21 July, 2009

Alexandra Park, crépuscule

I had been cooped all day at the Library. When I got home, against the night, I was restless, walkative. To see a place in the dark. Alas, so few places will be dark in the city, what with all the sodium lampadaires. Nothing is handsome in dun orange, nothing promissory. One has to find a natural darkness to obtain the possibility of promise. This can be achieved even in daylight. I had found it in the blank corridors and walkways in the weekend shadow of Tower 42; in the hard cavern under the Westway as it crosses Wood Lane, the sun overhead making the dark more spectral and unreal, a gasmasked youth spraying a wall—I had not courage enough to take a picture—and also beside Old Billingsgate, under a rickety jetty beneath Water Lane, at low tide, beyond the comfort of tourists, where the shingle gave way to debris, sand, quick and fungal underfoot, and the river lapped insouciantly at my shoes.

But at night, a natural darkness is found only in the city's parks. Someday after midnight, jump a gate at Regent's Park, cross the boating lake, walk out onto the broad grasses to the north, where we played cricket at school, walk until the trees around the lake are black masses far behind, and the trees edging the Zoo are black masses far ahead. There is no comparable space in London, locked alone in the Park, the sky and the earth differentiated only in shade.

I did not have the benefit of Regent's Park within walking distance. So I made for Alexandra Park, only ten minutes from my door—a space dominated by the palace at the top of the hill, but concealing a reasonable variety within its borders. It was not yet twilight. My path is always through the development, the New River Village. This is, of course, not a village. It is not even like a village. It is a series of contemporary apartment blocks in the young professional style: featureless surfaces, glass, lots of white, a few stilts, empty mock-modernist sculpture, awkward angles, sad stretches of grass, plastic windows and balconies in lime green and purple. They've added a gym and a minuscule art gallery, and built a restaurant into the old canal pumphouse, but still the place has no life. The whole very much resembles an architect's drawing, the sort you see on billboards outside construction-sites. There are a lot of these in the city. I am glad to have one here, at the edge of the park, to cleanse the palate. Walk five minutes into the Village, alongside the canal if you like, or on the tricky pavement shingle, and you are no longer in the redbrick Edwardian wastes of North London. You curve around the back of the Village, and find the old council houses of the Campsbourne Estate, and facing them the reservoir, a dilapidated playground, and then, the entrance to the park.


The reservoir, in fact, is one of the park's secret attractions. Along the eastern edge of the slope down from the palace, hidden by trees. There are three openings to it, from the path (above) that leads up to Bedford Road on the hill.


Each of these latent ways leads to a viewpoint onto the reservoir. I stopped at each, methodically. A man was walking his collies, allowing each off the leash in turn, to yap and frolic, each returning, conscientiously, in a few moments, to restraint, as would I, soon enough. I had a decent shot of a giant slug, the light was still enough, just.


When I first came walking here, I was delighted to find these viewpoints furnished, behind the railings, with wooden frames, against which one can rest to look at the reservoir, and luxuriant with quisquilian foliage. I have long felt an affection for reservoirs, as against ponds and lakes, say those of the Heath. Man finds the basic forms of nature and recreates them; in the process those forms are made meaningful. Pyramids and temples gave purpose and meaning to the mountain, houses gave meaning to the cave, canals to the river, and so reservoirs to the lake. The reservoir is not as grand or impressive as the lake, but it is more significant. It refuses to be beautiful or pretty; rather, its beauty springs from the possibility of meaning.

The other great aesthetic appeal of a reservoir is its privacy. As part of the industrial landscape, you can only ever approach a reservoir, observe it through a fence or other barrier. You can never grasp the meaning of the water, and so never exhaust it. In this taste I find a reflex in myself of the ancient love of order, of hierarchy: the devout kept from the tabernacle. Better to have mystery, the awe of the invisible—subterranean, mechanical, hieratic—than to be left with an open society, bright surfaces, transparency. In such a city, nobody could experience a pleasure like this, a sublime profanation.


The new reservoir buildings, above, completed this year, are a great disappointment. The ideal reservoir architecture is castellar, like the Edwardian turrets around Lockwood, or the brute concrete hulk (1955) on Siward's Howe, north of York. These are dismal, plastic barns, with bathetic curving roofs, which might have housed a furniture superstore out on the M1. I remember these structures still as skeletons, incomplete. Then they were terrific. Now they dilute and spoil the oppressive intimacy of the landscape.


