The Library: Scarp, by Nick Papadimitriou

The Library is a new feature on the Elsewhere blog, where we explore some of the books and writers that have inspired us. We start with a review that first appeared in our “zero edition” of Elsewhere, created for the crowdfunding campaign, and it takes us to Scarp, by Nick Papadimitriou.

Review: Marcel Krueger

Pronunciation: / skɑ ː p
Definition of scarp in English: very steep bank or slope; an escarpment

On the north Middlesex/south Hertfordshire border sits a 17-mile escarpment. This ridge, part of London’s outward-growing suburbs, is an unremarkable place of motorways, council flats and gas stations. And yet for over 20 years Nick Papadimitriou has made it his playground, his emotional and topographical heartland. Two decades of mental and physical exploration have provided him with all the material he needs to write an extraordinary book about the escarpment, or as he calls it, ‘Scarp’.

Hailed by his walker-writer friends Ian Sinclair and Will Self, the book explores both personal histories and fictionalised accounts of the people who have made Scarp their home, as well as those who have simply passed through. Unlike W.G. Sebald, whose explorations of past and place are always rooted in calamity and dread, Papadimitriou is a more distant observer – albeit one with an extremely fine focus. At one point, he switches from describing the decapitation of a former beauty queen in a car accident in 1958 to the experiences of a small rat observing the carnage from roadside shrubbery. It is an outstanding feature of both his observations and his writing that he never gives human stories prominence over those of animals, rivers, or the landscape itself.

It is sometimes a challenge to follow the more streamof-consciousness parts of the book, especially as they are always interlinked with a real yet obscure place that Papadimitriou knows intimately. In one section he starts as himself on Welham Green in the 1960s and becomes Gloria Geddes, queen of the Psychedelic Ancients of Middle Saxony with a preference for LSD and sex with her yogi lover. Transformed by the drugs, she passes “through the eye of the land” to become a hornet, which is in turn swatted by a copy of the Times wielded by Reginald Maudling, MP for Barnet … and so we move on, through time and place, never quite sure what will come next as we turn the pages.

Papadimitriou’s autobiography does not lack sorrow, and it is in those parts of the book, where he interweaves his story with the wider historical context as he walks Scarp from west to east, that he connects with the land the most:

“Perhaps it is a sense that I have of the east as being somehow colder or more spiteful than the other cardinal points. East London, with its desperate estates and vicious villainy; The Eastern Front during the Second World War, where armies were swallowed by the snow, and whole people ravaged by famine; East Finchley, where D-- lived and I once got fined two quid for an overdue library book. The very word, when seen on the page somehow suggests bared teeth and impending skinhead violence: EAST.”

Papadimitriou’s structure might be chaotic, but it is engaging throughout. Years of study, research and the creation of a Scarp library have led him on a series of fantastic trips over, through and around Scarp, giving voice to its living and its dead, its animals, plants, buildings – indeed, to all its residents. Here are the travels and travails of a man happy in his knowledge of the area’s ghosts, car accidents, floods and highwaymen, down to the wildlife growing in the cracks in the concrete. This is not a book that easily enables the reader to actually follow in the author’s footsteps around Scarp; yet it is reassuring to know that Papadimitriou is still out there, walking. And that he has written about it.

Elsewhere No. 01 is out now - featuring writing from the Romney Marsh and Loch Fyne, Gyttorp and the Oderbruch, Bankstown and Nowa Huta, Arniston Bay and Prespa - get your copy via our online shop.