A Guide to Walking Sideways

This is Dr Phil Smith’s subtitle for his document on Mythogeography. He distinguishes it from classic Debordian Psychogeography by saying, “What it longs to be is not a political organisation, but a mental architecture.”.

That’s quite good enough for me this Friday evening. I am accompanied in a virtual sense by blogger Andrew Whitehead. He took three “well worthwhile ” hours to trace the steps taken by Zadie Smith’s central character towards the end of her novel “NW”. As I turn left out of Kilburn Underground Station, I am joining them for part of the section entitled “Shoot Up Hill to Fortune Green”. As Andrew says, “Whatever truth you look for from a novelist, it’s not cartographic precision.”.

I have an appointment, however, and part from my virtual companions (Zadie, Natalie/Keisha, and Andrew) at the corner of Mapesbury Road. At the time of the Norman Conquest, this area was part of the manor of Willesden. One of its eight prebends was named Mapesbury after Walter Map, prebendary from 1173- c1192.

My meeting is hosted by the British Psychoanalytic Association at no 37. It is the very House where the distinguished neurologist, the late Oliver Sacks, grew up with his three brothers and their parents, physicians who practised from the house.

I have dipped into Oliver Sacks’s memoir, “Uncle Tungsten ” in preparation for this visit . In the chapter “Home Life”, he reminisces:

“We would sit down fifteen, sometimes twenty, to the table on Seder nights…..There was a beautiful, embroidered tablecloth….gleaming white and gold on the table. My mother, knowing that sooner or later there would be accidents, always had a preemptive “spill” herself – she would manage, somehow, very early in the evening, to tip a bottle of red wine onto the tablecloth, and thereafter no guest would be embarrassed if they knocked over a glass.”.

Even the stamp of the institution has not removed the sense that this was a family home. Upstairs, nine of us gather around a refectory table in a panelled room as the evening light slowly fades. As we discuss Freud’s fifth lecture from his 1909 series given at Clark University , a bottle of red circulates while we pick from the supper items set out on the table between us.

There is a curious postscript to “Uncle Tungsten “. After it had been published, Oliver’s brother Michael told him that his account of experiencing two wartime bombs falling in Mapesbury Road was an illusion- on the night the thermite bomb fell, they were both away at boarding school (their brother David sent them a vivid description in a letter). Oliver later made sense of his altered memory:

“After the first one fell, Michael and I went down the road at night in our pyjamas, not knowing what would happen. In that memory, I can feel myself into the body of that little boy. And in the second memory it’s as if I’m seeing a brilliantly illuminated scene from a film: I cannot locate myself anywhere in the scene.”.

Famously, Sacks was able as a writer to take case histories from his own practice and turn them into illuminating tales. He was bewildered by the concept of pure fiction: “But I’m writing about real human beings- I’m not conjuring up people from – from what? – from some mysterious realm I seem to have no access to.”.

As a teacher noted on the young Oliver Sacks’s school report: “Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far.”.

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