This is the second in our series in which writers of different kinds describe what London means to them. Christopher Reid is a well-known poet whose latest book is Six Bad Poets.
I came to London for want of any more compelling alternative. I’d spent the previous three years in Oxford, recovering from my education and learning to write poems. A legacy of £500 from my godfather, plus rent-free accom- modation for two of those years, had enabled me to live very cheaply. But you can’t be the eternal student forever! My godfather’s money was run- ning out and the free bedroom arrangement had terminated. So, where to go now? London, to which I’d been sending my raw poems and from which all but one had been returned, seemed the obvious, or the inevitable, place.
It was not entirely unknown territory even then. I had already spent a few weeks there, rehearsing and performing in a forgettable show – a univer- sity review got up to look like a play – called Retrogrim’s Pilgress, at the Bush Theatre (I was Retrogrim, a non-speaking role). Nights, I crashed on the studio floor of an artist friend. So Shepherd’s Bush and the Edgware Road were familiar ground, as were the different ways of travelling be- tween them. The way I preferred, not just because of poverty, was on foot: infinitely variable, I found, and infinitely entertaining, especially when I got lost.
Oxford, of course, had been a city to be walked, but the patch I trod there was narrowly circumscribed and, for all its beauty, easily exhausted of sur- prises. (Oh, there’s Magdalen Tower again! Doesn’t it look very… cren- ellated today!) By contrast, London was a random and slovenly sprawl redeemed only by incidental felicities. More than that, in the early/mid 1970s, the time I’m speaking of, it was conspicuously grimy, not with the excremental, underfoot filth that Shakespeare, Pepys, Johnson and Dickens would have known, but in a more insidiously permeating manner – the air- borne gift of an age of industry, coal fires and noxious fogs, now ingrained in the brickwork and other surfaces. The Swinging Sixties had tried and failed to disguise this with a flippant lick of paint; it took the scouring and sandblasting of the next two or three decades to clean up properly.
Through a temp agency, I acquired a job with an oil-refinery supplies firm on Finsbury Circus. A friend with a house in Tooting offered an afford- able room. This meant rush-hour travel: not a way to get to know either London or Londoners. I shared an office with about thirty filing-clerks, mostly young women not long out of school, and the atmosphere was both monotonous and mutinous. It didn’t surprise me at all when I witnessed my first fight, with hair-pulling and obscenity-screeching, between desk neighbours. After a couple of weeks I was already planning escape. One of my few male colleagues had a second job, backstage at the Victoria Palace Theatre, and he told me I could get one there too just by turning up and telling them I was an experienced flyman. It was indeed as easy as that. So I gave up my day job and became a night worker, which left me my own daylight hours to write poems and be idle in.
Idleness took the form mainly of long, aimless walks. Because it was where I lived, I explored South London first, in wider and wider forays, but tend- ing more to the north than to the south. I already knew I would never fall in love with the suburban drabness of my immediate neighbourhood. Tooting was yet to become the concentrated, aromatic Little India that it is now. Balham, Gateway to the South: the Peter Sellers sketch seemed to me to have caught the low spirits of the place with 100% accuracy. Wandsworth Common was an unalluring, possibly dangerous, sub-rural patch that the train to Victoria haughtily skirted. Clapham’s sole purpose was evidently to serve as a funnel for motor traffic. Not much to like around here, and yet, for a young man with time on his hands and no spending money in his pockets, plenty to keep him amused.
What I had no idea I was doing at the time was cultivating a lifelong habit of walking for the sake of walking. A curious feature of the habit, in my case, is that it’s non-transferrable to the countryside; it remains stubbornly an urban affair and seems to require a strong ingredient of the unlovely to make it satisfying. So when anybody suggests a country walk I may fall in with it, but I do so half-heartedly, never quite convinced of the point. A landscape by Samuel Palmer or an orchestral piece by Vaughan Williams gives me all I need of that. Unmediated countryside means next to nothing to me. The value of the urban scene, by contrast, is that it’s all mediated, man-made, humanly specific and eloquent – especially those aspects of it that are rough or worn.
