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I’d been past here many times before and its gaudy posters and out-of-date notice boards are all familiar to me, so too are the rowdy pair drinking Kestrel Super Strength on the wooden bench near the entrance.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.

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I wrote a piece for Vice about body modification

vice screenshot

I’ve been really interested in body aesthetics for a while, particularly people with extreme ideas about looks. In fact, my MA dissertation focused on relationships between the body and nature. Anyway, I wrote a piece for Vice about body modification and a body modification artist whose home-cum-studio I visited, witnessing some pretty gory procedures.

Read it online here, or check out my original and unedited version (plus some extra pictures) below.

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to change their body in some way. The term ‘natural beauty’ is a joke – who really lives as nature intended: a walking tangle of oil and hair? Thanks to vanity and social pressures, modern humans are slaves to their looks. Besides cats, we spend more time preening than perhaps any other animal. And what’s it all for? To look thinner, browner, bustier, poutier, more ripped? We try desperately to fit a body ideal defined, in part, by the media, but it’s like trying to fit a human-shaped peg into a Kim Kardashian-shaped hole.

Samppa Von Cyborg changes people’s bodies for a living – he splits tongues in two, removes nipples, implants things under the skin and scars elaborate patterns onto it. He’s a body modification artist, a leader in a growing subculture with a very different concept of body ideals. For fans, a strong stomach and a high pain threshold are essential. This is an underground world of home surgery and human polymorphs that operates in the crack between legislation, a world where the aesthetics of the body are seen as something more personal.

Horned and tattooed lady

Ex-lawyer known now as Vampire Lady: click on picture for more

The cultural origins of body modification go back millennia. It’s an ancient practice found in tribes all over the world, from the lip plates of Ethiopia’s Suri tribe to the neck rings of Burma’s Padaung. But while globalisation is slowly suffocating many of the old tribal traditions, the modern Western scene is beginning to flourish. For one of its most famous prescribers, Dennis Avner AKA Stalking Cat, ‘mods’ became a way of life and even a career. With the help of cheek implants, whisker implants, full body tattoos, lip bifurcation, nose flattening, removable claws and even a mechanical tail, Avner exaggerated his features beyond all recognition, reinventing himself as his Native American spirit guide, a tiger. But his enjoyment was short lived – he took his own life in 2012.

“The human body is dying,” Von Cyborg, told me, lighting a cigarette. I visited his warehouse conversion-cum-studio in east London where he sees his clients. He’s the walking embodiment of his art, his face laced with tattoos and piercings, metal-tipped teeth and a bifurcated tongue: it’s been split in two down the middle, leaving it forked like a snake’s, both sides able to move independently of each other. He demonstrated by sticking them out and curling them around each other. His arms are ribbed with spine-like lumps from the silicone implants he has buried under his skin. They’re known as subdermal implants and they’re one of his signature mods – coming in other varying shapes, from stars to skulls.

Star shaped lumps in the back of a pair of hands

Thanks to russfoxx.com for this image

“It’s not natural to sit at a computer or go to the gym,” he said, engulfed in smoke. “Evolution is going downhill. First we got stronger and healthier, now it’s going the opposite way.

“In the future people will have arms amputated voluntarily because they can get a better arm. People want better capability, a robotic arm would be more accurate, have more power and a million other uses. The technology exists and they’re using it already for the medical industry.”

The body modification scene is made up of subscenes, some like to experiment with cybernetics while others prefer to focus on fetish or spiritual rituals. There are Transhumanists influenced by Nietzsche and Modern Primitives inspired by tribal anthropology. Biohackers who believe in using technology to enhance the human form and Body Hacktivists who believe in avante garde experimentation with it. But their common goal is to rediscover the body, to use it again as a tool rather than just a fashion accessory. Von Cyborg is a Biohacker: he believes that one day the human form will integrate with technology, changing the ways we use our body.

