Underground Writing

I have just got round to reading one of the best pieces in a weekend newspaper that I have read for a long time. It was Robert Macfarlane writing about urban exploration – the coupling of a superb writer with a fascinating subject.

Macfarlane writes about the international fraternity of people who like to get onto, into and under parts of the city where they are not meant to go, Some like to dangle from cranes, others to penetrate sewers. Macfarlane’s piece is the opposite of that inspirational writing which makes you think ‘I’d like to do that’. Here the response is far more probably ‘I’d hate to do that’. And that is what makes the piece so gripping.

In the end, although fascinated by the scene, and in particular by its chronicler, one Bradley Garrett, a fearless academic who has written a book that is, says Macfarlane, like no other. ‘ Intercut with the helter skelter storytelling is heavy duty analysis of, among other subjects, the politics of UE, the affective role of photography and video, and the phenomenology of urban flow.’

In the end Macfarlane, although seduced by the topic (and led into an abandoned tank in north London), is not sure what urban exploration is for, or what it achieves. Me neither. But it is a useful reminder that there is more than one way to explore our cities, and that the intentions of architects and engineers about how we use their designs can easily be subverted by someone who is willing to step over a handrail or pick a lock.

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