THE Scarp, as Papadimitriou calls it in this quizzical and questing volume, is the 17-mile broken ridge north of London, taking in places mostly familiar to most readers as fleeting train stops (some notorious: Hatfield, Potters Bar) and unvisited service stations (South Mimms, once lauded in a piece by performance poet Luke Wright).
It is also the area that formerly comprised the county of Middlesex, which in 1965 was dissolved into Greater London, with parts incorporated into Surrey and Hertfordshire.
Papadimitriou has made himself the unofficial laureate of Middlesex, and readers who find themselves in key with his particular form of imaginative rumination and rambling will no doubt also admire his website, www.middlesexcountycouncil.org.uk.
There are parallels between Papadimitriou’s work and the psychogeography of writers such as Iain Sinclair and Will Self. Given the interweaving of the built and grown environments, the slow shading away of the city to nature (often via those odd man-manicured landscapes, golf courses), he is equally comparable with the “new nature writers” such as Richard Mabey, Robert Macfarlane and the chroniclers of the “edgelands”, Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts. His own preferred term for his kind of writing is “deep topography”. It is deep in that it often relies on historical sources – there is a continual unpeeling of the present throughout Scarp – and an awareness of how the city is built over landscape, and how landscape peers through interstices back into the city.
Papadimitriou offers another term for his writing, as he sits pondering a line of pylons which is vaguely reminiscent of the Celtic “thin places”. “Proximity flight: that’s what I call this using of environment to trigger mental journeys to another place and time in which the same stimuli can be found. I find it lifts my sense of the environment out of its codified framework and into fresh possibilities of interpretation, my eyes wiped clean by the resultant defamiliarisation”.
Papadimitriou follows through on this methodology. One of the most interesting features of Scarp is how Papadimitriou loses himself in other characters: he turns into an 18th-century gentleman, into a rook called Merops, into a murderous tramp, into Gloria Geddes, Queen of the Psychedelic Ancients of Middle Saxony, “a clan of psilocybin-saturated pantheists now dispersed into prisons, psychiatric units and – worst of all – the straight life”. These are played in counterpoint to the sections of memoir, as Papadimitriou recounts, unsparingly, his teenage disaffection, persistent truanting, hopeless crush, fire-starting and subsequent arrest.
The court scene is particularly fine, with the chief magistrate mangling his name into variations such as “Papa Detritus”, “Papa Derrida” and “Papa de Retro”, effectively summoning the ghosts of his future selves. There is an astonishingly affecting piece of family reconstruction where he learns that a grandfather he never knew actually died, homeless and alcoholic, in 1984, and that worse, he had been found on the street very near to places Papadimitriou himself frequented.
These divagations into the past and other minds give a haunting quality to Scarp. Papadimitriou is an exceptionally acute observer, and has the linguistic exuberance to capture the fleeting, paradoxical nature of the Scarp memorably. Only a longer quotation can do justice to the elegant shifts in register and tone, the interleaving of detail and meditation: “As I climb Scarp’s southern face, passing a snagged tree and near-bald pastures scatted with purple and green docks, the hills at Harrow and Perivale come into view... packed between these and Scarp are the human multitudes, their dynastic interweaving too complex to map. Our privileged modernity is as nothing in the face of the onslaught of clouds and air, the globules of sunlight sliding across the land’s surface and eating whole postcodes at will. Time moils and folds in on itself in this dancing light. The car, bought, lovingly polished and rocked by sex in a Brent Cross car park in 1987 is now scrap, the engine stuffed with grasses, a home for field mice. Your lips, the smell of your hair, the earring you left in my bedroom by accident, which I hung from the tube frame of my 1960s shelf unit as a trophy: they surface to memory like bones rising in a field”.
This is inflected by modernism in the best way, from the precise “snagged” and “moils” to the vaguely threatening image of memories as dead things forced to the surface by the chthonic processes of the soil itself – which, in some ways, is a metaphor for Papadimitriou’s process and purpose as a writer.
This kind of writing has moved, over the past 30 years, from avant-garde secret to mainstream success. Success, however, has not dulled its capacity to tell us new truths about the way we live.
Edinburgh International Book Festival, Nick Papadimitriou with Will Self, today
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