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A Week of Research

In his novel, News From Nowhere, Willian Morris's narrator and time traveller describes a shop visit where he acquires, a new pipe, tobacco and a new tobacco pouch all at no cost as there is no longer a system of commerce in the utopian future in which he finds himself. Rather unexpectedly, as I never imagined myself actually doing this, I found myself having a discussion about the construction of tobacco pipes with a very helpful member of staff in a cigar shop (Davidoff of London) as the first stop in a research trip into London's West End earlier this week. And despite my intense dislike of all that is smoking related, I found it quite hard to leave the shop without at least buying one of their more moderately priced pipes - they are beautiful objects - but I did. This felt like a great start to my trip as it established this part of Piccadilly as the heart of posh pipe selling, and somewhere (though not the shop I visited which was only established in 1980) that Morris may have, in reality, bought a pipe for himself.

I'd been planning for a couple of weeks to make a visit to the West End between Piccadilly and Kensington to conduct some visual research for my News From Nowhere inspired project. In January I'd spent a morning in Hammersmith, along the embankment, getting a feel for the location where Morris was living when he wrote News From Nowhere, and also where his rather close-to-home narrator wakes up 200 or so years in the future. From Hammersmith, the narrator initially makes a journey with a companion and guide, Dick, to the British Museum in Bloomsbury to meet Dick's great-grandfather who lives there and knows something of history and the events leading to the society in which the narrator now finds himself. The route described takes in Kensington, Piccadilly, Trafalgar Square, Covent Garden and finally Bloomsbury. The work I'm planning is based around this section of the book. I've yet to determine the precise nature of the work., but I'm expecting it to coalesce around a walk involving as many people as I can persuade to join me to traverse all or part of the route on some designated day in the next few weeks.

I've been working out the route using a couple of maps; one current and another from the 1890s, close to when Morris wrote the book. His narrator describes landmarks and sights on the way which allow the route to be easily navigated. The road layout is largely unchanged since the late 19th century and Morris notes some sites which were present at the time of writing that remain in his imagined future and these can be found on the 19th century map I'm using. For example he mentions a town hall in Kensington, though it is not clear whether this is a surviving building he knows, or a just building that he supposes to be such. He may refer to it as he is likely to have had a strongly negative view of the recently completed (1890) Italianate Kensington town hall build alongside its Tudor style predecessor vestry hall.

Morris also notes places that can be seen from his route and at a one point refers to views of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. His narrator exclaims, "Why, there are the Houses of Parliament! Do you still use them?" To which is guide replies, "Use them! Well, yes, they are used for a sort of subsidiary market, and a storage place for manure, and they are handy for that being on the water side."

My trip was therefore to confirm a route for my walk through the section from Kensington to Piccadilly, to establish what landmarks were still useful, and in particular find a point on the route where Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament could be seen. Also in walking the route, I wanted think more about why I was making this work and the themes of the book that resonated with me now.

I've already mentioned my visit to the tobacconist. This was on the corner of St. James Street and Jermyn street and from here I headed back onto Piccadilly. As I rounded this corner I was reminded of waiting at this spot to join friends on a march in support of a second referendum to confirm the terms Britain's exit from the EU, and hopefully put a stop to it. The corner was a gathering point of sorts then and there was a side of pro-remain Morris Dancers keeping the crowd entertained. This memory of protest confirmed for me one of the resonant themes from News from Nowhere. where Morris's narrator is overcome by a memory of being part of a protest in Trafalgar square that is roughly quelled by the police and military. that corresponded with a march of unemployed workers, Radicals, Anarchists and Socialists that Morris had been part on 13th November 1887.

So while the walk serves no political purpose, one of the themes for reflection on the walk is the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill currently in its final stages in Parliament that will result greater powers to the police and courts in limiting our right to protest.

