Nick Papadimitriou interview
Nick Papadimitriou’s new book, ‘Scarp’, is a singular expression of a life spent on the periphery. Euan Ferguson joins him on a walk in search of London’s outer limits
You don’t interview a man known as the ‘London Perambulator’ over the phone. Walking is the medium through which his story takes form, so I’m waiting for Nick Papadimitriou on a brisk summer morning at West Ruislip, one end of the Central Line. He’s agreed to guide me on a ten-mile tour of his domain – the margins, the land of encroached green belt, decommissioned industry and Metroland intrigue – where we can talk about the lifetime of preparation behind his astonishing new book, 'Scarp'.
He ambles out of the station, introduces himself and points to a borough-authorised sign for the ‘Hillingdon Trail’. ‘We won’t be following that,’ he declares, and we begin: north-west off Ickenham Road, down Clack Lane and over a municipal golf course. ‘Aleister Crowley was a keen golfer,’ he notes. We’re headed for the North Middlesex/South Hertfordshire escarpment, an area of high land that rises around Harefield and falls at Enfield – ‘a vast yet seemingly invisible presence’, and the ‘Scarp’ of Nick’s title. The 54-year-old has spent decades tramping the bits of London that are girdled by the M25: listening, observing, recording everything. He logs the flourish and wither of mosses in Oxhey Woods, he maps unnamed streams as they course down unnamed hillsides. He sees weather patterns shift, seasons change and species evolve. Particular interest is paid to pre-cast concrete palings. Save for a stretch in Feltham Borstal and Wormwood Scrubs (a teenage conviction for arson) Nick has spent most of his life in a small area of north-west London. For three decades a tower block in Child’s Hill has been his base, and home to his collection of local maps, guides and pamphlets, found notebooks, artefacts and ephemera picked up on walks of five, ten, 50, 100 miles. Nick’s intent is to attain such a hyper-localised knowledge of his surroundings that he becomes Middlesex (the fact the county was dissolved in 1965 is unimportant).
As we traverse the edge of Drayhurst Wood, past ruins the map refers to as ‘Disused Workings’, Nick points at a clump of greenery. ‘Ah!’ he exclaims. ‘White deadnettle, or adam-and-eve, as they used to call it.’ (He has an intimate knowledge of flora and fauna, and his conversation is punctuated by enthralled identifications.) I attempt to put his book into context by naming a few authors he might find connection with. Robert Macfarlane? Richard Mabey? Iain Sinclair? WG Sebald? ‘I don’t really read them,’ he says, ‘because they interfere with my own sensibility. I have to find my own responses. I read old topographies and development plans and rather staid local authority handbooks published in black and white in the early 1960s.’ So where does ‘Scarp’s inspiration come from? ‘It’s a bit surrealistic and folkloric. Perhaps some people might say it’s a bit mentally ill, with a bit of luck. I like to think it’s a cross between deep-image poetics and “Tropic of Ruislip”, a racy ’70s book about wife-swapping in the suburbs. (Look, there’s a woodpecker.) I’m trying to get below the surface into something that’s moving in my mind as much as in the landscape.’ If all this makes him sound like an eccentric or even borderline crackpot, it’s telling only half the story.
Nick is a poetically evocative writer, one who interacts with the landscape in a way others cannot. ‘I sense the unspoken family secrets,’ he says in ‘Scarp’, ‘I see the white cow-gate lit by sunshine. I am the centre. I am buttressed stone walls. I am oak rafters and the soft flap of doves’ wings in cool corners.’ These extravagant statements of regional synchronisation are always anchored in the quotidian realities of this unglamorous part of London – he may describe a near-religious epiphany induced by ecstatic union with the land, but it will occur beside a bin bag of discarded clothing behind a billboard on the North Orbital at Croxley Green. In 2009, he was the subject of a short film, ‘The London Perambulator’, directed by John Rogers, and featuring eulogies from his pals Will Self (Nick provided insight and maps for Self’s ‘Book of Dave’) and Russell Brand. A companionship between a model-shagging megastar and an ascetic might seem like an odd fit, but Nick met him in a Hampstead café in 2003 and they hit it off. Last year ‘Newsnight’ ran a story called ‘Deep topography with Nick Papadimitriou’, and recently Granta named him one of 2012’s ‘New Voices’.
