Top Shed residency blog 2 (Tuesday)

Mostly just settling in and exploring. The first thing I did was to lay out on the floor a set of cards I brought with me, and on which I wrote words and short phrases from my notebooks and which I’m playing with. I hope to use them as the basis of some of the text paintings I’m doing. Their origins are in notes taken from bus and train windows of landscape. Some of them are succinct haiku-like observations, but stupider than haiku – I kind of want them to be like clods of earth on your boots. They are just notes of ‘things’, the more banal and lumpen the better. Words as lumps of clay.

Top Shed residency blog 1 (Monday)

 

I am doing a two-week residency at Top Shed, Pockthorpe, Norfolk. Basically, I get a studio for two weeks and hopefully a bit of head-space to let something happen in it. My intention is to try not to approach it with too many ideas, but to let things come out of having a bit of mental space. Because I’ve never visited Norfolk or Suffolk before and there are a few places I want to visit, I will make some trips around, but I also want to spend time in the studio to think/work/rest.

Yesterday, I took the day to drive down through Lincolnshire, stopping off where the fancy took me. I did a bit of a windmill odyssey. When my brother and I were young, we both got interested in windmills and Lincolnshire is the windmill county par excellence; many of the places became more mythical, hallowed and distant to us than Old Trafford or Elland Road were to my sporty peers. So yesterday I stopped off at Wrawby, Alford and Boston (and passed through Sibsey). Alford and Boston mills were both working (Alford was idling, but Boston was, I guess, actually milling, because it was both turning and closed to the public). As children, my brother and I were taken by train to Heckington and Boston to see the windmills. The mill at Heckington was meant to be working, but the miller didn’t turn up (Boston was fairly dilapidated and lacked shutters in the sails, in those days). Seeing two windmills turning on the same day would have seemed an extraordinary thing to us then.

I also stopped by the mouth of the River Nene on the Wash. The military were dropping bombs or firing artillery way over to my left – I could see the spouts of water through my binoculars. A company called Dong Energy were installing cables out across the salt marshes to some off-shore wind turbines, using two giant caterpillar-tracked machines with the bizarre names of Moonfish and Sunfish (so a board said). A little way up the Nene are two lighthouses across the river from one another. One flew the flag of the European Union and the other the Union Jack. I imagine the occupants shaking their fists at each other across the Nene, and hurling barely audible insults.

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Notes written while sat by the River Humber at Hull, 21 May 2016

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[The following notes are fairly unedited from my notebook.]

 

Why do people stare into water? Watching families coming in and out of The Deep (an aquarium), they nearly all take a short detour to look over the railings into the churning grey-brown Humber. Surely, they’ve seen enough water in the aquarium, and now it’s time to go home, or to lunch, or on to the next attraction? Some take photos of themselves with the estuary behind. Excited children in pink cardigans and neat blue jeans; mothers in saris carrying bags and pushing pushchairs; couples in dry, clean clothes  all take a moment to cast a votive eye into the water. Next to their neatness and comfort, the water represents an obscene chaos. Bodies cosseted in comfortable, well-made clothes move from a warm, safe building across a safe car park and into comfortable, upholstered and enclosed auto-mobiles without a thought, save a few seconds’ glance into the water. A man-made world channels bodies comfortably about from one safety to another. It is strange to think how thin the barrier is between this human-friendly tunnel and a completely hostile other: just railings. The waters of the river would not respect the boundary of woven fabric with which we separate our inner from our outer, or public, selves: the turbulent waters would defile cotton and acrylic textiles alike and deposit silt from fields miles upriver into the wove.

 

The families peering over the railings into the river are a bit like the crowd at a Roman circus, watching gladiators slaying each other. A thin partition separates them from violence. On the one side comfort, ease, safety. On the other turbulence, chaos, strife, death. A thin barrier decides whether they are fighting for their lives or merely looking on. The choppy, boiling waves do look like battling souls, mired in their own gore. Endless, senseless war from some grim, apocalyptic fantasy computer game world.

 

People who you don’t necessarily think of as reflective – thoughtful – stare into water. Does water give permission to reflect/think/forget? Is staring at water like reflecting – staring into yourself? You are water, so staring into water is staring into yourself. Or is staring into water a surrogate for reflection; an avoidance? A mere resting of the eyes? Permission for the brain to rest a short while? (People will stare at a TV, if there is one switched on in the room, no matter what crap is on it. But TV is also a flow). A yearning for formlessness?

