Sunday, February 17, 2008

A Life Out of Doors

"...A LITTLE CHANGE, AND A GLIMPSE OF LIFE OUT OF DOORS, MAY BE USEFUL IN HELPING YOU TO KNOW YOUR OWN MIND" reads the text along the path in David Copperfields Gardens, its centre coinciding more or less with the halfway point of the path, where it forms a junction with the pavement along New Kent Road, snaking like a Google Earth street name imprinted on the ground.

On the face of it this appears to be some kind of a condescending entreaty to the locals to get out of the house and out of doors in the hope of some self-improvement. This would be misguided indeed especially considering that the garden is overlooked by flats on the Heygate Estate, the 1970s council housing development once notorious for the kinds of social problems associated with so-called sink estates, now slated for demolition as part of the Elephant and Castle regeneration; for those residents still occupying their flats another direction from Southwark Council for them to get out of their houses might be taken with some bitter irony. So what is this text?

A footbridge crosses the New Kent Road at this point, and the long narrow public garden that runs from the footbridge to Harper Road is called David Copperfields Garden. It opened in July 2007 after a complete re-landscaping. A plaque erected in the original garden in September 1931 by the Dickens Fellowship explained that this was the place where in the Charles Dickens novel, David Copperfield stopped "in the Kent Road ... at a terrace with a piece of water before it, and a great foolish image in the middle, blowing a dry shell". The plaque adorned a plinth with a small statue that lost both its shell and its head to vandalism. The newly landscaped gardens include benches with a design based on the milestones that David Copperfield passed on his fictional journey. - Wikipedia - New Kent Road

So how does this text relate to David Copperfield’s ‘milestones’? It is in fact a quotation from the Dickens novel, specifically from where Copperfield’s aunt suggests:

“It has occurred to me,” pursued my aunt, “that a little change, and a glimpse of life out of doors, may be useful, in helping you to know your own mind, and form a cooler judgment. Suppose you were to take a little journey now. Suppose you were to go down into the old part of the country again, for instance, and see that—that out-of-the-way woman with the savagest of names,” said my aunt, rubbing her nose, for she could never thoroughly forgive Peggotty for being so called.
- Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, Chapter XIX. I Look about Me, and Make a Discovery

So the advice that set the fictional Copperfield off on his great journey is now being extended the people of New Kent Road, to get out of doors, to leave town.

But what does it mean to literally embed a literary text in the fabric of the pavement? How does this differ from the more symbolic texts of place names that provide topographical personal psychic resonance long after the significance of the name has become worn out? How long before this literally literary text that isn’t a name, wears to a shape where it becomes part of the symbolic text walked by each pedestrian in their relation to their city?

The name David Copperfields Gardens might have already shaded into abstraction in some everyday lives, but the introduction of an unattributed text into the very ground connects, not as a literary allusion to the worn-out place name (which incidentally appears nowhere in the regenerated gardens), but to its own direct significance as a text, perhaps after all can only be read as a message to the denizens of the New Kent Road from their municipal planners.

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