Category Archives: Reviews

Joan Didion on a bleached California

where-i-was-from-didion-joan-paperback-cover-artIt’s impenetrably white, her world, which to me explains this sentence:

Yet California has remained in some way impenetrable to me, a wearying enigma, as it has to many of us who are from there. We worry it, correct and revise it, try and fail to define our relationship to it and its relationship to the rest of the country. (38)

I don’t have a long and tortured history of wagon trains and leading pioneer families in my relationship to California of course. No grandmothers telling me what life is about in quite that way, no artifacts of long journeys. Some of this history, and its residues in these younger generations, was pretty damn interesting. I suppose it is also pretty damn interesting as a residue of homegrown philosophy amongst ‘us’ Californians, the ones who were white:

Stressing as it did an extreme if ungrounded individualism, this was not an ambiance that tended towards a view of life as defined or limited or controlled, or even in any way affected, by the social and economic structures of the larger world. To be a Californian was to see oneself…as affected only by “nature,” which in turn was seen to exist simultaneously as a source of inspiration or renewal…and as the ultimate brute reckoning, the force that by guaranteeing destruction gave the place its perilous beauty. (66)

Perhaps there were brief flashes when such optimism might have been shared by African Americans — a couple of decades before WWI but after that time white congressmen tried to pass legislation banning all black folks from the state entirely. Before the Klan got quite so popular in the mid 20s.

The genocide of Native Americans was quicker and more complete in California than in many another state, so I doubt their survivors ever felt this to be true.

There’s the difficult relationship with the aristocratic ‘Californios’ who had once themselves owned the land and enslaved indigenous peoples, and then there’s all of the mostly darker skinned ‘Mexicans’ (amongst other uglier names) who worked for them, many of whom had lived there for generations. The other Mexicans who came up for the agricultural and seasonal work and still come up. But now they stay, along with a whole lot more compañ[email protected] because that border and NAFTA is no joke.

We shouldn’t forget the Asian workers brought in to build railroads and pick oranges and grow crops, massacred in L.A., stripped of any ability to own land or become citizens until 1942. The Japanese thrown into concentration camps up and down the state in WWII. California’s history is not at all pretty, and it never was.

White pioneers did not just wrestle climate and geography and dangerous beasts, they came in (to varying extents) as conquerors and oppressors, which is precisely why they could say things like:

…We believed in fresh starts. We believed in good luck. We believed in the miner who scratched together one last stake…We believed in the wildcatter…Put out your campfire, kill the rattlesnake and watch the money flow in.  (128)

and on the same page, why some Californians might be in it all together (against the rest):

I asked my mother to what “class” we belonged.

“It’s not a word we use,” she said, “It’s not the way we think.” (128)

Because of course, there were a whole lot of Californians below class. Ah, the intersections of race and privilege.

I think it’s this foundation of violent privilege that California is built on that helps explain some of the other things Joan Didion wrestles with, like the 1990s point system for sexual conquests used in Lakewood High School, carried out by boys who called themselves the Spur Posse. It was exposed by a number of girls raped and sexually harassed who came forward. Brave of them, and horrifying the community response, and it’s the kind of thing that needs all kinds of light shining down on it. Light so bright you no longer get parents like Donald Belman, defending their child by describing how the D.A. “questioned all these kids, she found out these girls weren’t the victims they were made out to be. One of these girls had tattoos for chrissake.” (124)

I wish we could talk about reactions like that in the past tense.

I also liked that Didion touches on the shift in California away from free education for all (though she can’t really tell you why) and the real change that took place in the 1980s:

CA no longer feels ‘rich enough to adequately fund its education system.’ the second: ‘many towns in California…so impoverished in spirit as well as in fact that the way their citizens could think to reverse their fortunes was by getting themselves a state prison.”

She sees this is nothing new, just another ‘version of making our deal with the Southern Pacific…making our bed with the federal government.” (183)

I like that she sees that. The contrast between a state that thinks it made itself rich when in fact it took lots of government money, always did and still is. I hate she doesn’t deal with who makes up the majority of those imprisoned, and how they might have arrived there.

I also learned a bit about California’s treatment of mental illness, something I might follow up. Joan Didion cites Richard W. Fox’s study So Far Disordered in Mind: Insanity in California 1870-1930, which found that ‘California had a higher rate of commitment for insanity than any other state in the nation…’ (193)

That’s crazy (unless again, you think about the violence and the ongoing non-acknowledgment of violence). This is also crazy.

‘By the end of 1920, of the 3,233 sterilizations for insanity or feeblemindedness performed to that date throughout the United States, 2,258, or seventy-nine percent, had taken place in California. (195)

Like the prisons, they filled up to and beyond capacity in asylums. California was always big on putting people away apparently, even before three strikes.

This is an interesting book, beautifully written, but deeply infuriating in its blindness to certain things — interesting in itself, but I fear the propagation of such blindnesses.

[Didion, Joan (2004) Where I Was From: A Memoir. London: Harper Perennial.]

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Introduction to Walter Gropius

21423864A fairly good short introduction to Walter Gropius I think. My principal critique is that despite its emphasis on  Gropius’s own belief in collaborative work, he is the focus to the exclusion of all others — it actually treats Gropius as one of the individualistic architects that he tried to set himself apart from. So Bauhaus as a school and a community in which many wonderful artists took part — particularly Klee who I love — remains very opaque. Still, Gropius’s vision is fairly clear I think, though I fear the U.S. red-baiting of the time affected some of the Fitch’s protestations of the distance between Walter Gropius’s politics and  any kind of dreaded socialism.

Fascinating, though, is Fitch’s compilation of the Bauhaus vision from various quotes:

  1. The Bauhaus believes the machine to be our modem medium of design and seeks to come to terms with it.
  2.  All design must recognize this fact of life and distill a new set of esthetic criteria from it. Such a process would, for architecture, lead to “clear, organic [form] whose inner logic will be radiant and naked, unencumbered by lying facades and trickeries”.
  3. The Bauhaus teaches “the common citizenship of all forms of creative work and their logical interdependence upon one another.”
  4. The scale and complexity of modern problems necessitates collaborative design. “Any industrially produced object is the result of countless experiments, of long systematic research.” The design school must recognize this and equip the student with “the common basis on which many individuals are able to create together a superior unit of work”.
  5. The education of the designer “must include a thorough, practical manual training in workshops actively engaged in production, coupled with sound theoretical instruction in the laws of design”.

This contrasts with Le Corbusier in very interesting and fundamental ways while still retaining the aesthetic of machines and modernity.

On Writing and Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk’s THE BLACK BOOK

The Black Book“Each life is unique!” cried the magazine writer. “A story is a story only when it has no equal. Every writer is poor and all alone.”
–Galip (104)

I read Pamuk’s The Black Book to then give away, and I am not sure I can. I feel that I should come back to it knowing more of the city’s history, knowing the city itself. Istanbul is so central to it, made so concrete through its pages that it becomes the standard — the cities wandered and written through my own life become the exotic others. It is a heady feeling.

