I finished "Bleeding London," the novel, yesterday. It was a curious book, and even more curious given my long involvement with the RPS photo project that took its name. It started as sort of a dark noir novel with three main characters: an ineffectual business owner, a gangsterish thug and nymphomaniac shop assistant.
These three shared a common involvement with maps and the streetscapes of London, with walking miles through the city and recording their lives -- by different standards of measure -- on maps.
One of the main characters, Stuart London, decides to walk all the city streets after essentially having been made redundant in his own business -- a walking tour company run largely, now, by his more capable wife. He sets out with an A-Z, the bible of London street maps, and marks the streets as he completes them.
Ironically, he specifically avoids photography during these walks:
"He considered taking a camera with him to photograph the things that caught his eye, to create a visual record and an aide-memoire, but he decided against it. He feared that the presence of a camera would turn his walking into a photographic expedition, into a quest for the picturesque. Besides, taking photographs would make him conspicuous, and there were all sorts of places where a man with a camera would be unwelcome."
At the end of the book, Stuart is left with a blackened A-Z and a diary that recounts his experiences as a walker. But his wife, upon discovering and reading the diary, decides he couldn't possibly have walked all those streets. She points out that if he'd walked his goal of 10 miles a day, five days a week, he would have covered eight and a half thousand miles and walked for three and a half years -- and he would have had a much, much bigger diary:
"Let me tell you what I think happened. I think that in the beginning you genuinely wanted to walk down every street in London. It sounds like you. I'm sure you intended to do it. I'm sure you planned to. But I suspect that before long it got very boring. It was all quite pleasant walking through Hampstead and Richmond and Kensington. And it was just fine walking through Highgate and Blackheath. Wandsworth and Stoke Newington had their problems. Lewisham and Leytonstone you probably didn't like at all. And you knew there was going to be worse still: Peckham and Tottenham and Canning Town and God knows where else. I'm sure you weren't a snob about it, probably you really did visit Brixton and Shoreditch and Wanstead. I'm sure you weren't too delicate to walk through a bit of urban blight. But I imagine that before long you looked at all those remaining mean streets that led you through depressing council estates, and through boring, boring suburbs, and perhaps even into some dangerous no-go areas, and you thought to yourself, I don't belong here. This isn't my manor. This isn't my London. And you said to yourself, "Forget it." And frankly I don't blame you. Nobody would."
Stuart protests, but in the end, I was left wondering whether he really did walk all those streets. Or was the wife correct, and was all that walking -- not to mention the occasionally almost supernatural interaction between the main characters -- a product of Stuart's imagination? When I talked to Nicholson a couple of months ago, he said he was not his character. But I was left with a sneaking suspicion that he was indeed Stuart's alter-ego, writing an imaginary walking diary that became a novel.
As a map-lover, I appreciated the repeated references to maps, and what they represent. Map people are dreamers. In my case, an enthusiasm for maps isn't about the paper and the lines and the craftsmanship -- it's about the places. The wondering. What would that street, that city, that country look like? What kind of a place would have a name like Tooting, or High Worple, or Ismailia Road or Red Path? I could read maps for hours and just wonder about them, and that wondering is part of what fueled my participation in Bleeding London -- it gave me a desire to turn the next corner, and the next, and the next.
I'd say odds are good that Nicholson is a map-lover, too.
(Photo: A new, slightly creepy mural outside the West Hampstead Fire Station.)