Walking London: An Audio Tour with Tamar Yoseloff. A psychogeographical ticket giving you access to hidden parts of London and your own mind can be downloaded for just £5.00 from the Poetry School website. Magma puts it to the test.
“Thank you for purchasing our poetry walking tour — a one-person poetry workshop that takes place on the streets of London” offer the accompanying notes to Tamar Yoseloff’s audio tour of Clerkenwell and Bloomsbury.
The notes go on to list the names of sixteen writers and poets referred to during the tour, five poems, eleven prose works (four of them by Dickens), three artists, two artist’s models and one painting.
But this is not a tour that depends on monuments or landmarks, whether literary or physical.
Dr Yoseloff’s calm, deliberately expressionless voice informs us that ‘the idea is to notice things we don’t normally notice when we’re immersed in our day to day activities’.
This is a tour of weeds and trees, lost rivers and ghostly rumours, car parks and bomb sites, drains and gratings, overpasses, underpasses, and, ultimately, your own imagination: we are invited to become psychogeographers, recording aspects of the city not featured in guidebooks or on maps, working at ‘the point where psychology and geography collide.’
I’m excited and just a little apprehensive. Will I find any poems, or, at least, any ideas or scraps of language that might turn themselves into poems?
The tour is divided into eleven sections, each relating to one of its eleven locations, and each running a few short minutes. There’s forty-five minutes of listening material in all, and the tour took me two hours. But it would be easy to linger longer if you wanted to stop and do some extended writing along the way.
The walk begins at Chancery Lane tube on the corner of Greys Inn Road and High Holborn. Dr Yoseloff invites me to note the weather and traffic conditions. She draws particular attention to the single heraldic dragon that marks the boundary of the City of London. I open the new notebook I’ve bought for the occasion and begin:
A busy Friday. Midday. Early spring. Unusually warm. Overcoats and sunshine. Dampness. Cows, if any were visible, would be sitting down. Cars, bikes and heraldic dragon sparkle in hazy sun. A woman wearing a backpack walks along with an oar in one hand, and a raw block of wood under the other. A fruit stall. Bananas and strawberries. Yellow and red predominate.
No poem is suggesting itself yet. But I find that the woman with the oar, who perhaps would normally have escaped my attention, or been briefly registered as eccentric or bizarre, has started to take on something of a mythical quality.
After a light sprinkling of some more historical, literary and architectural facts, Dr Yoseloff instructs me to move on to the second location, asking me to note on my way the site of the poet Thomas Chatterton’s suicide by arsenic poisoning.
Location 2 is Waterhouse Square, the courtyard of the Prudential Assurance Building, where Dickens wrote the Pickwick Papers, and here I am urged to take a seat, stop the act of walking and listen to two writers discussing it.
Merlin Coverley claims that ‘in cities that are increasingly hostile to the pedestrian, it inevitably becomes an act of subversion.’ Interesting. Sitting on my bench in the sun, I start to feel a bit of a rebel. Rebecca Solnit asserts that ‘the rhythm of walking generates a kind of rhythm of thinking, and the passage through a landscape echoes or stimulates the passage through a series of thoughts.’
Is it my imagination or am I starting to feel my unconscious being strangely seduced by a slow sowing of ideas and images, and the hypnotic qualities of the Doctor’s voice?
Location 3 is Greville Street in Farringdon. As the rather more mechanical voice of my iPhone guides me there, I wonder if the beat of my stride, which — owing to the presence of some stethoscopic Sennheiser headphones — is booming in my ears along with my breathing, will soon engender a passage through a series of thoughts that might turn out to be the beginnings of a poem.
I try to banish self-consciousness and tune into Dr Y’s voice telling me to ignore the long lines of jewellery shops whose baubles are winking at me to left and right and to concentrate instead on weeds. As I halt opposite the archway at number 38, she asks me to ‘Look at the buddleia growing out of a crack in the wall.’
Now, I cannot for the life of me see any buddleia, nor for that matter, any crack in any wall. I guess that in the time since Dr Yosselof researched her tour, some deeply unliterary structural surveyor has ordered the removal of the plant and the filling of the crack.
