Happy New Year from The London Column.
From J.M. Whistler’s ’10 o’clock Lecture’, 1885, reprinted in The Gentle Art of Making Enemies, 1892:
And when the evening mist clothes the riverside with poetry, as with a veil, and the poor buildings lose themselves in the dim sky, and the tall chimneys become campanili, and the warehouses are palaces in the night, and the whole city hangs in the heavens, and fairyland is before us …
The recent fog in London, despite its inconvenience for air travellers, commuters, etc., proved to be quite a popular meteorological event: instead of invoking Bleak House’s November gloom it made the city look impossibly glamorous. The above photo was taken on the evening of Sunday, 1st November, during a wander along the Chelsea Embankment: Whistler territory. The great American painter was a local from 1859 until his death in 1903, and his ‘Nocturnes’ of the Chelsea/Battersea foreshore transform the Victorian industrial Thames into a Japanese world of shadows and fugitive lights. (Whistler was fond of applying musical terms to painting, so his nocturnes derive from Chopin: by the same token, Debussy was a fan and his orchestral Nocturnes return the compliment, evoking the Seine in the same mood as the painter’s Thames.)
The final nocturne was ‘The Falling Rocket’, a sort of proto-Abstract Impressionist take on fireworks at Cremorne Gardens, a pleasure garden located roughly where Lots Road Power Station is now. You don’t need me to tell you that this is the painting condemned by Ruskin in terms incendiary enough (‘I have seen, and heard, much of Cockney impudence before now; but never expected to hear a coxcomb ask two hundred guineas for flinging a pot of paint in the public’s face’) for artist to sue critic. Whistler won the case but was awarded joke damages and went bankrupt. No matter. Posterity has found in Whistler’s favour; he even has his own statue now, on the north side of Battersea Bridge.
This post is really a couple of years late, as there was a reportedly excellent show of Whistler’s Thames paintings at the Dulwich Picture Gallery. I say ‘reportedly’ because I was marooned on the south coast at the time and missed the bloody thing. But I’m back now, which is why I chanced to be walking along the Chelsea Embankment on Sunday night … (As it happens, I am writing this on Guy Fawkes night. Even in the pissing rain, I can look out of my 6th floor window and see the whole city lit up by sparkling lights. Some of them are even fireworks.) D.S.
Robert Hughes, The New Shock of the New:
People need beauty. … And so, we seek out zones of silence and contemplation, arenas for free thought and regimented feeling. Museums have supplanted the church as places, both of social congress and of civic pride. They are the new cathedrals. And despite the dubious quality of some of the stuff that actually goes in them, or even outside them, there’s a growing hunger for the direct experience of art on a museum wall.
Robert Hughes’s eloquent classification of galleries as cathedrals (from his 2004 documentary) is especially apt for Tate Modern. This post-industrial monument, the most popular modern art gallery anywhere, is situated plumb south of St Paul’s: twin bastions of belief squaring off across the Thames. You don’t have to be a religious person to love St Paul’s; but I don’t know how Christians who have lost their faith feel about it, or any other cathedral. Does it become a poignant symbol of loss, a reminder of disappointment?
Tate Modern has just announced that Hyundai has taken over (from Unilever) the sponsorship for its major space for new work, the Turbine Hall. The inaugural work for the Hall, Louise Bourgeois’s majestic Maman, was bound to be a tough act to follow, but since those spiders we’ve been treated to Anish Kapoor’s gargantuan ear trumpet, Dorothy Salcedo’s vandalism of the floor (which injured at least one unsuspecting elderly lady) and Carsten Holler’s slides, the hit of half-term: ingratiating, family-friendly, corporate-friendly installations that make good copy for broadsheet and tabloid alike. It has been hard to escape a growing sense that the Hall has become a sort of Battersea Funfair for the Boden set, a place where entertainment masquerades as cultural engagement.
Away from the vast Hall, the nannyish curation of the regular galleries seems intended to prevent the art from speaking for itself: one feels manipulated by an entity determined to impose itself between the art and the viewer. An unsympathetic observer might see Tate Modern as a temple underwritten by the bling of ‘BritArt’, an edifice dedicated to the Traceys and Damiens beloved of feature writers and plutocrats alike. Outside its walls one sees the monolithic, zone-changing retail development that follows artistic success like a blight: the contemporary equivalent of trinket-shit peddlers blistering the walls of medieval cathedrals. Bankside is Southbank east. (Psychogeographers will doubtless point to the golden age of Bankside, when The Globe, The Rose and The Swan premiered Shakespeare and his contemporaries, whilst punters not interested in the fate of Desdemona or the Duchess of Malfi could watch the bear-baiting. Modern Bankside doesn’t offer any bear pits, but there’s a Pizza Express and at least one Starbucks.)
But the building remains sublime, even if its function as a gallery is compromised by the fact that (like the Guggenheim galleries in New York and Bilbao) its architecture overpowers the greater proportion of its content. And it would be bilious to deny that the Turbine Hall occasionally hosts something really good. As Robert Hughes concluded in The New Shock of the New: ‘We’re seeking value, looking for meaning, a place outside ourselves that tells us there more to life than our everyday concerns and needs. You could see this in the crowds gathering for Olafur Eliasson’s Weather Project in the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern. Hundreds of monofilament lamps that suppressed all colours except yellow, shedding a gold light through gloomy air thickened by fog machines underneath a mirrored ceiling. People lay on the floor, staring up at themselves reflected in that ceiling, lit by the pale yellow light of their new sun god’.