 

Why do we talk about a ‘body’ of water? Body-as-mass; body-as-extent; body-as-expanse. A body has form (read ‘limits’). A body of water has limits and form: a lake, a sea, etc. Mass without limits wouldn’t be a body. Infinite water wouldn’t be a body – it needs limits. But water’s principle is limitlessness. We stare into water because it could be limitless; it represents limitlessness. Water is limitless, because water usually flows into other water; into all water. Your brain is water. Thought is water. Clogged, dead thoughts are ‘Lehm’ (earth, loam) in a quote I like from All Quiet on the Western Front. Thought is fluid. What does it feel like to think? Isn’t it like a kind of flow, like water flowing over/through you?

 

Water and air are both elements that we can’t enter without some special contrivance or effort. We can’t go into the air without some kind of aircraft, and we can’t go over water without a boat, or by swimming (most of us can’t swim very far). So staring into air or water represents a yearning for where we can’t go. When we stand on the edge of the land we have reached the limit of where we can go. So water reminds us of our limits. It is infinite, we are not. We long to enter its eternal flow.

 

Estuary water is thick like blood. Impure. Something between earth and water. Staring out across the estuary is like staring across a rolling, moving field; like geology speeded up. Estuary water has taken up earth and also taken on some of its sluggishness. The estuary is like a field you can’t walk across. Distances and scale are deceptive. A small boat is lost amongst the choppy brown waves; waves which look like furrows. Words flow like estuary water, sluggish with the silt of meanings. The estuary resembles drying concrete.

 

Silver reflections are deceptive. Knife-like shards of silver rake like stilettos over the water. (Light hitting parts of the river where the current has surfaced to render the water flat, I suppose). Shadows, of clouds obviously, move like shadows of bears’ claws. Where the sun really catches the water and is reflected back through some depth, the water glows gold like tea. Reflective water pretends that it isn’t there, or that it is something else: light, silver, concrete, steel, mercury, flesh, whatever. Solid or immaterial, its mood changes. But the mood-changes are those of the sky. The water itself is dead. The light playing on the surface of the water is like a living face projected onto the dead face of a corpse, animating it deceptively. The light dances over it, seeming to change it, but the water is unchanged, travelling in the same headlong direction like the combined souls of the dead sleepwalking to Hades. (The waves do indeed look like individual souls rushing along, at the double. Thousands of grey heads bobbing and ducking). The point about water is that it is always the same.

 

The oil refineries around Immingham, on the other side of the estuary, look like a child has been sticking canes into the sand dunes, all at different heights and spaced in clusters and individually. The chimneys, I mean. They look like pea sticks in an allotment. Another simile that comes into my mind is that of strange fungal structures – fruiting bodies firing spores into the atmosphere, polluting the air with life. Refining oil is all about taking something from the ground which is the product of decay and transmuting it into a multitude of products, from plastics to spirits and gases. Some of the products of that process are vented into the sky as waste.

Walk along the river Aire (Airmyn to Rawcliffe) 27 August 2015

DSC_0080A landscape picture is composed on the vertical. The view is through a vertical ‘window’. From top to bottom it consists of foreground, middleground, background and sky, all stacked on top of one another. In reality, the clouds which are ‘above’ the hills in background of your picture are miles beyond them, and the hills are beyond the lower hills in the middleground. Look at them on a map to see how skewed your picture is. A good landscape picture gives you some indication of landscape as horizontal extension and as temporal extension; it leads your eye into the distance, and into the past or future. However, it also compresses distance and time, bringing the distant and the past/future closer to the plane of the picture. (In paintings made before photography led to the triumph of the idea of the picture as instantaneous – as temporally ‘thin’ – scenes separated in space have less the impression of taking place simultaneously. Look at the approaching guards in the backgrounds of Bellini’s and Mantegna’s related paintings of the Agony in the Garden in the National Gallery. The events could be simultaneous – Jesus praying as the guards approach – but it is hard to read it that way and the approaching guards point anyway towards the future arrest of Jesus).

You can rarely imagine walking very far in landscape paintings, even when the background is distant, though there are exceptions, such as Ruben’s painting of his home Het Steen, also in the National Gallery. This might be because background, middleground and foreground are presented as discrete ‘things’ juxtaposed in space (like objects in a still-life), rather than as parts of a single extension (unlike in Rubens’ Het Steen painting). Distant mountains are imagined as like scenery at the back of a stage, and the receding space behind the picture-plane as possessing the same sort of depth and proportion as a stage. The horizontal is what is denied by the vertical picture, what is squeezed and squashed out by this foreshortening. Looking at maps and going on a walk bring back the horizontal, which is the real essence of landscape, and time.