“I’m working on many kinds of functional implants,” he told me. “And big companies are starting to get these ideas too – a mobile inside your body or even a kind of telepathic communication using a brain implant.

“Sony, Nokia and Philips are already getting patents for implants. They know it’s not going to happen any time soon, not for maybe even twenty years, but they’re already working on it. This is the direction body modification is going.”

Universities offer the funding he needs to develop his ideas and in return he provides them with research papers. He seems an unlikely character to save lives, but he’s currently working on LED implants for a number of health issues – pulse meters that flash LEDs through the skin could serve as early warning devices for people with heart complaints, and others that run off blood sugar which could help diabetics. His self-taught knowledge of the body’s healing process, of its limits, is impressive. As is his exhaustive research into potential power sources for his implants – kinetic energy, wireless charging, micro batteries. But sitting around a grubby reclaimed coffee table, it’s hard to connect the man to his work.

Stitching the earlobe

Samppa at work repairing stretched flesh tunnels

Two depressed scars run down Von Cyborg’s scalp where he’d once had two rows of inch-long metal spikes, a sort of titanium Mohawk. But not all mods last forever, and as his skin had shifted and lumped over time, he’d asked a friend to cut the implants out, taking large chunks of his scalp with them. His first client of the day was interested in a corrective procedure too, what seems to be the bread-and-butter side of the business. James, a young lad from Manchester, had arranged to get his flesh tunnels closed. They were boring, he said, “now everyone has them.”

James took a seat on a repurposed dentist chair in the centre of the room, a surgical lamp pointing down at him. The studio was open plan and doubled up as Von Cyborg’s London home – he spends most of the year doing residencies at various studios around the world. A metal trolley was laid out with implements – scalpels, scissors, swabs – and there were sterilisation units stacked up against the walls, metal boxes that look like microwaves with extra twizzles and knobs.

Sterilisation Units

Cleanliness is very important

It was a strange, David Lynch sort of scene: his girlfriend was doing laundry, a flatmate was making a carrot cake in a kitchenette at the back and, a few metres away, we were about to perform surgery, injecting James’ ears with a local anaesthetic, which is currently the only illegal part of performing these consensual procedures.

Over the next few hours the smell of baking permeated the room and at the same time, much of James’ earlobes were cut away. Chunks of flesh were discarded, left sitting on the metal trolley like lumps of human chewing gum, and new lobes were stitched from whatever skin was left. There was little blood due to the anaesthetic so it didn’t look real, like his ear was a rubbery prop from a horror film. But the end result was almost unbelievable; it was so neat and professional. The stitches were tiny and the wrinkly, dangly stretched lobes James had arrived with had become normal again, if a bit red and quite small.

A lump of flesh dismembered from an earlobe

Eeew… James’ earlobe

Body modification is, of course, controversial. In most countries – the UK included – it’s neither legal nor illegal. Some people criticise it for glamorising self-harm and fetishising the body. There is an undeniable link with sexual deviance – one of the projects Von Cyborg is most animated about is a vibrating genital implant, a sort of internal sex toy. At its most extreme, people are willing to bind their waist for an exaggerated hourglass figure, inspired by 50s pin-ups, permanently reshaping their own bone structure and risking harm to their organs. Some alter their genitals in various unfathomable ways, often to fulfil sexual fantasies – self-castration, FGM, splitting the penis open, otherwise known as subincision. It’s a fringe culture that is demonised by those who don’t understand, despite surging popularity. But are subdermal implants really any stranger than breast implants?

“We’re getting more and more professional,” said Von Cyborg. “People like me almost have the skill of a plastic surgeon, but without the mainstream qualifications. We’re capable of things that doctors can only dream about.

“I see a lot of people who hate themselves or their bodies. Body art can actually help them learn to love their bodies because it helps them look at them differently. If someone has a fat belly but on this belly they have, for example, a tattoo of a beautiful piece of art, the fat will loose the meaning.”

