Monday, 12 September 2016

Way-losing in London: how to get lost in the capital

Some years ago I produced a map, not unlike the one above, which re-imagined London by stripping back the names of tube stations so that they simply described what was to be found at their site. Oxford Circus thus becomes Circus while Westbourne Park can be renamed either bourne or Park. One of the ideas here was to remove the familiar markers, often denoting ownership and association, and to see afresh the city as a collection of sites. 

This is a detail of the above map that includes our starting point. Since we has not decided whether we'd be venturing north or south of the river on our disorientation mission, it felt right to begin our journey in the uncommitted zone of a bridge over The Thames. We set out  in the direction most of us knew the least: North West. This didn't initially yield anything very unusual; we quickly arrived at a barrier clad Trafalgar Square with bikes circling and modest crowds murmuring their modest approval. As we snaked our way through Mayfair and Marylebone we stopped to discuss what being lost might look like and in response to this, we switched our logic of navigation several times so as to remain on the scent of being lost rather than progressing in too calculating a way towards our indeterminate goal. While none of the various approaches could possibly deliver us to the promised land while still in this most familiar of terrains, they all did their part in paving the way. We became more sensitised to the particularities of the sites we encountered, though unlike the above map where they sit isolated from one another in a sea of white, ours were still connected by our mental threads.

We squeezed onto a bustling double decker heading north and after some time stepped out at what was to be a random, and hopefully mysterious, bus stop. Chance delivered us to Golders Green, a Jewish neighbourhood in NW London that was, for a few of us, still relatively familiar. Getting lost was not going to be so easy after all. We walked through some side streets now thinking about an afternoon pause, and whilst I was chatting away on the subject of New York City's space vrs London's, we happened upon a pizza and sushi canteen. Their margherita was indeed the New York style: thin crust loaded with cheese. We ate and took stock of our wanderings.

The afternoon continued with an altogether more concerted attempt to break the mental map by alternately leading and being led through the streets with eyes closed. We must have looked quite a sight: several couples tottering slowly along quiet backroads, narrowly avoiding trees, lampposts and bushes. Forty minutes later, we arrived at a state of complete disorientation. This best stab I could manage at our location would be to say we were 'somewhere in the Golders Green area', beyond that and I'd just be making it up. 

Our endpoint revealed itself when I opened my eyes onto a large suburban house with a curious public / private bench marking its perimeter. Unlike previous attempts at way-losing (Beijing, Birmingham, Santa Cruz de Tenerife) where there was equal emphasis upon the construction of narratives, we were way too solid with our London directions so had to approach the problem of getting lost very directly. This black and white house, then, was familiar as an idea when I looked at it (I had previously lived in Stamford Hill, another Jewish neighbourhood in London) but when I started to examine it and the roads passing in front of and behind me more closely, they became not so familiar after all. The more I looked the stranger and more particular it seemed to become. This corner held all manner of details in excess of my first impression of the place, an impression I might very well have stuck with if I were passing through normally. Not being able to locate this place, then, made it all the more vivid as it had escaped the illusion of control and mastery. Walking on from here and attempting to now find our way, the roads remained more alive. A voice from a distant PA drifted over, an inscrutable enthusiasm that could have been intoning anything from children's sports to ethnic cleansing. Roads looped in on themselves refusing to behave. For a short space of time, I found again the newcomers bewilderment. This makes me realise that this fragile state should not be surrendered so quickly but rather savoured to the very fullest. Watch out for this next time, which should be happening later this autumn: details coming soon!


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