Though the big Eurasian rail trip finished a few months ago, and I’ve long traded the backalleys of Bukhara for the familiar backroads of Brixton, there’s one enduring sensation that’s really stuck with me from those fancy-free travellin’ days: interconnectedness.
Before I took the trip, Brixton was Brixton. The centre of Lambeth, south of the river, fond of reggae, and famous for both its checkered past and its nice vegan cupcakes. This identity, however colourful and complex, seemed relatively determined and well-bounded.
Now, though, it’s laced into everything, everywhere. The train from Brixton to Victoria has become more than a little fifteen-minute commute – it’s a tiny branch on a continent-traversing mega-web of railways that can take you seamlessly to Tashkent, Chengdu, even Singapore if you wanted. You could board a train at Brixton and, without even once leaving a train station or metro system, end up on the opposite edge of the world.
As far as I’m concerned, it should even be doable on Oyster Card. If Amersham is Zone 6, then sure, Hong Kong might have to be Zone 72, but at least we’d recognise that all of it, everywhere, is connected.
It’s fun talking about the interconnectedness of space. What about interconnectedness of time?
While imagining how many places in the world can be reached from London, we can also imagine how many worlds are layered beneath our feet within the city itself. Brythonic, Roman, Saxon, Nigerian, rural, urban, rich, poor, at peace, at war – these aren’t far-flung universes that can never be reconciled – these universes have all been here!
The Londonist (the superb online magazine of London culture, arts, events and imaginative miscellanea) is trying to get us thinking about London’s history in that kind of interconnected way. Time Travel London is their ongoing, reader-driven online exhibition that mashes together several eras of the city into singular images.
I knew I had to submit something to such a fascinating series. Big questions before kicking off: what Londons have been paved over, replaced with new ones, in the very spot you’re sitting? How many people looked around their own versions of the city, century after century, and thought to themselves, with absolute certainty, that their version was the final and correct one? After four-hundred years of Roman rule, for example, surely it seemed impossible for folks to imagine any of the many, many futures that exploded into life, turning their reality into mere history.
Saxon the City (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Pagan-God-Rock)
My submission to the Londonist was for a Saxon Brixton. The name Brixton has nothing to do with bricks, or indeed tons, but is a variant on the ancient Saxon placename “Beorhtsige’s Stone.” You can see why a tongue twister like that got simplified over time….
Beorhtsige (he of most exciting name) was a local lord on the frontiers of the ancient Kingdom of Sussex, round about the 8th Century, who undertook the thankless task of convening great councils of other neighbouring lords near a large boulder, or stone, on his fief.
We know that this assembly of lords would meet fairly regularly at Beorhtsige’s Stone – what we don’t know is what they did there. Was it an occasion to put together big petitions to present to the King? Was it an open-air court where the lords would settle their differences (either amicably, or less so)? Or did this Stone have a more spiritual significance – was it a kind of altar, or henge, or magical pagan-god-rock, before which who-knows-what kinds of activities took place?
What if that ancient Saxon landscape were transposed over contemporary Brixton? What if today’s residents came face to face with the old? Who would honestly look stranger to whom? That’s the question you keep in mind as you travel – nevermind time travel.
Though those South Saxon warlords might seem out of place sharing a pizza at Franco Manca today, we can’t forget that they do indeed share this space with us – just not a time. And, as rail travel can so clearly demonstrate, the space that we share is vast, interlocking and interconnected. Whether travelling or at home, we’re all a part of more worlds than we could ever hope to count.