We speak to John Rogers, author of new book Welcome to New London, about his capital explorations.
London is divided into two types of people: those who’ve discovered John Rogers’s YouTube channel, and those who have not. If you’re in the latter category, then go take a look. It will enrich your life.
The format is simple. John wanders around an area, or along an interesting route like a ‘lost’ river, and says what he sees to camera. His latest video has received 33,000 views and 227 comments in just two days… not bad for a winter’s walk around Ilford.
But John is a successful writer, too. His 2013 book This Other London was a sparkling travelogue around the capital’s backwaters, and had us describe him as “the Brian Cox of topology, inspiring wonder and curiosity on esoteric subjects (without using complicated words like ‘topology’ and ‘esoteric’)”.
Now he’s back with follow-up volume Welcome to New London. It’s similar in tone to This Other London, though with a greater focus on the bits of the city that are changing most rapidly.
I sat down for a pint with John to learn more… only to become so engrossed in our chat that I failed to note down anything he said. What follows, then, is transcribed from a video that John sent me a few days later. He tells us more about the book, his wanders around London, and his collaborations with Iain Sinclair…
Did you always have the urge to walk and explore or is it something that came to you later in life?
The urge to walk goes back to my earliest childhood memories of walking in the Chilterns with my dad, in the hills around the High Wycombe area where I grew up. We would walk every Sunday during the winter months (my dad played cricket all summer) and it just never left me. When I moved to London as an 18 year old it was natural for me to explore my new terrain on foot.
You’ve traveled far and wide on your walks – for the book, but even more extensively on your YouTube channel. After all that exploring, are there parts of the capital that you feel are still a bit of a mystery?
Good lord, most of it still, particularly south of the river. Most of south-west London is completely unknown to me aside from the sections of the London Loop and the paths along the Wandle and the Beverley Brook. I don’t think you can ever truly know all of London — exploring it is a life’s work and I’ve still got a fair amount to go.
The book takes us in many directions, both thematically and geographically. Having started out with a few chapters on anti-development campaigns, we then find ourselves on a numinous quest to an ancient barrow. Yet it never feels disjointed. Did you have a clear through-line in mind when writing the book, or was it more of an organic accretion of ideas?
I did start off with the idea that I’d just write This Other London Part Two, and then do more books, exploring overlooked London. I like to walk around the outer suburbs, using the source material from early 20th Century topographical walking books of London, which is a thing I love, and I’ve been digging into them for over 20 years now.
And then after I did a walk around the Olympic Park and I was given the tour of East Village (chapter one of the book). I could see then I had a duty to document “this new London” that was being built. This was an echo, really, of the topographical writers of the early 20th century I had been writing about. The most authentic thing I can do to keep that tradition alive is to document this new phase of London’s development. And that’s kind of how I started off in the anti-development campaigns that really were just part of that story. It was impossible to go to these places without those stories emerging.
And actually even the numinous quest to the ancient barrow is part of that organic evolution of the story. It came from somebody I met on on a rooftop protest gig at the Foyle’s building on Charing Cross Road. It was a gig to protest about the development going on in central London and the impact that was having on the live music scene and the creative communities. That’s how I found myself going up the valley, looking at burial mounds. It was very much part of that story and it was a very clear through line back here to Leytonstone where I live and to the culture and the music of London.
You hang around with fellow author Iain Sinclair a lot, and he makes a prominent appearance in the book. What’s he like as a walking buddy?
I mean, Sinclair is the best walking buddy you could ever imagine. He is a brilliant walking buddy in a way that you would expect, in that he’s an amazing font of knowledge of London. And he does talk in some ways like he writes, you know, in beautiful prose. He is full of stories.
But then, also, Ian’s a good laugh. He’s funny. He’s incredibly humane and just a lovely person to spend time with. And he’s interested in other things as well — not just the lore and history of London. We always stop and have a nice lunch. It’s like a dream come true to be able to walk with him.
Throughout the book, you take a stand against new developments, particularly those that push out long-time residents in favour of well-heeled newcomers. Sadly, there is no shortage of such developments in London. But are there any you think have done a good job of balancing regeneration with the needs of existing communities?
Yes, the Kipling Estate in Bermondsey. The Leathermarket tenant management organisation have done an amazing job of building new council flats that are fully owned by the council. Community-led regeneration like this is the model that seems to work best at meeting the needs of the community rather than displacing them, and doing it in a way which is sympathetic, economically rational and viable.
A lot of private schemes you’re seeing now are not actually getting off the ground. They’re not surviving because, you know, that kind of mega profit housing development is difficult actually, even for private developers.
Every book leaves a certain amount of material on the cutting room floor. What topics/locations/walks almost made it?
Well, the story of the Leathermarket redevelopment is one of them. I fully intended it to be in the book. I was commissioned to make a documentary by them in 2017. It climaxes with this great news story of the building of 100% council-owned flats right near the Shard. I always bring this up in Q&A, because people go “Where’s the hope? Where’s the optimism?” And that is the great good news story. But I left it out in the end. The video covers it.
That’s the main one that I left on the cutting room floor. The introduction to the book mentions Barking Riverside. I wanted to put more about it in the book but I just felt like it was another story that was going to be quite a big thing. And I felt I could run out of time (even though I’d already spent 10 years on the book!). But Barking Riverside is still not completely finished as well. And that was one of the reasons the book took 10 years, because you’re waiting for these things to finish so you can tell the story. I mean, when is it a complete story?
And likewise, I wanted to do something around Poplar, around Chrisp Street Market, Battersea, Old Oak Common, Sugar House Lane in the Lower Lea Valley… In the end I had to make choices and pick some priorities.
The book’s a follow-up to the excellent This Other London (2013). Please tell us there’ll be a ‘part 3’… and sooner than 2033.
Yes there will definitely be a part three. I’ve already written out the draft plan for that and it’s about 17 different chapters, some of which include more than one walk. It’s probably just back to me, wandering around on my own. Maybe a few other people occasionally, and hopefully Iain Sinclair. I think I’ll probably give myself three years to do the follow up, which is a realistic amount of time.
And I’m actually writing a smaller publication with a wonderful small press based in South Wales called The Three Imposters, as part of their London adventure stories, and that is going to be out in 2024.
What else is next for John Rogers?
Oh good question. I’m loving promoting Welcome to New London. Love talking about it. I’m going to carry on doing my YouTube videos. I mean, I’ve been doing that for a while now and I have no intention of of stopping or slowing down. So I’m going to continue walking London and making videos about it.
I also want to explore areas outside London in the same manner for my YouTube channel, maybe other cities in the UK like Birmingham, Nottingham, Sheffield and the waterways around them. I’ve done a few walks in Essex and Kent. Whether that would make it into writing or not, I don’t know.
I’d like to do some more audio work. I did a podcast with the wonderful sound recordist Joel Car, and that was on Resonance FM recently, called Sonic Perambulation, and that was around Chrisp Street Market. So, I’ll hopefully do more of those with Joel in 2024.
Finally, no walk is complete without a good pint, in a good pub. Got any recommendations?
Oh, so many. I would say, if you’re in the east, it’s got to be the Red Lion, here in Leytonstone. If you’re in north London, I’d say it’s the King’s Head on Upper Street. It’s been a great pub for a long time. And the Camden Head. If you’re in south London, the White Bear in Kennington is one of my favourites. I also love, obviously, the George (Borough High Street). Everyone loves the George. And The Ship, actually, at the end of Borough High Street. There’s a pub I love to the west called the Crown in Northolt. I used to go to it once a year. It’s really close to the Grand Union Canal, and it’s on a village green. It’s a magical little pub.
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