Tag Archives: London

On Bankers and The City

An inventive genius would be useless in the City. For the City produces nothing, and creates nothing. It is the great go-between of the world…anyone who contemplates the City as a profession…will not have to face the competition of the flower of his contemporaries, who will be scrambling for briefs, teaching unruly forms in public schools, or rusting in the deadening atmosphere of Government offices…From this comfortable fact he may draw consolation if he does not carry much top hamper in the way of intellect…if he is to prosper in the City, according to the City’s notion of prosperity; that is to say, to put the matter at a modest valuation, if his income is to express itself in four figures (46).

–‘Prospects in the Profession: IX. The City’ Cornhill Magazine, 14, 1902-03, p 623. (Taken from A Vision for London, 1889-1914: Labour, Everyday Life and the LCC Experiment. Susan D. Pennybacker (1995) London & NY: Routledge )

The View from the Train: Cities and Other Landscapes

9781781687765-e406078c7d60b6e833cbb24f8c19c712Patrick Keiller (2013) Verso

I loved The View From the Train, my only critique is that it’s a bit repetitive…but with a collection of essays I suppose that’s par for the course. I’m a big fan of the Robinson films, and it is so so cool to get some of the thinking behind them and the process of making them — narrated in much the same fashion. They also start in a very different place, and hold very different assumptions than I do, though our side is the same as is our love of wandering and obsession with the city.

Both London and Robinson in Space had set out with a perception of economic failure, the result of a backward, specifically English capitalism; but in the second film, this gave way to an understanding that the UK’s social and physical impoverishment was not a consequence of some inevitable ‘decline’, but of the successful operation of a particular economic system in the interests of those who own it. The ‘problem’ that the film had set out to examine was revealed as the result of political decisions that could be challenged’ (6).

It is unique and more theoretical (Lefebvre is used in wholly new ways), and at the same time in the same vein of other London writers and ‘psychogeographers’ (Sinclair especially), which in itself I find fascinating. But they all pull from much the same canon (which I love, but there area few others I might just love more). Two quotes:

–from Benjamin’s essay on surrealism, ‘where he identifies the revolutionary potential of “everything we have experienced on mournful railway journeys…on godforsaken Sunday afternoon” (4).

–Bernard Tschumi writes that for Bataille ‘architecture covers the scene of the crime with monuments’ (18).

The rest of the cannon includes De Qincey, Poe, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Apollinaire, Aragon. Among them, as Keiller writes:

The desire to transform the world is not uncommon, and there are a number of ways of fulfilling it. On of these is by adopting a certain subjectivity, aggressive or passive, deliberately sought or simply the result of mood, which alters experience of the world, and so transforms it (9).

This formulation of the revolutionary nature of the writers, surrealists, situationists so often cited is an interesting one. I never knew that the surrealists tried to organise a ‘tourist’ event, on 14 April, 1921. Organised by Breton, it was to bring their insights gained from brothel and suburb exploration to the public, to ‘put in unison the unconscious of the city with the unconscious of men’ (14). But it rained, no tourists arrived, the rest of the tours were cancelled.

I also love some of the ideas behind the photography:

This visual material deliberately depicts places that are nearly or altogether devoid of human presence and activity, but which because of this absence are suggestive of what could happen, or what might have happened…. The aim is to depict the place as some sort of historical palimpsest, and/or the corollary of this, an exposition of a state of mind (11).

I loved the insights into decline, from ‘Port Statistics’, a wonderful examination of the docks and in 2001, an interesting foreshadowing of what was to come:

In the UK, wealth is not confined to a conservative nomenklatura, but the condition of, say, public transport or state-sector secondary schools indicates that the governing class does not have a great deal of use for them. People whose everyday experience is of decayed surroundings, pollution, cash-starved public services, job insecurity, part-time employment or freelancing tend to forget about the UK’s wealth. We have been inclined to think that we are living at a time of economic decline, to regret the loss of the visible manufacturing economy, and to lower our expectations. We dismiss the government’s claims that the UK is ‘the most successful enterprise economy in Europe’, but are more inclined to accept that there might b less money for schools and hospitals, if only because of the cost of financing mass unemployment (46)

From ‘The Dilapidated Dwelling’:

…under advanced capitalism it is increasingly difficult to produce and maintain the dwelling. This is especially odd given that dwellings constitute the greater part of the built environment, that they are the spaces where most people spend most of their time, and where arguably the real ‘work’ of society is done. Modernity, it seems, I exemplified not so much by the business park or the airport, but by the dilapidated dwelling (54)

Interestingly though, we differ greatly in the meaning of home and the meaning of dwelling. I myself love these old houses, these Victorian and Georgian rows. I dream of a city where the are neither dilapidated nor obsessively maintained to historic code by the wealthy. But I would welcome genuinely new architectural designs for homes and common living, and agree that none have been forthcoming, at least not here. Written in 1998,this comes before the majority of the ‘loft’ and ‘luxury flat’ development for wealthy young professionals emerging from regeneration. Part of me thinks they deserve those boxy and unimaginative and shoddily-constructed status symbols, if only the rest of us didn’t have to look at them. If only to build them, they didn’t first have to destroy. For myself, and perhaps from the vantage point of the next generation, it is hard to imagine this:

The volume of new construction is now less than it used to be, and western cities have not change anything like as much as was expected in, say, the early 1960s (70).

But gentrification is in here:

in London now, psychogeography leads not so much to avant-garde architecture as to gentrification
…. The great irony of the UK’s psychogeography phenomenon is that its invocation of the flaneur only narrowly preceded an almost immediate commodification of café culture (71).

The same idea in relation to psychogeography’s surrealist and situationist antecedents:

At the time [1990s], I suggested that their purpose had been overlooked: the derive and psychogeography were conceived, in a more politically ambitious period, as preliminaries to the production of new, revolutionary spaces; in the 1990s they seemed more likely to be preliminary to the production of literature and other works, and to gentrification, the discovery of previously overlooked value in dilapidated spaces and neighbourhoods (186).

This brings us to the urban and capitalism:

Capitalism both destroys and creates places, but the places it creates seem always, at least to begin with, less substantial, less rich, than the places it destroys…On the other hand, modern capitalism also gives place high value–partly by making its sought-after qualities scarce, partly by concentrating power in the global system in particular places: New York, Tokyo, Frankfurt, Paris, London, and so on. In the interstices of all this–in more or less dilapidated domestic spaces, as ‘consumers’ (neither passive nor docile)–we live our lives (73)

And finally just the voice:

–‘The UKs production of desirable artefacts is certainly lamentable (and confirms the stereotype of a nation run by Phillistines with unattractive attitudes to sexuality’ (45).

–repression and S&M hunt the Conservatives in a way that cannot be put down simply to the influence of the public schools (48).

This is just an odd collection of thoughts to do with what I am working on now, but there is so much more here on film and SF and an entertaining narrative of a trip to Rochester and some modern pictures inset with old pictures matched perfectly to the streetscape in ways that destabilize our sense of reality — the strength of film and photography perhaps as he argues.

