Instal Festival 2008: Part 1
So it is, of course, the usual method: up too early, too much to eat for breakfast, packed and ready on the station platform by 7.45. City types, travelling from their gated Bournemouth communities to London pigpens, create a line of briefcases along the platform. I settle myself down in a daze, almost thoughtless; the train pulls away, moving through the culverts of Boscombe, Pokesdown, speeding through the thinner suburbs that connect with Christchurch, and it’s only then I can partly relax: I’m finally doing what I’d planned, it’s happening how it should. Like being stuck inside a film, future memories. The train carries on over the flat, hedged country that connects us with the New Forest; trees multiply either side of the line, gazes disappear down into the deep woodland I always thought of exploring. Visiting my aunt and uncle at their farm, near Beaulieu, we would take walks with the dogs through the relatively tame woods around them; more than once, I got stuck in mud, and had to be pulled from my Wellington boots, followed, with an almighty efforts, by the boots themselves. The woods set off mental triggers, phantom memories: the sleeping forest around Kurt – oops, sorry, ‘Blake’s – mansion in Van Sant’s Last Days; the hours I spent in the tiny copse in Littledown, reading Camus’ The Rebel; the Walden-like communes of occultists and ‘free-thinkers’ who lived, isolated, in the New Forest during the Victorian era. We stop a few times, gliding sleepily to the tiny platforms of these backwoods stations; some schlep in a business suit sits next to me, asks whether I like Japan’s Tin Drum (the title of which came from my eponymous reading material), reads his BMW manual. I sit, listen to Oren Ambarchi, Charalambides, watch the stasis of deep leaf litter. My downloading activities, more frequent in recent days, whilst despicable, serve their purpose.
The words popping up become a litany of obscure names, sleepy villages, trees hanging over lanes distant from the stations. Emerging out into the desolation surrounding Southampton – old industrial parks, what I think are artificial swamps, the carcasses of abandoned boats – prepares us for the run up to London. The historic character of these spots – the rural spaces interspersed with railway villages, cathedral-infected Winchester, the sprawling non-place of Basingstoke – seems almost erased, their psychogeographic character standardised, unreadable from a train window. Connection brings homogenisation, but not in a good way: the ‘existential’ writers who railed against the ‘machine society’ in the 1950s were still dealing with an efficiently brutal Fordism – beneath the banally shiny surface lurked violence. Nowadays, homogeneity is just that; one wonders how long before buildings and landscapes are reduced to pure surface, their functional insides removed to leave simply a façade. By the time you head towards Reading, you’re already in London satellite country – an endless suburbia, a Britain sponsored by Barratt Homes and numerous American multinationals. Everywhere looks rather like the upmarket parts of Boscombe – ill-built sandy brick boxes, tarmac, bridges and underpasses thrusting their geometry across the traveller’s vision. It’s no wonder Iain Sinclair, in London Orbital, twinned Metroland with the asylum colonies that were swept out to the capital’s edges: here, on its Western periphery, there are still cracks in the façade of Capital, a boredom not yet elevated (or alleviated) by mall non-entertainments; an older, nastier violence still just pokes through. The transition into ‘London proper’ is slow, odd: there is no violent change once inside the orbital motorway, just that the streets are a bit wider, the trees slightly more plentiful. But where you might expect the smallest intervals of country or pseudo-country between satellite towns, here it just goes on, and on, endlessly. The architecture becomes weirder, older – compacted buildings that look as if they’ve been sawn-off, grey stone pubs smaller than your average NHS surgery. The topography, the micro-regional separations that make sense when on the ground simply become alienating when glimpsed from afar like this. Eventually, there’s no room even for the train above ground, and we’re forced into culverts between buildings that open up into the long, desolate approach to Waterloo.
My first time back in London for an age, and I’m almost shaking as I leave the train: London seems to exist almost as a parallel universe with its own logic, one motivated by cold mania. I practically rush to get off the platform, run straight for the Underground station. At this point, I feel like I’m running purely on adrenaline, instinct: the possibilities of fucking up, of things going wrong, that I had contemplated so many times before, didn’t even occur to me; the tunnels, which I had always thought of as a labyrinth, seemed only to lead towards the destination. Once at King’s Cross, with almost 40 minutes to spare, I wander outside – getting funny looks for taking a photograph of the bizarrely-constructed (Victorian white brick, but looking as if it should be the corner of a much larger building) Scala, pay a visit to the famous Housman’s bookshop (making a mental note to return with more money), popping into Soho Books (only, I may add, browsing the ground floor, not the rather more rum section upstairs). Once on the train – the carriages are helpfully indicated this time, as opposed to those of the accursed Southwest Trains – I struggle to get to my seat, and remain determined not to move from it. Pulling away from the capital, I feel almost a sense of relief – the trip was finally properly underway, all I had to do was sit, carried away from the distorting, deathly gravity of the bloated South.