I sometimes have the feeling that I am on London, rather than in it, like a fly walking across porcelain. The hardness and whiteness repulse any attempt of the eye, the mind or the soul to make their home. On the other hand, as I take a long walk through the city, from Belsize Park, through Camden and down Tottenham Court Road and Shaftesbury Avenue, towards Piccadilly, I undoubtedly feel like I am travelling through something. Later, I walk to Victoria, then to Bankside, to Tate Modern, up Victoria Street and the Embankment. After that, back towards Hampstead, up Greys Inn Road – but the rain causes me to catch the tube from King’s Cross.
I’m walking to see art. Richard Diebenkorn and Rubens at the RA; Marlene Dumas at the Tate. But I have to make a pilgrimage of it, to walk as much as possible, even though it takes longer than the tube and it’s harder. Is the art the object of the pilgrimage? I don’t think so. Not exactly. It’s the city itself and the act of walking. If it’s the art, then it’s maybe about wanting to experience the art in some kind of broader physical context; to see it not as rarefied and eternally, placelessly Art, but as ‘there’ and related to the world outside of Art. This is easy, with Richard Diebenkorn, because his abstractions are so manifestly related to place and the atmospheres of places. Despite Diebenkorn’s assertions to the contrary, the Ocean Park paintings obviously, unconsciously or not, recall the colours, the straight gridiron roads, the parking lots and rectilinear patches of waste ground, the flat roofs and the flat skies of California. It is interesting that he denied these connections, and it is not at all likely in my view that he was being disingenuous, but I think it is likely that these surroundings simply got under his skin – impregnated into the backs of his retinas – and infected what he thought he was doing.
But London streets are hard on the feet. It hurts to walk all that way. Standing looking at paintings in galleries makes your feet hurt anyway. This is part of the experience. So is walking into the gallery, up the stairs and through the crowds (or not). So why walk there? To measure the difference between Richard Diebenkorn and Marlene Dumas in footfalls? Or from the breakfast table to Richard Diebenkorn in the same way? Does it remind me that what artworks ultimately feed on for their worth, like human worth and the mysteriousness of the world, are things found outside of the gallery? Or am I just a perverse sucker?
London has white parts and brown parts, but its inner soul is white; a kind of luminous grey-white. Certainly, it is the white of Portland stone, of concrete, of overcast sky, of grubby marble, of aeroplanes and the London Eye. Of the river. But it’s more of an inner luminance than that. On the Embankment it makes your eyes hurt. There is a kind of London snow-blindness: a Londonness that nullifies thought; hurts the brain, hurts the eyes; hurts the feet; and makes you feel disconnected, as if you are only partly in your body. It’s the Londonness of having to walk miles when you are hungry before you find somewhere suitable to eat (otherwise, the city throws no end of eateries at you, higgledy-piggledy) – and also of having to walk miles to sit down, or take a piss etc. But it is also connected to hardness.
Moored by the Embankment are ships which have been turned into clubs, restaurants or guildhalls (HQS Wellington). Mostly, they have been stripped of nautical gear and had large picture windows cut out of their sides, replacing portholes, and their rudders have been allowed to rot. Sadly emasculated boats, useless to go to sea in, painted and superficially done up to look like what they once were. The nautical philistines who go clubbing in them won’t know or care that ships don’t normally have large windows set directly into the sharp curves of their prows, the curved glazing recalling the Art Deco architecture of cinemas, nightclubs, smart apartments and other pleasure-spaces, rather than the ruthless functionality of ships (even ships that had Deco interiors).
There is something that is lost in translation when the severely functional forms of ships and aircraft – forms which are pared-down and precisely sculpted in order to function maximally in the harshest and most unforgiving environments – are interpreted and depicted in the soft, plushy contexts of pleasure. This is the case with the expanded polystyrene aeroplane mounted on the façade of a shop in Camden (someone’s hand-me-down memory of a cheap post-war decommissioned DC3 stuck on top of a garage or motel somewhere in the US), with its fat, flat wings, lacking any dihedral and inaccurately modelled and scaled. It doesn’t matter because it only has to function within the bounds of pleasure-space, as a lazy cipher for something or other that nobody needs to, or can be bothered to, interpret, like the logos and insignia on T-shirts.
London does something similar to nature. Translates it into a debased idiom. This you see in the bay trees and ivy (sometimes plastic) in pots outside restaurants and the vine wound round the railings of Amen Court. The prim and expensive potted green things outside glass office buildings and luxury hotels. Nature goes on, of course, in its own corners, where it is allowed to, behind the bins. It is something about lack of care, or sensitivity to, or looking at, the original, because the original isn’t needed, and one goes to the shops, or to a restaurant, to relax, not to think about things. The urban space of service-economy London is not about the hardness and specificity of made things and making things (big, hard things, like ships), but the softness of relaxing, buying, eating, desiring, looking good and consuming.
The white ships by the Embankment have razor sharp prows which recall the corners of Portland stone buildings. Corners you wouldn’t want to bang your head against. It’s that hardness again. Hardness of plane tree seed clusters dangling like little spiky mace-heads, or grape shot, over the Thames, or against the white sky. London is like a façade. I can imagine my whole walk as like the journey through the square channels in the rustication of St Paul’s Cathedral – zigzagging at right angles to make an oblique route across gridiron streets and then getting lost in the swags of stone foliage, or having to make a detour round the funereal, hopeless face of a putto. London is a façade. It has a way of making everyone an outsider. It isn’t that nothing goes on behind the façade – on the contrary. De Quincy has a great line about the channels of charity in London flowing powerfully, but out of sight of the poor. A lot goes on that is out of sight. Power isn’t evident and you can’t read the city from its façade.
That’s the temptation and the impetus, maybe, to walk the city. To try to decipher or decode the façade – the facades. Read the facades of the streets like sentences. Cornices and windows; balconies, caryatids, doors, steps, brickwork, crumbling and slipped keystones, crudded-up ironwork, rotted window frames, and whole buildings oddly-painted (an Asian restaurant on Marylebone Road, completely painted pink, roof tiles and all).
Ford Madox Ford said something, I read in anthology, about how children growing up in London live in particular worlds – particular streets with particular patches of waste ground to play on, particular stairwells etc – but when they grow up London becomes an abstraction. Somewhere near Victoria Street I see a particularly white silver birch tree against a particularly red brick Victorian tenement and I wonder how true that is. It probably is true, but it probably is a matter of choice, or lifestyle. Mornington Cresent, as it curves round the back of the vast neo-Egyptian Carreras cigarette factory building, like someone skirting round a subject, seems quite particular (to me, anyway).
London has its brown as well as its white. This is the brown of ‘London stock’ bricks and of endless tenements, shops and terraces. The London you actually live in. The colour and texture remind me of dog dirt which has been seared dry for days on sun-baked pavement, then rubbed into powder and compressed into bricks. The whole city is built of shit. There is the shit-light of early morning sun as you breathe in the shit-fumes on the street and look through shit-grimed windows. The city of absolute, homogenous matter, eternally crumbling. Again, the eye is repulsed and abhors to make a home in matter that reminds of excrement. If I can make a comparison with another city, Glasgow, with its pink and yellow sandstone, in the latter city the eye is drawn to inhabit the stone, as an insect inhabits the cracks, because the very material is homely and healthy. Mealy, sugary, food-like. London brick abhors because it is shit-like and points to the ultimate decay of what is wholesome. The decay of the food into shit and the body into dust.