Kit was asked to curate a walk through east London and give a talk at the beginning for the Walking Reading Group - an arts collective who encourage participation and a chance to discuss issues surrounding participation, engagement, collaboration and social practice whilst walking through the streets of London.
Each guest curator chooses three texts for the group to read in the weeks leading up to the walk. Kit's walk started at Bow Arts Centre, through Westfield Stratford, past the Olympic park, on to the Lea towpath and up to Wick Woods. The texts he chose were Savage Messiah by Laura Oldfield Ford, Kingdom Come by JG Ballard and Marshland by Gareth E Rees.
Below is a transcript of his talk which highlights the need for fiction and poetry to understand your environment...
"Hello and thank you Lydia for the introduction.
To those who don’t know me… I’m Kit, co-founder of Influx Press an independent publisher. We publish ‘site-specific’ fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction. By ‘site-specific’ we mean writing that has an explicit relationship to place. Place being open to interpretation of course, but most of our books either take the line of a geographic, mental or political space. For example, Life in Transit, a poetry collection by Sam Berkson was ‘set’ on public transport and addressed issues of private and public space, sharing space and the mental worlds we inhabit when we travel.
So with that in mind I tried to pick a few texts that reflect this idea and threw in an old Ballard book because I’m a cliché and he’s basically my replacement father figure – him and Arsene Wenger combined actually, but Wenger is less relevant to this walk that old Jim. Although, I’m grateful to Arsene for a banging hangover last Sunday.
Anyway… thanks to Lydia, Ania and Simone for inviting me to curate the walk.
The first thing I’d like to talk about is the relationship between texts. Particularly books written about this area of London. Reading books set in a such a city like London is a never ending hobby. I’m sure you’ve all read some. Or at least, you’ve read an extraction. Or at least, you should have done!
In a previous anthology Influx Press edited we used a phrase borrowed from Alexander Baron’s novel, The Lowlife. Baron was an east end novelist writing in the 1960s. He was largely out of print until one man Hackney magpie and groovy Welsh hipster Iain Sinclair brought him back to life, championing The Lowlife in particular. Ken Worpole, who led the first of these walks was also instrumental in Baron’s resurgence.
When we decided to edit an anthology of writing about Hackney in 2011, Gary Budden my co-editor pulled a quote from Baron’s novel: “And as I came away, I saw on a board that epitaph to all our yesterdays, ‘Acquired for Development By…’” – this phrase, ‘Acquired for development’ was something we were seeing, that had inspired us to create the book in the first place. It was a revelation to realise a text set in Hackney in the 1960s could be so relevant to our contemporary experience. The same billboards and notices that came up in Baron’s time were still coming up in ours. What also connected us was that we took to writing fiction to position our thoughts on the matter.
Fiction has its own landscapes, it’s own worlds. Books develop and build on top of one another. Much in the same way that houses, estates, architecture and public spaces develop on each other. The walk we’re about to go on passes through whole swathes of development in progress – Stratford, Hackney Wick, the post-Grand Distraction Olympic Park. So we built our anthology on Baron’s work, acknowledging the foundations and adding to the literature. I see it kind of like the Sagrada Familia – each new publication adds another layer to the psychological architecture of an area.
Around the same time we released Acquired for Development By, Laura Oldfield Ford had her work collected and published by Verso under the title Savage Messiah – an extract of which you would have been sent to read. Despite a blindly obvious connection in that Laura provided the illustrations for the cover of Acquired for Development by – there are also connections with another one of our titles: Marshland: Dreams and Nightmares on the Edge of London.
I think Laura’s work is phenomenal. It’s violent, angry, spaced out, disappointed, elated all at once. The visceral quality of her illustrations are brilliantly punched with taught, provocative sentences.
In his introduction to Savage Messiah, cultural theorist Mark Fisher quotes Laura saying, “I regard my work as diaristic, the city can be read as a pamplisest, of layers of erasure and overwriting, the need to document the transient and ephemeral nature of the city is becoming increasingly urgent as the process of enlcosure and privatization continues apace.”
This is far more eloquent than I could ever hope to be about the need for writing, fictional, documentary or otherwise to provide layered narratives to allow us as city dwellers to produce and create our own stories of our lived environment. All of our Influx Press publications are designed to expose and highlight a counter narrative to the official stories and histories given to us by the people who control our environments. Mark goes on to write, “The perspective Ford adopts, the voices she speaks in – and which speak through her – are those of the officially defeated: the punks, squatters, ravers, football hooligans and militants left behind be a history which has been ruthlessly Photoshopped them out of its finance-friendly SimCity. Savage Messiah uncovers another city, a city in process of being buried and takes us on a tour of its landmarks.”
Given that neoliberalism and corporate capitalism have laid waste to much of our organic, fluid counter culture, I think the presence of the hyper consumerist circus Westfield, where the home has been renamed as ‘property’ and the global elite wealth generator Olympic park here, in east London, the traditional home of dissent, radicalism and new ideas is poignant.
