London, England and the kitchen drawer

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I’m often aware of contradictions, and having concurrent views – probably one of the most annoying things for the human mind. We like conclusions, pigeon-holes, to file perceptions in an orderly manner. However much we know reality is a beautiful mess of light and dark and happiness and melancholy, and that each is as dependable and essential as day follows night, sometimes those contradictions need some explaining. We need unity, to feel the differences reconcile or respect each other.

London through the eyes of Edward Bawden

I’ve been in London for a few days and in separate conversations the type of change we noticed came up. Even after just a few months the city needs relearning, especially when day to day life is against a more rural backdrop. It was with fascination that I then read a post from one of my favourite blogs – Diana J Hale – called ‘Space is the Place’ in which she looks at recent discussions about how we experience our surroundings.

The changing of streets and towns – whether regeneration or gentrification – often comes out of a respect for original architecture. There’s a realisation something is about to be lost and that it can be caught before it goes. A recent BBC series tracked this process and how the 60s generation moved into ignored areas of London and set about removing mid-century modernisation and letting the architects’ visions live again.

There was love in this: a respect for place and time rather than monetary value. This made a stark contrast with the later ‘deluxe’ gentrification of Notting Hill – digging out basements for swimming pools, so much plenty spewing ostentation.

I stand with respect for the originals – with our heritage we can make our mark, change atmospheres and reinvent without erasing. And we can also find spaces to build and be brave with new designs.

But we have shop fronts with acres of plate glass, great height and maximum light, casing gargantuan images of idealised beauty. This is the direction of change in high street scenes everywhere – if they aren’t closing down.

People I talked to, strangers on the train or friends in town, talked fondly of places like Covent Garden and Spitalfields.

Covent Garden in the early 1990s lived side by side with smarter stores cherishing the worn heritage of the buildings. A raddled old second-hand clothes store could live happily, still exhaling the air of the sixties… but 20 years on it’s a hermetically-sealed Marks and Spencer, hemmed in by the new glass frontages. Once, a few shops down, the streetscape seemed to quieten suddenly, like a Sunday morning. Now shop fronts bristle and beat and bars spill open. Theatres are wallpapered with day-glo hoardings. Mouldings that held sooty air are chased away.

Edward Bawden’s Covent Garden

Spitalfields was swept up – the market made into a planning model that didn’t change from its sanitised imagining when brought to life. Elsewhere the ‘something that is passing’ has been shored up against the offices towering on its fringes.

But it has changed Spitalfields from what existed into an articulated re-creation. It can feel like a fetish-ised version of life in a world of independent shops and cultures brought together over centuries, all the happy contradictions of life not-under-the-microscope, that were unplanned and beautiful as an upturned kitchen drawer.

It is not different in country towns. Once they are appreciated and no longer taken for granted, then we have to define what it is that we cherish. Once these things are listed, they seem doomed to be contrived.

One of my favourite small towns I know well is now beautifully preserved and conserved. Where it once offered the typical town-without-supermarket shopping – the stuff of immediate need – it now sells lifestyle and the food and furniture for it: antiques and vintage, artisan and organic.

I love heritage, I love craftsmanship, I love the natural and the independent. I see all these things there, but the sense of claustrophobia is overwhelming. It is so tidy, so antiseptic, so recreated, that I cannot stay for long. I look for the characters (people or buildings) – the unkempt, the eccentric, the naturally aged, and they are disappearing. Here are all the clichés of an art school presentation of suburbia as a stultifying, brittle mask. And yet, some of the energy that is re-imagining this town supposes to be in opposition to that very definition.

This happened again at the weekend, in another previously ignored area of London – messy, noisy, industrial. I’d been warned, but it was a street not too far from the doorstep.

Eric Ravilious – from ‘High Street’

Aesthetically it was everything the antithesis of the plate-glass onslaught should be – a street of small independent shops preserving the layers of paint of decades, the warped windows, the street furniture – a modern day version of a more basic Eric Ravilious’ High Street. Three bookshops, from an art specialist to one packed with stuff that inspires me. Other parts had every disingenuous cliché of the farmer’s or vintage market on display.

We ate in a café whose menu said ‘we don’t encourage the use of mobile phones in the dining rooms’ (although it was a converted pub). It was furnished in the ubiquitous mid-century approximation which is winning yet predictable…

Formica tables; cheap and cheerful wallpaper; Farrow and Ball paint (green); the menu a parody, like Elizabeth David opening a greasy spoon… Print-dressed staff had the dash of tattoos and ironmongery that used to be a statement against everything this scenario represented. In the corner, a mother was explaining to a four-year-old how Hollywood manipulates the emotions of an audience in a film, a deconstruction that should effectively put paid to any joy of storytelling while he’s in the stage of discovery.

All of this was an antidote to the tanning salon and mobile phone shop of the generic British high street. And yet I had that disturbing feeling again: discomfort, an allergy.