The sun finally set for good, 8.46 pm, behind another wall of trees ringing the pitches. Let the trees be dull, let the grass be dull, let the barn and stands be dull. Let us seek an aesthetic equipollence in the twilight. I find this an underrated mood. It is a shame, for the city, all cities, excel particularly in it. I hurry up the hill, approaching the palace from the east, through the rose garden—prim and clipped, as you would expect, so as to balance out the lower slopes. In the gloom I can see the inglory of North London spread out into the distance. 7.8 miles away, One Canada Square, the tallest building in the city, but soon to be usurped from this throne, winks sadly at me, as if in acknowledgement of impending senescence. The bus passes, empty, a lit cell passing up to Muswell Hill, through the unsung park. The dusk allows the palace none of the sham magnificence it enjoys during the day, leaving it shabby, ungainly, not sure what to do with itself, and so melancholy, magnificent. It is not beautiful, not like the other Victorian follies, and this cannot be disguised by pointing a camera cleverly. And so it has the park it deserves; or the park has the palace it deserves. The authenticity is commendable.


Returning to Hornsey, down the western slopes, this was as close as I could come to the cricket fields of Regent's Park. The camera would not serve the scene, but you have the idea. The far lights of Wood Green add and detract in equal measure. It is a fair walk, not cold, and there is food on the table, and work still to be done. I do not count the two hours in my log of strolls; I saw nothing new, but only newly the old. The one is material to be memorised; the other, to be cherished and remembered.

21 comments:

AJP CROWN said...

I like the photoshopping (or equivalent) you're doing to your pictures. Combined with the kind of landscape you're photographing, they evoke the canal and railway images Pissarro and Monet painted in the outskirts of London.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks. (Not that I am a big fan of Monet or Pissarro...!)

AJP CROWN said...

No, they're very out of style and probably won't come back in during my lifetime. Okay, who would you prefer to be evoking?

Conrad H. Roth said...

I don't think Monet's "Out". Just not for me. In answer to your question, I think I would have to say someone like Kandinsky or even Victor Vasarely?

AJP CROWN said...

Gosh, what an unexpected answer. I haven't seen a Vasarely for years, though I've got a book. Yes, he does light contrasts very well, you're right.

How about the slug? Was it one of the reddish-brown and black ones? They're here in Norway and they are also approaching Moscow according to mab, who mentioned it last week on my blog.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Reddish-brown. Crispness of detail is decent given low light conditions and poor quality of camera.

AJP CROWN said...

Yes, that's a great shot. Here's one of mine, though next time I'm going to use a tripod.

AJP CROWN said...

It took me twelve hours to see that was a Vasarely joke, but it took me twenty-four to see that your 'Curious' comment referred to Alice, so I'm speeding up.

Conrad H. Roth said...

I am ashamed to admit that the Alice reference was entirely accidental. It seems you are faster than me at least.

Eddie J said...

Before I begin to cavil, it will probably serve me well to part your glutes and muddy my shnozz. To that end, let me say truly, effusively, that I think your blog is fantastic, and that I predict great things for you.

I’ll now use this opportunity (while the indolic stench is still fresh) to enquire about your usage of the word ‘senescence’ in the above piece. I’m not spoiling for a logomachy, and I wouldn’t usually be so pedantic as to raise the issue, but because you are clearly very sensitive to words I thought it might spark an interesting exchange. Personally, I always writhe when I see ‘senescence’ being used synonymously with ‘old age’. With some legerdemain, the above example (being suffused as it is with just the right amount of ambiguity) could be made to escape this charge. However, after having decided to search the varieties I found another example, which – I can claim irrecusably, I think – clearly falls prey to the lazy and much hated usage: ‘He wants me to laugh at his glabrity, his approaching senescence….’ I first came across something similar in an essay by David Foster Wallace, a writer whom I greatly admire, but one who is perversely prone (considering his acknowledged ‘snootitude’ as far as grammar is concerned) to odd usages: ‘the Great Male Narcissists who've dominated postwar American fiction are now in their senescence’. Wallace’s usage is actually far more awkward, given that the preposition also adds a clunky spatial element. I am aware of the Latin etymology of the word, but I needn’t tell you that the OED definition is ‘The process or condition of growing old or ageing’, and that therefore senescence is already taking place in you and I, that it is in fact taking place in all who have reached sexual maturity. This is why I think that to talk about senescence as ‘approaching’ or ‘impending’ (in reference to a person of late middle age, for example) gives the word a temporal fixity which its definition ought to preclude. I think it makes far more sense to talk about, for example, ‘the arc of senescence’ or ‘the pleasures that diminish with senescence’, and to use ‘old age’ when that is what is being literally implied. As I am without the perks of academe, I have just looked in my local library’s hard copy of the OED, and found one example that supports the usage in question. ‘The several Seasons of Life, open, with Novelty, to Childhood, to Youth, to Manhood, to Senescence.’ Each of the other examples was faithful to the definition that is given. There may be several recent instances in the online OED of senescence being treated as a synonym for old age, but I’ll always feel that such a usage saps the word of some of its unique power.

