Tag Archives: home

Matrix: A Feminist Critique of Home Design

Matrix’s Making Space covers home design most extensively, and unsuprisingly I suppose (see the first post here on who Matrix was and what they were all about). How many continue to believe that a woman’s place is in the home? And yet homes have never really been designed for women, especially not now with the many new responsibilities and work patterns alongside those of care that so many women have had to take on.

There is some brilliant history to be found here, as well as historic design. That is, historic given the time it was designed and built, but we continue to live in so many of these homes. So not quite so historic after all. This all makes me want to go back to people writing architectural histories like Swenarton and Burnett, to think about what they might have missed.

5 House Design and Women’s Roles

Chapter 5 delves more some actual plans from key reformers and reports, they are brilliant and illustrate so clearly the lack of consideration for women and the assumptions of life trajectories built into the fabric of our homes.

Continue reading Matrix: A Feminist Critique of Home Design

Papanek on Architecture and the Vernacular

In addition to lists and principles for design, there are these two lovely chapters on architecture in Victor Papanek’s Green Imperative. This book also reminds me how much I love a good epigraph, and that I should use them for everything I write.

Sensing a Dwelling

Think with the whole body.
–Deshimaru

We are born indoors, live, love, bring up our families, worship, work, grow old, sicken and die indoors. Architecture mirrors every aspect of our lives–social, economical, spiritual.
–Eugene Raskin

I think all of my favourite architects talk about the ways architecture affects every sense, and unsurprisingly Papanek argues that we need to pay attention to mood and an environment that supports and develops our sensory abilities.

We need to pay attention to the dimension of light, he mentions Taliesin West by Frank Lloyd Wright – and the light that comes through its canvas sails is indeed quite wonderful.

Continue reading Papanek on Architecture and the Vernacular

The City As A Work of Art

Seeing the city as a work of art is a curious way to view a city, I found it an interesting exercise. This book represents quite a masterful look at London, Paris and Vienna, with a splendid raft of photographs, illustrations and quotations. To the greater or lesser extent that I know them, they are all cities that I love. Perhaps the best way to document just how Olsen thinks of cities here is to give a view of the table of contents – you can see that he gets through quite a lot.

THE CITY AS LUXURY
1 Urban Virtue and Urban Beauty
THE CITY AS MONUMENT
2 The Monumental Impulse
3 The Remaking of London The Vision of Splendor, 1811-1825 • Disillusion and Disgust, 1825-1837 • The Victorian Alternative
4 The New Paris Paris before Haussmann • Paris Remade, 1852-1870 • Paris after Haussmann, 1870-1914
5 The Vienna of Franz Joseph Vienna in 1857 • The Creation of the Ringstrasse
6 The Process of Urban Embellishment
THE CITY AS HOME
7 The Building and the Dwelling: The Family and the Individual • London • Paris Vienna
8 Inside the Dwelling: The Public and the Private • The London House • The Paris Flat • The Viennese Wohnung
9 Social Geography The Town as a Map of Society • London • Paris • Vienna
10 Villa Suburbia London • Paris • Vienna
11 Working-Class Housing: Scarcity, Abundance, and Domestic Values
THE CITY AS PLAYGROUND
12 London: Hidden Pleasures
13 Paris: The Garden and the Street
14 Vienna: Display and Self-Representation
THE CITY AS DOCUMENT
15 Architecture as Historical Evidence
16 The Beautiful: In Search of a Nineteenth-Century Aesthetic • London • Paris • Vienna
17 Architecture as Language: Representation and Instruction
18 The City as the Embodiment of History

Exploring the City as Art also, of course, means really as ‘high art’. I find that just a little tiresome, as I do of this ongoing debate that tires me of cities as good or bad, beautiful or ugly — there are a number of binary debates rehearsed in here. But useful to give his summary here:

The city as a work of art? Surely not. The city as wasteland, perhaps, or as battleground, or jungle. The city as manifestation of all that is rotten in society, festering wound in the body politic, foretaste of hell in which brute force tramples the weak underfoot, corruption feeds on innocence, gluttony mocks hunger, unprotected virtue submits to triumphant vice. From Juvenal to Cobbett, from Saint Augustine to Jefferson, poets and moralists, publicists and philosophers have subjected the city to righteous abuse. In more measured language, the modern scholar approaches urbanization as a pathologist tracing the course of a disease. Defenders of the city usually justify their position on economic rather than aesthetic grounds. They see the city as infrastructure, to be judged by the efficiency with which it facilitates the creation and distribution of wealth. To both attackers and defenders, the city is the product of vast, anonymous forces, not an individual creation. Any beauty it might possess would be incidental to its real nature, any visible structure one imposed by historical necessity rather than artistic intent.

Yet with rare exceptions, such as Ireland before the Viking invasions, the civilizations of the past have regarded cities as neither shameful nor inevitable, but as deliberate creations, worth making sacrifices to build, maintain, and embellish. (3)

I do quite love the idea of city as deliberate creation — what after all is the point of urban planning if not that (though I know I know it is so rarely that…) In the end I find viewing London-Paris-Vienna through the eyes of Art and Architectural History (and this very specific view of Art and Architectural History capitalised) enriches other views (as annoyed as I sometimes became reading it, being a great lover of bottom-up histories rather than this necessarily top down one, which as Olsen says by necessity excludes industrial cities such as Sheffield given such a focus on ART and ARCHITECTURE, but aside from all my annoyance still to some degree a useful exercise…). He writes of London:

Here both individual and national extravagance were at worst forgivable, at best laudable. Whether such extravagance took the form of an afternoon spent purchasing frivolities in Bond Street or the erection of pinnacled monuments along the Embankment, London offered possibilities of conspicuous self-indulgence and significant display that would have been out of place in an industrial city. To grasp the meaning of such self-indulgence, such display, the techniques of the economic historian are useless, those of the social historian inadequate. The art historian and the intellectual historian are better qualified to illuminate our understanding of cities that, like London, transcend in both aspiration and achievement the merely practical and utilitarian.

While waiting for the results of the refined analysis such specialists may engage in, we can perhaps achieve cruder but still valuable insights by using our eyes and by finding out how people in the century before 1914 themselves perceived London, Paris, and Vienna. (6)

And thus we begin. This book is quite full of splendid detail, almost too much so, it is impossible to capture or blog properly. I’ve pulled out a little for each city of London – Paris – Vienna separately, but here try to give just a sense of how Olsen compares them.

City As Monument

The nineteenth was the most historically minded of centuries, the one most aware of itself as participant in a continuing drama. It possessed at the same time, unexampled means for giving material expression to that awareness…London, Paris, and Vienna had long contained monuments. Only in the nineteenth century did they try to become monuments. (9)

I like that distinction, I confess. Olsen continues:

Although the inner core of each city bore uncomfortable witness to its medieval origins, suburban extensions during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries showed a degree of order and decency that occasionally rose to monumentality.

What failed them from doing so completely? The ‘enforced poverty’ of English monarchs subject to Parliament’s unwillingness to pay out. For the Bourbons and Habsburgs, ‘another instance of their unwillingness to interfere with private interests and individual rights‘ (10-11).

The concluding chapter (The Process of Urban Embellishment) sums the monumental argument up (I am also enjoying reviewing these geographies in my mind and how they resonate or not with my own experiences of walking these cities, such a pleasure during this time of lockdown):

first London, then Paris, and finally Vienna attempted to turn them-selves into monuments in the course of the nineteenth century. London, between 1811 and 1837, remade itself along the line connecting Regent’s Park with St. James’s Park and Trafalgar Square; Paris, between 1852 and 1870, cut great swaths across itself, north to south, east to west, and diagonally, planting trees and flowers wherever it could; Vienna, beginning in 1857, turned a fortified zone into a ring of pleasure. The three programs shared a number of characteristics: they resulted from the initiative of the central government; depended for their success on the attraction of private investment by speculative builders and developers; were intended to make royal or imperial residences more prominent; created public parks; mixed public and private buildings, ecclesiastical and secular purposes, residential and commercial uses; used architecture mainly in the classical tradition (broadly defined); put up monuments of national, imperial, dynastic, or cultural significance; built wide streets both to facilitate traffic and to serve as fashionable promenades; and combined aesthetic with social and sanitary motives. London and Paris incorporated slum clearance in the preliminary demolitions; in Vienna no destruction of residential or commercial property, slum or otherwise, was necessary.