The demographic was uniform: an unnervingly similar crowd redolent of Village of the Damned – many sporting retro lipstick (women), or Michael Caine spectacles (men). The boundary of this space was oddly demarcated – like the set of Mary Poppins dropped into present day urban London.

Village of the Damned (1965) adapted from John Wyndham’s novel Midwich Cuckoos

It was undoubtedly a community. It was friendly. Yet something felt wrong… buses with everyday Londoners stopped at the end of the street but their occupants headed off in other directions, like film extras not wanted for this scene. All this seemed to have happened in the space of a year or two.

I don’t pretend to have any defence for my curmudgeonly stance, because I do not understand it myself. Maybe it’s my heritage: generations of northerners, though not one myself, but there are a couple of chartists in there…

Neither is this the space for me to offer half-formed analysis on a Monday lunchtime about what is driving all this. I can only say that I long for the naturalness of the out-turned beautiful mess of a kitchen drawer rather than the kitchen drawer coded, sized, measured and compartmentalised…

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8 thoughts on “London, England and the kitchen drawer

  1. This is a wonderfully written diatribe on the state of things! I agree with all you say and it echoes beautifully my recent thoughts. Great characteristic use of your trademark mid 20th century culture in the John Wyndham too!

  2. I think you’re looking for two different things. On one hand there’s the PLACE, which is authentic, particular and homegrown, and on the other are the PEOPLE who created the place. You can recreate the former, but you can’t bring back the latter. Here in south Bristol I don’t go people-watching on the High Streets of Gloucester Road or North Street (in Southville, confusingly), but in our local Asda. Spend a day there and you will see as diverse a mix of people as you would see anywhere, some homegrown, others imported and all in search of their own particular choices from the vast larder of the supermarket.

    • Thanks for your comment, that’s quite an insight… had me thinking and rambling…

      I can see the ‘Saturday morning’ culture of visiting the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker – but it seems a leisure activity: not a list of tasks to rush through so we can get on with more fulfilling stuff. It’s a ‘conscious’ making-beautiful way of doing something.

      Which makes supermarkets our authentic shopping experience – where we are un-self-conscious, raw selves, in a hurry and not noticing the features that make up the space. We don’t want to linger or wallow in the experience, just as maybe 40 years ago few people would feel the need to appreciate all their independent and varied shops, they were just ‘there’.

      But our contemporary tastes for shopping second-hand and recycling and not using the huge chain stores is a way of avoiding the marketing man’s plan for us, it’s almost a political statement. It’s part of the wish for a plainer, simpler life of less consumption.

      But somewhere there’s a marketing team leaping on the affluent profile that can afford to ‘shop independent’ and not at the supermarket, and then all the lifestyle aspirations kick in. I’m not trying to be particularly political about it, though once you analyse it starts spinning out in all directions!

      Another strand is that just 20 years ago you had to travel to a big city to access creativity or have any wide choice of books, music, etc… now everyone is able to really focus in on their interests due to the internet, regardless of location, which then really focuses our individual identities.

      Maybe that’s the way our current world is now set – 30 or 40 years ago we were fed a monoculture, and now we have mushrooming subcultures rather than a mainstream which is liberating. A sense of belonging to a group is a strong human pull – leading to the downside of a tribal scenario, whether we’re aware of it happening or not. Once it was just teenagers, now it’s the whole population.

      So maybe Asda is our new umbrella and under its shelter we’re all together in a space that’s undefined and authentic… and then we’re off to pursue our lifestyle choices (if fortunate) like flocks of birds.

      Which makes me think of the supermarket fulfilling one of the old functions of the place of worship, as the space to see ourselves in our natural states (and that makes me think of Sonya Chasey’s painting ‘Western temples of the third millenium’ at her blog:

      http://sonyartchasey.wordpress.com/2012/03/31/western-temples-of-the-third-millennium/

  3. A very interesting post which has got me thinking about how this approach to urban space is becoming applied to a certain point outside of Britain too.

    One interesting question it raises for me is to what extent do different cultures interpret these similar urban planning schemes in a more positive or negative light?
    Having just spent a week in Cantabria, where the natural landscape is outstanding, but the buildings, especially along the coast, although not just, frequently seem to be intended to entirely dominate nature. I end up wondering though if it’s because I’m English that I see it this way & probably most people see the more recent constructions as a great improvement on the older ramshackle & to be fair, less comfortable, older buildings. These are mostly deemed untidy, a reminder of a past that is wished to be forgotten & therefore unworthy of attention. In the UK we didn’t have something like the civil war so I suppose we tend to look back to a slightly more glorified or romanticized image of the past. Also the English landscape is overall less harsh, less big & therefore hasn’t brought about the same need to conquer it in order to survive.

    Perhaps in Britain there are more people who’d think along the lines I do towards liking older, less polished things & so that’s why as soon as that interest has been noticed, there are people in there to market it! But finally it can’t work because it IS marketed & slightly false & we are not all convinced by it – something is lacking. I guess there’s a fine line between say preserving a village in away that it keeps a genuine feel to it & turning it into a twee museum.

