Empiricism and evocation.

Reading recently, with as much patience as I could muster, Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp, I reflected that re-creating the flavour of a time and place is not helped by too great an effort to do it. Some objectivity – an objectivity that archives are good at holding us to – is paradoxically far more evocative.

Scarp is a personal exploration of the ridge of high ground to the north of London on the Middlesex-Hertfordshire border. This is the eponymous Scarp, which the author claims to have identified and named. The book recounts some of his explorations of the area and his relationship to it throughout his life. But if his aim was, as the blurb says, “first and foremost a personal inquiry into the spirit of place” the attempt does not at all come off. It is pretentiously written: Papadimitriou strains after effect, over-ornamenting his description to the point of tedium, and recalling for this reader Orwell’s “a tremendous advantage is gained by not trying to be clever” and Samuel Butler’s “I never knew a writer yet who took the smallest pains with his style and was at the same time readable”. The central premise is unoriginal: that ridge of high ground has been known for generations as the Northern Heights – a phrase Papadimitriou does use, on page 231, but in passing, and printing it in lower case. The nineteenth century railway engineers who built the main lines north from London all had the problem of penetrating the ridge; the plans drawn up between the wars to extend the Northern Line called the scheme the Northern Heights project; and Northern Heights was a name considered for what became the London Borough of Enfield. Papadimitriou often wanders off into fantasy – acknowledgedly to be sure, but it is difficult to tell where reality ends and fantasy begins and hence what we should take seriously as personal testimony. We have here in short merely one mind’s discursive thoughts and reveries, and although he clearly does know some history and despite some close descriptions of nature I did not at all have a sense of the landscape he reckons to portray.

An instructive contrast is with Alan A. Jackson’s London’s local railways. Jackson simply recounts the story of the construction and operation of these local lines throughout their life, the changes they have seen and their effects on London’s landscape and development. He has quarried the archives very thoroughly. The book is – I suggest in consequence – far more atmospheric. His method is implied in the book’s dedication, “To the suburban traveller”, to which he appends an epigraph from Constable, “We see nothing until we understand it”. Understand your familiar scene, Jackson seems to say, know thoroughly its origin and its function over time, and you will feel more intensely its essence – indeed put like that it is almost a tautology. Jackson visited every one of the lines he writes about, in many instances more than once over decades, and his physical descriptions are commonly his own observations. Though they can be highly coloured he states exactly what he sees and uses it as historical evidence. They are personal, but objective in the sense that he wanted to give an account of what is “out there” rather than an account of his thoughts.

I like to think that the archives both anchored him to objectivity and inspired him to be atmospheric. When we use archives to write history we are bound to convey the knowledge they give us; but it is in giving it to us and as they give it to us that they take us close to the atmosphere of things as they were, an intense sensation which we will also wish to convey, and which we will convey by recounting with feeling what we find. The two things are indissolubly paired.

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2 thoughts on “Empiricism and evocation.

  1. I didn’t know that Enfield was a potential ‘northern heights’ but to my mind the northern heights is the Hampstead/Highgate/Hornsey massif and that is what I meant by this label in Scarp. My high ground is further north. Otherwise, thanks for considering my book for review.

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  2. I owe the information about Enfield to Geoff Pick of the London Metropolitan Archives.

    Alan A Jackson writes on p.13 of London’s Local Railways:

    “To the north of King’s Cross and Euston, a low range of hills with a moderately steep southerly slope runs across from Willesden through Hampstead and Highgate to the western outskirts of Wood Green. Behind it there is high ground northwards through Finchley towards Barnet, where the town centre is at the summit of a 430ft hill. This barrier, long known as the Northern Heights, was carefully avoided by the early main lines… Barnet… had to make do with a station 1.5 miles from its centre.

    “Other places left unserved in the Northern Heights gap included the straggling villages of Edgware and Finchley…”

    From this I think we can distil that the high ground can indeed be divided into northern and southern parts, but that the name has been used indiscriminately for both. Certainly it would be impossible to dictate to popular usage where the name should be applied and where not.

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