This happened once, last August, invited to be one of four people on a stage (not the main stage) for the Royal Shakespeare Company discussing Vienna, the city, Measure for Measure. A wonderful moment in a bad time. A happy memory.
I had not expected to like Stratford-upon-Avon so much. It really was terribly touristy, several hundred years it’s been that way. I suppose I expected just how much is gone, but not that so much should be left…almost anything vaguely of Shakespeare’s time survived if it got through those early crucial years when worship of his work had not quite stretched to full preservation of anything of even remotest connection to him. The 1800s more or less, in 1846 Dickens helped raise funds to buy his birthplace.
The house Shakespeare bought after success (New Place) is gone, but the house he was born in still stands (thanks Dickens!), as does the house he wooed Anne Hathaway in, his grammar school, the homes of his daughter and his friends, the premises of his butcher, the guild hall. Splendid buildings all of them. This is like a vernacular building wonderland.
I loved Anne Hathaway’s cottage most. I walked through town out to Shottery where it sits, across well kept fields. I walked alone, arrived late in the day. The Hathaway family and their descendants lived there until the death of Mary Baker in 1892. Her parlour has been left as it was for the most part, small decorative things, pictures in frames. The simplicity of her life without electricity, running water, indoor toilet. A small area on the upper floor of the cottage where smoke from the fire was diverted to smoke meat.
More than anywhere I’ve been I think, perhaps given the lateness of the hour and fewness of people and the fact that it still retains some remnant of a sense of being lived in, you get a sense of the smallness of it (though it had been expanded greatly since Shakespeare’s time there). A sense of the interior darkness, the crowding, the low ceilings, dim light, everything hand crafted mortise and tenon wise. A life utterly different. Hard to imagine a life lived in such housing as this, in such intimate proximity such absence of privacy. So few things, all made by those known to you.
I confess too I shivered walking the flagstones.
I loved the tales of how much Mary Baker charged for her stories, for postcards, for pieces of the settee where she claimed Shakespeare courted Anne…you can see how it has disappeared little by little. She sounds canny and fabulous.
There is a museum where the New House stood — a lovely garden and a tale of crime: Shakespeare bought New House from a man named William Underhill in 1597, only two months later Underhill was poisoned by his oldest son Fulke Underhill who was hanged in 1599 — all property was confiscated by the crown. The sale was not finalised until 1602 (by youngest brother Hercules!). Still, Shakespeare was holding malt there in 1598 (well, his wife was holding malt there in 1598). She totally kept everything on track as he moved between Stratford and London — he always came back here. I resist so much of the scaffolding of gossip and guessing built around the frame of his life, but I love the fact that this remained home. To return to the New Place as home, even while they waited for full possession of it from the court, the Globe was being built (1599), and Shakespeare’s father died (1601). A hard time.
His birthplace? Hopeless, packed full to wonder at glove making and beds, you troop through in a line. I did like the names of the famous and not-so-famous etched into the glass. His daughter’s home ‘The Cage’ was better. But so many people. I should have visited everywhere late in the day, just before closing. Coaches all gone home so they cannot vomit out their hordes that move past you in waves of people speed viewing, pictures, conversations.
Still. To be honest, I could feast on a diet of Tudor homes for days, I love everything about them.
Just as I loved being there with purpose that would make my folks proud, a slap up fish supper with cheap white wine, and the most swans I have ever seen in one place before.
I wish this travesty of ‘Independence’ day meant anything like adequate precautions were in place, or that we could travel beyond the hospital and its MRI machine. Holiday continues.
A piece of a weekend in Derby with my partner, he on his way to Sheffield and myself down from the farm.
I had traversed part of it once already, very briefly on my way to the farm. I had already cursed the planners of several decades ago who apparently never considered what it would be like for people walking from train to bus station or to the city centre. Close to a mile of unfriendly main road and roundabouts, all designed for the car and serving as a big ‘screw you’ to the pedestrian. Not well signed. They are trying to make residential areas of the old industrial bit between the train station and the mall on the main road now though, and actually succeeding more than most places I have seen, lovely old red brick and nice, simple-almost-Georgian new brick. I wandered through there a bit and it was a nice way to come until you hit the mall, though google thought it still didn’t exist.
The centre of Derby itself is mostly red brick also, some of it quite charming but not where it is stretching itself to become like every other city with their sanitised and slickly branded centres — the Cathedral quarter they are calling it. We walked through it to dinner on Saturday and like other centres in our strange days it shuts down at night but for the junkies and occasional groups of youth heading out in their battles dress of very little material and much make up.
