online: 15 september 2002

14 september 2002 astonishment

23:00 Today, feeling uneasy, and being unable all day to tackle things that await my attention, I decided to set everything aside and go for a walk. But on my way to the heath I changed my mind and turned towards central London - hoping to find an art gallery open late on Saturday afternoon, or else some other external that might arouse me from unease and inertia...

...but the bus I'd got on wasn't going towards art galleries so I got off it and began walking without a destination in mind. I was deciding which way to go at each corner when I came to it - and sometimes using the second hand of my watch to choose between left or right or straight ahead...

...This took me into an underground train station but the air in there seemed stifling so I came out by a new exit, just built, which emerged amidst of the reconstruction of the tracks leading into St Pancras station to accommodate trains from the Eurotunnel.

I was still feeling uneasy but I walked on and on along a zig-zagging pedestrian walkway that is all that is left of the familiar roads behind the station. I met a solitary woman who told me that the transformation all around us had happened in just a few months and that she has been photographing some of it.

I walked on amongst half-built bridges and tunnels and underpasses, and such, but with very few workers in sight and the many cranes and earth moving machines silent. The walkway led to the Camley nature garden (which is surviving in the middle of this reconstruction) and then to some empty streets through an industrial park amidst abandoned cars and deserted workshops. By this I was feeling that it was a dangerous place to be alone in but I saw no one but a few residents of an artificial village with street names like Granary Street and Reapers Way between the canal and the railway. Two or three men on ladders or balconies on the side of a building by the canal were laughing very loudly at someone in the distance. When they saw me they seemed to laugh at me also. I didn't know how to react.

Coming to a dead end road beneath an old railway bridge I found a way back to streets I knew by going through St Pancras churchyard - where I stopped to look at a monument to Mary Wollstonecraft (1759-1797) and William Godwin (1756-1836)* and to William Godwin's second wife also.

Then I walked past the British Library - tapping the pillars as I passed and being surprised to find they are hollow - they sound as if they are made only of a flimsy material. That shocked me a little for I know the architect and respect him. And then I noticed a security guard watching me tapping the pillars and I began wondering what I'd say if he asked what I was doing.

Next I walked a little way into Somers Town but then turned back and began looking for a cafe or other place where I could sit to write about these astonishing changes in what had until a few months ago been a familiar part of London.

I went first towards a cafe that I thought might be open but it had been changed into a hair dresser's. But nearby was a newly opened gallery with the title 2 x 7 = 13 (which I learnt later meant 2 people 7 days 13 moments).

It was the last day of a tiny exhibition of tiny photographs taken at a fixed time each day for a week by two people - Katja Rosenberg from Germany and Marrianne Hartley from Swizerland. Each took two photos of whatever was nearby at a fixed time for six days and on the seventh day took only one - but at any time and of any thing they chose. The result was quite like the photographs I took by chance when I tried to imitate John Cage's way of composing music. Things one might not notice becoming interesting when someone pays attention to them. They offered me tea and invited me to sit down. I told them of my walk and of the digital diary and they asked me to write its address in the visitor's book.

Soon after that I got on a bus to the Festival Hall where I knew I'd find a place in which to sit and write. On my way I passed the second hand book stalls under Waterloo Bridge and searched for something by any good writer whom I've not read much of. I was half amazed, half not, to find an edition A Short Residence in Sweden by Mary Wollstonecraft (1796) and Memoirs of the Author of 'The Rights of Woman' by William Godwin (1798), edited in a single volume by Richard Holmes (1987)**. And I was so interested that I read much of it immediately in the Festival Hall - and left this account to be written later.

I learnt from the book that Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin had lived at addresses in Somers Town and in other streets I'd just walked through.

My unease and inertia have gone - and now, after midnight, I'm busy writing this and feel encouraged.

*She is the author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792) and he is the author of An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice (1793) and they are the parents of Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein (1818).

**Richard Holmes' introduction begins as follows:

This book brings together two forgotten classics of the English eighteenth-century non-fiction... The first is a travel book, which tells of a solitary journey, undertaken in mysterious circumstances, through Scandinavia. The second is a life-history of the extraordinary woman who made that journey ... as seen by the man who subsequently became her lover, and then her husband.

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© 2002 john chris jones

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