Explorations: Maps and the Curiosity of a Child’s Mind
A summer’s evening, I’m five or six years old. It’s terrible to have to go to bed when it’s still light outside. Even more terrible when I can hear waves of music, laughter, the clink of wine glasses and the excited chatter of my parents and their friends, lapping up to the bedroom from below …
I can hold out no longer. I get out of bed, tiptoe out of the room I share with my brother, and go to the top of the stairs, which curve away to the sitting room downstairs. Through the bannisters I can see my father balancing a glass in one hand and a cigarette in the other, talking to two colleagues from the university – I notice the woman is wearing a long, swirly, purple and black dress, and she’s smiling and smoking too, nodding vigorously. My mother is on the other side of the room, in her summery dress, light greens and blues that shimmer like water, she’s slipping a record out of a paper sleeve, and lowering the needle. More music. This time, a thunderous bass, and drums, reverberating around the room, then African singers chanting. The one we love to dance to. I creep down five stairs, to the little landing. I now can see my glamorous London aunt is here too, and her American husband, pouring drinks. I didn’t even know they were coming tonight. This gives me a chance … if I can just make her see me. But now she’s sitting on the bottom stair, facing away from me, talking to somebody I don’t know, and all I can see is the back of her head, and two, huge circles of silver earrings, which dance as she talks. I bump down the remaining stairs and tap her on the shoulder. I can still see her smile and surprise as she turns, ‘Hello, little one! Up a bit late, aren’t you?’, but it’s spoken softly, almost conspiratorially. ‘I can’t sleep, and … and I, I heard the music and…’ But all of this is unnecessary with my aunt. She still remembers the unfairness of childhood, the restrictions, and she’s always liked breaking the rules. I don’t have to explain anything to her, I don’t have to spell it out.
Curiosity. The intense absorption that children often have, quite instinctively. The fascination in the sensual world all around, the total concentration when playing. Didn’t a philosopher once say that ‘man is most nearly himself when he achieves the seriousness of a child at play’? And this seriousness seems inextricably linked to creativity, that intensity of concentration, an immersion in the present moment, which we all possessed as children, but which gets increasingly rare as we get older? This is not to see childhood as some kind of dreamland; we probably experience more shock and trauma in these years than in the rest of our lives put together. But there is a quality of seeing, a vivid intensity of living, which comes with being a child. And this is at the core, the origin, of who we are. The unfiltered mind. The lack of self-consciousness. And, at moments in our lives, we realise we can touch an energy that’s still there, however deeply it’s been buried.
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From as far back as I can remember walking has captivated me – walking up mountains as a child, finding lakes, looking at maps, predicting what landscapes lie ahead; walking through forests, walking past skyscrapers, glimpsing oceans, dodging downpours; watching peregrine falcons electrify the skies, and foxes run the city streets at night. In the parched heat of an African summer or the raving winds of a Welsh winter, the action is the same. One foot in front of the other. Never knowing where you’ll end up.
Most of my life I’ve lived in cities. There’s something curious about the act of walking in cities – you don’t really seem to notice the distance covered, at least not in the same way. This seems to be the inverse of the experience of walking in the countryside. I think it may be connected to how far ahead it’s possible to see. When I was a child I knew it was exactly a mile and a half from the farmhouse in the bend of the river where I grew up to the nearest village, and I knew that it would take half an hour to walk. The walk was mainly downhill, across arable fields, and the church spire of the village acted like a lodestone, drawing you closer and closer, visibly reducing that mile and a half all the time, reeling you in. Walking in a city like London you can rarely see more than a few hundred yards ahead, so talk of miles becomes irrelevant, everything is about the marker points – the junctions where you turn, the shop you’re heading to, the corner of the park. And, in this way, if you ever stop to calculate it, you’ll find that in the course of a normal day you might have walked four or five miles without really noticing.
