The New River – Turnpike Lane to Clerkenwell

London is a city of invisible boundaries. Areas alter in atmosphere or architecture in the space of a few yards, and a reason for this might be that the rivers which once flowed were often the borderlines between ancient parishes and settlements. You might walk down a street now and suddenly notice a change in the air. Chances are you have walked across the course of an underground river. The New River would have been no different. Although a recent addition to the waterways of London (about 400 years old), when it was built it would have run through mostly open countryside and settlements would have grown around it.

Some portions of the New River are visible to the naked eye. Yet these sections (for instance, Turnpike Lane to Finsbury Park), which flow silently behind housing estates and terraced streets, seem somehow not as alive as those which have disappeared. It’s the ghost parts of the river, now covered by houses, gardens, shops, parks and roads, that get me going more than the algae scum cuts I can see filled with bikes, shopping trolleys and empty plastic Coke bottles.

Searching for lost rivers is, in a way, a spiritual journey, searching for things that I once valued but have lost, like my Yofi acoustic guitar, God, my grandfather’s retirement watch, a sense of childlike wonder at the universe, old girlfriends’ phone numbers, a large cardboard box containing copies of the New Musical Express from 1979-82, my Sex File. Actually, my Sex File, one of the Really Big Things in my life that was truly lost (or, rather, forgotten about – it’s often the same thing) – a pink four-sided A4 folder plastered with pictures of models from a stolen late-seventies edition of Playboy, with notes and drawings 2c (and even coloured in areas) by me – was recently rediscovered by my father. He found it folded up in an old cobwebby redbrick chicken shed in the field behind the family house, where it had lain untouched (except by spiders) for over twenty years. The Sex File was a snapshot of my early teenage desires and fears, in many ways a mystical (almost religious) document – sort of like an East Midlands Dead Sea Scrolls but with leggy blondes, huge breasts, erect nipples and adverts for penis enlargers.

Before I could track the exact course of the New River I needed to do some ‘research’ at my local library. However, I was immediately faced with a problem. I wouldn’t be able to take any books out because I was currently a library Non-Person as I had a couple of books that were seven months overdue. One was an earnest tome about water spirits (the author had apparently lived with the spirits for several months and had been accepted as one of them), the other a teach-yourself aikido manual written in the fifties.

“Aikido is a jolly nice way to get fit and beat up chaps who are giving you a hard time or staring at your wife. Rather than going into the ring with them you simply give them a couple of hefty aikido chops and, hey presto, their nose cartilage has been pushed up into their brain and they’re stone cold dead! Blimey! You’ll be the talk of the Lounge Bar. I say old chap, here come the rozzers. Remember, this is the fifties. The forces of Law and Order don’t take kindly to fellows who are dressed up as Chinamen. You’d better leg it old man. Aiiee banzaaai!”
The Gentleman’s Guide to Aikido

To go with my new habitat I also had a new look, a pair of mid-seventies National Health glasses. I’d originally got them when I was thirteen but never used them, having been anxious in my early teenage years to appear both tough (to stave off the hard cases who roamed the playground like carnivorous dinosaurs with feather cuts) and cool (to try and impress just one of the many girls I fell hopelessly in love with every week). Janus-like, I looked in two directions, at the birds and the bullies. Pity they weren’t in focus. Like the Sex File, the glasses had been forgotten about for a couple of decades until I recently found them at the back of a drawer in my parents’ house and brought them back to London. Now I wanted to reclaim my swottishness. If I hadn’t been so hung up on not being beaten up and getting a snog I would probably have been a pupil who enjoyed learning (ŒHa ha, not really Togger. Only joshin’ mate!¹) Now I was going to recreate the Anal Years and spend weeks in libraries. The National Health specs would give me the vision of an inquisitive and swotty thirteen year old. Without the spots, the Thin Lizzy albums and the contraband porn mags.

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