see the big planes coming in to land, and watch out for a curious illusion caused by the reciprocating vectors of the train and the jumbo jets. This does to aeroplanes what complicated telescope equipment can do to stars and planets – it makes them appear to stand still. Score an extra point if you overhear an incredulous fellow passenger say, ‘Is that plane actually moving?’ Who needs the desperate last touting of the refreshment trolley when you’ve got 747s in retrograde and a prospect of a pint mere minutes away?
By 14.52 I was at Waterloo. I righted out of the station then lefted down The Cut towards the Charles Dickens on Union Street, nursing a thirst like 80 grit sandpaper. This was the pub that had discovered me on my first escape-flight from amateur drama. The back patio of the Charles Dickens (which I’ve never had the confidence to explore) with its hint of foliage always put me in mind of the paradisiacal garden in the H. G. Well’s story The Door in the Wall. This is a strange tale of urban exploration and wish-fulfilment which is a decent complement (if you enjoy Victorian and Edwardian psychogeographical tales) to Arthur Machen’s N, and E M Forster’s The Celestial Omnibus.
The Charles Dickens* has the cleanest and most transparent windows in the history of glass making. All the better to illuminate the little board with the guest ales chalked up. I can’t remember what I drank that day. I do remember what was showing on the television news, though: Shocking CCTV footage of a level-crossing trespasser getting out of the train’s way at the last millisecond. The mysterious thing about this rail dancer was that his moment of escape coincided with a gap in the video frames, so whatever saved him – be it a super human leap or some external force – was forever unrecorded. It is in these gaps of cognizance and surveillance that we must strive to live.
I finished my second pint and looked out of the window. I wasn’t convinced there was even glazing between those mullions and it was starting to get a bit dark for July. I know I can make a drink last, but this was ridiculous. But it was the weather turning, and it was putting a used £10 note into an envelope for me.
So out of the Charles Dickens, turn right, up Union Street, and down into Southwark Underground where I scanned in so I could pointlessly ride on the travelator between Waterloo and Southwark, and where I was to see a curious thing. A kilted punk commuter, was walking – I think – but going at an astonishing speed in relation to actual leg movement. A bit like Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula. And he wasn’t even on the moving walkway, he was on the normal bit in the middle.
‘Hey mate,’ a man bellowed at him, ‘You walk fast!’
‘Fuck off,’ came the reply with a swipe over the bannister. A swipe with better connection than any offered by Network Rail.
So up and out at Waterloo and down through Southbank to the river. By the time I got to the bridge with the bookstalls underneath the sky had gone brown and grey, like something out of a 17th century engraving. Rain began to fall.
I watched a matt-black cargo barge, powered by anachronism and diesel, passing with its load of dead minerals. It was passing slower than the dude in the level-crossing video, and with infinitely more dignity, but for some reason it made me think of him. Had he been looking for trouble and a deranged good time? Or had he been contemplating the ultimate escape, but changed his mind?
I sheltered under the bridge whilst it continued to pour and they ran out with the plastic covers for the bookstalls like they do at Wimbledon. Lightning and thunder now, and the rain slanting up like crystal shards in a Glastonbury head shop. It was impossible to see clearly to the other side of the river.
Sometimes, when on the cusp of ultra-enlightenment, the subconscious can nominate a proxy to decant our surplus knowledge, and this moment was no exception. A man in an Aquascutum trench coat asked me the way to the Hayward Gallery, and I told it him cheerfully. I’d read about the exhibition that was showing there in the paper.
‘Forget Ed Ruscha and his gasoline stations,’ I called after him, ‘I might have been the man in the level-crossing video.’ But he was gone, cutting through the crowds in his £600 raincoat.
My phone rang, which was a welcome distraction from the thought pot hole I had suddenly stumbled into. I looked at the screen. Blimey. It was Lucy.
‘Hi Luke. Just a call from us to check you’re doing OK.’
‘I am thank you, Lucy. The occasional glitch, but a lot better.’
‘Luke, do you mind if I ask you a question that’s a bit unprofessional?’
‘Er, OK.’ I felt my mood lift immediately. Was she going to romance me? But I could hear some odd thudding noises on her end of the line, and I had visions of Janine shifting the office furniture around. Or bench pressing 100 kilos.
‘When we came to your flat, you had this huge framed map of the London Underground on the wall, and we were really puzzled why.’
I was slightly disappointed. I was hoping her question was going to be a lot more unprofessional than that.
‘An easy one, Lucy. It’s actually a poster of an art work called The Great Bear by Simon Patterson. It’s based on the Tube map but the stations have been replaced by names of philosophers and actors. It’s fascinating. Look it up on the Internet.’
The line had an echo-ey sound, and I wondered if I was on speakerphone. I thought I could hear Janine sniggering in the background.
‘That’s great Luke. And we’re glad you’re feeling better. Call us if you need us.’
But of course Janine wasn’t sniggering, and it was good of them to think of me. I wandered off eastwards with a lightened heart and the contemplation of some hot snacks at Gabriel’s Wharf.
Then I started thinking about that bloody barge again. I took out my pen and notebook to distract myself. I’ve always wanted to write a book.
‘Conscious, now,’ I wrote, ‘of the fractal promise of the streets that makes my mind put forth a thousand tendrils, like a Japanese tea whisk…’
My phone beeped with a message. Bloody hell, how’s a man supposed to compose a baroque sentence with all these interruptions?
It was Rick: ‘DONT B THINKING SHITE B DRINKING PINT’.
So that’s what I went and did.
* The Charles Dickens is currently closed with no sign of reopening
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Image credits: Main image by Kevin Trotman and Under bridge over troubled water by nickestamp, both used under this licence; Berrylands by David Howard and A tale of one city by DncnH, both used under this license; others by Dulwich Raider