'Unbelonging: On camping upon the roof of a luxury shopping centre in the heart of London’s financial district' by Matthew De Abaitua

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We step into the glass elevator with our camping gear. Cath pushes the button for the roof. The paved forecourt of the shopping centre silently falls away. I avert my eyes from the vertiginous drop and look across at St Paul’s cathedral. It is late afternoon and the golden cross atop the dome blazes in the sinking London sun.

The lift smoothly and briskly decelerates. We step onto the terrace. Thirty or so identical blue pop-up tents are pitched on patches of astroturf, their corners weighed down against the wind. Each tent contains a fat inflatable mattress, a pair of pillows, two sleeping bags, and a goody bag gathering together various donations from the stores in the shopping centre. For one evening, this roof terrace in central London will be our campsite.

Our compere for the evening is Melissa, immaculate in her little black dress, haircut and tan. The urban camp is raising money for charity, and the other guests have paid hundreds of pounds for the privilege, mostly inexperienced campers attracted by the novelty of camping but unready to risk the English countryside. I haven’t paid – I will be giving a talk. As Melissa explains the running order, PR people congratulate one another on the evening’s organisation: the tents are amazing (“They just pop-up!” “Really? Amazing.”), the food is going to be fantastic, and it’s such a thrill to gaze over the city from this vantage point, south over the Thames and the Tate Modern to the distant hills. What an exciting novelty it will be to sleep here!

As they are talking around me, I remember three things:

1) The first time I met someone who described themselves as working in PR, they were crying.

2) People rarely feel in themselves as posh as they appear to others.

3) Quests for novelty mainly discover new forms of stupidity.

Camping on a roof is a stupid idea. It is very windy on a roof. Tying my tent to weights leaves various sections of it unsecured to flap against my face all night. The other tents are single skins, without an insulating layer of air between inner and outer tent, so they will be cold at night and hot in the morning. The organisers are naive concerning the reality of sleeping outdoors: a watch manufacturer offers campers a wake-up call as if the dawn won’t be up to the job; a telescope is arranged even though London is so drenched with light that stargazing is limited to a misty half moon and the pole star. At this camp, nature is some uninvited, barely-tolerated provincial oaf excluded from the metropolitan fabulousness.

Speaking of provincial oafs, Melissa catches me gazing at the many little tents and the polished stone floor, and the handrail and sloping mirrored sections of roof beyond.

“Amazing view, isn’t it?” she says.

“Yes,” I reply, trying to figure out where—at four in the morning—I will have a sneaky piss. Behind the dermatology stall? In the bonsai plant pot? The digging of a latrine should be the first act of establishing a new camp. It’s crucial to establish the lats before you set a fire or even pitch a tent.

“There are toilets,” explains Melissa, “but you will have to be buzzed in and out of them by security.”

“What about in the middle of the night?”

“Oh don’t worry. Somebody will stand there all night.”

(And they did.)

“Which one is your tent?” I ask. The blue pop-up tents rock and shiver in the wind.

“Oh, I’m not camping.” She makes a face.

I look at the PR people. They make the same face.

This is a blow. I wanted to discover if an urban camp generated the same camaraderie as a countryside camp. One of the pleasures of camping is that it is inherently egalitarian –  the status symbols and hierarchies of city life are suspended for the commonality of the campfire. If the organisers and compere would not participate, then how would I be able to observe the effect of the camp on the social hierarchy? Their absence was itself an answer: Melissa would never camp. Her face registered disgust at the suggestion. 

To read the rest of this long, wide-ranging and creative interview, grab a copy of the just-published TLB20.

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Matthew De Abaitua’s first novel The Red Men (Gollancz) was shortlisted for the Arthur C Clarke Award and is being developed as a feature film by Film4 and Warp Films. His second book, The Art of Camping: The History and Practice of Sleeping Under the Stars (Penguin) was one of The Economist’s Books of 2012. Both books could do with an Australian publisher.

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