Of course, I could be wrong. I’m not. But I could be.
Politics aside, one of the great aspects of Savage Messiah is Laura’s use of the ‘drift’ or ‘derive’ as it is called by those pretentious enough to want to impress people with their knowledge. The drift is an old psychogeographic technique developed and made famous by the Situationists, a bunch of lefties in 1960s France semi led by philosopher Guy Debord. The dérive can be defined as an “unplanned journey through a landscape, usually urban, on which the subtle aesthetic contours of the surrounding architecture and geography subconsciously direct the travellers, with the ultimate goal of encountering an entirely new and authentic experience.” The main way to journey is to walk. Savage Messiah is like a walk through a London that doesn’t, does, has, hasn’t and will or won’t exist.
The extract you were emailed is a great example of the things I’m talking about. Firstly it references another text about imagining the city – Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino, that's the process of building on a foundational text adding a layer to the writing I just mentioned. Then she writes her derive from Clapton to the marshes. I particularly love the verbs she and adjectives that are almost incongruent with the landscape: “We pick through ruins, an abandoned rose garden, bleached landscapes, we roam under motorway flyovers, tower blocks cascading down embankments.” There’s a pastoral, countryside feel crashing into the urban setting; producing a new experience.
Like Savage Messiah, Gareth Rees uses psychogeographic techniques in his book Marshland. Psychogeographers like to place limits on their walks, be it placing a map of another place onto your location and following it instead of the genuine map of the area, the time you spend walking or otherwise. Gareth uses his dog, Hendrix as a limit. He’s an excitable, blind cocker spaniel, Hendrix. He follows his own path, dances to his own rhythm, shits where no human dare go, sniffs out stained prophylactics, empty cider cans and old rags. Gareth just follows him, the willing blind being led by the blind. Marshland is a book of stories set in the Marshes, part history, part fictional, part autobiographical.
On his many walks through the marshes Gareth discovered the untold stories of London’s past, the alternative narratives – like the story of the Trekkers, those Eastenders who abandoned the city every night during the blitz for the safety of the marshes and Epping forest. His own fictional tales drew on his experience of the place as a character in it’s own story, the marshes produce their own narrative in anyone that visits there. Marshland is almost an account of the way the marshes changed Gareth from 9-5 tube riding, chain pub dwelling Londoner into a wanderer, psychogeographer and eventually, successful author.
At the beginning Gareth felt that he had discovered the marshes himself, like they were his secret and he tried to impose his own will on the place. As the years passed, he discovered that there have been many there before him, stories written and told and recorded from centuries of human activity with this ancient lamas land. By his own admission, Gareth says that the marshes wrote their stories, and he is just a conduit. The city tries to control its environment, but ultimately, it is never able to silence what has come before if you are willing to look hard enough.
When editing Marshland, there were many, many references points to research and read. Just a look at the bibliography will show you that. Layers and layers of previous writing fed the book. In the same way layers of history fed the marshes. Fact and fiction became synonymous. Did it matter if a story about two Victorian gentleman falling into a time warp and ending up looking like hispters on the Hackney marshes in 2012 didn’t really happen?
For some people it does matter and we’ve been called up on Marshland for missing out facts or misrepresenting. For you, on this walk, try to think about whether the literal truth is anymore assured than a fictional one. Where do we read our literal truths from? Newspapers, television, websites – these mediums are known for their ability to fabricate, falsify and tell fictions. When we construct our own stories they are sometimes more relevant to us than the grand narrative we are presented in the media, in school or in history books. What do you know or have been told about Westfield, the Olympics, Hackney Marshes, Bow? What do you see instead? What does your imagination tell you?
I like blurred lines, not the Robin Thicke Song, but the grey areas of fiction and fact. What do we see when we walk? Mysteries and stories of our own, we wonder what we are looking at, why it is there. Who planed those trees in Wick Woodland? Why is there a stone circle by the river lea? What was here before the warehouses? We cannot find the answers straight away at the time we are walking, or, before smart phones we couldn’t, so the walking experience has always been a fictionalization. We couldn’t find the truth or the perceived truth. We let our own imaginations decide. I’m completely guilty of checking my phone when I’m walking, live tweeting what I say, looking at the weather forecast when I should just look up at the sky. But I do try. Savage Messiah and Marshland have encouraged me to walk more, to put the phone away. To walk without purpose. To create my own narratives.
Ultimately, it’s about stories. Over lapping layered, lost and found.
The city tells as many stories as you want it to, if you’ll just let it.
This is one of the key things about writing, particularly fiction, for me.
Reading about an area in fiction transforms it. You look around you and the stories you are told emerge from the landscape to give depth and meaning. Stories allow us to engage emotionally with a place, they let our imaginations heighten our experience. As children we have all produced fantasy and narrative in our environments. The cardboard box became a fighter plane, under the duvet was a hideaway den, the bottom of the garden a world of magic where blades of grass host tiny worlds of chattering insects and green skyscrapers. As adults we can still access these vital elements of our psyche via fiction and poetry.
