Very pleased to have been selected for AxisWeb’s Five 2 Watch this week: https://www.axisweb.org/five2watch/2018/five2watch-painting/
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Very pleased to have been selected for AxisWeb’s Five 2 Watch this week: https://www.axisweb.org/five2watch/2018/five2watch-painting/
We have shrub in our garden – I think it’s a type of photinia – which, when it flowers, attracts bees like nothing I’ve ever known. The flowers are rather small and white-ish and give off an overpowering yeasty smell. Ioana finds the smell unpleasant and we call it the Stinky Bush (I quite like the smell). I was tempted to grub it out until we noticed how much the bees love it. You can stand underneath the dome of leaves and flowers (the bush is starting to take the form of a small tree) and imagine you are in the midst of a humming beehive. The sound is as powerful as the smell – you’d think that an entire hive was swarming. Tiny white petals speckle the path. It’s in flower at the moment and several times today as I’ve passed to and from my shed I’ve stopped under the Stinky Bush and enjoyed the sight, sound and smell. Most of the bees are honey bees, but I’ve also spotted several types of bumblebee: tree bumblebees, garden bumblebees and one buff tailed bumblebee. (We have a poster with different types of bee in our sunroom, and I’ve been trying to learn the different types).
There is a female blackbird in our garden which has become quite tame. I think it might be a youngster. Today, as I was doing some DIY work in our living room, the bird came in through the back door into the room. It pecked at the crumbs the kids had left and didn’t seem unduly fazed when I moved quite close to it. Later on, I spotted it further into the house, in the hall. I assumed that was as far as it went, but much later on Ioana found it trapped in our bedroom. It had pooed on our bedspread, on some of Ioana’s paperwork, on the floor, on the bedside table, on the windowsill and on the landing windowsill. The poo stained the paintwork berry black (or insect black). I cornered it on our bedroom windowsill and caught it. When you hold a bird in your hand you are surprised how strong, light and lean they are. They feel like they are made of nothing but bones and air.
A few weeks ago, I went for a walk quite late in the evening down the river Ouse at Poppleton, near York. I wanted to write a blog about it at the time, but never got around to it. I did take some notes, but they were merely a list of things I’d seen. So this is an exercise in trying to capture a memory that is on the point of fading. (I’ve been reading Norman N. Klein’s The History of Forgetting – which is about forgetting and Los Angeles – so the decay of memory is something that’s on my mind. Klein, in an appendix, talks about how the act of recalling a memory causes it to decay at a physiological level. A memory is altered each time it is recalled).
The colour of the walk was undoubtedly white. How to describe the texture of the neglected strips of field nearest the river? They had something of the rough exuberance of overgrown industrial wasteland; a rich mixture of tough plants. Communities of plants in rapid flux rather than a stable, static mixture like you get in a mature flower meadow. A certain plant species takes over one season and throttles everything else: a monoculture. Then just as suddenly it retreats or vanishes altogether, to be replaced by something else, leaving swathes of dry stalks or seed heads. The shifting realms of plant species hide (and reveal) the human activity of working the soil beneath – ploughing, planting, reaping, driving vehicles, digging out drainage channels and water supply pipes and the like.
There were whole massive swathes of dandelion clocks. Elsewhere there were thousands and thousands of groundsel clocks – tiny versions of dandelion clocks. The effect was surreal, somehow, like something from a twisted reimagining of a fairy story; something commonly seen but presented in an exaggerated, extravagant form. The may blossom (hawthorn) was out. May blossom seems to encrust the trees like plaster of Paris or coral; the heavy sprays of blossom resemble grasping calcified fingers. Fleshy closed fists of yet to flower hogweed were rising up among the cow parsley. White deadnettles were for some reason in abundance, especially along the top of the riverbank. Mealy white willow catkins polluted the air with fluff like asbestos fibres. Dried remains from last year: collapsed hollow stems of Himalayan balsam; reddish coloured tall stubble of something I couldn’t identify at the distance I saw it at; a crooked white stem of hogweed like the beckoning skeletal finger of an aye-aye.
