Uncanny cities

It’s not unusual for me to go several months without posting on here, but the period from July 2019 to July 2020 with only one post is a notably long gap.

I wasn’t absent from blogs in this time: I set up a new one in March. This was my response to a situation: I had been teaching a short course in an Adult Education college in London which was suddenly cancelled by the pandemic. I was unhappy about leaving the course, naturally, but unprepared to attempt the move into online video teaching at such short notice. (I have since been teaching very successfully online: it can work very well, although the social side of classes is much missed.)

view over abandoned railway line in Hackney, looking to the City of London, in 2005
Dalston Kingsland, seen from the 38 Routemaster, October 2005 (photo: Ben Pestell)

The course was called, ‘The Urban Wanderer’, and it was a way to try to pick through the trends in the literature of walking the city which has become such a fashionable industry lately. When classes were cancelled, my response was to continue the course, as best I could through a series of blog posts, where I would set out my initial thoughts; and students were invited to respond with their own walks and comments. It was no substitute for the back-and-forth of classroom discussion, but satisfying in its own way.

I wanted to address the ‘big names’, which led to a rather Eurocentric/dead white male reading list, so I consider it as laying the historical groundwork, rather than giving a detailed picture of where we are now. I hope to have the opportunity to extend the course in future.

Here are links to my main pieces on that site, and I’ll shortly re-blog my favourite:

“Let cyclists get loaded”

Archive post, written circa 6 March 2018

[Written in response to a ‘Tweet’ from a cycling journalist re. half-witted defences of doping in sport, which I took as a challenge.]

Sensationalist readers of ancient Maya astrology were excited in 2012. For here and now, it was foretold, was the end of the world. It was a prophecy seemingly designed to sell a lot of books, and fund a film or two – and quick! – because no-one will be interested come January. Sober readers of ancient Maya astrology pointed out that the end of the calendar simply indicated a new cycle.

But 2012 was still a significant year for the mythical energies harnessed: and rare, too, for a brief attempt at forging a national myth which was inclusive rather than combative. It was the year of the Olympic games in London, the ancient Greek festival revived as an international celebration of money, ruinous construction projects, jingoism, and sporting excellence.

For many in the UK, the abiding memory of the games is the Best-Face Optimism of the opening ceremony. While the lighting of the flame in Olympia, attended by women in chitons, recalls the past, the heritage, and the tradition, London’s assault of images conflated the Olympic rings with the Queen, with popular culture, with multiculturalism and with the NHS. It was a national myth without a mythology. A symbol waiting for a story.

The spell was undone by the utter nadir of the closing ceremony – as if normal service is now resumed. Here is that old, exhausted symbol, Churchill: a local hero, but hardly an international one, played by Spall who should forever hang his head in shame.

Between these symbol-laden spectacles, came the sports. The host nation’s ‘Team GB’ (so called because to invoke Northern Ireland was evidently to conjure a bad magik of disunity), did rather well, thanks to some serious funding, rigorous training regimes, and, in some areas, it has been alleged, the careful use of banned drugs. In the forefront of the successes was the cycling team. Cycling is the most mythically apt of modern sports: dedicated to the eternal return, and reaching beyond our mortal limits through the amplification of human power in the symbiotic relationship with the machine.

The victories were important: the success of the games, as many noted, was essential to counter the traumatic memory of the multiple suicide bombing in London in 2005. The atrocity occurred the day after the celebratory announcement of London’s successful bid for the games. There was also the matter of the transformation of large parts of Stratford and Hackney Wick – an erasure of history that Iain Sinclair has mined across his recent books.

The games which were almost-universally judged to be a success, and won over many hardened Olympic-avoider. In the aftermath, Jon Snow interviewed Iain Sinclair on Channel Four News, hoping to induce Sinclair to concede that the goodwill generated by the games was not to be traduced. It was an impossible position: of course we can see how the human efforts of the sports can transcend the infernal mire of corruption, competition, and Coe; of gentrification and “craft beer”. But this cannot be put into a newsworthy sound-bite.

