You Are Here: The biography of a moment by Matthew Watkins
iii+256pp., to be published by The Inamorata Press on 1st February 2018
You Are Here: The biography of a moment may well be the first book that could be meaningfully described as an “experimental local history”. An accelerating history of Canterbury from the Big Bang to noon on 15th August 2014, author and mathematician Matthew Watkins’ expansive and ambitious work draws on elements of graphic novels, conventional historical narrative and post-modern collage. Spanning time-scales from billions of years of early Universe cosmology down to sub-millisecond neuroscience and quantum physics, You Are Here came about when the author formulated a curious plan to capture the genius loci (spirit-of-place) at a randomly generated location within the old city walls at a pre-determined moment some months into his future (for reasons which become clearer in the book itself, he chose 12:00:00GMT on 15/08/14). Using the coils of a spiral to slice a timeline up into ever-decreasing time intervals, he then set himself the daunting task of describing the relevant events in each of these which ultimately led to the circumstances of the “moment” referenced in the book’s subtitle.
Involving the work of three illustrators, the book additionally has a triptych-like structure: the period from the Big Bang to the Bronze Age (when the earliest human settlement appeared in the Canterbury area) is presented in informative-but-breezy graphic novel format, created in collaboration with prolific illustrator, musician and producer Matt Tweed; this then morphs into a more conventional history book format, with fine pen-and-ink illustrations provided by his artist mother C.J. Watkins; as the narrative approaches its final twenty-four hours, the latter then morphs into a photograph-and-screenshot-based collage, offering a kaleidoscopic impression of the life of Canterbury in mid-August 2014 with additional dream-based imagery contributed by Juliet Suzmeyan (a local artist who ended up featuring in the final seconds of the narrative due to the author’s location at that time and the memories it evoked).
Because of the “accelerating” approach to historical storytelling and the ever-decreasing time intervals that this involves, the life of Canterbury is progressively described in ever-increasing detail. The choice of format means that the final morning of the narrative takes up almost a quarter of the book! This involved the author walking a randomly-generated path around the city, recording a stream of consciousness and his impressions of his surroundings, a familiar city being subjected to an almost absurd level of scrutiny.
As with any historical text, You Are Here is selective in its storytelling, inevitably reflecting what most interests its author. Uprisings, rebellions, strange crimes, protest movements, youth subcultures, eccentric characters, experimental art/music and unexplained mysteries all feature throughout, as the layers of history pile upon each other in the rush to the final moment.
You Are Here is a visionary exploration of everything that led to one moment in one city in one part of the world. Part history, part cosmology, part psychogeography and part autobiography, it takes a radical perspective on the story of Canterbury, the Earth and the Universe, from very very large scales right down to the sub-microsecond instant. This is a cosmic and intimate trip through all scales of thought. You’ll never think about time or place in quite the same way again.