Redrawing my map

January 28, 2012 § 1 Comment

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by maps. As a child I could happily spend hours sprawled on the floor with my parents’ huge National Geographic atlas, plotting imaginary voyages. I don’t remember when I developed a fascination specifically with maps of cities, but the map of London was from the first my touchstone. I don’t know why, but long before I had ever heard of psychogeography I always envisioned it in corporeal terms – the streets as bones, neurons, blood vessels (with the Thames serving double duty as spine and aorta), the parks as lungs, Trafalgar Square the heart, each fountain forming a chamber. My first glimpse of London from a plane window – twelve years ago now – felt like watching the map come to life.

Andreas Vesalius, The Circulatory System (1543)

The metaphor of map as body works both ways. In the first seven years I lived in London, the city’s geography worked its way into my brain, my muscles, my eyes. Where you live inevitably informs your vision and your version of a city, and although I moved three times, I always clung to a particular corner of the N-postcodes – first Harringay, then Stoke Newington, then last and longest, Highbury. The spine of my A-Z is broken at that page, a token of how deeply that pocket of London, with all its peculiarities, was engrained in my way of seeing.

Then I went back to the States for three years, which allowed me to cast a somewhat more objective eye on ‘my’ London – and I realised that, given the choice to return to my old haunts, I wouldn’t. Highbury is an uneasy mix of the privileged (the sort of people who inspired It’s Grim Up North London) and the down-at-heel with, in between, people who aspire to the former and are willing to put up with nasty living conditions and uncongenial flatmates to do so. When I watched Fever Pitch a year ago I had a horrible sense of déjà vu, and not just because part of it was filmed in my old street – the situation of the main character and his best friend (two men well into their thirties sharing a flat and living a student lifestyle they were too old for) reminded me all too vividly of the flat in which I’d spent three and a half years.

When I found out several months ago that I’d be moving back to London, I deliberately wiped the slate clean. I didn’t even consider living anywhere north of the river and decided to look for a flat in Crystal Palace, a neighbourhood I’d never set foot in before. The decision was partly practical (I could afford my own place there) but mostly arose from a desire for a fresh start, a new way of looking at and living in London.

So now I’m redrawing my map. My angle on London is now that of a hilltop with the City spread out beneath, as ghostly as a Whistler lithograph on a foggy day and as bright as a parure of diamonds on black velvet at night. The heart of my neighbourhood isn’t a football stadium anymore, it’s a vast Victorian park – the former home of the Crystal Palace from the Great Exhibition of 1851 and the current home of another Exhibition relic, a herd of life-size dinosaur sculptures (the first time I saw them I thought I was hallucinating, and now I wonder if Gaudí took his inspiration for the dragon in the Parc Güell from them). Instead of wildly expensive trinket shops I’m surrounded by small and friendly cafés, bookshops, antique markets. Some parts of my old London are now a long and complicated journey away, but others, old and new, are now within easy reach.

Like a tourist, I explore my new London with my A-Z always in my handbag. (The cover tore off during my first day of flat-hunting, which I can’t help but see as prophetic. Perhaps I should buy a new one and let the spine break in a different place.) I can almost feel my brain reconfiguring itself as I walk, a new network of neurons forming. I’m redrawing my map of my London. And it feels good.

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