“Witness, for instance, the establishment of settled ‘alternative’ or ‘independent’ cultural zones, which endlessly repeat older gestures of rebellion and contestation as if for the first time.” – Mark Fisher
The Longplayer walk ghosts a route to be taken on the 21st of June for a day long walked festival of arts in celebration of Jem Finer’s work. Information on the Longplayer event, featuring an installation of the Holloway film, can be found here.
What does walking through London mean today? For an increasing number of writers, the act of walking almost any part of the constantly evolving metropolis is more akin to walking among the pages of a book. The term psychogeography, often used to denote such activities, has become so unfashionable so quickly that criticising it, in its modern conception and its post Debordian/Situationist sense, is now the new psychogeography. The trend, as with all trends that gain popularity, was inevitably due a kick-back and it’s understandable but such rejections of the form cannot undermine the necessity of it to deal with our changing cities. With London, the key area that is arguably over-mapped by writers in the form, it has never been so important to engage with the space as its current model of social cleansing continues to erode any potential of affordability or humanity in many parts of the capital; rendering many areas ghost towns inhabited solely by physical manifestations of pensions in the form of buildings.
Walking the Longplayer Walk, as I came to name it, told much about the evolution of the city and its portrayal in psychogeography but there was an element of temporal travelling that I found surprising; that the Longplayer Walk from New Cross to Trinity Buoy Wharf enabled a personal traversing backwards, not to some more typically addressed period of the city but a very personal perception of the early 1990s. For the developments along the route of the Longplayer Walk have changed little since the 1990s and play heavily on my memory’s perception of the era. The early parts of the decade especially, which I admittedly only have fragments of due to being born in 1989, have a strange colour palette and array of designs that have become associated in my mind’s eye with the period. The aesthetic could be named the GMTV Aesthetic after the ITV early morning breakfast program. The show, which was first broadcast in 1993, contains all of the daytime landscapes, banalities and idiosyncrasies that a number of these parts of South London were built from; a yellowish hue, thin carpets, garish patterned fabrics, pure fakery. These designs when even vaguely hinted at or present, bring to mind a number of events and artefacts that I both lived through and arguably did not live through; Thatcher’s downfall, IRA terrorism, Black Wednesday, John Major. I was there but I was not there; “…I am letting a ghost speak for me” as Jacques Derrida once said. This makes the Longplayer Walk incredibly surreal because so much of the more affluent parts of the walk have not changed; the ghost is very much still present, giggling at our current stasis.
The walk began in New Cross where thoughts of Mark Fisher haunt the walls. His theories of Capitalist Realism foreshadow much of the walk to come; his realising that the political structures he dissects, in their literal augmentation of reality and perception in order to retain power, is palpable. New Cross is littered with new builds, overshadowing Fordham Park with its lost space-age tunnel heading towards Deptford, a place which still manages to retain some of the character that has defined it for decades. A copy of John Berger’s Ways Of Seeing poked out of a box among the brick-a-brack of its market and it reminded of his prescient idea of the gap between seeing and acknowledging: “The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. Each evening we see the sun set. We know that the earth is turning away from it. Yet the knowledge, the explanation, never quite fits the sight.” (1972). Walking the Longplayer Walk denies the relationship this stability in the same way in that any changes to the city seem to hide most of the development’s true function which is to move as many people out of the area as possible, raising the price, pushing them to the outskirts; that is if any change has occurred at all since the monumental changes of the 1980s. Faux stability is the currency here, a conjuring trick where the very cause of such social calamity in the neighbouring estates masks itself as the cure.
The houses became more and more dreamlike around Bronze Street, the patch of grass residing under the shadow of block buildings coming from nowhere. The square could be a portal back to the 1990s, it even smells how I imagine or remember the 1990s to smell. That yellowish hue was in the air, cut off only by the new build blocks heading towards Deptford Creek. The area has had projects and buildings thrown at it, hinting at that another aesthetic; the steel and glass ideals of the early 2000s. The estate leading to the canal is called Millennium Quay; you can still feel the worry over the Millennium Bug.
