A straight run in the other direction

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Anybody who also thinks the above quote is quite inspired might enjoy this collection of films about changing London.

Because Britain also produced Michael Gove and the Daily Mail, I am in no mood to celebrate. Instead, today we are going to Paris. There are scooters, trees in bloom and, for a moment, you might escape.





Paris  no2

Paris 1


The legend of Richard III

I heard about the two sides of Richard III at university, when a lot of students were milling around for theatre group auditions. There was a girl wearing a heraldically-coloured baseball jacket. Across the back of it was an elaborate medieval embroidery of a white boar, emblazoned with the word Dickon. I had to ask who Dickon was, at which point her eyes electrified with religious zeal. For two minutes she spake forth, with the fervour of Joan of Arc, on the cruel misrepresentation of Richard III by the Tudor dynasty. Passion spent, she reverted to the same woman who would later attempt election to the Student Union using a photo of herself in a ball gown.

The Ricardian disciple did her work because I later read Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time (named from Sir Francis Bacon’s words ‘truth is the daughter of time, not authority’), a crime novel in which Detective Inspector Grant uses a spell in hospital to assess the charges against Richard III. One of his visitors (an actress, funnily enough) brings in some prints of historical figures for him to assess. He can’t reconcile the face of the man in Richard III’s portrait with the villain from his ‘schoolboy history’ and constructs a plausible reassessment.

daughter of time original

I did some wider reading and fell for the romance of the maligned king because, as the Richard III Society is fond of pointing out, he appears to have been ‘a good lawmaker for the ease and solace of the common people’ (according to Sir Francis Bacon).

So I wasn’t a stranger to the passion and drama heralded by the discovery of Richard III’s bones. I was even moved a little myself.

The documentary in which Phillipa Langley was brought face-to face with the king’s remains held a strange fascination beyond historical fact, compounded by Langley’s tearful, theatrical exit at the point when her fervour to resurrect his image could have back-fired, not helped by the composure of the investigating scientist.

It was a perfect 21st century scenario – a lone figure attempting to create meaning and reverence using time-honoured trappings of drama and theatre, rituals to bestow meaning. She had earlier urged the scientist to cover the box of bones with Richard’s flag before they were placed on the back seat of an unprepossessing hatchback. Some have found it ridiculous, and it has the makings of a Monty Python sketch.

This summer the BBC brought a photogenic Richard III to the screen by adapting Phillipa Gregory’s The Kingmaker’s Daughter (a title for Richard III’s wife, Anne Neville) as The White Queen. Gregory has a destructive habit of fusing her research – plausible yet entertaining historical perspectives – with the clumsiest of romance novel clichés. It means she’ll never kiss Hilary’s mantle. Despite this, and the Game of Thrones shimmer of medieval Disney, there was something in the way Richard’s story was told which was convincing enough to help alchemise a legend.

The White Queen

The BBC’s resurrection of Richard III, murderer of the princes in the tower no more.

Because we’ve seen how the king was lain hastily in an ill-fitting grave, a strange potion is brewing. There’s the spectre of a gothic monster disturbed, to rise from the dead, giving way to a Pre-Raphaelite glow of saintly Resurrection. Richard will be all these things, always, and – to be wheezily romantic – is perhaps a fitting embodiment of our human race.

Richard’s reburial should be as quiet and honourable as shoring up the remains of a castle keep, but it is becoming a pantomime in tacked-together polyester medieval costume. There’s the on-going argument that Richard should be buried in Yorkshire, not Leicester, which is now the subject of an undignified court case.

It’s quite probable King Richard would have preferred to have been buried in Yorkshire, at home, rather than near the ill-fated foreign field, but it begins to sound like something from a Joe Orton play: ‘It’s what he would have wanted – a stop-off at Harrogate, and Yorkshire pudding at the wake’.

And yet, there’s more going on here than meets the eye. No one can doubt that Philippa Langley has put her heart and soul into Richard III, but this has brought him into the 21st century. Inevitably, this makes the king a valuable commodity, where dignity is something that has to be fought for. This recent statement from members of the Looking for Richard project makes for fascinating reading.

Proposed tomb for Richard III

Architect’s image of Richard III’s tomb – shadowy figures abound. A man appears to be about to launch a stick of dynamite at skipping children while a random woman in a flared trouser-suit strides out obliviously for a Costa coffee.

