Saturday at home, awake early, I read a bit of London Orbital, the account of Iain Sinclair’s pre-millennial trek around the M25. As I drift towards London, I want to avoid literally walking in Sinclair’s footsteps. This doesn’t seem likely on the next stretch, as I will be walking outside the M25 while Sinclair and companions were on the inside. I did, however, learn that author Arthur Machen lived out his last years in Amersham, a place I would be passing through later that day.
A desire path on Tesco supermarket territory in Amersham, taken last visit
I walked through Amersham on the last leg, and tonight I would be getting the train there as it is the nearest station to Chalfont St Giles, at least the nearest that looked like it would have a taxi rank. The Machen connection helped me decide what reading matter to take: I pulled down the Ballantine Adult Fantasy edition of The Three Impostors that I had been meaning to read for some time, and in a casual act of modern thaumaturgy downloaded his Great God Pan to my iPhone. The latter I have read, a classic weird tale. ‘There is a real world, but it is beyond this glamour and this vision, beyond these ‘chases in Arras, dreams in a career,’ beyond them all as beyond a veil. I do not know whether any human being has ever lifted that veil…’ (Flashback to lyrics from Leave the Capitol by the Fall, ‘The tables covered in beer…It’s a hand on the shoulder in Leicester Square/It’s vaudeville pub back room dusty pictures…I laughed at the great god Pan…All the paintings you recall/All the side stepped cars…’)
Such things would have to wait for today – my career is not just a torrent of dreams and I was working at a university open day until early afternoon, so it was a few hours before I was striding down St Helens Road, disengaging my workmind, thinking and walking my way back into the route. The train journeys were remarkably speedy – in a sense the starting points have moved closer to home compared with places like Milton Keynes that involved slower trains, changes and waits. Amersham has always fascinated me, being both a country town visited on holiday and the farthest outpost of the London Underground, right in the top left of the famous map. It seemed to join unrelated worlds together. As a teenager when I finally made the trip out from London I was disappointed that the Tube train wasn’t underground the whole time – I wanted to hurtle straight from the city of palaces, museums and bright shops to Amersham’s half-timbered High Street without seeing daylight, passing through a series of ever-quieter underground stops.
Despite this disappointment I’ve been back a few times. One time we stayed at a hotel that had appeared in Four Weddings and a Funeral, while being guests at a real wedding. And then there was another time, back when eating food cooked in pleasing ways seemed intrinsically interesting, I arranged a birthday trek for Jennie involving every meal of the day being a nice one in a different town, ending up at an Amersham restaurant called Gilbeys. (Actually this makes us sounds like rampaging gourmands – the meals in question were with relatives and lovely friends like Phil & Di.)
On this night however I spent about two rainy minutes in Amersham and immediately got a taxi to Chalfont St Giles. I was staying at the White Hart, a pleasant food-oriented pub with comfortable accommodation in a separate chalet-like block. There I had an enjoyable dinner, delicious things served on beds of other things on oversized white plates. The decor was a kind of mashup of ‘fresh-clean-modern-bright’ with an underlying pub-ness, silvery abstract prints over the log fire.
Subsiding into a pleasant tired haze, I started The Three Impostors, a strange episodic non-novel. It will make a great non-guidebook to London once I have crossed the M25 to walk there next year, helping to conjure it as a city of strange encounters where ‘the most ordinary encounters teem with significance’ and chance discoveries lead to Gothic adventures. In Machen it’s never very far from the prosaic world of tobacco-shops and cafes to darkening hills and uncanny ruins, ‘light shining on a little space in the world, and beyond, mist and shadow and awful forms’. For a brief while armed with books like this and an Oyster card maybe I can be ‘one of those whom idleness had led to explore these forgotten outskirts of London’, courting enchantment.