The Ascent of Lavender Hill (17.9m)

Battersea Arts Centre

Battersea arts centre fireI was very sad to hear about the fire at Battersea Arts Centre yesterday, especially as it has only recently under gone a refurbishment. Places to enjoy and learn about the arts are an ever decreasing thing in my beloved south west London due to the ever creeping cultural oil slick known as luxury flats. I’m so relieved no one was hurt and hope to see it back on it’s feet soon, I have such fond memories of the place.

Last year, I wrote a psychogeographical essay about BAC and Lavender Hill for Mount London: Ascents in the Vertical City, a collection of works exploring London’s peaks put together by Penned in the Margins. In tribute, here it is: 

Lavender Hill, SW11 (17.9m)

 

Dull grey skies. Commuters and casual shoppers buzz in and out of the station as I set off up the hill into an icy breeze. I’m climbing Lavender Hill: a hump of ancient glacial spew in the heart of Battersea, just north east of Clapham Junction. The road, an eponymously named section of the A3036, is my guide through this wild urban landscape. It’s a typically London thoroughfare, perennially thronging with grubby cars and lorries and bearded cyclists heading up to Westminster or down to Wandsworth, then on. At three-quarters-of-a-mile long and just under eighteen metres tall – that’s less than two tail-to-tail double-decker buses – the hill offers a tough climb, but I should be able to make it.

I follow the pavement, passing the first row of shops. School kids are beginning to swarm; a tumultuous army of blue blazers swagger into newsagents and fried chicken joints. A spit of rain falls in dark modicums on the floor. I walk up against the flow of pedestrians and, a little way along the road’s southern edge, come to Battersea Library – an old four-storey, red brick reference library with rosewood-coloured turrets that disappear up into the murk above.

I’d been past here many times before and its gaudy posters and out-of-date notice boards are all familiar to me, so too are the rowdy pair drinking Kestrel Super Strength on the wooden bench near the entrance. Two men: one a ball of tattered tweed and matted blonde fuzz, the other wearing a huge winsome grin and a wooly hat so weathered there’s more hole than hat left. In the still moments, before the wind washes the air clean, their interesting perfume – of stale hangovers and festering bodily fluids – reaches my unwelcoming nose.

Despite being thoroughly sozzled, they shiver in the cold. It’s been a mild winter, but the temperature has dropped and my hands and cheeks are beginning to feel it too – each turse lash of wind leaves my bare skin a little more raw. There will be a frost tonight, the gritty surfaces of shallow, greying puddles will freeze, but too many feet tread these pavements for it to last long. Ice rarely lasts long in London. Once though, a long time before the city, this land was covered with ice.

During the last glacial period – the time when our current ice age was at its most extreme, around 18,000 years ago – harsh winters and freezing temperatures meant that vast sheets of ice formed that, at their peak, covered a third of the Earth’s surface and claimed millions of gallons of water. Sea levels and rainfall plummeted. The air was starved of moisture and the land of colour

a barren monotony,

 

stillness

broken only by powdery

frost

drifting

across white plains. Much of

Britain’s green landscape was like an Arctic tundra; a desert of wind and cold reaching all the way across Europe, unbroken by country borders or the North Sea which hadn’t yet formed.

Whole forests and mountain ranges were consumed by these ‘rivers of ice’, glaciers that became oxymorons under the sheer weight of their own mass; solids that oozed and slid and behaved like liquid plastic. The ice slowly smothered everything, devastating the landscape so that, when the world eventually began to warm and the glaciers retreated, our geography was changed forever. What hadn’t been crushed or eroded by the ice was altered by epic floods with such force that new seas were formed, dividing us from mainland Europe and trapping the Thames which, until that point, had been a tributary of the ancient German river Rhine. The chewed up remains of the old land, carried in the bowels of the glaciers for thousands of years, became the raw material for a new terrain, for some of its hills and contours. Lavender Hill is one of these glacial dumps. Perhaps not the Ice Age’s most mind blowing achievement, but useful for anyone trying to get to Westminster from Wandsworth.

At roughly the same point as the library, and the bench where Scruffy Blonde and Smiley McGrubberson are bickering over a tab end, the earth deep below the modern city begins to change. Below the pavement and subterranean electricity cables, glacial gravel merges with Taplow gravel – the granular, sand-rich foundation of the Thames Terraces. The river is just over a mile away. It’s these conditions – the good drainage and elevation – that helped give the hill its name: before the station brought an almighty wave of urbanisation just over 150 years ago, this was agricultural land ribbed with vibrant rows of sweet smelling lavender. I try to imagine the aroma as I pass the two drunks and head onwards.