Jeez, ain’t it funny what irks a man? I’ve never considered myself to be a prescriptivist, but maybe now I should start asking myself some questions! I hope you take this in the light-hearted spirit in which it is intended. It would be even better were you to come back with an apologia for your usage, and end up convincing me!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Eddie, thanks for your kind prefatory comments, and thanks still more for your quibble, which I could only ever accept in a spirit of light-hearted wordsmanship.

Your point is essentially a fair one, although I think you take it too far. True, 'senescence', with its characteristic Latinate -esco ending, means 'the process of growing elderly'—elderly, mind, not simply old—and so I will grant that 'approaching senescence', in the earlier instance, is slightly incorrect, though only by virtue of the actual truth of the matter, not by any broader grammatical fact. 'Impending senescence', in this case, I still feel to be acceptable, since One Canada Square has not yet begun to grow elderly; it is still young.

Of course we are all growing old from birth; but not elderly. Thus it is not true to say that senescence is "taking place in all who have reached sexual maturity". This conclusion would not do justice to the OED citations, such as Thomas Blount's 1656 definition, "waxing old, growing in age, wearing away", or "without the least senescence or decay" (1695), or "This loss of power I term senescence" (1879). With senescence comes decline and decrepitude, and so I think it fair to say that a man only begins to senesce well into middle age, and that, as a corollary, senescence remains 'impending' until this point.

As to your last point, everyone who actively cares about style, morals, beauty, aesthetics, ethics, customs, habits, tastes, fashions—in short, human culture and society—must to some degree be prescriptive, if not a prescriptivist, whether he like it or not.

Eddie J said...

A very thoughtful and interesting response. Thanks! I think, on reflection, that my '[senescence] is [...] taking place in all who have reached sexual maturity' comment was quite flippant. And you're right, I'm probably taking it too far by identifying the process as occuring well before old age, given that it is in the context of old age that it will most likely be used (indeed, this is probably the only context in which I myself have ever used it before today). My main problem was with the idea of senescence as a state rather than a process (especially apparent in the Wallace example), and I'll likely refrain from this usage no matter how credentialed and attested it becomes.

Nice little apercu on the prescriptive btw!

Conrad H. Roth said...

Wallace is clearly thinking of "senescence" as analogous to "adolescence" (which, etymologically speaking, it is). "In one's adolescence" is of course standard, even though historically adolescence was the process of becoming an adult (adolescere), rather than a state or fixed period of time. Wallace's usage may also be coloured by parallels such as "in one's dotage", "in one's maturity", and so on.

Eddie J said...

That's a very interesting point, and one which I hadn't considered. I can feel the levee starting to break under your casuist* waves :P. I must at this point raise my hands and confess to not knowing Latin (or, to my long-standing ignominy, much of anything else for that matter).

*I jest

Conrad H. Roth said...

Not to worry: everybody's ignorance is encyclopaedic. And no need to jest: after all, if you strip away three centuries of anti-Jesuitical contempt, the word "casuistry" only means "reasoning on a case by case basis, rather than by universal laws". When it comes to language, what more can we do, but be alive to the nuance of the particular?

Eddie J said...

Sophistic would have better served the joke. What a dunce. Look at me, quibbling about other people's language only to leave myself wide open to censure (which you, kind avuncular soul that you are, I shouldn't doubt, have refrained from imparting). Sure, everyone has encyclopaedic chasms in their knowledge, but some lucky souls seem to be either brighter or more retentive than I. Tsk! I'm more envious of your polyglottism than your erudition though.

Witness Street said...

Whoever you are, someday I want to write like the way you do. Thank you very much for sharing this sublime piece.

AJS said...

On one's walks, darkness may be defined not only by what may or may not be rendered invisible, but by how the other senses are heightened and serve to fill it. Do cicadae ever dwell in your London dusk?

Conrad H. Roth said...

W. S.: That's very kind of you.

A. J. S.: No cicadae here I'm afraid. In the park, only the distant traffic, which I can appreciate as a river in lieu of the Thames.

chris miller said...

Here are some pictures of the buildings associated with the reservoir that haunts my memories:

here , here , and here

Why was I always so much happier looking at this little pool than the great river that cuts through the hills below it?
Perhaps you have answered that question.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Very pretty, thanks Chris.