There are many unexpected corners and closes or mews to look down, many buildings of odd shapes and angles — I loved that about this city.
An old arcade, with a patchworked cityscape beyond that invites exploration
But it does feel all of these corridors and corners have been closed off, shut down, all become dead ends.
It felt also that they could possibly open up again. But something would need to change here.
Derby feels small, different. The bite of poverty is visible here. Its past of factories and mills seems almost invisible, perhaps lying in the rubble beneath the concrete buildings or the two large open areas being developed now. It is more diverse than I was expecting. Its cathedral is also small, and rather than stone it is white plaster and gilding inside. I saw no tourists there, only a couple with their child lighting a candle for someone. The city can no longer be contained in a painting, though, the bus drove through sprawling outskirts for some time, and they feel like many another place.
Here it is from 1725:
This painting hung in the old silk mill — and I confess I was looking forward to more about silk and mills and this earliest of silk factories after visits to the other mills along the Derwent Valley, especially the Masson Mill. Instead it was something possibly more interesting — a several year project to recreate the museum in dialogue with the community — and a museum of making at that. I like the idea of this — a museum in this beautiful old factory celebrating makers of the past, the present and the future.
This framing around Designing and Prototyping, Hacking and Reuse is also quite cool I think, visible storage feels a bit odd in that list, but that is exactly what a museum is in many ways. I do wonder how this is speaking to youth and how it is speaking to elders and how it speaks to everyone in between. I wonder how this very particular language engages different groups. It would be interesting to explore more how this is working.
On designing and prototyping:
And an example of visible storage — an amazing wheelbarrow. Wheelbarrows have been key to my daily life for many weeks now, and this home-built one is quite marvelous. But really fucking heavy I bet. I wouldn’t want to push this up top field, even empty.
I went on a Saturday afternoon and it was quite active, with a little cafe and someone being drawn by a group of a children, someone else ready to explain some kind of old engine. In these spaces I realise what an introvert I am, and I creep through them not wanting to interact. Which is a bit rubbish of me as I have also spent much of my life trying to create some of these spaces — I can interact not as a user, but as a provider.
I sent them a silent apology.
We went also to the Art and History museum, which contained some of the same kind of opening up as the silk mill, but also a lot of the fabulous old Victorian kinds of exhibits that I also love.
Things in jars:
With funny faces
Things stuffed and rather the worse for wear
Things quite gothic and extraordinary
Things inaccessible in those lovely and so Victorian wooden galleries:
And things wonderfully ancient and awesome:
It also had the largest collection of Joseph Wright paintings, and chocolate chip cookie dough cake available to eat in the porcelain room.
Delicious, and I for one, could barely move after and did not want dinner.
We found two nice pubs as well, the Old Bell Inn and the Exeter Arms, and the Book Cafe and a most beautiful Waterstones. There are places I would love if I lived here.
Artists and Empire, the Tate’s description of the point of it:
At its height the British Empire was the largest empire in history and the most influential global power. originating with a few overseas possessions and trading posts, it grew to encompass dominions, colonies and protectorates rules or administered by the United Kingdom. In 1922 the Empire covered almost a quarter of the world’s total land area; by the end of the century it had diminished to just a few overseas territories. During this contraction, ‘Empire; became a highly provocative term.Its history of war, conquest and appropriation is difficult, even painful, to address but its legacy is everywhere: not just in public monuments, but in social structures, culture and in the fault lines of contemporary global politics.
This is what the booklet says. No slavery. Empire become provocative only as it contracts? It seems unlikely that a project of Empire was not provocative at all times, especially amongst those being Empired. The blurb on the website is slightly different:
In 21st century Britain, ‘empire’ is highly provocative. Its histories of war, conquest and slavery are difficult and painful to address but its legacy is everywhere and affects us all. Artist and Empire brings together extraordinary and unexpected works to explore how artists from Britain and around the world have responded to the dramas, tragedies and experiences of the Empire.
A bit better, that. Hard for Britain to do, but something that must be done. It was a thought provoking collection. It mostly filled me with rage, sat with nausea in my stomach. I confess, though, that is knowledge and rage I myself brought in through the door. I am not sure that there was too much open critique offered of Empire here in the Tate Britain, founded by Sir Henry Tate with all of his money from sugar grown in the colonies by slaves. From comments by the elderly middle class people seeing the exhibit with me, I got little sense there was too much critique going on in their minds either. Even though they sat staring at art deriving from a history of murder, occupation, exploitation, enslavement, genocide, extinction. Fairly neutrally curated given the subject.