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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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Utopia London

DVD_coverDirector John Cordell (2010)

Utopia London opens with a statement:

‘Buildings leave the mark of past ideas on a city.’

You see a print of London in which St Paul’s Cathedral stands prominent, to show the power of God. Today, we see everywhere monuments to money. But this is an exploration of a period that fascinates me as much as it does Cordell, the early part of this century when for just a little while an alternative to both of those two visions unfolded as an ideal of constructing a society of equal citizens – this is the filmmaker’s journey through the city he grew up in ‘to map the life and death of London’s egalitarian dream’.

I still find it hard to write about film, particularly a documentary so packed full of actual information I want to master rather than just emotion or spectacle. This has some great shots of the city and the modernist spaces created there, alongside information from architects and historians that I am afraid is mostly paraphrased here as I took furious notes. I miss the clarity of the printed page, a misplaced nostalgia I know, when compared with the ability to experience space through this medium, hear and see these wonderful architects speaking about their buildings and the ideals behind them even as we experience the physical spaces they created in a way that books just can’t manage. Anyway, where I am sure of a quote I put marks around it, I just didn’t have time to transcribe more closely.

Drawn from the website, this is a part of Director Tom Cordell’s statement about the making of the film:

I grew up in the London of the 80s and 90s and it’s still my home.

I’ve always been drawn to the excitement of its post-war landscape; concrete and brick textures, unadorned clean lines, neon glow and dark shadows.

And most Londoners my age that I know feel the same – the modernist city is our landscape.

Yet all our lives we have been told that the same urban spaces are ugly – symbols of a failed, arrogant technocracy. While we’re comfortable celebrating 60s pop culture, many people still hate the buildings of that time.

Worryingly, while I had once thought that popular taste would catch up with the urban building of the 50s, 60s and 70s, it’s now under attack. Major symbols of that time are being destroyed – often with gruesome delight on the part of the wreckers. We urgently need to defend what is left before it is all gone.

I feel the same urgency, hopefully growing among an ever larger population and helped along after seeing much of the footage of the urban slums from the times when such housing was still a dream. I thus appreciated greatly the interspersing of quotations like the following, the filmmakers signposts to how to preserve these spaces:

‘Freedom for the pike is death to the minnows.’
–RH Tawney

The film looks at a series of modernist buildings in chronological order, I think perhaps I shall just share the notes of my main impressions for each, as much of this was still new to me and I am treating it as an introduction more than anything. I am so looking forward to revisiting and reading more about those who built them.

Finsbury Health Centre

Part of the birth of the NHS, and it could not have come too soon! The architect was from Russia, Berthold Lubetkin,  and deeply influence by the Russian Revolution he believed in the linkage between radical art and social progress. He believed that a new architecture could reshape society, whereas our previous architecture had only served to reinforce the split between rich and poor.

This building showed what architecture could do, calling upon a new idiom that was ultra-modern, almost SF, in which to build a new future. The film has a wonderful picture of this building at night that I could not find, but the picture below (and read the article it’s from) shows just how extraordinary this building was in comparison with what had come before:

finsbury health centre

During WWII and the search for national strength and will to resist the bombing, Churchill’s mythologisation of a distant and heroic past was counterposed by a utopian dream of a better future, and this health centre providing free health care was one of the symbols of that as the poster below shows.  The image is from a WWII era poster shown on the website of those who fought (and won) the saving of this wonderful building — and the dream that it represents. Of course, there is still more to do:

yourbritainfightforitnowgames1

Architecture is the will of an epoch translated into space
— Mies Van de Rohe

South Bank

I never think of South Bank as utopian dream, this has forced me to it. This is the section where a little background on the County of London plan comes — and the footage presenting it is amazing. Patrick Abercrombie is standing there explaining that you plan a city just as you would plan a garden, you have to give shelter from the wet and cold, there needs to be room to grow, protection, no overcrowding. In 1943 they created a map of London envisioned as a series of interconnected villages, and saw their goal to be the bringing up the poorest to the level of richest. Makes my planner’s heart beat faster this does:

Close-up for upload

South Bank was to be ‘new symbolic heart’, a ‘counterbalance to symbols of money and power facing it across the Thames’. I shall never be able to see it as anything else now, though I didn’t before. In the face of gloom and despair over continued rationing and hardship after the war, the South Bank Centre was built in 1951 with a ‘technicolor launch party for the welfare state’, festival and fun, open air cafes and an attempt to fuse Churchill’s heroic past and dreams of future. This was an effort to show how modern architecture could rebuild public spaces. I have only ever loved it at night when it is beautiful glowing in the lights (so many modernist buildings are their best lit up in the darkness), and of course when it appears in Dr Who, but now I shall remember the hope it brought to a post-war society starved of light and colour and all the food and drink you could want.

Lenin Court

One of the first modernist social housing schemes was also designed by Berthold Lubtekin, on the site where Lenin lived while in London hiding from czarist police. There was supposed to be a bust and monument to Lenin, but with the coming of the cold war, Lenin was buried under the central column of the wonderful central staircase.

My favourite story.

This was supposed to be  ‘An El Dorado for the working class’. Amazing. His apartments were are all given equal weight in design, none better than others, everyone equal. Lubetkin’s slogan? ‘Nothing too good for ordinary people.’ He believed residents should live in a work of art, and that is what he tried to build for them.

I do not want art for a few, any more than education for a few or freedom for a few.
— William Morris

Alton East

‘We were trying to build heaven and earth, some of us’, said architect Oliver Cox, his utopian attitude in part based on his respect for Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement.He and his colleagues critiqued the then modern style as being a bit arid, they felt that something had been lost in the idea that people could be enriched by design. I love thinking about people are enriched by design.

The original plan was to build vast estates of council housing on edges of parks, and wealthy communities. Thus the tower block came into being, with layouts designed to preserve trees and give all of the tenants stunning views of a landscape once only enjoyed by the wealthy. They tried to pay as much attention as possible to detail, Cox is shown in the building’s stairwells which are beautifully tiled. They meant to show that quality and love had been put into an area that is normally unloved. A good quote from the film: ‘Architects building in the present for a future they can only imagine.’

Alton West

This was designed by four other architectures in something of a rebellion against Alton East, yet whose inspiration was Le Corbusier (I find that surprising, but no mind).  This western extension was more of a designed formal landscape dominated by massive slab blocks of concrete, a pattern of building ‘that would come to symbolise the welfare state’, but was never meant to. It was meant, again, to maximise views of Richmond Park and integrate the buildings into the landscape they were designed for.

By the time they were building Alton West, however, Labor had lost the 1951 election. The recent hardships ensured that the Tories continued with the welfare state, but they abandoned the idea of a ‘coordinated egalitarian society.’ The LCC was forced to drop plans for building in wealthy park areas like Hampstead, Greenwich and Blackheath and to hand over sites to private developers, building social housing instead on previous slum sites. Thus there was no ability to move beyond designs for Alton West that had been developed for park sites, and these plans were simply reproduced in poor areas. Stepney and Brixton’s Loughborough Estate are examples, and this kind of building began to symbolise the opposite of the original architects’ and planners’ intentions. Instead of the utopian dream of a classless society, they began to symbolise the class divide itself, with concrete a new signifier. Thus East and West Alton still remain separated, with a class barrier even here.

