I was shortlisted for The Columnist writing competition

ghosting

Back in September I was extremely chuffed to be shortlisted for The Columnist, a competition that used to be run by the much-missed arts charity IdeasTap but has now migrated to Hiive (a great network for creative professionals). I made the last ten, and seen as there were 490 entrants I was smiling for ages. This was my entry:

 

“Saturday.”

This is the last message I sent to my best friend before she turned into a ghost. She didn’t die, but our friendship did and now I wish I’d said something more meaningful.

Ghosting is when someone cuts you off dead – the ultimate silent treatment. Your calls are ignored, your texts left unread and, if you’re as unbearable as me, you might even find yourself full-on digitally blocked (even Linked in – I’m not going to late-night stalk your endorsements). Like the dad who goes out for cigarettes and never returns, my friend went full Houdini on me – poof, and she was gone.

There are times when disappearing into the ether is the only way to deal with a ghoul, I get that. Who could blame Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for pulling an Irish goodbye on Humbert Humbert? It doesn’t get much more creepy than a 36-year old man who obsesses over a 12-year old girl, even before he starts bribing her for sexual favours.

Lolita escapes Humbert’s ever tightening-grip by doing a jib from a hospital and it worked, for a couple of years at least. Today, she’d probably instead have to delete her Snapchat and get damn busy with her location settings, but still, this is an extreme case. Most of us – and thankfully, I include myself in this – are not paedophile sex pests.

Bff or worst-date-ever, most people deserve a bit of explanation. Yet 11% of Americans admitted to ghosting someone they were dating in a YouGov survey last year. There is a sense that, through an illusion of exclusivity, ghosting is not just about ducking out quietly, but in fact a kind of self-elevation.

In Ali Smith’s book There But For The, reluctant dinner party guest Miles Garth slopes off upstairs between the main course and dessert. He locks himself in a spare room and refuses to come out. Ever. In doing so he becomes not just a source of desperate intrigue to the remaining guests, who gather around the door trying to find out what they can about Miles, but to the whole country. He becomes a minor celebrity, not just conspicuous in his absence, but tantalising in his mystery.

In short, unless someone poses you a serious threat, ghosting is all a bit look-at-me, don’t-look-at-me juvenile. How far can people-erasing go anyway? You can’t delete people from the real world or your brain. We’ve seen it in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in Black Mirror, even Red Dwarf, and it never ends well.

I was a good friend (honest) – the sort that always remembered to hold the tomato in sandwiches and to put wine in the fridge. Yet now I’m left picking over every word, every time I mentioned a day of the week, and wondering how it could’ve been taken the wrong way. Besides, there are few greater pleasures in life than calling an arsehole an arsehole. If we ghost everyone who pisses us off, what joy will be left?

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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
You can buy Mount London: Ascents in The Vertical City (Penned in the Margins) here: Amazon (plus Kindle edition), Waterstones, Penned in the Margins.

For more information contact info (@) pennedinthemargins (.) co (.) uk.

I wrote an essay for Mount London: Ascents in the Vertical City

mountlondon_cover_smallThis book, a collection of essays and stories, is an account of the ascent of ‘Mount London’: “An invisible mountain is rising above the streets of the capital – and at over 1,800 metres, it is Britain’s highest peak.”

There are ascents of natural hills, such as Primrose Hill, as well as man-made ones, such as the Shard and Battersea Power Station. I’m pleased to announce there is also an ascent of Lavender Hill, a modest natural peak near Clapham Junction in Battersea, written by none other than yours truly. The aim of this collection is to explore London’s history and geography by mapping this urban landscape, and what it’s like to move through its mountainous terrain.

I haven’t read all of this book yet, but from what I have read I’ve been impressed. It’s a really interesting concept and with accounts ranging from the personal to the experimental, it offers incite into the diversity of perspectives on the city.

 

Available from Waterstones, Amazon Kindle and other good book retailers.

