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14 March 2016

Want to see your neighbourhood in a new light? Move around the corner

Inhabiting any new locale involves adopting new perspectives, and relocating a few hundred metres up the road makes the adjustment particularly uncanny.

By Will Self

Some psychogeographer or other has stencilled a phone junction box on our road with this apposite slogan: “Have You Ever Walked Down This Road Before?” To which the answer always is: “Yes, thousands of times, because it’s the way to the Tube station.” In fact, the walk to this Tube station is almost exactly the same distance as the walk to East Finchley Tube station that I made from my natal home, twice daily, throughout my childhood; so, embarking on it, I feel myself to be a Start-rite kid yet again – and for ever. Then, when you round the junction box, you see on its other side this slogan: “Do You Know What’s Around the Corner?” To which my answer – both existentially and geographically – is all too often: I haven’t a clue.

I’m obsessed by locale rather than location this week, because I’ve rented a tiny “work flat” up the road from my house, and the mere act of walking to and from this mini-gaff, and sitting in it for a few hours a day, has made me apprehend the neighbourhood in a new way. I’ve lived in the same inner-south London terraced house for twenty years now, and every morning at around eleven, I see from my study window a generously proportioned woman making the bed in the flat opposite. I’ve never spoken to this woman – never even seen her in the street, to my knowledge – and yet I’ve shared this important ritual of her quotidian life with her for two decades. This, for me, is the very essence of the urban: the ceaseless mash-up between the intimate and the anonymous.

Equally essential to city life is going down the same street again and again, wearing a groove in the Yorkstone paving. The flat the plump woman plumps her pillows in is part of a low-rise but brutalist estate that stretches for about half a kilometre, and which at the further end includes the small block containing my mini-gaff-nouveau. This makes me feel a little strange – as if the rest of my body has finally been compelled to follow my eyes, out from my window, in through the adipose duvet-smoother’s, then out through her back door and along the winding lane that bisects the estate lengthwise. Perhaps it’s little other than the shock of the new (either that or getting old), but I’ve fallen in love with the little estate. I particularly like the way the blocks are arranged along the S-shaped lane to form either 3D crenulations or 2D castellation; you have the sense, as you walk through the defile, that the architect of this modest 1960s public housing development really believed everyone should have the opportunity to live in a built environment that fused the domestic with the dramatic.

Why might this be the rose-tinted-window-glass perspective of a valetudinarian? Well, older readers will have noticed how, with each successive decade, buildings they formerly believed to be naught but expensively piled-up excrement have begun to acquire the lineaments of classicism. We’re all little Betjemans, really, merely waiting our turn to found our equivalents of the Victorian Society, so that we can save another batch of much-loved eyesores.

For my generation it’s the system-built point blocks, slabs and low-rises of the 1960s and 1970s, but no doubt in another twenty years there’ll be a Postmodernist Society fanatically dedicated to preserving Terry Farrell’s legacy. Outside my mini-gaff-nouveau there’s a waste chute that takes the form of a single stalk of concrete beams – the bulge in the middle being the trap door you deposit your rubbish bags in. There is something about this form – at once utterly fabricated and yet sinuously organic – that sets my sclerotic heart aflutter.

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Inhabiting any new locale involves adopting new perspectives, and relocating a few hundred metres up the road makes the adjustment particularly uncanny (in the strict, Freudian sense of something that’s very close to being homelike but doesn’t win the cigar).

From my fresh purlieu I can see a lot of the stale old landmarks: but of course they seem slightly strange; just as all my local trips – to the corner shop, the café or the post office – have had to be recalibrated. A friend of mine who was abandoned by her mother during childhood told me it wasn’t the desertion that had traumatised her most, but the discovery, after over a year had elapsed, that her errant parent was in fact living only a couple of hundred yards up the road.

I know what’s freaking me out most, though: sitting typing in my new office the other evening, I became aware – as they say in the military – of eyes-on; and, looking through the window, I saw a man standing on the exterior walkway of the flats opposite. He was slightly above me, and thus at a similar distance and in exactly the same position as I used to be in relation to the well-upholstered mattress-turner. For a frozen moment, I considered my fate: had I become potential subject matter for another scribe? In the future would an article be published (or, more likely, downloaded directly to interested brains), in which this nameless man descanted on the strange melange of intimacy and anonymity with which he has been regarding me, day in and day out, for twenty years? 

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This article appears in the 09 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho