Down the Track

Under the railway arches of London Bridge station, during the process of the currently ongoing reconstruction programme, a fine, red bricked, cross-shaped vaulted ceiling was uncovered – reminiscent of the vast sixth-century underground Basilica Cisterns in Istanbul, where marble columns support a roof of round bricked arches. This, in a disaster of postmodern rationale was quickly masked with a shiny plastic covering and then cemented over in a crude white ‘wood grain’ finish (possibly an intertextual reference to the exterior of the South Bank Centre up the road?).

But London Bridge is more associated with being a gateway to the suburbs, beyond the unpopulated allotments, backs of sheds and ancient compost heaps: the edges of a no-man’s land of ramshackle wooden makeshift structures and dilapidated fences, abandoned projects, rusting scaffolding and washed-out graffiti. According to the cultural theorist Claire Pajaczkowska, against the urban – a space of historical meaning – the sub-urban is represented and experienced as a space of absence, a dystopic void and a space of oblivion. It is the space of Oedipal drama, avoidance and repression and the adolescent anticipation of adulthood and waiting. (Urban Memory: History and Amnesia in the Modern City, Mark Crinson, ed. 2005).

However, London itself is currently the subject of a campaign to be recognised as a national park. The importance of its green spaces is being made official. The London i-Tree Eco Project published in 2015 was a study into the significance of urban trees, identifying the millions of trees, gardens, woodlands and open spaces as London’s ‘urban forest’. It found 126 species of trees in London, the most common as sycamore, oak and silver birch. Although 40% of London’s surface area is concrete, its trees slow rainfall through their canopy cover, store carbon and reduce energy use. They remove 2,261 tonnes of pollution every year and it would cost £6.1bn to replace them – indeed developers often offer to pay local authorities to have ‘inconvenient’ trees removed.

Trees, threatened by creeping urbanisation, are bound inextricably to human culture and green infrastructure is as important as broadband.  Aerial analysis by Greenspace Information for Greater London found that 49.5 per cent of London is covered by water or vegetation and 22 per cent by trees or shrubs. Half of its front gardens are paved over but if every Londoner would green 1 square metre of land, London could be transformed into a national park.

The National Park City Foundation has estimated that outside the parks, nearly 50% of London is green: in its 30,000 allotments, 3 million gardens, 8.4 million trees and 14,000 species of wildlife. In June 2017, the ‘guerrilla geographer’ Daniel Raven-Ellison drew attention to all the green in a campaign to attract private funding and the backing from London’s 649 wards to preserve London’s green spaces. Starting in Enfield and moving anti-clockwise and returning to his home every evening, he walked anti-clockwise across its 32 boroughs, crossing the Thames a dozen times in a diminishing spiral of 348 miles.

In On Foot: A History of Walking (2004), Joseph Amato reflects that cities were created by walking. For hundreds of years until the end of the nineteenth century it was the most efficient way to travel distances of up to six kilometres; surfaces were made smoother and clogs were replaced with shoes more suitable for walking on cement pavements.  Roads, conurbations, architecture, urban design, culture and social class have walking (or ‘human upright mobility’) at their centre in terms of their production and development. At the end of the nineteenth century, the development of transport infrastructures replaced walking short distances (for the middle-class) and put more emphasis on different kinds of mobilities.

The fragility of the environment was an aspect of W.G Sebald’s narrative in The Rings of Saturn: a first-person account of a walking tour of Suffolk from Lowestoft to Ditchingham, drawing on time, memory and identity. In a recent exhibition curated by the historian Lara Feigel, Sebald Variations: A conversation between art and literature at Somerset House, Jeremy Wood uses GPS as a drawing tool to explore his relationship to the environment. The series of drawings, ‘My Ghost’ tracked his movements around London over the last 15 years in what he describes as a ‘personal cartography’ of the city. In a ‘slightly obsessive’ way he continually adds to this visual journal of his life: a layering of tracks over time and a mapped equivalent of his presence in the past.

Wood interprets Sebald’s importance of scale, where ‘the greater the distance, the clearer the view’ as what the writer or artist both includes or excludes from the text (including mapmaking). Wood sees the parallels between maps and memory but the linearity of GPS technology reveals, according to him ‘surprising things’ within everyday movements – the lines taken and their equivalents of what we chose to remember, unique to ourselves.

The anthropologist Tim Ingold has made a study of lines and asserts that ‘to live, one must put out a line and in a life, all these lines tangle together.’ We generate lines wherever we go and through threads and traces, life is lived along paths. Reflecting on the path he followed in writing Lines: A Brief History (2016) he draws a parallel with fungi as webs of linear fibres which radiate in all directions and permeate their environments. To think in terms of lines is to form connections with philosophy, sociology, art and architecture. In a series of meditations on life, the ground, weather and walking, and the significance of knots and the way things join together, Ingold proposes ‘linealogy’ as a process of weaving. He notes how his book has made connections with those who identify with his proposed linealogies across disciplines such as artists, architects, designers, musicians, linguists, choreographers and poets.

For Ingold, much of culture processes along lines – in writing, storytelling, singing, drawing and language – and these are interchangeable as processes of inscription and verbal assemblies. Lines are in us and around us: if we try to run, we create another line. ‘Modern thought’ he asserts, has fixed place into spatial locations and trapped us into temporal moments but Ingold proposes to consider life as woven from countless threads spun by all kinds of human and non-human beings. The individual lives in a domain of entanglement where we all have our own path, and familiarity with the cultural landscape lies in recognising these paths from traces or signs in a process of ‘wayfaring’.

Like Lara Feigel, Ingold plays the cello and has observed how his work on lines has made  particular connections with cellist readers. Perhaps, he says, it is the way in which the player ‘pulls’ a melody as if it were a line, or the movement of the bow back and forth across the strings is a parallel with spinning and weaving, like a shuttle across a loom, or in the way the fingerboard can be considered a landscape where the player has to find their way.

Further Links: http://www.nationalparkcity.london

https://ravenellison.com; http://lara feigal ;  

https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2015/aug/13/the-rings-of-saturn-by-wg-sebald-walking-through-history

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