It is a story of intrigue and mystery. It evokes and plays with some of the old psychogeographical cannon like Poe and Baudelaire, but its foundations are anchored in a Turkish literature that has, for the most part, not been translated. It edges around city–and the human face–as sign and signifier, drawing these into plots and conspiracies of occult dimensions playing on words and anagrams and numerology and games —  yet the lines are blended between the hysterically imagined and the real and violent, this is the time of the actual coup.

Always the city is there to wander, to describe, to inspire, to shape, to speak. Celâl Bey the columnist attempts over and over again to capture it, Galip Bey his nephew turns to it (and Celâl’s descriptions of it over decades) to help him solve the mystery he faces in the disappearance of Celâl and Galip’s wife.

This is a wondrous imagining of the draining of the Bosphorus, and the records of past glories to be found there and what will come after:

I am speaking now of the new neighborhoods that will take root on this muddy wasteland that we once knew as the Bosphorus…of brothels, mosques and dervish lodges, of nests where Marxist splinter groups go to hatch their young…
— Celâl (17)

As in all cities there are many mysteries and wonders. My favourite perhaps is the underground caves full of mannequins ‘possessed of a life force stronger than anything you might see in the crowds swarming across the Galata Bridge.’

My father always said we should pay close attention to the gestures that make us who we are…In those years his father held that a nation could change its way of life , its history, its technology, its art, literature and culture, but it would never have a real chance to change its gestures.
–Celâl (62)

Galip in his search ends up in these same caves, finds a mannequin of Celâl himself, listens to a new generation creating these mannequins and in effect talking through the way that culture survives modernisation, westernisation:

“My father quickly realized that our history could only survive underground, that these passageways leading to our house, these underground roads strewn with skeletons, provided us with a historical opportunity, a chance to create citizens who carried their histories, their meanings, on their faces.”
–Galip 191

The psychogeography of the city:

He surveyed the ramshackle shops lining the crooked pavements: These garden shears he saw before him, these star-spangled screwdrivers, NO PARKING signs, cans of tomato paste, these calendars you saw on the walls of cheap restaurants, this Byzantine aqueduct festooned with Plexiglas letters, the heavy padlocks hanging from the metal shop shutters — they were all signs crying out to be read. He could, if he wished, read them like faces.
–Galip (215)

Always the city like a face.

So then he spread out the maps of Damascus, Cairo, and Istanbul side by side, just as Celâl had foreseen in a column inspired by Edgar Allen Poe. He cut the maps out of the Istanbul directory with a razor blade he found in the bathroom…When he first put the maps together, he saw that their arrows and line fragments were different sizes, so he was at first unsure how to proceed. Then he pressed them together against the glass pane of the sitting-room door…
–Galip (263)

This takes him nowhere. I liked that. A few more quotes I liked:

…every time it occurred to him that someone might be following him, his legs speeded up, the city ceased to be a quiet place where all signs and objects looked familiar and turned into a realm of horror, shimmering with mystery and danger.
–Galip (340)

The shopkeeper certainly remembered. His sense of place was as good as his sense of smell. Through his close reading of your columns. he had conjured up an Istanbul that was more than a cornucopia of smells: He knew every corner of the city that you had visited, grown to love it–love it secretly, without telling a soul–for its mystery, but just as he was unable to imagine certain odors, he had no idea where these places were in relation to one another. I myself had, thanks to you, visited these places from time to time–when I’ve needed to find you…
–phone call to Galip (350)

‘You bastard writer, you!’

This book is as much about identity, about discovering who you are, the intersections between the individual and the nation (or Empire), how writing facilitates, hides, occludes, makes possible.

This mystery, this truth you’ve been making us run after for all these years…: No one in this country can ever be himself. To live in an oppressed, defeated country is to be someone else. I am someone else, therefore I am! (390)

…when he told the story for the third time, it became clear to him that he could be a different person each time he told it. Like the Prince, I tell stories to become myself. Furiously angry at all those who had prevented him from being himself, and certain that it was only by telling stories that he would come to know the mystery of the city and the mystery of life itself, he brought the story to a close for a third and final time, to be met with a white silence that spoke to him of death. (417)

…he had been waging this war not just on his own behalf but for the many millions who had bound their fates to the crumbling empire…all people who are unable to be themselves, all civilizations that imitate other civilizations, all those nations who find happiness in other people’s stories were doomed to be crushed, destroyed and forgotten.
Galip as Celâl (429)

Because it was only when a man had run out of stories to tell that he came close to being himself. (431)

This was particularly interesting after reading Pamuk’s autobiography Istanbul: Memories of a City, which shows how he has been circling these ideas even as he circles this same family, apartment block, street, city, nation, empire…yes. I think I may come back to it. But in ten years or so, so someone else can read it in the meantime.

It ends with a lovely couple of pages from the translator Maureen Freely that has me contemplating learning to read Turkish — every translation should contain these few pages. Clearly there is so much that simply cannot be translated and I yearn to understand the cascading sentence structure that echoes the cascading of subject, the ways that a Turkish sentence can circle, obscure, make clear that English simply cannot.

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The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole

Mary Seacole's House, Soho SquareThey are wonderful indeed, and surprising in their content. I knew Mary Seacole only vaguely as a Black nurse — as brave as Florence Nightingale in service of the soldiers in the Crimea, but too-much forgotten by history because of her race. I found her plaque in Soho Square ages ago, which is when she went onto my reading list, moved up by encounters at the Black Cultural Archives and thinking about Empire. I read this seeking London and Black experience here as much as anything else, and didn’t find it at all but I was not sad about that.

London seems most tame, a stopping place between New Granada and the Crimea, which is a novel place for this city, and not a bad one at all.

709969In her life she did everything possible to burst the constraints placed on her by gender and race, while also clearly enjoying her own femininity — I love that she redefines an understanding of ‘feminine’ to include long and dangerous travels, courage under fire, intense compassion for all human beings, immense curiosity about the world, and a love of beautiful dresses and home comforts.

I cannot forget her temper, either. It carries her through swashbuckling-wise.

In this she subverts other long-held feminine conventions in her love of war and its pageantry, which she sees as adventure even after experiencing it — had she been born a man in this period she would have been a soldier as her Scottish father was I am sure. That was one boundary she was not prepared to cross as a handful of other women did by giving up their identity as women all together. So instead she learned how to heal, and sought out adventures — the Crimean War being only one of them — where her talents would do the most good.

A watercolour painting of Mary Seacole (c. 1850)
A watercolour painting of Mary Seacole (c. 1850)

Restless and wishing to see the world (while also fleeing tragedy in the death of her mother and husband), she follows her brother from Jamaica (her place of birth) to New Granada — a centralist republic that has since been divided into pieces of modern-day Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador (I knew this old history of South America once, but it was a jolt to recover it again, I had forgotten these older divisions, a good reminder of how shifting nations and boundaries really are).

New Granada
New Granada

Her story reminded me so much of the works by B. Traven — but without that discomfort I sometimes get, that feeling of just another European slumming (though he was better than most, I know). There, in Cruces then Gorgona, Panama, she opened up a hotel and restaurant, while also battling outbreaks of cholera.

