A hero shot of Robert Macfarlane in a North London reservoir, from his interview (and exploration) with Bradley Garrett, author of Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City.
I read Macfarlane’s book on mountaineering, Mountains of the Mind, a few years ago, and I’m looking forward to getting to his more recent The Old Ways, but the idea to pair a writer more used to exploring nature with Garrett, an urban explorer par excellence, was genius. The spark throws up lots of good quotes.
Just as certain climbers prefer granite to gritstone, and certain cavers prefer wet systems to dry ones, the explorers have their specialisms: the bunkerologists, the asylum seekers, the skywalkers, the builderers, the track-runners, the drainers. Most people start out in ruins, though: these tend to be the easiest sites to access, and the aesthetic payoffs – the pathos of abandonment, the material residue of inscrutable histories – are rapid.
Photography is important to the adventurers too, they specialise in the “hero shot”: the lone explorer seen from behind on the rim of a building or bridge, or heavily backlit (partly to preserve anonymity) and framed in a storm-drain or archway. Such images unmistakably have their origin in Caspar David Friedrich’s icon of Romanticism, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog (1818): the dark frock-coated traveller atop his peak, with the mists of unknowing spread out beneath him.
From London Bridge, Garrett took me on a haphazard walk through the City. He had climbed pretty much every major building we passed. … The Gherkin went up before Garrett arrived in London, to his enduring regret. On the whole, he prefers mid-level structures to skyscrapers: “Something like the Shard has no relationship to the city. From its summit, you look down and London resembles a giant circuit-board. It all seems chilly and lifeless from up there.”
[Garrett] decided to become an academic geographer instead. UE became [his] exclusive ethnographic focus. His research method was extreme and immersive. He spent four years embedded with a group of London-based explorers – “the scribe of the tribe” – as they enjoyed what he now describes as a “golden age” of UE. … Among the results of his research were a doctorate from the University of London; a gallery of remarkable photographs; arrest by British Transport Police (BTP); the battering-down of his front door and confiscation of his computers, phone and passport; a court battle; a post-doc at Oxford; and now the book of his PhD.
Garrett’s attempts to reach the [London Underground’s] ghost stations form the most controversial episodes of the book. These actions led eventually to his arrest and the forced dispersal of the LCC (bail conditions currently prevent them from communicating). His trial is ongoing. Transport for London, apparently fearing copycatism, have recently threatened his publisher, Verso Books, with legal action over the publication of “illegally obtained information” in Explore Everything.
The interview is well worth a read in full (yes, there are a lot of quotes above, but it’s barely scratching the surface) and I’m looking forward to getting a look at the book itself.