And a note to self on the distinctiveness of Vienna — which does indeed feel different and I think in the end in great part because of this:

One peculiarity, indeed, of Vienna is that it has never indulged either in the cutting through of percees or in systematic slum clearance as these operations were carried out in London and Paris. (82)

Yet these had nothing on the great motorways and ringroads of the following centuries.

The City as Home

The two dominant institutions of the nineteenth century, the two focuses of loyalty, were the family and the nation-state. … Between the late Middle Ages and the end of the eighteenth century there had developed, through western and northern Europe, a belief in the values of individualism, privacy, and domesticity. (89)

Thus, he argues:

The dwellings of London, Paris, and Vienna illuminate the respective attitudes of the three societies toward domesticity, familial affection, privacy, and individuality. (90)

Been reading a lot about homes, how they’ve changed over the centuries (like Judith Flanders, Witold Rybczynski, my favourite from Alison Blunt and Robyn Dowling) so nothing here was too revelatory, though I loved the architectural drawings of buildings and almost laughed out loud at this:

The English were convinced that nowhere were domestic virtues better or more extensively cultivated than in England. Paris certainly, and Vienna so far as they knew about it, seemed on the whole more suitable for extramarital adventure than for sober family life. (90)

This goes without saying

The major difference between them being that English cities tend to be made up of ‘small dwelling houses’ while the other two ‘large blocks of flats’. (92)

But this I hadn’t known:

And this — almost all London buildings beginning life as residences, true of most houses between the City and Hyde Park:

And even while Parisian middle classes loved their flats, still there remained some of these:

And then there is Vienna — where not a single medieval home still exists. It is now palaces of the aristocracy and blocks of flats for the rest.

Social Geography

How can we read social geographies through architecture? Broadly speaking, he argues that medieval homes had everyone living and undertaking work and other activities in the same space and this slowly transitioned into single family homes partitioned with each person and activity separated and assigned space, servants separate from family, more public spaces separate from private. Just so cities went from such a mix to more segregated subdivisions. London, due to being larger and more technologically advanced with its embracing of domesticity and privacy took this further earlier than either Paris or Vienna.

This of course could only proceed so far until modern transport, and the spaces for workers, servants, carriages and horses and such even in the wealthiest of neighbourhoods were no longer required. I love mews though have only known them in their gentrified incarnations. This lovely illustration shows all they were before becoming additional luxury residences.

While the English perceived class distinctions to be fewer in France, Olsen hedges that it was only slightly less in Paris than in London, especially after the 1850s and 60s, but always a distinction between left bank and right, interior and the working class suburbs. Still, in London and Paris the geographies of wealth and fashion did shift to some extent. Of all three Vienna remained the most stable: prosperous aristocratic neighborhoods remained so, and there continues to be ‘a marked decline in social prestige as one moves from the first Bezirk (City and Rigstrasse) to Vorstadt…to Vorort’. (151)

Also housing signaled slightly different things in each city:

The customary English way for a rich City man to insinuate himself, or rather his descendants, into the governing class was to purchase a country estate and set himself up as a landed gentleman. No London mansion, no taking of a house in Grosvenor Square, would serve to expunge the mercantile stain. In Vienna residence in the City, far from being incompatible with a noble manner of living, was essential to it. The Ringstrasse, though attached to the City, imitating it in its architectural forms, and surpassing it in physical magnificence, never succeeded in equaling it in fashion and prestige. The French aristocracy transferred itself to the Marais under Louis XIII, to Saint-Germain under Louis XV, and—if it could afford it—to the Champs-Elysees and beyond during the Third Republic; the Viennese aristocracy, once established in the Altstadt, stayed there.

I sit and try to remember what it felt like to wander these cities, to travel at all. Olsen continues on Vienna:

It would be wrong to exaggerate the social inferiority of the Ringstrasse. It served rather as the concrete expression of the admission to the ruling classes of both individuals and broader social groupings, who expanded and enriched the older governing class just as the Ringstrasse zone expanded and enriched the older City. The Ringstrasse united new aristocracy with old, money with birth, ability with rank, the arts and scholarship with politics and administration.-3 It represented what was healthiest about the last period of the Habsburg Empire: its openness to talent, new ideas, and new artistic forms, whatever their origin; its cosmopolitanism, its respect for learning and achievement, and its refusal to be shocked by the unconventional. (154)

This is obviously not the place to look for solid descriptions of working class housing, but there is this:

The paucity of reference to the working classes in this discussion of the city as home may suggest that privacy, intimacy, and domesticity were qualities too expensive for them to afford. With respect to the housing available to them in Paris and Vienna, and to a considerable extent in London, this may very nearly have been true: when the normal family dwelling consists of a single room, with perhaps a small separate kitchen, discussing the impact of degagements and subdivided, specialized areas makes little sense… As for neighborhoods segregated by social class, the luxury of choice of district was a middle-class privilege: the workers moved to whatever places economically stronger groups chose to avoid.

Studies of working-class housing before 1914, local and national, normally stress its inadequacy—overcrowded, overpriced, and insufficient—and note the failure of the free market to produce enough new housing to keep up with the growing population, much less bring average standards up to a level of decency. The most optimistic estimates show a degree of improvement far less than any overall rise in living standards.1 But as one reads the dismal accounts the nagging objection emerges: conditions everywhere could not be worse than they were everywhere else. And the testimony both of contemporaries and of the buildings themselves suggests that for the working classes as for the middle classes, standards were higher in London than in Paris, in Paris than in Vienna. They were high enough to enable a significant minority of London’s working classes to imitate middle-class patterns of behavior, much as the middle classes were shaping their own lives according to their notion of aristocratic manners.

There is also some reference to the economics of it all, which I appreciated:

Contributing more to differentials in cost were the local building codes, most stringent in Vienna, least in London. The flimsy, jerry-built construction practiced by London’s builders, of which contemporaries were forever complaining, did enable them to build and sell more cheaply and allowed house owners to make reasonable profits from lower rents than would have been conceivable in either Paris or Vienna. The mild English winters and the willingness of the English to endure cold indoors permitted builders to make little provision for insulation or other than primitive heating arrangements.

The nature of the London building industry, in which large numbers of small undercapitalized speculators were able to coexist with giants like Cubitt and William Willett, meant that there were always those willing to plunge into housing development whatever the economic climate. They went bankrupt with monotonous regularity, leaving rows of carcasses to be finished by the next generation of hopeful speculators, but the houses ultimately got built. The syndicates and companies that were responsible for building Paris and Vienna were not above over-estimating the market themselves, but on the whole they behaved more rationally and cautiously and hence built more in response to than in anticipation of demand.

And of course all of these — the type, amount, cost of housing, building codes, climate etc — were co-constitutive of how people lived in it. Each impacted the other and I wouldn’t wager which was more important, but the large differences remain

If the nature of the London house, the layout of the London street, and the pattern of development that informed the Victorian metropolis encouraged withdrawal and seclusion, the structure of the Paris flat, the attractions of the Paris street, and the very nature of Paris itself called its residents out of doors. If the life of London lay hidden in its drawing rooms, inside its clubs, within the cozy subdivisions of its pubs, the life of Paris was there for all to see, and perhaps to join: in its promenades, its boulevards, and its streets. (185)

City as Playground

This is partly city as enjoyed by tourist. Interesting to note London as a city was very much lacking in hotels or restaurants. For men single or married, there was instead the club. Described by Cesar Daly (who I must read but seems like I must read him in French, yikes) as a way to enjoy the society of others without mixing with those of inferior social class. That sums up England rather beautifully.

Olsen quotes Henry T. Tuckerman on Paris, a very different sort of place:

We of England and America, instinctively revolve about a permanent centre, hallowed and held by the triple bond of habit, love, and religion. Not so the Parisians: Imagine … we dwelt in a kind of metropolitan encampment, requiring no domicile except a bedroom for seven hours in the twenty-four, and passing the remainder of each day and night as nomadic cosmopolites: going to a café to breakfast, a restaurant to dine, an estaminet to smoke, a national library to study, a cabinet de lecture to read the gazettes, a public bath for ablution…a thronged garden to promenade, a theatre to he amused, a museum for science, a royal gallery for art, a municipal ball, literary soirée, or suburban rendezvous, for society.39 (217)

Fun fact: The first raised foot pavement in Paris was in the rue de ‘Odeon in 1781 (Wow) but rare anywhere else until the 1830s. And yet, this view of Paris as a place where live is lived out of doors is ubiquitous, as in this quote from Philip Gilbert Hamerton (Paris in Old and Present Times). ‘The English have invented the house, the French have invented the street.