The Alton estate was also the site for much of the filming of Truffaut’s Fahrenheit 451, its architecture used to symbolise the dystopian. But I’ll come back to that in a later post I think.

1964 – Lambeth Towers

I have always loved this building, and always think of it as that wonderful estate where my friend Rosanne lives — fighting a long battle against steadily rising rents.
LambethTowers-2-GF-1967-GI Designed by  architect George Finch, it contained doctor’s offices, a lunch club for pensioners, the registry office — this estate got the closest to what he wanted to do with his architecture, putting all things together into a block so it was interesting and lively and everything was close.

This was in some ways a renewal of the old left vision in struggle with the consumerism of 1950s and 1960s, an attempt to make labour relevant again. The 1960s also contained the promise of technology making possible the dream of less hours, more free time, putting human contentment within reach. This alongside Finch’s belief that everyone deserves this kind of wonderful space, that everyone’s work is important to a society. So he built this place, and man, the views are amazing.

He built eight more of these tower blocks to eliminate as much of the terrible slum housing as possible. In the paraphrased words of Elain Harwood, (architectural historian and author of forthcoming Space, Hope and Brutalism which I am definitely checking out) this showed Lambeth’s commitment to building housing in one of the worst slum housing areas. It represented Lambeth saying ‘look at us’, look at we can do. It makes you sick to see what they are doing now.

Finch built a set of tower blocks and tried to give them a sense of ‘dancing around’ rather than being staidly lined up. His humour and hope overflow, particularly in his sketches of space. He designed Brixton Rec as well, and put himself and his son in several of the wonderful pictures he drew to envision a lively, well-used and well-loved space:

Swimming_pool,_main_hall_web

The same Brixton Rec that is currently at the heart of a very different kind of development driven by a very different kind of council. One that has lost its conviction in the belief and social vision these buildings tried to make material: housing and public space as rights, not as assets.

Alexandra Road

I didn’t know this development at all and fell in love, totally and utterly. It was designed by Neave Brown for Camden as a large development that would address some of the problems of 1950s – 60s building.

It is a wonderful long terraced building, reminded me of pyramids with its splendid concrete and lots of greenery, or perhaps more of mountains. Everywhere has splendid views, and Neave says he was aiming to create a seamless building and ‘continuous public realm.’ I loved his notion of a ‘coherent seamless society’, one that doesn’t say that everyone is the same, but instead buildings  are not simply the markers of status but in the reach of everyone and thus simply markers of difference and personal preference. They are just  buildings you might or might not want to live in. What a wonderful world to aspire to.

3059631875

The pictures don’t do it justice the way video does as it takes you through the space and the changing, unexpected views. There is great footage of a woman who grew up there, talking about how she saw it as a big playground, its stairs strange and magical, full of secret places you could find and be alone in. While interviewing Neave you see children running up one of the concrete slopes, and Neave is delighted saying he designed it like that just so they would do it. It is wonderful, even if, as Neave reflects, it is a little too big and he didn’t consult people as he should have.

Econmics are the method, the object is to change the soul
–Margaret Thatcher

Dawson’s Heights

Just before the big change in everything ushered in by Thatcher, we come to Kate Mackintosh, and her vision of humanised modernism. She found London very claustrophobic coming from Edinburgh, so to design Dawson’s Heights on a hill — she realised how special this sight was. Wanted to create a scheme that had unity, that grew out of the hill. She notes that there was almost certainly a ‘Castle image lurking’, and designed something that was imposing from the outside, but protective of what was inside and underpinned by cooperative ideals. She designed Leigham Court as well, which is another wonderful building Lambeth Council is trying to sell.

So we come to Thatcher, there is footage from her celebration of the 12,000th council house sold. Local governments were required to sell council housing to tenants and unable to build new homes to replace them, rent controls were abolished, more rights to evict were given to landlords.

The 1980s meant collapse.

There’s footage also of Professor Alice Coleman — a geographer who worked for Thatcher, and who argued that these modernist physical designs of council estates encouraged crime and anti-social behaviour. Her words were quite vile in comparing the ethic of council housing to suburban homes, attacking the buildings as much as the dreams behind them.

The documentary ends with the loss of Pimlico School, an incredible modernist building also representative of the new visions for eduction.  With funds long ago cut for its maintenance, the land was recently sold and the building destroyed to build a new academy. The architect John Bancroft was splendid in his rage at ideals betrayed.

This film is just one more effort not just to save buildings, but to save dreams of equality, a struggle for a better society, homes that are safe and secure. Things worth fighting for.

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London in Literature

London in literature: a symposium organised by the English Syndicate of the Roehampton Institute, May 1979william blake lambeth

Academic and an intro for me to literary studies of London — or where they were in May of 1979 — and literary studies in general as I have not really thought about them since my undergraduate days long ago. I enjoyed it. I found the first essay by Simon Edwards particularly interesting in thinking through the dialectical relationship between literature and city building, he writes:

with the development of a specifically urban popular literature, arises the question of the literary work itself being seen as a distinctly metropolitan artifact and the writer as somehow deeply implicated in a complex process of making simultaneously a text, a city and an identity (1).

So simple, yet with so many ramifications. I also love that he is thinking of this globally as well, of London as the seat of empire, which articulates materially with the city and ideologically with literature:

It will be my contention that if English literature carries these ambiguous values within a consciously imperial history and culture then they may often be most fully examined in connection with the imperial capital, London. For if London, from the Elizabethan period onwards, is frequently seen wishfully as the capital of a new empire, it is also true that from roughly the end of the seventeenth century this vision is reinforced, to some extent realized, by the development of a literal global empire whose contribution to the growth of a world economy is central. London thus becomes a quite crucial topos in the whole history of Western civilization (2-3)

He is critical, to a certain extent, with a Marxist analysis that allows him to see capitalist relations, so this goes part of the way:

For this imperial city was, at one and the same time, a principal agent in the growth and spread of capitalism with (3) all its dehumanizing power and a repository or site for the formation of certain values thought of as classic and perhaps common to all phases of fully-developed civilization. This ambivalence is further complicated first from within, and later from outside, the dominant ideology of nationalism and emergent capitalism, by the growth of structured critiques, both reactionary and radical, of the system. … Thus there is a persistent conflict between London presented as the site of an extravagant display of conspicuous consumption, parasitic and productive largely of waste (as in the Augustan obsession with excrement), and London also acknowledged as a producer of real wealth through its vital contribution to national and international commerce as well as a producer of significant cultural and literary values (4).