The road ahead is faced with a dense entanglement of shops and houses, it’s noisy and cluttered: boxy council blocks and boarded-up boutiques; health food stores and posh estate agents. Victorian terraced houses, mostly divvied up into newsagents and dim-windowed bedsits, watch over me as I climb the slope. The incline must be hitting a heady five degrees by now. The sky has turned pale and bright and I squint against the glare.

The pleasure in higher ground usually lies in perspective, the comfort one gets from feeling small against the vastness of the landscape. The chance to, as Rob Macfarlane puts it, “look down on a city that I usually look across. The relief of relief… a way of defraying the city’s claims on me.”* But Lavender Hill doesn’t feel like a hill, despite the gradient. Most of the view is obscured by a thick fog of glass and brickwork, it hems me into the road. I can’t see out and it dampens my senses. I’ve no concept of the topography of the outlying land or the direction of anything – there is only forward or back. I don’t know if, beyond the buildings, the rest of the city is even there. For all I can see, this, right here, is everything.

***

The cheerful purple heads of lavender flowers yield abundant nectar meaning that, before the station brought an explosion of shops and houses that proved fatal to local farming, nearby bee hives were swimming in high-quality honey. As one of nature’s perfect partnerships, together they brought farmers here a hearty revenue from the markets. Lavender was thought to protect against disease, a cure-all, it was burnt to cleanse sickness from the air and honey was used as a medicine. Sometimes the heavily-scented oil was used as a household cleaner or mixed with beeswax to make a fine polish. They were eaten together too, lavender was added to honey to create an aromatic and indulgent treat.

At the summit, roughly, of Lavender Hill is Battersea Arts Centre. It was built in the late 19th century as the town hall of the defunct borough of Battersea, but is now a theatre and arts venue. I heave myself up the last hardy chunk of the ascent, then head inside for some well-earned refreshment. In the entrance hall I’m struck by an elaborate glass mosaic on the floor: a medley of blues, pale to bright, like a pool glistening under a hot sun, and all around, not much bigger than my foot and sort of floating, there are simple black and gold bee emblems. Some have their wings outspread as though poised for flight, others appear to be resting or feeding.

Battersea Arts Centre floor

I sup a luke warm latte in the ground floor café and ask around to see if anyone knows about the bees. Are they anything to do with local lavender? No one seems to be sure. A waitress tells me she overheard a walking guide say they were part of the original council’s statement of intent, it would remind them to work hard and value teamwork. Another says she’s sure they stand for BB, or Battersea Borough. Neither know anything about lavender.

Warm and slightly buzzing, I feel set to tackle the descent. So I hit the road again in the direction of Westminster, following the chewing gum-strewn pavement as it eases down the reverse of the hill. Ashen people wait at a bus stop under an ashen sky, shrinking into their scarfs and collars against the chill. In this light, there is little that doesn’t appear grey. The houses with their peeling and water stained paintwork, the leafless bushes that spike up from behind low lying walls, the pitted tarmac and dirty pedestrian crossings. Even a patch of grass, the front yard of the Ascension of Our Lord church, is also somehow sedate and drab.

Just near the next crossing however, a clearing catches my eye. It’s a sudden and momentary break in the terraces and estates on the northern side of the road, a window out from this claustrophobic gloom. Two steps to the left or right and it would be missed, but from this one accidental spot I can see all the way across London.

A view – at last.

I stop to survey the scene, soaking in the soothing magnitude of the distant landscape. I can see for miles across the tops of all sorts of buildings: the sallow chimneys of Battersea Power station; the rolling crest of the London Eye then, tiny from here, and the sharp apexes of Parliament and the BT tower. It’s an immense chain of man-made peaks, an architectural mountain range growing ever smaller as it disappears into the horizon. People must have been admiring the view for thousands of years, yet it’s unlikely any two viewings were ever alike. Once a glacial tundra, then farmland and now a huge network of glass and steel, bombastic monuments to money and power that are forever rising and falling, a scene that ebbs and flows from one season to the next just like any natural environment. Although the height of these structures greatly exceeds that of my tiny natural hill, it feels like I’m much higher than they are. I can see our position, Lavender Hill’s place in the world, and be certain that I’m very, very small.

* The Wild Places. Macfarlane, Robert. New York: Penguin, 2008.