[This video isn’t the one I remember, but it’s close enough]

In 2012 I remembered the day in 2005, walking home in the evening of the bombs, seeing the buses begin to run again down Upper Street. It was extremely moving to see them running again so soon — to see life continuing. And in 2012, I remembered too, sunny afternoons cycling around Hackney and Bow, my route being curtailed by the giant “Blue Fence” – the focus of Sinclair’s ire and woe, representing the communities, industries, and histories that were erased by the tide of tarmac. These were the wrongs that the games was set to ease: the foundational violence of the games that the games themselves were to allow to heal.

The British cycling successes from 2012, of the Tour de France, of Olympics of 2012 and 2016, blurs the teams of “GB” and Sky in the popular imagination, but it was in Team Sky, and its successive figureheads Wiggins, then Froome, under the direction of Brailsford, that cycling was – so the press releases would have it – moving into the light of clean riding and transparency after innumerable doping scandals, epitomised by the downfall of Lance Armstrong whose seven Tour de France wins were struck from the record.

And now Sky comes under renewed pressure. Both Wiggins and Froome have had accusations made against them, or infringements made known, or dubious exemptions brought into question; all accompanied by calls for Brailsford to account for his actions.

I’m not going to speculate on any individual case, even if I identify as ‘rocker’ in tribal opposition to Wiggins’s ‘mod’, and what I have to say comes in the broad brush of the outsider who does not understand the nuances of the situation. I have read about the constant alertness required of top athletes who are subject to unannounced doping tests: a rotten way to live, I think. And I have read about the TUEs (therapeutic use exemptions) that are used to permit an athlete to take a substance otherwise prohibited by rules of the competition. And the natural question is, why this and not that? What constitutes an unfair advantage? Why should steroids and amphetamines, like doughnuts, not be taken as part of a healthy diet? Would we want a sober Lou Reed, a sober Baudelaire?

My model for all sporting events is the ancient Greek tradition of funeral games, specifically the chariot race in Iliad book 23. It’s a serious and rowdy race, quite bad-tempered too. And like the cyclists’ team car, the gods are attentive, keeping an eye on their favourites, and lending a hand too. Apollo, we are told, has taken Diomedes’ whip:

Athene did not fail to see the foul play of Apollo
on Tydeus’ son [Diomedes]. She swept in speed to the shepherd of the people
and gave him back his whip, and inspired strength into his horses.
Then in her wrath she went on after the son of Admetos [Eumelos]
and she, a goddess, smashed his chariot yoke, and his horses
ran on either side of the way, the pole dragged, and Eumelos
himself was sent spinning out beside the wheel of the chariot
so that his elbows were all torn, and his mouth, and his nostrils,
and his forehead was lacerated about the brows, and his eyes
filled with tears, and the springing voice was held fast within him.

(XXIII. 387-97, translated by Richmond Lattimore)

The word Lattimore translates as ‘foul play’ is ἐλεφηράμενος, meaning ‘cheat’, ‘overreach’. This strongly implies a sense of fair play that is insulted or abused, which Athene then punishes. But she punishes through foul play of her own. What an unhappy lesson this teaches us: to hope for fair play is hopeless, because people will take whatever advantage they can get, or, if your opponent cheats, then you may as well cheat too. But that’s a fool’s game – to look to the gods for models of good behaviour. They are, rather, models of the sublime, of excess, of violence and arrogance, of pettiness, irrationality, rage and indifference. They brush away impromptu anti-doping tests as a thousand contaminated urine samples explode with the unruliness of godhead.

I hold truth and ethics in sport in the same regard as truth and ethics in art: not a priority. The athlete-artist gets a free pass to some extent. We print the legend, not the truth. So I don’t worry so much about doping in sport: it’s all part of the performance.

The Boar Hunt and the Funeral Games, depicted on the ‘François Vase’ (black-figure volute krater, by Ergotimos and Kleitas, c. 570 BC, now in the Archaeological Museum, Florence)

And then I realise the trap that has been carefully set for me: by arguing for greatness, for the sublime moment, I have come to endorse that worst capitalist desire of winning at all costs. It belongs to a world of “great men” and nationalism which I abhor.

And that’s the sum of my thoughts about sport: each swelling of pride must be punctured by smashed chariot fragment. It’s with relief that the liberal comfort blanket of the 2012 opening ceremony was negated by the crass insensitivity of the closing ceremony, and that our national heroes are suspected of being doped-up schemers. The symbol finds its story, only for the plot to crumble.