If you’d allow me a string of forthcoming pompous analogies, I think the areas we are about to walk can be related to the way we consume stories, how, as a culture they are presented and produced. If you can think about these things on the walk, do try. But if you want to tell me it’s all garbled, pseudo intellectual nonsense while we’re strolling, that’s also fine. There are never any full proof opinions.
The abandoned or unused buildings like Olympic Media Centre we will see on the two path of the lea navigation are like the stories we read when we are told to read them. How a novel suddenly becomes a ‘must read’ for a week, because everyone is talking about it and you don’t want to feel left out. One Day by David Nicholls for example, or even 50 Shades of Grey. Soon these books will lie dormant, forgotten. I used to volunteer at the Oxfam in Dalston. The number of Dan Brown books that were donated was off the scale. Most read, perhaps, but none cherished.
Where as the water way itself, the flowing nature that all the development has been unable to crush is like the old books with tales still to tell of relevance and the past. Those books that stick in the mind, resurface, like The Lowlife or those that will always be around like George Eliot or Austen’s work. That begs the question how does a book become a classic? In the same way, how does a building become iconic Brutalism is now iconic again after a long period of distain, will the Media Centre, in its bland neo-liberal forming serving a temporary service ever make an impact other than to exist as a ruin from a period of collective madness?
Bridges over water and roads over show you the old ways, the old stories whilst taking you on a new journey. You can see the river flow beneath you but you are now taking a different path. Like a book you have read before that you see echoes of in another, later on. Like the Wide Sargasso Sea and Jane Eyre, or Zadie Smith’s On Beauty and Forster’s Howard’s End.
The controlled environments with specified pathways of the Olympic area refuse to let you walk anywhere but their designated pathways. Like the national curriculum deciding which poets are worthy, how we will learn about our imperial past, which novels tell us more about ourselves.
The new high rises on Stratford High Street look over the old terrace houses that look over the older river. This feels like the accumulation of knowledge and stories – each one overshadowing the next. The old story still flowing away underneath but no longer the only narrative, constructed upon and viewed from different angles, higher up, lower down.
The emotions we get from writing similar to those emotions we get from landscape. As Gareth Rees writes in Marshland: “The whole city, the whole country, the whole world is full of stories” and that “Every single human being is a node channelling the landscape in which they live”
I’d like to leave you with a brief touch on my boy Ballard and his novel Kingdom Come. When I decided to take the route through Westfield there really was no other option but to choose this book. The complete fiction in Kingdom Come is, in a sense, a way of documenting something. Ballard exposes the psychological landscape of the shopping mall through novel set in a fictional place. This allows him to control his environment completely, to decide what has happened, what space there is and what will happen. Fiction is a way of showing the truth without using anything real, without writing as documentary. Fiction can take the narratives to the extreme, revealing truths unavailable to the journalist or documentarian.
Kingdom Come was published in 2006, before Westfield was even proposed, yet when I re-read it before this walk it resonated more acutely than it did the first time I opened it. Fiction allows Ballard to write dialogue into characters mouths to posit arguments and theories. It allows him to create the narrative he sees in his head that others might not see on the ground. It lets the shopping mall become a character. And once you’ve read that, your imagination will run with it. Fiction lets us have new ideas, see things differently to how they are. Change our perspectives.
It is by no means his finest novel, but as we walk through Westfield, try to remember a few of the things he wrote in the book:
“Consumerism celebrates coming together. Shared dreams and values, shared hopes and pleasures… consumerism is a new form of mass politics. It’s very theatrical, but we like that. It’s driven by emotion, but its promises are attainable, not just windy rhetoric”.
“The travelator reached the end of its journey, carrying us into the heart of the Metro-Centre. We were now in the central atrium, a circular course where shoppers strolled to the escalators that would carry them to the upper retail decks. A diffused aura filled the scented space, but now and then a beam of concealed spotlight caught my eye. I felt that I was on the stage of a vast opera house, surrounded by a circle packed with spectators. Everything seemed dramatized, every gesture and thought. The enclosed geometry of the Metro-Centre focused an intense self-awareness on every shopper, as if we were extras in a music drama that had become the world.”
That’s the thing about place writing. It doesn’t have boundaries in any strict sense, but there are limits with the framework of the writing. Even the writing becomes part of the story of the place.
Ballard leaves me cold emotionally, but excited by ideas and visuals – like Westfield itself. Savage Messiah is trippy, other worldly where I experience in ruin lust, broken places, abandonment.
Marshland is packed with facts, humour, excitement and discovery, wildlife. Something wick woods and the marshes instill through incongruent and ancient landscape.
The place makes the writing makes the place makes the writing makes the place.