And then a white barn owl appeared directly in front of me about six feet above the path. It spotted me with its round black eyes at the same instant I spotted it, and it wheeled away immediately, as if stung. I watched it cruising this way and that over the far side of the field for quite some time. Then it rested on a branch at the edge of a poplar copse a hundred yards or so ahead of me. I could see the tiny white shape of it clearly, until I approached too close for its comfort and it flew off. (A few months previously, I saw what was probably the same owl, or its partner, in the middle of this copse, where a small iron footbridge crosses a stream. The owl flew out from under the bridge as I crossed it). When I had passed through the copse and out alongside a large field of light green barley, I saw the owl again. It was cruising again, over the barley, at some distance from me. It veered towards me and I thought it was going to fly right up to me, but, again, it suddenly spotted me and pulled itself to a mid-air halt and did an about-turn. I had taken it by surprise twice at about the same distance. I’d seen its small round human-like face fix on me twice.
On the way back to the start of the walk, I had a photo in my mind of the skull of Thomas Browne, the seventeenth century author of a set of diverse and eccentric books which have a following to this day among writers I admire. Browne’s skull was stolen when his grave was accidentally disturbed in the nineteenth century and not reburied until the 1920s. A photo was taken of it at some point, which is reproduced in W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, a book I’d just re-read (a book also about memory and forgetting). In this photo, the skull is viewed in profile, resting on three volumes of Browne’s work. The jaws are without teeth, giving it the look of an old man, and there is what looks like a twisted piece of wire holding the jaws slightly open, as if Browne is speaking. The skull has thoughtful cast to its brows.
I have recently finished revamping my website, www.matthewherring.net. There is a now a lot more of my work, particularly from the last four years, on it. I hope you will take a look! Let me know what you think, either by email or by the various social media links on the ‘contact’ page.
When I went on holiday recently I took two books with me to read, which I didn’t expect to see many connections between – but I did. They were Njál’s Saga (an old favourite of mine) and Bleak House by Charles Dickens. They have a few things in common: complex, sprawling plots; a bewildering number of characters; and a concern with the fitness of legal processes to deliver justice. The thing which struck me though was simply that both centre around a gross and self-perpetuating evil which blights multiple generations, and which is only either stopped or counteracted by acts of grace.
WARNING: PLOT SPOILERS (if you care about things like that)!
Njál’s Saga concerns a series of linked blood feuds in 10th/11th century Iceland which rumble on for sixty years or so, taking the lives of an increasing number of people with each iteration. Each killing demands its recompense. The ‘good’ characters (notably the peacemaker Njáll) try to make sure that recompense is exacted legally in the form of financial settlement. However, rasher temperaments and the pressure of honour have a way of forcing matters back towards violent means. The law, for all its sophistication and the effort put into its machinations, is ultimately powerless to stop the violence.
The central incident of the saga is the attack by a hundred or so men, led by the chieftain Flosi, on Njáll and his family. The targets of the attack are Njáll’s violent sons. However, the cowardly action of the attackers – burning Njáll’s house down rather than fighting the sons directly – takes the lives not only of the sons but of the elderly Njáll and his entire family. Only Njáll’s son-in-law Kári escapes the burning. This act shortly afterwards leads to a large pitched battle at the Althing (national assembly), after an attempted legal action breaks down in a mess of technicalities. The battle is stopped with difficulty. In an attempt to prevent further violence, one of the peacemakers, Hallr of Siða, declares that he will not seek recompense for his son, who died in the battle. This act by an otherwise minor character is the seed which ultimately comes to fruition in the ending of the feud.
The saga’s final section concerns the one-man campaign of vengeance by Kári, the burning survivor, on the burners. Kári refuses to be party to the peace treaty which ends the Althing battle and instead begins pursuing the burners across Iceland and as far afield as Wales and Orkney. As Kári slaughters the burners, Flosi, impressed by the example of Hallr of Siða, does nothing to avenge them. Eventually, Kári exhausts his grief and fury and makes peace with Flosi. And so ends the feuding.
