Travels and Reflections

Hello all! Well, I started this year with a burst of energy, and it’s already taken me to some fun new places, conceptually and actually really. For a start, I was SO thrilled to be shortlisted for the Get A Word In Edgeways Step Up Commission 2023, with an idea for a show that I will eagerly tell you more about later once the result is announced – and this meant that I spent this last weekend at a group workshop in the GORGEOUS Priory Hall in Much Wenlock. A truly splendid bunch of people they are, and I would dearly love to see ANY of their shows put on: this photo well captures the easygoing good vibes of the weekend.

A gathering of storytellers and poets pose for the camera.

And here are some more snapshots of the stunning area.

But before that, I also had a trip away for my PhD studies to the Techne DTP January Congress in London. Which was not only a great chance for training and networking with my funding body, and for catching up with wonderful folks from other institutions: it proved a fascinating dive into psychogeography as well. The venue was a hotel well and truly in the old City of London: and I’m a child of the suburbs, so I still feel like something of a yokel anyway in big cities; but choosing to walk from Blackfriars Station to the hotel, I was overwhelmed by the amount of HISTORY in London that you can see layered up all around you. Relics and memories of human endeavour from all points of the city’s past are all just THERE, jumbled up on top of each other so that slick office buildings and polished steel cafes are perched among early modern guildhouses and medieval churches, and the street plan itself tucks and curls around the paths and droveways of landscapes now buried. I even walked the boundary of an ancient farm field that I read about in a Wetherspoons pub, which was now the city block where our hotel stood. (In fact, it suddenly hit me where the borough of Tower Hamlets gets its name: I always wistfully imagined lots of little hamlets with teetering towers in them, but actually it’s the farming country immediately beyond the city, just outside the Tower of London!) But this spot below seemed to say it all for me:

This is a section of Roman wall, emerging between modern buildings and standing above a concrete underpass. Its earliest layers are estimated to be about 1,800 years old. And here it stands, next to a swanky bar-restaurant, overlooking a dual carriageway. Sadly, I suspect some people don’t even notice it, let alone wonder about the people who built it, or what the area looked like then, or what they hoped to achieve; but I know some, like me, will. But here’s the next thing that really got me about the wall:

Roman wall overlooking the Tower of London.

It’s directly OPPOSITE the Tower of London. Which was William the Conqueror’s royal palace, a site of Norman rule back in the height of medieval times. London was already a bustling port city at that time, and the castle was built to stamp William’s authority over its inhabitants; but what did any of those people think about the Roman wall standing in their midst? In the 21st century, we’re used to the idea of The Olden Days being visible in the British landscape – so much so that, like I say, many people don’t even notice it; but we accept that it’s THERE, and the blur of histories painted around us is a part of the colour that gives each of us our individual sense of our surroundings. I wonder what the people of early-mid medieval London thought of these imposing reminders of the past? What was their sense of when these things came from, why they might matter, who built them and how that informed their own lives?

In fact, to some extent there must have been those who had quite a prosaic, practical approach, because the top courses of the wall are in fact medieval additions, when the wall was repurposed to make part of that era’s city defences. But place-names around the British Isles show a more probing, wary or reverential sense of the past: Wansdyke, in Wiltshire and Somerset, is an early post-Roman bank and ditch whose name (from “Woden’s Dyke”) shows that early English arrivals could imagine it was made by the leader of their gods. Grime’s Graves, in Norfolk, is a Neolithic flint mine likewise named for Woden (“Grimnir”, “the hooded one”, being one of Odin’s names in Norse poetry). Countless hilltop ruins are said to have been giant’s handiwork (and Beowulf frequently calls ruins and relics, “entenweorc”, “the work of giants”) and the Welsh for Stonehenge, Cor Cewri, translates as the Giants’ Choir. And these names barely scratch the surface of the magic and wonder written into the map of the UK. But also, I find myself remembering a quote from an Aboriginal Australian man in an archaeology textbook (I wish I could remember who he was, but I’ve long since given it away), talking to European colonials and referring to historic remains as “them old men’s stones” – the poetry and concision of this simple but weighty comment never left me. If there was an ordinary Londoner, making a life between city streets, Church and Crown, in 1066, how might they have seen these vestiges of another London, another world? Who might they have thought built them – and how would they have related that to their own time?

The next day, before I did my field-boundary walk, I saw this view – and it summed it all up:

Tower Bridge, the Tower of London, and the Shard – Victorian medievalist nostalgia (and industrial engineering), actual medieval towers, and the shiniest symbol of modern commercial London, all together. The past is THERE, on so many different levels, physically present in the modern day – and I had no idea these three iconic London landmarks were all right on top of each other either! The MYTHS that make up London image all crammed into one place. I can really see now why so many Londoners feel so passionate about the city’s identity and history, and exactly how it produced such amazing works of modern folklore and myth-spinning as Neverwhere and Rivers of London: it’s ALL THERE, in front of you and around you, all the time – the history and the mystery and the legends and the magic and the questions that it asks of your mind, the imagination you might use to come up with answers. I can’t wait to go back.

(And it really helps that the Whitechapel Gallery, but streets away, has a psychogeographic audio walking tour that I’m desperate to try – and a friend and I discovered Freedom Press couple of doors down 😉 )

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