Hidden Histories
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This Other London : Adventures in the Overlooked City
author: John Rogers
publisher: Harper Collins
pub date: 09.12.2013
pp: 306
tags: Nonfiction , Travel

Dave Mandl on This Other London : Adventures in the Overlooked City

Hidden Histories

July 4th, 2014 reset - +

THE RENEWED INTEREST in psychogeography over the last 15 years arguably has London as its main focus, and it’s easy to see why. The best-known practitioners of contemporary psychogeography (most notably writers Will Self, Iain Sinclair, and Stewart Home) are based in the United Kingdom, yes, but that seems to be putting the cart before the horse. The fact is, to urban explorers London is a gift from the gods, with its unbroken history extending so far back, and with its unfathomable size and complexity. Take even a short walk across London’s boroughs and the old “city of a thousand villages” cliché can seem like an understatement. As for history, the farther you move away from the cluster of oddly shaped 21st-century towers in the city’s financial center, the more layers of the past become visible: ley lines, pagan woods, and monuments dating from pre-Roman times, massive Brutalist housing blocks built in the 1950s and 1960s, nutty old aristocrats’ homes that have gone to seed, former insane asylums (thankfully repurposed), remnants of the World War II Blitz.

The precise definition of the term “psychogeography,” as it’s invoked by people like Self and Sinclair, is hard to pin down, and its increasing overuse in recent years doesn’t help. It’s tempting to cut through all the bullshit and simply say that it entails a certain kind of deep but informal exploration of places that have a visceral appeal to the explorer. John Rogers’s This Other London — a lavish, thinking-out-loud travelogue of his wanderings in and around the city — certainly fits this definition, though to be fair he only uses the “p” word during a couple of brief historical digressions. Rogers’s tone and approach are those of an enthusiast rather than a professional or academic. He’s lived in London most of his life, and he has both a native’s love for the city and an urban adventurer’s fascination with the hidden histories buried everywhere he turns. In This Other London, published last September, Rogers digs through those histories more or less in real time in 10 extended walks/chapters, and to aid in his navigations he brings along the enviable assortment of guidebooks and atlases, both functional and fanciful, that he’s accumulated over the years. (All of these are also included in the book’s fairly extensive bibliography.)

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This Other London,like Rogers himself, perhaps, is as remarkable for what it isn’t as for what it is. Rogers, a playwright, filmmaker, and radio producer who has made several documentaries about London and co-hosted the program Ventures and Adventures in Topography for London’s Resonance FM, is not, for instance, a socially challenged trainspotter or an Asperger’s-plagued misfit. He’s not dogmatic, or more-knowledgeable-than-thou — in fact his adventures have no obvious goal or quest. He explores for the joy of discovery in a city that seems to have been built for it, or maybe out of exasperation at most visitors’ timid refusal to leave the safety of the tour bus — a common spur for psychogeographers. “Lonely Planet and Rough Guides always seemed intent on negating unscheduled journeys,” he writes, “herding legions of backpackers onto their well-beaten tracks.” Rogers, in contrast, is the sort to board a random bus and ride it all the way to the end of the line.

He has plenty of forebears — most of them, needless to say, with “a touch of the eccentric about them” — and he not only freely acknowledges their earlier research but also seeks out and embraces it. High on his list is Gordon S. Maxwell, author of the books The Fringe of London (1925) and Highwayman’s Heath (1935). Discovering The Fringe of London was an epiphany, as it convinced him “that there was some sort of heritage for this odd practice of wandering around neglected streets, following the city’s moods, tracking myths and retracing old paths.” Also notable is Walter George Bell’s Where London Sleeps (1926), which departed from the typical guidebook fare of the time to delve into London’s then-overlooked bedroom communities:

Bell recognized that lying latent between the newly built suburbs of 1920s outer London there was a history as rich as that celebrated in the City and Westminster. He writes of monasteries in Merton, physic wells in Barnet, a world-famous Victorian astrophysicist in Tulse Hill and Jewish mysticism in Mile End.

Rogers also draws much of his inspiration from his time as a tourist in Asia, where he instinctively sought out royal palaces and other grand residences. “So,” he asks himself, “why not do the same in the London Borough of Hounslow?” This is, in fact, both method and a bit of a joke: the closest thing to a royal palace in Hounslow is the headquarters of pharma giant GlaxoSmithKline.

