TH: This is your first book but it has had a long gestation period, both in terms of the writing time and the vast amount of walking you’ve done along this unusual and captivating landmass. To what extent do you find the two activities, of composing sentences and putting one foot in front of the other, are linked for you?
When I first began walking concertedly back in the late 1980s, I found that the torrent of inner voices I habitually heard began to organise itself in relation to the landscapes I passed through, the things I saw, the sensory experience of weather and light that buffeted me and the responses triggered by these. It was as if the land was trying to transmit a message through me, or as if I wanted to communicate to some as yet undiscovered loved one what it was I saw. This statement may seem to be unduly poetic or high-flown but it is the need to convey magnitude that concerns me here. It was inevitable that some sort of art would rise out of the encounter and Scarp is my first, faltering communiqué. However, this is only part of the story. Frequently I refuse to keep notes or other records of walks undertaken and as a result the memories of these fade and ultimately pass down into the land, and are forgotten. At some level I think this is as it should be.
There is deep tradition of writing about landscape in Britain , from the Lake Poets to the psycho-geographers of more recent times. To what extent are you conscious of literary tradition when working and do you think there is something particular to Britain – perhaps our class-bound society – that leads us to re-imagine our surroundings?
Class is the great quicksand at the heart of English thought and culture. To simply ignore class seems to me to be to act with wilful ignorance. Unfortunately, when I go the other way and engage with class I all-too-easily find myself becoming more deeply entrenched in my relative position in the social hierarchy. I don’t know why class is such a strong presence in our collective thought but one thing that can be said in its favour is that it provides a starting block from which particularly intense narratives can kick off and surge forward as much as become a sticking point. My favourite landscape writer is W.H. Auden. Human activity and the consequences of anthropocentrist power brokering are never far from the surface in his invocations of the land. Other ‘literary’ writers on landscape such as Iain Sinclair or Peter Ackroyd I tend to avoid as their perceptions interfere too readily with my own responses and my need to find space for the voices to surface. I prefer to read either scientific ecology papers dating from the 1920s – fine-detailed witness statements regarding what once was – or popular topographers such as the brothers Maxwell. The books these two intrepid writers produced between the wars such as The Fringe of London and A Detective in Surrey are near-holy books for me.
In Scarp, you reveal how overlooked, neglected or liminal spaces can be arenas rife with signs of the shifting psychological make up of society. Over the course of your lifetime what are the most salient changes you’ve seen occur?
In the twenty-five years I have been walking the brown field sites scattered around London have gradually disappeared as a result of the pressure for new housing. It’s heartbreaking really. A lesser evil is the conversion of wasteland to official ecology and conservation sites complete with hogging paths, picnic tables and information boards. The snob in me is appalled at the prospect of sharing what once seemed my own personal domain with the general punter, but I have to admit that if it preserves space for wildlife it is a good thing. Another change in the landscape is the systematic eradication of rusted hastate fencing and cross-hatched wire supported on pre-moulded lintels such as you used to see around rail-yards, schools and council depots. The rust-proof trident palings that have usurped them are potentially deadly and speak clearly of changes in the national psyche, the emergence of intolerance and fear, the growth of the impulse towards control.
In the New Voices extract you describe a cluster of violent road accidents on ‘Suicide Corner’. As a nation do you think we’re adept at blotting out these kinds stories from the fringes of society and our history?
We live in a great era of retrieved ‘forgotten’ histories but it is the recording eye of absolute fact that intrigues me the most: that a spider drowned in a water butt just outside Watford in June 1967; that a drunken businessman ran over a woodpigeon on Clack Lane, West Ruislip in 1999, laughed about it and never told anyone. These I imagine. These I see.
You have a great affinity with the natural world, from the mating cycles of urban foxes to the ‘lunch meat’ of adders. Have you found yourself in any tight spots when encountering the wildlife around London?
I once put on my shirt after sunbathing in the old rail yards at Feltham and then, acting on instinct, quickly took it off again. Inspection revealed a huge continental hornet pulsing just inside the collar. I saw it as a signal – I was not in control.
You can read an extract from Scarp by Nick Papadimitriou, introduced by Will Self, here.
Scarp will be published in July by Sceptre.
Photograph by Sceptre Books