The early ties between this country and the US are fascinating — many Estadounidenses travelled from the East Coast to California by sea, making the hard trek across Panama to travel by sea once more. This included both US troops and the goldrushers seeking California.

I knew some of this, vaguely, but before reading this I had no sense of what that might entail. I am newly fascinated by the slaves who fled South to freedom — we never learned about that road in school. Seacole writes:

I may have before said that the citizens of New Granada Republic had a strong prejudice against all Americans. It is not difficult to assign a cause for this. In the first place, many of the negroes, fugitive from the Southern States, had sought refuge in this and other States of Central America, where every profession was open to them; and as they were generally superior men–evinced perhaps by their hatred of their old condition and their successful flight–they soon rose to positions of eminence in New Granada. In the priesthood, in the army, in all municipal offices, the self-liberated negroes were invariably found in the foremost rank; and the people, for some reason–perhaps because they recognised in them superior talents for administration–always respected them more than, and preferred them to, their native rulers. So that, influenced naturally by these freed slaves, who bore themselves before their old masters bravely and like men, the New Granada people were strongly prejudiced against the Americans. And in the second and third places, they feared their quarrelsome, bullying habits — be it remembered that the crowds to California were of the lowest sorts, many of whom have since fertilised Cuban and Nicaraguan soil–and dreaded their schemes for annexation (51).

She gives a particular example of a toast from a Southern man — and it gives a sense of her spirit and character. The toast:

So, I say, God bless the best yaller woman He ever made…I calculate, gentlemen, you’re all as vexed as I am that she’s not wholly white —, but I du reckon on your rejoicing with me that she’s so many shades removed from being entirely black —; and I guess, if we could bleach her by any means we would —, and thus make her as acceptable in any company as she deserves to be… (47)

Her response:

…I don’t altogether appreciate your friend’s kind wishes with respect to my complexion. If it had been as dark as any nigger’s I should have been just as happy and as useful, and as much respected by those whose respect I value; and as to his offer of bleaching me, I should, even if it were practicable, decline it without any thanks. As to the society which the process might gain me admission into, all I can say is, that, judging from the specimens I have met with here and elsewhere, I don’t think that I shall lose much by being excluded from it. So, gentlemen, I drink to you and the general reformation of American manners. (48)

The round goes to Mother Seacole.

In Gorgona she ran a hotel for women only. She returned to Jamaica, came back, still restless. On Navy Bay she writes:

my friend Mr. H—- … carefully piloted me through the wretched streets, giving me especial warning not to stumble over what looked like three long boxes, loosely covered with the débris of a fallen house. They had such a peculiar look about them that I stopped to ask what they were, receiving an answer which revived all my former memories of Darien life, “Oh, they’re only three Irishmen killed in a row a week ago, whom its nobody’s business to bury.” (63-64)

That hurt my heart. Her descriptions are wonderfully evocative of place — her restlessness drives her to a tiny town called  Escribanos, 70 miles from Navy Bay, and here follows the most surprising adventure, at least to me:

As I was at this place for some months altogether, and as it was the only portion of my life devoted to gold-seeking, I shall make no apologies for endeavouring to describe the out-of-the-way-village-life of New Granada. (65)

She writes:

And I once did come upon some heavy yellow material, that brought my heart into my mouth with that strange thrilling delight which all who have hunted for the precious metal understand so well (67).

She became a prospector! I and my family know that delight, and this resonated curiously with the two African American women who were prominent prospectors in Arizona’s Superstitions.  This was only ever a brief sideline however, her central occupations as always being running a comfortable(ish) place offering room and board, and healing all those who came to her. Charging those who could pay, but never failing to attend those who could not. A good thing too, as she had found what must have been pyrite.

Her descriptions of life there are wonderful, and here is a glimpse, too, of the lives of those who escaped slavery — Carlos Alexander, the alcalde:

He was a black man; was fond of talking of his early life in slavery, and how he had escaped; and possessed no ordinary intellect. He possessed, also, a house, which in England a well-bred hound would not have accepted as a kennel; a white wife, and a pretty daughter, with a whitey-brown complexion and a pleasant name — Juliana. (66)

Hers is a curious matter-of-factness, especially around race, and is not untainted by the racism of the times. She has a servant she calls Jew Johnny, there are numbers of uncomfortable descriptions of Greeks and Turks and her own black servants (she saw herself as creole). There is no way to know, now, if this was just part of an easy and joking familiarity, if there was a sense of shared oppression, or if her relations were as regulated by the strict hierarchy of skin colour and nationality as any others.

We won’t know in part because this book is not just a description of her life, as she says, but a defense of it — and a defense of her own capacity both as a nurse and a woman (and it still needs defending from the likes of the Daily Mail). I cannot help but feel she believed she was defending the capacity, courage and intelligence of all women of colour, along with traditional medicine and the knowledge that comes with experience rather than Oxbridge.

We are still fighting all of these things.

She had her own battles every step of her journey, especially to get to the Crimea where she felt called. She marshals a number of short and formal notes of recommendation from important men as credentials in her support. She highlights this near the end:

Please look back to Chapter VIII, and see how hard the right woman had to struggle to convey herself to the right place. (134)

But my favourite letter is from a common soldier, it is warm and personal and gives you a true sense of her courage and compassion and what she meant to those fighting. Makes me wish she had not been under those constraints of bankruptcy along with general disrespect and disbelief both for her gender, and for her race.

Sketch of Mary Seacole's "British Hotel" in the Crimea, by Lady Alicia Blackwood (1818-1913).
Sketch of Mary Seacole’s “British Hotel” in the Crimea, by Lady Alicia Blackwood (1818-1913).

A last photo of her:

The only known photograph of Mary Seacole, taken for a carte de visite by Maull & Company in London (c. 1873)
The only known photograph of Mary Seacole, taken for a carte de visite by Maull & Company in London (c. 1873)

And a final note that Mary Seacole recommended butter in coffee over a century before the hipsters did.

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Mord Em’ly, what’s in a name?

15472625Mord Em’ly is fierce and funny through poverty and misfortune, and this little history of her life stands in very enjoyable contrast to heavier, more moral works of reform  from the turn of that century.  And she will insist you pronounce her name correctly, which I particularly love.

From London Peculiar and Other Non-fiction by Michael Moorcock:

Its author  W Pett Ridge was the most famous literary Londoner of his day. He walked everywhere. He knew the city from suburbs to centre. He knew everyone, an energetic social reformer, he was a good friend of HG Wells, JM Barrie, WS 1631050Gilbert, Jerome K Jerome, E Nesbit and many contributers to the Pall Mall Gazette, The Idler, Westminster Gazette, journals of what we’d today call the moderate left. All testified to his experience and talent. ‘There is nobody else in London,’ said JM Barrie, ‘with his unique literary ear.’ (52-53)

Like many of his contemporaries from poor backgrounds, he educated himself at the Birkbeck Institute’s evening classes. (53)

Betty Balfour, who played Mord Em'ly in Me and My Girld, not dressed like this, but I am sure Mord would have approved
Betty Balfour, who played Mord Em’ly in Me and My Girl, not dressed like this, but I am sure Mord would have approved

Mord Em’ly was his best loved book. A silent film. From IMDB:

A Cockney thief reforms, her ex-convict father kills her mother, and she weds a boxer.