The latest twist is the announcement of the design for Richard’s tomb. There were fears because the tomb would not be raised, and now it is. Yet donations to the Richard III Society to help fund the tomb have been withdrawn because the donors don’t like the design, and Philippa Langley agrees (though the chairman does not).

It would seem there is much to placate everyone in the design. A giant Yorkshire rose, carved from limestone; a contemporary raised plinth from Swaledale fossil stone (from Yorkshire, presumably); and a centrepiece of a cross so that the cathedral remains a place of worship and tempers the sense of a themed attraction.

Perhaps the problem lies with the hastily-assembled digital images issued by the architects, which look like stills from a dated computer game. It takes quite a leap of imagination to see the materials as they might appear in reality. As the images stand, Leicester Cathedral isn’t the Louvre and the surrounding Victorian approximations of medieval Gothic might look as affronted as an elderly duchess dressed in Emma Peel’s catsuit. But given the materials, it could still work.

It appears Richard’s supporters are finding the road to his burial as complex as anything devised for a Machiavellian prince.

Gilt in the City on a winter afternoon

London, a freezing weekday afternoon walking from Spitalfields. We’re looking for churches, and a synagogue, which we picked from a handbook. Whitechapel Gallery beckons on the way and we go for a look. I’ve no idea what’s on, but it turns out the theme is Urban Nature, which is fairly apt. Only 24 hours in London but fate assumes we’re missing trees and moorland already.

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Whitechapel Gallery, Installation View. Photo: David Parry/PA Wire

Giuseppe Penone has found a tree, cast it in bronze, gilded the interior and cut it into pieces so we can gaze through the hollow trunk that once rose up and away and into the sky. It’s called Space of Light, or more fluidly, Spazio di Luce.

I’m not thinking of trees, but concrete cylinders, because a few days ago I saw a road trip movie where the characters stowed away inside one on the way to Spain. But then today I’m the country mouse and so perhaps the impact is working in reverse. Are Londoners sensing the forest?

It’s great to be in the city after a stretch in the tiniest villages: I need the antidote, keen to fill the mental landscape with tube trains, cranes and artificial light. It’s a bit like Lucozade, which as a child I would have drunk regularly except it was only allowed when you had a cold.


Whitechapel Gallery, Installation View. Photo: David Parry/PA Wire

Rise trees of the wood, of the forest… rise trees of the orchards, of the avenues, of the gardens, of the parks, rise from the wood that you have formed, take us back to the memory of your lives, tell us about the events, the seasons, the contacts of your existence. Take us back to the woodland, the darkness, the shadow, the scent of the undergrowth, the wonder of the cathedral that is born in the wood land.

Text by Giuseppe Penone writing in 1979, cut and pasted from Wikipedia

There’s a display about Rovesciare I propri occhi (To reverse one’s eyes) which involved the artist wearing mirrored contact lenses and exploring the countryside by touch. His quote alongside connects trees reaching for light with the retina capturing images with light. It suggests we share flesh and fibre with trees, our gaze questing like tree limbs and branches for the sun.

It’s reminding me of the rental DVD that hung around for weeks because the unappetising description was ‘astronomers search the skies for stars while a group of women search for body parts in the desert nearby’. Nostalgia for the Light was actually beautiful and meditative and mind-expanding: astronomers experiencing stars as history – via light years – are linked with a harrowing archaeology of Pinochet’s regime in Chile, to explore the past and what really constitutes our now and future.

I’m not sure if there’s any genuine connection, but all these ways of thinking about light feel like pieces of a jigsaw which would probably be worth the effort… that our history is carried in the light is a fantastically poetic concept.

The sky outside is pewter grey and glacially cold. Looking up I see a crow – all very Gormenghast – and the building is gilded with leaves (by Rachel Whiteread). It’s a hyperreal, gothic moment, compounded seconds later by a White Hart nestling in the greenwood of a pub sign alongside the sunset glow of Burger King signage.

Whitechapel Gallery (529x800)

The synagogue is closed, as are a couple of churches. The past is close at hand, glimpsed through rails, definitely asleep. Construction is everywhere: plate glass moves vertically at a stately pace and the new structures expose their vital organs, sometimes messily.

