Ten Thoughts Upon Stepping Out

Alexis Forss
Jan 2 · 19 min read

Finally I’m daring the attempt and it’s a foggy day. From my desk, through my window, I stare at that ungainly, solitary, and striking structure. The Empress State Building — formerly of the Admiralty and these days crawling with fuzz, no longer the tallest commercial structure in London but still towering over the great Brompton Cemetery — obscured by mist. Its outline may be smudged and softened, but somehow in partial glimpses through and above the cold, swirling murk it cuts shapes even more jagged than those seen on clearer days. For all that it dominates the view from my room it’s always seemed out of place on my home turf, among the late Victorian redbricks of Beaumont and Baron’s Court, the flats of the West Kensington estate, the crumbling necropolis bordered by the Old Brompton and Fulham Roads. And yet it has served as the lodestar to many of my walks in the great tangle of residential roads between W14 and SW6: a great, asymmetrically horned beacon at the end of Lillie Road. A gust of wind churns the fog and I can see more clearly now. Towering shuriken-shaped eyesore — triangle of rounded concave sides — you’ll be of little use today. But I promise I’ll take one last wistful glimpse at you from the topmost corner of the North End Road.

View from my window

II

Marcus Garvey, 1922. Photo: UPI/Bettmann Archive

The decision has been made to undertake a series of walks, with an eye to binding together a number of locations into what I have tentatively begun to call the West Kensington Vortex. Or perhaps Convergence. At any rate a patterning of energies. This day’s walk, undertaken for purely personal reasons, will happen to tread over some of that ground. Every route by which I might exit my neighbourhood is haunted, every point of egress a release valve for densely clustered energies. Six years’ residence gives you nothing if not options, and in a few hours I’ll be outside my building and faced with a choice. Would I first like to see where Marcus Garvey lived after the fiasco of his North American adventures, or would I prefer to see where his Universal Negro Improvement Association set up shop? Last summer, as masses defied authority on both sides of the Atlantic to shuck off lockdown and take a knee for George Floyd, I brought several people to these sites over the course of socially-distanced walks. Perhaps I hoped to provoke wistful and humbled contemplation of the storied quest for black liberation, or maybe I was just trying to make conversation while I essentially sat out of the great convulsion of the day. So much cerebration is often a cover-story for indolence. But today I’ll be revisiting neither gaff. Leaving all that behind — like Garvey might have, if the man who paraded on horseback through Harlem in Napoleonic splendour could bear to walk the streets of the imperial capital — we’ll be covering most of his journey to Speaker’s Corner. His bid for a seat in the British Parliament a bust, much like his vision of a black separatist utopia, that’s where he’d schlepp to whip up a new following for his moribund cult. On a future walk I’ll take you to where the Provisional President of Africa ended his days: an exile off Oxford Street, on a soapbox among cranks, heckled by socialists.

III

Before I set off: a note on method, explained hypothetically. Say we’re on my stoop, next to the West Kensington Underground Station, and you want to see Garvey’s residence and his office. Fine. But the five-minute tour is boring; this is going to be more like a twenty-minute knot. Knots and vortices. Patternings of energies, non-repeating because repetitions are redundancies in the construction: tedium and slack. The plan is to spend time in order to enter into time. Perhaps it’s by this gratuitous looping that we will wend our inward way through the concentric circles of place. So crossing North End Road and getting an eyeful of where we’ll be returning via Barons Court Road, we take a right so we can walk the great Talgarth Road towards Hammersmith, our approach watched over by that gentle giant, the General Electric Building. Jack Donaghy’s London fastness. Smooth curves jabbed with stark and sharp verticals, as though some Italian Futurist had installed a smokestack and observation deck on the back of one of Hayao Miyazaki’s monstrous Ohms. As we gawp at the distant shape we might bump into Garvey on his way to work. Not far along the smooth curve of terraces, and look up: there’s his blue plaque, on the third floor of Number 53. Not far to HQ, such as it is. We’re pushing past in the opposite direction, and we’ve got some other characters to encounter before we meet them again on future walks. Bending further on down past the multi-tiered Brutalism of West London College’s Hammersmith Campus, past the corner of Palliser and Talgarth: that’s where the Study Society still does its esoteric thing.

