Once over, if I visited London I would try to cram in as many art exhibitions as I could. Now, what interests me more is London itself, and going to exhibitions is an excuse to walk places. It’s as if London is something that can be (needs to be) exorcised by walking it. I was in London in February to deliver a painting of mine to a show at Studio 1.1, Shoreditch, and I wanted to see the Rose Wylie show at the Serpentine Gallery as well. The Serpentine is close to the Royal College of Art, where I studied between 1999 and 2001. ‘My London’ – the London where I spent most of my daily life during those years – starts there and extents westwards. I’ve seldom visited it since, so I decided to use seeing the Wylie show as an excuse for a walk into loaded territory. I almost conceived of it as a ritual, or an exorcism of memory. There is something deeply uncanny about parts of one’s past which are lost in the folds of memory, and about the places associated with them. Places and memories become joined to one another in such a way that leaving a place means leaving memories behind with it. Staying away from the place preserves the memories, like leaving a cupboard full of junk untouched for a long time. Conversely, if you stay in a place you constantly scrub out memories – like a cupboard you use often and keep tidy. So unvisited places are freighted and somewhat dangerous.
For some reason, I’d been reminded that I used to walk past Brompton Cemetery sometimes on my way from my flat in Fulham to the RCA. Only once, I think, did I enter it. I remembered a strange place with gravestones arranged like an amphitheatre, like something out of a dream. I remembered also the bridge over the underground railway on Lillie Road/Old Brompton Road as being one of those borders where the temperature of London changes. It is often said that London is a collection of villages, but I think that at a more profoundly phenomenological level it consists of numerous zones each with its own emotional content; its own sort of static emotional energy. I like to call this the ‘temperature’ of an area. London is more like a multiverse than a series of villages: each temperature zone is its own self-existent, hermetic bubble. This is separate from the attachment of memories to places, which is an individual matter. West Brompton tube station, which perches liminally between the hump of the bridge and the cemetery, is the gatehouse of the Brompton temperature bubble.
So, I resolved to walk from King’s Cross to the Serpentine and then follow one of my old routes from the RCA to Fulham, then walk back from Fulham to South Kensington down Lillie Road/Old Brompton Road, checking out the cemetery on the way. I used to have an almost obsessively large number of routes, and combinations of routes, which I would take between Fulham and the RCA, each with its own particular feel and associations. Going from Fulham to the RCA cuts obliquely across the grain of London; I also lived for a time in Hammersmith, but that sits on the same grain line as the college, so it presented only one sensible route, up Hammersmith Road/Kensington High Street. The Fulham-RCA axis proliferated possible routes across approximately the same distance, so that it became a hobby to find new ones and to mix and match bits of the route into new combinations. A walk takes you through different temperature zones and can unfold like a musical composition. I had also wanted for a long time to visit Bunhill Fields, the Nonconformist burial ground where Bunyan, Blake and Defoe are buried. This is close to Shoreditch, where I needed to deliver my painting, so somehow, I wanted to weave this into my walk. I’m not into the mystical side of psychogeography, but here is a rough triangle with cemeteries near two of its angles.
King’s Cross to the Serpentine
The sun was low and bright, making it hard to see. I improvised a course across the grain of Bloomsbury – Judd Street, Leigh Street, Marchmont Street, Tavistock Place, Byng Place, Gower Street. The sun dissolved the city into an illusion, easy to disbelieve in. Part of the ritual was to buy a notebook from Rymans, and I knew from the internet that there was one on Tottenham Court Road and one on Gower Street. I gambled that the one on Gower Street was southwards from the point halfway along where I joined it. I gambled amiss – there was no Rymans and I committed myself to cutting Tottenham Court Road out of my route – but I was lured instead into the Oxfam Bookshop where I weighed myself down with three books: Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster, by Karen Lee Street, Letters from London, by Julian Barnes, and Common Ground, by Rob Cowen. Two London books and a Yorkshire one. Walking London can be like playing a game with the city. Sometimes the city wins the throw; sometimes the city gives you the unexpected win. I continued my route straight up Oxford Street and through Hyde Park to the Serpentine Gallery.