However, perhaps more important, I consider, is the idea of the buddleia. And for a moment, I wonder whether in an act of benign manipulation, the Doctor might be forcing me to use my imagination here for the first time today, by deliberately asking me to observe a plant that isn’t there.
She asks me whether I can find a poem in the wildness and tenacity of these ‘unofficial’ plants. I can’t. But I think the weeds might have seeded something: things start to look more promising as I move on to Location 4.
‘You are now in Bleeding Heart Yard, one of the most mysterious and wonderful of London place names,’ purrs the voice, before going on to explain the place name as deriving from a spectacularly grisly murder, supposed to have been committed during a grand ball in 1626 at Hatton House. Legend has it that a stranger arrived halfway through the evening. ‘Although he was slightly hunched with a clawed right hand, he was finely dressed. It was reported that he was a European Ambassador.’ He approached Lady Elizabeth Hatton, they danced a circuit of the room, then danced through the doors into the garden, and never returned. ‘The following morning, the body of Lady Hatton was discovered in this courtyard. Her body had been ripped apart, her limbs torn off, yet her heart was still pumping blood out over the cobbles.’
I look down at my feet. A few dog ends and oil stains, but no remaining evidence of the blood. As I’m scribbling some notes, a young man in a blue- and-white-striped apron strides across my path and, looking round, I notice the Yard boasts at least two restaurants. One way and another, this place seems strongly connected to butchering and meat. I move towards the Bleeding Heart Restaurant on the corner, with its tiny outdoor tables, fresh linens and colour- filled bud vases. While walking, I listen to Thomas Ingoldsby’s sensationalist 1837 poem about the incident:
‘Where the pump stands — lay bleeding a LARGE
And sundry large stains
Of blood and of brains,
Which had not been wash’d off notwithstanding the
Appear’d on the wood and the handle, and chains,
As if somebody’s head with a very hard thump,
Had been recently knock’d on the top of the pump…’
The words are still ringing as I approach the menu display, read and note down:
Assiette of suckling pig and crackling with apricot and sage faggots, pommes fondantes and Bramley apple sauce.
Roast rump of Suffolk lamb with glazed spring vegetables, pomme mousseline and Bleeding Heart rooftop rosemary jus.
Haunch of Yorkshire venison with juniper braised venison cheeks, ruby plums, roasted chicory and elderberry sauce
I wonder whether I might make a poem by bringing together the language of menus and the language
of murder. I am also feeling inordinately hungry. But there is no time to stop and eat. Doctor Y is urging me on to Location 5: the corner of Greville Street and Saffron Hill.
Once a district of lush gardens along the banks of the River Fleet, by the mid-nineteenth century, she tells me, Saffron Hill had become a notorious rookery or slum and was Dickens’s setting for Fagin’s den in Oliver Twist.
Standing in the sunshine, surrounded by cooking smells and delivery vans, I listen to a poem by Roy Fisher about his native city of Birmingham at dawn, a poem which the Doctor claims captures something of the character of this part of London.
She then instructs me to write a poem about the life of the city at a particular time of day or night. What, no! Really? A whole poem, standing here in the street, juggling notebook, pen, iPhone, headphones and messenger bag? Not today, Doctor. Though I do make a note to have a go at the exercise another time, before moving swiftly on to Location 6: the corner of Herbal Hill and Ray Street in Clerkenwell.
Dr Y now tells me that, unbeknown to me, for some paces I have been walking along the banks of the lost River Fleet, said to have declined ‘from a river to a brook, from a brook to a ditch, from a ditch to a drain.’ I hear about the many local wells that once fed into the important but also notorious and noxious river — including the Clerks Well, which gave the area its name. The voice reads me its owner’s own poem on the subject of the ancient river, and uses that poem to introduce the term genius loci or, as Yeats described it ‘spirit of place, through which landscape can be imbued with a sense of the histories of previous inhabitants and the events that have played out against them.’