And this week, ‘Scarp’ is published by Sceptre, bringing mainstream recognition to an outsider obsession. The book is a meditation on walking, a memoir of a painful childhood, a study of edgeland nature and a partially fictionalised chronicle of the area’s inhabitants. Nick’s prose is both innocent and intelligent, and wondrously unfamiliar. One chapter is written from the perspective of an ageless rook. It is unlike any book you will read about London. Our route takes us to the edge of Scarp, offering a first vision of these contours ignored by internet mapping and suppressed by urban intrusion. The sun punctures a sky that has promised rain since we set off, illuminating St Anne’s Hill in Chertsey, the Southall gasometer, beyond Heathrow to Surrey. We’ve stopped in a field made swampy by trampling cattle so Nick can consult his map (the walk is navigated largely, and mostly successfully, by instinct). ‘I walked from Stonehenge to my front door once and didn’t make one mistake, but whenever people are with me I do. It took five and a half days, that, and it poured with rain for three of them. Slept rough.’ I ask Nick whether his book deal has affected his age-old ritual of hard-up close-ground field study. ‘All my life people wanted me to fuck off,’ he says, ‘but now I’ve got a literary agent and a publisher – and a gorgeous girlfriend. I got a small advance, but it allowed me to live comfortably: for the first time in my life, actually. (Field-scorpion grass, or forget-me-not, as people call them.) I don’t want to go back to £5.80 an hour. I found out though what a Tory pig I become when I get money in my bank account. Don’t beg, go and do something useful like shoplift if you want to eat tonight, my man! Well, that’s my version of Tory. I can’t quite get it right. Still too demented from the magic mushrooms.’
Even without hallucinogens, this area is beginning to cultivate a magic of its own in Nick’s company. We climb to a high common invaded by pylons, not a person in sight. Wind waves long grass and cows speckle an adjacent field, while the motorway rumbles in the distance. ‘I love it up here. And I absolutely love things like this,’ he says of a solitary manhole cover set into a concrete plinth, a strange interjection into nature. ‘I think there should be a religion based around them. We should get out of our trees on fly agaric and dance around it while listening to Steve Hillage LPs.’ Where are we, I wonder? It doesn’t feel like the London I know, the city of bars and restaurants and museums and Olympics. ‘I don’t see myself as a London writer. I’m trying to destabilise that sensibility. This isn’t another London, it’s a land in its own right. All London is to me – there, a windhover: notorious for stealing washing – is a few distant tower blocks glowering at me whenever I find myself on some high point.’ After a ‘morbid wood’ and St Mary the Virgin, with its Anzac cemetery, we take lunch at Harefield Village Café (he has white tea, two fried eggs, four bits of toast).
Then for the next three hours we walk: Fieldways Farm, Long Spring, Moor Park, Eastbury; lapwings (‘you’re gorgeous!’), a friendly donkey, drifts of hemlock (‘Supposed to smell of mice. I used to keep mice, so I should know’). We peer through a link fence at a curious cast-iron obelisk next to the railway heading north to Chorleywood and Amersham, where Victorian oaks mark the old Hertfordshire-Middlesex county boundary and in turn the narrow path we’re following between suburban back gardens. Clouds of long-legged flies rise from dank leaves. ‘I wish I was an insect,’ Nick says and halts. ‘They surely see a god through their eyes.’ The more time I spend in this extraordinary man’s presence the more intriguing I find him. He’s enormously proud of his book, but clearly finds it hard to come to terms with the fact that his years of impulsive wandering have now been converted into something that can be bought, sold and judged by others. Later, a sunny roadside patch of grass somewhere in Pinner Hill is too comfortable-looking to resist, so he stretches out and refreshes his nicotine gum. I feel it’s time to ask a big question, to press him on whether his whole mad creed – the lone excursions, the urge to understand everything about Middlesex, the ambition to flow over and around and into the landscape – can be explained for the benefit of the unbelieving. ‘I don’t know why I do this,’ he says, and looks contemplative for a moment. ‘I really don’t know.’