The pieces in the Rose Wylie show which impressed me the most were the ones which drew on her memories of the London Blitz during the Second World War. Park Dogs and Air Raid has what I took to be a simplified aerial view of the city behind the childishly drawn German aircraft, with the blue river and the texture of the city suggested by horizontal blue strokes. Looking again at an image of it, I’m not sure if that’s what’s intended: the blue ‘rivers’ seem to be coming from the aircraft, like exhaust fumes or smoke. Having grown up making accurate and detailed drawings of German warplanes, I could never have depicted them in such a way, with backwards Nazi swastikas on the wings and not bearing the slightest resemblance to any actual type of plane. (German aircraft never had swastikas on the wings, though Finnish ones did). In the lower half of the painting is an image of Kensington Gardens, with the Serpentine Gallery, Round Pond and some dogs and ducks. In a video interview about the exhibition, Wylie says that she painted Kensington Gardens, both in response to the exhibition invitation and because she had childhood wartime memories of the park. I liked this looping back of memory and place.
Rosemount (Coloured) seems to be a more complex work: a map of Farnborough Park, just outside London, overlain with the silhouette of a large house where Wylie once lived, in the process of being bombed. Bombs fall and a large red V1 flying bomb is spied by a disembodied eye. The colours of the work – mauves and washed out greens and blues – suggest the era of the Second World War. The activity of mapping is identical to that of remembering: here the words which Wylie commonly scrawls across her paintings delve back into the past. Both paintings have the perspective of a child’s memory of living through the Blitz: seeing a flying bomb; seeing bomb damaged buildings; seeing stray dogs in the park (their owners killed by bombs?) The lumpen aircraft are exactly right for unseen raiders. The other works in the show, which featured female film stars and footballers, engaged me less and seemed shallower. (Queen with Pansies (Dots) is the one other work that I enjoyed).
Kensington to Fulham
After leaving the park, I scuttled down Jay Mews, the lane that runs through the middle of the RCA. Absurdly, I was afraid of meeting someone I knew. It was probably a decade since I had visited the college last and it looked exactly the same. I snubbed the college by rushing past; it was like a sepulchre locked up with memories, but I couldn’t go inside and I could hardly stand there staring at it. It was good to reacquaint myself with the layout of streets at the bottom of the Mews – doing that restored part of my mental geography and put the passageway I remembered which runs alongside the church back in its right alignment. I exited the Mews down Bremner Road.
The area of Kensington I now threaded my way through has a ‘cold’ temperature on my scale. It’s a fantasy realm of white stucco and foreign embassies; plane trees and wealth. It isn’t a place that offers the soul any sort of resting place; not even your eyes feel like they are allowed to linger on its pristine surfaces. You wonder who (if anyone) actually lives in these stolid excrescences of spotless guano. None of the people who you see walking the streets can possibly inhabit them: they are all mere workers of one kind or another. I imagine the inhabitants must pass like barely visible ghosts straight from shiny cars through immaculate doors. I used to wonder if they would be interested in buying my art, but mostly what you see through windows is acres of white or magnolia paint and large potted palms, not art. I wouldn’t even be surprised to find that many of the houses are empty, mere assets. I did notice that some of the numbers on the pillars of the houses on Queens Gate Terrace, which are all in an identical typeface, were painted less neatly than others, and this pleased me. The badly painted ones at least spoke of a human hand. A group of two or three (I forget how many) Chinese men in casual dress and with cigarettes between their fingers strolled towards me and began gesticulating at one of the houses. They looked incongruous enough to actually live here.
