Lost Rivers

Lee Valley mill

I started writing this post before I left the UK and then abandoned it because I got busy and a lot of other things seemed more pressing. But the recent rediscovery of the HMS Terror and last year’s discovery of the HMS Erebus reminded me of it.

Shortly before I left the UK I was cycling down a road that I’d been down numerous times. I’m not entirely sure what tipped me off that day but suddenly I recognized that it was a canal. It made sense: the road’s location in a trough, the bridges that crossed it, the occasional bullwark here and there in locations that were nowhere near the river. All of the pieces just clicked together and I understood.

I googled it to find out more about the route and ended up at Paul Talling’s London’s Lost Rivers where I spent a few hours reading. There are many watercourses that feed into London, but they tend to disappear in urban areas, and over time many have been forgotten.

There are clues though. First off there is the shape of the city itself. The weird shapes of city blocks and routes that streets take is a product of people in the past working far more within the constraints of geography than we would do now. A river would have posed more of an obstacle to be built around rather than over. Rivers also form handy boundaries between different boroughs, so you find that some bits of the city are curiously less connected to adjacent bits.

This historic geography is also embedded in place names. The names of streets, ditches, drains, and pubs often give clues as to the former routes of waterways. Long after they’ve disappeared from view and long after the original industries such as mills or ferries are gone their names remain. Though many things have passed out of people’s memories and lived experience, the names of things are clues that can be traced back to help you discover hundreds of years of local history. The names are intimately connected to the places they describe.

In Canada we have a lot of places that are named after so many other places. The names are completely decontextualized and lack the relationships between one another that existed in the places where the names were first used. It’s not something that I really noticed before I travelled a bit around the UK but now those names seem strange. Not only that… but you will see the same set of names in Australia, South Africa and other Commonwealth countries, making just as much sense as they do anywhere else they don’t really belong. Every colony has a Victoria, a London, a Halifax. That’s colonialism for you.

It’s not merely the physical control of territory but also the control of history and narrative. By renaming everything in sight, colonists severed our connection to our land’s pre-colonial past. Naming things after the ‘old country’ says, as we’ve often said in so many narratives, that history starts now. History starts when we got here, when we ‘discovered’ this place, when we colonized it and gave it new names. Whatever happened before this happened is not merely irrelevant, by erasing names we try to make it so that history it never existed in the first place.

Reading through a fascinating account of rediscovering the routes of lost rivers made me sad to have grown up in a place that was colonized. No doubt the societies that were here first have names for everything, and those names hold a lot of knowledge. But that knowledge, and the cultural and language skills to decode it is not something I’ve ever really been exposed to.

Why am I thinking about this now? Because the recent rediscovery of the ships from the Franklin expedition happened thanks to indigenous knowledge. Inuit hunters knew where Terror was years before anyone else did because they spend a lot of time in the area and know it intimately. The Erebus was found in an area that was literally called by the Inuit “the boat sunk here” or “the big boat is here.” And sure, we laugh about it but it’s the sort of thing that should make people hang their heads in shame.

Just think of what else we might discover if we actually took the time to recognize these people as the owners and stewards of this land.

Lost cat


I have a new electric toothbrush and it is considerably less exciting than the last one. When the batteries on the old one ran down, it had a flashing red light and would beep loudly like the kinds of explosives you see in the movies. I always assumed that if I didn’t put it back on the charger right away it would explode.

It’s these sorts of things that make a mundane activity like tooth brushing fun. Sadly, my new one is quiet and has a green flashing light. Somehow the green seems too friendly, safe.

These days my life is lacking in excitement. Yes, I am aware that that statement is born out of a sense of entitlement that comes from being privileged enough to have a life that has is lacking in serious hardships. But I can’t help noticing the contrast between my life today and my life in the recent past.

My job in the UK was hectic and stressful, but there was always something interesting to do or new people to meet. In London there is no shortge of things to do or see. No matter what you’re into, there are usually several great options for you every day, most of which won’t break the bank. Vancouver, by comparison, is sleepy. There are things happening here, but they’re often expensive, poorly advertised, or underground, and there are dark days from time to time where there isn’t really much on.

I don’t want this to be a critique of the organisers and creators of events and productions. I’m sure they work very hard. It’s difficult when space is at a premium, rent is expensive, funding is ephemeral, and your audience has very little disposeable income. That’s Vancouver.

And the further east you go the worse it gets. Out here in the ‘burbs we have some really excellent trails that are less crowded than the North Shore and a few regional theatres, which to their credit, try to present some good quality productions, but there’s not much else.

After I finished my job I spent some time travelling around Europe. I managed to prolong the sense of constant novelty for another few weeks. So the transition has been a bit jarring.