The building isn’t as impressive up close as it is when seen from the other side of the dual carriageway, and while they advertise that they teach the Fourth Way they’re not exactly pushing it. The syncretistic doctrine is cushioned in the ordinariness of the other services they’re offering: yoga lessons, spaces for hire — nothing to give London foot traffic the slightest pause. (If you want a window display to truly gawk at, check out Aetherius House on Fulham Road, next to the Urban Buddha tat shop.) But the plaque may pique your interest. Piotr Ouspensky. George Gurdjieff’s boy: apprentice to the heresiarch until he got bigger ideas. From ephebe to agonist — as it must be in the evolution of thought. Was it here that T.S. Eliot came to hear his lectures? Images of dancing twist their way through Burnt Norton, the poem supposedly written under the influence (and look! We’re a few doors down from a fellow displaced countryman: the dancer and teacher, Nicolai Legat), but what did the Russian mystic have to say about the Incarnation? Maybe I shouldn’t be too hasty; it’s apparently something of an academic growth industry, limning Ouspenky’s influence on the Modernists. Anyway. With only the slightest and guilty bit of doubling back we’re round the corner and past Barons Court Station. Terracotta fronting and Art Nouveau lettering: an ornament to our area, courtesy of Harry Ford. In the interest of cinching the knot we’ll have to pass up the chance to explore the Margravine Cemetery, in the shadow of the relocated Charing Cross Hospital. We’re heading back home down past the first-floor balconies and basement flats of Barons Court Road. And check this out for a final treat: Gandhi’s student digs, where he lived while training as a lawyer. Sedulous and desperate to assimilate, he took dancing lessons. He may have preceded Garvey to this patch by nearly half a century, but did he ever brood on the failures of the great exhorter? Let’s go back up to the flat and debate the track records of separatism and Satyagraha. The sunset views are beautiful from our balcony. I know I said I’d take you to the office on Beaumont Crescent, but I just realised that in my haste to show you the Gandhi place I missed my chance to manage the perfect knot. There’ll be other walks, I promise.

IV

Enough about the Vortex. Personal reasons summon me to Clapton, and if walking there is the responsible citizen’s way of squaring private exigencies with public duty at this historic moment then I don’t need telling twice. I had always hoped that an inclination toward skipping the Tube would come to be seen as a virtue. Lest I be accused, in a Kantian sort of way, of enjoying myself too much, I can assure you that it’s a route riven with longueurs. Getting from West Kensington to Balls Pond Road won’t involve the slightest bit of thought on my part, which ought to give me plenty of time to engage in some critical accounting. But mainly I hope to make myself porous to whatever stimulus my shifting environment deigns to provide. I know I promised to bid farewell to the Empress State Building, but as I reach the corner of the North End and Hammersmith Roads I’m more likely to be keeping an eye out for an artist named Ivan Bor, stalwart of Hammersmith Tattoo London, where I and several friends have gotten inked over the years. Not even lockdown has disabused me of hoping I’ll bump into Ivan on the street or see him leaning against the counter, because I’ve had a particularly unurgent question to ask him for some time now. I have his business card on display in my room, white-tacked to my wall among other curios and memorabilia, but this inquiry can wait on the play of random chance. Besides, I’m so alienated from the waxing and waning of proscriptions upon our activities that, at the time of writing, I honestly couldn’t say whether tattoo parlours are operating or not. So perhaps it’s in the spirit of hope and denial that I stay alert for signs of Ivan.

Statue of Victoria, erected in 1893. Outside Kensington Palace, where she was born.