The landscape finally hits the river, crossing several more steel bridges; the 1990s looming large once more on the opposite side the Thames with those first interlopers onto the Thames in the Thatcher boom, bankers and investors buying up the riverside with huge condos that, to my eyes, are the architectural equivalent of the GMTV studio. There’s no other description that can capture their blandness but it’s a warm blandness as it hints at the almost perfect state of being both alive and completely unaware. It’s the opposite psychogeography to Iain Sinclair when, for example, he was writing and walking his novel, Downriver (1992), that plays heavily on overt knowledge of nastiness that the area’s spaces are hiding. The lack of awareness is potentially delicious; they built and sold these monstrosities and I was unaware.
The Cutty Sark, a ship hinting at the erotic dancing of a Robert Burns witch, lies adjacent to the Greenwich Foot Tunnel, an artery that cuts right under the Thames. Its walls drip with water whilst cyclists, frustrated at having to dismount, glide along standing on one pedal because that is not officially riding their bike. Where is this place? It could be nowhere and anywhere, an aleph that looks both forwards and backwards, just not sideways with the current of the river. The foot tunnel comes out in the Island Gardens on the Isle Of Dogs and Canary Wharf starts to haunt the skyline, claiming it for its own. The riverside of the isle is the ultimate in Capitalist Realist affect, the 1990s’ ultimate last laugh upon the area as it bought up all potential within the zone.
The buildings are an array of such GMTV Studios, old Dock metal work painted in specific, bland shades of primary colours; the design equivalent of the opening titles from the comedy 2point4 Children where each door had a specific bland colour. This is redevelopment, proud of the average but hiding the abnormally rich behind the veil of 2point4. The whole of the Isle of Dogs is effectively masquerading still as 2point4 but with a rich vein of malice in the form of excessive security cameras, gated pier heads and signs warning against loitering “under any circumstances.” The architecture turns marine, a science-fiction equivalent of an Art Deco manor where a murder mystery could take place though the no one would see the killing as stopping is not allowed. A security camera stares impatiently at a tree.
I can smell strong, pleasant curry. There’s a curry house next to a beach where I find a bone. I don’t know where I am now as the route is disturbed by more development; the 1990s hides away as the more typical modern trends begin to assert themselves in land. But then, whilst walking over the Blue Bridge – aptly named after its 2point4 inoffensive blue colour – the stasis hits home. This is the stasis that Mark Fisher wrote about in culture as the camouflage which the independents (and yes, the psychogeographers) sometimes use. But it’s hard to not be alternative in such a landscape as your very presence marks you out as alternative; any presence feels like the first steps in an unknown land, as if the area rewrites out any populace from its 1990s shores, its GMTV studio of an isle, resetting afresh each time. With a final push, the landscape turns more marshy through East India, a trolley and several fire extinguishers sitting in the dried mud of the empty dock basin.
Trinity Buoy Wharf becomes apparent as there are more people and more places, studios using the industrial husks as home. Capital has asserted itself throughout the walk, augmenting everything in its own subtle way, sometimes in manic ways that have lasted for decades – the GMTV yellow hue of the Isle Of Dogs – or recent developments hinted at in New Cross and definitely present further up the Lea at Hope Street. But capital always renders the walker a ghost in the landscape, either attempting to exorcise them, move them along, or render them permanently invisible as the buildings scratch the skyline and the roads become emptied. In visitation, so to speak.
As Mark Fisher writes “Capital is an abstract parasite, an insatiable vampire and zombie maker; but the living flesh it converts into dead labour is ours, and the zombies it makes are us.” Shuffling along the Longplayer Walk, we become spirits in a zone denying any past tense that isn’t suited to the purpose of capital, allowing fleeting waves of nostalgia but only for memories of when we existed but were not really there.