Published by Penned in the Margins

What Liz read: Me on book clubs

Andy has gone, he’s buggered off to Turkey for a new job, and I’ve got the flat to myself for two whole months (freeeedooom!). Two months – imagine how much washing up will be waiting for him when he gets back? It’s already piling up, he’ll be in hog’s heaven. And then there’s the rubbish that needs to go out, I’m not even totally sure where that goes, and I think we’ve run out of teabags. But with all the spare time on my hands now that he won’t be around to fill it with cheery whimsy and lessons in world history, which I certainly won’t be filling with housework, I’ve decided to be more productive: more writing etc. I’ve also arrived at the idea that I’d like to join a book club.

After spending perhaps three minutes researching this, I’ve discovered that this isn’t as easy as I’d hoped. The vast majority of the book clubs turned up in my extremely comprehensive investigation – skim reading Google search returns for ‘nonfiction book clubs’ and ‘Wandsworth book clubs’ – have left me with the following options:

  • Joining the Wandsworth WI, who, although almost certainly offer the best cakes, read exactly the sort of Christiany, womany fiction you might expect – mustn’t reads a plenty.
  • Donning a tea dress to do brunch with one of the various ‘girly’ book clubs arranged through the site Meet-Up, but I fear I’m just not interested enough in hearing, or reading about, tricky situations involving an eyebrow pencil.
  • Moving to east London, or south east, an imploding black hole of creativity so immense that no cultural event, be it an art show or a literary pub quiz, can escape it’s iron grasp and take place anywhere else. But I don’t want to live there and am generally too lazy to visit.
  • Subscribing to an online book club – sitting at a laptop typing lengthy rambles into a thread that it’s likely no one will read or appreciate. Well, I have a blog for that.

All the book clubs I could find, even the more interesting few – and more importantly, closer to home such as Clapham Junction Book Club and Tooting Book Club – promise nonfiction (thus they turned up in my search), but predominantly seem to concentrate on fiction: you know, made-up stuff. I’m sure the latest Ian Rankin is great and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is awesome, or whatever, but where’s the, like, real stuff, man? The books about people’s real life journeys, through place and mind, landscape and grief, nature and nurture? Like Jay Griffith’s original exploration of wilderness and the five elements in Wild: An Elemental Journey (not to be confused with the wholly unoriginal, and riddled with TMIWild: A Journey From Lost to Found by Cheryl Strayed). Or anything by that old writer’s favourite, W.G. Sebald?

So I’ve no choice but to start my own book club because I like reading nonfiction, largely with a travely/naturey/experimental slant, not made up stuff. Because the problem with made-up stuff is, it’s made-up, and rarely is that as mentally fulfilling as stuff.

At the moment it’s an imaginary book club with one member. One member who will have to fill the roles of chair, as well as treasurer, reading list compiler, tea maker (we’ll have to go to the pub for that now I’ve run out of tea bags), and the drunk one who just comes along to bitch. My first nomination for the reading list, which has been accepted with a landslide 100% of the vote, is The Trip to Echo Falls: Why Writers Drink by Olivia Laing. I have largely chosen this as I’m already reading it.

The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking

See you in a month when I will be debating with myself such questions as: ‘Did it give me smiley face or was it a bit meh?’ Please feel free to get hold of a copy (if the shop is anything to go by, shoplifting is ever so ‘now’ this summer) and join in with your thoughts.

A poem about the Wandle – Rudyard Kipling

Rubbish in the River Wandle

The Moon of Other Days

Rudyard Kipling

Beneath the deep veranda’s shade,
When bats begin to fly,
I sit me down and watch — alas! —
Another evening die.
Blood-red behind the sere ferash
She rises through the haze.
Sainted Diana! can that be
The Moon of Other Days?
 
Ah! shade of little Kitty Smith,
Sweet Saint of Kensington!
Say, was it ever thus at Home
The Moon of August shone,
When arm in arm we wandered long
Through Putney’s evening haze,
And Hammersmith was Heaven beneath
The moon of Other Days?
 
