Gilt in the City on a winter afternoon

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

Charles Paget Wade and Snowshill Manor

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Some would ever be where they’re not,

Would ever have what they’ve not got.

True happiness – contented mind

Sufficient near at hand will find.

Absorbing interests lie all round,

Will by observant mind be found.

Create something however small,

There lies the truest joy of all,

When brain and hand together strive,

Real happiness becomes alive.

In the pursuit the pleasure lies,

The how and wherefore to devise.

Though vision dreamed will far excel

The work achieved, yet it is well,

To have attempted is not in vain.

Failure urges one on again.

Great craftsmen, asked once to decide

Which was his greatest work, replied

Simply with these two words “My next”,

For “ever better” was his text.

These words were written by Charles Paget Wade, a fanatical collector since the age of seven. After serving in World War One he returned to England and bought Snowshill Manor in Gloucestershire. For the next thirty years he transformed it into a theatre for his obsessions, with room after room of artefacts collected on his travels, from the gothic shock of massed Samurai armour to candle-lit chambers dizzy with some half-lit dream of an English arcadia.

He lived in a cottage beside the manor where he crafted countless devices to celebrate the medieval origins of the buildings, or wooden templates for the lead-cast texts that throw shadows round rooms with names such as Salamandar, Dragon and Nadir.

Was he a hoarder, an obsessive, an escapist? Probably all of them, but I like to think that the room he named Seventh Heaven – filled with the toys of his childhood – holds a clue. There’s the child and childishness; but the rest of the collection is the adult, the ‘grown-up’ whose window to the imagination is as clear and open as that of a seven-year-old.

Charles Paget Wade was someone lucky enough to have the time and fortune to leave some of his visions behind for the rest of us. It was pouring with rain on the afternoon we were there, and it seemed all the stranger and more hallucinatory for it…

Spectral evenings at Berry Pomeroy Castle, Devon

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One of the more unsettling tales surrounding this ruined castle tells of a Lady Margaret, who was imprisoned by her jealous sister Eleanor on account of her beauty. Margaret was imprisoned for two decades before being allowed to die of starvation, and her ghost, known as the White Lady, is said to rise to the ramparts and impart dread and malaise. Late 20th century excavations shed doubt on the existence of a castle during the crusades, but the legend remains…

Appreciating Josephine Poole – Moon Eyes

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First we’ll wait, then we’ll whistle, then we’ll dance together…

The original dust-jacket for Moon Eyes from 1965 – as artfully composed as a movie poster and bursting with Josephine Poole’s imagination

For three days wind filled the valley, running wild like an animal. It hunted down over the blue meadows, that were striped across and across with long black shadows, as if they had bones humping up under the grass; it entered the woods, making them flap in brown and green flags; it whisked the whole landscape into movement, and it made the earth race with reflections of the clouds it pelted through gun-grey sky. Those nights the house nearest the woods seemed balanced in a giant pair of hands, rocking and knocking, with a tapping and drumming of finger-ends against doors and windows, so that every board creaked and loose bricks tumbled down inside the huge old chimneys…

Both ‘Billy Buck’ and ‘Moon Eyes’ feature an L-shaped stone house: this image appears in Poole’s 1977 title ‘When Fishes Flew’, which weaves together a series of Westcountry folk myths into a family’s move to an old farm

I’ve already talked about Josephine Poole’s Billy Buck, where an Exmoor village is exploited by way of revels and ancient folk dances to a disturbing hysteria by the sinister Mr Bogle. Moon Eyes is an earlier title from 1965, also set around Exmoor. It begins with cryptic phrases scratched on a stone urn in the grounds of a country house called Hurst Camber: First we’ll wait, then we’ll whistle, then we’ll dance together. Poole excels at creating tension, and details such as telling the story in three parts: ‘Whistling’, ‘Waiting’ and ‘Dancing’ are smart.

I need a name for this type of story – ‘British Ancient Landscape Hauntological Domestic Realist Wilderness’ anyone? There are plenty of requisite details here  regardless: Widowed artist grieves wife and leaves eldest daughter in charge of mute son while he recovers (absent parental figure); Mrs Beer, a comfortable housekeeper from nearby cottage (salt-of-the-earth figure steeped in local history who dispenses tea, cake and common sense); rambling old house (gothic architectural landscape)… into which steps the enigmatic, beguiling Rhoda Cantrip (spark for age-old battle of light and dark) and her canine companion.

A reprint from the early seventies – and a striking sci-fi makeover…

It’s all a little more than the standard mythic battle though – although conventional in its telling, Moon Eyes bristles with metaphors of fear of the alien stepmother figure, and all the fairy tale associations – but at the stage of what might be called a preventative cure.

