Sunday, 20 May 2012

Wandering lost

I always end up writing about places when I intend to write about people. I'm not sure how to kick the habit. These nicotine patches certainly aren't helping.

Last week I gave a guest talk to a travelling troupe of writers from my alma mater. I was invited along by my friend, Leslie Brody, who published an excellent biography of Jessica Mitford last year.

Domesday skyscraper. 
Her book should be required reading for anybody who wanders around and hates being told what to do - like how to sing for instance, or what to read.

I took the gang to my favourite pub in an alley off the Strand, and someone asked: why do you wander? 

It's a good question. I don't really have a good answer.

Tolkien is currently shouting at tired commuters from lampposts: "all who wander are not lost!" His travel enthusiasm is in promotion of the British Library's current exhibition Writing Britain: Wastelands to Wonderlands.

Some who wander are suckers for this kind of thing, so I found myself there this week. I quickly discovered that many great British writers have appalling handwriting (except for Charlotte Brontë  - hers is exquisite).

You there! Scratch my nose!
The British Library is wonderful. Glass bookcases scrape the ceiling, and apparently the basement descends to 25 meters. Guys with coiffed hair stare down from the architecture with a sternness that can only come from decades of being unable to scratch a nose-itch. 

Writing Britain  uses text and illustration to chart the Green Man's long walk from Hobbiton to to Dog Island by way of Wessex, Metroland, and Jerusalem-upon-Thames.

Kipling said: "Out of the spent and unconsidered earth, the cities rise again". Islington was a quiet suburb, and Marylebone a dairy farm.

Satanic Mills, then and now.
If you walk from Moorgate to the Museum of London, you can see chunks of the old Roman wall waiting patiently for the surrounding steel and glass to fall. 

The message of the British Library's exhibition is that writing about places is writing about people. Which makes me feel much better about my bad habit circa line one.  

In addition to wandering all over the place on paper, I wander in and out of London every few years. Thomas de Quincey once said: "my steps in London came back and haunted my sleep."


  1. Frankie Parker21 May 2012 at 03:29

    Reading this took me back to some of the lanes and streets i used to wander when i was living in London.. Feeling a bit "home" sick for it now...

  2. London has been under a leaky cloud for a month or two now, which might help with the homesickness...

  3. London Wall. I used to work near there and used to pass the 'old' wall regularly to meet my brother for lunch. Great days. And thank you for the wander.

  4. A cool part of town and history, que no? Being oblivious, I only discovered it about a week ago...

  5. I need to read everything you have written about here. Still ashamed of the fact that having worked just behind the British Museum for years, I never went inside... :/ PS. I have tagged you in a travel meme over at mine. No obligation obviously (especially as I still haven't done the one you tagged me in!!)....

  6. Oh! Gracias! I love (imagining) travel!

    Y'know, I find places like the British Museum are even better with kids in tow. More work for us mamas, yes, but also such major adventures of discovery for the kiddies. Maybe on your next nephew visit :)

  7. you just made me homesick for a big city with lots of history and many little streets to get lost in... I must visit london, I must, then we could wander together...
    p.s. come visit me at my new online home:
    (aka Moomser)