I suppose there could be worse summaries.

As Moorcock suggests, Pett Ridge is able to capture some of the joys of working class life, the freedoms it offers to women for possibly the first time:

All the members of the Gilliken Gang possessed the privilege which the London girl demands–that of having their evenings for their very own. Some were engaged in a large mineral water factory in Albany Road; two walked over Blackfriars Bridge to the City every morning; the remainder did nothing of a definite character (loc 226).

And after having read a great number of moral literature and studies written by reformers (see Maud Pember Reeves, Margaret Harkness, Mary Higgs, and I will include W. Somerset Maugham in this dour list of tales of the working class’s feckless improvidence, dull capacity for suffering and dire poverty):

Pandora Buildings, despite its bare passages and blank, asphalted yard and drafty balconies, all suggesting that it was a place where people were sent for some infraction of the law, was, nevertheless, for its inhabitants sufficiently cheerful, and there were very few of them who were not happy. To understand this fact it was necessary to become an inhabitant in Pandora, and not merely to come down on a hurried visit, as lady philanthropists did, and sniff, and look sympathetic, and tell each other that it was all quite too dreadful. Nothing privately amused Pandora more than the visits of these people, and Mord Em’ly gained much applause by her very faithful imitation of one of these visitors.

“Oh, the poor, dear creatures!” Mord Em’ly would look at the diverted women on the landing with half-closed eyes and a glance of condescension. “How do you do, my poor women! What do your poor husbands do for a living, pray? Dear, dear! what dreadful occupations, to be sure! I’d never really heard of them before. And the poor, dear children–I do so hope you look after them. Our country’s future, you must remembers, lies in their hands, and — This is my daughter, Lady Ella. She, too, is going to be so interested in the poor. In fact, I may tell you that she is going to play the zither at a concert near here some evening.

“Ah, Mord Em’ly!” The women would laugh and wipe their eyes with aprons exhaustedly. “You can take the toffs off to a T.” (loc 239)

Speaking geographically, there are some brilliant summaries of how place and class intersect in here, like this description of New Kent Rd:

At the Paragon end of New Kent Road she stopped to take breath. There is a decorum about New Kent Road, with its tree-bordered pavements and calm dwelling-houses, that constitutes a silent reproach to its noisy, restless, elder relative, and even on this Saturday night it was not without repose. Middle-aged couples, out for the purpose of buying forage for the home, and accompanied by the newest baby in order that it might thus early study economy, were going east to Old Kent Road, or went to the Elephant, as their fancy or their traditions dictated (loc 71).

The Paragon, New Kent Road
The Paragon, New Kent Rd

But above all come the marvelously satirical descriptions of the three sisters living on their own at 18 Lucella Rd, Peckham Rye where Mord is taken on as a servant at the age of ‘firteen’. Pronunciation corrected

No. 18 was precisely like No. 17, and like No. 19, and like every other number in Lucella Road; the lace-curtained bow-windows, the ventian blinds half-way down, the row of yellow pots on the edge, the glimpse of oval mirrors and draped pianofortes within (loc 196).

‘This, dears,’ said the youngest sister, ‘ is the little girl who has come after the place. She looks willing, and my idea is that we might take her for a month, at any rate. Her mother is a good worker.’
‘I expect Letty is right,’ said one of the elder sisters. ‘ What is your name, my girl ?’
‘Mord Em’ly.’
Name interpreted by the youngest sister.
‘Oh, you must really learn to pronounce distinctly. You should say Maud, and then wait for a moment, and then say Em-ily.’
“All very well,’ said Mord Em’ly, ‘ if you’ve got plenty of time.’
“Are you a hard worker, my girl ?”
“Fairish, miss. I ain’t afraid of it, anyway.”
“I think we shall decide to call you Laura if you stop with us.”
“Waffor?” demanded Mord Em’ly.
“We always call our maids Laura,” explained the eldest of the ladies complacently. “It’s a tradition in the family. And my youngest sister there, Miss Letitia, will look after you for the most part. My other sisters are engaged in — er — literature; I myself; if I may say so without too much confidence, am responsible for”–here the eldest sister looked in a self-deprecatory manner at the toe of her slippers–“art.” (loc 312)

***

“My sister Fairlie,” went on the eldest lady in a lecturing style, and pointing with her forefinger, “writes under the pen name of ‘George Willoughby’ and has gained several prizes, some of them ammounting to as much as one guinea. My sister Katherine pursues a different branch. her specialite, to use a foreign expression, is the subject of epitaphs–queer epitaphs, ancient epitaphs, pathetic epitaphs, singular epitaphs, amusing–”

“Speaking about epitaphs,” interrupted Mord Em’ly, “how much do I get a year for playing in this piece?”

And the banter — the banter is marvellous. At no point is Mord bested in banter.  The perspective of Mord allows Pett-Ridge to get more sharp observations of the regulated, restricted and repressed nature of middle-class life:

It seemed to Mord Em’ly that the people in the road led lives that were ordered by some precise and stringent Act of Parliament. By half-past eight in the morning every man in every house had come out, had pulled the doors to, and had run off to catch the train to the City, an exodus which also used to take place (at an earlier hour) at Pandora Buildings; but, whereas there is signalled opportunity for free conversation, in Lucella Road it seemed that the women-folk remained indoors, and kept themselves in rigid seclusion; when they did come out, they wore, Mord Em’ly noticed, a reserved air, which they put on for out-door walking, and they looked up at the sky with an air of disparagement, as though it was not at all the kind of sky that they had been accustomed to before they were married, and they sneered at the pavement; the other houses seemed to excite in them a feeling of boredom and contempt; their manner generally was that of people who are by no means pleased with the world. There were no disputes in Lucella Road; nobody came home late and noisy; it appeared to mord Em’ly that everybody carefully abstained from giving entertainment.  (loc 406)

This is compared to the life and vibrance of Walworth Rd and the Music Hall:

…with the barrows stacked with yellow Lent lilies and scented violets, and giant bundles of wallflowers tied with twigs round their thick waists; pyramids of oranges, too, and huge cliffs of sweets, and men and women, their owners, exultantly calling attention to them; the slow crowd on the pavement stopping now and again to haggle, and, at infrequent intervals, to buy. There were two butchers with their shop fronts afire with red joints; the men were chaffing each other, and each shouted his opinion of the other man’s face. The drapery shop, selling off because it had nearly had a fire, or because its premises were not coming down, or on some other excuse, was frantic with placards; it had bargains in pale blue blouses and in gay bunches of linen flowers, that demanded attention, and would take no denial. In the roadway, the yellow and scarlet trams sailed along, with passengers continually boarding them and passengers continually disembarking; ‘buses rocked about and played games of cup-and-ball with their passengers, or danced recklessly over the roadway. On the other side of the road, in Princes Street, a piano-organ was playing, and two ridiculous men were waltzing and behaving to each other with preposterous courtesy. Through Princes Street, and there, with four white globes, arch-fashion, over its entrance, was the Mont.