In Bleak House, set in England at an undefined time in the nineteenth century, it is the court case Jarndyce and Jarndyce that is the great evil. A set of contradictory wills leads to years of pointless legal wrangling by self-interested lawyers. Dickens’s novel is a satire on the notoriously slow and unjust Court of Chancery (abolished in the 1870s). The case exerts a terrible pull on those concerned with it, grinding them down amid raised and broken hopes. It corrupts whatever and whoever it touches. Generations of descendants of the original Jarndyce are destroyed by the case – one blows his brains out in despair; another dies a nervous wreck leaving a baby son. Only one descendant is able to break the family curse (as he calls it), by acts of self-giving.
John Jarndyce, suitor in the case and owner of Bleak House, acts as a father to his two orphaned young cousins and a third young person, the novel’s central character, Esther Summerson. He reverses the doubly ironic name of his house by making Bleak House a place of refuge and love. He is acting, in a mercenary sense, against his own interests, because his two cousins’ interests are opposed to his in the court case. But John Jarndyce consistently puts the interests of others before his own. He ends the book a little like John the Baptist, saying (in effect) ‘I must decrease’. Although John Jarndyce is unable to stop Jarndyce and Jarndyce and fails to save all those he attempts to save from it, he succeeds in creating a counter narrative of grace as a foil to the ravages of the case. His ‘Bleak House’ ethos perpetuates itself down to a second generation. There is even a second literal Bleak House to contain this ethos. Good, as in Njál’s Saga, leads to good, just as surely as evil to evil.
Once over, if I visited London I would try to cram in as many art exhibitions as I could. Now, what interests me more is London itself, and going to exhibitions is an excuse to walk places. It’s as if London is something that can be (needs to be) exorcised by walking it. I was in London in February to deliver a painting of mine to a show at Studio 1.1, Shoreditch, and I wanted to see the Rose Wylie show at the Serpentine Gallery as well. The Serpentine is close to the Royal College of Art, where I studied between 1999 and 2001. ‘My London’ – the London where I spent most of my daily life during those years – starts there and extents westwards. I’ve seldom visited it since, so I decided to use seeing the Wylie show as an excuse for a walk into loaded territory. I almost conceived of it as a ritual, or an exorcism of memory. There is something deeply uncanny about parts of one’s past which are lost in the folds of memory, and about the places associated with them. Places and memories become joined to one another in such a way that leaving a place means leaving memories behind with it. Staying away from the place preserves the memories, like leaving a cupboard full of junk untouched for a long time. Conversely, if you stay in a place you constantly scrub out memories – like a cupboard you use often and keep tidy. So unvisited places are freighted and somewhat dangerous.
For some reason, I’d been reminded that I used to walk past Brompton Cemetery sometimes on my way from my flat in Fulham to the RCA. Only once, I think, did I enter it. I remembered a strange place with gravestones arranged like an amphitheatre, like something out of a dream. I remembered also the bridge over the underground railway on Lillie Road/Old Brompton Road as being one of those borders where the temperature of London changes. It is often said that London is a collection of villages, but I think that at a more profoundly phenomenological level it consists of numerous zones each with its own emotional content; its own sort of static emotional energy. I like to call this the ‘temperature’ of an area. London is more like a multiverse than a series of villages: each temperature zone is its own self-existent, hermetic bubble. This is separate from the attachment of memories to places, which is an individual matter. West Brompton tube station, which perches liminally between the hump of the bridge and the cemetery, is the gatehouse of the Brompton temperature bubble.
So, I resolved to walk from King’s Cross to the Serpentine and then follow one of my old routes from the RCA to Fulham, then walk back from Fulham to South Kensington down Lillie Road/Old Brompton Road, checking out the cemetery on the way. I used to have an almost obsessively large number of routes, and combinations of routes, which I would take between Fulham and the RCA, each with its own particular feel and associations. Going from Fulham to the RCA cuts obliquely across the grain of London; I also lived for a time in Hammersmith, but that sits on the same grain line as the college, so it presented only one sensible route, up Hammersmith Road/Kensington High Street. The Fulham-RCA axis proliferated possible routes across approximately the same distance, so that it became a hobby to find new ones and to mix and match bits of the route into new combinations. A walk takes you through different temperature zones and can unfold like a musical composition. I had also wanted for a long time to visit Bunhill Fields, the Nonconformist burial ground where Bunyan, Blake and Defoe are buried. This is close to Shoreditch, where I needed to deliver my painting, so somehow, I wanted to weave this into my walk. I’m not into the mystical side of psychogeography, but here is a rough triangle with cemeteries near two of its angles.