Maps are pictures of landscape that stress the horizontal. Maps are pictures of landscapes you could walk across. Maps express height as contour lines and hachures, but it is essentially landscape as surface. Maps bring time into landscape, because they depict land as you would cross it. A walk is an experience that unfolds over time. It is about the horizontal landscape; about land. The experience of walking is quintessentially the experience of covering distance. Views come and go. Exceptional views you might stop to take in, but the walk’s content is as much the boring stretches as the interesting. The unfolding experience is one of distance and time, but the attitude of walking for the sake of views tempers your memory of a walk. Covering distance is hard work, which wearies the feet and dulls the mind, but this aspect is the quickest to be forgotten. A walk is taken as much in the feet and the mind, but memory selects the views, or certain views, and files them away as indicative of the walk. Memory turns the walk into pictures, as it does with life and time in general. Recovering the walk as it unfolds is possible through a different attitude to walking and a different kind of recollection.

Certain walks are boring, and these boring walks can approach the condition of the ‘pure’ walk, devoid of any content except walking and distance themselves. The pleasure in these sorts of walks is that of experiencing with the feet a distance that would otherwise be an abstract quantity viewed on a map. Instead of looking back at the outstanding views of the walk, you look back at the distance covered, as anticipated and recollected via the map. From this point on the map to this point. These walks make sense only with maps. Their drama and incidence are only visible on maps. The appeal of a walk from the mouth of the Aire, where it joins the Ouse, upriver is the dramatic shapes made by that river as it snakes and hooks. It is also somewhat arbitrary and somewhat symbolic. On the ground the drama is often disappointing: invisible. Even the dramatic meeting of the two rivers – the promise of being able to stand on the very tip of the cusp of land created by the acute angle of the rivers and look across to the opposite cusp created by the sharp bend in the Ouse at Asselby Island – is denied, because the river bank at this useless point, beyond the flood banks, is an impenetrable thicket of willows, policeman’s helmets, nettles and rubbish. But this is as it should be, because this is a perverse walk and the land itself, open and intelligible on the map, is allowed to be perverse. It is allowed to hide in the bushes and stick its arse out at you. On the ground are the real facts.

(A footprint in the mud at the start of a barely visible path led me to venture into the thicket, but I couldn’t get ‘the view’ and I got lost trying to retrace my way. I had to stamp down policeman’s helmets stems and walk over nettles and dead branches, uncertain where the wildly uneven ground was below my feet; a feeling like walking on water, or air. I worried that I was going to come across a corpse decomposing forgotten in its rotten clothes in one of the hollows).

I wanted to walk up the river Aire from Airmyn (where it joins the Ouse) back up towards where it is crossed by the East Coast Main Line, from where I have seen it from the train. From the train it zig zags nicely between flood banks (a picture!) I didn’t get anywhere near that far, because I didn’t bother to measure on the map how far it was with all the meanderings and because I lost my glasses and decided to turn back for them. I was also defeated by the boringness of pure distance; by the lack of a sense of progression. The defeat felt as ignominious as the loss of my glasses, which I didn’t find.

I got some way past Rawcliffe (which was once bigger than Goole, so a sign said). I didn’t have the will to go as far as Eskamhorn (site of the second ferry in the Rawcliffe area), even though its name appealed to me. Boring land, but the trick is to unpick it. The land has the same non-quality as a supermarket car park: the same drive of absolute utilitarianism in agriculture as in retail spaces obliterating any trace of the particular as irrelevant. The most charismatic features are all engineered ones: motorway viaducts, wind turbines, power stations, swing-bridges. The land itself is a blank; a car park for crops. Only the river itself has retained some of its archaic and forgotten horror, but you have to stand on the very edge to appreciate it.