Past Olympia and onto High Street Kensington, let’s pick up the threads of Garvey’s piebald legend. The lean and anticlimactic London years might furnish the perfect framing device for a biopic. Trudging past shops and Ezra Pound’s old digs, did he rush through the press of people towards the calm of Kensington Gardens? Skirting the Round Pond and taking the path for the Italian Gardens, we might ask ourselves if Princess Di’s old Palace — the Jacobean fixer-upper festooned and embellished by Wren, Hawksmoor and Benson — saw a lot of action during the reign of George V. The last British monarch to convincingly embody the title of King-Emperor — why do my thoughts turn to this doughty, stolid and quite unremarkable royal? Around the same time the wheels were coming off for Garvey (1922: mail fraud; playing footsie with the KKK) David Lloyd George reached the end of the crooked line, and our own Liz’s grandad had to shop around for a new Prime Minister. But don’t mind me, I’m easily distracted in these environs. Past proudly preening swans my footfall’s echo harmonises with the pitter-patting hither-and-thither that binds past to present. Listen, and then look: here comes Mary II, the mother of our constitutional settlement, on her afternoon’s vigorous promenade. A much more robust woman than her younger sister, Anne. Speaking of whom, isn’t it infuriating that Lancaster Gate Station actually faces the Marlborough Gate? That would be the original Churchill, perpetrator of quality violence in wars arising from disputes passing all human understanding. I recall reading that his famous descendent was somewhat impertinent in the letters he wrote to Victoria’s grandson, the last monarch to play anything like a hands-on role in the business of government. A storied pageant, the entanglements of Palace and Prime Minister: Robert Walpole’s brilliant handling of the first two Hanoverian kings; Wellington’s dismissal by George IV over Catholic emancipation; Melbourne’s deleterious influence over the young Victoria. Way behind us, tucked behind Olympia, there’s a pub named The Beaconsfield: the old Empress’s favourite, the Jew who rose to lead an Empire. (Der alte Jude, said Bismarck. Das ist der Mann.) Probably fair to say that these games come to an end with Ramsay MacDonald. Really makes you wonder at Peter Morgan’s obsession with the incumbent monarch. Really puts Anthony Eden and Harold Wilson in perspective, doesn’t it? Anyway. We sadly shan’t all the way to Speaker’s Corner today, but we will return to the haunts of Garvey’s ghosts.

V

John Boyega. Photo: Getty Images

Up Sussex Gardens on our way to the Edgware Road, let’s talk about how we’re traversing the country of The Lonely Londoners. Garvey’s perorations took place at the edge of the territory that Sam Selvon and his generation of writers identified as bounded by the (Notting Hill) Gate, the (Marble) Arch, and the (Bays)Water. A novel like Selvon’s charts the sprawl of an imagined community, shows its reveries spreading over the park to its south. But that material isn’t fresh in my mind, so you’ll have to put up with my grousing about some sentimental inaccuracies concerning London’s green spaces. I find this enterprise can make me unpleasantly intolerant of other people’s flights of fancy across the terrain that I’ve gotten to know so well. Dodie Smith, author of I Capture the Castle and The One Hundred and One Dalmatians, described Hyde Park as though it were some stretch of wilderness allowed to flourish in the middle of London, rugged and untamed. As though the city were some tattered tablecloth laid down upon the unspoiled wild. What rubbish. The great woodlands of England had been cleared by as early as 4,000 B.C., the land etched deep by the traffic of human feet and brought to heel. Signage near Stanmore proclaims the remnants of the ancient Forest of Middlesex. (What dreams, says Beckett’s Hamm upon awakening to a corpsed world. Those forests!) Those trees were planted in the fourteenth century. As for Hyde Park, it was cleared and cultivated for the deer hunts of Henry VIII. Smith believed that Hyde Park has never belonged to London. Tell that to the immemorial mobs who have filled this great open space. In Smith’s own time the park hosted Suffragettes’ gatherings and marches against joblessness — footage of both can be accessed for free via the British Film Institute. Or take our own living history, the clamouring echoes of last summer. Black Lives Matter and John Boyega: so righteous and beautiful in his fury. Confederacy of Dunces: red-faced anti-maskers protesting lockdown in their sheer dozens. The English have never wanted for blimps and windbags. Given that the competition is a bunch of botched Le Corbusiers, the Serpentine Gallery is still British Modernism’s architectural best-in-show. By the water bearing the same name, dug for Queen Caroline, wife of George II. What did these grounds look like when Mary II stomped across them on her way into town?