The sun was low and bright, making it hard to see. I improvised a course across the grain of Bloomsbury – Judd Street, Leigh Street, Marchmont Street, Tavistock Place, Byng Place, Gower Street. The sun dissolved the city into an illusion, easy to disbelieve in. Part of the ritual was to buy a notebook from Rymans, and I knew from the internet that there was one on Tottenham Court Road and one on Gower Street. I gambled that the one on Gower Street was southwards from the point halfway along where I joined it. I gambled amiss – there was no Rymans and I committed myself to cutting Tottenham Court Road out of my route – but I was lured instead into the Oxfam Bookshop where I weighed myself down with three books: Edgar Allan Poe and the London Monster, by Karen Lee Street, Letters from London, by Julian Barnes, and Common Ground, by Rob Cowen. Two London books and a Yorkshire one. Walking London can be like playing a game with the city. Sometimes the city wins the throw; sometimes the city gives you the unexpected win. I continued my route straight up Oxford Street and through Hyde Park to the Serpentine Gallery.
The pieces in the Rose Wylie show which impressed me the most were the ones which drew on her memories of the London Blitz during the Second World War. Park Dogs and Air Raid has what I took to be a simplified aerial view of the city behind the childishly drawn German aircraft, with the blue river and the texture of the city suggested by horizontal blue strokes. Looking again at an image of it, I’m not sure if that’s what’s intended: the blue ‘rivers’ seem to be coming from the aircraft, like exhaust fumes or smoke. Having grown up making accurate and detailed drawings of German warplanes, I could never have depicted them in such a way, with backwards Nazi swastikas on the wings and not bearing the slightest resemblance to any actual type of plane. (German aircraft never had swastikas on the wings, though Finnish ones did). In the lower half of the painting is an image of Kensington Gardens, with the Serpentine Gallery, Round Pond and some dogs and ducks. In a video interview about the exhibition, Wylie says that she painted Kensington Gardens, both in response to the exhibition invitation and because she had childhood wartime memories of the park. I liked this looping back of memory and place.
Rosemount (Coloured) seems to be a more complex work: a map of Farnborough Park, just outside London, overlain with the silhouette of a large house where Wylie once lived, in the process of being bombed. Bombs fall and a large red V1 flying bomb is spied by a disembodied eye. The colours of the work – mauves and washed out greens and blues – suggest the era of the Second World War. The activity of mapping is identical to that of remembering: here the words which Wylie commonly scrawls across her paintings delve back into the past. Both paintings have the perspective of a child’s memory of living through the Blitz: seeing a flying bomb; seeing bomb damaged buildings; seeing stray dogs in the park (their owners killed by bombs?) The lumpen aircraft are exactly right for unseen raiders. The other works in the show, which featured female film stars and footballers, engaged me less and seemed shallower. (Queen with Pansies (Dots) is the one other work that I enjoyed).
After leaving the park, I scuttled down Jay Mews, the lane that runs through the middle of the RCA. Absurdly, I was afraid of meeting someone I knew. It was probably a decade since I had visited the college last and it looked exactly the same. I snubbed the college by rushing past; it was like a sepulchre locked up with memories, but I couldn’t go inside and I could hardly stand there staring at it. It was good to reacquaint myself with the layout of streets at the bottom of the Mews – doing that restored part of my mental geography and put the passageway I remembered which runs alongside the church back in its right alignment. I exited the Mews down Bremner Road.