Vienna? ‘No city in Europe is better suited for a life of public self-representation‘.

The City as Document

This opens with a bit of a debate around history and architecture that I find a little stale,

An assumption underlying this book has been that a work of art is also a historical source, that the city, as the largest and most characteristic art form of the nineteenth century, has something to tell us about the inner nature of that century. (251)

The caption for the picture below: “A Parisian facade seems to be a drawing in stone, full size, literally an immense lithograph.” Rue de la Victoire 98. From Revue Generale de l’architecture 16 (1858)

This one is even better for Vienna: “If a street census were taken…they would certainly equal the population of a respectable market town.” Figurative sculpture on facade of Schubertring 9-11, Ludwig von Zettl , architect, 1865 (Kunsthistorisches Institut der Universitat Wien. Photo Johana Fiegl).

Architecture as Language

Just a few good quotes;

The history of architecture is the history of the world,- proclaimed Pugin in 1843. “The belief and manners of all people are embodied in the edifices they raised.” [A. Welby Pugin An Apology… 1969]

1892 N. J. W. Westlake: “the higher architecture is . . . a language for the expression of thought. . . . In ancient times it expressed the ideas of the period in the idiom of the period.”

Pevsner: “…every building creates associations in the mind of the beholder, whether the architect wanted it or not. The Victorian architect wanted it.” [A History of Building Types]

From John Belcher’s presidential address to the RIBA in 1904, where he ‘made explicit a conviction implicit in historicist theory: architecture and its associated arts could convey the maximum of beauty, morality, and truth only if they combined to form a Gesamtkunstwerk‘:

Architecture must tell its tale; it has its message to deliver. Like a musical score it expresses a great deal more than meets the eye. . . . Architecture is the prose of inarticulate but beautiful thought and feeling. Sometimes it tells of the commonplace in life; rising higher it speaks of domestic peace and happiness; and yet again in more stately diction it sets forth the grander and larger purposes of life. It recounts the past, records the present, and holds up ideals for the future. But only when it is enriched from the sister arts of sculpture and painting can it tell the tale with the fulness of eloquence and power.

Olsen’s take, and a summary of the questions he tries to answer here:

What messages were buildings, cities, and other works of art expected to transmit? What meaning did they possess, what ideas did they contain? What can a city, in its capacity as a work of art, accomplish? What can art do, apart from existing in its own right? It can tell a story, or many stories. It can establish a mood. It can reinforce selected virtues. It can surprise and delight by unexpected juxtapositions of forms, textures, colors, and movements. It can soothe and reassure by repetition of familiar forms, textures, colors, and movements. It can stand for, or represent, ideas, qualities, institutions. English critics placed great stress on the expressive qualities of buildings, German theorists on their representational qualities. (285)

Olsen, Donald J. (1986) The City as a Work of Art: London – Paris – Vienna. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

Decline and Fall: Waugh’s hilarious thoughts on marriage and home

I’ve never read Waugh, I found this a hilarious, biting satire, and enjoyed it greatly to my no small surprise.

They should have told me about marriage. They should have told me that at the end of that gay journey and flower-strewn path were the hideous lights of home and the voices of children. I should have been warned of the great lavender-scented bed that was laid out for me, of the wisteria at the windows, of all the intimacy and confidence of the family life…Our life is lived between two homes. We emerge for a little into the light, and then the front door closes. The chintz curtains shut out the sun, and the hearth glows with the fire of home, while upstairs, above our heads, are enacted again the awful accidents of adolescence. There’s a home and a family waiting for every one of is, we can’t escape, try how we may. It’s the seed of life we carry about with us like our skeletons, each one of us unconsciously pregnant with desirable villa residences. There’s no escape. As individuals we simply do not exist. We are just potential home-builders, beavers, and ants… (102)

And an extra thrown in:

for anyone who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison. It is the people brought up in the gay intimacy of the slums, Paul learned, who find prison so soul-destroying.

Waugh, Evelin ([1928] 1968] Decline and Fall. Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin. Books

Young and Willmott on Leaving the Slums for the Estate

I know they are listed as Young and Willmott but that simply is impossible to roll off the tongue, I shall try and probably once again fail to write it this way in part two on Family and Kinship in East London (1957). From the densely woven networks of family described in part 1, held together in crowded rooms and turnings by living with parents or next door to them, by every day visits, shared meals, shared chores, shared lives, to spacious new council homes built on 44 acres near Epping Forest. This is how everything changed, and as Young and Willmott write, what better way to understand the importance of residence?

From Bethnal Green to Greenleigh (Debden)

Less than twenty miles away from Bethnal Green, the automatic doors of the tube train open on to the new land of Greenleigh. On one side of the railway are cows at pasture. On the other, the new housing estate. Instead of the shops of Bethnal Green there is the shopping centre at the Parade; instead of the street barrows piled high with fruit, fish, and dresses, instead of the cries of the costermongers from Spitalfields to Old Ford, there are orderly self-service stores in the marble halls of the great combines. In place of the gaunt buildings rising above narrow streets of narrow houses, there are up-to-date semi-detached residences. Bethnal Green encases the history of three hundred years. Cottages built for the descendants of Huguenot refugees, with their wide weavers’ windows and peeling plaster, stand next to Victorian red-brick on one side and massive blocks of Edwardian charity on the other. Greenleigh belongs firmly to the aesthetics of this mid-century. Built since the war to a single plan, it is all of one piece. Though the Council has mixed different types of houses, row upon row look practically identical, each beside a concrete road, each enclosed by a fence, each with its little patch of flower garden at front and larger patch of vegetable garden at back, each with expansive front windows covered over with net curtains; all built, owned, and guarded by a single responsible landlord.

Instead of the hundred fussy, fading little pubs of the borough, there are just the neon lights and armchairs of the Merchant Venturer and the Yeoman Arms. Instead of the barrel organ in Bethnal Green Road there is an electrically amplified musical box in a mechanical ice-cream van. In place of tiny workshops squeezed into a thousand back-yards rise the first few glass and concrete factories which will soon give work to Greenleigh’s children. Instead of the sociable squash of people and houses, workshops and lorries, there are the drawn-out roads and spacious open ground of the usual low-density estate. Instead of the flat land of East London, the gentle hills of Essex.

‘When I first came,’ said Mrs Sandeman, ‘I cried for weeks, it was so lonely. It was a shock to see such a deep hill going up to the shops.’ (121-122)

That gives such a beautiful sense of the differences, albeit a very particular view of them. But the scale is quite incredible.

Between 1931 and 1955 nearly 11,000 families containing over 40,000 people were rehoused from Bethnal Green on L.C.C. estates, many of them outside the county.’ (124)

People did, many of them, choose to come of course. Part of the study was to understand just why. The reasons were many, but not, for the most part, weaker attachments to their family.

lf the migrants did not have weaker kinship attachments than other people, why did they come? The main reason is {quite simple. The attraction is the house. Our couples left two or three damp rooms built in the last century for the ‘industrious classes ‘, and were suddenly transported to a spacious modern home. Instead of the tap in the backyard, there was a bathroom with hot and cold water. Instead of the gas stove on the landing, a real kitchen with a sink and a larder. Instead of the narrow living room with stained wallpaper and shaky floorboards, a newly painted lounge heated by a modern solid-fuel grate. And instead of the street for their children to play in, fields and trees and open country. The contrast is all the sharper because the new residents had, in the main, come from Bethnal Green’s worst houses. (126)

But the council in general had much more to do with it:

But, in general, the L.C.C.’s view of who needed it most decided who went. Our informants were mostly at the top of the L.C.C.’s housing list – they were living in the most overcrowded or the most unhealthy houses in the borough – and that is why they were selected. (127)

One of the tenants told them — ‘If we could take the house with us, we’d go back like a shot.’ (127)

For many, as with so many families, it was about the generations to come, not the generations they had left behind.

‘Everything seems quieter here, more calmer,’ said Mrs Vince. ‘The fresh air hits you when you come out of the station.’ Many people value the air and fields even more for their children than for themselves. Greenleigh is generally thought ‘better for the kiddies’.

