22 March, 2009

On the Textures of West London

Sure, it's been a while. Not that I've had nothing to say: but my intellectual energies have of late been directed instead towards the munificent footnotes of my opus. I was going to return with an arcane disquisition on religion in the later Renaissance; I still have it planned, but after such a charming request for another 'of the same order' as my last post, I offer you this instead. It is about walking in London; I do hope you are not sick of the subject.


Today I returned to the Grand Union Canal, west of Scrubs Lane. The weather was fine, and cyclists pelted repeatedly past me on the towpath. Strolling the canal in London is unique: for one can see to the other side, but not attain it. Thus whatever the far bank has to offer must be enjoyed at a distance, almost as through a glass. One of the finest spots in the city, indeed, is the passage of the Canal through London Zoo: on the near side, a great modernist aviary filled with peacocks, and on the far, a stepped enclosure with antelopes. At seven on a weekday morning, with nobody about, one can imagine the whole world obliterated save for these stray exotics. West of Scrubs Lane, the mood is quite different. There are no zoos, no genteel back gardens opening onto the canal, no grand Nash terrace or Elgood mansion to stare one down from without, fewer houseboats; and instead, plenty of industry, old and new. Also, now and then, an uncategorisable oddity, such as this:

Strangely, the woman's head in the gold capsule (see details, right) rotated as I watched, such that I initially thought it a live person. I was unable to determine the mechanism of its movement: was it, for instance, electric? Nor could I ascertain its function. Perhaps simply to instill fear and awe in the beholder, an effect largely achieved in my case, due partly to its distance, which allowed the illusion to remain unspoilt, and partly to its physical separation across the water of the canal. I hope that Park Royal Salvage are sensible enough to light the head at night, and even to add smoke effects for the true Gothic horror experience. Still, she was strangely peaceful in the five o'clock sunshine, silent, with nary a soul about, just revolving merrily in a junkpile above the canal, on the edge of the least human area of London. Right from Scrubs Lane, the towpath is full of sounds, present, but never invasive: the chug of occasional barges, the hum of toy planes flown over the copse in Wormwood Scrubs to the south, the whish of bicycles and cackle of the geese they fright up as they pass, and a two-note alarm you can hear for quite a distance, the same two notes, I think, chosen by John Cale for his acute production of 'Facing the Wind'. The canal is also haunted by a smell, warm and half-sweet, like a bakery.
This should be one of the sights of London. Instead you have to slip on to it furtively from Acton Lane or Old Oak Lane. Cooling towers, steaming engines, chimneys, black corrugated-iron sheds: a new industrial excitement every few yards, mellowed and bound together by the water in the foreground and the grass on the banks. — Nairn, London.
This texture I recalled from my last visit here, almost a decade ago. I have pictures from that trip, in sepia, some of the few photographs I took in the pre-digital age. They are scratched and muddy, but only appropriately so. I would not reform them.

At that time, Butterfingers and I were overwhelmed by the darkness and brutality of the place. This was not the North London in which I had grown up: a crueller beast, and a thrilling one. Our urbanites are too flattered by their surroundings, allowed too easily to master their streets, pretty and neatly arranged at the human scale. We need, rather, a range of moods: the gentle, certainly, but also, as here, the harsh, alienating, monumental. As the Romantics knew, though they were able to find it only in the countryside, we need to experience subjugation at the hands of a landscape, to keep us humble, in lieu of a religion. For this reason I was relieved to find the same remorseless passages today, albeit in full March colour:

But not all of my memories were intact. Here is another: the '57' on the side of the brick building behind the silos tells us what it is, namely, a Heinz factory.

Today I reached Abbey Road at Stonebridge with a start: I had not seen the old 57. Where was she? Gone, vanished, and in her place, simply endless rows of faceless grey boxes, walls without architecture, like these. Nairn's 'industrial excitement' is diminishing year by year; I presume that it had largely dissipated even before my first trip. Our architecture is tending away from these black chimneys, towards an absence of character, and particularly of texture. Dirt, grit and variety is bending to sheen and monotony. As an example, take the outer wall of London's new über-mall, Westfield, at the southern end of Scrubs Lane:

Look closely: this is a wall upon which the sun is shining directly, as you can see from the concrete supports below, and by the polished metal strip running along the side towards the top. The supports have their shadows, and the reflected glow of the strip indicates the path of the sun's light. But the wall itself has no glow or texture: only colour. Light diffuses smoothly, immaculately, across it, and becomes invisible. And so the wall resembles a simulation. Inside, legions of immigrants labour to maintain spotlessness. I saw one girl at her post, in a free moment, take a cloth to wipe an imaginary mark from the glass above her till. The antiseptic cleanliness of the place is most impressive. And it has been very cleverly laid out: there are no dead ends, and at the conclusion of each row of merchants, another vista opens out suddenly, beckoning you forward. The lines are not straight and orthogonal, but sinuous and irregular, ergonomic. Even signs have the soft edges of a modernist sculpture, of an Arp or a Moore:

(Hatherley, in his account of Westfield, says the signs remind him of 'prehistoric rubble'.) The tiny detail is utterly revealing. At every moment the aggression of commerce is masked and quieted, and the environment becomes instead cosy, childlike. The glass ceiling allows sunlight to penetrate every nook; there is no darkness, no possibility of the secret or occult, no possibility of 'slipping onto anything furtively'. One moves not by espying and following, not of one's own accord, but as if in a dream, automatically. The sounds are not chug, whish, hum, cackle, alarm, but consumer chatter and the reassuring strains of over-produced radio pop. The smell is not warm and nostalgic, but processed and global, expensive and indeterminate.