The area of Kensington I now threaded my way through has a ‘cold’ temperature on my scale. It’s a fantasy realm of white stucco and foreign embassies; plane trees and wealth. It isn’t a place that offers the soul any sort of resting place; not even your eyes feel like they are allowed to linger on its pristine surfaces. You wonder who (if anyone) actually lives in these stolid excrescences of spotless guano. None of the people who you see walking the streets can possibly inhabit them: they are all mere workers of one kind or another. I imagine the inhabitants must pass like barely visible ghosts straight from shiny cars through immaculate doors. I used to wonder if they would be interested in buying my art, but mostly what you see through windows is acres of white or magnolia paint and large potted palms, not art. I wouldn’t even be surprised to find that many of the houses are empty, mere assets. I did notice that some of the numbers on the pillars of the houses on Queens Gate Terrace, which are all in an identical typeface, were painted less neatly than others, and this pleased me. The badly painted ones at least spoke of a human hand. A group of two or three (I forget how many) Chinese men in casual dress and with cigarettes between their fingers strolled towards me and began gesticulating at one of the houses. They looked incongruous enough to actually live here.
Crossing Gloucester Road, I found a Rymans and fulfilled that part of the ritual which demanded that I buy a black A6 notebook (thank you London). Diving down Kynance Place as down a rabbit hole, I found myself in even more bizarre surroundings. Wealth seems to suck all of the possibilities out of a place, as if not even a scrap of neglected brickwork must be left to the casual stroller. Kynance Mews, which runs parallel to Kynance Place, and which I did not even dare to walk down, has an overbearing stone arch at each end, like a massive mouth ready to bite down on the unauthorised pedestrian. There is something cruel about the very architecture. Go down Kynance Place (or, if you dare, Mews) and you are in the land of twisted fairytale. There are more stone portals leading into forbidden courtyards and an overly luxuriant growth of styles from Arts and Crafts and Regency to Second Empire, much of it stuccoed like a sickly cake encrusted with white icing. Odd corners and angles, which elsewhere would make the place characterful are here too scrubbed and painted to enjoy. Barley twist chimneys recall the eggs atop the Salvador Dali Museum in Figueres. The neighbourhood simultaneously treats you as dirt too lowly to notice and makes you feel observed. It’s hard to believe that I used to regularly walk down these streets; what it did to my mental health I dread to think.
I followed the line of Cornwall and Lexham Gardens into Logan Place. When I used to take this route, the wall enclosing the house where Freddie Mercury died used to be covered with graffiti dedicated to him; now that too was scrubbed clean (and there was a large perspex sheet bolted over the door into the garden). Emerging from these heady streets into the brutal daylight of West Cromwell Road is like a bucket of cold water in the face. West Cromwell Road is a major traffic route through West London, dirty, noisy and wide. Heading over the bridge over the railway into West Kensington, I followed a complicated route to Lillie Road, where my flat was. I wondered, how does one address the complexity of the city. I wondered also why these streets always seemed to be a poor substitute for the tenement streets of the West End of Glasgow for the pleasure of walking. I still can’t put my finger on it.
The turning point of my walk was the Fulham Cross Cafe on Munster Road, where I had a cooked breakfast sitting aloof from a lively community of elderly gentlemen. Heading back down Lillie Road (my old flat still the same), I came at last to the boundary bridge and Brompton Cemetery. The road leading up to the hump of the bridge rises as unexpectedly as the bus which carries the protagonist in C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce from the grey town up to heaven. Behind is indeed a sort of ‘grey town’: a disparate area of tower blocks, Victorian terraces, low-roofed pubs, playgrounds and hotels, which, like Lewis’s town, seems to tend to pull away from itself. The passage of Lillie Road into Old Brompton road is marked by a sort of linguistic sputtering out of the name ‘Lillie’ (which is robustly anchored in the centre of Lillie Road by the massive bulk of the Sir John Lillie Primary School). On the approach to the bridge there is the Hotel Lily (the sign says HOTE_ LILY) and the Lillie Langtry pub (formerly named after the other Lillie); across the bridge on the Brompton side is the Li Li massage parlour.