Crossing Gloucester Road, I found a Rymans and fulfilled that part of the ritual which demanded that I buy a black A6 notebook (thank you London). Diving down Kynance Place as down a rabbit hole, I found myself in even more bizarre surroundings. Wealth seems to suck all of the possibilities out of a place, as if not even a scrap of neglected brickwork must be left to the casual stroller. Kynance Mews, which runs parallel to Kynance Place, and which I did not even dare to walk down, has an overbearing stone arch at each end, like a massive mouth ready to bite down on the unauthorised pedestrian. There is something cruel about the very architecture. Go down Kynance Place (or, if you dare, Mews) and you are in the land of twisted fairytale. There are more stone portals leading into forbidden courtyards and an overly luxuriant growth of styles from Arts and Crafts and Regency to Second Empire, much of it stuccoed like a sickly cake encrusted with white icing. Odd corners and angles, which elsewhere would make the place characterful are here too scrubbed and painted to enjoy. Barley twist chimneys recall the eggs atop the Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres. The neighbourhood simultaneously treats you as dirt too lowly to notice and makes you feel observed. It’s hard to believe that I used to regularly walk down these streets; what it did to my mental health I dread to think.
I followed the line of Cornwall and Lexham Gardens into Logan Place. When I used to take this route, the wall enclosing the house where Freddie Mercury died used to be covered with graffiti dedicated to him; now that too was scrubbed clean (and there was a large perspex sheet bolted over the door into the garden). Emerging from these heady streets into the brutal daylight of West Cromwell Road is like a bucket of cold water in the face. West Cromwell Road is a major traffic route through West London, dirty, noisy and wide. Heading over the bridge over the railway into West Kensington, I followed a complicated route to Lillie Road, where my flat was. I wondered, how does one address the complexity of the city. I wondered also why these streets always seemed to be a poor substitute for the tenement streets of the West End of Glasgow for the pleasure of walking. I still can’t put my finger on it.
The turning point of my walk was the Fulham Cross Cafe on Munster Road, where I had a cooked breakfast sitting aloof from a lively community of elderly gentlemen. Heading back down Lillie Road (my old flat still the same), I came at last to the boundary bridge and Brompton Cemetery. The road leading up to the hump of the bridge rises as unexpectedly as the bus which carries the protagonist in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce from the grey town up to heaven. Behind is indeed a sort of ‘grey town’: a disparate area of tower blocks, Victorian terraces, low-roofed pubs, playgrounds and hotels, which, like Lewis’s town, seems to tend to pull away from itself. The passage of Lillie Road into Old Brompton road is marked by a sort of linguistic sputtering out of the name ‘Lillie’ (which is robustly anchored in the centre of Lillie Road by the massive bulk of the Sir John Lillie Primary School). On the approach to the bridge there is the Hotel Lily (the sign says HOTE_ LILY) and the Lillie Langtry pub (formerly named after the other Lillie); across the bridge on the Brompton side is the Li Li massage parlour.
The cemetery. Through the arched gateway yet another world is reached, though one which is penetrated constantly by the living (as by ghosts in reverse). A wide avenue leads straight to the amphitheatre I remembered. In reality, it is a sort of circus created by stone arcades, surrounding and surrounded by countless graves. The vertical tiers of graves I expected to see were a creation of my memory – though flat, the cemetery is no less dramatic and unreal. The first thing about the place which is shocking – as shocking as the white bones of a skeleton – is the sheer number of graves: a petrified forest of stone stumps lined up like souls on resurrection day. The cemetery is a rupture in the life of the city; scar tissue in living flesh. The memorials are of all sorts: crosses, angels, urns, broken columns, obelisks, mausolea, simple gravestones. The phrase ‘strange fruit’ came into my mind. Workmen were busy repairing some of the larger memorials and many were fenced off. I peered in through an opening above the heavily rusted iron door of an Egyptian style mausoleum. The space extended downwards a long way but eventually ended with a bare floor and a stone bench. The variety of graves was engrossing: one had red and white glazed tiles; another had a severe art nouveau bas relief angel; another had copper art nouveau lettering which had flooded the stone with green oxides; there were a couple of Orthodox crosses with Cyrillic text; there was a grave with stone canoe atop.
