As David Buckland, Cape Farewell founder and director, recounts stories about schooners and glaciers all I can think of is the adventurers’ clubs of old (or at least the fake old that we all remember very well). All khaki safari hats and slide projectors. Back then they were in search of the uncharted and unknown. Now, it appears these artist-adventurers are searching for change.
Cape Farewell is an organisation made up of artists and writers, devoted to creating a programme of public engagement within which to address climate change. ADRIFT is the ongoing research project of poet, Tom Chivers, commissioned by Cape Farewell.
It was these lofty tales of trekking through the tundra that caused my cynicism gland to twitch (“guffaw – what can poets do to save the planet?!”) and elicited such surprise when Tom Chivers began his talk. There was no false heroism or overblown ideals of ‘being the change’ here!
Chivers both in his subject matter and his delivery, shows confidence in his research and the topic being researched. Especially given that the whole thing is a fairly fresh project. The night of the talk is primarily supposed to be a launch/introduction and he’s already got a set of talks, walks, maps, slides and poems. The total of which is his introductory lecture.
Over the last couple of months, Chivers has been tracing London’s lost waterways. With a series of oversized London street maps and the British Geological Viewer at hand, he has uncovered underground streams flowing directly underfoot and the Rockingham Anomaly, the uniquely mysterious peat bog under Elephant & Castle.
At this stage it is difficult to draw conclusions from Chivers’ work on the ADRIFT project as it is, he stresses, only a starting point. Though throughout the talk, you could clearly see that his method of exploring the urban landscape is carefully considered. It’s hard to imagine that the rest of the project will be anything less than a wholly interesting look into the hidden parts of our capital city. He has made himself into a cartographer, researching, observing and documenting, to understand the city.
What strikes me about Tom Chivers; urban explorer (as opposed to Tom Chivers; poet) is that ADRIFT is as much an exploration of the perception of the urban landscape as it is of the landscape itself. We instinctively build new roads on ancient ones, name areas after the geological features present, and once you know that London has seven rivers instead of one, you view your surroundings in a very different way.
The project is just beginning and hopefully Chivers will succeed in highlighting some of the shifting challenges in climate science closer to home, but either way the outcome will be fascinating.
We chatted to him about the project:
What do you consider to be the role of a poet in terms of climate change? Are you embarking on this project with the mindset of a poet or something else?
I don’t think a poet, or any other kind of artist for that matter, has a particular role or responsibility. That is, apart from anyone else who lives on the planet. We’re all implicated in some way in climate (whether or not you think it’s changing [It is!]) although some may be more able to speak or think or act on the matter.
That said, I hope I can bring a poet’s unorthodox angles of approach to bear on the subject. I’m not an activist and I am learning about climate change for the first time. The nature of my writing is that it captures and filters processes of thought and imaginary adventures, rather than delivering shiny conclusions. In any case, the more you look into climate change, the more confusing / ambiguous / contradictory it becomes. It’s downright fractal.
What drew you to the urban landscape? and particularly the urban wetlands and riverbanks?
When I first started writing, it was in response to my environment. I grew up in South London, in an area with a schizophrenic character – very urban on the surface, but with some large open spaces and patches of real wildness. I like the term ‘inner city suburb’ – I think that captures where I’m from.
In recent years, having moved much closer to the centre, to ‘the action’ as it were, I’ve been more interested in writing about the speed, aggression and vigour of the city proper, but I’ve maintained an interest in the landscapes and secret histories that underpin the contemporary urban facade. That sense of the subterranean strata of the city… thousands of years of occupation compressed and fractured beneath our feet. It never really leaves, and neither do the natural formations of rocks, rivers, valleys, fens and islands. The history of London is the history of a landscape that’s been shaped and controlled.
So far, what have you found that has really piqued your interest?
I knew I wanted to look into the buried landscape of London, so I started the project by buying a pull-out street map and tracing the lost rivers and then the whole geological landscape over the top. I’m using the British Geological Viewer, a brilliant online tool, to do this, but the map is hand-drawn. I spread the map out on my living room floor and lie on my belly with the laptop open, a glass of wine, and a stash of felt tip pens. By getting this close to the map, stories and mysteries reveal themselves. Like the Tyburn delta, where three rivers once discharged into the Thames, flooding most of Westminster and revealing little islands or ‘eyots’ floating in the marsh. Or the mysterious peat bog buried beneath the Rockingham Estate in Elephant & Castle, which geologists believe is an ice-age feature called a collapsed pingo (look it up, it’s bonkers).
Do you know which direction your investigation will travel from here?
I’m working on a series of ‘urban pilgrimages’ through the city. These are perambulatory performances which will trace obscure routes such as underground streams and around lost islands. Think of them as walking tours with less history, and more poetry and wildly speculative geology.
I’m also just letting myself drift (that being the name of the project) around ideas of environment and the city. I’d like to do some work on urban gardens at some point. Maybe I’ll write some lovely sonnets, or maybe I’ll record some messed up soundscapes. I’m not sure yet. I have written a poem about global warming and Kate Middleton though.
You can follow the ADRIFT project on its dedicated page at What Is ADRIFT?
Tom Chivers is a poet and director of Penned in the Margins, an independent publisher and live literature producer.
Review by Nick Murray