The cemetery. Through the arched gateway yet another world is reached, though one which is penetrated constantly by the living (as by ghosts in reverse). A wide avenue leads straight to the amphitheatre I remembered. In reality, it is a sort of circus created by stone arcades, surrounding and surrounded by countless graves. The vertical tiers of graves I expected to see were a creation of my memory – though flat, the cemetery is no less dramatic and unreal. The first thing about the place which is shocking – as shocking as the white bones of a skeleton – is the sheer number of graves: a petrified forest of stone stumps lined up like souls on resurrection day. The cemetery is a rupture in the life of the city; scar tissue in living flesh. The memorials are of all sorts: crosses, angels, urns, broken columns, obelisks, mausolea, simple gravestones. The phrase ‘strange fruit’ came into my mind. Workmen were busy repairing some of the larger memorials and many were fenced off. I peered in through an opening above the heavily rusted iron door of an Egyptian style mausoleum. The space extended downwards a long way but eventually ended with a bare floor and a stone bench. The variety of graves was engrossing: one had red and white glazed tiles; another had a severe art nouveau bas relief angel; another had copper art nouveau lettering which had flooded the stone with green oxides; there were a couple of Orthodox crosses with Cyrillic text; there was a grave with stone canoe atop.
Constantly, the life of the city dodged through all this death with the hardiness of the citizens of a bomb-blasted city who have become accustomed to seeing so much dereliction. Cyclists, joggers, dog walkers, commuters all clearly pass through as a matter of course. The energetic workmen gave the whole place the air of one vast restoration project (as featured on TV in an episode of Restoration Cemetery). I imagined a glossy, upbeat brochure describing how many newly carved stones would be inserted into previously crumbling monuments; how our heritage was being kept alive. A shrivelled lady in a mobility scooter trundled up and down the main avenue, as if merely enjoying the sun (which she probably was). I tried to catch the eye of an Asian or Hispanic lady with heavy foundation makeup who was sat on a bench, but I couldn’t. She looked deep enough in thought, but probably not of death or the dead. Above it all, heavy A380 and 747 airliners mooed on their way down to Heathrow at close intervals.
And then I realised that the entire place was one babbling mass. The different shapes and sizes of stones, as jostling and individual as the living. Different languages and scripts. “In sacred and devoted memory of…” “Who fell asleep July 9th 1956 aged 84 years”. “Resurgam”. “Family grave of John and Eliza Todd”. “The sepulchre of Charles Cave”. “1866”. “1917”. All asserting facts and identities. Even the brambles which enclosed some of the less well tended graves like railings resembled mad rambling script many times overwritten.
Quitting the cemetery, I continued down Old Brompton Road and stopped in a swish pub to gather my notes and thoughts together over an expensive but refreshing Coca Cola. After the disparateness and openness of Lillie Road, Old Brompton Road has an enclosed and enclosing feel. A young woman gushed in an American accent to another young woman who was sat working at the next table, about some graphic design project of the latter’s, and she then repaired to another table to make a phone call in French. I could imagine either of them living nearby. Even though Brompton is an upmarket area of London, it doesn’t have the eviscerated, enervated feel of parts of Kensington. It might just be that the predominant material is warm brick, rather than stucco (though there’s plenty of the latter as well). There is also something about the proportions of certain streets – the height of their buildings in relation to their width – that makes them feel enclosing (this is common with Glasgow tenement streets). Old Brompton Road unfolds through a series of doglegs. The space of the street gives onto the enclosed spaces of the thousands of rooms – thousands of lives – hidden behind permeable facades, just as the railings of the cemetery give onto the thousands of voids in the cemetery.
I wonder if you can define West London areas by the colour of Mercedes. In some places, white seems to predominate; in others silver, or black, or a kind of gunmetal grey. Never do colours predominate. They are the spirit guides of the grey city.
Reaching South Kensington I was forced to take the tube. The walk was disintegrating and I didn’t have time enough to walk to the East. My visit to Bunhill Fields cemetery was likewise rushed. It was getting dark and commuters streamed through the main artery of the cemetery, like corpuscles under pressure. The lights were on in the surrounding office buildings and the green mosses and lichens on the tombstones glowed with the sickliness of strip lighting. I saw Bunyan, Blake and Defoe, or at least their monuments: Bunyan’s is a sarcophagus with a carving of the writer reclining on top of it; Defoe’s an obelisk and Blake’s the simplest of all, an upright slab. They are arranged on an axis crossing the main one of the cemetery. Most of the stones here are simpler than those at Brompton (older). I photographed a squirrel who perched obligingly still on one of the stones. My visit was somewhat like the birth recorded in T.S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi: “It was (you may say) satisfactory”.