So even where they left their kin with regret, the people were not deserting family so much as acting for it, on behalf of the younger rather than the older generation. (128)

But many did not stay.

Many migrants in fact decided that they had made the wrong decision, and left the estate, most of them to return to the East End. Altogether, from the opening of the Greenleigh estate until March, 1956, 26 percent of the tenants who had come there moved away again. (129)

The Family at Greenleigh

So what changed? Any friendly community feeling did not survive the scale of changing community. Everyone found the neighbors snobbish, stand-offish. Talked about the terrible loneliness. Some got part-time jobs just to survive it — one of those said ‘If I didn’t go to work I’d get melancholic.’ Her verdict on Greenleigh — ‘It’s like being in a box to die out here.’ (133)

The study found a great sense of loss, particularly women missing mothers. Most of the men continued to work in Bethnal Green as there were no jobs out near the estate, so suddenly they become the ones maintaining family ties. What made me most sad — it wasn’t distance or time that kept women from their wider families, but the cost of transport. In times of trouble they had no support, there was no one to lend money to tide people over, help when sick or pregnant, help with kids. Visiting was not a thing that was done.

Their study of Bethnal Green showed just how much happened in public spaces, not private ones, and these were precisely the spaces missing in the new estates.

One reason people have so little to do with neighbors is the absence of places to meet them. In Bethnal Green there is one pub for every 400 people, and one shop for every 44 (or one for every 14 households). At Greenleigh there is one pub for 5,000 people, and one shop for 300.

They had no cinemas, so could not congregate there either. This combination of distance and television changed things. Young & Willmott write:

The growth of television compensates for the absence of amenities outside the home, and serves to support the family in its isolation. (143)

Rents were also higher there on the council estate, often by 3 times. That in addition to fares meant people were trapped there.

Keeping Themselves to Themselves

Willmott and Young found people in Greenleigh eager to talk about their neighbours, how unfriendly they found them, and they always compared back to their community in Bethnal Green.

At Greenleigh they neither share long residence with their fellow tenants nor as a rule have kin to serve as bridges between the family and the wider community. These two vital interlocked conditions of friendship are missing, and their absence goes far to explain the attitude we have illustrated. (150)

They believed this to be partly due to the fact that everyone moving in at the same time, and there was no existing community for them to integrate into. While Willmott and Young describe their expectations that things would have improved over the few years between interviews, nothing really had changed. They blame a lack of density — a bit of catch phrase these days.

One reason it is taking so long is that the estate is so strung out — the number of people per acre at Greenleigh being only one-fifth what it is in Bethnal Green — and low density does not encourage sociability. (153)

The new big homes reinforced a feeling of what people lack, rather than all that they had. They were spending more on filling homes with objects, rather than entertainment and going out as they had before.

There is also a facsinating aside on time and space — in Bethnal Green people tended to be very informal, did ‘not need a highly-developed time sense…because it does not matter greatly whether her goes round to Mum’s at 10 o’clock or at 11. If Mum is not there someone will explain where she has gone‘ (157). This was not at all true of Greenleigh. Much of the difference lay in how close things were in Bethnal Green, with everything walking distance. In Greenleigh, life required a car and a telephone to ‘overcome geography and organize a more scattered life into a manageable whole (158)’.

The impact of this was quite profound, particularly on mental health, and particularly for women. This should not have been stuck in a footnote really:

Footnote 1, p 158: The chief psychiatrist at a local hospital told us that the loneliness of the women on this and other housing estates was the immediate, precipitating cause of so many of them coming to his department for treatment.

This lack of relationships, of knowing people, meant both a growing formality, as well as increased reliance on visual clues for judging strangers.

In a community of long-standing, status, in so far as it is determined by job and income and education, is more or less irrelevant to a person’s worth. He is judged instead, if he is judged at all, more in the round, as a person … How different is Greenleigh…Where nearly everyone is a stranger, there is no means of uncovering personality. (161-162)

They continue

Their relationships are window-to-window, not face-to-face. Their need for respect is just as strong as it ever was, but instead of  being able to find satisfaction in actual, living relationships, through the personal respect that accompanies almost any steady himan interaction, they have to turn to the other kind of respect which is awarded, by some strange sort of common understanding, for the quantity and quality of possessions which which the person surrounds himself (163-164)

They also note the lack of forward planning in the planning process for the estate itself…it has been developed as a community where people cannot age. When people’s children are grown where will they live? Nowhere for them to move close by, almost certain that enough existing units will not become vacant over the normal course of things, and it was council policy to prioritise outside people from the list rather than children. Willmott and Young note the protest that this raised among residents, a local association writing of the LCC in 1955 ‘We are in opposition to the view that people are simply units to be moved around the face of the earth in line with the impersonal schemes of some “Big Brother”...’

W&Y continue

The method by which the council has eased the housing shortage in the middle of the century is bound to create a further shortage in its last quarter. (168)

They weren’t wrong.

Movement between classes

They wanted to check and make sure that this growing sense of the importance of geography was not in fact more a function of social mobility, which leads to a rather interesting way to better understand class. Again, Willmott and Young trace sense of loss and disintegration of a sense of community it primarily back to the geography of the built environment — as people tend to seek out larger houses, they must look elsewhere. The authors write:

The East does not provide ‘middle-class’ people with ‘middle-class’ places to live, and such migration may therefore be more common than it would be in districts with more of a mixture of classes. (172)

In conclusion, though, of all of it.

…very few people wish to leave the East End. (186)

While the houses were better, Willmott and Young look at the networks of support, and find they are absent on the new estates. They have the best description of  the daughters’ new plight,  engaged in the ‘arduous…puzzling…monotonous‘ work of child rearing, while older people were cut off from remaining useful and part of the family. Willmott and Young are highly critical.

It seems that when the balance of a three-generation family is disturbed, the task of caring for dependents at both ends of life, always one of the great and indispensable functions of any society, becomes less manageable. (196)

So one key recommendation is to support these connections rather than tear them apart. Central to that there follows the need to maintain communities intact, and save as many of the existing houses as possible, updating the fabric, giving people new bathrooms, lavatories and kitchens.

I cannot help but agree with them, and wish this had been policy for the past few decades so as to build on the strengths of working class communities, rather than the opposite.

Young, Michael and Willmott, Peter ([1957] 1979) Family and Kinship in East London. Manchester: Penguin Books.

The Importance of Residence: Willmott and Young on Bethnal Green

Michael Young and Peter Willmott’s Family and Kinship in East London is an incredible book, and I am just sorry I didn’t get round to reading it while working in East London though it has been on my list to read for what feels like forever. There are a number of critiques of the book, based primarily on the ‘rosy’ views of working class life. Looking backwards it is hard to tell of course, but it seemed to me it captures much of what continues to be good about working class life…and there is enough here to show that such closeness of community is many-sided and not to everyone’s taste. I thought back to Morrison’s writings on East London, which accentuated the narrowness of life, the gossip in those Mean Streets. I don’t know that either is wrong or right, they can sit together in the richness of how people experience life. For myself, it is always the generousness of my class that has impressed me. Anyway.

This is quite a stupendous piece of research. Amazingly I found a pdf of some of the original survey instruments (original link here, another copy of the docs here)… very cool. But what I love most is they seemed to have actually listened to people, rather than categorising them, and in their work to have explored the intersections of family, home and neighbourhood in quite brilliant ways.

This book is about the effect of one of the newest upon one of the oldest of our social institutions. The new is the housing estate, hundreds of which have been built since the war. In the last century people moved into the cities; in this they have been moving steadily out again, towards the countryside from which their ancestors came. (11)

They write too, that ‘We were least prepared for what we found in the borough’. Because what did they expect? The familiar tale of the ‘good old days’ now gone.  They believed old patterns of wide extended families and support networks had disappeared over the course of industrialization and modernisation undergone in East London, but instead:

We were surprised to discover that the wider family, far from having disappeared, was still very much alive in the middle of London. This finding seemed to us of more interest than anything we had been led to expect, all the more so when it transpired that the absence of relatives seemed to be as significant on the estate as their presence in the borough.

and the last line, a rather fascinating methodological note

We decided, although we hit on it more or less accidentally, to make our main subject the wider family. (12)

This is perhaps why I didn’t prioritise this book, being less interested in constructions of family and more in community and home. But I was terribly wrong about that. In addition to tackling the myth f the destruction of familial networks, they take on others. Bethnal Green’ 54,000 residents in 1955 were almost all working class, but only 8% of population found to be Jewish, ‘contrary to popular opinion‘. So on to what they did find.