The river is the most striking feature on the map, a serpent coiling across the land. From the ground, anywhere except close up, it disappears into its own hollow and becomes yet another evacuated feature in a utilitarian landscape, unremarkable and overlooked. Close up you appreciate the brute, obscene physical force of the thing: the coils on the map suggest not lazy meanders but writhing body, and the fast-flowing dense brown water surges with the power of viscous life blood forced along by a beating heart – the life blood of time and history. There is something breathtakingly brutal about the sheer efficiency and austerity of the river as machine, or as body. The ten feet or so of featureless muddy bank, presumably marking the normal range of its tidal flood (it must be impressive when in flood), are as ruthlessly purged as the cylinders of an engine, or a motorway hard-shoulder. The river permits no pity or special-pleading. The mud is like lubricant, or a mucus lining, speeding the flow and at the same time forming itself from the river’s substance. In the same way that an engine abrades itself and accumulates as tiny fragments of metal in its own lubricating oil, so the river carries and reforms its own gut: hardness yields to softness and brute force. Standing on the edge it is hard not to imagine slipping down into the water. You would never stop yourself from slithering down the muddy bank, a dead-weight of body with nothing to grasp but ooze, and no chance of getting back out as the current sucked you under. It makes you feel like a body, a weight; the weight that would pull you down if your foot slipped. The eye and mind can skip free of gravity, but the body is dead weight at the end of the day.

I ended my walk underneath the M62 bridge over the Ouse. Walking under the carriageway between the vast concrete pillars is like walking up the nave of some strange temple: York Minster, Stonehenge and an Egyptian temple all rolled into one, but with sides open to the light and views across golden wheat fields. The quality of sound – the muffled and distorted sound of the traffic above – is also the disorientating acoustic of a sacred space. The sense of space is exhilarating. At the end of the profane concrete sacred grove is a scummy polluted stream full of rubbish and beyond it a concrete slope covered in graffiti resembling the sacred rock paintings of some aboriginal tribe. I wouldn’t have been surprised to see bones placed in crevices where the slope meets the underside of the carriageway, or to find the remains of a sacrifice. It was a space for reverie after the dullness of the river; mineral lightness and loftiness to counter liquid heaviness.

Walk, Poppleton to Ouse/Nidd confluence, along the Ouse.

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The flat countryside of England seems to be a land bleached of meaning, spent and exhausted of place. The discreteness of place is provided on a mico-level by the varied textures and abrupt juxtapositions of plants and by the ankle-deep undulations of the path itself as it sinks and rises over the bones and fallen flesh of soil turned over by hands and machines over millennia – as if the soil itself were the bodies of soldiers fallen in the battles of centuries and folded over and over again and again then forgotten. The space underneath a fallen over clump of tansy: the bitter taste and sharp smell of a dark green shade – shade for the metallic green of a tansy beetle’s shell to shine from. Pale poppies by the side of the path for a short while, shedding petals like shields or banners, and then no more of them. A row of last years giant hogweeds stand like scarecrows with mad arms and mad heads of seeds and holding withered leaves like rotten handkerchiefs. How satisfying it would be to rush at them with a cavalry sabre and slash the hollow dry stems down! Varied patches of creeping thistles, butterbur and nettles. Meadow cranesbill (only one).

Smells mark places, too. Sickening policeman’s helmets give over to pineapple weed (before four wet and large dogs fuss me and dispel it – or did the dogs’ feet crush the pineapple weed and release the smell in the first place?) Sudden smell of wood smoke (that cliché). Is the boundary between policeman’s helmets and pineapple weed there for everyone who passes by, like a contrived water trick in a renaissance garden, or just for me, a gift of chance eddies of the wind at a particular moment? Or a figment of my imagination? The woman whose dogs fussed at me evaporated like a volatile oil and vanished from existence the moment I got out of earshot of her calls to her dogs (calls which, for a while, I misinterpreted as calls to children, as I forgot about the dogs).

Going the wrong way.

It is amazing that plants can still quietly grow up and bar our way, mould our world as much as we mould theirs; limit our paths. Abandon a path for a year and up come policeman’s helmets, hogweed, willow herbs as tall as a man, and you have to go round. This time, however, I took the wrong path worn through the rank grass meadow and ended up the wrong side of a plantation of willow; the real path was still there.

Loosing yourself in a walk

The more you walk the more you go into yourself. It becomes about covering a distance then emerging, or surfacing like a submarine. I don’t want to sketch, because I want to reach the confluence of the Nidd with the Ouse. I want to cover that distance. On the way I know I may not be there, because my thoughts will absorb all of my attention. I might think about a conversation I had with somebody years ago, or might have had, and which came into my mind for who knows what reason and for the first time in who knows how long. The mind turns itself over like the soil and the bits and bobs of a past self and moment come up to the surface again, to be picked over then discarded. Aching limbs and a hint of a headache aid this process – as does a flat land. Today, though, I’m a bit more alert to notice things and I manage to wring some thoughts out of the fabric of my brain which might be useful when I get home, if I write them down and don’t forget about them. Or I might get home and decide they are a load of crap: the last sour water squeezed out of my spent mind.