    This makes me think of how over 20 years ago I wanted to go to Provence, having heard so much about it! When I finally got there after having passed through various other less known locations I was disappointed because what I’d seen previously had been genuine & pretty in a natural rather than in a forced way. Perhaps this always happens as soon as more money is available – either the old buildings are demolished & very modern ones are erected, or the old ones are valued but in a way that often tidies them up so much that they become picturesque, slightly antiseptic & as you say, claustrophobic.

    It’s a complicated issue & one I’m not sure how to resolve even for my own ideas of what I prefer! I guess really it’s your opening line on being “aware of contradictions, and having concurrent views – probably one of the most annoying things for the human mind. ” that is what’s getting me here.

    Thanks, by the way, for thinking of my painting – , there I’m mostly thinking of how consumerism is today’s religion.
    Sorry for such a long ramble – but thank-you for such a thought provoking post. I really should be trying to start some painting so I had better stop procrastinating!

    • Thanks so much for these thoughts – interesting to read of attitudes to past landscapes and buildings elsewhere in Europe – I do remember a time when it was accepted that old things were replaced with the new, without question – the ‘old fashioned’ or ‘modern’ approach of the 70s. I suppose the high-time of a mainstream appreciation of buildings and landscape from the past in the UK was the early eighties to early nineties (though I suppose it started in the late sixties). There used to be whole TV series where families would recreate a Victorian terrace for modern living, complete with iron ranges, totally authentic – and not a ‘museum’ approach, just appreciating how their terrace was originally designed… it seems very quirky now that such an approach didn’t bat an eyelid. It seems very different over the last decade as the modernisation process is in full swing again in the mainstream.

      I think maybe we are just as a society so much more conscious of everything, how it works, how we respond – we makeover and reinvent all our buildings, people etc – whereas once we just lived with what we had and worked around things – now we seem to know mountains can be moved, a sobering thought as humans get more and more big-headed!

  4. I long for the ‘naturalness of the out-turned beautiful mess’ too. I think of my grandad’s old shed – well, more of a big, ramshackle carpenter’s workshop in his garden, really. For me, the memory of it epitomises the organic sense of a place worn like an old glove, moulding itself to the shape of the life it contains. When I was a child, I used to love hanging about with my grandad in that shed, exploring its mess, watching him work. I was totally intrigued by all the accumulated clutter in there, which had been placed at random, wherever it best fitted – everything so perfectly at home where it had landed, each object growing into its space. And the smells were so organic too – a mix of wood varnish, paint and earth, cobwebs and dusty corners.

    Grandad had wonderful old carpentry tools – ancient things which I think must have been passed down the family. His father was a gardener, and his old Victorian gardening tools (and, inexplicably, a pair of sheep shears!) were stacked up around the place, still in daily use (except for the sheep shears!) I used to love watching Grandad use all those tools – they were so perfectly moulded to his hand, he knew them with a kind of muscle memory that was obvious, and they belonged to the place, and to his life in a way that a new, shiny shovel bought from B & Q could never replicate.

    When I was a child, there was a wonderful toy shop in our nearby town. You had to go up a steep, rickety, narrow, creaking, wooden staircase to get to it – a health and safety nightmare in this modern age – but what a wonderful sense of adventure and discovery to climb them when you were six – and then discover a magic world of puppets hanging from the ceiling, and dusty corners filled with tin drums, kites etc. A complete contrast to the toy shop experiences my kids have had – walls of stacked plastic, with pink and fluff on one side, and combat green on the other. That old toy shop couldn’t be recreated deliberately though – it would seem fake, self-consciously ‘heritage.’ A poor copy of something that had grown and evolved organically over years.

    There’s so much I’d like to say in response to your wonderful post (so beautifully written and wonderfully observed) – but life is so hectic at the moment; so much to do – I’m just grabbing a moment to garble these thoughts as they occur (apologies if they make little sense, I’m in such a rush!)

    Coincidentally, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about these issues – and was going to write a post exploring similar processes in the rural landscape. When I have more time, I’ll cobble a few more thoughts together!

    • It’s great to feel this strikes a chord – but thanks more for sketches of your grandad’s workshop and the toy shop – instantly evocative as usual! Looking forward to the landscape post brewing… but don’t worry about getting it written, blogs have all the time in the world, and so does replying (thinking of me making the most of the late summer and not blogging or replying!)

      You know, I’m now thinking it feels OK to remember these things – like the uncontrived, evolved over years places and things – and recognise they belong to a time and place. We’re in a different time and place… I was just looking by my back door with decades of old bits and pieces, dog leads, brooms, old bags, a chest of drawers that got dragged in from a house I had in my twenties. Everything sits there accumulating spiders and more bags and broken crap… in 200 years time maybe the National Trust would make it an exhibit…

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