Kinship in Bethnal Green

The begin with a review of earlier studies — Charles Booth among others, who described barefoot children, undernourished babies, young moths sick and hungry. The majority of these blamed poverty, blamed the poor, and above all men for spending money on things they shouldn’t, particularly nights down the pub etc. This is the image of the brutal working class man, tales of drunkenness and forced sex, bruises, pregnancies.

Even though we may think the accounts overdrawn, and distrust the representativeness of the families they describe, we cannot ignore the historical evidence, all the more so since the notion still survives that the working-class man is a sort of absentee husband, sharing with his wife neither responsibility nor affection…(19)

But you look at the evidence drawn from their interviews, it is the falling death rate that seems the biggest factor in families remaining families — 29% of those born before 1890 came from homes broken up before they turned 15 by the death of a parent, as compared to 2% from divorce or separation. That is a crazy figure. It was still 19% for those born between 1921 and 1933, compared to 1% divorce and separation.

It had never occurred to me before to think seriously of how young people died, to understand what that meant for the living. To remember how soon this all began changing.

Still — things were improving — despite people living longer, more housing was being made available. In 1931 there were 3 households to every 2 dwellings. 1941, 4 households to every 5 dwellings. More space, less hard wear of space. More comfortable spaces you might want to spend time in as opposed to down the pub. It never occurred to me to think of that much either.

Nor labour patterns and rights, but of course those were also definitive.

The spread of the five-day week has created the ‘week-end’, a new term and a new experience for the working man. (24)

You can see, of course, why I should love this book, bringing all these structural factors together to understand just what life lived within their constraints might mean. It is also full of those details you only get with qualitative work. Like the descriptions of the rise of cinema and wireless — a lovely section on the impact it has had on naming children! No longer names that have always been in the family. Aspirations were changing in other ways — work for example. Primarily for sons, but I love the snark in this reply:

I’d like him to take up chemistry. It’s completely unproductive and therefore well paid. (29)

Young and Willmott continue:

A sizeable minority of men in Bethnal Green take a very different view from white-collar people about the status of manual work, placing jobs such as company director and chartered accountant towards the bottom of the scale and manual jobs, like agricultural laborer, coal miner, and bricklayer, towards the top. These men regard business managers with disfavour because ‘They’re not doing anything. They get their money for walking around’ … Agricultural laborers, on the other hand, they value highly because ‘you can’t do without grub’; coal-miners because ‘without coal, industry stops’; and bricklayers because ‘you’ve got to have houses’. But even some of the men that take this view are anxious that their children should get as good a technical education as possible. (29)

That is one of the best statements of how the world should work I have ever read.

Where People Live

Housing was always an issue given its scarcity, and there follows a long, and brilliantly detailed exploration of how and where people live. After marriage, if the new couple have no home of their own yet, they most often live with the wife’s parents — mother and daughter have a long term bond, can manage in the house together by custom. Willmott and Young write:

Their tenancy is the most valuable property-right many working-class people posses: where the property is privately owned, the rent is low and controlled by law. (33-34)

People inherited tenancies from their parents, sometime going back three generations. This was one of the positive aspects of remaining at home after marriage, but as Young and WiIlmott make clear, most people ‘don’t want to live with them, they want to live near them‘ (35). They include a brilliant quote from Sheldon’s, ‘The Medicine of Old Age’ about similar community in Wolverhampton:

The fact that no less than four per cent of the sample had children living actually next door is astonishing; and there is no doubt that this proportion would have been higher but for the general housing difficulties since 1939, for the opinion was frequently expressed by both generations that this is the best mode of life for the old people, since it enables them to preserve their independence and the married children to lead a separate life, while at the same time ensuring that help is at hand when needed. (36)

This study showed twice as many women as men living in same house with their parents, and twice as many in the same street or block. They talk about the matrilocality of the English working class, and spatially at least this is well born out. (37) They include brilliant little pieces of description of the neighbourhoods they are visiting, and the feel of life there, like their visit to:

a four-roomed house in Minton Street in the middle of the borough. The other houses (but not the two pubs, obviously newer) were all built in the 1870s, of brick which has become a uniform smoke-eaten grey. They are nearly all alike in plan; on the first floor two bedrooms, and on the ground floor a living room, a kitchen, and a small scullery opening on to a yard which has a lavatory at the end of it and patch of earth down one side. Many of the yards are packed with clothes hanging on the line, prams, sheds, boxes of geraniums and pansies, hutches for rabbits and guinea-pigs, lofts for pigeons, and pens for fowls. the only difference between the houses is the colour of the curtains and doorsteps which the wives redden or whiten when they wash down the pavement in front of their doors in the morning. Dilapidated but cosy, damp but friendly, in the eyes of most Bethnal Greeners these cottages are the place, much more so than the huge blocks of tenement buildings standing guard, like dark fortresses, over the little houses . On the warm summer evening of the interview, children were playing hop-scotch or ‘he’ in the roadway while their parents, when not watching the television, were at their open windows. Some of the older people were sitting in upright chairs on the pavement, just in front of the doors, or in the passages leading through to the sculleries, chatting with each other and watching the children at play. (38)

The mother is usually the one who helps get her daughter her own place after marriage — she is the one with connections through the rent collector and through friends. She knows who has died or who is moving out, if she is a good tenant the rent collector can assume her daughter will be too. This means empty apartments go to those from the local area due to this web of connections. Some charitable trusts who owned housing in the area had it as official policy that family gets first chance at flats opening up, in others while not official, that was generally the way things worked. Willmott & Young note too, some of the other arrangements that can be made to reduce animosity over flats where they are scarce, such as letting part to a family who also needs it etc.

This was very different from how the council operated, which is rather fascinating. Willmott &Young noted that at the time of writing the council owned a third of dwelling in the borough and that was increasing. The council worked off of lists not personal connection, and early version of today’s points and priority need. Preference was given to ‘slum’ dwellers and those with high need, and it is easy to see the argument for this, but also you can see what might be lost. In 1957, it was still true that

Bethnal Green suffers from a serious housing shortage. In time, we can hope, it will be much less acute… (42)

Mothers and Daughters

From the above, it is clear just important relationships are. Willmott and Young note the amount of time daughters spend with their mothers, and mothers with their daughters, how it makes no sense to talk about the household as such, particularly given how many meals people share. Again they quote Sheldon on Wolverhampton:

‘In at least 40 per cent of cases they must be regarded as part of a family group, the ramifications of which bear little or no relation to architectural limitations. (48)

I rather love how the family overflows and engulfs the limits of brick walls in that sentence.

There is a multitude of ways listed in which mothers and daughters help each other, but I found this sentence about work quite fascinating:

Part-time work is plentiful in Bethnal Green, both in the small local factories and in the tens of thousands of offices which have to be cleaned in the nearby City, and women are therefore less in need of help from relatives than they would be in many other places. (54)

This would change, I suppose, but it seems to me I have not read much at all that really looks at these employment patterns and the independence such work must have provided. While also being rather shit work.

Husbands and mothers

Another amazing description:

Once arrived in the Hanbury’s front room, most of the guests stood about rather stiffly, holding glasses of beer and sniffing the pickled onions. The Buxtons, that is the bridegroom’s family, were grouped by the window, looking disdainfully at the chipped china dogs on the mantelpiece, the worn linoleum on the floor and the pictures of country scenes which did not quite conceal the damp patches on the wall-paper. (62)

Things liven up though.

You’ll be happy to know that the study found sons to regularly check in on their mothers, it tended to be once a week, and it was often them dropping by on their own. Nice.

The Kinship Network

These are broad, reinforced by regular meetings, but often the mother/oldest sister at their centre, and they tend to dissipate after their death.

The Family in the Economy

More on the many jobs available — it is hard indeed not to think of them as better days:

You do not have to live in Bethnal Green, you only have to take a bus down the main street to notice that this is a place of many industries. You pass tailors’ workshops, furniture makers, Kearley & Tonge’s food warehouse, and near to Allen & Hanbury’s big factory. The borough has by itself a more diversified economy than some countries. But the borough has no frontiers: it belongs to the economy which stretches down both banks of the Thames. At its heart is the largest port in the world, which lines the rives for nearly twenty miles from London Bridge to Tilbury, and supports on every side a web of interconnected industries… (89)

More on immigration, some things don’t change.