There’s a whole lot further to go to fully critique imperialism, this concept of ‘civilisation’ and its imposition around the world, a questioning of this real wealth and literary values… What I like about it is that it begins to tie literature to the physical and ideological city, and situate these connections in a context of global exploitation.

the notion of a classical literary culture was both realized and threatened by the emergence of a modern Imperial city. Related to their sense of the crass materialism of London life, ls an anxiety about the status of imaginative literature, a principal source for the ratification of the Augustan metropolitan ideal. (21)

There is also a nice quote he gives from Defoe, describing that from a hill in Clapham, one might see,

… the whole city of London itself; the most
glorious Sight without exception, that the whole
World at present can show, or perhaps ever could
show since the Sacking of Rome in the European, and
the burning the Temple of Jerusalem…(16)

There’s a paper on Blake from David Punter, of course, who moved to the Hercules Buildings in Vauxhall in 1790. It has a great quote from Samuel Johnson’s ‘London’

Prepare for death, if here at night you roam,
And sign your will before you sup from home.
Some fiery fop, with new commission vain,
Who sleeps on brambles till he kills his man;
Some frolic drunkard, reeling from a feast,
Provokes a broil, and stabs you for a jest.
Yet e’en these heroes, mischievously gay,
Lords of the street, and terrors of the way;
Flush’d as they are with folly, youth, and wine,
Their prudent insults to the poor confine;
Afar they mark the flambeaux’s bright approach,
And shun the shining train, and golden coach.

It’s mostly looking at the poem ‘Jerusalem‘, and there’s this lovely quote about Lambeth:

HIGHGATE’S heights & Hampstead’s, to Poplar, Hackney & Bow;
To Islington & Paddington & the Brook of Albion’s River.
We builded Jerusalem as a City & a Temple; from Lambeth
We began our Foundations; lovely Lambeth, O lovely Hills
Of Camberwell, we shall behold you no more in glory & pride,
For Jerusalem lies in ruins & the Furnaces of Los are builded there:
You are now shrunk up to a narrow Rock in the midst of the Sea.
But here we build Babylon on Euphrates, compell’d to build
And to inhabit, our Little-ones to clothe in armour of the gold
Of Jerusalem’s Cherubims & to forge them swords of her Altars.
I see London blind & age bent begging thro’ the Streets
Of Babylon, led by a child, his tears run down his beard.
The voice of Wandering Reuben echoes from street to street

Punter writes: ‘Lambeth, of course, Blake takes here as elsewhere as the symbolic birthplace of God, merging the connotations of the Lamb and Bethlehem’ (67). I knew it.

There’s an interesting piece on the suburbs and suburbanisation of London by B.I. Coleman, looking at Ruskin, Dickens, Kinglsey’s Alton Locke, the satire of suburban life found in Punch, The Diary of a Nobody. They were also described as the perfect breeding grounds for healthy, strong, athletic men for Britain’s elite troops establishing Empire…this in Sidney Low’s article ‘The Rise of the Suburbs’ for example, in the Contemporary Review of 1891. He writes:

The centre of population is shifting from the heart to the limbs. The life-blood is pouring into the long arms of bricks and mortar and cheap stucco that are feeling their way out to the Surrey moors, and the Essex flats, and the Hertfordshire copses…

A finer people, physically, than the inhabitants of some of those middle-class suburbs of London, which are far enough afield to permit a plentiful cult of every branch of athletics it would be hard to find. The young men of Wimbledon and Putney – great at football, cricket, golf, and most other games in which strength and activity are required – could make up a regimen which would hold its own on a battlefield against a corps d’elite selected from any army in the World.

All provided by the free market. Hurrah. I hate this guy, but he definitely seems worth a closer look.

Gabriel Pearson looks at Dickens, and mentions the ‘topographical’ tradition of Dickens critiques, which has been popular since 1870 apparently, and bringing to us works like The London that Dickens Knew. The city is there in novels to be explored, and Pearson writes:

The novel round about 1800 began, as it were, to designate territories, whole areas, as its province, and I think the analogy which underlies it is the analogy of the disovery of the new world…And you moved across both in time and also in space because there was something you registered as alien or strange. It does seem to me that the whole history of the novel may be read as an attempt to occupy and domesticate alien or strange areas in this way. As an explanation we might speculate that (and this is a very crude generalization) around 1800 everybody began to feel they were outside somewhere else, that somewhere else there was a kind of reality in some way could, possibly by some tremendous imaginative endeavour, be captured, and taken home and civilised and possessed, though nobody could quite get there. Everybody was outside: it wasn’t necessarily their home, and they did not necessarily want to return to it, but they felt that somewhere there was some source or manifestation of human relaity to which they were perpetually outsiders. I do think that one of the characteristics of Dickens, along with other novelists of this time, is that he treated London in this kind of way (95).

He explores Dickens as outsider in his novels, but doesn’t really take the above idea further than that, though I feel this is a great start to something.

John Sutherland writes on publishing itself:

If we adopt the old classification of causes (i.e. material, efficient, formal) then London can be taken as in some sense the material cause of a bulk of our significant Victorian fiction. That is to say, it stands in the same relationship to literary activity as soil and climate do to plant growth (124).

There are a couple more, it’s a good collection, though possibly outdated and some of these ideas have been taken much further since, I don’t know!

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The London Adventure or The Art of Wandering

The London AdventureA delightful book of meanderings, almost too meandering because there are some really brilliant things in here that deserve some deeper thought but the style of it almost carries you right past them. I know, I know, that the style of the book maybe reflects the art of wandering itself, stumbling over the unexpected, taking up the digressions, exploring the byways. But still. I wanted more places, more stories of places, more London. Still, there are some real gems about the city, how we experience it, where its wonder lies, speaking both as urbanist and as author. And just thoughts on being human in this world of toil. This is clearly someone who has known toil.

In this pleasant and retiring spot I was sitting not long ago, enjoying gin and that great luxury and blessing of idleness, concerning which so much cant and false doctrine have been preached. (6)

On writing:

Always, or almost always, I have had the horror of beginning a new book. I have burnt my fingers to the bone again and again in the last forty years and I dread the fire of literature (12).

On life:

It is possible, just dimly possible, that the real pattern and scheme of life is not in the least apparent on the outward surface of things, which is the world of common sense and rationalism, and reasoned deductions; but rather lurks, half hidden, only apparent in certain rare lights, and then only to the prepared eye; a secret pattern, an ornament which seems to have but little relation or none at all to the obvious scheme of the universe’. (21)

One of my favourite phrases of all time is now ‘amiable Conandoylery’ (27). It certainly takes him a while to describe the purpose of this book he is being paid to write — and this sense of literature as something for hire, something you must sell to live and feed your children is never absent here, anchoring his wonderings and wanderings. His dread as he sits ensconced in a comfortable pub that Spring has arrived and the book must be begun opens every chapter, humorously to be sure, but not entirely. But it is still on a subject he loves — rambling the city:

[the book] originated in old rambles around London, rambles that began in 1890 when I lived in Soho Street and began to stroll about Soho and to see that here was something very curious and impressive; this transmutation of late seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century social stolidity and even, in some cases, magnificence, into a wholly different order (30)

What he loves is not about tourist stops or antiquarian wonders but:

the general queerness; a piece, a tesserae, that fitted in very pleasantly with that hopeless 1860 terrace and that desolate 1900 shop, and the cabbages, and the raspberry plantations and, above all and before all, with the sense that I had never been that way before, that the scene to me was absolutely new and unknown as if the African Magician had suddenly set me down in the midst of Cathay, that I was as true an explorer as Columbus, as he who stood upon a peak in Darien. For if you think of it: the fact that the region which is to you so strange and unknown is familiar as daily bread and butter or—more likely—the lack of it to multitudes of your fellow men is of no significance on earth. (40)

There’s some interesting colonial stuff here, though I think it echoes in my own mind far different than in his for I cannot divorce colonial exploration from despair, conquest, slavery and death. I am hesitant to strip these away, but in Machen’s writing it seems to be simply the seed of wonder at what is new, and the acknowledgment that this lies alongside hunger and misery and want. Lightly done, but it is there.