East Street Market
East Street Market

Mord Em’ly gave a quick gasp as she thought of the Mont.

You paid twopence to an old lady seated in a little sentry-box, and you went through a passage which had swing-doors at the end, and on the walls of the passage there were portraits and a poster of a very fine lady in fleshings, called Miss Flo Macgomery, also known as Britain’s Brilliant and Beautiful Brunette. You could hear faint music before you reached the doors opening into the rear of the long hall, and when you pressed open one of these, the singing and the music boxed you on the ears in rather a jovial, agreeable way. You were at the very back of the hall, but the floor sloped a little, and, away through the smoke, and over the heads of people, you could see, on the stage, Mr. Pat Foley, who was Ireland’s Brightest Gem, and who, in view of that fact, might well have provided himself with a complete dress-suit, but had, up to the present, succeeded in obtaining the necktie only, and wore tweed trousers and a double-breasted jacket. No song of what is called questionable character was ever sung at the Mont., because the Mont.’s patrons had no appetite for that sort of thing; to vulgarity they had no deep-rooted objection, but even of this they desired less than did their similars in the West-end. They would always rather see a man dance intricate steps than watch furious whirling by girls; and damsels at the Mont. who kicked high and kicked often, and made themselves breathless in the effort, found their last ambitious skip received with casual interest; the hall allowed them to go in glum silence, with sometimes a few derisive whistles.

walworth-road

WandsworthThis is, you see, a most enjoyable read about a smart and confident heroine who makes her own way in the world — and even though it ends with marriage and emigration, you hardly feel that Mord’s independent spirit will be slowed down, much less broken by that.

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A Journal of the Plague Year

A Journal of the Plague YearDaniel Defoe ([1722] 2003)

A Journal of the Plague Year is grim, strangely gripping almost in spite of its author.

I had to try and remember that this is so early, among the earliest of the many claims of earliest novels — that’s hard enough. Written decades after the events it is describing, it’s still questioned how much of it is based on Daniel Defoe’s uncle’s diary (he himself was 5 at the time he describes in such detail), how much is historical research, how much is ‘novel’. It’s strangely removed yet at the same time close enough to be fairly terrifying.

Many claim it as part of the psychogeography tradition, an early example of a literary mapping of London, and I confess that is what I liked the most. The street by street, parish by parish descriptions, the sense of all London reading the death lists, waiting, watching the plague move from West to East and South but all the while hoping it wouldn’t reach them. Getting some sense of what these times were like, how they were lived so far removed from imagination and Hollywood’s occasional depictions. It’s hard to believe that it all started only a short distance from where I work every day in Holborn.

I haven’t read much beyond wikipedia and short descriptions, but what bothered me most was trying to decide how much irony is in this, how much is written straight faced. I just couldn’t tell. From the point of view of someone who doesn’t identify with the rich but with the poor, it is fairly staggering. He rails against the thievery, the lengths to which the well-off had to go when fleeing the city to protect their property–there is so much here about protecting property. So damn much. Yet he himself lists the multiple professions, the thousands that lost all work and hope of sustenance when the plague hit London. The many families who fled the cities, firing their servants and turning them out of their homes penniless and with nowhere to go.

He writes at one point of the plague as a kind of deliverance, how it:

carried off in that time thirty or forty thousand of these very poor people which, had they been left, would certainly have been an insufferable burden by their poverty; that is to say, the whole city could not have supported the expense of them, or have provided food for them; and they would in time have even been driven to the necessity of plundering either the city itself or the country adjacent, to have subsisted themselves…

In fact, it is extremely noticeable that all of the much vaunted charity of the city and ‘gentlemen’ of the country is primarily a measure to stop mass starvation resulting in rebellion and theft. Personally, I was angry enough at it that I was hoping for a little more pillage, for some distribution of the high life in this time of horror, especially as he describes the frightful conditions under which people lived. Their desperation is visible in the number of people willing to risk their lives for the small pay offered them to nurse the sick and watch at their doors and dig the graves and collect and bury the dead.

While praising London’s government for running the city well through it all, Defoe blames the poor for spreading the plague, for not remaining shut up in their houses like the wealthy, waiting out the infection:

But it was impossible to beat anything into the heads of the poor. They went on with the usual impetuosity of their tempers, full of outcries and lamentations when taken, but madly careless of themselves, foolhardy and obstinate, while they were well. Where they could get employment they pushed into any kind of business, the most dangerous and liable to infection…

As though people seek out such employment when they don’t need to eat. There is also a curious interlude when he reproaches some men getting drunk in a pub and laughing at those praying and grieving. He tells them to repent, to learn from his own behaviour, and tells them he is saved by God…As I say, almost over the top enough that it could be stab at some critique of the religious and the rich, but left me with the feeling that it’s probably not, or not critical enough. Though it has contradictory opinions in it to fill another book sorting them all out.

Thank god I live now.

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A Vision For London: The London County Council

London County Council - Susan D. PennybakerA Vision for London, 1889-1914: Labour, Everyday Life and the LCC Experiment
Susan D. Pennybacker (1995) London & NY: Routledge

This was a brilliantly detailed look at some of the archive material for the London County Council, and it signposts the collections beautifully in exploring some of the lived experience of its workers through the Progressive period. The founding legislation for the LCC was the Local Government Act of 1888, and it brought together the Municipal Board of Works and the justices. Pennybacker writes:

The Progressives led the London County Council, the worlds largest municipal authority of its time, from its founding in 1889 until their defeat in 1907; an unbroken period of Conservative control followed until 1934. The Progressives’ ethics and their political strategy prescribed a redemptive role for the government of the imperial capital, a social mission in the secular metropolis. This book assesses the LCC’s success in attempting such a mission and in doing so offers a selective portrait of the Council’s work…. (3)

The characters of this story are John Benn, John Burns, Sidney Webb and Ben Tillett among others, and they embody all the contradictions of Progressivism  including its eugencism and ‘drive for racial fitness’.

There is also some sense, though not enough I don’t think, of the earlier fragmentation of governance in the metropolis, particularly in relation to the power of the City:

John Benn was not the first to assault the City Corporation. Since the 9th century, its accumulated wealth and power has stymied and obstructed attempts at incremental reform. From 1688 onward, this single square mile’s control of the river traffic, its absorption of the coal dues, its exemption from the powers of the Metropolitan police, its livery companies, its guilds and lucrative estates, were formidable barriers to equitable and comprehensive government (6).

It is indeed ironic that they now hold the LCC archives.

Some of the basics: the LCC was directly elected — the first apart from London School Board. Its boundaries were the same as for parliamentary constituencies — each electing 2 LCC Councillors and 1 MP. Important to remember is, contrary to what I had heard, ‘only in limited, exemplary terms was the LCC an organ of popular democracy; it simply was not a body mandated under universal suffrage’ (26). There still existed tremendous limits on the franchise, I always forget how recently these have shifted to become universal.