Westfield is the future of London, of England—the latest stage in an evolution away from awe, away from brutality, monumentality, and towards cosiness. We are no longer to see the guts of our industry: the girders, pipes, valves, tanks, the bits that get dirty. Instead, smooth lines, matte surfaces, public art. The industry along the Thames, for instance at Chelsea Wharf and Nine Elms, is being swept away for shiny flats in the Westfield idiom, and one has to trudge out east of the Dome to see the desolate remains of the old, to experience the filthy sublimity of industrial scale, and of its continued operation. On the Canal, meanwhile, south side, just east of the Hythe Road Estate, where the towpath swings away from the railway lines, one discovers a puny birch grove, littered with rubbish. I took a few steps down into the grove, and espied an old gentleman by himself, in this most forgotten spot, haunting the trees.

The sun was still coming down as it had been all afternoon, but the trees beat it back and made the place obscure. The old fellow was just standing there, not moving, for as long as I watched him. I was unable to determine the reason for his presence, or his stillness. Perhaps he was busy bringing to mind the canal as it once had been. I moved on, towards the factories.

06 March, 2009

Periegesis Londinii

So far this year I have been writing less, and reading less; and walking more. Already I have undertaken fourteen London walks, a full stretch every Sunday, and recently a little extra during the week, between academic pursuits. But I dream of walking as an art, or at least as a craft. So far I remain at the propaedeutic level, setting myself exercises, finding my way around the city, as I would around a canvas, or an essay. Of course, London has already been walked so much—Iain Sinclair and Patrick Wright, both of whom spoke at the LSE last weekend, are two of London's more distinguished flâneurs. And so when I walk I cannot merely walk; I must walk as Conrad, I must find my own way to walk, my own reasons to walk. This will take time, but even now I have managed a few quirks and motifs: the eye out for datestones, the prosifying ear, and the determination to walk until it grows dark, until the lampadaires spring into light, and then no more.

I am drawn to places where I do not belong; to the feeling of not belonging. It is fortunate, then, that I am in London, for the city makes ample provision for such an emotion. I wander onto an estate, and try to look as if I'm actually headed for somewhere in particular, for the locals, like the filth, little appreciate idle explorers, especially when they are waving cameras, and will take any opportunity to peer at me suspiciously, as if I were a nonce, a detective, or simply a dreaded bourgeois. Even a twee old version of the council estate, Waterlow Court, warns non-residents away. When I trespass regardless, making a leisurely circuit of the court's fine cloisters, I am tickled with a frisson of lawlessness: a little, as they say, goes a long way.

London's signages, for one thing, are ominously rebarbative. Where Agar Grove crosses the railway lines, a note on a lamppost barks, PROSTITUTES BEWARE. YOU ARE BEING WATCH BY OVERT CCTV. How much more overt could CCTV be? The bluntness of 'prostitutes' is mysteriously shocking. Couldn't they have been more euphemistic? The inépatable Londoner recoils instinctively, shewing his true, Times-reading nature. On Widdenham Road, N7, the porches of the terraced mansion blocks admonish, NO HAWKERS OR CANVASSERS. And on Leighton Road, Kentish Town, the old Victorian post-office offers a little found-poetry, in weathered bronze inscription-capitals:



I particularly love those last lines: 'or any part thereof, or any way thereupon, or thereover'. This is, as I have come to appreciate lately, a Beckettian prose. It represents the defining feature of his early sentences, reaching climax in Watt, but most lapidary in Murphy:
Some [patients] were at matins, some in the gardens, some could not get up, some would not, some simply had not.

The anger that gave him the energy to begin again was gone before he had half ended. A few words used it up. So it had always been, not only with anger, not only with words.
That last sentence actually brought joyful tears to my eyes when I re-read Murphy last month. It is an authoritarian prose: it cannot simply give, but must delineate exactly, permuting words within the syntax. It is a Platonic or scholastic prose: it always pushes away from the concrete ('A few words used it up. So it had always been—') towards abstraction ('—not only with anger, not only with words'). The commas, especially that between anger and not, unlike traditional prose commas, separate grammatically-distinct clauses: in other words they are rhetorical, and indicate the movement of a mind as it considers the broader consequences of a particular. Each thought is pushed, to see what will happen. The music, the rhythm of ideas, is perfect.

So it is, in miniature, with the bronze tricolon of 'or any part thereof, or any way thereupon, or thereover'.

Most remarkable of all, perhaps, is this, by the Chelsea river, far away from the monotonous suburbs of North London, and closer to those streets of heavy, columned porches, far more monotonous, which I am apparently the first to designate Stuccovia:

The notice states, 'This park is open from 7.30am until dusk every day.' Assuredly, this syntax is a plain one, with neither the ingrammatic rudeness of Agar Grove, nor the baroque repetition of Leighton Road. But the surrealism of the scene, deadpan, is pure Alice, or Monty Python. In the latter case, the sign would be played by Idle or Palin, the walker by an irascible Cleese. What d'you bleedin' mean, open from 7.30 to dusk? How d'you propose to shut it, then? Both Alice and Python capture the absurdity of British authority, of the voice that declares a patch of grass 'open' only at certain times of the day. I would not have it otherwise. Let the city say Keep out, Hop it, Piss off, Your kind not wanted here, and say it in a thousand different voices, not only with anger, not only with words. Let it say Begone, and I will be all the happier to stay.