So there were curiously neutral descriptions of paintings like this one:
‘Portrait of Poedua 1777-85’ by John Webber. The caption on the wall went on to say that she was painted by Webber while being held captive by Captain Cook, a hostage to force her father to round up some runaway sailors.
So this guy took a women being held against her will, stripped her, wrapped her in a rather British sheet and painted her.
But I am ahead of myself. I found the first two rooms most interesting, though the last room was my favourite. But we shall start with 1. Mapping and Marking. Because I love maps. And it behooves me not to forget just how they were used to control not just territories but also how we think about them. This was a stunning example of London at the centre of the world, and its lines of communication (England’s empire in Red):
They also had Crane’s map of Empire — from before the real ‘scramble’ for Africa, so it’s not quite as pink as the later map above.
I also learned that when Charles II married Catherine of Braganza (Portugal) in 1661, he got with her Bombay and Tangiers. They were painted and etched meticulously for him, fortifications and all.
A picture of bucanneers, explorers, men I once knew as heroes Cavendish, Drake and Hawkins (that guy who chose to have a slave as part of his new coat of arms given his promotion by Elizabeth I). These were not display.
2. Trophies of Empire — the art, artefacts, and natural history. I love natural history. Again, force myself to remember what so much of these beautiful paintings of flora and fauna mean — the control and exploitation of nature, the constant ‘discovery’ of what native peoples knew already even as their knowledge was being erased. This history was present here to some extent.
In light of this, this portrait of Banks becomes chilling — such a key figure in botany, part of Cook’s voyage, President of the Royal Society, here wrapped in a cloak from his travels to the South Pacific, more exotic weapons collected beside him…these too were to be found here on display.
The collection of wild animals, the founding of zoos. The beginnings of collections such as that at the Grant Museum of Zoology.
3. Imperial Heroics. This is a rather disgusting room, but what is fascinating is just how many last stands there are. Not of those peoples fighting for their homes and sovereignty, but of British soldiers being brave. Being portrayed as the victims. Being shown as the face of determined masculine civilization standing against the savage. I think this needed a bit more reframing, as these pictures tend to reinforce the dominant narrative of Empire. I liked the mocking installation of such narratives in the centre of the room, but it wasn’t really calculated to awaken the consciences of the people sharing the room with me I thought.
There was some interesting looks here at ‘historical’ paintings though, a lot of them focusing on Mysore, the war of conquest there repainted in a very different way, particularly this scene of a ‘kindly’ taking of hostages.
Robert Home has even painted himself into the canvas as an eyewitness. This was most interesting, this claim of authenticity and this stamp of one version of events over something that was clearly of a very different nature.
4. Power Dressing? The appropriations and subversions of European dress were interesting, but Europeans decking themselves out in the finery of colonised peoples? We still see that every day.
5. Face to Face — portraits, and some chilling ones. Both European looks at the ‘other’ but some very welcome looks back at Europeans. I particularly loved this view of Queen Victoria.
I particularly hated the portraits made for Queen Victoria’s collection so she could better know her Indian subjects, though they were beautifully done. One of them forms the exhibition’s marketing materials. Men brought over for an exhibition of traditional crafts, though they were in fact trained in those crafts while in a Colonial prison.
6. Out of Empire and Legacies of Empire
Art of the diaspora, critical art, quite wonderful art. ‘Trophies of Empire’ by Guyanese Donald Locke, his compatriot Aubrey Williams’ powerful work. Sonia Boyce, Avinash Chandra, Ronald Moody, Ben Enwonwu and others. A very good way to end the thing I think, it left me liking it more than I expected, expelled some of the anger building up as I wandered through the rooms.
One of my favourite things — the title of Sonia Boyce’s ‘Lay Back, Keep Quiet and Think of What Made Britain So Great’ (1986).
I found the exhibition overall immensely thought provoking and moving — yet the presence of many of these objects in a British museum at all is a problematic thing, particularly for the objects of art and worship that were stolen, like the beautiful heads from Benin. A lot of this shit needs to be given back. Their very presence shows there is a lot more needing doing than just facing the past, so while this call for restitution had some voice here it was oddly discordant with the rest. Walking through, I did find these objects a powerful way to understand better the nature and impact of empire, even knowing their presence here in London is a troubling legacy of empire itself.
Particularly emotive given my own recent interests were the donations of several statues of beautiful African art by Sierra Leonan Krios — descendants of former slaves and Black men who fought for the British in the American Revolution, all sent by English abolitionists to colonise a piece of Africa. Their history was missing from this, I brought it with me. On one of the pieces donated, it noted the intent of the donation was probably as an attempt to show the richness of African culture to a European audience. An effort to find empathy, respect, understanding.