But Wandle’s stream is Sutlej now,
And Putney’s evening haze
The dust that half a hundered kine
Before my window raise.
Unkempt, unclean, athwart the mist
The seething city looms,
In place of Putney’s golden gorse
The sickly babul blooms.
 
Glare down, old Hecate, through the dust,
And bid the pie-dog yell,
Draw from the drain its typhoid-term,
From each bazaar its smell;
Yea, suck the fever from the tank
And sap my strength therewith:
Thank Heaven, you show a smiling face
To little Kitty Smith!
 

Ok, so it’s not directly about the River Wandle, but it does mention it and with a river this small, that’s enough for me. The poem seems to be about missing south west/westLondon (I don’t blame him) and a friend, but I’m not totally sure and can’t find much about it as it’s not a famous piece. If you know more, please, please let me know.

The London Perambulator – Nick Papadimitriou

20130325-193544.jpg

I was recently introduced to the work of Nick Papadimitriou by fellow MA student, Rachel Andrews (Thanks Rachel!) and it has blown my tiny mind. After decades spent researching and documenting London’s topography for, among others, Will Self, he’s put together a book, Scarp (great review by radio producer Tim Dee). It tells the story of the landscape surrounding his home in Child’s Hill, north London, through a mixture of memoir, nature writing and social history offering an account of a life lived on the edge lands, geographically and existentially.

20130325-193747.jpg

After battling a drug addiction, he took to walking and over the last thirty years he’s kept records of everything from the progress of building works to roads, animal behaviour, sewage systems, dead things and even the weather. He calls his work ‘Deep Topology’. The London Perambulator is a documentary about him, he’s a little eccentric, but absolutely fascinating. It features some words from an impressive list of friends too, including psychogeographers Will Self and Ian Sinclair as well as, bizarrely, Russell Brand (he just gets everywhere).

If you’re interested in London, non-fiction or just interesting characters, it’s well worth a watch. I can’t wait to read his book.

Books for travel writers #1: Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere

I thought I’d share a few of the books which I’ve been reading recently. All related to travel and nature writing, but all approach the field from very different angles.

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere

Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere, Jan Morris

The last ever book from Morris, now in her eighties, is a wonderful exploration of how fluid and changeable, yet in some ways totally rigid, a place can be. Having been posted there originally as a soldier in the Second World War – before becoming a woman – and as a writer and tourist since, the book investigates what it is about the city that’s so haunting.

Having been to Trieste myself (for about three hours) I was fascinated by the title, it summed up exactly how I felt: it is nowhere. On the first page we are told that in a poll ’70 percent of Italians did not know that it was in Italy.’ Yet for no fathomable reason my mind often wanders back there too.

The book offers a fascinatingly in-depth look into local history, as well as comprehensive references to literature however, for me, it was a little too factual. I felt that Morris herself was the truly interesting character and It was the first and last chapters, where her feelings and personal connection with the place were more apparent, that were the most engaging.

Why:

One of the really interesting things that Morris does is to play around with large chunks of information, creating fictitious imaginings of events based on the facts. It sat really nicely within the narrative, especially with such a lot of history, breathing life into the ghosts of the past.

Reading this book really confirmed how important I find context – I don’t just want to know about a place, I want to know why that writer is telling me about it too, what it means to them. This has helped me feel more self-assured about my own work.

Who:

Writers interested in sociological or cultural history (the city’s population have found themselves moved between several nationalities) or history. There’s a lot about the Hapsburgs, WW1 and 2, Yugoslavia and Austria.

Morris has a subtle humour to her work and descriptions such as the city having a ‘sweet melancholy’ are so simple but, like the city, haunting. Perfect for anyone interested in developing a more paired-back way of evoking a sense of place or a more conversational, accessible writing style.