Luckily the cat has been trying to fill the void. Sometime after 9 o’clock the other night she managed to get out on the patio. The latch on the gate had apparently been opened (she’s too fat to fit through the bars) and she was nowhere to be found.

She is for all intents and purposes an indoor cat, and she’s easily spooked. Coyotes often patrol our street. There was reasonable cause for concern when no one could find her that night. I called her before I went to bed but she didn’t come and I was on edge all night. She didn’t show up in the morning either and I had a deadline I had to meet on some freelance work so I wasn’t able to go look for her. But in the afternoon I went for a walk and here’s what I found:

Call off the search. I found Emma and she has a lot to say.

A video posted by Erin Brown-John (@eebeejay) on

What you don’t see is that we spent about five minutes talking back and forth before I started filming. She was being so melodramatic that I finally decided to film her. Picking her up is pretty dangerous so we walked back to the house together. She had to stop every once in a while to talk all about all the indignities she’d suffered being out all night in the rain. I opened the front door to the house but it was the wrong door so she sat in front of the other one and whined at me.

Animals are so stupid sometimes.



Quick Fingers

phone reflection

I had my phone stolen a couple weeks ago. I was on the Metro in Brussels. It was late at night. I was standing. I had it in my hand and then I noticed that a seat had come up. I must have put my phone in the side pocket of my backpack before crossing the carriage and sitting down, a distance of all of about six feet. By the time I sat down, it was gone.


I’m normally really good at being aware of my surroundings and belongings. I’d never been pickpocketed before and I like to think it’s because I am smarter than other people. But putting my phone there was a bad decision.

I sat and stared at the people in the seats beside the aisle. One of them certainly had my phone but when it’s late at night and there are no staff or police around what do you do? Given the circumstances I just didn’t feel comfortable making a scene. So I stared at them.

At the next stop a guy got up to leave. He was holding a phone in his hand that may or may not have been mine. We made eye contact as he got off the carriage.

I’m nowhere near as addicted to my phone as a lot of other people but it really put a damper on the end of my trip. Up until that point in time I had been enjoying having a phone so I could use the maps and look up reviews of places I was thinking of eating at. After that I felt a bit lost without it.

I’ve been without a phone before. I navigated successfully without one on a previous trip home from London and I adjusted fairly well to what I imagine was the way that people used to have to act. The biggest difference in my behaviour was that if I was planning on meeting up with people, I made sure I left earlier so that I would definitely be on time. That’s a thing I’m trying to do more anyway as I’ve gotten a lot more precious about my own time.

But losing my phone has been pretty disruptive of my workflow. I got a new one earlier this week but I’m still in a bit of a funk, and I still feel pretty stupid for losing my other one. I’ll get over it, I’m sure.

The above is a photo of the back garden reflected in the screen of the lost phone.



I didn’t know much about Granada before I decided to go there. It was a snap decision made after seeing a random photo in my Instagram feed of a fashionable young woman in a black dress on a street paved in river stones with geometric designs.

I don’t regret that decision one bit. After booking my ticket I learned that one of the major attractions in Granada is the Alhambra, which was high up on my list of cool places I will probably never visit. I also learned that food and accommodation there is very cheap, which made me a bit sad that I hadn’t been before.



Getting there was a bit of an ordeal. There was a problem with our plane which resulted in a five hour delay, during which the poor pilot and crew looked lost while engineers tried to read pdfs of the technical manual on their iPhones. Our plane was mostly full of families on holiday and the children became increasingly restless and annoying. I felt quite bad for the parents. It was a relief when they finally let us off the plane with some meal vouchers because the cabin was beginning to smell like hot, dirty diaper.

By the time we arrived in Malaga I had long since missed my bus and the ticket office had closed. Luckily I was able to book another ticket on my phone, otherwise I’m not entirely sure what I would have done.

I was surprised by how well I dealt with the temperature, which was pushing 40 degrees. I suppose it was because it was a dry heat, which allowed sweat to evaporate as it should. Being from Vancouver and living in the UK, I’m used to hot, muggy air clinging to your skin and making you very uncomfortable. But in Granada I was fine; I just had to drink massive quantities of water.



I enjoyed the laid-back atmosphere in Granada. I’m very glad that I got the chance to see the Alhambra. I spent the better part of a day there soaking in all of the patterns and textures and didn’t have to spend as much time in line to get a ticket as I was expecting to. The only downside was that there isn’t much choice in the way of food up there. On the one hand there’s a cafe that does coffee and buns with meat or cheese in them, and on the other there is a Michelin star restaurant that is quite pricy. There isn’t anything in between.

I wandered down the hill, deciding to patronize what seemed to be the city’s only vegetarian restaurant, to find out that it’s only open for about four hours a day. It was the first of many failed attempts during my trip to support veggie restaurants.