My book, then, was to take all these things into account: the old, the shabby, the out of the way; and also the new and the red and the raw. But it was utterly to shun the familiar. For if you think of it, there is a London cognita and a London incognita(49)

He seeks the incognita, the overlooked. Finds the things that I too love:

I can look with a kind of pleasure on a very doorstep, on a doorstep approaching a shabby grey house of 1810 or thereabouts—if the stone be worn into a deep hollow by the feet of even a hundred years and a little over…The feet of the weary and hopeless, the glad and the exultant, the lustful and the pure have made that hollow; and most of those feet are now in the hollow of the grave: and that doorstep is to me sacramental, if not a sacrament, even though the neighbourhood round about Mount Pleasant is a very poor one. (48)

There is a section imagining the life of the reporter as a road, traveling through cities, opening up the countryside, ‘where there is no money but plenty of happiness’ (62). That old city/country divide. There is also, of course, a touch of the gothic here, a familiar strand running through so much literature of the city:

Strangeness which is the essence of beauty is the essence of truth, and the essence of the world. I have often felt that, when the ascent of a long hill brought me to the summit of an undiscovered height in London; and I looked down on a new land. (127)

I loved the idea that we must no longer seek wonder in castles and keeps, but in the everyday. Even then the sense of the madness of developers and real estate, the joy in the battered cottage amongst plate glass and brick shops, a hold out against profit. On this score there are some brilliant descriptions of Enfield being developed (35) to return to, perhaps after I’ve visited Enfield.

Why have I waited so long to read his fiction? It’s available, unlike this book, which was an amazing birthday present in the form of a first edition.

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Confessions of an English Opium Eater

I was disappointed I confess, though I don’t know why I had high expectations given I have always found people on drugs profoundly boring—although they seem to find themselves extremely interesting. De Quincy writes ‘I have, for the general benefit of the world, inoculated myself as it were, with the poison of 8000 drops of laudanum per day (just for the same reason as a French surgeon inoculated himself lately with cancer…)’. Right.

An opium eater is not the most interesting person in the world.

What struck me most was privilege, even in his poverty after running away as a teenager. After all, he heads to Eton, where he will always be at home, to get Lord so-and-so to co-sign a loan against his expected fortune from the Jews. I was sad but not surprised to find such a stereotypical view of jews as existing simply to lend money to wealthy but under-age men. A window of empathy into the lives of the poor and oppressed emerged, but he only opened the curtain a little, hardly even looked properly through it. There is disappointingly little here about London and walking its streets, which is what I expected to find given all I had read mentioning this book. He describes some of Soho, an empty house he lives in for a while, how he finds friendship with a young prostitute whom he believes saves his life then loses her…I was a bit at a loss to understand how this always occurs in psychogeographic lists of London literature.

Deborah Epstein Nord made me rethink this a little, writing that while the first part of the Confessions and London itself seems peripheral to the main obsessions:

‘It seems to me…that the London episode is crucial to the meaning of the Confessions and, more important, that it enacts in a hallucinatory way the essential nature of the London experience I have been describing [as theater]. The Confessions also articulate the centrality of female sexuality to the evocation of the city’s meaning and the construction of bohemian identity…The dreams or images of the London experience were to act as a thread connecting his early with his later days… (41)

I thought this observation interesting too:

De Quincey declines to tell or invent the story of what he sees, to give to urban experience or to his own narrative what one critic has called its own ‘discursive interpretation’. He does not “read” the city as we try to read his narrative (46)…For all these shapers and observers of the London scene regarded the social reality of the city as part of a natural order, a system of social relations that was fundamentally organic and not to be challenged or radically transformed (47)…the people of the street are signs to be read only for the edification of the spectator, or left unread as part of the unraveled urban mystery…(48).

But this reflects my own critique of the book, and the ‘mysteries’ of London, to me, do not seem so mysterious.

What I hadn’t expected to find was a crazy reflection of imperial angst and racism. He’s in the remote mountains in a cottage when a ‘Malay’ comes to the door and doesn’t speak English. He contrasts ‘the beautiful English face of the girl and its exquisite fairness, together with her erect and independent attitude … with the sallow and bilious skin of the Malay…his small, fierce, restless eyes, thin lips, slavish gestures and adorations’. They can’t communicate, but apparently all the man wants is somewhere to rest before he goes on his way. As a parting gift, de Quincey offers him a chunk of opium, which the man proceeds to eat entire–‘the quantity was enough to kill three dragoons and their horses, and I felt some alarm for the poor creature; but what could be done?’ Nothing apparently, he sends him out in the night, and is anxious for his life the next few nights but upon hearing no reports of the dead body turning up, his mind is relieved.

Except it’s not. After the years of happily enjoying his regular opium habit, it eventually spirals down into pain and terrible dreams/hallucinations. These are regularly frequented by what he calls ‘Oriental’ dreams (part of the reiterative process of being influenced by, and contributing to, Orientalism). He writes ‘The Malay has been a fearful enemy for months. I have been every night, through his means, transported into Asiatic scenes…The causes of my horror lie deep, and some of them must be common to others. Southern Asia in general is the seat of awful images and associations.’ Holy crap I thought, the inscrutable asian ‘other’ that he might well have murdered comes back to his dreams, takes him to the very places his opium comes from — though that isn’t thought through or even mentioned. I suppose this is before the Opium wars and Britain’s great Opium-dealing adventure overseas, it prefigures it in a way. And unlike the Heart of Darkness fear of ‘primitive’ man (though he brings up that up as well in relation to ‘barbarous’ Africa), it is instead fear and trembling before an older greater culture–‘the ancient, monumental, cruel and elaborate religions…The mere antiquity of Asiatic things, of their institutions, histories, modes of faith, &c., is so impressive, that to me the vast age of the race and name overpowers the sense of youth in the individual’.

There is so much to think about there, I hope to come back to it at some point, though surely this must have been written about. The only other interesting thing, funny really, was the statement on political economists of the day: ‘I saw that these were generally the very dregs and rinsings of the human intellect; and that any man of sound head…might take up the whole academy of modern economists, and throttle them between heaven and earth with his finger and thumb, or bray their fungus-heads to powder with a lady’s fan’. Which I love, though I am not sure exactly how that insult works…

Sketches By Boz

Sketches_by_Boz_illustrated_by_George_Cruikshank_1837I enjoyed these greatly, these ridiculously detailed descriptions of life and London in a period we now suffer immense nostalgia for — they form a humorous and rather critical counterpoint to the twee recreations of Victorian glory. In terms of the uselessness of politicians and the practices of parents and couples and aristocrats, indeed, surprisingly little has changed. I couldn’t help feel though, that society has improved for the better now that a woman’s options have expanded beyond marriage and class isn’t quite all it used to be, not that it has changed enough.