Because the East End is a port, and near to the Continent, it is the place where for centuries foreigners have landed to escape from war and persecution in Europe. (89)

Immigration’s connection to employment, though becoming more tenuous

The Huguenots most famously, notes still hand-loom weavers in 1939 and the closure of the last Huguenot silk firm in 1955. Furniture, however, once a spin-off of this trade, still strong though showing signs of winding down…

Several chapters on they have another great story about the Huguenots, where a local resident showed them a document written about the time of the Revolution, some kind of petition to the Governors of the French hospital in Hackney (!) to employ, and treat, his granddaughter. Amazing. But I digress.

Despite this winding down of the furniture trade (though that was still existing in pieces when I worked there), they can still write:

East London is less vulnerable because it has many industries to lean on, and while it cannot avoid being harmed by a general contraction in trade. (91-92)

And they note that those in Bethnal Green able to take the job of their choice. It’s political leanings are no surprise:

Every constituency in East London returns a Labour member to Parliament and every council is controlled by the Labour Party, Bethnal Green regularly electing a complete slate of Labour Councillors almost as a matter of course, The people share their politics; they speak the same language with the same accents; they work with their hands; they have, in short, the same kind of life. These deep-lying bonds between members of a class are also bonds between members of the family. (94)

See? Good old days. Hard to imagine this as Labour now.

One change for the better? Things aren’t quite as openly racist as they used to be:

But for most people the Council is not the prize it was. Security does not now matter enough to offset the low pay. Mr Sanderson, a dustman, explained how far his job had sunk…

Things have got so bad that they recently started about a dozen black men. They’re got the rough and rebel from everywhere. One of the black men was sweeping roads with a cardboard box with eyeholes over his head. The foreman asked him what he was doing that for and he said “Well guv’nor, it’s cold.” If it’s a bad winter, they’ll pack up, go home, and make rum.” (96)

The docks a different story (though probably not in the matter of casual racism), ‘It is a matter of pride to belong to a docker’s family‘. (97) I love this story, though I can’t honestly tell if its racist or not:

There were many well-established families — in a nearby dock, one of these was…known as the ‘Flying Eighteen’, a group of brothers and uncles with legendary sensitivity to the ‘jungle drum beats which let them know a ship was coming up the Thames’. (98)

They always got there first. This closeness of community and family surely has its downside. The study looked at how unions and industries gave preference to members’ sons — Transport and General Workers’ Union, Billingsgate for fish, Covent Garden and Spitalfields for fruit and veg, and Smithfields for meat.  Printing, bookbinding and paper workers the same.

Kinship and Community

Willmott and Young meet some of these challenges head on, at least in terms of the wider white working class:

Since family life is so embracing in Bethnal Green, one might perhaps expect it would be all-embracing… Far from the family excluding ties to outsiders, it acts as an important means of promoting them… The kindred are, if we understand their functions aright, a bridge between the individual and the community… (104)

They give this amazing, cinematic description of Mrs ‘Landon’ doing her half-hour morning’s shopping and telling the name and background of everyone they pass. By her own record of who she saw in a week in the street that she considered herself to ‘know’, there were 63 in total, and 38 were the relatives of someone else she knew. It is in the street, the shop, the pub that people meet each other, NOT in the home, which remains private. But I think much more happened then in public that would now be considered things best kept private.

Again we have another  brilliant description of urban space:

The streets are known as ‘turnings’, and adjoining ones as ‘back-doubles’, Surrounded by their human associations, the words had a glow to them, ‘In our turning we‘, they would say, ‘do this, that, or the other.’ ‘I’ve lived in this turning for fifty years’, said one old man proudly, ‘and here I intend to stay’. The residents of the turning, who usually make up a sort of ‘village’ of 100 or 200 people, have their own places to meet, where few outsiders ever come — practically every turning has its one or two pubs, its two or three shops, and its ‘bookie’s runner’. They organize their own parties…some turnings have little war memorials… (109)

They mention a woman had lived in the same courtyard all of her 62 years, spoke of newcomers with only 18 years residence, shocked to hear the council thought of her court as a slum. Imagine.

Another quote from J.H. Robb Working Class Anti-Semite…I don’t quite know what that is about, will have to look it up, but the quote is a good one:

There is a further localism within the borough. People are apt to look for their friends and their club within a close range. The social settlements draw nearly all their members from within a third of  a mile, while tradition dictates which way borderline streets face for their social life. The main streets are very real social barriers… (110)

So in looking at what holds community together, they write:

The interaction between length of residence and kinship is therefore the crux of our interpretation. Neither is by itself a sufficient explanation. (115)

But above all it is place.

In ending this chapter…If we are to pick out one conclusion, it is the importance of residence.

Marriage, changes of life, all of it

A special cast is given to all these adjustments and readjustments by the fact that they are played out within a limited physical space.  (117)

What better way, they say, to study the importance of residence than to look at what happens to this thick web of connections when there is a change? So on to part two — the new council estate at ‘Greenleigh’, now the truth can come out of the name — the Debden Estate. Why did I think it was the Becontree Estate? Dear oh dear, but it matters not. That will be saved for part 2.

Young, Michael and Willmott, Peter ([1957] 1979) Family and Kinship in East London. Manchester: Penguin Books.

St Paul’s Grotto — WWII Shelters — Catacombs, Rabat

St Paul is my least favourite apostle. Not exactly an apostle, I know, but something like that. Persecuting Christians one minute, persecuting those who aren’t Christian enough the next, and it always seemed to me he quite hated women, made we want to throw my bible during Sunday School despite some lovely passages about love in those letters he wrote the Corinthians. Still, interesting to think of him here, in Malta, where we are too! Our first two nights in Mdina/Rabat, known as Melite to the Romans. This is from Acts 28: 1-10.

1. And when they were escaped, then they knew that the island was called Melita.
2 And the barbarous people shewed us no little kindness: for they kindled a fire, and received us every one, because of the present rain, and because of the cold.
3 And when Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks, and laid them on the fire, there came a viper out of the heat, and fastened on his hand.
4 And when the barbarians saw the venomous beast hang on his hand, they said among themselves, No doubt this man is a murderer, whom, though he hath escaped the sea, yet vengeance suffereth not to live.
5 And he shook off the beast into the fire, and felt no harm.
6 Howbeit they looked when he should have swollen, or fallen down dead suddenly: but after they had looked a great while, and saw no harm come to him, they changed their minds, and said that he was a god.
7 In the same quarters were possessions of the chief man of the island, whose name was Publius; who received us, and lodged us three days courteously.
8 And it came to pass, that the father of Publius lay sick of a fever and of a bloody flux: to whom Paul entered in, and prayed, and laid his hands on him, and healed him.
9 So when this was done, others also, which had diseases in the island, came, and were healed:
10 Who also honoured us with many honours; and when we departed, they laded us with such things as were necessary.

Pretty exciting times. Legend placed St Paul in this grotto/ cave/ prison preaching the gospel. If true (and it makes some geographic sense and the place name is right), he would have arrived here in 60 AD, shipwrecked while traveling from Crete to Rome for trial in front of Julius Ceasar.

St Paul’s Grotto

You follow down steps:

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

To find the requisite marbled bit:

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

And a quite lovely fresco

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

The grotto itself is rather more humble, rather more grim.

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

There was a huge fight over the legacy of St Paul between the Knights of St John and the Church. In 1607, Spanish hermit Juan Benegas de Cordova was given permission by Pope Paul V to look after the grotto. A small sheet of typewritten paper in the Wignacourt Museum above relates that it seems only then did the Knights realise the potential of the spot. Benegas ‘ceded’ the Grotto to them on 24th April 1617. Above it, Alof de Wignacourt built the Collegio that now forms the museum for the College of Chaplains, their mission to promote the cult of St Paul as well as to protect the Grotto. The church realised it had missed a trick, and immediately built their own — bigger, more eye-catching — church of St Paul immediately next door, financed by Cosmana Navarra (who has a street named after her, also a very nice restaurant now inhabiting her townhouse though we ourselves went to the Grotto Tavern, where I had ravioli in a kind of broth that started out on first taste as disappointingly bland until a crazy crescendo of flavour was reached at some point thereafter transforming my ideas of the heights pasta can attain). The grotto remained contested until the Knights lost everything (damn Napoleon) and now is with the Church. But this painting by the Knight’s own painter Antoine Favray (1706-1787), shows St John the Baptist and St Paul together, which only makes sense in the light of this story…hence, I suppose, the typewritten sheet beneath him.

