All the exhaustive and solitary day-return tramps, undertaken with solemn drive by Nick Papadimitriou as a youth, brought him to a portal from the ordinary. To an unsanctioned nature park, populated by redundant life objects and expired civil engineering. A rugged promontory affording glimpses of far-off conurbations and the slow, perpetual haze of traffic; the domain of a narrative that would sprawl beyond localised boundary points. The outcrop was an energy source, certainly, but in a state of bedraggled abeyance: the magic would have to be tapped. And so with Papadimitriou’s neural connections re-wired, a germ came into being that would eventually produce Scarp, a startling and unique paean to this locally prominent land mass, and a self-assembled discipline named Deep Topography.
Nowadays it looks as if Papadimitriou is on a mission to revive the defunct county of Middlesex, seemingly based on the logic that if nobody else wants it then he’ll claim it for himself. Decades of walks from the starting point of a council flat off the North Circular have been an application process. Weird and wonderful collected ephemera are certificates of ownership. But it goes much deeper than the physical. These fantastical trips are just that – trips in all senses of the word. Papadimitriou floats through the ages of his beloved escarpment. He inhabits its very being, steps into obscure historical episodes both in the role of detached observer and involved character. He’ll be an immortal and profoundly wise crow one minute, the next he’s telling us that he can no longer be bothered to write up a description. When a hedgehog has its head stuck in a yoghurt pot, or when a fly is in its tottering death throes, we feel that nothing is going to be missed. Explorations that are intensely and intimately rural are conducted within the hum of traffic. Views are regularly attained of far-off, slightly disconcerting commuter-belt developments. They sit there in the gloaming, brooding, and seem to present some kind of uncomfortable challenge -- one that would be best declined.
Sometimes Papadimitriou’s vignettes enter hallucinatory realms: Gloria Geddes, queen of the Psychedelic Ancients of Middle Saxony, is deeply enveloped in a pagan relationship with Raggadagga, a yogic, shamanic figure, until she mutates into a hornet and is swatted by Reginald Maudling MP, who is carrying a copy of The Times. Maudling, incidentally, is one of a few recurring characters, most of whom are taken from apparently genuine yet obscure footnotes in local history. In this regard, Scarp dovetails (unintentionally) quite neatly with All The Devils Are Here, David Seabrook’s darkly compelling analysis of the coastal towns of Kent. In both of these books, heritage abounds, but not the sort that would find approval with the local tourist information centre.
Another point of comparison – again, not through any deliberate attempt on the author’s part – is the strong focus on nature and geographical fact that runs throughout the Robinson films of Patrick Keiller. There is an objective to identify and describe a grey area between suburbia and country (which is precisely what the scarp is) using natural signifiers in the same way that Keiller does with his close-ups of lichen on large motorway signage. The edgelands are not a static entity, of course. On the contrary, they are perpetually subject to change, and by definition will always be proximate to the un-fixed sprawl – a kind of tidal shore – of urbanity. As such, these are spaces frequently intruded upon (be it officially or otherwise) to be annexed or amended for some purpose or other. This quote from an interview with Papadimitriou in Granta is a case in point, and is highly evocative of edgeland identity:
“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... 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. “
Over the years everything has been noticed – but not always noted. Papadimitriou prefers to rely on memory, particularly during what seems to be a ‘comedown’ period after an excursion. This is also time used to lay out and examine odyssey treasures in an attempt to divine their stories. It’s a question of access: not only physical access to the reaches of Scarp, but an attempt to find the frequencies of what this land has to say about the humanity over which it looms.
The resultant document is one in which druggy ‘wig-out’ sessions crash into tenacious urban realism (an incarceration for arson as a youth is one thread), before careering off towards a scholastic treatise on plant life. At least, that’s how random and unfettered it feels in retrospect. The point, really, is that Scarp massively succeeds in painting the kind of haunting, historical, enchanted picture that its author intended – even if, by the end, the capriciousness of it all has become familiar. Afterwards there is a drowsily lingering sense of timelessness. We have awoken on Scarp and must contemplate the journey home, tracking back through already visited undulations of harmony and noise. --Neil Jackson