18 December 2011


Tom Bolton. London's Lost Rivers, A Walker's Guide. Strange Attractor Press, 2011.

Mark Mason. Walk the Lines, The London Underground, Overground. Random House Books, 2011.

At first sight these two titles might seem to have little in common with the sort of topics we discuss at Magonia. Both are guide books describing the authors' walks through and around London - Bolton's book is specifically a guidebook, Mason's one by implication. Where I think they come into the field of Magonian interests is the way in which they both reveal what is hidden behind the mundane facade of streets and buildings.
Both can be seen as examples of 'psychogeography', although I suspect both authors would vigorously challenge the use of that word (Mason certainly would, I've heard him do so!).

Magonia comments on "vision and belief" and we try to demonstrate the way that we perceive our surroundings is a product not just of our senses, but also our memories, our emotions and our personal visions and beliefs. Sometimes these visions conform to a consensus reality, other times they are deeply personal and cannot be challenged by an 'external' reality. The witness has seen an extraplanetary craft, an alien, a ghost, a coherent political philosophy, and nothing is going to convince them otherwise.

Similarly the images we construct of our surroundings may be just as rigid. We create mental maps that control our movements - "I never go to X, it's much too far away", when in fact it's far closer than Y, where we go every week to see our old grannie. But we have no reason to go to X, so psychologically it is far away, even if it's just twenty minutes on a frequent bus service.

Both these books set out to break away from that rigidity of thought by looking at the familiar in unfamilar ways. Even if you don't live in London, everybody knows the London Transport Underground diagram. 'Diagram', that's the correct technical term, and it's important because it's not a 'map', it's a type of representation of place and space that is now used for describing virtually every underground, subway, metro, tram or bus system in the world. But its relationship to 'consensus reality' is fragile. I'm sure many people have been in an unfamiliar city and tried to navigate by the equivalent local diagram, to find that after a journey involving a complcated change of lines we finished up just a short walk from our starting place. On one of my first trips to London I made the classic naive tourist's mistake of travelling from Queensway to Bayswater via Notting Hill Gate, coming out of Bayswater Station and looking down the road and seeing the familiar London Transport sign over Queensway Station, less than 200 yards away.

Mason subverts the tube diagram by walking along each line, and calling at every station on each route. In doing this he discovers a new topography of Greater London, replacing Harry Beck's calm linear grid and evenly spaced stations with a random journey that reverses the convention that what is below ground is hidden, what is above ground is open to all. The names on the tube maps are known, public, commonplace - North Wembly, East Action, Southfields, West Ham, the colour of the lines are familiar. But it's the above-ground bits, the suburban closes, the industrial estates, the tower blocks, the liminal semi-rural fringes, that are hidden more than any of the clearly-marked subterranian tunnel.

Consensus topography is also challenged by London's other underground, the network of lost, forgotten and mislaid rivers that we are led along in Tom Bolton's volume. These have no convenient multi-coloured maps pasted on station walls or tucked away in the back pages of pocket diaries. These have to be sought out, their presence detected through a slight dip in a road, a sound of rushing water from a manhole, an old street name or a road that meanders away from the rigid grid of a nineteenth century development.

Unlike the Underground, cut through newly delved earth, the rivers gradually shrank away, diverted into culverts and sewers, or creeping unseen in an overgrown channel behind suburban gardens, emerging occasionally as an ornamental pond in a municipal park. But imprisoned as they are they still define what lies above them. Between Brixton and Vauxhall stations there is nothing on the surface which indicates that thousands of people are travelling beneath on the Victoria Line. But the River Effra, passing unnoticed through the same locations, still influences what we experience above ground, explaining the straightness of Brixton Road and the reason why the Oval Gricket Ground is an oval. Those awkward steps in the middle of the pedestrian subway at the Croydon Flyover are there because an invisible river is still making itself felt.

There is the curious Neckinger, which seems to flow in a semi-circle from the Thames and back into the Thames, and the Wandle, once the most industrialised river in England, now a series of nature reserves. There is the Walbrook which flows from the poverty of the council estates of Hackney, beneath the riches of the vaults of the Bank of England, past the arcane mysteries of the Roman Temple of Mithras, emerging at Walbrook Wharf on the Thames, where rubbish barges are loaded and sent off to the splendidly-named Mucking Marshes in Essex. Make whatever analogies you may of that!

These books describe a world where the public space is hidden in an abstract diagram, where the hidden streams define the public space, a world where your view of reality can be redefined by an apparently random walk following a line on a map. Certainly a world suitable for Magonians. -- John Rimmer.

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