Years ago, a friend’s (ex-)boyfriend became obsessed with psychogeography: the study of the urban environment’s effect on the unconscious mind. He was particularly fascinated by the Beckton Alps, a hill in London close to where I grew up. Back then, it was home to a dry ski slope, and has been under development since. Nonetheless, urban explorers still squeeze through the fence to ascend the peak, attracted by its strange backstory: the alps were formed by toxic sludge from the adjacent gas works. When the works closed and the slag heap was forgotten, grass began to grow.
My friend’s ex was convinced that this landscape had somehow shaped my worldview. I appreciated the symbolism (beauty emerging from the unwanted) but didn’t agree that its proximity made it any more significant than, say, visiting Petra, or that painting of the lady in the clam. It seemed to me to be mythologising: storytelling masquerading as science.
Anyway, I hadn’t been to the alps in a decade. But on a recent wild swim, they came to mind. Several articles had recommended the spot for a dip, but when I arrived, it wasn’t scenic: trash and nettles covered the bank, the fast-flowing water was overlooked by a pub. The idea of an idyllic, secluded swim in the city was – surprise! – a myth.
Humans can’t help but mythologise. Clearly I do it, too. I subscribe to the myth of city living, where everything is possible despite all evidence to the contrary. In this instance, my myth shields me, telling me that bad is good – that I don’t mind the cost and the congestion.
Was it the toxic heap-turned-hill that taught me that, I wonder as I dip my toes in. I immerse my body into the water, the sound of the A-road dimming under the surface. I think again of the alps – a beauty spot of sorts, if you only looked hard enough.