Rabat -- Wignacourt Museum

Here also are perhaps my favourite catacombs — we have visited many. It also has a brilliant series of WWII shelters.

Down into the WWII Shelters

At the war’s outbreak (says the display), 8,000 workers began to dig shelters with pick axes. 841 shelters were dug to serve the population.

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Some families asked for permission to dig individual shelters as seen in these caves, about 50 such rooms — all are a standard size and shape, but some have been painted and tiled. I loved these touches to create a kind of home here.

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

The view from inside

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Beyond the shelters are the catacombs, and they were my favourites because you can just wander around. There were very few others here, and to have this place to ourselves — so very cool.

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

Here we found first mention of the Agape Table, which we would find everywhere, yet this is a name fairly sneered at by Anthony Bonanno in Malta: Phoenician, Punic, and Roman. He might also have sneered at this drawing, of a family communing over a meal in the catacombs, a reconstruction of how it is believed they are used.

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

But they are quite incredible

Rabat -- St Paul's Grotto

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Robbed

Someone broke in last night.

I was trying to get out the door, late for work of course, and saw the door was ajar. I stared at it, wondered if it was possible I had not shut it behind me. No time for recriminations though, I ran down the steps, got to the corner. Remembered I had to remember my work laptop, turned around to get it.

Stared at where it should have been.

Just my pile of shoes there by the door. I had left it by the door to remind myself, but I found myself just staring at the shoes. Blank.

I still didn’t think. Wondered where I might have put it. Turned. Saw also gone the ancient mac that only works to play DVDs. Its screen long dead, it is connected up to a cheap screen so I can watch US dvds, awaiting the day I can afford a television and a universal DVD player. They took all the cords, left the cheap screen. That old mac isn’t worth £5 to anyone but me, but we’ve been through a lot together.

I never move that mac, never touch that tangle of cords. I knew someone had been in there then.

They came in through the window I think. I had left that small window open I think, and it was now closed. They came in while I was sleeping. I saw later, after calling the police, that they had pulled out some of my papers, an old wallet that had nothing in it but my checkbook to a defunct American account. An empty envelope. A lot of risk for so little. Even later, really looking around to make sure everything else was there, I realised they also stole my exercise cord. How am I going to do my rows? That felt like some kind of really stupid straw.

Just a door between them and me asleep.

That’s the real thing.

I am surprised this warm comforting space I call my home didn’t catch them up in a black tornado funnel and spit them back out the window, didn’t rare up biting and clawing to protect me. Or overwhelm them with its love and consciousness embodied in books and political posters. They took that cord, but left the painted Creature From the Black Lagoon box right next to it. Luckily our definitions of value are very different, and everything I love most is still here. I am not much for portable and valuable things. Except laptops.

I feel funny though. Like someone has dropped a stone in water, and I am not sure where the ripples have left me. I had to talk to strangers on the phone. I went in to work because I didn’t even think maybe I shouldn’t, still operating on automatic, then came home. I had to fill out paperwork. I still have to call the manager. I failed to do much beyond a few urgent, very specific email tasks. After I realised they had come through the window I called the police back, thought they should come out after all. I don’t think they’re coming out. I don’t know that I mind. I’m still waiting for a call.

I ordered a box-set of BBC adaptations of Jane Austen. Many years ago, a woman off her head on something and fighting someone in the building or her own demons threw a large stone through my window when I was on my own in LA, and started screaming she wanted to kill me after seeing my shadow. I stared at the rock and the shattered glass all over my bed. Called the police. Waited for them for hours, she was long gone and I wasn’t sad about that either. Then I went to my friend Jennie’s, and watched all of Pride and Prejudice for the first time. I should own a copy for the next time something happens, it is the most soothing of productions.

I am not sure where the ripples have left me.

Hold Everything Dear: John Berger

John Berger gives us words to live by, Hold Everything Dear. An amazing book. This is a rather Benjaminian collection of quotes that I particularly loved really.

From ‘Wanting Now’, thinking  of all the struggle that lies outside of a ‘movement’:

Today the desire for justice is multitudinous. This is to say that struggles against injustice, struggles for survival, for self-respect, for human rights, should never be considered merely in terms of their immediate demands, their organizations, or their historical consequences. They cannot be reduced to ‘movements’. A movement describes a mass of people collectively moving towards a definite goal, which they either achieve or fail to achieve. Yet such a description ignores, or does not take into account, the countless personal choices, encounters, illuminations, sacrifices, new desires, griefs and, finally, memories, which the movement brought about, but which are, in the strict sense, incidental to that movement. (2)

From ‘Let Us Think About Fear’ — it seems even more uncannily accurate about Trump and the Republicans today, who almost make me miss Bush Jr.

The leaders of the New World Order, however, would seem to be married to Fear … Day and Night the partners of Fear are anxiously preoccupied with telling themselves and their subordinates the right half-truths … It takes about six half-truths to make a lie. As a result, they become unfamiliar with reality, whilst continuing to dream about, and of course to exercise, power. They continually have to absorb shocks whilst accelerating. Decisiveness becomes their invariable device for preventing the asking of questions. (53)

From ‘Stones’ — on the walls of Ramallah:

Today there is not a wall in the town centre of Ramallah, now the capital of the Palestinian Authority, which is not covered with photographs of the dead, taken when alive and now reprinted as small posters. … These faces transform the desultory street walls into something as intimate as a wallet of private papers and pictures. … Around the posters, the walls are scarred with bullet and shrapnel marks.  (59)

I confess, I am perhaps a bit wary of such essays as a form, printed in a small book they seem part of the elite tradition of letters. I still love this book, I know Berger was a Marxist to the end. Yet it makes me so sad that the cover should name Berger one of the great intellectuals of our time, that he could then write such an essay so powerful on Palestine, and that it should continue to be ignored. It makes me wonder what we are doing, what we should do, what we can do.

As I read Raja Shehadeh, another such powerful writer, on his wanderings and the beauty of Palestine it reminded me so much of the Arizona  desert I love, that was also lost though not in the same way. So this had a bit of an eerie feeling to it:

I have never seen such a light before. It comes down from the sky in a strangely regular way, for it makes no distinction between what is distant and what is close. The difference between far and near is one of scale, never of colour, texture or precision. And this affects the way you place yourself, it affects your sense of being here. The land arranges itself around you, rather than confronting you. It’s the opposite of Arizona. Instead of beckoning, it recommends never leaving. (68)

This captures capitalism I think, and our history of conquest and pillage of which Bacon knew quite a lot — On a new appreciation of Francis Bacon’s work ‘A Master of Pitilessness’

Today’s pitilessness is perhaps more unremitting, pervasive and continuous. It spares neither the planet itself, nor anyone living on it anywhere. Abstract because deriving from the sole logic of the pursuit of profit (as cold as the freezer), it threatens to make obsolete all other sets of belief, along with their traditions of facing the cruelty of life with dignity and some flashes of hope. (87)

More about walls, about poverty, about home. ‘Ten Dispatches About Endurance in Face of Walls’ (Oct 2004)

2

The poor have no residence.

The poor have no residence. They have homes because they remember mothers or grandfathers or an aunt who brought them up. A residence is a fortress, not a story; it keeps the wild at bay. A residence needs walls. Nearly everyone among the poor dreams of a small residence, like dreaming of rest. However great the congestion, the poor live in the open, where they improvise, not residences, but places for themselves. These places are as much protagonists as their occupants; the places have their own lives to live and do not, like residences, wait on others. The poor live with the wind, with dampness, flying dust, silence, unbearable noise (sometimes with both; yes, that’s possible!) with ants, with large animals, with smells coming from the earth, rats, smoke, rain, vibrations from elsewhere, rumours, nightfall, and with each other. Between the inhabitants and these presences there are no clear marking lines. Inextricably confounded, they together make up the place’s life.