In evaluating their legacy, Pennybacker looks at their ‘most notable endeavours’: Holborn to Strand improvement & opening of Kingsway, Boundary Street estate, acquisition of trams, Blackwall Tunnel, and briefly passenger steam boat service (11). Alongside this is their innovative labour policy, fair wages and direct employment of labour rather than through contractors . The LCC works department, for example,  had 12,000 employees by 1904, when the  acquisition of the scool board added another 35,000. By WWI it was London’s largest employer. What they didn’t achieve? Control over utilities like gas, water or electricity, municipalisation of the docks, acquisition of police control, control of markets or expansion of public sector housing to more than 15%.

‘But in terms of this book, the greatest achievement of the Porgressive period was the way in which the early LCC tested the outside parameters of what can be categorised as ‘social-democratic’ and ‘municipal socialist’ reform in its infancy, in prototype (19).

I like that she does this without shrinking from London as an Imperial Metropolis — the LCC impacted by national anxieties around the Boer War, the movement for national efficiency, and a focus on motherhood alongside a horrific infant mortality rate of 20,000 every year after 1900. She writes:

‘No municipal aspiration, however selfless in its articulation, could be entirely separated from a will to efficiency, to racial uplift and to competitive zeal, or from the desire to ‘catch-up’ and to achieve order at home while maintaining hegemony abroad (23)…Fabian and other socialists shared these ideals; those who dissented were a minority. In the capital, advocates of the rights of women, votes for women and the causes of labour and of the trade unions employed rhetoric of ‘Englishness’ and committed themselves to the cause of bettering those whom they saw as their racial and social inferiors. Far from being marginal or incidental aspects of ‘municipal socialism’ or of the feminisms of the period, these were central purposes and principles (23).

Below are just a collection of interesting quotes pulled from the three case studies

On clerks:

Both the Civil Service and the LCC required candidates for advertised clerkships to sit examinations under a scheme administered through City of London College. Sample papers were sold to the public so that prospective candidates could prepare them in advance. Candidates for the fourth class were required to be 18 to 23 years of age and British-born. (This provision took on special significance as a criterion of employment and it was enforced even after 1945. When West Indian nurses arrived in London after the Second World War, they found no posts available at the LCC) (39).

Some samples of the essay questions — I love them as a window into government expectations of what their clerks should know and have well-formed opinions on:

– Is war ever justifiable?
– The effect of science on literature
– Methods for dealing with the unemployed.
– ‘The evil that men do lives after them, the good is oft interred with their bones.
– Is compulsory military service desirable?
– Imperialism (40).

From the first moment it was apparent that the women hired had not replaced men per se, but instead comprised a new, cheaper form of labour in the clerical divisions; their work was of a different character (43).

Blackcoated workers were concentrated in London where they tended to reside in the outer suburbs less by choice than because of rising rents in the desirable central areas (47).

LCC Works Department

One side maintains with zeal that the council the working man’s best friend, a model employer, and the best representative of progress in London. Trams, model dwellings, the Works Department, and several quite inaccurate statistics are fleeing at other speakers’ heads. John Burns is prominently to the front. ..then the other side gets a word in edgeways. ‘The County Council? Look what they’ve done down Clare Market way! Pulled down half the houses, turned the people out of the other half as insanitary, and then let tenants into ’em and sent all the respectable people yo go an crowd into Holborn as best they can. When they get up their new buildings will they let ’em to you or me? Not much. Look what they charge down in Shoreditch. They’ll let us go to Tottenham, that’s what they’ll do’ (96).
— Reverend HGD Latham ‘Nights at Play’ The Cornhill Magazine, 12, 1902 677-685

The arguments for and against the Department reflected the first concerns about ‘socialism’ as an institutional political project to appear since the time of the Owenite communities. It had been decades since property was held in common for the useful production of services to a community of producers and consumers who were constituted (somewhat) democratically and who were in a position to exercise even indirect control over their conditions and terms of labor (97).

The Works Department was now seen as a test case of municipal socialism or, as some would have it, as a new adjudicator of the ‘labour question’ in London (114).

The balancing act between government, the contractors and the building trades, sought so desperately by Burns and many other Progressives, proved a sham not because of financial insolvency but because of the moral and political conflicts invariably arising from an attempt to reconcile bureaucratic organisation and public service with the need to compete effectively on a labour market in London’s key industry (120).

I love that the LCC agreed to pay the rates and uphold the hours set by the unions following a conference held after the 1891 Carpenters and Joiners’ strike in London (124). This agreement was extended in 1897 to recognise negotiated scales, including maximum hours and minimum rates.

That said, this is an immensely detailed chapter on some of the scandal and controversy and argument surrounding the Works Department, but I wished this, as well as the chapter that followed it perhaps, had been set against a little more background of actual conditions of the people whom the policies were to help. Most working men in the building trades and their families  were subsisting close to starvation levels (read Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, or Maud Pember Reeve‘s careful account of some of the conditions of working men and their salaries, or Margaret Harkness or many another work). It is easy to get lost in her accounts of theoretical controversy over the effectiveness of the LCC, I wanted it more grounded in the conditions the LCC was fighting to change.

The third case study is on inspectors — titled ‘The appetite for Managing Other People’s Lives’

LCC social and cultural policy had its formative years in the Porgressive era and was part of the national restructuring of welfare provision. Social purity, National Efficiency, racial purification and maternalism formed the broader context in which specific projects were undertaken by the Council (159).

I found the sentence below curious:

Nineteenth-century London remained largely prostrate and impoverished, open to assault and subversion by the new municipal body (160).

I am still unsure what I think of the marshaling of Foucault to look at the phenomenon of inspections, torn by the class-based and moral judgments, and the feeling that something, anything had to be done to make things better. Landlords needed to be forced to fix their buildings. Factory owners needed to be forced to improve working conditions. I cannot be sad the state moved to enforce such things, I wish critiques of inspections offered a more critical analysis of why and how such things happened in such a damaging way, what it would have taken beyond inspections to change them for the better. I am most interested in change.

Another example is the new, healthy, affordable housing that needed to be built on a tremendous scale…for the tenants in the slums that were displaced. I have read some conflicting things about whether or not this happened, I tend to the side of the disbelievers supported by this:

Chief sanitary Inspector of Bethnal Green explained in 1898: ‘The conditions and rents the Council impose, render it simply impossible for poor people to live in their houses.’ He claimed that the building of the Boundary Street Estate had resulted in the displacement of thousands of neighbourhood residents; not even 5 per cent of the original inhabitants could afford to return and were now creating overcrowding of lesser, nearby accommodations (189).
–Lessons from the Bethnal Green Calamity’, London, 6 Jan 1989 p 5

I didn’t have the same reservations about the discussion of the hypocrisy and morality that put restrictions on activities in the parks on Sundays, even though they were the only day off for many. This was most telling, as was the discussion of the ways in which the regulation of music halls took place. I’m not sure it was fully brought together here, but a good start on thinking things through.