Stitched up ear

Several hours later, the finished product

According to the British Association of Aesthetic Plastic Surgeons, more than 50,000 cosmetic surgery procedures were performed in the UK last year. It’s a figure that grows each year, with breast augmentation and eyelid surgery among the most popular services. Surgery is fast becoming a normal, socially acceptable, way to maintain your looks. Yet we’ve all seen the pictures of those that take it too far: the indestructible, almost unrecognisable, faces of stars like Joan Rivers (RIP) and Mickey Rourke. Some may call people with heavy mods strange, or shocking – I’ve even heard them described as ‘monsters’ – but social norms aside, their look is no more bizarre than your average TOWIE star. The fact is, humans love to play with their looks – it’s just not natural for us to be ‘natural’.

London Marathon shocker: I did it (and survived)

Against all the odds and contrary to my other half’s fervid woe betiding – “your nipples will bleed… feet will crumble… you’ll wet yourself… I’ve read all about it” – I’ve only gone and run the London bloody Marathon and survived, relatively unscathed. I dragged my tormented legs across the finish line with my dignity, and nipples, intact. My friends and family were pretty surprised, I’ve always been what you might term ‘a reluctant mover’, and I was a little taken aback myself. But it’s true, I did it. Liz Cookman: runner of marathons… well, a marathon.

It’s taken three months to write about it, it felt like a memory too precious, too worth savouring, to begin organising it into words and sentences. The marathon was at once the toughest and the most wonderful experience of my life.

Image

Start line selfie: getting ready to go over

The first five miles were easyish. It was like a cartoon world – the sun was shining, the birds were singing, everyone was smiling and I could do anything. The streets were lined with people willing us on and passing out sweets. As we passed pubs we were serenaded by bands playing their own versions of uplifting hits in everything from rock to the steel drum, Eye of the Tiger and Don’t Stop Me Now were particular favourites.

The mile markers seemed to be flying past; if only that had lasted.

By the time I’d reached mile eleven or twelve the heat – it would have to be the hottest day of the month/year – was beginning to get to me and the gaps between each balloon-laden arch – the mile markers – seemed to be growing exponentially.

At Tower Bridge, just before the halfway line, I was beginning to flag despite shovelling in the energy chews.

When I said I ‘ran’ the marathon, I’ll have to come clean. That isn’t strictly true. After mile fifteen, there really wasn’t all that much running going on. Hobbling, walking maybe, but not much running and at somewhere around mile 19, the pain set in. Agonising, searing, unceasing pain. My (ample) bum and thighs were in some sort of spasm, the muscles were useless and the cramp, or whatever it was, was more intense and all-consuming than just about anything I’d experienced before. I felt like a lump of steak after a few days tenderising under a gaucho’s saddle: all the pounding against the hard road had melted my muscles.

IMG_7194

36,000 runners start the London Marathon and on average 98% of them finish. Everyone is simply determined that, no matter what, they will get to the end. There are those who fall or can’t cope, the further the distance the more casualties line the sides of the road, being treated by St John’s Ambulance volunteers. But once the pain has calmed or they catch their breath, they carry on. I was seriously sore, but I had to carry on.

By this late stage, pretty much all the runners left were, like me, tired and heavy and hurting. We may as well have been wearing concrete boots. The last five miles were very, very slow (the second half of the race took me 40 minutes more than the first), which is tough psychologically because, by that point, all that’s keeping you going is picturing a cold pint of bubbly, sweet cider at the end – and you want it now.

Some of the runners had become so slow in fact, it looked as if they were trapped underwater, exaggeratedly bouncing and stomping, but with very little forward thrust. I power walked, it was the only way I could deal with the pain, moving just fast enough to somehow trick my muscles, and it meant I was one of the speedy ones. I sailed past runner after runner, creeping towards the end, stopping only to wave to my uncle Timothy and kiss Andy, who were on the Mall to cheer me on (thanks for coming you guys!).