VI

Crossing the Edgware Road always feels like a momentous occasion. A mighty crossing over a great river, dense with rich sediment. Not only have we left Garvey far behind; from this juncture we’re no longer following the footsteps of the main characters in the novel I’m writing. We fell in step with the girls for a while there — mainly past Paddington — but where we’re for Euston they’re bound up the great road, out of Westminster and into Kilburn. Early last summer I undertook the same walk as my protagonists: from Parsons Green to Kilburn Station, right at the foot of Shoot Up Hill. That reconnaissance was a chance to consolidate impressions from a number of previous, unplanned incursions.

I’ve bumbled into various bits of North London over the years. Unplanned strolls through Kensal and Brondesbury. Consulting my map afterwards and discovering that I’d failed to chance upon the evocatively named Childs Hill or Fortune Green. I hold close the memory of a haunted downhill wander through Reddington Road’s sepulchral twists of gated mansions, my fleet steps sliding along Hampstead Heath’s downward tilt. Was it in one of these cavernous domiciles that Harold Pinter’s desperate Hirst and Spooner retreated deep into their no man’s land of drunken revision and fabular posturing? We’re not far from the old Jack Straw’s Castle, where their boozy night might have begun. Ask me later and I’ll tell you how I’ve used the geometry of location to pick the lock of Pinter’s minatory drama. The Heath is key, I promise. Zadie Smith’s NW doesn’t extend this far east until she sends her dazed and dissociated anti-heroine for a bleak drift across the Romantics’ old stomping ground. In that novel Smith notes a presence that hangs over North London. Could this be the vanished fields of vanquished Middlesex? Or the slow slope of the Thames Escarpment? You only need to spend a few hours walking north of Charing Cross to apprehend its gradient.

Socially-distanced catch-ups on Hampstead Heath

Earlier in the spring, during that first and least ambiguous of lockdowns, I got a taste of the length and variety of Edgware Road when I agreed to meet my friend James on Hampstead Heath. Normally I would have blundered my way there through the Regent’s Park and over Primrose Hill, but because I needed to arrive at the appointed time I let Google Maps guide me along the most direct path. I look back on that walk as something of a squandered opportunity, because I foolishly chose to attempt a sort of cultural multi-tasking. Under the influence of Mark Fisher I was making a concerted effort to get into The Fall, whose unlovely but bracing sounds more than somewhat distracted me from the play of my surroundings. Somehow the addition of music and its concomitant dampening of my full sensorium has fragmented my memories of that walk. Heap of broken images, like a slideshow set to singularly unappetising accompaniment: first I’m among sights familiar to me from my erstwhile tutoring gig in St. John’s Wood, next thing I know I’m walking a stretch of the Regents Canal I’ve never seen before while R. Totale dwells underground / Away from sickly grind . . . Never again would I spoil a long walk with my headphones. If personal reasons weren’t compelling me eastwards I’d lunge at the spontaneous chance to chase my characters all the way up to Kilburn once again, the better to do justice to everything that straight and narrow has to offer. For all its lack of twists and turns it would be an active and engrossing process. Not like the next leg of our journey, which comes after crossing Edgware Road and getting a good chuckle out of Homer Row.

VII

Familiarity is well-known as a leading cause of resentment, and I’ve longstanding grounds for my beef with the stretch between Baker Street and King’s Cross. In some ways it’s the part of London where I forged my identity as a walker — clearly an indebtedness never to be forgiven. I first approached this city from a distance, infiltrated it by suburban subterfuge. My first taste of London life was had in Uxbridge, where I lived during the first year of my PhD at Brunel University. Seesaw of obligations: it wasn’t until I moved to West Kensington that I took up my lecturing job with the English Department; before this I spent all my time at the British Library, wading through the complete works of Norman Mailer. Straight down the Metropolitan Line, barely glancing up from my book unless to quietly marvel at the Wembley Stadium arch: that vast structure, almost science-fictional in its domination of the surrounding flatlands. I could have waited until we got to King’s Cross St. Pancras, but in an early indication of my commitment to timewasting pointlessness I would always alight at Baker Street and enjoy some twenty minutes of dipping my toes into the choppy waters of Zone One.