A quick quote to summarise the conclusion, and the decline and demise of the London County Council:

This study suggests at least three areas of failure that account for the decline of the vision and for its increasing lack of credibility in its own time: the failure of economy, of the fiscal; the failure in the realm of the political, which was in part a failure to preserve a distinctiveness of doctrine; and a failure in social terms, as captured by the LCC’s inability to eradicate London poverty or to relieve much of the distress of its inhabitants. Instead, intrusion and supervision were substituted for grander programmes of social amelioration or cultural enlightenment (241).

It ends with a wonderful section that serves as a guideline to the archives themselves, so much of which remain to be explored…

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Estate, by Fugitive Images

10401119Estate, Fugitive Images (Myrdle Court Press, London: 2010)

The pursuit of public Housing provision was one of the 20th century’s redeeming contributions. Yet, in the first decade of the 21st century, public housing as an ideal is a contradictory territory resulting from policies that value entrepreneurial charities or a subsidised private sector over state funded and administered housing.

Estate is a timely contribution to the debates entangling millions of individuals and countless neighbourhoods. The starting point is a visual essay on the Haggerston West & Kingsland estates in Hackney, east London, in the process of demolition and re-building. The 56 photographs document the spaces left behind when people were moved out. Despite residents living in limbo for over 30 years as refurbishment plans were continuously proposed, shelved and re-proposed, the images highlight their innovative solutions to the difficulties of continuing to live while an idea and a set of buildings were being abandoned around them. 

This is an incredible book that will move you deeply, even if the true meaning of home and the trauma of losing it hasn’t been burnt into you by life itself. As someone who has experienced eviction and poverty and loss, I confess I have strong feelings about how people write about it, document it, photograph it. But here it is done with a beauty, love, and respect that comes closer to capturing the many shades of what it means and how it is experienced than almost anything I have read. There is no sentimentalization here, no glorification of the working class or a home that after years of landlord neglect has become much less than anyone would wish. Instead it is a deeply felt exploration of meaning from many angles, a teasing out across perspectives, a contextualization of loss and change through words and images and theory.

My favourite section is the first one by Andrea Luka Zimmerman and Lasse Johannson, the experience of living on Hackney’s Haggerston West Estate and watching it slowly emptying of people, introducing the incredible series of photographs from Haggerston and Kingsland Estates, with captions that add another level of depth to what the images make so vivid. I took the photo that heads this review in 2011, wandering down the Regent’s Canal and finding it beautiful and extraordinary long before I met Andrea and Lasse or heard about their work.

Followed by a more literary piece by Paul Hallam, exploring estates in the plural and the singular, winding around the meaning and making of place and poverty, extracting quotes from residents that I confess made me shed a tear or two on the tube. There is much to ponder in Victor Buchli’s Archeology of the Recent Past, and a clear contextualization of the particular within the broader history of Britain’s social housing by Cristina Cerulli.

They come together in a thought-provoking, moving whole. No one can ever have the last, the final, the entire say of what estates mean to those who live in them, what it is like to live in them, what it is like to lose them. That is the point. Estate is simply a gift to those who read it, the gift of a view, a taste, an experience that will make you think and feel deeply.

You can buy it here, from the wonderful Myrdle Court Press. This is an old review, brought forward in anticipation of seeing the film from Fugitive Images, Estate, a reverie, that I have seen some powerful clips from and long been waiting to watch as a whole:

an artist’s film, song cycle and installation to be created and performed by the disappearing community of the Haggerston Estate. It is the final and most ambitious project in a trilogy of collaborative works on the estate led by artist resident Andrea Luka Zimmerman, working closely with architectural researcher and writer David Roberts, following the public art/photo-installation i am here (with Lasse Johansson and Tristan Fenell) and the artists’ book Estate (Myrdle Court Press, with Lasse Johansson, Paul Hallam, Cristina Cerully, Victor Buchli), both of which have gained international acclaim.

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South London – Harry Williams

indexDefinitely of another time, the introduction contains a key opinion: ‘There is, in fact, something basically wrong about South London’ (2). Williams is not alone in this (sad and of course, fundamentally wrong) feeling, a thread to tease out of all this research is where this comes from, why it arises, what is ‘right’ if south of the river is so ‘wrong’? How right and wrong are defined, and by whom? Williams doesn’t really hold back on his own feelings, you can tell.

What this book does, then, in view of suburban South London’s failings, is try to rescue the historical gold from the dross. It’s a really fascinating mix of immediately-post-war politics that yearn back quite conservatively to the Elizabethan Golden Age while at the same time celebrating the move to create social housing, the NHS, and unexpectedly insisting that the anachronism of Tower Bridge be torn down and something more splendid and functional put into its place. Some interesting quotes that are quite provocative about how some thought about class, history, the formation of the city:

London, for all its importance, was not an urban community. It was still largely rural, with a great community of ideas and interests between its people and the squires and yeomen of the countryside. In this healthy understanding, free from the sterile urbanization of the last century and a half, there was no room for class hatred, and very little for class distinction. The love of family life was the strong central motive of town dweller and countryman alike, and the Englishman’s home was already a castle to be defended passionately against any form of attack.’ (29)

We have nothing to-day to compare with the terrible slums of the eighteenth century, but it is certain that that century had no such purposelessness, such widespread frustration rooted in the emptiness and pointlessness of metropolitan life as it exists now. The fine edge of the keen poetic instinct of the Gold Age was blunted already in the eighteenth century, but it is a process of deterioration that the increase in creature comforts and security combined with the scrapping of all standards of values and culture has continued, rather than abated, in the twentieth. The industrial Revolution began a decay of community and family life which the Victorian age – for all its emphasis on the family as a scared entity—could only gloss over. (38)

The new industrial towns were built upon one principle only—the less the overhead expenses, the greater the profit. Housing was dealt with by crowding the greatest number of helots into the smallest possible space—a principle adopted, as we shall see, in the development of South London—and every available inch was covered with factories, warehouses ad habitations with barely sufficient room between them for (40) human beings to walk. There were no profits in good proportions, good architecture, recreational space for workers – no dividends in beauty. And so the property sprang up, mothered by the jerry-builder and fathered by the slum landlord, and the wealthy capitalists are paying for their lack of vision today ….

The story of South London, therefore, is the story of the rape of a lovely river and its attendant countryside, all brought about by the acceptance of a theory of life—the theory of laisser-faire (41).

There is a brilliant quote on the great London fire of 1666 by Sir Ralph Esher: ‘Ever and anon distant houses fell in with a sort of gigantic shuffling noise, very terrible. I saw a steeple give way, like a some ghastly idol, its long white head toppling, and going sideways as if it were drunk’ (88). More of his decided opinions on modern development: ‘All things considered, Southwark is a national reproach and a complete breach of faith to the citizens of this country’ (119).

He sees the suburban development as the spinning of a web in which South London residents are trapped as flies:

‘In each of the ten boroughs, with the possible exception of Southwark, we have seen that the strangled centre is the least attractive part. As the congested heart of the web is left behind, so there is a tendency to allow a little more space, to permit a loosening of the constriction, a softening of the utilitarian huddle of pure functionalism which falls into decay with the passing of the years’ (231).