The sheer number of place names, biographical profiles, and legends presented in This Other London can be overwhelming, but Rogers is an excellent storyteller surrounded by excellent stories. This wealth of material is the product of London’s age and colorful history (which, right up to the present, has been influenced by precapitalist traditions that basically never existed in the United States), combined with Rogers’s talents as a raconteur, his passion for his subject, and his choice of routes. He seems unable to gaze up at a building without going off on a lengthy historical digression, but that’s what we signed up for, and he consistently delivers the goods. Here he is walking in the Lea Valley in East London, for example:

As I emerge into the early evening dark on Forest Road the bells toll from the illuminated clock tower of Walthamstow Town Hall, an imposing 1930s Portland stone structure. It reminds me of Mussolini’s fascist architecture in Rome, much of which was built at the same time that Philip Hepworth designed the Town Hall. Hepworth had been on a scholarship at the British school in Rome before Mussolini came to power. The sculptor he commissioned to carve figures into the building, John Francis Kavanagh, had also been at the British school in Rome in the early 1930s.

And on the grounds of the Wycombe House Cricket Club, near Hounslow, where a group of kids are playing:

The sports ground sits on the site of the old manor house, which became part of a chain of private lunatic asylums spread across West London in the nineteenth century. Wyke House was at one point run by Reginald Hill, who pioneered the practice of non-restraint treatment of mental illness, the enlightenment idea that the psychiatrically impaired didn’t need to be chained to a wall. At his asylums the patients dined together and lived a relatively civilized existence in the fields of Hanwell, Brentworth and Isleworth.

Roger continues with the story of novelist Rosina Bulwer Lytton, who was committed to Wyke House by her husband, the politician, novelist, and part-time quack Edward Bulwer-Lytton, for the crime of heckling him in a meeting. (She was released after a month thanks to a public protest that caught the attention of Karl Marx, among others.) Rogers also notes that Bulwer-Lytton later wrote a science fiction novel titled Vril about a mythic master race — the inspiration, rumor has it, for an early 20th-century Vril Society that boasted as members Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Göring, and Martin Bormann.

Rogers generally avoids politics, but doesn’t hesitate to take an occasional swipe at the forces of development, those working overtime to monetize London’s landscape since the Thatcher administration and, more recently, in the frenzied buildup to the East London–based 2012 Olympics. He tells the story of the filmmaker Ian Bourne, who, during a protest against Thatcher’s “road-building binge” in Leytonstone, presented a slide show containing photos of every tree, house, and bush that would be destroyed by a proposed thoroughfare. He also describes how the old Celtic tradition of Lammas Lands, which gave parishioners free access to land for grazing cattle on certain fields from Lammas Day (August 1) through Old Lady Day (April 6), was trampled only recently by the Olympic Delivery Authority. And on the subject of the well-loved local library in Cricklewood, rumored to be up for sale by All Souls College, Oxford (which has owned the land since at least the 15th century), to a developer intent on building apartments in its place, Rogers quips, “I wouldn’t fancy your chances of borrowing a book from the people living in the new flats and using their Internet for an hour, then picking up some leaflets for local Zumba classes before having a quick browse through Auto Trader on your way out.”

These relentless attempts to pave over centuries-old fields to make way for mundane highways, shopping malls, and luxury high-rises are unfortunate, but they’re nothing new. Rogers points out that Gordon S. Maxwell expressed similar concerns 80 years earlier: “When I knew this [Hounslow Heath] walk,” Maxwell wrote, “it was pleasant field-paths, shaded by noble elms, as rural a ramble as the heart could desire, but now it is all bricks and mortar and new roads all exactly alike.”

There are several ways to “use” Rogers’s book. This Other London is all over the map, so to speak, so approaching it as you would a more traditional historical account, for reasons of proper research, would be a mistake, and probably a misunderstanding of Rogers’s intentions. It works as a somewhat off-kilter, scattershot history of London and its long line of famous and infamous residents. Londoners reading the book will certainly pick up a vast amount of engrossing information about their hometown’s hidden or forgotten past, as will those of us planning to travel to the area. But This Other London is perhaps most useful as a guidebook on how to walk any city, especially one with centuries (or more) of geological and social layers. Ten people looking at the same random park in London, or Los Angeles, or New York might find that it conjures 10 drastically different responses — especially given a cheat sheet in the form of some dubious old maps — and that’s clearly the sort of thing Rogers wants to encourage. It’s hard to top London as a source of lost social, political, and agricultural history, but that’s not to say there isn’t plenty to be discovered in virtually any modern city, for anyone willing to put aside their Rough Guide for a couple of hours.

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 Dave Mandl is a writer and photographer whose work has appeared in The Wire, The Believer, Slate, Flavorwire, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, and many other publications.

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