Constantly, the life of the city dodged through all this death with the hardiness of the citizens of a bomb-blasted city who have become accustomed to seeing so much dereliction. Cyclists, joggers, dog walkers, commuters all clearly pass through as a matter of course. The energetic workmen gave the whole place the air of one vast restoration project (as featured on TV in an episode of Restoration Cemetery). I imagined a glossy, upbeat brochure describing how many newly carved stones would be inserted into previously crumbling monuments; how our heritage was being kept alive. A shrivelled lady in a mobility scooter trundled up and down the main avenue, as if merely enjoying the sun (which she probably was). I tried to catch the eye of an Asian or Hispanic lady with heavy foundation makeup who was sat on a bench, but I couldn’t. She looked deep enough in thought, but probably not of death or the dead. Above it all, heavy A380 and 747 airliners mooed on their way down to Heathrow at close intervals.
And then I realised that the entire place was one babbling mass. The different shapes and sizes of stones, as jostling and individual as the living. Different languages and scripts. “In sacred and devoted memory of…” “Who fell asleep July 9th 1956 aged 84 years”. “Resurgam”. “Family grave of John and Eliza Todd”. “The sepulchre of Charles Cave”. “1866”. “1917”. All asserting facts and identities. Even the brambles which enclosed some of the less well tended graves like railings resembled mad rambling script many times overwritten.
Quitting the cemetery, I continued down Old Brompton Road and stopped in a swish pub to gather my notes and thoughts together over an expensive but refreshing Coca Cola. After the disparateness and openness of Lillie Road, Old Brompton Road has an enclosed and enclosing feel. A young woman gushed in an American accent to another young woman who was sat working at the next table, about some graphic design project of the latter’s, and she then repaired to another table to make a phone call in French. I could imagine either of them living nearby. Even though Brompton is an upmarket area of London, it doesn’t have the eviscerated, enervated feel of parts of Kensington. It might just be that the predominant material is warm brick, rather than stucco (though there’s plenty of the latter as well). There is also something about the proportions of certain streets – the height of their buildings in relation to their width – that makes them feel enclosing (this is common with Glasgow tenement streets). Old Brompton Road unfolds through a series of doglegs. The space of the street gives onto the enclosed spaces of the thousands of rooms – thousands of lives – hidden behind permeable facades, just as the railings of the cemetery give onto the thousands of voids in the cemetery.
I wonder if you can define West London areas by the colour of Mercedes. In some places, white seems to predominate; in others silver, or black, or a kind of gunmetal grey. Never do colours predominate. They are the spirit guides of the grey city.
Reaching South Kensington I was forced to take the tube. The walk was disintegrating and I didn’t have time enough to walk to the East. My visit to Bunhill Fields cemetery was likewise rushed. It was getting dark and commuters streamed through the main artery of the cemetery, like corpuscles under pressure. The lights were on in the surrounding office buildings and the green mosses and lichens on the tombstones glowed with the sickliness of strip lighting. I saw Bunyan, Blake and Defoe, or at least their monuments: Bunyan’s is a sarcophagus with a carving of the writer reclining on top of it; Defoe’s an obelisk and Blake’s the simplest of all, an upright slab. They are arranged on an axis crossing the main one of the cemetery. Most of the stones here are simpler than those at Brompton (older). I photographed a squirrel who perched obligingly still on one of the stones. My visit was somewhat like the birth recorded in T.S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi: “It was (you may say) satisfactory”.
I wondered what I gained from this memory-symbolic walk. Memory is something that resists and flees as well as something you can call upon. Walking is both inimical to and encouraging of memory. Inimical, because the physical exertion involved and the obstinacy of the present both intrude. Walking a memory also erodes it, like playing an acetate disk. I did remember things and manage to reconnect with the geography, if nothing else. However, I felt more of a stranger, both from my own past and from the place. I was happy to go back to wife and home and children rather than an empty student flat.