Writing in Built Up Areas
By Anna Aslanyan.
John Rogers, This Other London: Adventures in the Overlooked City, HarperCollins, 2013
Whenever I pick up a book where a visit to some place is described in a narrative propped up by grainy black-and-white photographs, I want some proof that these amateur shots are there for a good reason. In W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn they evoke a sense of decay and nostalgia; Owen Hatherley uses them to emphasise the bleakness of the new ruins he examines. It took me a while to see what John Rogers aimed to achieve with the pictures that accompany his account of ten walks around parts of London usually ignored in guide books. Their main purpose, it seems, is to draw your attention to things that are not there, whose absence often tells you more about the place than the presence of its identifiable components. A stretch of the Thames near Vauxhall, once so packed with boats one could cross it by jumping from one to the next, is empty. A bold sign reading “Lewisham Model Market” has no models behind it. Most notably, an old boarded-up house with an ornate facade, situated in what may be called an up-an-coming area, is missing an “Acquired for Development” notice.
In contrast to the pictures, the text is full of details, both visible and invisible to the eye; there are plenty of historical facts and everyday trivia unearthed by Rogers as he plans and goes on his expeditions that take him as far as Erith Pier in the east and Hounslow Heath in the west. Some of this information comes from books whose titles range from the esoteric The 21 Lessons of Merlin: A Study in Druid Magic & Lore to the practical County of London Plan, 1943; the rest is obtained through fieldwork. On one such occasion, eager to find out what wassailing is, Rogers joins a group of locals in Hackney for this fertility ritual, which involves singing and drinking to fruit trees, an unorthodox way to explore the Lea Valley on a cold January day.
Rogers’ discoveries are often quite serendipitous, as when he wanders through Isleworth and happens upon Wyke House, once a lunatic asylum. This gives him a chance to expose the creator of the unsavoury cliché “the great unwashed”, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, not only as a second-rate novelist but also as a man of dubious morals who was cruel to his wife. Personal minutiae generously shared by Rogers, such as the fact that his children are fans of South Park, are less fascinating. Luckily, the kids are generally not interested in joining their father on his walks: he manages to drag them out just once, to South Park (in Ilford, much to their disappointment), but other than that continues, for the most part, to ramble on his own.
While forays into history make the skeleton of the book, Rogers is also keen to talk about what’s going on in London now. Even though the hottest potato in town is the aftermath of the Olympics, he tries to avoid the subject – and not just because “the Grand Project” has already been dealt with by another urban wanderer, Iain Sinclair. Unlike the unrelenting author of Ghost Milk, Rogers is torn between the anti-globalist agenda and the feel-good atmosphere on the wrong side of the security fences. Blaming Bradley Wiggins for these occasional lapses of the protest spirit, Rogers heads for Herne Hill Velodrome, where the cycling champion used to train. On his way there he remembers the Battle of Lewisham, performs a pagan ritual at Ladywell and ponders over the prophesies of Ivan Chtcheglov, one of the founders of the Situationist International. The old velodrome has “a family vibe, warm and convivial, what sport ought to be”, and yet Rogers hopes it will be able to “produce a new crop of Olympic heroes” – rather than simply survive as a place for people to enjoy.
There are numerous cultural references in the book, mainly to London film settings, from Beckton, nicknamed “Beck Phu” because Stanley Kubrick shot Full Metal Jacket there, to Thamesmead, one of the locations chosen by the director for A Clockwork Orange. A visit to Walthamstow is an excuse to mention William Morris, “a prolific and passionate polemicist as well as a designer of lovely wallpaper”, who grew up there, in a mansion that now houses a gallery named after him. Going back to his own home turf, Leytonstone, Rogers finds another opportunity to touch upon the arts: in the mid-80s the area had a large population of artists, who were forced to leave when their homes, rented cheaply through an artists’ housing association, were bulldozed over for a motorway to be built there in 1990. Talking about the creative community in its heyday, the author describes it thus: “a flourishing scene blossomed”, bringing to mind another gem from the prolific Bulwer-Lytton, “It was a dark and stormy night”.
These purple hues dissolve as Rogers turns to present-day affairs, typically to lay into “voracious” developers who care little about heritage and less still about homes for all. You get some vivid descriptions, such as “clusterfuck of skyscrapers” or “concrete migraine”, when the author stumbles across St George Wharf, part of the Nine Elms regeneration project. Rogers’ background is stand-up comedy, and his prose bears clear traces of it, although not every paragraph ends with a punchline (unless some of them simply never landed). The “crushed berries from the Tree of Knowledge” – served in healthy food joints in Leather Lane, where once “the decapitation of live eels” took place – did the trick for me.
His comedian’s hat on or off, Rogers is at his best when he casts a wry eye at the surroundings: “A long cable dangles down from the satellite dishes on the roof above the launderette like a noose. It’s tempting to think that Hornsey Road has seen better days but I’m not sure it has.” That he ends up in the area is partly thanks to Arthur Machen, who thought that people claiming to know London need to be taken there so they can realise that “[their] London is but a tiny island in the midst of an unknown, unnavigated sea.” The references to the occult writer who urged everyone to practice “the Great Art of London” provide a link to other great visionaries, from William Blake to Iain Sinclair. What makes their writings so powerful is their ability to see things that are not there. Perhaps they are not there for all of us to see? Things like Druids, “ripening gallows fruit”, affordable housing and suchlike? If you are looking for them and need some encouragement, remember that, in John Rogers’ experience, surprises in London are always “just a just a left-turn away”.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anna Aslanyan is a translator and journalist living in London. She regularly contributes to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and writes for the TLS and a number of online publications. Anna’s translations into Russian include works of fiction by Tom McCarthy, Martin Amis, Peter Ackroyd, Mavis Gallant and Zadie Smith.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, November 11th, 2013.