PsychoGeography #77: As I was going to Bluewater

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The Independent Online

"Stop banging into me!" "I'm not banging into you - you're banging into me!" "Whatever, just stop it." "How can I stop it when I'm not doing anything?" "Stop IT!"

"Stop banging into me!" "I'm not banging into you - you're banging into me!" "Whatever, just stop it." "How can I stop it when I'm not doing anything?" "Stop IT!"

They are, by anyone's standards, big children. The boy 6ft at 14, the 12-year-old girl fast catching up on him. Soon they would come to blows in this numbingly prosaic suburban street, where net curtains occlude the picture windows with cataracts of respectability. Why, it occurred to me, do I subject myself to this? Am I reenacting my own childhood using my progeny as psycho-dramatic players? Probably, but the fact remains: come the holidays I force whichever of my children I can entrap into long tramps around the periphery of London.

I know that for the first hour or two they'll bicker, and for the third and fourth they'll moan, but eventually fatigue and a strange kind of wonderment at the indisputably veridical character of the experience will begin to steal over them. This really is ... a sewage farm, a gravel pit, a copse festooned with toilet paper ... There's no remote control, no way of changing the channel or reloading the game. It will do them good - not now, possibly not for years to come, but eventually they'll comprehend that just as the imagination requires nothing but a pencil and bit of paper to take off, so the body needs only legs and feet.

We took the train to Sidcup from London Bridge. As we clackety-clacked out through south-east London, a man behind me was describing his dental surgery in great and gleeful detail: "I suppose he began with a 5 millimetre, but he had to be very deft and then he switched drills, put a 6/10 millimetre extension on the drill so he could get down into it. Then he cut a square section out of the bone - I tell you, it was irritating when the anaesthetic wore off and we had to wait ..." Irritating?! My mother used to say that many dentists were thwarted sculptors, but the idea that thwarted dentists were abroad in the world was deranging.

Then - as I unmercifully herded the big babies down through Sidcup and along the willow-fringed banks of the River Cray - came the bickering. The wind bit, the sun shone, my daughter complained. We stopped for ham sandwiches and freshly brewed tea in the copse of bog roll. For once the children's appetites were to scale - they wolfed down everything, even fruit. We struggled under the A2, while overhead the metallic chain of being clanked towards the Black Prince roundabout. On through a park where frisky dogs walked their lumpen owners, and then finally into Crayford. The Cray was canalised behind steel banks, its surface oily and dank. Somewhere in the mid-distance steel was noisily abusing itself, yet here the alchemy of walking began to work its strange magic. The children started singing and telling jokes.

Then, wonder of wonder, the marshes opened out as the Cray made common cause with the Darent, and a couple of miles beyond us there lay the Thames like hammered pewter under the darkening sky. Just before we reached the estuary we passed by a vast car-breaker's yard: towering peaks of variegated bodywork. In the rusty gulches of this scrap massif, travelling people had parked their caravans and strung up their washing. I pointed them out to the boy. "What would happen," he asked, "if I were to scream, 'Fucking gypos!'?"

"That," I counselled him, "would not be a good idea."

In a balding field under the guillotine of a flood barrier a semi-feral nag nuzzled at our backs with its tombstone teeth. The children galloped off to the fence and jumped it, but I persuaded the boy to come back and feed the poor beast our last remaining apple. Then, as the sun set over Erith, we sat on the riverbank and watched as flocks of little waders (knots, I later learnt) performed astonishing, tightly coordinated acrobatics over the mudflats, the whole cloud switching from dark to silvery as they turned.

For their fortitude the children were rewarded with a trip to Bluewater, beyond Dartford. This is a shopping mall so large that mere conventionally sized shopping centres could go shopping there themselves, intent on buying a bijou department store or a dear little chain retailer. A kilometre and a half of plate-glass storefronts twisted into a triangular hub of colonnades and atria. Tonnes of shmatte, container-loads of furniture, more DVDs than a human could watch in several lifetimes. The children wandered about with stunned expressions. I like to think that, after the long walk, their normal environment felt as unnatural to them as it truly was. Delusion - it's as comfortable as bickering really.