A few metres before the finish line I was almost in tears. I had somehow missed my mum who was somewhere near the end, and she’d missed me. My prepared ‘crossing the line’ track for some reason wouldn’t play – this was not the triumphant scene I had pictured. But with a few seconds to spare, it (Wildfire by SBTRKT, in case you wondered) finally kicked in and I managed to muster the strength to run, one last burst over the finish line and I’d done it, coming in just before the timer hit six hours.

Sun burnt and in agony, but I id it!

Sunburnt and in agony, but I did it!

I can now say I’ve run the bloody marathon – who thinks they’re ever going to be able to say that!? Most people called me mad, but the feeling of achievement, the feeling you get from doing something you never, ever thought you’d be able to do is just wonderful. That evening, I might have been walking like a penguin, but I got my pint (and a few extra) and it was the best pint ever.

 

I ran the marathon for the Canal and River Trust, you can sponsor me here and help them to keep up the good work they do preserving our waterways.

On fear and the London Marathon

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.

On the wilds of Battersea

1. The harshest weather is over and spring is here (again). Winter sloughed away the dead/dying vegetation, the land’s recharged, exfoliated, fresh faced and ready to start again.

London ducks

2. Under bright skies and the constant flow of air traffic, ducks and moorhens and geese etc bask and fish among the city’s wasted STUFF: forgotten shoes and slabs of polystyrene, otter-shaped garden statues stolen by the floods.

Battersea river shoes

3. Sherbet-pink blossom flakes from cherry trees and carries in the breeze like sugared wishes.

4. Wildflowers pop up in riverside wastelands, acid-bright against the fading grey.

5. In Battersea Park, this is the perfect time to see the heronries, while the herons are gathering to breed and raise their young and the vegetation is still thin enough to get a good view of their huge, unlikely nests.

Perched precariously in the tops of the tallest trees, herons tend to their tangled clumps of twigs in a spectacle that seems somehow lost in time – Pterodactyls roosting in front of Battersea Power Station, swooping and squawking and bickering with each other mid-air.

6. Bully swans team up into bully pairs to hassle the geese on the lake – nipping, bashing, chasing, hissing.

IMG_7074

 7. Geese fly low and heavy in the sky, honking a song in unison.

IMG_70228. This idiot.

Andy in the park

On tough times

'Everything important about London'  by designer Nick Patchitt

‘Everything important about London’ by designer Nick Patchitt

It’s been a while since my last post, I’m sorry. I’ve been navigating the joys of post-recession London – losing an editorial job to redundancy, losing another to an argument over pay (there was, it turned out a few months in, none), completing my master’s, then discovering that, since neither the publishing industry or the media were battering my door down (or even mildly tapping) any longer, I was to join the vast majority of graduates scratching around for any work, tearing clumps out of each other at the merest mention of a full time job. I was also overjoyed, as you can imagine, to spiral into debt after having spent four years avoiding it as a student and to then finally, after months of applications, get a job, but one so low paid that I’d be lucky to get a Kit-Kat out of what’s left after travel and living costs.

It’s been a tough time, but I’ve learnt how lucky I am to have the support of friends and family and my poor, perhaps slightly nutty boyfriend who has really put up with far too much from me (I know… barf). And now I’m out of the woods and working in a job that, ok, isn’t directly related to my chosen vocational area, but nonetheless is one that I genuinely enjoy.

I’ve been ashamed to admit to people, and online, that after university and several good jobs in digital media, I’m back in retail. As though it was somehow the same as admitting I’d failed. I’m writing and editing still too, but the stability of a ‘normal’ job for now has rescued my sanity. I couldn’t have afforded to be dropped again with no notice, or to go for yet another interview where they ‘forget’ to mention until the endnotes that the position will be unpaid for the first three months (seriously, how are employers STILL getting away with this?).