***

The poor are collectively unseizable. They are not only the majority on the planet, they are everywhere and the smallest event speaks of them. This is why the essential activity of the rich today is the building of walls – walls of concrete, of electronic surveillance, of missile barrages, minefields, frontier controls, and opaque media screens. (91-92)

‘Looking Carefully — Two Women Photographers’ made me feel inspired to be a photographer again, but I particularly liked this:

Within such a concept of history we have to come to see that every simplification, every label, serves only the interests of those who wield power; the more extensive their power, the greater their need for simplifications. And, by contrast, the interests of those who suffer under, or struggle against this blind power, are served now and for the long, long future by the recognition and acceptance of diversity, difference and complexities. (134)

Ah, to take pictures that do not capture and simplify but render up complexities.

I end where the book actually begins, with a poem. It has been too long since I shared a poem.

Hold Everything Dear
for John Berger

as the brick of the afternoon stores the rose heat of the journey

as the rose buds a green room to breathe
and blossoms like the wind

as the thinning birches whisper their silver stories of the wind to the urgent
in the trucks

as the leaves of the hedge store the light
that the moment thought it had lost

as the nest of her wrist beats like the chest of a wren in the morning air

as the chorus of the earth find their eyes in the sky
and unwrap them to each other in the teeming dark

hold everything dear

the calligraphy of birds across the morning
the million hands of the axe, the soft hand of the earth
one step ahead of time
the broken teeth of tribes and their long place

steppe-scattered and together
clay’s small, surviving handle, the near ghost of a jug
carrying itself towards us through the soil

the pledge of offered arms, the single sheet that is our common walking
the map of the palm held
in a knot

but given as a torch

hold everything dear

the paths they make towards us and how far we open towards them

the justice of a grass than unravels palaces but shelters the songs of the searching

the vessel that names the waves, the jug of this life, as it fills with the days
as it sinks to become what it loves

memory that grows into a shape the tree always knew as a seed

the words
the bread

the child who reaches for the truths beyond the door

the yearning to begin again together
animals keen inside the parliament of the world

the people in the room the people in the street the people

hold everything dear

19th May 2005
–Gareth Evans

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Khadambi Asalache: poetry and place finished unfinished

We went to see Khadambi Asalache’s house today, and it was wondrous indeed. Poetry carved into wood, crafted into space. From the National Trust:

575 Wandsworth Road

This small, early nineteenth-century terraced house was the home of Khadambi Asalache, a Kenyan-born poet, novelist and civil servant. In 1986, he began carving wooden fretwork to disguise a persistent damp problem in the basement dining room. He went on to embellish almost every wall, ceiling and door in the house with fretwork patterns and motifs which he hand-carved from reclaimed pine doors and floorboards found in skips. Over the course of a twenty year period he turned his home into a work of art.

He did not like for his friends to take pictures, because pictures mediate between you and the experience of place, and they also mediate your memories. Nothing could give you a true sense of what it means to be physically present in this house, so if you have the ability to come to London, to stand here, maybe stop reading now. Don’t look. But if you cannot get here, then a pale reflection can help you understand what follows.

I confess I liked being in this space without taking any photographs. But I also like these photographs from the website, for they frame and capture scenes in this place of almost overwhelming detail that allow you to isolate small portions and spend more time over them, to gain access to someone else’s framing of the space to see what others see.

A few things that struck me the most about this incredible place.

First the ways in which this incredible 20-year labour of detailed carving and fretworking and painting carved a space out of London that had nothing to do with London at all. Not an escape perhaps, but an alternate universe, a sidestep through a carved door into a place of beauty and safety and memory. Complete in itself, indifferent. It’s only the garden out the back that it calls on, its mimosa tree repeated and made soft, forever muted green in paint. Asalache created a completely different world of shadow and light and wood, maximised every last glimmer of sunshine in this often gray and gloomy place through glass and porcelain, through subtle and hidden touches of gold paint.

Our guides also mentioned how this house reflected Asalache’s philosophies as he carved a work that was beautiful, harmonious, forever unsymmetrical (though containing much symmetry) and forever incomplete. I think creating such intricacy across the whole of the house meant that not designing in a symmetrical way was more difficult — though this provoked laughter I am still a little hurt by. I don’t know why. But simply to mirror one half across another is easy, a mechanical operation that surely would have cut the time required (though of course to do it with machine like precision might not be). Instead, balance and harmony must emerge from some level of deeper awareness and attention as new forms are created to form a larger sense of wholeness that does not jar, that feels right and fitting in its difference rather than its sameness. This seems to me infinitely harder, worth a deeper appreciation.

He started in the kitchen, and he finished this room before moving to the next. There is an aspect to this house that made me initially think of obsession, made me think of the Watts Towers meticulously crafted over decades in a work that would never and could never be finished. There would always be more to do, more to add. The edges of things were all left rough, splintery, though they often incorporated smooth wood carvings rescued from jettisoned paneling and furniture in Lambeth’s great 1980s wave of gentrification and rebuilding. Almost all of the wood was found in skips, saved from this Georgian neighbourhood being gutted by money and development.

I love that Asalache could finish, and that part of that finishing was to leave sections unfinished. There is one shelf in particular in the dining room where fretwork adorns one half but not the other — left deliberately along with the other aspect of unfinishedness so as not to overwhelm his friends according to our guides. I stared at it…wanted to finish it myself. It is provocative, makes you think about this shelf as it fits into the room, fits into the house, fits into an ability to be incomplete, imperfect. The house is full of other examples, but none so marked as this one I think. A topic for discussion at dinner perhaps. I loved this long table, the conviviality it implied and memories it must hold of collective talk and laughter and breaking of bread together.

I loved how each room was different, loved the floors with patterns mirroring the rugs (the rugs were there first and the patterns painted in harmony with them), loved the doors decorated on only one side, loved the figures dancing, the multitudes of animals and birds carved and painted delicately on walls. Loved the beauty of the objects and the precision of their placement. Loved how this still feels like a space to be lived in, despite its beauty and fragility.

   I loved this house. To be here on a tour of only six, guided slowly by people who love it too, who know it so well, who can point out the parrot with a looking glass, the ancient Egyptians with a telephone, the painting of a man falling that a friend had snuck upstairs to do. All wonderful. I hope to come back, this is a place you will always find something new.

I found some of his poems too, though his most famous novel, A Calabash of Life, is sadly long out of print despite his role in an important period of African literature in diaspora.

From Prometheus (found in African Arts, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer, 1968), p. 66):

The shadow of sadness gently rolled down his tears
for now, between him and heaven, nothing but clouds
the grey procession moving into the silent afternoon
following a chink of light to close the path of escape.

His eyes followed this gloom, the puzzling fate,
like a drunken moment bringing its dark face
to come lower, lower, a fulfillment of stored hate
coming down to crush the hand of

From Conversations with a Suicide (African Arts, Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer, 1968), p. 67):

the mind’s vault is walled
like a lake that has frozen round its shore, looks
pure. This is the frozen heart of the crystal
and the wind that blows hardens on
its face, shadowless

like a row of empty chairs in a waiting room
when you arrive the blank face of the wall
look away to avoid your stare-if you stop
to hit back you see only yourself, a dream
nothing more

if you were born under the sign of Neptune
the secret of your life is with stars
there is no answer for you here. Up
in the sky clouds gather to build
their own strength without fear moving
to make a search

And finally, just a curious little letter he wrote on the subject of ujamaa, which I am interested in from afar as a technique for collective liberation that parallels Freire’s popular education or what I learned about Friday in Denmarks Common Third, I find it curious that this is his reaction to it (written from a different house as you can see):

Dear Sir,

I have just been reading Messrs. Omindi and Mboya’s letters in your issue No. 11. Mr. Mboya’s article on African Socialism begins to be clearer. From afar mountains are misty. He must know what he says when he writes ‘these leaders . . . are those most likely to know what philosophy and principles underlie their policies?’ Many would take the point and feel suitably told off.

Once I thought Socialism was a political theory of society but now I hear the African brand is being adapted from our traditions of Ujamaa. Producing ‘African Socialism’ from Ujamaa is chasing a wild goose: poor wazee in the villages will no doubt be flattered when they are told that their humanity and friendliness arising from ujamaa is the ‘twentieth century African socialism.’

Yours sincerely,

KHADAMBI ASALACHE.
120 Hurlingharn Road,
London S. W.6.

Letters to the Editor
Lennard H. Okola, Gary Gappert, Khadambi Asalache and Jan Knappert
Transition No. 13 (Mar. – Apr., 1964), pp. 5-7

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