Finally got my hands on a copy of Gordon S Maxwell’s ‘The Fringe of London’ (pub. 1925). I first perused it in Amwell Books (Maxwell goes to the village of Amwell in Chapter 1) but was put off by the £35 asking price. It then took over a month to get a copy via inter-library loan, but I stupidly only photocopied the chapter on Maxwell’s encounter with the last minstrel in the hills near High Wycombe. I had a copy coming from Canada that got lost in the post. A friend then offered to lend me his copy but he left it in Monks Park whilst retracing Maxwell’s footsteps to the same place. So finally picking up a copy of this magical crypto-topographical text via ebay was a moment to be savoured.
The introduction is titled; ‘Ventures and Adventures in Topography’; it’s subtitled: “On rambling round the outskirts of London, and the unexpected turns, trials and triumphs that lie in the path of the wayfarer”. An Edwardian ‘London Orbital’ (someone I know mentioned Maxwell to Iain Sinclair who appeared never to have heard of him). It reads like a manifesto for the psychogeographically-minded. In 1925 Maxwell wrote:
“The borderline between folk-lore and fairy-tales is not more nebulous than that between topographical research and “nosing about.”
To confess to the study of folk-lore and topography is to be thought somewhat of a savant, but to own that you like fairy-tales and exploring old buildings, or anywhere fancy may lead you, is to risk being considered of rather peculiar tastes by some people, yet I challenge anyone to prove a distinct dividing-line between the two things. "
"There are two ways of topographical hunting: one is to follow the “scent” of a clue, and the other is to go into the unknown to find what may be. Each way has its own charms and surprises. "
"The true rambler must never be afraid of committing the crime of trespass; fair words are a better help than fast legs. "
"A great point for the rambler to remember is not to believe anything he is told, or at least to commit it to paper, without verification. "
"There is an interesting game I often play. I call it “The Topographical Detective.” It is tracing houses and places in well-known books which the author took as a model but hinted at rather than specifically mentioned. "
"The way of the topographical rambler is sometimes hard, often muddy, usually interesting; but never dull.”
I see Maxwell as part of a trend in topographical writing that seems to span from the 1920’s and ends with Geoffrey Fletcher in the 1960’s. During this time you have people such as SPB Mais with his call to the hills to walk and commune with the spirits of the air, HV Morton sniffing around the flea markets and alleyways of forgotten London, William Margrie’s London Explorer’s Club, Fletcher’s ‘Offbeat London’ of public loos and strange street-lighting and many others, most notably E.O Gordon’s ‘Prehistoric London: Its Mounds and Circles’ (I blog this from the top of Penton Mound). I think there’s definitely a link between these writers and the neo-psychogeographical revival led by Stewart Home, Sinclair and Patrick Keiller in the 1990’s.