Walking in the countryside somehow seems a more self-conscious act. The very idea of ‘going for a walk’ is associated far more with the country than the city. I see people in Hackney taking their dogs for a walk in Victoria Park, but other people walking in the city nearly always appear to be on their way somewhere; it’s functional walking, not walking for its own sake. Whereas to ‘go for a walk’ in the countryside seems eminently understandable. Yet rural walking comes with its challenges, the echoes of feudalism and privilege in the omnipresent signs, ‘Private – Keep Out’, ‘Trespassers Will Be Prosecuted’ – the kind of notices which so incensed the young poet John Clare when the early-nineteenth-century Enclosure Acts began to privatise the common land of his beloved Northamptonshire countryside. His freedom to walk ‘free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers, / Is faded all’. He complains that ‘Fence now meets fence in owners’ little bounds / Of field and meadow, large as garden grounds, / In little parcels little minds to please / With men and flocks imprisoned, ill at ease’. The paths he’d walked since childhood are blocked – ‘Each little tyrant with his little sign / Shows where man claims, earth glows no more divine. / On paths to freedom and to childhood dear / A board sticks up to notice “no road here”.’
It seems a curious anachronism that such signs, such patterns of land ownership, such remnants of authoritarian bossiness have survived in a society that now considers itself less deferential, more free. Perhaps that’s why so many of us are drawn to the mountains and the coast – instinctively, so we may think, but there may be deeper impulses at work. Yes, an urge to have our horizons released by water or sky, but also a feeling that no individual there can really own the rocks or the earth we walk on. As another fine poet observed in Assynt: ‘Who possesses this landscape? / The man who bought it or / I who am possessed by it?… this landscape is masterless…’
In the city there are far fewer no-go areas, so to the curious walker or explorer the vast lattice of streets, roads, lanes, mews and alleys are a continuous source of new fascinations. An immense democracy of discoveries.* Last week I turned a corner in Kensington, not somewhere I often find myself, and an anonymous street emerged into a fine square of six-storey Victorian redbrick houses, like winter castles glowing, and at one end of the square I found a small, white Armenian church, which looked as if it had been airlifted from Yerevan and dropped there, almost by chance.
But it’s our animal tracks in the cities that most fascinate me as I get older. In the countryside our walking is often determined by the route of a path, or the line of a lane, but in the city our choices are multiple and continuous. In one of the most vivid dreams I’ve ever had, I dreamt of recovering from a serious accident, and, in this liminal state between consciousness and unconsciousness, suddenly presented before me, superimposed on a vast map of London, were lines traced in pulsing multicoloured neon, of every single street I’d ever walked down. An explosion of wild colours triggering amazement and memories … How I’d love to see that map once again. And afterwards I thought about how miraculous it would be to see others’ tracks of London. And then to colour-code these by time, so that you might realise that, eleven years before you met, you and your future lover happened to be walking down Charing Cross Road on precisely the same afternoon in February, separated by only a matter of yards. You both pause to look in bookshop windows, and then, most remarkably, both of you turn into St Martin’s Lane, and, separated by less than a minute, take a shortcut through Goodwin’s Court towards Covent Garden, before going your different ways and being swallowed up again by the city.
We all make our own paths in utterly various, and unpredictably anarchic, ways. If you asked a hundred people to walk across Soho from, say, Cambridge Circus to Oxford Circus, you would, in all likelihood, end up with dozens of different routes. And these choices would be as diverse as the human beings who made them – nostalgia to see the old café in Greek Street, a passion for vinyl leading to a Berwick Street record-shop diversion, a nervous visitor sticking to the safety of Shaftesbury Avenue, then up Regent Street … After a while, though, we begin to develop tracks, as surely as any fox does. We evolve our own favoured routes. Overleaf is one of mine – across Soho from a different direction – one that has been in my life for the last twenty-three years.
I first walked this particular zigzag in my mid twenties when I was sharing a flat in Charlotte Street with my Russian partner and a friend of mine (and later on, also with this friend’s Czech partner). It was, technically, a one-bedroom flat, but at certain stages of life we seem able to be more flexible. We had the tiny bedroom at the back, with a window that looked towards Percy Street, and my friend had a futon in the small sitting room, which you had to walk through to get to the kitchen. The challenges of space and privacy were offset by being able to walk into Soho in three minutes, and to the British Museum in four.
Copyright © 2019 by Dan Gretton