Nor could I have spent another week staring at my emails for hours on end, desperately bashing the refresh button waiting for a ‘yes, we’d be delighted to pay you handsomely for your 3,000 word rumination on the finer points of your living room floor’. While the last of those things is most definitely my own fault (no matter how much I blame the damn editors who don’t ‘get’ me), it saddens me deeply that the government still refuses to stand by struggling young people during this cost of living crisis.

Here in the capital, more so I think than other parts of the country, we take so much of our self worth from our career. I moved up to the north for a few years some time ago, south Yorkshire, and was struck by the difference in attitudes towards work – to most people, work was just a means to an end, a way to earn cash so that, in their free time, they could do what they wanted. It didn’t matter whether they were a trolley attendant in Asda or an admin assistant for the council. I had no idea what some of my friends, people I’d known for several years, even did for a living.

But in London, we’re dominated by the question ‘and what do you do?’ We’re obsessed with status and it’s exhausting. London, Londoners, have a superiority complex which makes it very difficult to enjoy life or be happy with your lot. We destroy ourselves with a sort of catastrophic desperation, the need to have our lives validated by a posh sounding job.

It’s perhaps fuelled by the unnatural living conditions we’re crammed into: the tiny homes stacked up like lego blocks, the artificial noise and light and a constant state of hyper alertness, the distance we have from nature’s wrath and rhythms. We’re totally absorbed in ‘people stuff’ because there’s no escaping it. But people stuff is so boringly predictable – it’s all about money and power.

Sometimes tough times can help you gain some perspective, you realise that perhaps life isn’t always about getting somewhere. I feel a few more Londoners could benefit from remembering that.

Find out why most unpaid internships are illegal and join the campaign to end them.

An Unnatural History of London, BBC4

There are three colonies of European yellow-tailed scorpions in London

There are three colonies of European yellow-tailed scorpions in London

Pigeons that catch the tube, pigeon eating pelicans, duckling nabbing turtles, scorpion (!) invaders, fox fighting badgers, screeching parakeets, crayfish gang wars – London has the best wildlife. It’s one of the greenest and most animal-friendly cities in the world. Last night’s Britain’s Natural World: an unnatural history of London’s streets on BBC4 told the often unseen story of London’s natural world, a bustling community as diverse and populous, more populous, in fact, than its human colony. And just like its people, London’s collection of weird and wonderful animal inhabitants is changing, ever evolving with the ebb and flow of migrants (stealing their rubbish). Recent arrivals include several small, relatively harmless, scorpion colonies that glow under UV light.

I’m not quite sure why nature-loving and general nuttiness seem to complement each other so well, but there are a good few, shall we say ‘special’, characters here: the sausage-wielding woman who’s trained her local foxes to sit on command; the photographer who seems to genuinely believe that pigeons have political opinions, that they’re a community of power fighting protesters, and the man who likes birds so much he bought a house overlooking a RUBBISH DUMP. Perhaps, with a bit of practice, I’ll be as uniquely eccentric one day.

The show’s only on iPlayer until Wednesday 27th November (which is one of the BBC’s many annoying habits).

WATCH: an unnatural history of London

New column: more Wandling

My new column/regular feature is up and I’m really excited about it. It’s called Mind the Sap and is in The Journal of Wild Culture. It’s a sort of tangential approach to London nature, I’m no naturalist so it’s more about the way people interact with the nature around them. The first piece is called Deep Clean and is about the Wandle river clean up (I know, such a river bore).

Here’s an exerpt, and by the way, it’s definitely NOT poetry:

Waders on, hands in gloves, litter-picker ready – today we’re cleaning up the Wandle.
I slide down the muddy banks into the river. It’s fucking freezing.
What now?
Feel the riverbed, says a man who seems to be in the know.
Feel for things that shouldn’t be there.
How do I know what shouldn’t be there?
Look for bubbles.

I pat the riverbed with my foot.
Is that something? No, no bubbles.
What about this? Not this time either.

Read more here, I promise it’s exciting.

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