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The trees opposite one church are gruesome – stunted and blackened, purest 21st century gothic (above). But in the gleaming hermetically-sealed paneling there are secret latches…

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So sudden, it’s a hallucination. I’m reminded of a series called The Georgian House from the 1970s, in which a servant boy was transported from 18th century Bristol to the future, only to rush out in shock and headlong into the traffic.

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We’re forced to look upwards and pointed to a gilded heaven. But this is not an instruction from the past: it is everywhere, in the pneumatic drilling on the air and the visions through the window.

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Like the gilded tree, this poor creature is felled and hemmed in too…

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And in case we might linger too long, a glance up at the wall urges us to make much of time…

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With all the relentless development outside, you could feel pity for poor besieged churches. Hemmed in like this precious table…

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Be at rest: the table is preserved. No-one has put anything on it or under it – like these caskets of history, these places of worship we’re standing in. The power of God can resist building directly on even if it can’t manage the doorstep outside.

But for a moment I see little difference between inside and out, past and present. Perhaps this isn’t a benign oasis. It’s all power and awe. Look up, look up. These ancient buildings are not besieged – they are bulwarks of power, just like the monoliths in the financial heart of the City of London. They’ve both met head on and neither will budge.

Meanwhile, someone else who wouldn’t budge looks on…

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Charles I was my favourite King. Here he’s restored, airbrushed, gilded, and the focus for another slightly odd cult. What with Richard III, there seem to be opportunities these days in marketing maligned monarchs as celebrities.

Back home I read that Rachel Whiteread’s decoration of Whitechapel Gallery is echoing “London’s rooftop repertoire of gilded angels, heraldic animals and crests”. Looking back on the photos, there’s gilding in most of them. A country mouse might think London’s really paved with gold.

1947: England and a past and future beauty

In the last decade or so it seems people have realised the huge debt we owe Penguin and Puffin books. We can buy boxes filled with postcards of their immaculate book covers, while the iconic orange and white originals are available on tea towels, mugs and even deck chairs. And that’s just the look of it all: pick up any of the titles that turn up from the middle decades of the 20th century and you could disappear forever into second-hand bookshops, charity shops or attics, as lost a cause as any Victorian gentleman or woman consigned to the opium den or brothel.

Town and Village dates from around 1947, the paper fairly rough and uncoated, which makes the artwork appear as fresh as some lovingly-crafted linocut.

Village and Town, cover

There are two covers, so can you choose from a utopian future or an idyllic past.

Villages and Towns, Puffin

Inside, there are beautifully-designed diagrams, and this one provides a colour-coded map of the United Kingdom to show how local materials shaped the built landscape. Even more valuable now than then.

Village and Town, Puffin 2

There are images of the idealised English village, carefully illustrating how the past builds layer upon layer and lives side by side.

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But this is no misty-eyed wallow in the ‘scepter’d isle’ imagery of the war years. This is also about the future, one that accounts for everyone and gives them light, air and space. Turn the page and the ugly truths are revealed.

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There is no beating around the bush here, as S R Badmin continues…

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He’s in full flow now – you can’t get more damning than ‘fancy dress houses’. And I can’t help wondering how many of the slums or industrial buildings are now the facades of ‘luxury apartments’ for the affluent of today.

Moving on to the brave new world, our author is more than comfortable with the shock of the new. But it’s a careful argument, taking the reader by the hand from the past into the future (which, marvellously, he tells us will involve ‘plastics such as Bakelite’). He wants everyone to move beyond the Tudorbethan, mock-Tudor sentiment of the pre-war years. (It’s often overlooked how little impact the stylised art-deco movement had on everyday homes: many preferred barley-twist oak, stained glass and olde-worlde brass.)

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Be sure that if a building is well-designed for its purpose, without trying to be new-fashioned or old-fashioned, it will fit into its surroundings just as all the buildings do in the villages we love.

Perhaps not a bad design for life, that one, with endless applications… as long as he doesn’t mean a bland compromise, which I don’t think he does. Although his definition of the English style of building as ‘solid, suitable and not fussy in appearance’ sounds a little joyless.