I found that donation encapsulates many of the complexities of empire, of museums, of just such collections as this. It did indeed face Britain’s Imperial Past, was even perhaps more critical than I might have expected given the probable pressures to refrain from critique. But it remained something of a mixed message, and in too many ways Britain still isn’t truly facing its Imperial Past.
It never occurred to me to think of Kafka spatially or understand spatiality through Kafka, I never thought of him as a chronicler of space or the city. Yet the quite brilliant museum dedicated to him in Prague is entirely about space and Kafka’s relationship to his city, his ‘dear little mother with claws’, and I am fascinated now with thinking some of this through. It’s worth more than one blog post. I think here I shall just capture what I can of the exhibit, and then relate it to Kafka later — because when in Prague read Kafka and I am reading The Castle. Like all of Kafka’s work, I am finding it slow due to its harrowing nature and existential angst. So.
The experience of the museum itself aims at something like a replication of the feelings inspired by reading Kafka, tries to help you enter his world…it succeeds on some level of reaching some different world some how (though if it is K.’s or not that is impossible to say), leaving me fairly awed, and so I can hardly explain what it’s like to experience it. Darkness, unexplained noise, images shimmering like pools of water, photographs and collections of personal items and writings, short films, a surrounding of file cabinets and ancient phones. Not everything is translated into English or Czech — Kafka wrote in German after all. The different spaces are given context by beautifully written passages as provocations scattered throughout that demanded much more thinking.
I wanted to share these, in the shop, however, you can only buy the guide book that contains them in Italian and Spanish, so I shall be translating back from Spanish to English — who knows what language they were first written in. The initial ones, however, are on the website. On the existential space:
In this first stage of our immersion into the world of Kafka, we look at how the city affects the writer, how it shapes his life, the mark it leaves on him. Prague acts on Kafka with all of its metamorphosing power, confining him to an existential space which he can only enter by “fixing his gaze on the surface of things”, Prague forces Kafka into a spatial constriction, steadily dosing out its secrets. Prague contributes myth, obscure magic, and provides a magnificent backdrop, but it abhors clarity. And this is precisely what Kafka captures.
This is the city’s action upon the writer, the way it shapes and molds him, the way it confines him in dialectical relation to how he sees and writes it. All writers know that in writing you make things more real, but does Prague abhor clarity? How does a city choose one way or the other?
Our aim is to explore the city, seeing it from Kafka’s point of view. An exclusively biographical or merely chronological approach would not be enough; the challenge lies in condensing the principal conflicts in the life of Kafka in Prague, guided by the writer’s own views. This means joining Kafka on his descent into the depths of his city, adapting ourselves to his sensorial range and cognitive register, becoming involved in a gradual distortion of space-time – in short, agreeing to an experience where everything is allowed except indifference.
But this is no descent of the kind that would be demanded by noir, the first place my mind goes in imagining ‘the depths’ of a city. These are depths imagined differently, experienced differently. Rather than the danger or violence or poverty, there is instead a physic descent. The imagery of a cage, an interrogation that lasts, a prison as much within as without. Yet The first paragraphs of this floor are the ones I loved and remembered most, possibly for the use of the word entelechy, which frankly I struggled with to recall its meaning:
Franz Kafka is born in the interior of a myth named Prague. A city where three human groups act (Czechs, Germans and Jews), reunited through the centuries and, in spite of that, separated by cultural, racial and linguistic differences. The conflict leaves its imprint in the physiology of the city, converts neighbourhoods into airtight compartments, defines invisible frontiers, but it does not ultimately define the nature of the cage. It is also necessary to gain an intuition of it from the perspective of the bird.
Let us imagine an childhood where the I is an enigma and the community, an entelechy. A home besieged by dead brothers, distant sisters, cold governesses and a scathing cook. A world perceived from fear and guilt, in which the figure of the father spreads throughout leaving very little space for the life of a Son.
It begins with the Jewish ghetto, itself a place of confinement, a richness of culture, learning and occult knowledge. In 1895 the ghetto began a ten-year process to ‘clean up’ and reshape it through what many believe to be the ‘the most important urban alteration in the history of Prague’. The quotes given from Conversations with Kafka by Gustav Janoush are marvelous, though who is to say that he said them exactly like this? (Especially translated from one language to Spanish and back to English again)
Inside of us still live the obscure corners the mysterious passages, the blinded windows, the dirty patios, the noisy taverns and inns with their locks. We walk down the wide streets of the new city, but our steps and looks are insecure. On the inside we continue to tremble just like the old alleyways of misery. Our hearts still have not understood the sanitising that has taken place. The old and unhealthy jewish city inside of us is much more real than the new hygienic city that surrounds us. Awake we walk traversing a dream: we are nothing more than the ghost of times past.