These were written in sections, and published in installments — I love this form, though it doesn’t quite have the same feeling here as it does in more pulp narratives like Dickens’ other works, or Eugene Sue’s The Mysteries of Paris for example. i also love the pen name of Boz,  and this verse in Bentley’s Miscellany for March 1837:

“Who the dickens ‘Boz’ could be
Puzzled many a learned elf,
Till time unveiled the mystery,
And ‘Boz’ appeared as Dickens’s self.”

Dickens’ humour is directed here there and everywhere and sometimes I quite loved him — his descriptions of children and their doting mothers were timeless for example — but sometimes I couldn’t help but feel he was being a bit of a pompous and patronising ** . The risks of this kind of social commentary really. The tale of the four Miss Willises is quite my favourite and will never be forgotten, and this could easily have been a Monty Python sketch in the tradition of the twits:

MR. COPPERNOSE called the attention of the section to a proposition of great magnitude and interest, illustrated by a vast number of models, and stated with much clearness and perspicuity in a treatise entitled “Practical Suggestions on the necessity of providing some harmless and wholesome relaxation for the young noblemen of England.” His proposition was, that a space of ground of not less than ten miles in length and four in breadth should be purchased by a new company, to be incorporated by Act of Parliament, and inclosed by a brick wall of not less than twelve feet in height. He proposed that it should be laid out with highway roads, turnpikes, bridges, miniature villages, and every object that could conduce to the comfort and glory of Four-in-hand Clubs, so that they might be fairly presumed to require no drive beyond it. This delightful retreat would be fitted up with most commodious and extensive stables, for the convenience of such of the nobility and gentry as had a taste for ostlering, and with houses of entertainment furnished in the most expensive and handsome style. It would be further provided with whole streets of door-knockers and bell-handles of extra size, so constructed that they could be easily wrenched off at night, and regularly screwed on again, by attendants provided for the purpose, every day. There would also be gas lamps of real glass, which could be broken at a comparatively small expense per dozen, and a broad and handsome foot pavement for gentlemen to drive their cabriolets upon when they were humorously disposed—for the full enjoyment of which feat live pedestrians would be procured from the workhouse at a very small charge per head. The place being inclosed, and carefully screened from the intrusion of the public, there would be no objection to gentlemen laying aside any article of their costume that was considered to interfere with a pleasant frolic, or, indeed, to their walking about without any costume at all, if they liked that better. In short, every facility of enjoyment would be afforded that the most gentlemanly person could possibly desire. But as even these advantages would be incomplete unless there were some means provided of enabling the nobility and gentry to display their prowess when they sallied forth after dinner, and as some inconvenience might be experienced in the event of their being reduced to the necessity of pummelling each other, the inventor had turned his attention to the construction of an entirely new police force, composed exclusively of automaton figures, which, with the assistance of the ingenious Signor Gagliardi, of Windmill-street, in the Haymarket, he had succeeded in making with such nicety, that a policeman, cab-driver, or old woman, made upon the principle of the models exhibited, would walk about until knocked down like any real man; nay, more, if set upon and beaten by six or eight noblemen or gentlemen, after it was down, the figure would utter divers groans, mingled with entreaties for mercy, thus rendering the illusion complete, and the enjoyment perfect. But the invention did not stop even here; for station-houses would be built, containing good beds for noblemen and gentlemen during the night, and in the morning they would repair to a commodious police office, where a pantomimic investigation would take place before the automaton magistrates,—quite equal to life,—who would fine them in so many counters, with which they would be previously provided for the purpose. This office would be furnished with an inclined plane, for the convenience of any nobleman or gentleman who might wish to bring in his horse as a witness; and the prisoners would be at perfect liberty, as they were now, to interrupt the complainants as much as they pleased, and to make any remarks that they thought proper. The charge for these amusements would amount to very little more than they already cost, and the inventor submitted that the public would be much benefited and comforted by the proposed arrangement.

‘PROFESSOR NOGO wished to be informed what amount of automaton police force it was proposed to raise in the first instance.

‘MR. COPPERNOSE replied, that it was proposed to begin with seven divisions of police of a score each, lettered from A to G inclusive. It was proposed that not more than half this number should be placed on active duty, and that the remainder should be kept on shelves in the police office ready to be called out at a moment’s notice.

‘THE PRESIDENT, awarding the utmost merit to the ingenious gentleman who had originated the idea, doubted whether the automaton police would quite answer the purpose. He feared that noblemen and gentlemen would perhaps require the excitement of thrashing living subjects.

‘MR. COPPERNOSE submitted, that as the usual odds in such cases were ten noblemen or gentlemen to one policeman or cab-driver, it could make very little difference in point of excitement whether the policeman or cab-driver were a man or a block. The great advantage would be, that a policeman’s limbs might be all knocked off, and yet he would be in a condition to do duty next day. He might even give his evidence next morning with his head in his hand, and give it equally well.

And to bring it all home to Lambeth:

CHAPTER XIV—VAUXHALL-GARDENS BY DAY

There was a time when if a man ventured to wonder how Vauxhall-gardens would look by day, he was hailed with a shout of derision at the absurdity of the idea. Vauxhall by daylight! A porter-pot without porter, the House of Commons without the Speaker, a gas-lamp without the gas—pooh, nonsense, the thing was not to be thought of. It was rumoured, too, in those times, that Vauxhall-gardens by day, were the scene of secret and hidden experiments; that there, carvers were exercised in the mystic art of cutting a moderate-sized ham into slices thin enough to pave the whole of the grounds; that beneath the shade of the tall trees, studious men were constantly engaged in chemical experiments, with the view of discovering how much water a bowl of negus could possibly bear; and that in some retired nooks, appropriated to the study of ornithology, other sage and learned men were, by a process known only to themselves, incessantly employed in reducing fowls to a mere combination of skin and bone.

Thomas Rowlandson - Vaux-Hall - Dr. Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Mary Robinson, et al.jpg
‘Vaux-Hall – Dr. Johnson, Oliver Goldsmith, Mary Robinson, et al’ by Thomas Rowlandson – Published by J.R. Smith, No. 83 Oxford Street, London. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Vague rumours of this kind, together with many others of a similar nature, cast over Vauxhall-gardens an air of deep mystery; and as there is a great deal in the mysterious, there is no doubt that to a good many people, at all events, the pleasure they afforded was not a little enhanced by this very circumstance.

Of this class of people we confess to having made one. We loved to wander among these illuminated groves, thinking of the patient and laborious researches which had been carried on there during the day, and witnessing their results in the suppers which were served up beneath the light of lamps and to the sound of music at night. The temples and saloons and cosmoramas and fountains glittered and sparkled before our eyes; the beauty of the lady singers and the elegant deportment of the gentlemen, captivated our hearts; a few hundred thousand of additional lamps dazzled our senses; a bowl or two of punch bewildered our brains; and we were happy.

