Writing with Strangers in the City

Today I started a writing course at Goldsmiths. It has all the hallmarks of an interesting experience. We have a brilliant mix of participants – lifelong Londoners and someone who arrived only this week, educators, published poets, archaeologists, sociologists, journalists and students from around the world.

The course was solidly practical, with activities to prompt reflective writing. We focused today on free writing and on a kind of sensory mapping of a psychogeographical variety. I shared about the little ‘detours’ I had taken with my kids when I did Psychogeography with Year 4, we shared a few life stories, passed through a couple of awkward silences but by the end, the social thawing had begun.

My motivation for doing this course is to have something not related to education – to teaching, that is – to occupy me. Yes, I want to become a better writer and I want to explore the city in new ways, but a prime motivation is to wean myself from an overbearing education obsession. So it was natural that I would spend the lion’s share of my creative energies on school related ideas, mapping out the first time I visited my school as a cartographical poem.

The session complete, I headed out, chatting to two of my new classmates about their experience of London.

I grabbed some falafel from a little Lebanese grill and ate it on the bridge, looking out over at the bright lights of the city along the tracks. Suitably filled, I got onto the train back to Stratford from New Cross.

My route would be to take the Overground, change at Canada Water, then onto the Jubilee Line to Stratford. I entered a quiet carriage where only a few people were occupying themselves on their phones. I sat a few seats down from one young woman and directly across from another.

I was looking at the Tube with enquiring eyes, fresh from the course. The Tube itself is so iconic in its design. It forces interaction purely by its layout, despite all the social norms making it an essentially odd act to start chatting with a stranger. I listened in to some people’s private conversations – two South Asian students were discussing the differences in their family life, with one girl being first generation and the other being second generation in the UK.

Conscious of not wanting to be that creepy listener any longer, I got out my book from my pocket. I am currently reading John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’. This will hopefully inspire the direction I want to take the creative work; what I want to do is seize the power of spontaneous moments, and nudge myself away from my habitual ways of seeing the city. I want to try to see it as a tourist might, or as someone who cannot understand written English, like when I was in Yangon and couldn’t decipher a single sign. I want to explore the stories of people.

Bizarrely, just as on Tuesday when I had my London project in my mind and then an odd event occurred, the same happened.

The girl opposite me on the train gestured over to me, apologising for disturbing me. She asked if she could take a photo of me with my book, and if I could give a short review and the social context of why I would be reading this particular book at this particular time. I posed with the book and shared my views, and then just had a short chat – probably no more than 4 or 5 minutes.

This morning, in the post, my copy of Humans of London arrived. This evening, by the beauty of chance, I am now a part of a similar project.

Laying on the irony thickly this evening – after already having ignored the people around me to focus on reading about seeing the world around me differently – I then realised that because I had been chatting, I had missed my stop. I needed to get off at Canada Water but our conversation wound down when I had got to Wapping.

I stepped off the train and felt the familiar and by-now-quite-enjoyable sense of self-aware embarrassment. I felt I couldn’t just go back on myself, as I hate doing that, so in the spirit of the moment, and despite the chill, I decided this was a sign that I needed to just launch myself into a  psychogeographical detour.

I have never been to Wapping before. I know loosely of where it is on the map, but have considered it previously to be a bit of a non-place. I stepped out of the Tube station and there were no people anywhere. It was dark and cold. I turned left and between two buildings, I could see the Thames, so I had a vague sense of my bearings; I needed loosely to be walking left out of the station I thought.

And off I trotted, past rows and rows of converted wharf buildings, that now house the sparklingly affluent. These old dockland buildings, once a site of industry and trade, are now the resting space for people whose labour is conducted globally from a swivel chair and a Macbook.

I looked down an alleyway and made swift eye contact with a urinating man. I kept walking. I was walking for maybe 10 minutes, and started to feel as though I was getting bad-lost. Then, between the bars of a large gate that blocked the path between two more converted wharf towers, I could see the bright lights of a business district. A few more minutes and I rounded a corner. From being in the enclosed narrow street, overshadowed by these gigantic buildings, suddenly the sky was wide and to my left was Tower Bridge and the hulking Shard, alongside the Thames. I knew where i was now and cut through St Katherine’s Docks, crossing a bridge over the water, and climbed onto Tower Bridge.

I looked over the wall as I wandered around the periphery of the Tower of London. The ideas I had been reading in John Berger’s book came back to me; the idea that the photograph of a thing distances it from its meaning, or at least multiplies its interpretations. I look at this paragon of force, with its turrets and defensive walls where the bowmen would stand, and see now just a memory of a packed Museum tour where I was stuck behind a slow-walking tourist who I wanted to punch in the back of the head.

I passed through the tunnel leading to Tower Hill station and a smartly dressed man stands silently in front of a wooden lectern he has brought with him to the tunnel; he shuffles his papers, and I want to stop and talk to him but don’t. I decide that if I see him here next week – because next week I will do the walk again, but with the eyes of someone who knows where they are going – I will have a stop and chat. I imagine his message is a religious one, but I am happy to make time to hear anyone willing to own, let alone transport, their own wooden lectern around Central London.

These little atomised interruptions to the routines and habits of the city are where you find its majesty. It’s in the sideways glance of a busker and the rivulets of rogue piss that flow towards the Thames from the sidewall of an executive warehouse development. It’s in missing your stop and abandoning your route rather than crossing the platform.

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