New Voices: Scarp
New Voices highlights six emerging talents each year on granta.com. The latest in series is Nick Papadimitriou, introduced here by Will Self.
I first met Nicholas Papadimitriou in the mid-1980s. We were both lost young men at that time - now we’re lost middle aged men. Nick lived in Child's Hill, North London, where he still does to this day - I was based in Barnsbury, near Islington, and latterly Shepherd’s Bush. We crossed and recrossed London frequently on purposeless walks that we would’ve called derives in the manner of the French Situationists - if we’d ever heard of such things. I also had a Hillman Hunter car, complete with veneered dashboard, and in this we drove to the city’s outer limits - we were both obsessed by these liminal zones, where the city declined into a series of disjointed entrepots of urbanity. We dubbed them ‘interzones’ after the William Burroughs fiction of the same name. I remember visits to the marshes where Belmarsh Prison now lowers, to Thamesmead and to the Ultima Thule of the Isle of Grain – the haunt of Magwitch and Marlow’s shades, of Dickens and Conrad, those great proto-psychogeographers. Nick was a man of passions, of poetry and of certainties: the ground beneath his feet. Already he disdained the Moloch of the man-machine matrix and went his own way, weaving along, a figure emerging from the interwar period, clothed in Symbolist verse, wreathed in tobacco smoke.
We lost touch some time in the early 1990s, and then in around 2005 I ran into him again, walking along the Charing Cross Road. This was only as it should have been. In the meanwhile much had happened to us both – some good, a lot bad. Nick was still living Child’s Hill, in the same flat. He had spent time teaching Polish naval officer English in Gdansk and acquired a working knowledge of the language – but apart from this Nick was a man of passions, of poetry and of certainties: the ground beneath his feet. Modernist high-tension cable lashing the Thames Estuary to the Baltic, a zipwire that the poetic Papadimitriou span along, he had remained mostly in the purlieu of his territory, and there his practise had refined itself into the most intense relationship between man and massif that it's ever been my privilege to witness: looking out in from the windows of his flat on the second floor of Harpenmead Point, Nick had descried the outline of what geologists term the ‘London tertiary massif’, a ridge of high land stretching across the northern reaches of the city. Nick had set himself the task of exhaustively mapping this landmass, or divining its complex web of ecological, historical and psychic networks. The result was a treasure trove of information and insight, and an astonishing archive of material. In the past three years Nick has completed the astonishing feat of condensing this ‘deep topography’ (his own term for his practise, now adopted by the luminary of these practises Iain Sinclair) into a single volume, Scarp, which I believe represents some of the best writing on the relationship between psyche and place that I’ve ever read.
It’s been my great joy over decades now to have walked and talked and journeyed with the remarkable Nick Papadimitriou – now it’s your opportunity to travel with him across the page.
Auburn-haired, freckled and elfin-faced Miss Borehamwood 1954 was picked up at eight o’clock at her house in Elstree by her fiancé William McGrath. After a quick spin in McGrath’s white MG Midget to St Albans where they had dinner, the couple set off south, car-roof down on the hot June evening, heading for Edgware and the cinema. As they passed over Elstree Hill, Sheila Margaret Lomath and William McGrath discussed plans for their approaching wedding day. Everything was arranged, the service at St Nicholas’ church, Elstree, to be followed by a reception at the Orchard Restaurant in Mill Hill. The honeymoon would be spent touring France, the new Mr and Mrs McGrath (plus MG Midget) taking the Silver City cross-channel air ferry from Lydd in Kent to Dunkirk. As they shouted to one another over the engine noise, the evening air hitting their faces, they crossed Brockley Hill, swung onto the sleek and modern A41(T) Edgware Way and plummeted down off the ridge at 70 mph. Sheila smiled as she gazed at the curve of streetlamps marking the course of the arterial road up ahead; in her beautiful mind the chain of orange globes became a necklace bearing the years-to-come, each jewel-like soda-light a rich season, distinct yet integral to the shaping pattern of her life. William merely pondered his luck; to wed an ex-beauty queen – who’d have thought it? It was good to be alive in 1958.