So. That’s where Madame Tussaud’s has been all along. Childhood memories finally fixed onto an adult’s mind-map. These sites now abutting areas of more grown-up interest. There’s the Royal Academy of Music, where I would see my dear friend Libby perform in showcases and fully staged musicals. (For the longest time memories of her rendition of Sondheim’s Another Hundred People would be triggered by my stepping foot into the maelstrom of Victoria Station.) What a building! How far we’ve come from Southampton, since shows staged in lecture theatres. This is London, august city of great pillars and classical facades. Through Park Square and Crescent Gardens and it’s as if we’re crossing the shadow that the Regent’s Park casts upon the join of Marylebone and Euston. Speaking of shadows, please forgive my gaze distractedly tilting south; we could walk down Portland Place and find Cavendish Square, where some of the action of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde takes place. I’ve the novel fresh in mind because it’s a GCSE set text, but if you’d prefer that I stay present then behold Great Portland Street. Rounded and squat and stout across the street from Sir John Sloane’s deconsecrated Great Trinity Church. Here’s some pub quiz trivia: the Duke of Portland’s twenty-four years is still the longest gap between Prime Ministerial tenures. Obscure and unmemorable, but nowhere near the worst of men to hold the office.

Protesting Trump’s visit. Portland Place, July 13th of 2018

If the hard-edged chrome and plate glass of Regent’s Place Plaza give me nothing, then these days Euston gives me the jumping heebie-jeebies. Anxious Euston. These days its front yard is dense with tents: some sort of squat or extended sit-in protesting High Speed 2. I’m struck by this brilliant detournement of space. Pure barbarism to foist white elephants like HS2 upon the country when shanty settlements are springing up in central London. Images of the future cheek-by-jowl in this time and pace. Contrasting visions, but not precluding. We’ve all seen Blade Runner, and presumably prefer imagining ourselves up in a flying car rather than shivering under a bridge, sheltering our steaming street food from the fall of acid rain. This is a protest against the future, runs a line from Don DeLillo’s Cosmopolis. You’re damn right. In seven years this is the first bit of variety I’ve encountered on this stretch of walk worn thin by repetition. Hardly a comforting thought, and I’m scarcely succoured by the sight of the gated and shuttered British Library. I miss being able to go there at the spur of capricious impulse, but these long walks are nothing if not a reminder of all that was once routine and now denied to us. Meanwhile, the great concourse of King’s Cross Square is no less of an open-air nightmare for its current paucity of dawdling tourists and truculent commuters. If anything it seems the uncannier, so I glide across its emptiness and squeeze past the McDonald’s (one of two you can see from the centre of the plaza) and onto Pentonville Road.

VIII

Final flush of familiarity before the plunge into less charted waters. Memory of a summer day’s suddenly sodden scramble from the over-manicured bank of the Regents Canal to the low-lit and ochre-hued shelter of Pizza Union. Countless slices in there over the years, many of them before gigs at Scala. Performances of pounding, soulful, and coruscating brilliance: U.S. Girls. Girl Band. Anna Meredith. That absolutely soporific display by Tirzah — the only show I’ve ever walked out on. Making nice with a humourless bouncer who had, a mere weekend previously, tried to eject me from Studio Spaces in Wapping before I disappeared back into the heaving crowd of jacked-up party dogs. As it happened, he didn’t remember me. Filibuster of memories because I frankly lack material as I leave these recollections behind me. Not that I’m a total innocent to this terrain. After concluding business at the British Library I’ve walked this road on dark nights and on sunny afternoons to many a social engagement. Rooftop parties in Hoxton. Birthday pre-lash in Haggerston. Symposia off Old Street. A walk I’ve made enough times after days spent at research or marking papers to no longer be surprised by the sudden swelling of the ground that must be overcome before turning left into Angel territory. I have no love for the area around Islington Green: Starbucks, Boots, Waterstones all crammed into old buildings. Preserved facades made chintzy by their contents. To me this is a place of commerce and transience. I’ve fonder memories of Highbury and Islington. Chairlift’s final UK show at The Garage. Anne Washburn’s Mr. Burns at The Almeida. My one gig of the year 2020: my old friends The Lounge Kittens rocking a sold-out farewell jamboree at Union Chapel, where my flatmate and I had swooned over the luminous Julie Byrne. My thoughts drift north, even as we veer to the right of the statue of Hugh Myddelton. I still have no idea who he is, or what he did. I don’t recall him looking very happy.

IX

Memories of Mildmay Park: Miss D’s birthday

The Essex Road. My passageway to Dalston, first discovered on that wintry day when I chose to walk there, show my face, and play video games for a few hours at a birthday at Loading Bar. All the way up to Ball’s Pond Road I’m in cruise control. If there’s little to reflect upon at this point it’s because we’re not resisting the city. We’re mere cells ambling unquestioningly along its arterial flow. There’s nothing dissident about walking all this way; what was once an eccentric and wilful surrendering of my time — a protest of sorts against the metering of time — is now nothing more glamorous than an act of obedient citizenship and prudent self-preservation. We’re of course to avoid public transport, except for essential travel — which formulation always make me feel like a superfluous individual, since I don’t think anything I do is essential to the workings of our sclerotic economy. But the fact is that my heart largely resides in the east. Most of my closest companions live in Hackney and it has been our playground. Dance parties at the Wick. Brisk walks through the Marshes. Movies at the Rio Cinema, where my friend George’s work was screened in competition for the London Short Film Festival 2019. A fine tribute to the old Mildmay Park place. Sixties-themed garden parties. Losing the plot late at night after music festivals in Victoria Park. Much as my heart belongs to Hammersmith, that great forge on the river, I feel as though I enjoy associate status in this borough. There’s Flashback Records, where I once killed time while waiting for my evening’s date to get herself out of a fluster. While chatting with the owner about Opus Arte DVDs and other bits of desirable gear flogged by underpaid culture journos a colleague of his walked in off the street with snacks and report of having seen Diane Abbott out and about. I eventually made my unhurried way up along the road, and I have since walked past that flat above the hardware store many times. I was eventually invited upstairs after I’d dragged my feet for as long as I could. Intimacy can precipitate the most melancholy hauntings — the more so when abbreviated, and it’s always somewhat wistfully that I pick up my pace on the final stretch of the Essex Road.

X

Speaking speculatively, as I have throughout, I can take us no further. As far as Newington Green, perhaps, but it’ll take Google Maps to get us through the final, fiddly bit of my journey. And because the phone is out and the spell is broken, I’ll probably forget to check out the new statue of (or should that be statue to?) Mary Wollstonecraft that has so bitterly consternated so many. But I look forward to enfolding Clapton within my field, my range of permitted quick-travel. From there I can finally incorporate Stoke Newington, which for years I’ve known only as a produced space. As one of those trendy neighbourhoods. Sure, I have acquaintances in the area; I’ve tubed over for the odd unmemorable date; I’ve had drinks and curries in various trendy places because that’s what one does in Stokey. You appear, you spend your money, and then the transport system returns you with equally disorienting abruptness to your less fashionable postcode. (To wit, I can’t think of a single place in my area that’s done takeaway pints at any point over our various lockdowns and staggering of tiers.) So among other achievements, today’s walk will undercut my previously commoditised relationship with East London, relieve it of hipster packaging and orient it in physical space. Like I said, personal reasons compel me towards Clapton, and I scarcely need the pretext of the current restrictions to take this chance to fill in the blanks on my personal map of London.

Come, my friends. Let’s walk.

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Alexis Forss

Written by

Reader, writer, raver. Lecturer + tutor. PhD in English Literature.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

Alexis Forss

Written by

Reader, writer, raver. Lecturer + tutor. PhD in English Literature.

Curious

Curious

A community of people who are curious to find out what others have already figured out // Curious is a new personal growth publication by The Startup (https://medium.com/swlh).

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