Another curious feature is the need for solitude: I can’t easily share a city ramble; there has to be the freedom to improvise, to be whimsical, to de- cide on abrupt and experimental changes of direction, to forgo, or at least to postpone for as long as possible, any notion of a goal. If the business of a walk is simply to get from A to B as efficiently as possible, then you’re welcome to join me, but with the kind I’m talking about the company of even the most intuitively compatible friend would be a nuisance. Sorry!
The reason is that from my earliest London days these walks were, and have continued to be, voyages of accidental discovery, informal and piece- meal mapping expeditions. The never-complete map of the city that every Londoner carries around in his or her head is an asset unique to the indi- vidual. I am sometimes astounded by the entire postal districts of ignorance that render other people’s maps next-to-useless – as when a friend who had spent most of her childhood in South London asked me if I could tell her how to get from Bloomsbury to Leicester Square – but it must be admitted that my own has defects in plenty. Even while I may know adjacent dis- tricts well, there is often, when I want to travel from one to the other, the far-from-automatic labour of bringing them into correct alignment in my mind’s eye. This can be an embarrassingly slow and unwieldy operation if, off my guard, I’m asked for directions in the street, though the pleasure of being able to give an immediate and clear answer is correspondingly sweet. The legendary ‘London Knowledge’ that the brains of our taxi drivers are supposed to have absorbed will, however, always be beyond my capacity, dilettante that I am.
Discoverers are, it strikes me, essentially solitary or autocratic types, care- less of safety or reward as they enter the unknown, ready to waste vast stretches of time being taken in circles or meeting brick walls, engaged in an activity that defies any strict accounting. London’s railways are a par- ticular problem for the walker: cropping up at hazard as they slash this way and that through the boroughs, they enforce retreats and detours, prolong- ing inordinately what may have been envisaged at the outset as an entirely straightforward journey, while making the task of holding cartographical connections in your head yet more difficult. You must be patient, though. If you can’t bear these setbacks, if you don’t appreciate the comedy of having your journey time doubled, then it’s clearly not something you should try. A positive relish for getting lost is also a basic requirement.
In many respects, a walk through some unfamiliar district of London, or a new route ventured to test one’s acquaintance with a supposedly familiar one, has much in common with the process of writing a poem. Both activi- ties involve speculative enquiry, uncertainty of outcome, obliqueness and perseverance. Many a poet has sworn to the efficacy of walking as an aid to composition, and it’s surely not far-fetched to see how a regular trudge and the measured progress of a piece of verse might be related; but there’s more to it than that. Vitally, these are both things best done alone. A walk even in a crowded part of town – perhaps especially there – is an expression of the condition of solitude, the mind of the walker sharply conscious of its otherness in respect of all passing, external phenomena. Isn’t that why the lonely wayfarer has been such a figure of fascination to writers as dif- ferent as Wordsworth and Beckett, standing – or should I say moving? – as he does for some tenacious or doggedly driven strain in the human spirit?
Whether or not the argument bears close scrutiny, I for my part strongly associate my own metropolitan saunters with the career I have obstinately pursued, involving as it has done long periods without salaried employ- ment, when I’ve been able to decide at any minute to step out of the front door and bash off in this direction or that for a walk of unprogrammed duration, with no purpose other than eventually to return home. When I worked in publishing, I used to walk to the office in Bloomsbury. The first half of the journey was down York Way, which in those pre-development times had high brick walls on either side, so that the inexorable motor traffic felt especially close and menacing. No pastoral ramble, then, but it helped keep my spirits alive just to have chosen that liberty in preference to either a bus or a tube journey. For those first thirty-five minutes of the day I was my own man and, if I was lucky, there might even be a poem forming secretly in my head.