Forty-five minutes later Miss Borehamwood 1954 is no more. While the firemen cut her decapitated body free from the smoking wreckage down by the roundabout at Newlands Corner, the traffic backs up on the two-lane bypass all Overhead, on a pre-moulded concrete streetlamp, a crow perches and mocks the event taking place below. the way to Five Ways Corner in Hendon, all the way to The Spider’s Web Motel near Watford. Faces stare from the windows of the new tower blocks in the Spur Road estate as an ambulance speeds off, carrying a critically injured McGrath to Edgware General Hospital. A Hendon Times reporter licks his pencil before asking a copper for inside information while Public Carriage officers from Scotland Yard standing in their mackintoshes by the other vehicle involved in the crash – a six-ton British Road Services truck carrying fruit down from Leyland in Lancashire – photograph the silvery skid-marks of the MG Midget’s final moment. The reporter shakes his head woefully: this is just the latest fatality in a year that has seen Edgware’s so-called ‘mile of death’ truly earning its title.
1958 opened with a bang on January 6th when a car driven by Mr Sidney Thomas Davies, sixty-nine, collided with a bus at the junction of the A41(T) and Station Road, Hendon. Mr Davies was thrown through the car windscreen and suffered fatal injuries including multiple fractures to his skull. He had been driving his family back to their home in Watford from a day out in London’s West End when the accident occurred. His son, recording engineer Peter Thomas Davies, later described the sound of the impact as ‘the loudest noise I ever heard.’ A fatality left unrecorded at the subsequent coroner’s inquiry was Mrs Davies’ poodle, Bon-Bon, which was left to lie bleeding to death in the glass-strewn gutter outside the local branch of the National Provincial Bank.
In May three passengers alighting from a 113 bus – Mark Cohen, fifty-six; Mrs Dorothy Fawcett, sixty-seven; and her daughter, Yvonne Williams, forty – were killed after an estate car ploughed into them at the bus-stop by the junction of the A41(T) and Tithe Walk, Mill Hill. The driver – a twenty-one-year-old man from Elstree – lost control of his vehicle as the result of a sudden puncture caused by a one-and-a-half inch woodscrew later found embedded in the car’s rear off-side tyre.
As Sheila Lomath’s body is wheeled towards a waiting ambulance, a brown rat emerges from the roadside herbage and rummages in some shopping bags dumped by a chipped concrete bollard before dragging a greyed sliver of ox-tail impregnated with used tea-leaves onto the York-stone paving. Unperturbed by the arc lamps and the purring fire engines, it hunches over The same breeze from the Chilterns which shook the wild flowers further down the hill ruffles the grass at the civil engineer’s feet . . . its find. Overhead, on a pre-moulded concrete streetlamp, a crow perches and mocks the event taking place below. After the rat has disappeared into the nettles the bird drops heavily and takes his turn. Pulling cold spaghetti from one of the bags, he grips the slimy stringy stuff with his right claw, pinning it to the paving as he leans forward and down to take his fill. Further along the pavement dusty mauve mallows lie flaccid, strewn across the hot granite of the road’s edge. Nearby, behind a mound of gravel topped by scentless mayweed and white horseradish flowers, pretty yellow Johnny go-to-bed-at-noon stands wrapped in his green gown, well and truly asleep. As a crane flips the burnt-out MG Midget the right way up, the flowers are swayed by a stirring of cool air permeated with the scent of hay, fresh-blown over Scarp from the distant Chiltern Hills. The world has not ended with the tragedy at Newlands Corner.
Meanwhile, a mile uphill, at Brockley Grange Farm, where the A41(T) straddles Scarp and crosses the A5 Roman Road at Suicide Corner before descending into Hertfordshire, a dream of motorways takes shape in the mind of a civil engineer working for the transport ministry who, though eyeing the scraggy wood just to the north of the farmhouse, sees only camber, curve and how best to extend the planned M1 extension over this high ground from its present terminus near Radlett. Momentarily distracted from his plans by the chirring of some unnameable night bird, he looks eastwards across the brightly lit Edgware Way, towards the high ground at Edgwarebury. Perhaps moved by some spontaneous memory of childhood holidays spent in the New Forest, his imagination lingers in the woods and fields like a slowly drifting plant community and then dissolves into ditches lined with black waterlogged leaves – a residue of previous summers – and the ghosts of dead insects. The same breeze from the Chilterns which shook the wild flowers further down the hill ruffles the grass at the civil engineer’s feet and, feeling suddenly cold, he decides to leave. Turning, he mounts his motor scooter and heads off home for creamed tomato soup and beans on toast. As his scooter’s rear light merges into the molten red stream marking the northbound evening traffic – now eased with Sheila Lomath’s removal – Scarp broods and waits.
