The Lambeth walk: explorers discover the poetry of the street
“Lambeth is not one of those areas that people go to … which is what I like about it … a lot of the things that are interesting [about Lambeth] aren’t there anymore.” Thus poet and tutor Tamar Yoseloff introduced The Poem of the Street, a one-day combined walk and workshop around a forgotten corner of south London that she had organised with designer and photographer Vici MacDonald.
Tamar and Vici are co-founders of small press Hercules Editions, and collaborated on Formerly, a joint exploration of disappearing London in sonnets and photographers that was nominated for the Ted Hughes award. This kind of urban exploring is also known as psychogeography, defined by the critic Merlin Coverley as “the study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals”.
If you find such a definition a tad academic and off-putting, don’t worry about it. We didn’t. Our brief was to join Tamar and Vici on a two-hour walk as they showed us the sights and hidden history of Lambeth, and how it is changing. We took photographs on our cameras, tablet or phones, then returned to the basement of the Travelling Through bookshop and café in Lower Marsh, close to Waterloo station, to try to write something that had been prompted by what we had seen.
Our first stop was the building, pictured, that once housed the London Necropolis Railway, opened in 1854 to carry coffins and mourners from London to the newly opened Brookwood cemetery in Surrey, just beyond what is now Woking. Although it was designed – by a chap called Cyril Bazett Tubbs – to be as unfunereal as possible, it di include a mortuary, storage rooms, and a chapel, as well as a ticket office and waiting rooms for mourners. Despite its welcoming aspirations, Tamar suggested today’s facade looked “extraordinarily creepy”. It was Halloween, and we didn’t disagree.
Into the splendidly-named Hercules Road. On one side, flats where the home of visionary William Blake once stood. On the other, the Park Plaza hotel chain is busy constructing another huge monument to its multinational brand. Here gardens and fields once ran down to the Thames.
On to the Imperial War Museum, which was originally built to house the inmates of Bethlem (Bedlam) hospital, including the criminally insane. More than 100 years on, it was deemed unsuitable, and the Imperial War Museum moved in. A number of us noted the intimidating naval guns positioned at the front. These days there is also a Tibetan peace garden, and a small section of the Berlin Wall to give you pause for thought. Charlie Chaplin spent his childhood in the nearby streets, and occasionally in the Lambeth workhouse when his mother could not afford to rent a room.
The National Garden Museum at St Mary’s church by Lambeth palace had unfortunately closed for renovation just the day before. But a member of staff allowed us entry to the garden and to inspect the tombstone of Captain Bligh, who survived the mutiny on the Bounty to become governor of New South Wales, where he sparked a rebellion and was once more deposed. People skills? Maybe not.
The walk was suffused with sunlight and autumn colours, nowhere more so than in Archbishop’s Park. All this plus other curiosities and oddities produced a rich haul of writing back at the bookshop. Derek, from his 80-odd photographs taken during the walk, focused on a ginger cat that had peered out at us through a gap in net curtains on Hercules Road. Jennifer had snapped a trompe-l’oeil in a shopfront that most of us hadn’t seen, and produced a sinister and surreal poem. Roger gave us an epic poem with echoes of Whitman and Ginsberg, packed with images relating to the entire walk, which Vici described as “a whirlwind tour – a fast-forward video of the walk”. Victoria zoomed in on one word, Decay, on Bligh’s tombstone, that had been highlighted by the moss around it. Everyone came up with something thought-provoking and valuable.
Tamar said: “Often you’re seeing things as a bit of a blur as you move around the city … I think the idea of everything being blurred really applies to this kind of urban exploring.”
And nothing stays the same for long. Both Tamar and Vici fear for the unassuming Lambeth they love. They expect a new Damien Hirst gallery to change the face of the area, and are braced for gentrification and hipsters. Will such a transformation mean the death of poetry? We shall see.
Hercules Editions are running three more poetry workshops at the Travelling Through bookshop over the coming months: Poetry Noir, on how to write a horror poem, with Claire Crowther, on Saturday 5 December; Reconstructing History, on the poetry of memoir and ancestry, with Hannah Lowe, on Saturday 30 January; and Writing Absence, Praising Presence, exploring ways of commemorating the dead and paying tribute to the living, with Sue Rose, on Saturday 27 February. More details