Sunday, December 06, 2009

the london perambulator

A couple of weeks ago myself, Vic, Dan, Ant and Alec went down to the Sallis Benney Theatre to see the screening, as part of the Cinecity Brighton Film Festival, of John Rogers’ new film, London Perambulator, a wonderfully affectionate portrait of Nick Papadimitriou, a writer who lives in North London – in my old haunting ground of Barnet, no less - who dedicates his life to the pursuit of what he calls ‘deep topography’; what you and I might have heard described as ‘pyscho-geography’ – urban exploration through the medium of walking, enacted not through pre-researched routes but by chance and happenstance, working on the assumption that the mysteries of the landscape will be revealed through being ‘found’.

As that muddled definition implies, the practice of deep topography is an inexact thing, occupying a vague, semi-mystical space between geography, anthropology, philosophy, art and science. What Nick Papadimitriou does, essentially, is walk through the overlooked corners of cities, and writes about his experience. His preoccupation is not with finding conventional beauty, whether ancient or modern, but rather in examining the functional areas where mankind, nature, and necessity overlap. In the process of this obsession, which sees him undertaking long ruminative walks, creating a kind of philosophical mind-map of the city, he has carried out research – and acted as somewhat of a poetic muse – for the likes of Will Self and Iain Sinclair (whose own book, ‘London Orbital’, sparked my interest in this area).

Papadimitriou is self-evidently an idiosyncratic individual, pursuing with admirable single-mindedness a line of enquiry which many would dismiss as eccentric. Rogers’ film cannot help but play on this, observing its protagonist in reveries of post-industrial romanticism, waxing lyrical over water treatment plants and manhole covers, standing rapt on brownfield sites transfixed by concrete posts. As one might expect of a close confidante of Will Self, Papadimitriou is not only incredibly literate but also extremely funny. So it’s easy for the film to poke affectionate fun at him, not least because a contributor like Russell Brand – who is insightful throughout – can’t resist sending him up.

Speaking after the film – which is only 45 minutes long – Papadimitriou expressed a little wry frustration at the fact. And that is understandable; there is something innately comic about the intensity of his passion for, say, Mogdon Water Treatment Plant – but the film plays up his eccentricity without sacrificing the opportunity to include many thought provoking and poetic displays of language and thought. And the more involved with his subject matter he gets the more profoundly interesting he becomes. It’s in Middlesex, that absent county at the top of London that was folded into Hertfordshire, Surrey and Greater London but which retains a geographical presence of its own, that his most fervent interest resides, and for a period in the film I found myself transported back to the vocabulary of my youth – Barnet, Southgate, Potters Bar, Finchley, Hendon. Papadimitriou is not myopic in his interests – he has a long term plan to walk across the Ukraine – but it’s obvious where his heart resides. He tells us:

“My ambition is to hold my region in my mind… so that I am the region. So that when I die I literally do become Middlesex in some way. For me that is my highest spiritual aspiration, I will be the tarmac that you race along on the A41-T, I’ll be absorbed into the mildewed lintels hidden in overgrown knotweed by the side of the Hendon way…”

My own youth was spent mapping out this part of the world; rambling through Hadley Wood, waiting for tubes into the city at Oakwood station, tracing cycle paths through Totteridge, scrabbling over high fences to let off firecrackers behind the Sainsbury’s car-park in New Barnet. I’m not especially nostalgic for those years, but Papadimitriou’s enthusiasm is infectious. I understood him best, I think, when he stopped suddenly between two semi-detached houses in a glum suburb, and pointed out the contour of the ageless landscape through the gap; where a river once flowed. These buildings, he pointed out, could be destroyed in moments, but it would take something immense to change the shape of land which has held its form for thousands of years.

I’m not sure I fully understand to what end his infectious, limitless enthusiasm can be taken, but in his current role, mid way between philosopher and naturalist, urban historian and dreamer, it strikes me that Nick Papadimitriou is doing something terribly important – chronicling parts of the city which are all around but rarely seen; liminal, overgrown, ambiguous places where mankind has made marks on nature which we would do well not to forget. Their unsystematic, unresolved, chaotic distribution seems to have some significance when counterbalanced against our own unsystematic, unresolved, chaotic lives.

You can watch a short clip of John Rogers’ incredibly enjoyable film below, visit his website here, or download the regular podcasts (“Ventures and Adventures in Topography”) which he and Nick make for Resonance FM here. Nick’s own website, misleadingly named Middlesex County Council, and as chaotic a site as you might expect, is essential reading. Here’s the link.


Kate said...

I was there too! Loved it!

Did you want to strangle that couple at the end who hogged the Q&A though? I nearly threw one of my boots at them.

Jonathan said...

I could have cheerfully throttled the pair of them. Such incredible bad manners! How can people have such a total lack of awareness???

Anonymous said...

Good to see somebody noticed this. I sat at the back of the theatre expecting nothing much and then found myself immersed in the movie. To my greater suprise and pleasure the talk afterwards was even better. So odd to be completely beguiled like that and then, in afterthought, to be impressed with how slender the resources discussed actually were -sewage farms, weeds, suburbs.