Collage by Laura Phillimore for An attempt at exhausting a place in London
Collage by Laura Phillimore for An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in London

“Seagulls circle over the Town Hall… A man carries an umbrella, folded… A small child with a yellow balloon.” For some, these everyday observations are not worth dwelling on, but for two local authors such details are what truly makes up the life of a place.

For their new book An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in London, Sarah Lester and Nathan Penlington set themselves the task of sitting in the cafés surrounding Hackney Town Hall and creating a written record of “that which is not noticed, that which has no importance: what happens when nothing happens”.

It would call on most people’s reserves of patience and stamina to withstand 20 minutes of scribbling, but the authors kept at it for a weekend, becoming uniquely attuned to the urban environment in the process.

“Just trying to pay more attention to stuff is a hard thing,” says Penlington, a poet and performer from North Wales who has lived on and off in Hackney for 20 years. “I think the rewards are greater though. I think if you just slow down and try and pay attention, particularly if it’s an environment that you live in, you can get a real essence of what the place and people are like.”

For the duration of three days, the authors alternated between tables at Stage 3 café, Artisserie, Hackney Picturehouse and Baxter’s Court on Mare Street. They worked alone, creating separate accounts of the square and what was happening around them.

“I like how unexceptional the space is,” says Lester, an anthropologist, writer and Hackney resident. “A lot of people laughed when we told them where we were doing it, but it’s more interesting than doing it in say Leicester Square, which is a bit more homogenous in terms of the people there.”

Sarah Lester (left) and Nathan Penlington (right) read at the book launch in Stage 3 café
Sarah Lester and Nathan Penlington read from the book at its launch at Stage 3 café

It was a grey weekend in October 2014 when the pair set about their experiment, a date that marked 40 years since the French writer Georges Perec embarked on a project to describe everything he saw in Place Saint-Sulpice in Paris.

“I’m really interested in experimental literature and read a lot of Perec when I was younger and liked his approach.” Penlington explains.

“Perec started in the 1970s to be interested in place and memory and set off on a number of little projects. One was to try and remember places that he’d lived in at various points and revisit them and describe them.

“But with his book An Attempt to Exhaust a Place in Paris he set out in three days to try and catalogue everything that happened pretty much in the same way we did it.

“The result is very much a document of that time and place and I thought on the 40th anniversary it’d be quite good if we could try and genuinely capture a different time and a different place and to see if that would work.”

When I heard about the project my first reaction went something along the lines of what a great idea but will it work as a book?

But it does. The observations draw on human experience, are self-aware, witty, plaintive and tender. You identify with the teenage boy in a tracksuit trying to kick a pigeon, or the girls singing out loud using McDonalds cups as microphones, because it may have been you – or perhaps it was you.

And as an object, the book includes some capital (in both senses of the word) illustrations: one collage by visual artist Laura Phillimore shows a map of constellations around old buildings and municipal squares, while the cover image, by artist Keira Rathbone, is an image of Fenchurch Street in the City, made entirely using the keys of a typewriter.

“It’s such a simple act and I did feel so much more connected to Hackney afterwards. I think that was one of the nicest outcomes of our time doing it,” Lester says.

An Attempt at exhausting a place in London - Cover 620
Typewriter art: view of the City by Keira Rathbone

In another 40 years the book could serve as documentary evidence of a time and place completely lost to the march of progress and change. The authors recently went to Paris, and whilst there they couldn’t resist visiting Place Saint-Sulpice to see how it measured up with the version Perec wrote about.

“From reading Perec’s version it’s pretty much an average square and now it’s really flashy,” explains Lester. “I only say that from the experience of reading Perec’s account, but it did seem quite ordinary and it’s very opulent now. I imagine it will be very interesting in 40 years time to see if Hackney will be like that as well.”

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in London is published by Burning Eye Books. RRP: £9.99 ISBN: 9781909136595

An attempt at exhausting a place in London – Nicola Gaudenzi
Hackney Council’s caped crusader. Image by Nicola Gaudenzi

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