I wondered what I gained from this memory-symbolic walk. Memory is something that resists and flees as well as something you can call upon. Walking is both inimical to and encouraging of memory. Inimical, because the physical exertion involved and the obstinacy of the present both intrude. Walking a memory also erodes it, like playing an acetate disk. I did remember things and manage to reconnect with the geography, if nothing else. However, I felt more of a stranger, both from my own past and from the place. I was happy to go back to wife and home and children rather than an empty student flat.
Today I finished working on a monoprinted text piece. It’s the third I’ve completed out of a series of them. It was freezing in my studio – the ‘Beast from the East’ brought snow and storm Emma contributed wind – and I had a job to get the ink fluid enough! I put it on the heater until it steamed and probably nearly caught fire.
The river Thames at Bankside is one of my old haunts from back when I lived in London. I was there again recently with my family, visiting Tate Modern. Ioana took the kids back to our friends’ home once they’d had their fill of rolling down the slope in the turbine hall on the huge stripy carpet installed by an artist collective SUPERFLEX (far more fun than the giant swings). I stayed on for a bit, drawn by the place rather than the art. The view from the South Bank has always seemed to me like a vision, as if nothing is quite solid or real: the elements of London exist in deep affinity with one another by the river, pervaded by a veiled whiteness of Portland stone, concrete, river, and sky. When I went up the Shard, a few years ago, it struck me how much the buildings around St Paul’s Cathedral resemble the limestone pavements in the Yorkshire Dales: the same pale, flat, rectilinear slabs separated by deep fissures. I remember once trying to sketch from somewhere near Bankside and finding the luminous greyness oppressive. It was impossible to capture in crayons, the grey light pressed on my retinas, like a kind of concrete and Portland snow blindness. Light can emanate from concrete as from an overcast sky.
London is a city of skyscapes. And of sound: I can still hear the clanking of cranes and the rush of traffic; the buzz coming across the river from that sketching trip years ago. London from the South Bank manages to be both crushingly heavy and as weightlessly evanescent as pumice. I realised I was trying to draw the structure of London – the forms of its architecture – but London has no structure and oscillates like a mirage. It’s like trying to draw a feeling. Sometimes I feel London draws its oppressive weight from the concentration of power and wealth – power and wealth that exclude you and grind on with no need of you. Looking across the river towards the towers and slab office blocks of the City you are acutely aware of a terrible gravity. I ended up overworking my drawing with a white crayon, always an admission of defeat.
Years later, I left the Tate hoping to sit somewhere and reconnect to that memory. Instead of a slab sky of white, it was one of those windy-sunny days where the clouds look as if they have been wrenched and torn apart by some frenzied being. It was Sunday and the crowds were out in force along the South Bank, scudding and milling along like clouds. Tate Modern is the nexus, the centre of gravity, of the current popularity of modern art; the tower of Tate Modern is like the pinnacle of rock beneath the Gulf of Coryvreckan which causes the whirlpool – in this case of people restlessly circulating. I made my way westwards as far as it would take for the crowds to thin out a bit. I had half a mind to walk to South Kensington, another old haunt. The crowds thinned out after Westminster Bridge (where I noticed the new concrete barriers like cutwaters put there to stop repeats of the terrorist vehicle attack) and I sat on one of the benches with weird cast iron swans’ heads, opposite the Houses of Parliament.
The river is both a hiatus in London and its liquid essence. I imagined the river being constructed as a massive civil engineering project, a vast trench dug through the heart of the city without yet any water in it. The river is a fault line between the two halves of London, like the city is a stone that has cracked in half. I had been looking at Mark Bradford’s huge collage Los Moscos in the Tate, with its grid-like structure recalling Bradford’s home city of Los Angeles. Los Angeles is a city defined more by the grid than by the Los Angeles River, but London’s structure hangs on the river, like a wasp’s nest on a branch.