I hadn’t noticed what has happened to “so”. I thought it was so last year to diss “so”. I’d been encouraged by Heaney’s Beowulf, where he translates the initial, throat-clearing utterance “Hwæt” as the Irish idiomatic, yarn-commencing “So.” which obliterates all previous narrative and commands attention.

But here’s Iain Sinclair, in the LRB (link here), who’s always sharp in spotting the petty indignities suffered by language, describing the initial “So” as the “entry code” to a gentrified, socially-cleansed London.

And in Sinclair’s article I discover that Tom Raworth has died. He didn’t make the news in the way that Derek Walcott did, and it had passed me by. I have fond memories of Raworth’s readings at Essex in recent years. Poetry readings are often poorly-attended affairs, but for one, Raworth’s audience was swelled by a keen email sent to all in the department of Literature at the university. It was a simple instruction not to miss “the great (-est?) modernist poet, Tom Raworth”. The email was sent by the late Joe Allard, an infectious enthusiast for Icelandic literature, among other things, and a fixture in the literary and drinking life of the town of Wivenhoe. The entire email — a plug in under 30 words, including time and place — was arresting and compelling: as if to say, here is Modernism, returning to revivify the Brutalist architecture of the Essex campus. It lives today.

This is my first post on here in a while. I have been writing more formal pieces, and the free time I’ve had when I could be writing blogs has been spent reading instead. Reading for pleasure, I mean. No-one can argue with that excuse.

University of Dreams

University of Dreams – Talk and exhibition opening, University of Essex, Tuesday 3 May 2011

From the blurb:

The University of Dreams is a creative project […] that called upon all members of the University of Essex, from each campus, and from every area of work, study and play, to share their dreams. The project caught everyone’s imagination and in a two week period in February over 120 dreams were submitted.

We now invite you to attend the opening of an exhibition which offers a window onto the dream-life of the University. Excerpts from the submitted dreams will be displayed alongside photographs, CCTV footage and sound recordings of the Colchester Campus at night-time.

The dream-descriptions displayed in the exhibition made me regret slightly my decision not to submit my own dream (which I did on the grounds that it was too personal, too much a part of me, even though they were anonymously collected). As I consumed the very high quality nibbles and some decent seminar wine, I bumped into a few old faces, and as we were ushered in to hear the talks, I sat on a bank of seats in the middle of what felt like an intoxicating collision of past, present and future.

The first talk was by Marina Warner: a reliably eclectic rumination on the One Thousand and One Nights. This was followed by Iain Sinclair’s circular talk around Claybury, Clare, Hackney, the M25, and so on. I was amused by Sinclair’s remark that his wife dreams his work before he does it.

Birch, photo by Lynne Pettinger, taken from http://selvageflame.com/category/news/page/3/
Birch, photo by Lynne Pettinger, taken from Will Montgomery’s website

Next was the slideshow of Lynne Pettinger’s photographs with Will Montgomery’s recordings of the campus at night. Both emphasized the industrial / brutalist side of the campus over the lakeside / Constable-country setting. I was particularly struck by a photo of the shadow of a railing protruding from a larger shadow.

The event ended with a poetry reading from two poets with old Essex connections. Ralph Hawkins’s rather surly reading style was ultimately endearing. Jeremy Reed did his best to alienate. He boasted about his friendship with the singer from the Libertines, was rude about everyone present, with the pointed sycophantic exception of Iain Sinclair. He was dressed in the old fart’s r’n’r uniform of dark blue jeans, converse trainers, black jacket, beret with curls of hair carefully flicked in front of his eyes. Needless to say, he kept playing with his hair. He read a poem called ‘Why the Rolling Stones are so skinny’, but preposterously made reference to a 30 inch waist: good lord, that is fat for a post-war junkie. But the thing that really bothered me about him was the way that he had these scraps of paper he was using as bookmarks, and he just tossed them on the floor and didn’t pick them up when he left. I can’t stand that aristocratic mentality that thinks it’s really rock n roll to expect cleaners on minimum wage to tidy up in their wake.

Still, the dreams were good.