The last page is given over to the S R Badmin manifesto, which I imagine involved clambering atop the table, waving spectacles and going all-out for a full-on Robert Hardy thespian workout:

We could keep the country as real country, for farming and holidays, instead of eating it up with bungalows. We could do all that and more if we made plans in advance, instead of muddling along as we do now, allowing people to build more or less what or where they fancy, whether it is ugly or not. Is it possible for planning to be carried out when so many people own so many pieces of land?

Village and Town, Puffin 7

As a child, I imagine you might return this to the library believing that the war had changed everything, and feel, as the National Health Service began, the first warm rays of utopia.

Until you realise the unpredictability of the British weather.

London, England and the kitchen drawer

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…

The fascination of ruins

Some of the most arresting images of recent years are those of ruined Detroit, Michigan by Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre.

They include the United Artists Theatre, ready to give us vertigo with its height and expanse. But it is monotone, silver-grey – a Narnian witch has withered the unfurling decoration. It’s Miss Havisham’s wedding cake: celebratory splendour gnawed and eaten, enough beauty left to mock us, but fragile as ash.

United Artists Theater, Detroit (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

United Artists Theater, Detroit (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

There are images of hotels, apartments, railway stations – windows like gouged eyeholes of 20th century excess, flaking like the make-up of septuagenarian starlets.

Michigan Central Station (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

Michigan Central Station (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

This is ruin on the grand scale. The artists record it on camera and talk of the fall of empires. It’s the sinking of the Titanic, the Statue of Zeus or the Sphinx. It is part of something mighty fallen, and reminds us that humans are here and then were here.

Do we think of ourselves when we see these images? Or are we thinking grandly, of the human race?

Place an upturned plastic chair in the centre of the ruined dancehall and we might respond differently. This is something from within our lifetime, not a distant heritage. It’s the chair we sat on at school, the chair we sat on at interview, the one we stacked at the end of countless work presentations. The chair belongs to now. Yet it’s in a dead ballroom because it has had its time and belongs to the dark (or in the photo, the light…).

Ballroom, American Hotel (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

Ballroom, American Hotel (Yves Marchand and Romain Meffre)

Stop, we think – that shouldn’t be there like that. We can hear the scrape of its metal legs and feel the warm grainy plastic and our living, and it hurts, because we know that’s where we’re going too, sometime.

But we are intrigued, like the Romantics who saw ruins lit by moonlight. They saw dark things and spectres that rose to give Byronic shivers of pleasure. This was fear to sip from books and shut away afterwards. Buildings also shut things away, and are well-worn metaphors for the mind, with dark attics and cellars rarely visited.

Moorland ruin

Moorland ruin (Whistlesinthewind)

They also witness our lives – this is where we are born, learn, work, love and die. Is our energy so powerful that it is absorbed by plaster, brick, stone and wood? Do we think houses become human?

Old houses and empty houses turn quickly into gothic, romantic heroines. Daphne du Maurier writes here of the first sight of her home Menabilly, which partly inspired Manderley in the novel Rebecca, where the house is as much a character as the protagonists:

Grey, still, silent. The windows were shuttered fast, white and barred. Ivy covered the grey walls and threw tendrils round the windows. It was early still,  and the house was sleeping. But later, when the sun was high, there would come no wreath of smoke from the chimneys. The shutters would not be thrown back, nor the doors unfastened. No voices would sound within those darkened rooms. Menabilly would sleep on, like the sleeping beauty of the fairy tale, until someone should come to wake her.

Houses are not meant to be empty. This scares us. They can decline and rot, and remind us of our own bodies. Throw the windows wide, they say. Let some air in.

An empty house beckons us to look into the unknown, an after life: anything could be lurking in the cellar or the attic. We have always known that. So we paper and paint and polish, and keep the structure from returning to the earth. Renew and replenish. Keep the soil from quietly forming in the gutters, moss from lining the path, trees from tapping at the window.

All those Miss Havishams alone, cobwebbed, time-stilled. A house might change hands, and belong to a family. ‘The house lives again,’ people say, because there is energy and love and conflict.

But ruined buildings remind us of the end. And we are fascinated.

Moorland ruin 2

Moorland ruin 2 (Whistlesinthewind)

The Ruins of Detroit exhibition is showing at the Fontana Fortuna Gallery in Amsterdam from May 12th to June 30th 2012.