February 21, 2008

Tube maps redefined

Filed under: london, maps, railways — Tags: , , — podtourz @ 8:07 pm

The straight lines and elegance of the London tube maps has often been admired. Clean lines – like Eric Gill’s typography and Edwin Lutyens’ architecture; simple, manly, clean, all the values of a world fit for heroes (and colonialists).

But we’re living in a more rainbow coloured age – one that doesn’t necessarily respect logic and manliness, but prefers the right-brain,  the creative, the feminine. We might prefer flow to rules, synthesis to taxonomy. Beck’s map is lovely but perhaps it’s time for a rethink.

And to my great joy I find someone has been doing that rethinking and come up with a wonderful map that throws its tentacles in wild abandon to the outer rearches of Metroland like some mad outer space sea anemone  looking for David Tennant… Glorious, isn’t it? I particularly love the not quite heart shaped finial on the eastern end of the Central Line, and the way the centre of London comes out not as a ring, a doughnut, or a rough rectangle, but as a squashed and wavy irregular form which reminds me of a prehistoric earthwork or a puddle of viscous liquid.

Elsewhere the splendid Max Roberts, designer of this intriguing new map, shows the accurate (in its day) tube map produced by London Transport in the 1930s and 1940s. What I find really lovely about it is that it shows the way the railway lines relate to watercourses, parks and forests – the manmade and the natural in relationship to each other. You never get that idea from the standard tube maps, which see the actual fabric of London and its boroughs as an irrelevance.


February 1, 2008

Lamenting lost London

Filed under: london, psychogeography, travel — podtourz @ 1:08 pm

I’ve blogged before about those little losses we suffer when the city around us changes. The eel pie and mash shops, the old cafes, those little places that used to be an unchanging and almost unnoticed part of our world – and then, suddenly, they’re gone.

Someone else feels that way. They’re using the internet to erect a memorial to the lost places of London – London R.I.P.

One of these days I will have to write a history of the number 76 bus route. Or the 73. And the things that have gone;

  • a stonemasons’ yard, which I think was the same firm that used to have a yard next to Cambridge station. Ricketts? was that the name?
  • a house entirely surrounded by corrugated tin fences, mostly boarded up,almost derelict; there was a story that the man who lived in it was digging tunnels under his garden, under the house next door, across the road even… I never knew whether to believe them, but there was definitely something odd about the place.
  • Baring Street Metal, a scrapyard in the middle of Islington.
  • Hackney Wholefoods. Every time I passed it with a friend one or both of us would proudly say it as it has to be said – ‘Ackney Olefoods’.
  • One building near Old Street where absolutely every window was blocked with old newspapers piled all the way to the ceiling. It must have been a terrific fire hazard. One of those things you only notice from the top floor of a bus, when your mp3 player’s packed up and you forgot to buy the newspaper, and you’re staring out of the window, bored, and not quite able to doze.

I’m going back to RIP London now to look for some of my old favourites. It will be nice to see them again – even if not in the real world.

January 25, 2008

Where Alph the sacred river ran…

Filed under: England, london, psychogeography — podtourz @ 1:03 pm

An intriguing video takes the path of the now culverted Fleet River, from King’s Cross to the Thames.

What particularly caught my attention was the way the walker so often catches sight of a slim church spire, or a dome, down a narrow street. London is like a pincushion stuck through with church spires – like a collection of ley lines between the heads of the pins.

On one level it’s a boring film. Lots of nondescript city streets. And then again, when you look at the details – like the griffins on Holborn Viaduct – there’s something worth taking away. The little things that make the city special.

And of course on another level, it’s tracing the course of something that is there and that you can’t see. I find that idea quite thrilling. It appeals to that ‘da Vinci Code’ button in all of us. There’s a whole history to be written about our covered rivers, – the Great Cockey in Norwich (I believe the Royal Arcade follows its path) , for instance. And there must be others.

I do like the sense of humour too. (Psychogeography is all about making connections, but here we have some connections that are, quite deliberately, way out and humorous.)

Enjoy the video.

January 4, 2008

An opportunity missed

Filed under: architecture, london, railways, travel — podtourz @ 2:22 pm

Oh dear. After the rapturous reception given to the new St Pancras development in the press, I thought it would be a great experience using it.  I was very disappointed.

First of all, it still isn’t finished. To get to the terminal from King’s Cross involved crossing a wide area of rough concrete, divided only by temporary barriers and traffic cones. The front entrance isn’t open (at the moment) so you have to go all the way down to the modern part of the station, then walk all the way BACK to the front of the station to get to Eurostar.

And the ‘downstairs’ part of the station is crammed with retail. A triumph of consumerism. Plywood fascias where shops haven’t been finished.

The e-ticket machines don’t work. Having come with my booking reference and bank card, I then have to queue for fifteen minutes  in the Eurostar ticket office because the machine refuses to print the ticket. The ticket office of course is nowhere near the machines, and the signage is inadequate, so I waste about ten minutes looking for it.

The ticket office doesn’t even have a queuing system installed. It’s chaos; no one knows which ticket desks are free and the clerks have to shout to see if anyone is waiting.

I can’t see the interior facade of the hotel block, a fine piece of Victorian Gothic, because a crappy 1960s purple and yellow banner covers practically the whole facade, slathered with the names of retailers. This is a shopping centre that also has some trains; a bit like the much derided V&A advert – “an ace caff with quite a nice museum attached”.