As I climb Scarp’s southern face, passing a snagged tree and near-bald pastures scattered with purple and green docks, the hills at Harrow and Perivale come into view. The blue gasometer at Southall Junction; the green slopes of Sunnyhill Park in Hendon; the red-roofed dome of Wakeman’s Hill, Kingsbury: these are the cardinal points. And packed between these and Scarp are the human multitudes, their dynastic interweavings too complex to map. Our privileged modernity is as nothing in the face of the onslaught of clouds and air, the globules of sunlight sliding across the land’s surface and eating whole postcodes at will. Time moils and folds in on itself under this dancing light. The car, bought, lovingly polished and rocked by sex in a Brent Cross car park 1987 is now scrap, the engine stuffed with grasses, a home for field mice. Your lips, the smell of your hair, the earring you left in my bedroom by accident, which I hung on the tube frame of my 1960s shelf unit as a trophy: they surface to my memory like bones rising in a field.
Streams and ditches run through pipes beneath the chipped and cracked concrete track. These conflux to form the Edgwarebury Brook, which joins the Dean’s Brook (a tributary of the river Brent) at Brookside Avenue in Edgware, Our privileged modernity is as nothing in the face of the onslaught of clouds and air, the globules of sunlight sliding across the land’s surface and eating whole postcodes at will. after crossing below the Watford by-pass. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of these watercourses to fox, insect or bird in the parched summer. Once, just up by Bury Farm, I found the shrunken dried-out husk of a fox wedged high in a hedge of blackthorn. One of its hind legs had become trapped in a crux of blackthorn and the animal had died there. The fox’s skin was a parchment wrapped loosely about a bleached bundle of bones on which was inscribed a life’s journey from heathery spring through dry-ditch summer to hen-house autumn and motorway winter. I looked closely at its teeth, pointed and yellow beneath the curled-over upper lip, and imagined its slow agony under the sun. Just yards away a narrow ditch carried an inch or so of water. I was reminded of another dead fox seen in a disused factory near Trumpers Way in Ealing a couple of years earlier. There was the same snarling challenge to my skin-wrapped reality bubble. The dead fox lifted me out of the sunlit day and the concerns of the human world into an open field of possibilities.
Edgwarebury Farm, demolished in 1965, stood a hundred yards or so from the M1 motorway. The farmhouse was replaced by a curious Swiss chalet-like building. Close by are small cottage-type dwellings and a derelict Portakabin. I escaped from rain once by entering the cabin through a hole knocked into the plywood door. The place had that damp burnted smell often found in deserted dwellings. A rancid mattress surrounded by cider bottles and fag packets told of its unofficial use by other wanderers. The kitchen was a mess of splintered chipboard in the middle of which lay an overturned sink. I stood in the kitchen doorway and smoked while the rain rattled against the roof. The sound of water dripping to the linoleum floor intensified the cosiness I felt. Finally the rain stopped and a burst of sunlight diffused through the scratch marks on the Perspex windowpanes. I decided I’d had enough and left. Outside, a woman wearing a headscarf led a coated horse towards the farmyard. We averted our eyes from one another as we passed. The scoured ditches gurgled and my breath – still laced with nicotine – misted my glasses. The February landscape was hissing with damp and I thought of the curled foxes, warm in their hidey-holes somewhere deep in the angled land. ■
Tomorrow you can read an interview with Nick Papadimitriou.
On 24 May at 7.30 p.m. at Waterstones on North Street in Brighton, Nick Papadimitriou will take part in a storytelling salon. Tickets will be available at the door. Details can be found here.
Scarp will be published in July by Sceptre.