That the science of cartography is limited

is the title of an Eavan Boland poem (and a point I wish to prove).

In that poem, Boland is walking with her husband in the woods. They come to a track that her husband identifies as a famine road, a place of forced labour and suffering. ‘Where they died, there the road ended,’ she writes:

and ends still and when I take down
the map of this island, it is never so
I can say here is
the masterful, the apt rendering of

the spherical as flat, nor
an ingenious design which persuades a curve
into a plane,
but to tell myself again that
the line which says woodland and cries hunger
and gives out among sweet pine and cypress,
and finds no horizon

will not be there.

The poem broke my heart the first time I read it, but it wasn’t until much later that I was able to find an explanation for its impact. It was at a talk by Rebecca Solnit on the subject of maps. At the time, she was embarking on a project called Infinite City, a radical remapping of her hometown, San Francisco. Her proposed ‘alternative’ maps included ones locating Butterfly Species, Murders, Zen Buddhist Centres, Queer Sites. ‘What we call places are stable locations with unstable converging forces,’ she said, and it hit me that this was a way of summing up what Boland is saying in her poem. A place can be altered by time, fate, a random meeting. These alterations are not evident, they cannot be expressed by coordinates, they are simply known and felt. One of my older students told me that as a child during the war she saw an entire London street levelled by a bomb. I could walk down that street, and to me it is another street, because it carries no personal associations, but she retains the image of the street in ruins, and nothing of its present can wipe away that past.

In the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking about this issue of ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’, ‘personal’ and ‘public’ maps, as Vici MacDonald and I have been revisiting the places we charted in our Formerly project. Our field trips took two whole days to complete, as we journeyed south, then east, crossing the river at Woolwich, heading west, then north. What struck me in our travels was how much London changes; whole blocks are toppled in the name of progress. But if you have been here long enough, the folk memory of what was there before is somehow ingrained in you. What struck me too was how some things never change; there are certain aspects, buildings, streets that connect me with strangers, fellow city dwellers, who walked the same steps and saw the same sights hundreds of years before. The official maps can tell you how to get somewhere, how to plan your route, but the unofficial ones tell you how you felt while you were doing it. Solnit spoke too about the personal map, created when one has lived in a particular city for many years. On that map are sites of liaisons and break-ups, streets of friends and lovers – a series of unofficial (and deeply internal) blue plaques.

Formerly is an attempt to erect some unofficial blue plaques. The exhibition is looking lovely in its spot high over the Thames in the Poetry Library. From next week, we will be inviting visitors to create their own psychogeographical texts, based on their own wanderings, their personal maps. Watch this space.

Exhibition has now been extended until 3rd February:

Eavan Boland poem in its entirety:

Rebecca Solnit:

The Great Bear is an altered map of the London Underground by the artist Simon Patterson

The cloverleaf map of the world, with Jerusalem at the centre, was created in 1581 by Bünting

Number 13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth

A few people have asked myself and my co-founder, Vici MacDonald, why we decided to call our new press Hercules Editions. The simple answer is that we both live in Lambeth (although in the last four years I have strayed further South in the Borough, all the way to Stockwell), and that the presiding spirit of our part of the world is William Blake, who moved to Number 13 Hercules Buildings in 1791 (there’s a blue plaque on the side of the 50s council block that stands there now marking the location of his house).

Stanley Gardner writes of Blake’s Lambeth address:

Number 13 Hercules Buildings, Lambeth, was a comfortable two-story house with a garden front and back. The Blakes lived there, at least from the summer of 1791, until they moved to Felpham on the South Coast in September 1800. The first three years in Lambeth redirected Blake’s thinking on the follow-up to ‘Songs of Innocence’, and from here he launched his attack on the broader conspiracies of place and power, which perpetuated oppression and conflict.

The follow-up, as we know, was Songs of Experience, which contained some of Blake’s most famous poems, ‘The Sick Rose’, ‘The Tyger’ and ‘London’. What was it about the ‘exclusive gardens of Lambeth,’ as Gardner calls them, that produced this extraordinary work?

Gardner says:

Lambeth itself, convenient to Westminster Bridge, had long been a place of commercialised charity, tough factories and seedy pleasure. The land downstream from the bridge, between the river and the marsh, was lined with a half mile of timber yards, Lambeth Waterworks, barge makers and a patent shot manufactory. Across and around the marsh, on twenty-nine acres leased from the Prince Regent, were dye-houses, storehouses, cranes, brewhouses, stables, Mr Beaufoy’s vinegar manufactory, and among the ponds and water courses across the marsh, seventy dwelling houses. Sentinel over all, the new shot-tower was dropping into wartime production as Blake pulled together ‘Songs of Experience’.

It was the London of small industry and great poverty, a place of pleasure gardens and hard labour. The old Hercules Hall became the Female Orphan Asylum, and Blake would have been familiar with the charges of that institution when he was writing ‘The Little Girl Lost’. He was down the road from the Palace of Lambeth and the seat of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who himself was downwind from Vauxhall Gardens, the most notorious place to indulge in any imaginable sin.

I wouldn’t dream of comparing ourselves with Blake, but the project Vici and I undertook was all about London’s hidden histories, the tough & tattered cheek by jowl with grand mansions and leafy squares. Much of it is set in SE1, the quarter of town we know well. In addition, Blake was his own poet, his own illustrator, his own printer, his own book designer, and so we wanted to follow his early model of DIY publishing. Our product will be a bit rough and ready compared to Blake’s beautiful books, but we hope it is in keeping with the Lambeth we inhabit today.

Formerly, our first publication, will be hot off the press to coincide with the exhibition of photos and poems from the book at the Poetry Cafe from 18th June to 14th July.

Here’s our website:


This month marks the end of a project I started with Vici MacDonald (whose new blog is here: ) last spring. Vici has been taking photos of unloved parts of London for many years now. You could say we are both connoisseurs of urban blight; we’ve been known to go on expeditions to look at far-flung pumping stations and railway sidings. The grottier, the better. But these are the bits of the city which are being rediscovered, celebrated, especially when it seems they might be lost forever, to huge building projects like the Olympic Village or any number of sprawling developments of luxury flats. A lot of the places captured in Vici’s photos are already gone.

Our project ‘Formerly’ charts those urban sightings. My goal was to write 14 “loose” sonnets to accompany 14 of her photographs. This is the first poem from the series. Vici collects signage, and something about the chunky 70s certainty of Capacity House obviously appealed to her. My poem developed from a play on the name, a place that looks like less than its moniker suggests. Oh, and the last word I confess is a pretty obvious nod to the end of Berryman’s Dream Song number 14.

There will be more of these to come. Watch this space.


Fat chance you’ll ever break out of here,
this depository for great mistakes
you’ve made your home. Just enough room
for a bed and a stool, a cell of sorts,
for a man of thin means. Lean times.
But I’m a girl who’s capable
and culpable, who knows the value
of a pound. You can’t resist the give
of my carapace, my caterpillar lips,
my capacious thighs. I’ll never sell you
short. You’ll never let me down.
For the first time, you are full
to the very brim with the milk
of human kindness. Moo.