A group of walkers ahead of me, which thankfully vanishes off somewhere, between the tansies and the ash trees, before I catch up with it, gabbles like a flock of geese. The bigger the group the more everybody gabbles and renders even the most spectacular walk banal. It brings to mind the group of elderly tourists from New York state I encountered at Megiddo, who all talked incessantly and at the same time, jaws going with mechanical regularity, and the lady with Lucozade-orange candyfloss hair who I had to lend an arm to climbing back down the slope from the archaeological site, who talked at me about her friends as if I knew them all – a monologue that had simply continued from before I came into her orbit, which was aimed at nobody, and which suggested that she noticed not at all that the person by her side was no longer one of her party of geriatric Olympic talkers. The only snatch of it I can remember was about somebody not having brought their rain coat. I imagine myself telling this story to somebody.

‘Land’ is a terrible word. What is fought over. ‘The Land’. Our land. Romanians call Romania ‘Ţara’ – the land, Blighty. Tristan Tzara was a pun: triste în ţara (sad in Romania; sad in the land). Land is stuff, quantity not place, earth.

I sit by the river near the end of my walk. The river is mysterious. I try to think of what to liken the peaty tea-coloured water to. It is all surface. Guinness. Black rippled glass. Wrinkled bitumen paint. Ink. Ink – it is like a river of black ink. It is actually black. Or, with the reflections, black and white. When the sun comes back out it changes subtly into the brown of bitumen. But water can be any colour. Sitting here it is truly like ink – I can easily kid myself into thinking that it actually is black ink flowing towards York. Am I real? If I walk into the river, I will wake up at home out of a reverie I was momentarily having while sharpening a pencil over the bin. The river is a river of thought.

Flat landscape is something to travel across, but there are different ways to travel.

After London

I have just finished reading Richard Jeffries’ novel After London (1885), and I thought I’d put down a few more or less unordered thoughts before I move on and forget about it. It is a book which interested me as one in which the destruction/ruination of London was emblematic (Elizabeth Bowen’s short story The Mysterious Kor is another such work). London in After London is largely an absence, though a very important one; the book’s subtitle Wild England, on the surface seems more apt to its content. The main title is worth taking seriously, however, as a summation of the book’s theme.

Plot spoiler: the following paragraph reveals the plot of After London – but the plot isn’t really terribly gripping anyway.

After London is an early apocalyptic novel, set in the future after an unspecified catastrophe has destroyed modern (i.e. nineteenth-century) civilization in Britain and caused massive depopulation. Colossal changes have taken place to the topography of England and a kind of civilization reminiscent of the early Middle Ages now exists round the shores of a large lake which occupies the central part of England. The plot, such as it is, revolves around the eldest son of a nobleman, Felix Aquila, and his quest to make something of himself in order to win the hand of his beloved, Aurora, who happens to be the daughter of the neighbouring nobleman. Fearing that there is no future for him in staying on his father’s estate (which is threatened with confiscation by creditors and/or enemies of his father), Felix first builds himself a canoe and then uses it to go on a journey. Initially, his plan is to enlist with the most powerful of the local kings, but, when this fails, he contents himself with carrying out a journey of exploration around the lake (as if this is at least something to bring back to show in his bid for Aurora). The journey culminates in the discovery (for him at least) of the ruins of old London, which has now become a stinking toxic marsh, fatal to anyone foolish enough to venture into it. Felix himself nearly succumbs to the noxious gasses emanating from the ground and only barely escapes, but not before he has picked up a large diamond and some gold coins, left lying on the ground next to the entirely dissolved corpses of a pair of treasure hunters. Latterly, Felix ends up in the company of a tribe of shepherds, who elect him as their leader on the strength of his skill with the bow and arrow and his learning (only nobles being literate). The novel ends abruptly, with Felix setting off to try to bring back Aurora to his new kingdom.

Richard Jeffries is really, as far as I am informed, at his best as a nature writer and here the plot is really an excuse to explore the imaginative possibility of a truly wild Britain. The first five chapters are devoted entirely to a geographical, topographical and natural historical account of Britain after the apocalypse, including a fascinating account of how the land changed from cultivation to wilderness, starting from year one after cultivation ceased. (The novel begins: “The old men say that their fathers told them that soon after the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible”). Later on, a lot of description is devoted to the landscapes through which Felix travels. We learn about the changes in the different kinds of tree along the route between Felix’s castle and that of Aurora; that the ground is always damp under ash trees; and all about the different habitats preferred by the various animals. These are by far the most enjoyable parts of the book, and Jeffries’ precise powers of observing the natural world are surely his greatest strength.

