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john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Thursday, April 30, 2009
    Tracing the mystic in Middlesex
    Looking through the gaps between suburban houses, we often gain a glimpse of old oak or ash trees growing somewhere further off, in back gardens or on the Green Belt. In the winter the bare black boughs of the trees seem to writhe threateningly as they tower over the semi-detacheds like vast Kalis. These giants serve to remind us that, interpenetrating the electrically lit safety of our double-glazed homes and the ruthless quest for utility manifest in our concretised front gardens, there is an older world which will not go away, a realm whose concerns are not those of the human one. [Nick Papadimitriou]*
    At one point in The London Perambulator, the film's subject Nick Papadimitriou is speaking to film maker John Rogers the other side of the camera, whilst standing on a corner of industrial scrubland, among shattered concrete and (I'd wager) probably very near a grey toxic watercourse. He enters into a reverie of speculation about whether the stones, the soil, the scrub there can sense his presence, whether by standing there he is causing invisible tremors of excitement to run through these sentient companions of the earth. This moment illustrates one aspect of the man's vision. As Will Self affirmed in the post-film discussion at the Whitechapel Gallery last night, Nick Papadimitriou's 'deep topography' is a mystic quest.

    The hundred-quid-plus that it cost me to attend the premiere of The London Perambulator last night was well worth it. John Rogers' film is an excellent study of the character and vision of a man who would be dubbed by the literary press or Sunday supplements (if they ever discovered him) as an English eccentric, but whose clarity of vision is such that it makes you think that it's the rest of us who are eccentric, locked as we are into the banalities of capital, or what Guy Debord called The Spectacle, whereby we have lost contact with the ground we tread on, the land we inhabit; we don't see where we're going.

    Watching the film, and listening to the conversation afterwards with Self, Rogers, Iain Sinclair and Andrea Phillips, I think I finally 'got' what Nick Papadimitriou's deep topography is. Will Self (who knows and interprets Nick Papadimitriou extremely well) sees the film's subject as an urban archaeologist, stripping away the human layers of the city to get to the bedrock beneath. This is illustrated very well by a section in the film where Nick stands awed beside a gap between two suburban semis and describes the course of an old river, an ancient landscape, which he sees opening up there.

    But Nick Papadimitriou isn't stuck on the thin, 'heritage' idea of simply recovering what that landscape used to look like. He's fascinated by connecting how it has previously been with how it is now. The semis, the suburbs, are a vital part of this mystic landscape vision, this spiritual quest across space and time. This is post-industrial romanticism of the deepest order. Making 'mystical correspondences' is an Iain Sinclair term which can be justly applied to Nick Papadimitriou's work.

    Which is why Nick can spend hours meditating on shards of broken concrete fence posts or standing in the debris of abandoned power stations, awed. As Russell Brand puts it in the film, Nick Papadimitriou is “like some ludicrously pragmatic mystic, some dull trudging trainspotting alchemist. He hoovers up magic from stone and brick and concrete”. Last night Will Self said that there is a liberating spirituality in what Nick does: 'in finding these things beautiful he is helping himself, and the commonality'.

    It's good to gaze on the overlooked, to turn the camera (the gaze, the pen) onto the edgelands. Because the edgelands are a big part of who we are, and they're not regarded nearly enough. This came out again and again in the film and in the stimulating conversation afterwards. Nick Papadimitriou endlessly roams the roads and rough sites of old Middlesex collating observations in his massive (physical and mental) archive. Iain Sinclair says that The London Perambulator is 'the raw material for an epic' which will probably never be made, because despite being the friend and muse of Russell Brand and Will Self, Nick Papadimitriou is not burdened by any celebrity intentions. His aim in life is to gather so much of the stuff of Middlesex into himself that by the time he dies he will have become so integrated into the area that he is part of the fabric itself. All this raw poetic: 'his only option is to disappear completely into it', says Sinclair.