From the corner of St James Street and Piccadilly, I walked west towards Hyde Park corner, stepping off the street at Green Park and continuing in the park until Constitution Hill. I'd been hoping at this point to get a view of Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament, but all that was visible above trees was the very top of the Victoria Tower of the Parliament buildings. I crossed into Hyde park seeking somewhere with a better view and it was not until I was on the bridge across the Serpentine that I could clearly see the outline of the "Dung Market" and just make out the towers of Westminster Abbey. This was someway off my planned path and I'll need to consider whether it is worth the detour when I make the walk. Having come so far into Hyde Park I was, I thought quite deep into what would be woodland in Morris's future, and decided at this point to sit down and consider a bit more what the work I'm hoping to create is about.

Initially I'd been thinking it was only about our changing relationship with work and workplaces as we exit the Covid-19 pandemic. This was motivated by the number of people who had started working at home for the first time during the pandemic and who now continue to work from home for at least some of the time, with the result that our city centres could become quieter and serve different purposes. At the extreme of this are people who are choosing to leave cities completely to live in remote (non-commutable) countryside. This continues to be a theme, but the part London in which this work is located is less effected than others. However, this remains important and I plan to do something in the work that brings the countryside into the city.

While sitting I amused myself with the thought of time travellers being among us and took some photographs of passers-by using the camera obscura attachment for my phone camera. This has the effect of making subjects recede as if from another time and after taking a few still images I decided to record some video. This created an illusion of people materialising as they entered the frame and dematerialising as they left... I had found time time travellers... appearing only momentarily in my time stream.

My next stop was Kensington and an investigation of the present town hall and any markets that there may be. I mention these as town hall and market are the two features encountered by Morris's traveller and it would helpful to punctuate any walk with current equivalents to those in the book. Today the town hall is set back from Kensington High Street and only visible by heading up one of the side streets. As for a market, I remember when there was a modern day Kensington Market, a dank place full of tattoo parlours, vintage clothes and t-shirt shops and goths. This had existed since 1967 and was closed in 2000. The building housing it was demolished in 2001. There are still markets of sorts - I saw banners outside the library announcing a Farmers Market every Sunday, and the former department store, Barkers, building is now occupied by Wholefoods Marketplace.

The final stop on my trip was a visit to the Waste Age exhibition at the Design Museum, I had not intended this to be part of my research and had only decided the previous evening to go along - I thought it would be useful to have a final destination for my walk and also to have somewhere that I could be inside knowing I would have been outside for quite some time on a cold February day. It was a great exhibition full of inspiring ideas for dealing with our waste crisis. Without realising it at the time, this has given me a potential final theme for my work which is repair, re-use and re-purpose which comes out both in the humorous re-purposing or the houses of Parliament and the idea that things are created for everyone's use. When fretting over the potential loss of his new pipe, Morris's traveller is told "...and don't trouble about losing it . What will it matter if you do ? Somebody is sure to find it, and he will use it"

My other research trip of the week was to Epping Forest. Morris had a close affinity with Epping Forest from his childhood when he would adventure there to it being a site for a Socialist League picnic, no doubt at his suggestion, in his Socialist years. It's therefore no surprise that Epping Forest should be mentioned as part of the extended woodland through which his traveller walks in News From Nowhere. His guide, Dick, says:

it is a wild spot even here, what there is of it; for it does not go far to the south: it goes from here northward and west right over Paddington and a little way down Notting Hill: thence it runs north-east to Primrose Hill, and so on; rather a narrow strip of it gets through Kingsland to Stoke-Newington and Clapton, where it spreads out along the heights above the Lea marshes; on the other side of which, as you know, is Epping Forest holding out a hand to it.

I've never visited Epping Forest and I'd like to evoke it somehow in my work, so I made a trip there on Saturday to take some photographs and record some sounds. Unfortunately it was a dreich day and while I was able to take a few photos and record some woodland sounds, I left un-inspired. Although this may have been more to do with the soaking that Muswell Wife and I got walking back through the woods in the rain to our bus stop.

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