If the plot is a bit of a mcguffin, however, there are other themes at work that make the book interesting. Felix’s quest is one of finding a place in a society which excludes and radically disenfranchises all but a very few. The society Jeffries imagines is rapacious and chaotic: most people are slaves and even for their entirely despotic rulers death is only the throw of a dice away. It is a cross between Italian Renaissance city state politics at its worst and Lord of the Flies. Felix has to find a place within this topsy-turvy world in order to win Aurora. He has to prove his ability to provide her with stability and wealth in a world in which both are nearly impossible to attain to. His need is also personal and psychological, as he is intelligent but unconfident and irresolute. His approach to the king is spurned because the brilliance (or precociousness) of his ideas as a military inventor is interpreted as a joke (or a threat). Without a goal, his journey now takes on the character of a journey of exploration and self-exploration. The journey’s symbolic end point is dead London.

Dead London is granted probably the most haunting descriptions of the whole book. It is the recapitulation of that great theme of the city as moral and literal cess-pit; of the city as the place where moral degradation, overcrowding and physical decay go hand in hand. The ruins of London are toxic, emanating fatal gasses and explosions of flame, generations after the destruction of the city, because all of the filth and the dead bodies of millions of people have not yet completed their decay. The phosphorescent gas that nearly kills Felix is quite literally the result of the putrefaction of human beings. The chemicals released by decay are so powerful that even the standing remains of brickwork crumble into salt at the touch. From our perspective, it is tempting to read back into Jeffries’ eerily prophetic account of a land poisoned for generations our knowledge of nuclear fall out, but Jeffries is explicit that it is the decay of the dead and of the city’s filth which renders the land toxic. London is the black centre of England, and its twin pestilences are filth (read industrial and human pollution) and population (overcrowding, the teeming of human beings).

The England of Felix’s day is under-populated, but it still teems with vicious human life. Felix’s problem is that it is impossible (for more or less anyone) to find a stable place in it. This is why London is emblematic for the book, even while absent from most of it, and why it is the destination of Felix’s journey of self-realisation. London is the disease that still afflicts the society spawned out of its destruction. The underlying anxiety is of a city so crowded that one can find no place in it. This is the modern sense of the impossibility of belonging and the transience of any scrap of belonging that one appears to find. The only belonging Felix finds is with the relatively uncivilized shepherds, and even this is undermined by the absence of Aurora. The novel’s abrupt end cements in place this sense of the impossibility of belonging.

The only retreat is away from the centre and into nature. Felix’s father has found a kind of belonging this way (albeit a threatened one). Felix himself finds solace in nature and the narration of the novel finds its greatest delight in lingering over the detail and profusion of nature. In the end, though, even nature crowds the human being out: the uninhabited forests are so dense as to provide no haven, and we leave Felix hacking his way through hostile forest towards Aurora. Even the forests are London. The alienation of the human in After London is indeed profound: he is alienated from himself, his society and from the entire non-human world.

The book’s attitude to the city is also conflicted. It simultaneously represents the height from which humanity has fallen and its degradation. It is described as a very great city, full of many marvellous things which the savages of Felix’s day cannot even aspire to recreate. Yet it has become what it always in truth was: a filthy marsh. Here Felix nearly loses his life, yet also discovers things of great value (the diamond and gold coins) which have the potential to set him up in the world, if handled wisely. Again, the novel’s unresolved ending leaves these things as being of unclear value.

Aurora is an interesting character. She is portrayed as being as purposeful and resolute as Felix is the opposite of those things, but she has little actual role in the narrative, being much more a motive for Felix’s actions. She finds her solace and purpose in preserving and propagating the old faith of Christianity. Her love for Felix is as steadfast as her faith. Aurora is the true foil to her society (Felix is merely an unsuccessful but reflective player at the game that everyone else is engaged in), and to a society that Jeffries clearly hates and sees as in some ways continuous of the society of his own day. My personal feeling is that the book’s greatest failure is the failure to develop Aurora and her challenge to her world. She is merely an interesting line of development which is not taken up, and the book’s unsatisfying end, leaving the possibility of Aurora’s development as a character up in the air, makes it into a deeply pessimistic book.

Good Friday in London (a fragment)

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.