This is the latest in a series of articles and illustrations from our new special edition publication New Cartography. The magazine offers readers a fresh and alternative take on mapping the urban environment through a collection of articles and illustrations from a wide array of contributors. The complete magazine can be viewed here.
Marrakech Jemaa el-Fnaa- The Main Square(11/9/12)
The square heaves.
The air is inch-thick. Fumes from multiplying mopeds weave into interminable serpents of smoke. People. They bob and weave, ebb and flow to the pull of the lunar spotlight of the main minaret. Squawks, shouts and nicotine-hungry rasps form the less-than-ambient soundtrack to the evening’s proceedings. Bikes, sometimes with four on board, skirt around the personal boundaries of shirtsleeves and arm hair, while the more cumbersome donkey carts simply barge through the mess of the traffic. But people don’t flinch at these close encounters, instead they seem ensconced in a blissful insouciance – as if an accident is the most unlikely outcome.
Women seem intermittent this evening. Sitting in pockets of darkness, they really only appear when a stray child induces a maternally magnetic hand to strike out of the dark and into light – attracting the child in the process. These flashing glimpses happen frequently enough to make me think of them as under some sort of sexually-orientated strobe light. Sexually orientated, because the men by contrast are palpable; ever present in work and in play. I am tempted by the thought that the evening itself is masculine, a worldly patriarchal grammar structuring the night’s events.
In the centre of this great space, orange stall sits next to orange stall, each exactly the same. The vendors at these stalls thrust out their hands identically, in manic celebration of their product. They do this one after the other all the way done the line- as if the approaching tourists are inducing some sort of commercial domino effect. In the centre of this centre are the food stalls. Micro foreign embassies, these eateries are saturated with sock-and-sandaled tourists, guide-booked to the hilt and in search of their Moroccos. They exude a magnetic naivety, a pull that draws in wheeler-dealers from the city and beyond – Moroccan Del Boys who push and prod their kitsch into these zones of ethnic consumption. 200 dirham trade hands, and to mutual delight.
It seems to happen as if it will never happen again, as if all this is designed only for the present in which it is experienced – it has no precedence in the past, and owes nothing to the future. A throbbing cultural chaos crashes into reality, so that all of time happens at once. But this plays out every night, in exactly the same way, at exactly the same time, as if a program with a set number of possibilities for each of its characters drives the square into existence. Reset at the end of each evening, the square plays out like a juke box whose songs are never updated, or reads like Kafka…except with cumin, mint and a little more dust.
* * *
I remember feeling quite sad two evenings later, when I saw it all repeated for the third time. I realised then, for myself only (for it was not an epiphany so profound), that what I had found exotic was in fact quotidian, a banal routine, when viewed through the practiced eyes of the locals. And more, that its fresh appeal, and the excitement that came with this, might also wither into the boredom lurking in my eyes.
When I came back to London and was conducting the research for this piece, such a feeling was compounded. Almost immediately after I returned I set off around the city on a number of long walks, stretched over four days. My hope in doing this was to combine these experiences with my three years of living in London and create a curious and odd map of the city.
I wanted to focus on the areas that people hadn’t seen, the residents and scenes of London people were unlikely to encounter, and plot, in literary form, a social map of the undiscovered city. But with walks completed and an abundance of notes jotted, I couldn’t write a thing – it seemed that my consciousness would not acquiesce to the eagerness of my pen. At first, this arose merely as an inscrutable discomfort, but as the days continued to pass with blank pages, what I was feeling became more familiar. It was guilt, a guilt that I had indirectly created in documenting my travels through Morocco.
* * *
Imsouane, West coast of Morocco 18/9/12
Each place has its own equivocal strangeness now, but really its only my strangeness leaking out into the environment and prohibiting me from comfort. By being here and there, ontologically, I sense that I am broadcasting some implacable beat of atonality to the regular rhythm of the locals. But what of this anti-melody, why am I producing it? Well it’s a guilt from trying to capture the unspoiled, but spoiling it in the very process of writing about it; by being somewhere in order to understand it, but denying that understanding by the very fact of being there. For I know that the place would be better without my being there.
In being a tourist, to paraphrase the American writer David Forrester Wallace, we may be economically significant, but we are existentially loathed, and, rather sadly, it is existential harmony with the visited place, not the economic significance, that we most crave.
* * *
Towards the end of my trip I had felt like an opportunistic voyeur, using places that were different from my own everyday as a conduit to better, more interesting writing. I felt that the more I wrote, the more I was becoming like a cultural pimp cum errant sergeant, marching his corporal curios prostitute-like down streets they had never been seen on. Rather imperialistically I had captured the benighted denizens of “obscurity” and used them as a foundation for myself. Naturally, I was trying to write about them truthfully, as they really were, but it didn’t matter because I felt that even in an act of earnest documentation I was betraying their reality as it truly was.