While that idea is flowing through me, I stop off at the Coach and Horses for some liquid refreshment, in the hope that it might reach the parts of my imagination other strategies haven’t reached. As
I slurp my fizzy mineral water (honest), and feel it descend through my pipes, I feel strangely connected to the River Fleet, which, the Doctor’s voice informs me, can still be heard flowing at the bottom of a very deep drain beneath a round grating in the middle of the street right here next to the pub. I look at the grating and consider throwing myself
to the ground and putting my ear to it, but there are other customers at the outdoor tables. I remember reading a piece about the over-eager young Rilke walking the streets in contemplation of an iris held before him and decline to make a poetic spectacle of myself. Perhaps I should have. Still no poem — not even a scrap or a fragment of one.
Location 7 is in Warner Street, under the Roseberry Avenue overpass, once the river valley and an area of great poverty and depravity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, where the Mohocks, a local terror gang, are said to have put women in beer barrels and rolled them down the banks of the Fleet at Snow Hill, just for fun. At this point, Dr Y introduces the idea of ‘debatable zones’, the places in a city that, in the words of the poets Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, from their book Edgelands, often contain ‘decay and stasis, but could also be dynamic and deeply mysterious.’
One of these debatable zones is surely the great rough crater of the Royal Mail car park in Farringdon, which sits at the true level of the river valley, and which is pointed out to me on my way to the next location. It is one of the last undeveloped World War Two bomb sites in central London, and I finally begin to feel the stirrings of thought, emotion and sound that might become a poem.
There is something deeply touching about the sight of this hole, created by hatred and destruction, now being used to facilitate human endeavour, relationships and communication. From my standpoint at a wire fence, I can see heaps of soil, rubble, and broken brick walls around a great bowl in the earth, and the cars and vans of Royal Mail workers parked there, calm as cattle, shining in the midday sun.
Location 8 is Doughty Street, which once provided homes for Dickens, at number 48, and Vera Brittain and Winifred Holtby, at number 58. But the voice urges me to turn away from the literary greats and their houses and look instead at the trees. I listen to a quote about the common London plane tree from Richard Mabey’s book ‘The Unofficial Countryside’:
‘Its popularity in urban and industrial areas is probably due to its extreme hardiness and tolerance of poor soils and polluted air. It’s a clean tree too, having shiny leaves which are quickly washed free of soot by rain, and sloughing off its grimy bark at intervals to leave fresh fawn layers underneath.’
I need no invitation from Dr Y to consider ‘what metaphorical values we can give to a tree like the London plane’. I’m already there, relating the plane’s ability to survive and regenerate itself to the hardiness and resolution of the typical Londoner of my imagination, resolutely withstanding terrorist attacks and the Blitz.
The trees seem to stand for the doughty folk of doughty street, like living headstones, outside the houses of the former residents, marking lives rather than graves. I think of Dickens rising from the darkness and difficulty of his childhood, of Vera Brittain transcending the terrible losses she suffered in the great war. All of them reformers as well as writers.
I make some notes.
They are slim and strong
not thick or squat like oak
make the street an avenue
shade and soften stone, grilles, and keep-out railings,
offset fanlights, crown glass, skewed Venetians,
fill empty window boxes,
screen plaques to past endeavour
stand for people
who stood for people
scratch of feather and nib,
greenery still rippling, like a sea.
I wonder if the effects of the tour might be cumulative. I’m not sure I would have viewed the plane trees quite the same way if I hadn’t just been moved by the bombsite car park and had war and pity in my mind.
The short walk to Location 9 takes me past a blue plaque to Dorothy L Sayers, my namesake and fellow advertising copywriter, on to the house at 18 Rugby Street, where Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes stayed in the early days of their relationship. There is no actual plaque marking this house, just a notional one that exists in the mind of those in the know.