Poole dedicates the book ‘To all children with a battle to fight’ and young Kate’s plight is well-drawn to address issues around defining identity and independence: when does unease become manifest and how is it faced? Who do we trust? How do we achieve control of what happens to us? How do we deal with responsibility?

Once again Poole uses folklore and myth intelligently and authentically – rarely does she fall into Disney’s traps and her cooking pot (or cauldron) of prose simmers with full summer in all its moods and herbs such as St John’s Wort.

Minor characters are neatly sketched with depth too, such as Kate’s tutor Miss Bybegone:

It has been said that Miss Bybegone hated the country. As a protection against any rustic scent or sound that might assail her, she went about on an automatic bicycle, very old, very noisy, very smelly, that enveloped her genie-like in a cloud of blue smoke. Seated upright on it, every hair miraculously in place, she sped about at breakneck speed, a hazard to the countryside.

So far so Bedknobs and Broomsticks – but even this minor character is developed with pathos, for later we are told:

She hurried from the room in an agitation of mauve artificial silk. In fact she was a devoted daughter, and nobly supported her mother, a rather short-tempered old lady who found her infinitely ridiculous.

The author from the cover of Billy Buck (1971). Ms Poole, we salute you. Someone else who could mend a nuclear power station and still look cool while the rest of us are ineffectually fiddling with our phones

Josephine Poole has written widely and successfully, including a lyrical picture-book story of Joan of Arc and a retelling of Anne Frank’s life, both beautifully and sensitively illustrated by Angela Barrett. In the early eighties she contributed scripts to a low-budget but intriguing collection of supernatural Westcountry folk tales called – unsurprisingly – Westcountry Tales – which is well-known to anyone of a certain age from the viewing region. Her later novels I haven’t read – I imagine they’re just as good but were victim to dull and lazy marketing.

The two books here really should be in print and as oft-mentioned as Penelope Lively in this field.

Hot buttered toast with Dodie Smith

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Then he put a slice of bread on a toasting fork. It was no ordinary toasting fork for it was made of iron and nearly four feet long… it was just what Sir Charles needed, and he handled it with great skill, avoiding the flaming logs and toasting the bread where the wood glowed red hot. A slice of toast was ready in no time. Sir Charles buttered it thickly and offered a piece to the spaniel, who ate it while Sir Charles watched…

One of Janet and Anne Grahame Johnstone's illustrations for The Hundred and One Dalmations by Dodie Smith

‘Hot buttered toast’ is a superb chapter from The Hundred and One Dalmations – one of those passages of calm amid the tumult of adventure and uncertainty that remain in the memory from all the best books. Missis pulls some hay over a sleeping Pongo (nursing a wounded leg) and goes off in search of food, and enters into a scene reminiscent of Manderley in Rebecca

She could see no house ahead of her because the drive twisted. It was overgrown with weeds… so wild and neglected that it seemed more like a path through a wood than the approach to a house. And it was so strangely silent… suddenly she was out in the open, with the house in front of her… very old, built of mellowed red brick… with many little diamond-paned windows and one great window that stretched to the roof…

Here Missis meets an old spaniel, and she returns with Pongo to sleep in a four poster bed, rest in front of the fire and feast on toast. The spaniel’s owner, ninety years of age, thinks he is seeing the ghosts of his carriage dogs, and says, wonderfully, ‘What a joy to know that dogs go on too’.

Ancient landscapes, present days…

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I found this tucked away in a bookshop not long ago, looking a bit crumpled and water-stained. I loved the cover for its striking black and red, the bold question mark and the barest cut-out houses. It’s not the sort of visually-clever trick that would get used for this kind of thing today, and even then, in 1955, it was more like design for a movie poster. But it’s a tiny work of art. It makes you stop, and think, and put the pieces together – ancient landscape, super-imposed houses, traditional fonts that conjure vintage auction posters. Course I’m reading too much into it, I just want to know why I like it.

Dartmoor folk have in the past built honest, comely houses, in keeping with the unique and characteristic quality, the rugged integrity, of the Moor itself… [we] see no reason why this tradition should not be preserved.

– from the introduction

In the back is a paint chart, great in the way it encourages buildings to be part of the landscape, to grow with it, not against it.

It gently asks planners and architects to absorb and feel the history of the landscape and interpret it afresh, so that buildings belong to the landscape.

Here’s an ancient heart still beating. This is a photo from inside, of Drewsteignton village, circa 1955…

…and here’s the same scene, more or less, today.