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Will Self: A field trip to Heathrow via Harmondsworth Great Barn

A picturesque anomaly near the airport, ever waiting to be submerged by the tarmac of runway three.

Protestors at Harmondsworth in 2007 when it was under threat of being bulldozed for a Heathrow third runway. (Photo: Getty)
Final Bell: protestors at Harmondsworth in 2007 when it was under threat of being bulldozed for a Heathrow third runway. (Photo: Getty)

It’s a blustery grey day on top of the short-stay car park at Heathrow Central. Down below us the new Terminal 2 building is taking shape in a series of steely whale ribs and arabesques. It doesn’t look like it will turn out to be anything much, but then nothing in the built environment nowadays looks like anything much; or, rather, it all looks like too much – too much airy embellishment, too many wave-form roofs, too many great expanses of curved glass parametrically wrapped around hideous atria. At least Heathrow has this solid virtue: it’s an almost historic airport that has been subjected to over half a century of chopping, changing and concrete-pouring, so that its ugly hugger-mugger of buildings replicates the very disorder of the unplanned metropolis it was never properly designed to serve.

Heathrow is the fons et origo of British spatiality. It was here in 1784 that Captain William Roy measured out a baseline that became the starting point for all subsequent trigonometric surveys of the country. These grew in the years following his death to become the Ordnance Survey. Note the “ordnance” – Roy’s mapping was for military purposes, and really our commonsensical internalised sense of rational, three-dimensional space relates to the ballistics of death-metal.

At either end of Roy’s baseline stands a memorial cannon, and not far from the one in Heathrow (the other end of the line is at Hampton) is the café frequented by London cabbies doing the airport run. There’s a nice circularity to it, all those cab drivers with their posterior hippocampus enlarged by sopping up the exhaustive Knowledge of the capital’s streets and public buildings, homing in day after day on this: the point at which accurate mapping began.

We’d set our sights on Heathrow because, for the second year in succession, I was taking a group of my psychogeography students to visit the Great Barn at Harmondsworth, then walk back from there, through the watery edgelands to our campus near Uxbridge. We like to think that space is a predetermined category into which objects fit, just as events can be slotted inside incremental time – but of course this is the kind of nonsense we psychically resist the whole time. The psychoanalyst manqué Adam Phillips asserts: “All of us may be surrealists in our dreams, but in our worries we are incorrigibly bourgeois.” To which I would add: all of us may be Newtonian in our daily go-round of calibrating time, distance and money, but in our minds we are transcendent disciples of Einstein.

The problem is to actualise this innate grasp we have of the relativity of space-time, and to that end I lead the students down off the car-park roof and on to the U3 bus, which chugs back through the tunnel under the runway and drops us on the peripheral road. A short walk across a dormant field and we’re in the village of Harmondsworth. This picturesque little anomaly, with its flinty church and whitewashed pub, has long been under threat of submersion beneath a third Heathrow runway – a threat that, though temporarily lifted, still hangs in the sky overhead, like a cloud of tarmac in suspension, waiting to pour down and heat-seal a new Pompeii. We liaise with Justine Bayley, a local resident and one of the leading lights of Friends of the Great Barn, who has agreed to show us round.

The Great Barn was built in the early 1500s and is the largest timber-framed building in England. John Betjeman, in between calling for air strikes on Slough, described it as the “Cathedral of Middlesex”. The barn’s history recapitulates the sorry deterritorialising tale of our property rights. Built by a religious foundation – Winchester School – it was briefly in royal ownership, and then passed through the hands of only three families over the next half-millennium; it was still actively used for its original agricultural purpose as late as the 1970s. However, in recent years, property speculators bought up the barn, bargaining on a profit to be gained from its compulsory purchase in the event of the government deciding to build runway three. It languished until English Heritage managed to acquire it – but what they’re going to do when the ’dozers come a’rolling is anyone’s guess.

The barn is a beautiful structure that looks like very little. Its oaken pillars and mighty trusses instantiate a unity of form and function that endured through time because the productive basis of its spatiality remained unchanged: the sheaves of wheat that were piled along the earthen floor of its nave; wheat that was harvested where Airbuses now bombinate. Not, I hasten to add, that I bring my students here out of nostalgia for a time and mode of production that none of us ever knew – my aims are as contemporary as those of any Gate Gourmet worker stirring up a mess of airline pottage in a steel barn. By getting my students to use their own bodies to mediate between these two very different spaces, I hope to detach them from the man-machine matrix that keeps us all calculating our mileage allowance, rather than simply wandering through the world.

Three hours later when, muddy and footsore, they stagger back to the university, I think I can spy just such an epiphanic consciousness flickering in their young faces – but then again it could be just me who’s hopelessly spaced-out.