In an evil hour, the proprietors of Vauxhall-gardens took to opening them by day. We regretted this, as rudely and harshly disturbing that veil of mystery which had hung about the property for many years, and which none but the noonday sun, and the late Mr. Simpson, had ever penetrated. We shrunk from going; at this moment we scarcely know why. Perhaps a morbid consciousness of approaching disappointment—perhaps a fatal presentiment—perhaps the weather; whatever it was, we did not go until the second or third announcement of a race between two balloons tempted us, and we went.

We paid our shilling at the gate, and then we saw for the first time, that the entrance, if there had been any magic about it at all, was now decidedly disenchanted, being, in fact, nothing more nor less than a combination of very roughly-painted boards and sawdust. We glanced at the orchestra and supper-room as we hurried past—we just recognised them, and that was all. We bent our steps to the firework-ground; there, at least, we should not be disappointed. We reached it, and stood rooted to the spot with mortification and astonishment. That the Moorish tower—that wooden shed with a door in the centre, and daubs of crimson and yellow all round, like a gigantic watch-case! That the place where night after night we had beheld the undaunted Mr. Blackmore make his terrific ascent, surrounded by flames of fire, and peals of artillery, and where the white garments of Madame Somebody (we forget even her name now), who nobly devoted her life to the manufacture of fireworks, had so often been seen fluttering in the wind, as she called up a red, blue, or party-coloured light to illumine her temple! That the—but at this moment the bell rung; the people scampered away, pell-mell, to the spot from whence the sound proceeded; and we, from the mere force of habit, found ourself running among the first, as if for very life.

It was for the concert in the orchestra. A small party of dismal men in cocked hats were ‘executing’ the overture to Tancredi, and a numerous assemblage of ladies and gentlemen, with their families, had rushed from their half-emptied stout mugs in the supper boxes, and crowded to the spot. Intense was the low murmur of admiration when a particularly small gentleman, in a dress coat, led on a particularly tall lady in a blue sarcenet pelisse and bonnet of the same, ornamented with large white feathers, and forthwith commenced a plaintive duet.

We knew the small gentleman well; we had seen a lithographed semblance of him, on many a piece of music, with his mouth wide open as if in the act of singing; a wine-glass in his hand; and a table with two decanters and four pine-apples on it in the background. The tall lady, too, we had gazed on, lost in raptures of admiration, many and many a time—how different people do look by daylight, and without punch, to be sure! It was a beautiful duet: first the small gentleman asked a question, and then the tall lady answered it; then the small gentleman and the tall lady sang together most melodiously; then the small gentleman went through a little piece of vehemence by himself, and got very tenor indeed, in the excitement of his feelings, to which the tall lady responded in a similar manner; then the small gentleman had a shake or two, after which the tall lady had the same, and then they both merged imperceptibly into the original air: and the band wound themselves up to a pitch of fury, and the small gentleman handed the tall lady out, and the applause was rapturous.

The comic singer, however, was the especial favourite; we really thought that a gentleman, with his dinner in a pocket-handkerchief, who stood near us, would have fainted with excess of joy. A marvellously facetious gentleman that comic singer is; his distinguishing characteristics are, a wig approaching to the flaxen, and an aged countenance, and he bears the name of one of the English counties, if we recollect right. He sang a very good song about the seven ages, the first half-hour of which afforded the assembly the purest delight; of the rest we can make no report, as we did not stay to hear any more.

We walked about, and met with a disappointment at every turn; our favourite views were mere patches of paint; the fountain that had sparkled so showily by lamp-light, presented very much the appearance of a water-pipe that had burst; all the ornaments were dingy, and all the walks gloomy. There was a spectral attempt at rope-dancing in the little open theatre. The sun shone upon the spangled dresses of the performers, and their evolutions were about as inspiriting and appropriate as a country-dance in a family vault. So we retraced our steps to the firework-ground, and mingled with the little crowd of people who were contemplating Mr. Green.

Some half-dozen men were restraining the impetuosity of one of the balloons, which was completely filled, and had the car already attached; and as rumours had gone abroad that a Lord was ‘going up,’ the crowd were more than usually anxious and talkative. There was one little man in faded black, with a dirty face and a rusty black neckerchief with a red border, tied in a narrow wisp round his neck, who entered into conversation with everybody, and had something to say upon every remark that was made within his hearing. He was standing with his arms folded, staring up at the balloon, and every now and then vented his feelings of reverence for the aëronaut, by saying, as he looked round to catch somebody’s eye, ‘He’s a rum ’un is Green; think o’ this here being up’ards of his two hundredth ascent; ecod, the man as is ekal to Green never had the toothache yet, nor won’t have within this hundred year, and that’s all about it. When you meets with real talent, and native, too, encourage it, that’s what I say;’ and when he had delivered himself to this effect, he would fold his arms with more determination than ever, and stare at the balloon with a sort of admiring defiance of any other man alive, beyond himself and Green, that impressed the crowd with the opinion that he was an oracle.

‘Ah, you’re very right, sir,’ said another gentleman, with his wife, and children, and mother, and wife’s sister, and a host of female friends, in all the gentility of white pocket-handkerchiefs, frills, and spencers, ‘Mr. Green is a steady hand, sir, and there’s no fear about him.’

‘Fear!’ said the little man: ‘isn’t it a lovely thing to see him and his wife a going up in one balloon, and his own son and his wife a jostling up against them in another, and all of them going twenty or thirty mile in three hours or so, and then coming back in pochayses? I don’t know where this here science is to stop, mind you; that’s what bothers me.’

Here there was a considerable talking among the females in the spencers.

‘What’s the ladies a laughing at, sir?’ inquired the little man, condescendingly.

‘It’s only my sister Mary,’ said one of the girls, ‘as says she hopes his lordship won’t be frightened when he’s in the car, and want to come out again.’

‘Make yourself easy about that there, my dear,’ replied the little man. ‘If he was so much as to move a inch without leave, Green would jist fetch him a crack over the head with the telescope, as would send him into the bottom of the basket in no time, and stun him till they come down again.’

‘Would he, though?’ inquired the other man.

‘Yes, would he,’ replied the little one, ‘and think nothing of it, neither, if he was the king himself. Green’s presence of mind is wonderful.’

Just at this moment all eyes were directed to the preparations which were being made for starting. The car was attached to the second balloon, the two were brought pretty close together, and a military band commenced playing, with a zeal and fervour which would render the most timid man in existence but too happy to accept any means of quitting that particular spot of earth on which they were stationed. Then Mr. Green, sen., and his noble companion entered one car, and Mr. Green, jun., and his companion the other; and then the balloons went up, and the aërial travellers stood up, and the crowd outside roared with delight, and the two gentlemen who had never ascended before, tried to wave their flags, as if they were not nervous, but held on very fast all the while; and the balloons were wafted gently away, our little friend solemnly protesting, long after they were reduced to mere specks in the air, that he could still distinguish the white hat of Mr. Green. The gardens disgorged their multitudes, boys ran up and down screaming ‘bal-loon;’ and in all the crowded thoroughfares people rushed out of their shops into the middle of the road, and having stared up in the air at two little black objects till they almost dislocated their necks, walked slowly in again, perfectly satisfied.