I imagine the river having the same relationship to London as God has to his creation in process theology. London as the river’s emanation. In process theology God and the world are fellow travellers in time: both exist within and are transcended by its flow. Becoming trumps being. London and the river are also locked in a similar flow and a similar becoming. The river is the liquid city: liquid Portland stone and liquid concrete. Liquid possibilities. The suspended silt which gives the river the appearance of dirty milk is the dust of the city. The city, for its part, is the river’s precipitate, a crystalline deposit crusting its banks. The river begets the city from its – the city’s – own substance. A god locked in time is a lesser god, however.
The river is thick with thought, with the city’s crowded mind. As I sit staring at it, the river is flowing backwards: the tide is coming in and pushing the flow back upriver. (When I lived in Hammersmith I once saw the same dead dog floating up the Thames and then later on back down again on the ebb tide). Unlike the flow of time, the flow of the river is reciprocal; uncertain. Its ebb and flow are the heave of the crowd and its silt the hiss of its thoughts. I wrote down some of the things that the river’s surface reminded me of: mercury, graphite, liquid brass, milk, urine, paper pulp, the cortex of a brain. Everything and nothing.
Walking on a little, I looked at the apartment blocks being thrown up by developers along the riverbank. The concrete lift shafts stood starkly like insane overgrown pillboxes inside the steel skeletons of the unfinished flats; stains on the concrete showed where water had once flowed in rivulets from each section as it was cast. Water soaks through concrete. Beneath the Blavatnik Building at the Tate is an area which originally housed storage tanks connected with the power station. It is a massively constructed space made of rough concrete. High up one of the walls water seeps through, like one of London’s lost rivers trying to escape its confinement. Water is the true state of concrete and rock. The river is the key to London, seeping as it does into the Tate basement.
Across the river from the unfinished flats, impure light reflected off the glass and steel of Millbank Tower, home of (at various times) both the Conservative and Labour parties, the UN and the World Bank. London is a city of reflections. I crossed Vauxhall Bridge. Sometimes the river gives you a smile: a flash of indigo on the ruffled surface. Usually, it is the colour of melancholy, or of one of the silver mercedes that course through the arteries of the city like undissolved drugs. The river disposes of things. It erases and cleanses; is both forgetfulness and memory. London is a state of mind that you can read by walking. I ended my walk at Pimlico tube and headed back to rejoin my family.
The following day, I reflected on my walk and reread my notes in a cafe in Hampstead. Hampstead types talked intensely to each other, over generous portions of cake, of business or dilemmas or other people’s follies. Over the road, I could see a building with a crooked sash window and a pink bacterial water seep down its cream painted masonry. Everywhere in London – even in rich Hampstead – there are buildings with cracks, some of them huge. Everything is shifting and provisional; threatening to slump into the oozy substrate. I looked at the people around me in the cafe and thought that it was the same for them (and me); that they were worn, stressed and cracked like the buildings, without foundations. Next to the building with the crooked sash was a yard entirely festooned with Russian vine and overshadowed by a sycamore tree. A strange, extravagant green recess in the city. Two men manhandled a steel I-beam off the roof of a van, which was also loaded with umpteen sheets of plywood and PIR foam.
Later on, Ioana and the kids and I went in the cafe in Waterstones on Hampstead High Street. There the scene was different. Hampstead High Street is unreal, so astronomically wealthy and fussed over that it seems to levitate; if the hill didn’t support it at the altitude it does, it would float there anyway. Egalitarian Waterstones is there like the embassy of a foreign land. At the next table in the cafe sat a group of several children and women. The women were very obviously nannies. They talked in the way that employees do behind their employers’ backs. The children – the infinitely precious progeny of the wealthy – messed around, spilling their drinks over books unpaid for and dropping lumps of pastry on the floor. The nannies apologised to us for the disruption – they were nannies, they explained, and these were the children they looked after. As if that would excuse the scene or as if, indeed, we wouldn’t have guessed the fact. Ioana – a nanny – smiled and said it was OK. I couldn’t help being smug that our children were our own and better behaved. We oscillated in between two strata of society: those of the nannies and their rich and badly behaved children. Outside, it started to get dark.