Tuesday, September 4, 2012


Image: Harvard University Press web site

I have never been to London, nor have I ever been to England, Britain, the UK or Europe as of today.  By Thursday morning all of this will change when I touch down at Heathrow Airport on British Airways flight 94.

If London consists of a set of circulating discourses, representations and spatial recipes for cooking up 'London-ness,' just what precisely, if anything, comprises the 'essential' London?

As I mentally flip through what has registered in my brain 'about London' or 'about England/Britain/UK' over the years what can I say I truly 'know' about this place (or set of places)?

There's John Snow's cholera map, an early example of a mashup or even a GIS, in which new point data (cholera outbreak locations) was overlain upon an existing base map to solve a spatial problem.

The result has been an outbreak of the idea of a 'vector' of transmission (for Snow it was water in the local wells), and the birth of epidemiology.

The following 'memes' are just a sampling of some of the things that go into the makeup of the place we call 'London'.

They are 'place memes' in a giant place-meme-plex, the epidemic of London-ness, with vectors like the internet and TV pumping out ever-evolving exa-bytes of images, maps, stories, sounds and other information about this place.

Can I truly say I've caught the bug?  Have the set of practices, cultures and paradigms that make up London ever taken hold in me?

For me, there are a few books, some literature (though I've not read Dickens) with scattered references to the city.  There's The Map That Changed the World (Winchester), London (Ackroyd), and the new London: A History in Verse (see video below).

There's the London on the maps, that giant pulsing cell, that octopus, that big messy sprawl with the Thames winding through it like a strand of DNA.

There are all those songs from the 'new wave' of music I used to listen to in the early eighties, most of which were British, rediscovered this past weekend in a rented Fiat with satellite radio installed.

There is, of course, the London Olympics, still fresh in my mind, all those competitions, victories and scorching defeats I saw on TV while shuttling between Montreal and Vancouver to visit my ailing father.

The recent special report on London in the Economist is another point of interest in my mental file, the stories of which attempted to assay the fate of this vibrant and essential city.

There was the book by Self, illustrated by Steadman, in which he 'walks' from Heathrow to JFK airports in an attempt to 'critique' and contrast ideas of movement, constriction and control associated with notions of travel and wayfaring we find in modern (British and American) life.

And all of this gathered without ever having set foot in the place.  How will my view of things change once I actually get there and begin to gather firsthand knowledge?

Will I be better informed, with the secondhand knowledge beginning to take second seat, rounding out the firsthand knowledge gained not merely by description, but by experience?

More importantly, what will the process of navigating a boundary every day entail, of moving from the outside in, of moving towards 'being' the insider, and an ever receding and impossible goal of assimilation?

This will involve much reflection, beginning tomorrow when I step on board that plane.  Then, a new journey begins, and I intend to record, in writing and maps, the things I see and experience along the way.

The boundary crossing I will experience involves leaving a place where I am already a minority anglophone in  a French speaking nation (Quebec) that is itself a minority within the English speaking former British colony of Canada, and entering the domain of that former colonizer and fallen imperial power, where I will again be in the majority, linguistically speaking.

That linguistic compatibility could serve to mask some cultural incompatibilities and to provide a false sense of security in what will surely be at times a tense negotiation, but which will be smoothed by making friends and making an attempt to understand, to fit in.

As I make London my new home, my home away from home, my home-within-a-home of the cozy transatlantic world served by British Airways and the like, I will send off missives and inscriptions to try and give you, my reader, some sense of what I'm going through, the sense of adventure, frustration and discovery that always goes with the territory of being between two places, in transition moving back and forth between the two.

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