After my walks in London I was sure I had fallen into the same trap, perhaps an even bigger one. Because I had set out to create an anecdotal map of London, it could never be an accurate depiction of what I was capturing. It would be made up of scenes I had only encountered with fleeting glances and short observations, and where experience fell short intuition and imagination would step in. So, in a sense I had regressed from Morocco, because I wasn’t inadvertently betraying reality by just writing about it, I was selling it as a map, a document of rigour, when in fact it was really a figment of my imagination. And so I felt that being driven by my own ego, to write well was the aim – not to document truthfully. So, in those initial stages, my pen would not write because my map would have been only a cartographic representation of myself.
* * *
London, Leicester Square 2/10/12
Bent and beer-gutted he had a burdened gait. He was wearing a jet black wig, while the rest of his hair was a sandy brown. He had a nondescript face, boring like cardboard, but his neck was interesting. It looked like it had been cocked into the barrel of his chest – a crooked shotgun. Most of all I noticed the way he walked: he would flick out his feet sideways and lift his knees high. This was not natural, but methodical and measured; as if for some time now he had been perfecting this odd perambulation.
He carried with him a Tesco bag, which for the two hours I was with him he never looked in to, even when he sat down to rest. He always rested in the same spot. He would sit outside the entrance of the Trocadero for fifteen minutes and then get up and walk in zigzags to nowhere, but always within the confines of Piccadilly and Leicester Square. He walked like a flâneur whose world was only 1km square.
* * *
So I thought, as a solution, I would stick to writing about my everyday experiences, mapping regular and well-trodden routes through the London I woke up to every morning. And, initially I found solace in documenting and describing my urban repetitiveness. It almost became exotic in itself, because it was authentic. It was not some plagiarised, adapted account of normality elsewhere, but a reality lived and told as-was.
But, after a while I found fault with this as well. I began to feel too contained, as if all I could see in the shop windows and beaten asphalt was me, and not the essence of a place in its wider context. This reminded me of an article I had read about the work of French sociologist Paul-Henry Chombart de Lauwe. In 1952 he asked a student to keep a journal of her daily movements in Paris. When he plotted her paths onto a map he saw the emergence of a triangle, with its corners at her apartment, her university and the home of her piano teacher.
Her movements, he said, illustrated “the narrowness of the real Paris in which each individual lives”. As such, I was struck by another discomfort: by trying to capture my quotidian, was I playing with a jigsaw I had completed many times, a jigsaw that only had one outcome, and trying to find something different? Trapped in an ever-reducing circle of knowledge would I ever be able to produce anything interesting?
* * *
My only variation is my mind, my imagining that the otherwise boring events I witness everyday might be concealing something- that the people’s walks might be worried and the business man’s commute, concerned.
Sally walks to work everyday, she carries her leather brief case, she’s always dressed in black, her hair is in that bun, she’s the same, always the same. But she could be thinking anything, have done everything, before she set out on her routine. In what she’s doing now there is nothing to deny me the ability to make her sad or happy like me. She offers me a non-specific foundation on which I can once again enliven the environment, or more accurately, enliven me in the environment.
* * *
Because what I knew around me was so connected to me, these places became synonymous with narcissism; I had returned full circle to my first problem. I was becoming like Google or Facebook, filtering my own web searches, or in this case street searches, according to my own past use of the city. And like a Google cookie I was getting to know my own predilections increasingly well; reducing and refining the city into my own image until it was my own narcissism mirror.
But, in the modern world information is proliferating. New technologies, new investigative academic disciplines and increasing population are allowing us greater access to information and resources. And so I was stuck in a writer’s paradox: by straying from the unknown – places, routes and people – and going back to what I already knew, I was trying to capture an expanding world with a dwindling stock of informational resources. Like economists fresh from university who hope to solve the global credit crisis with the same information and theories that created it, how could I possibly hope to map a city to which I was becoming blind?
As the modern world allows, and even encourages, people to confirm their pre-existing views- through these internet search engines, and politically-affiliated newspapers and forums the gaps between individuals will widen. We dig deeper into our own areas of interest and are spread further apart by the informational dirt that lands the spaces in between us.
And it was this thought that returned me back to my original idea of creating my own literary map of London. Although I was not enthused enough to rediscover the project, I did realise that the map, as an idea, is the complete opposite of this process. A map sacrifices the utterly personal for the collective. It accepts its inaccuracies and omissions and builds a representation of place that is to be shared, and regionally, nationally or globally understood. In essence, it binds people to the places that they share with others and keeps the notion of community alive. On a map we exist in relation to one another and can be located and situated by our connection to someone else’s whereabouts. We read the map – a regional, national or global one – and simultaneously imagine others doing the same thing; it allows us to imagine community at each societal level.
On the subject of reality distortion, it is true that the nature of something will always be obscured when it is written about, but this is massively outweighed by the benefits of such a process. Mapping or writing about the unknown is a means of connecting people with information and stories they have not yet encountered; by giving them a communal text through which they can understand and critique the world. In sum then, I think that the betrayal of exact reality for a universally shared and understood idea of it, like that view on a map, is far more important than an accurate individualised reality never comprehended.:. And so for my part, I shall have to clamber over my own insecurities and continue the story of the Tesco-bag-carrying flâneur whose world is only 1km square.
Illustration by John Mcloughlin
The article was commissioned by The New Wolf for New Cartography – an IdeasTap-sponsored magazine.