Instead the Jewish Quarter now is full of twisting, but grand sweeping roads, though Kafka is still remembered:
Such quotes led me to more reading of Janoush, some of which can be found here, and in which he writes this of Kafka’s knowledge of his city:
I OFTEN MARVELLED at Kafka’s wide knowledge of all the varied architectural features of the city. He was familiar not only with its palaces and churches but also with the most obscure alleys of the Old Town. He knew the medieval names of the houses even though their ancient signs no longer hung over their entrances but in the city museum in the Poric. Kafka read the city’s history out of the walls of its ancient houses. He conducted me by crooked alleyways into narrow, funnel-shaped interior courtyards in Old Prague, which he called “spittoons of light”; he walked with me, near the old Charles Bridge, through a baroque entrance hall, across a court no bigger than a handkerchief with round Renaissance arches and through a dark tubular tunnel, to a tiny inn enclosed in a small court which bore the name of The Stargazer (Czech: U hvezddru), because here Johannes Kepler had lived for many years, and here, in the year 1609, his famous book, which far outstripped all the scientific knowledge of his day, the Astronomia Nova was born.
Kafka loved the streets, palaces, gardens and churches of the city where he was born. He looked with joyful interest through the pages of all the books on the antiquities of Prague which I brought to him in his office. His eyes and hands literally caressed the pages of such publications, though he had read them all long before I placed them on his desk. His eyes shone with the look of a passionate collector. Yet he was the precise opposite of a collector. The past was for him not some historically dead collector’s piece, but a supple instrument of knowledge, a bridge to today. . . .
We traveled their path, so different today, yet once you leave Karlova Street with its hordes of tourists there is some of this magic:
There is a tiny museum now where Kepler lived.
And this, bringing Kafka into the 21st century:
The exhibit looks at this figure of Hermann Kafka, the father filling up the world. The Hilsner case, a jew accused of the ritual murder of a little girl. The obsession of Kafka with Ravachol the anarchist, named for him, tarred with his stigma by the servants. It looks at his intellectual and artistic circles, the figure of four (Kafka, Max Brod, Felix Weltsch and Oskar Baum), the larger circle who would meet up at the Cafe Arco and the salon held by Berta Fanta under the sign of the Unicorn Pharmacy. His contacts with Jewish theatre, undergoing a renaissance through Jicchak Löwy. His four fiancees. His death from TB. And I believe this is where the uncertain line between existential space and Imaginary Topography begins. Of course it is uncertain:
Imaginary topography – The way Kafka creates the layers of his city is one of the most enigmatic operations of modern literature. With only occasional exceptions, Kafka does not name the places he describes in his novels and short stories. The city steps back, is no longer recognizable by its buildings, bridges and monuments. And even if they are recognized by an inhabitant of Prague or by a student of Kafka, they have since become something else.
…Kafka carries out a more difficult operation: he turns Prague into an imaginary topography which transcends the fallacy of realism. Kafka’s phantasmal architecture has other ends. Rather than a particular house, school, office, church, prison or castle being important, it is what these constructions reveal when they act as topological metaphors or allegorical places. What surprises does this transfigured Prague hold in store? Just how far can the metamorphosis of a city take us?
Into a passageway lined with filing cabinets and his drawings brought to life (Conversations with Kafka is full of them). I love this one, but who has not felt like this?
There is a wonderful short film of The Castle, almost entirely white, confusing, letters and figures melting into and out of sight, lonely figures never reaching where they are going. The last room is a harrowing one based on ‘In the Penal Colony’, a model of the torture, a film of skin being cut and scarred visible only through narrow windows.
I’d been unsuccessfully fighting off a cold, but confess to a feeling of unsettledness, almost nausea by the time we descended the stairs, it affected me physically and that in a way is my greatest testimony. Kafka’s books affect me the same way, I cannot read them all at once, cannot read them before bed. They fill me with fear and angst and confusion and I admire them immensely. But now I am almost eager to search for the outlines of domestic space, of work space, of the city as described here in this post, The Castle is perhaps the easiest, and the one I am reading now. Climbing up to Prague’s own castle — less a castle than a complex of Baroque magnificence engulfing the old gothic buildings — it seems easy to me to see how this is at once a physical and an existential space, something rooted in both history and in the terrors of the mind. But more of that when I finish the book.
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.