Papadimitriou, N. 2012 Scarp – in Search of London’s Outer Limits Hodder & Stoughton 978 1 444 72338 0
‘From an early age I used walking as an instrument of research, the aim being to step straight through the cracks in the apparent world, the shared beliefs of my little electrically lit Middlesex colony. My plastic Daleks and Airfix infantry; my sombre parents, trying hard; the kind school with its gaily coloured walls, its milk and biscuits freely given; all these I left behind when I first explored the alley two houses down…’ pg. 24
To be honest I’ve found Scarp to be a truly perplexing book, almost uncategorisable. It’s perhaps easier to say what it isn’t rather than what it is.
It isn’t solely an autobiography, nor a travelogue, nor a geographical analysis of the area it describes, nor is it psychology or a Kerouacian stream of consciousness narrative – yet in part it is all of these, and more.
It is a beautiful written and vivid evocation of the edgelands of London. It is poetic, surreal and has wild humour running through it. The effect is a heady mongrel mix of The League of Gentlemen‘s Royston Vasey crossed with TS Eliot’s multi-vocal The Waste Land, as it draws story from story and shows that everywhere, no matter how seemingly mundane, has a tale to tell.
It’s an esoteric book, yet equally, it’s a poignantly mundane, empathetic and open reverie on a life lived and the place where it was lived.
Papadimitriou’s mercilessly readable prose-rants allied with his insight, wit and sheer exuberance present us with something more than just an exploration of the outer-London fringe, this is a book that incorporates history (both real and imagined), folk lore, folk memory, and many episodes and painfully honest discursions on the author’s own, darkly eventful life.
His methodology might be bonkers but it is very engaging. Years of study and dreaming in the spare bedroom of his flat have given birth to a series of fantastic journeys – trips, more like – through the ages of the scarp and into and out of its living and its dead, its creatures and plants, its buildings and routeways, its residents and its passers-by. The whole shebang is channelled into what Papadimitriou calls “deep topography”. But the loopy incredibility of all this is redeemed by his indomitable playfulness. That he is relaxed about taking his own character along with him on his walks also helps a lot. He is good fun. from Tim Dee reviewing ‘Scarp’ and writing in The Observer
There is something of a Terry Gilliam animation feel about Papadimitriou’s journeys, they are funny but also effective in evoking the layered life of the scarp.
In many ways this is a great book, a challenging book, a polemic, a love it or loathe it book. It does memorably argue a case for believing that the most memorable journeys begin at our own door, and may not be more than a heartbeat away from here and now.
I’ll round off by letting the book speak for itself:
‘Deep Topography: placing an emphasis on found items – lists dropped on pavements; letters found in attics of condemned houses; personal papers discarded in skips […] Deep Topography: pieces of rusted machinery stumbled upon in dry grasses by Grim’s Dyke, 1967; a box of telephone components found on Enfield Chase during an undated summer about twenty three years ago: spread the parts out on the table and try to work out the relations between them […] The accusation of nostalgia could reasonably be leveled at Deep Topography, However, that sentiment is attained not through absence from one’s home but via passing through the land’s eye. Deep Topography: a return to home at day’s end and, after the exhaustion, a rising into something that is more than personal recollection: rather, it is the land’s very structure and memory unfurling in the mind.’ pg 254-255
‘I pull my region closer, dragging its leaf-fall, scrap-iron, blotting-paper substance home with me after every walk. I spread my finds on the trestle table and spend long evenings in examination. I hear voices hovering around these tiny fragments of other times, other people’s lives…’ pg 77
‘I sat, and as rain specked the window I passed into the landscape. I was saplings, and bushes. I was ditches of black water and prefab barns made from asbestos and breezeblock standing in winter fields 1954. I was wind-whacked days with shirts drying on washing lines at Deacon Farm 1962. There was a mewling of gulls and air carried in from the Atlantic, laden with memories of trawlers and tankers. As the bus crossed the North Circular this heightened awareness of the land and its memories began to fade and by the time I alighted at Child Hill my consciousness had reverted back to it usual state. Forgetting all I had seen, I pulled my collar up in the cold air and scurried off to Moby Dick’s for chicken and chips.’ pg 130