Mount London cover
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I wrote a piece for the Guardian about man-shaming portmanteaus – they need to die

mansplaining

I wrote a thingy for the Guardian about man-shaming portmanteaus – mansplaining, manslamming, manterrupting, manspreading, etc. They’re stupid, stop it – men are people too, I suppose. Male entitlement is an issue. Derogatory words highlight the problem (and are fun, let’s be honest), but fuelling gender-squabbling isn’t doing equality any favours. Funnily enough, this seemed to be a popular piece with men-folk. Fancy version here, unedited version below. 

Men. If they’re not ‘mansplaining’ things to women they’re ‘manslamming’ us in the street, ‘manspreading’ on the tube or ‘manterrupting’ us during work meetings. Even as a hairy, sensible-shoe wearing man-hater – otherwise known as a feminist – the rise and rise of the man-shaming portmanteau has left me feeling a little uncomfortable.

First there was mansplaining, which was declared 2014’s Aussie word of the year by Macquarie Dictionary of Australian English this week. It refers to the very real tendency of some men to explain things to women, whether they need them explaining or not, because of an ingrained assumption that they’re too ignorant – their pretty little heads too full of boys and make-up, no doubt – to understand.

The term is thought to have been first coined by feminist commentators in 2008 following the publication of Rebecca Solnit’s scathing essay, Men Explain Things to Me. The piece recounted the painful tale of the time an over-confident and clueless man at a party explained her own book to her – an experience that many women can sympathise with to some degree.

One of the problems with simplistic terms like this however, is their ease of use and humour risk diluting any message. They become an easy-to-mouth solution for a more complicated problem, and this one quickly took on more pejorative meanings. It became a go-to phrase for mumbled or garbled explanations and the trump card in arguments, but this sort of overuse just desensitises us to the real issue which is that, yes, some men really do talk down to women.

More recently, manspreading reared it’s ugly, er… head. According to the New York Times, who announced a Metropolitan Transportation Authority campaign to banish it from the New York subway late last year, that’s when men “spread their legs wide, into a sort of V-shaped slouch, effectively occupying two, sometimes even three, seats” on crowded trains. Then New York Magazine hit us with manslamming: pedestrian collisions caused by the refusal of some men to make space for other people using the same pavement, especially women. They said of the two issues that “arguably, both are symptoms of a culture that teaches men to self-assuredly occupy any and all space available to them, regardless of who’s nearby.”

While a sense of entitlement certainly causes some people to behave inappropriately towards others, privilege is far more complicated than man versus woman. Aside from a few word derivatives – such as ‘whitesplaining’ – the man-shaming portmanteau ignores other socio-economic factors associated with entitlement like race, class or aesthetic values.

The most recent lexical blends to enter the fray are Time magazine’s manterrupt and ‘bropropriate’. The former blending ‘man’ and ‘interrupt’ to describe an unnecessary interruption of a woman by a man, often in the work place, and the later denoting the stealing of a woman’s ideas and taking credit for them. It puts me in mind of an old Fast Show sketch where three men are discussing how to break into a car, presumably one of them has accidentally locked his keys inside. Arabella Weir, who happens to be strolling past, suggests putting a half a tennis ball over the lock, “then smash it with the palm of your hand and the air pressure forces the lock up”. The men ignore her and then pass the idea of as their own while she looks on, horrified: “can any of you actually here me?”

While women are certainly not equal at work, a recent survey found that female employees felt they were held back by negative office politics, neologisms like manterrupt risk trivialising the problem and undermine feminism’s message of equality, not anti-male rhetoric. They serve to polarise people rather then unite us against gender-based social discrepancies and invite absolutism – “manterrupting? Never speak when a woman is speaking because she is a woman,” raged one Redditor.

It reeks of gender essentialism – the idea that specific physical, social and cultural traits are native to a particular gender. It may be satisfying, refreshing, even empowering, to give men a hard time, but I can’t help imagine how I would feel if faced with similar accusations – ‘womanterrupting’ or ‘womansplaining’ for example. It would be degrading.

Besides, bad behavior is not exclusive to the male half of the species. I’m guilty of at least a few of these terms. I’ve had the odd fracas with tortoise-paced members of the public during a frenzied morning commute. Not because of their gender, but because in the awful time-sparse world of a city dweller they were – and I’m not proud of this – collateral damage. On the tube, I find it comfortable to sit with one leg crossed over the other, despite the fact that it means accidentally kicking standing passengers sometimes. I have patronisingly explained the obvious to intelligent people on more occasions than I care to recount and, sometimes, on intercity trains, I leave my coat on the seat next to me so people think I have a friend in the toilet.

Entitlement is still a problem. However, before we go smooshing any more man-words together, it might be worth remembering that a prat is a prat, whatever their gender.