The lot of the denizens of the South Bank, for example, is one which scarcely bears investigation, but it is not publicized. The failure do not talk about their failure, which is one of the reasons why the flies continue yearly, daily, hourly to enmesh themselves in the unyielding web (314).

He seems to be for a more agrarian ideal, open space, single and semi-detached houses. But as I say, the politics of it are interesting, so while so much rings as conservative, he still writes critically:

Many of the commons of South London have suffered from the land hunger of wealthy gentry. Kennington Park is a queer survival, for development in this area was swift, and the spirit of the time was ready to sanction any rape of open spaces in the name of material prosperity (356)

This is a book championing open space, and also one chock full of quaint histories of the ten boroughs south of the river to be returned to in looking at specific areas. A few examples though: The Licensed Victuallers’ Benevolent Institution – a home for licensed victuallers ‘fallen upon evil times’ on six acres off the old Kent Road, or the three old shops moored off of Woolwich holding convicts used to work on the docs or the prehistoric mound on Clapham Common. Some of this is taken fairly directly from Walter Besant’s history of South London I’m afraid. And there’s that streak of moralism running through his vision of what should define the development of South London: ‘There are two things that can stop such menacing retrogression. The first is love and understanding of home based upon the delights and responsibilities of parenthood, and the second is love and understanding of nature’ (403).

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Restless Cities

9781844674053-frontcover-83c085449c453716ce5cb8062d23e61eEdited by Matthew Beaumont and Gregory Dart, 2010. Verso.

A wide ranging collection of authors writing about the different ways we live, experience, traverse the city — and thus also serving as a possible model to write about and try to understand those things. They are a very accessible series of meditations really, no footnotes or endnotes, a list of readings at the end of each chapter rather than bibliography. Each is centered around a verb: Archiving, Bombing, Commuting, Convalescing, Daydreaming, Driving, Falling, Imaging, Inhabiting, Lodging, Phoning, Potting, Recycling, Sickening, Waiting, Zigzagging. Interesting that each author approached these themes far differently than I would have — a good counterpoint to my interior voice and pointing the way to my enjoyment. A new way of thinking about the city in connection with a way of being or acting within it. Depending on the author, and, to be fair, my own preoccupations these days, these were more or less rewarding encounters.

Archiving is one current preoccupation, and I love thinking of the city like this so I shall spend some time with Michael Sheringham’s piece. The opening line: ‘One of the city’s archives is its detritus’ (1) was unexpected and I wanted more of the strange maps of rubbish, but we soon moved onto the familiar ground of authors charting the dirty depths of the city. Calvino, Hugo, Dickens, Joyce, Perec, referencing Defoe and Poe and moving on to Sebald and Benjamin and Baudelaire and Sinclaire and etc. I like this cannon but really, I think they are a little exhausted by now, their insights well explored, and the incredible diversity of cities deserves some new voices that reflect it. Still, I unequivocally like this, though I am still thinking it through:

For Derrida, the archive is first of all a physical location, a place of deposit–like the Archivo de los Indios…Secondly, for Derrida, the archive is the site of a conflict between the urge to preserve and the urge to destroy, between remembering and forgetting. Archival action consists in the activities of accumulation, classification and consultation: it happens in the present, but its true time-frame is the future. Archives are always of the future; what we make of the pasts that we are made of. The cityscape, its streets, monuments and open spaces, its slums and beaux quartiers, are all the products of accretion, juxtaposition and transformation, but this history is made available to us at the surface. The city wears its heart on its sleeve (12).

I loved Beaumont’s acknowledgment of convalescing and its altered state, the sensitivity and betweeness and the newness of everything and how that changes what and how we see. The chapter on Daydreaming almost made me like Debord and the Situationists again:

As for Mumford, so too for Debord, the ideal city was one in which all human creativity would be maximized. It would be an imaginatively suggestive space, not a streamlined or spectacular one. Such a city would be to some degree structured like the unconscious, a realm in which all elements would exist in an open relationship with one another. It would be a multi-layered space, difficult to control, impossible to plan, the ultimate success of which would be gauged by the ‘situationist possibilities’ it made possible. What is more, the Situationist dream city would be inimical to daydream to the degree that it would do away with the need for it, re-dissolving spectacle back into situation, and fantasy back into play (91).

I’ve enjoyed thinking about how that would work, what that would look and feel like, if I feel threatened by a city that is inimical to my daydreaming. I can’t visualise myself without my daydreams, they are so much a part of me, particularly when I ride public transportation. They are where I work out stories and when my unconscious works best to unknot that problem I’m having in my thesis or my writing.

Driving seemed to miss the joy, the music turned up all the way, the warm wind blowing through your hair, the road before you, the power to go anywhere, the control over your small domain, the pleasure in hugging curves and shifting gears smoothly. In short, the awesome visceral experience that driving can be…though it too often is not, especially in this country. I’m remembering those trips from Tucson to the mines near Green Valley to deliver maps for my dad, driving our boat of a buick older than I was down the windings of Mission road, a two lane highway through the res with its shot up street signs and its lack of traffic. I guess I was lucky. And I suppose that is not driving in the city, nor is Tucson a city in any European sense.

‘Falling’ I loved, Marshall Berman I love because he understands the meaning of home and of losing home, the power of city governments to tear down and destroy and ruin and lay waste and the echoes and unending sense of loss that it leaves in the lives of hundreds and thousands of people. Urbicide. The death of buildings, urban fabric, community, and individual hopes and homes. I like Patrick Keiller as well, his essay ‘Imaging’ is included in his latest collection where I first read it — though I can’t read anything he writes without hearing it spoken by the narrator of the Robinson films. Which I enjoy greatly I confess.

I quite adored ‘Potting’ by Kasia Boddy, a history of the geranium from its early rarity and thus high class beginnings through its sensual teens (just think lips of geranium red) to a long history of bright colour and sturdy uprightness loved by some and despised by others. I was sad to hear William Morris was of the latter. We can’t all have gardens, we can’t all escape the dirty concrete city into a backyard or a summer home or a holiday trip. We can all have a geranium on the windowsill. The geranium through literature is a barometer not just of gender relations, but of class-inflected feelings (and judgments) about the city and the home. This was a brilliant exploration of the city through the popularity and use of a flower.

The final essay on ‘Zigzagging’ by Mark W. Turner was also very powerful, a cry against the straight lines of City Beautiful and le Corbusier, the careful planning and rationalisations of the whole of life made possible by creating a perfectly rational environment. It is a celebration of the bent, the queer, the spontaneous, the unplanned, the poetic. It echoes Dart in some ways, but questions our adherence to that cannon (hurrah!), drawing instead on the glories and dangers of living itself, of cruising, of queerness, of encounter. I loved it, and the importance of the message and the passion of it were a good way to end the collection, as not all of the essays were quite up to that standard. There’s one about perfect coffee and donuts that name drops a stay in every cultural capital of the world…and it is dismissive of Effra Road here in Brixton. But never mind.

There is a lot to think about here, and it will change the way you see certain things. Geraniums at the very least.

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