The  modern extension on the back is typical modernist brutalism. Its girdered roof, rectilinear and low, runs with the beams at right angles to the Victorian train shed almost as if it’s saying “Sod off, you arty-farty aesthetic crap”. The outside looks interesting, but inside, it’s typically mean and without aspiration – the low roof is depressing, there’s none of the airy, ambitious feel of Barlow’s great train shed.

I know Eurostar requires a certain amount of security but the way it has been done means it’s difficult to get a feeling for the wonderful space of the train shed; it’s divided up by high glass walls.  Light wells through to the shopping mall below further subdivide the area, so you feel as if you’re on a narrow ledge around the train shed – the expansiveness of the original idea has gone.

It’s this expansiveness that I think  was the defining characteristic of so much good Victorian architecture.  Ordinary people deserve light, space, ambition. Railways were about ambition, too – about the ambition to travel, to find new places, new experiences, new employment. That’s why these stations are such exciting places.

By comparison, the new blockish shed makes travel a functional and unpleasant experience. We are only common people. We don’t deserve light, space, or consideration; we’re just cattle, human cargo to be efficiently processed.

I’m glad St Pancras has been preserved. But how much better it would have been if only the modern architects had been able to share Barlow’s great railway dream.

November 30, 2007

Filed under: England, london, maps — podtourz @ 6:40 pm

Another wonderful piece by Simon Jenkins in the Observer, on London’s maps.  Unfortunately the web version doesn’t come with the fine pictures.

One of the most striking pictures for me was the Rhinebeck panorama – a view of the City in about 1810. What’s lovely is the way the view is dominated by the spires of the City churches, soaring above the grid like streets of plain houses; now, with the gherkin, the Shard, and other skyscrapers being built, that view has gone for ever. (In fact, though, it’s not really the new generation of high buildings which are destroying the City’s skyline – it had already been done by an increase in the overall height of buildings over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In a way, the Gherkin and its peers are reviving the idea of a view dominated by towers – they are the new spires.)

The geological map of the Thames basin gives you a completely different feeling for place. It’s like seeing a dissected body – what lies beneath the skin – and it gives the same sense of shock. The loops of the meandering Thames are instantly recognisable, but the greens and pinks and blues of the geological strata are strange, unknown.

Of course we make maps not only  to represent reality, but to organise it in our minds. So I was interested to see the 1908 tube map – one which shows the underground railway lines as they really lie, not in a tidied up, regularised way like the current map. The District Line wiggles between Earls Court and West Brompton (and Fulham Broadway is shown as ‘Walham Green’); the eastern end of the railway system is all squished up, coming to a point at Aldgate, with Moorgate and Liverpool Street all crushed up together; and the colours are wrong – the Central Line (now red) is purply blue, the Metropolitan is red instead.

We hit the twenty-first century with a house price heat map from myhouseprice.com – hot red areas of privilege in the west of London and in the suburbs,  and dark cold blue in the eastern corridor where prices are low.  Mind you, since the prices only appear to run up to one and a half million, this map has to be several years old….

November 19, 2007


Filed under: England, london, psychogeography, travel — podtourz @ 9:33 pm

I’m sorry if this blog has started to look like London Buses – no posts for a month and then three come along at once…

I’ve just spent some time with Peter Ackroyd and London. First, his immense and strange book: ‘London – the biography’ – and then a videotape of the first programme of his BBC series on London, which a friend made ages ago and I’ve only just had time to look at.

Ackroyd is less weird than Sinclair but he’s definitely on the occult end of the spectrum as far as London historians go. He sees London as a living creature – a threatening organism that can kill, ravage, burn; a creature that is regenerated through fire. He actually begins the programme by mentioning his heart attack – the day after he delivered his book on London to the publisher – a testimony to the city’s maleficent powers (though also to its healing ones).

What I particularly like about Ackroyd is his ability to shift from extreme detail to extreme distance – from close up to panorama. His immense depth of research enables him to spin perspectives, to separate or to merge the layers of history. And there’s always a feeling of the paradoxical closeness and distance of the past – epitomised in the Saxon brooch that was dropped so long ago, in a bath house where he now stands.

Ackroyd refers to the concept of ‘psychogeography‘ – but unlike Guy Debord who originated the concept of geography’s impact on individuals, instead Ackroyd sees the city itself as a living thing, modelled by multiple human experiences.  It’s an approach that frees him from purely formal scholarship and sets the mind travelling along the ley lines of history; and that’s why the book is a biography, not a history, of the city. Marvellous stuff. I’d love to do the same for Norwich.

I’m not sure about the series.  Quite a lot of it is fine, but the re-enactments of figures such as Tacitus, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Christopher Wren seem rather prosaic and mockumentary besides Ackroyd’s own magisterial yet self-deprecating presence. The one thing that is absolutely true in the series, though, is the wonderful precision and zest of his language. And that is something you can experience in the book.

I so wish Ackroyd would now go to live in Rome for a few years. True, he wouldn’t have the lifelong experience that makes his work on London so deeply felt; but he is one of few writers these days who I think could bring alive those multiple layers and alarming continuities that make Rome such a bewildering and satisfying city.

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