PsychoGeography #38: The Wandsworth Road to enlightenment

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The Independent Online

There's a second-hand office furniture store on the Wandsworth Road that I pass each day on the school run. Every morning the staff put their wares out on the pavement and every evening they take the unsold filing cabinets and swivel chairs back inside. For the past four years there's been a medical examination couch in among this impedimenta. Foam-padded, vinyl-covered, steel-legged - I find its functionality extremely attractive, but it's remained unsold. If I bought the couch - it often occurs to me - I could perform psychogeographic audits on people whose daily commute has become more soul destroying than man-hauling to the South Pole, despite the fact that it's only a journey of a few miles.

There's a second-hand office furniture store on the Wandsworth Road that I pass each day on the school run. Every morning the staff put their wares out on the pavement and every evening they take the unsold filing cabinets and swivel chairs back inside. For the past four years there's been a medical examination couch in among this impedimenta. Foam-padded, vinyl-covered, steel-legged - I find its functionality extremely attractive, but it's remained unsold. If I bought the couch - it often occurs to me - I could perform psychogeographic audits on people whose daily commute has become more soul destroying than man-hauling to the South Pole, despite the fact that it's only a journey of a few miles.

Finally, last week, I was presented with the opportunity to indulge in this psychogeotherapy, and I didn't even have to buy the couch. At Christmas, assorted Independent contributors were auctioned off for charity to the highest bidder. My peculiar services were purchased - by his generous brother - on behalf of one Ian Leslie. Ian lives in New York, but on one of his frequent trips to London he came to see me and we took a walk together to investigate an old haunt of his in Battersea.

When Ian turned up I found him a most sensitive and engaging person. Despite working in the virtual hubbub of the global advertising industry since he left university, Ian was no worldly wiseacre. However, he did concede that his topographic muscle was distinctly flaccid. Living in the East Village and commuting on the subway to Midtown, Ian loved Manhattan precisely because of its dense artificiality: "It's the ideal city," he told me, "everything you need is accessible at all times, and because people's apartments are so small, they all stay out. For two years I had my fridge switched off."

As we strolled down through the council estates opposite New Covent Garden Market I extracted Ian's psychogeohistory. Brought up in Forest Hill, south London, he went to school locally, and although permitted to "play out", he and his brother mostly confined themselves to the local park. Family holidays were to relations in Edinburgh and Yorkshire, as well as the obligatory rainy week in St Ives. But Ian confessed to me that he had little sense of these places, and that even the first "adult" holiday he took, in Cephalonia, was memorable because of his friends rather than the locale. He was at Sussex University and "adored Brighton", precisely because it was "a manageable city" where you "bumped into people you knew". Stints in Brixton, Clapham and Battersea only hardened his resolve to live in the centre of town, and while by no means contemptuous, he did speak casually - in the way Manhattanites do - of "bridge and tunnellers".

By this time we had traversed Battersea Park, eating a decent if costly lunch at the Gondola Café, and headed west along the embankment past Norman Foster's atelier and the delightful riverside church of St Mary's where William Blake was married in 1782. (His bride, Catherine Boucher, the daughter of a local market gardener, signed the register with an "X".) On the other side of the river hunched the Thatcherite excrescence of Chelsea Harbour, site of J G Ballard's putative bourgeois revolution in his novel Millennium People. It made a fitting backdrop for our talk.

Ian had lived on the top floor of Totteridge House, a graceless 20-storey block. His landlady often reminded him that he paid a great deal less to look at Chelsea Harbour than its residents did to look at him. To our surprise we were able to enter the block and ascend. The view from the top was of London in all its jumble: Wandsworth mounting out of the valley of the Wandle; the Hampstead massif rising to the north; the cranes over the site of the new Wembley Stadium. Immediately below us, gadfly helicopters came in to land on the helipad which juts out over the river. It was a suitable setting in which to deliver my diagnosis: "You're suffering from aggravated suburban neurosis, or ASN, as it's termed." Ian looked nonplussed, so I elaborated. "Your childhood in Forest Hill left you with an unquenchable desire to escape the periphery of places and move towards the centre; this centripetal force has dominated you your entire life."

"But what," he asked nervously, "can I do about it?"

"It's simple," I replied with the confidence of a born therapist, "move to Milton Keynes; we must all face our demons!"

I've no idea whether my course of treatment was amenable to my first client - he hasn't been in touch to book a second session. It's a pity, I'd intended to recreate Forest Hill for him in my consulting room, complete with copious privet cuttings. And yes, I've now invested in the couch. E

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