The next day there was a grand account of the ascent in the morning papers, and the public were informed how it was the finest day but four in Mr. Green’s remembrance; how they retained sight of the earth till they lost it behind the clouds; and how the reflection of the balloon on the undulating masses of vapour was gorgeously picturesque; together with a little science about the refraction of the sun’s rays, and some mysterious hints respecting atmospheric heat and eddying currents of air.

There was also an interesting account how a man in a boat was distinctly heard by Mr. Green, jun., to exclaim, ‘My eye!’ which Mr. Green, jun., attributed to his voice rising to the balloon, and the sound being thrown back from its surface into the car; and the whole concluded with a slight allusion to another ascent next Wednesday, all of which was very instructive and very amusing, as our readers will see if they look to the papers. If we have forgotten to mention the date, they have only to wait till next summer, and take the account of the first ascent, and it will answer the purpose equally well.

Coverley’s View on Psychogeography

1003489There’s so much I love about the approach and all of the authors in here but damn, are they white, male and privileged. I think Rebecca Solnit is the only woman to grace these pages, apart from the prostitutes and the beautiful women the surrealists stalked through the city… The one Situationist who did seem to actually try to practice psychogeography and write about it was forced to desist after several prison stays–apparently the police didn’t appreciate a Black Algerian immigrant name of Abdelhafid Khatib experiencing aimlessly in public spaces, especially after immigrant curfew time. What the hell were his comrades doing about that? I’d like to know.

But still, back to the thing itself. An initial description of psychogeography’s main characteristics

‘For psychogeography may usefully be viewed less as the product of a particular time and place than as the meeting point of a number of ideas and traditions with interwoven histories’. [11]

amongst this melange of of ideas, events and identities, a number of predominant characteristics can be reconised. The first and most prominent of these is the activity of walking. The wanderer, the stroller, the flaneur and the stalker… psychogeography also demonstrates a playful sense of provocation and trickery…seeks to overcome the processes of ‘banalisation’ by which the everyday experience of our surroundings becomes one of drab monotony…a perception of the city as a site of mystery… [12-13]

Which leads to gothic representations, ‘a focus on crime, poverty and death…’ I love the gothic with a deep love, but I don’t think the city as a site of mystery had to go this way–it’s just slumming, innit? Nor must it stay here really. It fits in with the wealthy male voyeurism, but if poor women started engaging in it, poverty would hardly be mysterious. They’d have to look deeper. A working class gothic, new strands of mystery, and most exciting at all, a kind of desire that has nothing to do with exploitative johns…

The book opens with literature, those inspiring psychogeography as we know it today: Defoe, Blake, de Quincy, Poe, Machen, Stevenson. Watkins’s work on ley lines. Walter Benjamin, Louis Aragon and Andre Breton, poets Rimbaud and Baudelaire. Today of course, it has been brought into the present by Ballard, Iain Sinclair, Stewart Home, Peter Ackroyd, and the films of Patrick Keillor. Coverley writes:

‘the programmatic approach of social theorists and geographers is in this instance unable to accurately refect the imaginative reworking of the environment that has been conducted so successfully by those writers whose works celebrate contemporary London. [25]

For Machen it is a freeing of the self from all geographical and historical markers, an adventure through the unknown. But at times it becomes Sinclairs delving deep deep into history, or Ackroyd’s circular theories of geographical convergences. You have Poe’s creation of a new urban type in The Man of the Crowd as cited by Benjamin and Baudelaire – ‘an isolated and estranged figure who is both a man of the crowd and a detached observer of it and, as such, the avatar of the modern city’. [60]

I was rather disappointed by the schoolboy idiocies of Potlatch and the lettrists, but then it gets a little more interesting, from De Bord’s ‘Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography’, 1955:

The word psychogeography, suggested by an illiterate Kabyle as a general term for the phenomena a few of us were investigating around the summer of 1953, is not too inappropriate. It does not contradict the materialist perspective of the conditioning of life and thought by objective nature. Geography, for example, deals with the determinant action of general natural forces, such as soil composition or climatic conditions, on the economic structures of a society, and thus on the corresponding conception that such a society can have of the world. Psychogeography could set for itself the study of the precise laws and specific effects of the geographical environment, consciously organized or not, on the emotions and behavior of individuals. The adjective psychogeographical, retaining a rather pleasing vagueness, can thus be applied to the findings arrived at by this type of investigation, to their influence on human feelings, and even more generally to any situation or conduct that seems to reflect the same spirit of discovery.

Taken up with the situationists, there is no mention of Lefebvre where I thought there would be. They define psychogeography as ‘The study of the specific effects of the geographical environment, conspicuously organised or not, on the emotions and behaviour of individuals. [93] The invented the derive: A mode of experimental behaviour linked to the conditions of urban society: a technique of transient passage through varied ambiences. Also used to designate a specific period of continuous deriving’ [93] And the detournement: The integration of present or past artistic production into a superior construction of a milieu.

Here the theoretical grounding, carried on by Vaneigem and de Certeau. And the final chapter on rehashing some of the awesomeness being produced about London. And it is awesome. But still, so white, so male, and what is a movement if it is only produced in two cities? Surely it must lie beyond, surely there are walkers and writers around the globe. I have a lot of questions, but for my first foray into what psychogeography actually is after hearing the term kicked about, this is quite all right.

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Closing Lollard Street Adventure Playground

I was looking up information on the four adventure playgrounds that Lambeth Council has ‘temporarily’ closed and I found these amazing photographs of Lollard Street Adventure Playground

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[photo from http://www.tepapa.govt.nz/whatson/exhibitions/brianbrake/brakeswork/Pages/Object.aspx?irn=1015656 ]

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[photo from http://www.thearchitectureofearlychildhood.com/2012/01/post-war-adventure-or-junk-playgrounds.html, along with a fascinating description of the importance of playgrounds and theories of play]

This was the birth of the adventure playground. At Lollard Street children gathered to play with the detritus created by the clearing away of a bombed out school. While the children played, children’s rights campaigner Lady Allen of Hurtwood started to form a movement for the building of playgrounds (a short history can be found here). Originally known as ‘junk’ playgrounds, they were renamed adventure playgrounds — a good public relations move I confess — in 1953, and the movement grew.

Look at the beautiful place Lollard Street Adventure Playground grew into. For years this has been a fully staffed facility of fun, learning and mentoring

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And now it is closed. Indefinitely. Empty of children for the first time in 60 odd years. In the old black and white photos you can see the houses of parliament in the background, you can still see them today. You can stare over a playground empty of children and committed workers at the parliament (dead center, just visible over the building, compare it to the second B&W picture!) that shut it all down.

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[also posted www.lambethsaveourservices.org]

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