And now Dr Y proposes that I consider where to place my own unofficial blue plaques, my personal markers in the city. To my surprise, the places that come to mind are mostly connected with family: my immigrant great-grandparents’ address in Cannon Street Road where they raised their eight children, my grandparents’ homes in Hendon and Swiss Cottage, my parents’ motor business in Finchley. Then my schools (but not my offices), and the council flat in Tulse Hill where I…. The voice invites me to write a poem that explores the idea of personal mapping. I can see a chain of blue plaques in my mind, like discs on a bracelet being lowered onto an open map. And it’s definitely an idea I’d like to explore further one day.
But now it’s time to move on to Location 10 and another significant address: 17 Red Lion Square, where the young Dante Gabriel Rossetti moved in with William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, and where, arguably, the Pre-Raphaelite movement was born.
Rossetti describes Morris as ‘having some intensely medieval furniture made’ as there was evidently a serious lack of places to sit down. Fortunately, I am not suffering from this affliction myself, as the good Dr Y has suggested I pause on a bench in the centre of the square. Ideas seem to be coming more easily now, hopping among the branches of my brain as easily as the birds are flitting between grass, tree and hedgerow.
Struck perhaps by the shared lodgings of Plath and Hughes in Rugby Street, of Holtby and Brittain in Doughty Street, and now the Pre-Raphaelite flatshare, I start to wonder what William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones’s ad for a flatmate might have looked like.
Single room in shared house. Would suit arty type. Close to Hackney Coachstand and horse bus. Short on furniture; tapestries aplenty. We will have nothing in our house that we do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful. Share of coal and candle bills.
I press play and let the voice tell me more about Red Lion Square, how its name suggests heraldic connections, how red is the colour of fire and blood, war, strength, power, passion and desire — and also, according to Peter Ackroyd’s ‘London: The Biography’, the colour of London itself. Much evidence is given for this, from the tiles of Roman London to our contemporary buses. London Bridge was reputed to be imbued with red, ‘bespattered with the blood of little children’ as part of the ancient rituals of building. The thing that really grabs my attention, though, is that ‘red’ was the Cockney slang for gold. A bit of quick research on my phone tells me that ‘a red clock’ was the Victorian criminal term for a gold watch. I start to wonder how some well-known sayings would sound if I replace the word ‘gold’ with the word ‘red’.
When I retire I shall strike red. I shall receive a red watch, worth its weight in red, and enjoy many a
red hour reading Palgrave’s Red Treasury of English Songs and Lyrics. I know that there is not a pot of red at the end of every rainbow and that all that glitters is not red, but I will be sitting on something of a red mine and will need to be on the lookout for red diggers. I have one red tooth from some dental work some years ago. As a red rule, dictators like red taps in their bathrooms and a good stock of redfish in their garden ponds.
In a truly classless society, perhaps vice versa, too.
I was caught gold-faced and gold-handed. ‘Gold sky at night, shepherd’s delight.’ Gold is for danger. On gold letter days, we’ll cut through gold tape, catch the gold-eye and being gold-blooded males make straight for the gold-light district. I don’t give a gold cent whether this proves to be a gold herring or a gold rag to a bull…
I have a little go at rewriting some Spandau Ballet lyrics, too:
Always believe in your head
You’ve got the power to know
Always believe in, because you are
I don’t yet know whether any of these notes will eventually turn into poems, but I do know that the whole writing machine of me now feels as if it’s moving together, fluently and efficiently: heart/pump (poor Lady Hatton), circulation, imagination, legs, language, eyes, ears, mind and memory.
Arriving finally at Location 11, I listen to a fine rendition of Wordsworth’s famous Westminster Bridge poem, which never fails to raise goosebumps, and then, to end the tour, these words — new to me — from Henry James:
‘It is difficult to speak adequately or justly of London. It is not a pleasant place; it is not agreeable, or cheerful, or easy or exempt from reproach. It is only magnificent.’
The words almost produce a tear, but as I remove my headphones, and the cool air reaches my ears, all I really want to do is cheer. Tammy Yoseloff’s one-person poetry workshop walking tour of London is a magnificently executed undertaking, which deserves many multiple audiences of one. It’s a memorable and unique experience — that only you can have. I very much hope she and the Poetry School will continue the series.