Eyes to the horizon

The past year at work has been manic, to say the least. At One Dance UK I’ve worked in some capacity or other on three conferences, two national arts festivals, a fundraiser, a major organisational rebrand and a new website. Sometimes I look at the amount that I have done while there and I forget how little time I’ve spent there.

But nothing stays the same and employment in the arts is always precarious so it is time to move on. I will be leaving in July and I’m looking forward to having some time off to travel a bit and work on some other projects. At the same time I’m a bit apprehensive about the possiblity of being out of work for a while and not knowing where exactly my next opportunity will come from.

I spoke to a friend recently who has been freelancing for a while now. She said that we’re all freelancers, even those of us in long-term jobs. It’s the way that the economy and the job market are going. No one expects to work in the same job all their life anymore. Even if you’re a salaried employee, you have to always be on the lookout for the next thing. Even if you’re on a permanent contract, there’s going to be an end date and a degree of uncertainty as to what comes next. The smart people learn to embrace that uncertainty and seek out opportunities. I think she’s right.

My to do list has become so massive as to become frightening and unmanageable. Normally the standard wisdom is to break items down into smaller chunks that are easier to complete. This is great, except sometimes it makes me feel even more like I have too many things to do right now, which adds to my paralysis.

Today I broke down and made a primitive Gantt chart. I figured that it works at work, so why not do it for my life? I initially called it the Gantt Chart of Doom, but then decided to think positively and called it the Gantt Chart of Successful Life Planning instead. This is either the best idea ever, or it is something that I will forget about shortly. We shall see.

And if you know of anyone who’s looking for a totally awesome arts marketing professional who’s a good all-round generalist with experience in dance, theatre, music and film please do let me know.


Wanborough to Godalming

Watts ChapelMy friend Sam and I have been slowly working our way through the Time Out Book of Country Walks, Volume 1. I picked up a used copy online for £3, but they’re all avaliable online for free in their most up-to-date form through the Saturday Walkers Club website.*

The other day we decided to do walk 2: Wanborough to Godalming, which travels through the Guildford area of Surrey. At just over seven miles, the walk was considerably shorter than most of the other ones in the book, no doubt to leave walkers some time to take in the cultural attractions on the way. Most of the scenery was wooded and due to the absence of interesting wildflowers this time of year, pleasant, but fairly unmemorable.

Unlike most of the walks, this one crossed a highway, which was a bit frightening. I think the book said “with care, cross the dual carriageway” but neglected to add the bit about making peace with whichever deity one would normally pray to.

Across the highway the walk takes you through the middle of a vinyard where the signage warns you to not stray from the path, because the vinyard makes use of high quantities of sprays. We mused for a bit about how global warming has made owning a vinyard in southern England a viable business venture. Though if the grapes in England are sprayed with chemicals that make them dangerous to walk near, I doubt I’ll be purchasing any English wine in the near future.

We stopped in at Watts Gallery, which is dedicated to the memory and work of George Frederic Watts, though it also displays works by other related artists and craftspeople. Taken in its entirety, the gallery gives you a little snapshot into a particular period of Arts and Crafts and pre-Raphaelite romantic backlash against the Industrial Revolution. It was interesting to see a selection of work that spanned Watts’ career in a number of styles, some more academic or commercial, some more expressionist and symbolic. I particularly liked the collection of ceramics on display by William and Evelyn DeMorgan, and given that no one seemed particularly fussed about me having my camera out, I took a lot of pictures of them.

The gallery also had a temporary exhibit on the work and life of Richard Dadd. Dadd was by all accounts a complete nutter who suffered from what was probably some form of paranoid schizophrenia. After murdering his father he spent the rest of his life in mental institutions. The majority of his ouvre was created while he was living in Bethlem Hospital.

His work was really cool to see up close. When you view paintings online it’s so easy to lose sight of the scale at which they exist. His work has so much intricate detail that I’d always assumed that it was much larger than it actually is, but the paintings were surprisingly small and richly textured. The longer you stare at them, the more little details become apparent, and you can see in it the roots of a whole generation of fantasy illustration.

Watts Chapel

Watts Chapel

The real highlight of this walk though is Watts Chapel, designed and built by Watts’ wife Mary Fraser-Tytler as a means of training local people to work in crafts and trades. Both the interior and exterior are made of ceramic, richly patterned in Art Nouveau and Celtic revival style.

* The Saturday Walkers Club website is an amazing resource for anyone based in London without a car. The site has hundreds of itineraries for walks that begin and end at train stations within two hours of London that have been created by club members and are free to use. Most of them pass by some specific site of interest that you may have missed if you’d just set out on your own. Highly recommended.