The Last Day of the Railway Lands (2013 and ongoing)
In July 2013 I began work on a novel entitled The Last Day of the Railway Lands. At the invitation of Central St Martin’s AIR research centre, I spent a month developing a project in response to the context of the communities around the Caledonian Road via a series of conversations with retired solicitor David Harter. This resulting text aimed to serve as a tool to initiate a range of dialogues with organisations and individuals in the area. The process of writing became both a research methodology and expanded cartography that traced a subjective network of contested economic, social and political relationships.
David Harter’s account of his personal experiences as a founder of one of London’s first Law Centres, partner in a legal aid criminal law practice and work representing communities in opposition to a number of ill-conceived large-scale developments - most notably the proposed Eurostar underground terminal at King’s Cross - constructed an image of London that was complex, precarious and socially stratified. Following this conversation I studied my notes and was surprised to see it evoked depictions of the city that I recognised from literature, bringing to mind Charles Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway entangled with the dystopian visions of Russell Hoban and J. G. Ballard in Riddley Walker or The Drowned World. The very singular context of the Caledonian Road seemed to provide a wholly new set of concerns given the close proximity of social housing, organised crime and spectacular over development. Over a month and a half I wrote the first draft of the novel attempting to synthesise elements from the conversation with David Harter alongside my own research and experience of the neighbourhood. Set precisely in its current geography the novel’s story imagines a journey around the area in an alternate present where a subterranean construction disaster has resulted in a vast, cavernous hole, cutting the neighbourhood off from the rest of London. The text became a means to integrate a range of elements specific to the locality into this narrative. Alongside more prominent themes of gentrification, family relationships and crime it was possible to touch on other tangential but entangled issues. These were as diverse as industrial union activity in the 1950s, a stolen painting by Picasso that was smuggled through the Bemerton estate in the mid 90s by cat burglar Peter Scott and food that could be foraged in the urban environment. Frequently, Cally residents had immediate input concerning all sorts of aspects of the text when the project was described to them. This gave a strong indication of how particular, detailed and various a local populations’ knowledge of a neighbourhood can be. The lens provided by a work of fiction appeared to offer a means of not only rendering this but viewing the area in different terms. (The project is ongoing)