‘The success of the Weather Project with its two million visitors shows that the hunger for new art is as strong as ever. The idea that aesthetic experience provides a transcendent understanding is at the very heart of art. It fulfils a deep human need. And despite the decadence, the confusion and the brouhaha, the desire to experience it, live with it and learn from it remains immortal’.
Pinner Station at dusk. © David Secombe 2011.
From Murder at Deviation Junction by Andrew Martin*:
‘Londoner,’ said Bowman, shaking his head, ‘born in some tedious spot like … I don’t know… Pinner’.
From Pennies from Heaven by Dennis Potter:
ACCORDION MAN: We’re all going to hell. We’re all going to burn in hell. Thank you very, very much, sir. Thank you very, very much, madam. Thank you very, very much, sir.
Today marks the 150th birthday of The Tube – and for The London Column’s modest contribution to this anniversary I would like to draw our readers’ attention to the BBC4 repeat at 10 pm tonight of TLC contributor Edward Mirzoeff’s classic 1973 documentary Metro-Land, written and presented by John Betjeman. For anyone that hasn’t seen it, this film is a glorious relic of the golden age of the British television documentary, and takes as its subject the early 20th Century suburbs that grew up alongside the Metropolitan Line as it extended deep into rural Middlesex. As the poet laureate of inter-war suburbia and the Met line in particular, Betjeman is the ideal tour guide for this trip from Baker Street to Neasden, Wembley, Harrow, Pinner and beyond.
Pinner is the quintessence of inter-war residential development: serried rows of polite, cheerful villas and semi-detached houses spreading outwards from the remnants of an ancient hamlet. So whilst Pinner Village contains some very old houses indeed, the Metropolitan Line is the reason we are here: Met Line trains from Pinner station take just 25 minutes to reach Baker Street. Pinner’s tidy crescents and avenues were intended as havens from the dirt and clamour of the city – with desirable residences, clean air, the Met Line to take you into town, and the shops and cinema of the new parade just a few steps away, what more could life offer? Naturally, Metro-Land’s quasi-rural calm came at the expense of Middlesex’s actual rural landscape, which entirely disappeared beneath the streamlined semis, but this is a very English approach to Moderne living (as opposed to Modernism, which the British didn’t exactly take to their hearts) – tidy, domesticated, and hungry for acreage. Metro-Land is not so much a place as a state of mind, a dream of what life might be; a bucolic idyll with all the benefits that the Tube, the ring roads, the wireless and state-of-the-art plumbing could bring.
But the near-identical streets of Pinner, Eastcote, Ruislip, Rayners Lane and their neighbours are also an expression of a state of unease. The cosy, complacent sprawl of these suburbs comes at a price. The new suburban landscape goaded and inspired Betjeman (‘Your lives were good and more secure/Than ours at cocktail time in Pinner’), as it did George Orwell (Coming up for Air), Louis MacNeice ( ‘But the home is still a sanctum under the pelmets’), Graham Greene (‘a sinless, empty, graceless, chromium world’), Patrick Hamilton (The Plains of Cement) and other writers of the period. They saw fear behind the Deco stained glass. In Dennis Potter’s 1930s-set masterpiece Pennies from Heaven, his doomed travelling-salesman hero Arthur Parker lives in just such a suburb, and oscillates between a joyous fantasy life and an actual life of frustration and anguish. Metro-Land is a perennially vanishing landscape of promise. Close the windows and draw the curtains, a storm is coming.
… for The London Column.
Bomb site, East End, 1962. Photo © Estate of Evelyn Hofer.
V.S. Pritchett writing in London Perceived *, 1962:
To the Londoner of my generation, the London sky has another dramatic significance which – once our present boredom with the whole subject is overcome – is memorable. It has been a battlefield. One day in 1940 in the entrance hall of the BBC I heard the sirens howl. One of the maternal ladies at the reception desk called out “Air raid please” (one is inclined in London to say “please” for everything, and one must certainly sauy it out of deference if a VIP like the Angel of Death is announced), but she was in fact telling the boys to close the steel shutters. I shall not forget that large white cloud bellying against the blue in the afternoon and, as my stomach turned over, seeing a flight of silver Spitfires dive into it. I froze with fear, hope, anger, pity. Many times afterwards, Londoners in the black-out heard the sky grunt, grunt, grunt above them, then howl and rock, or saw it go green instead of black, the whole 700 square miles of it twitching like sick electricity and hammered all over by millions of sharp gold sparks as the barrage beat against it like steel against a steel door. The curling magnesium ribbons that came slowly down were a relief to see, in that unremitting noise.
The sky shook London like a rug; the floor boards, the furniture, pictures, the glasses and plates, the curtains, the favourite vases, ferns, clocks, and photographs, the pens on the desks, the ink in the pots danced in their places throughout the night in evil monotony hard to endure. The sky was extravagant; the earth would occasionally come to life in scattered carrotty fires, and on the bad nights, when the docks, the East End, and the City were burned out, the tide being too low to give the firemen water, London turned crimson. Even then, people made the “historic” remark, the remark of experience. Nothing like this, they said, had been seen since 1666. One cloudless August afternoon near the end of the war, green snow fell in minute insulting particles over Holborn. We saw them when we got up from under our desks, where we had ducked when a bomb had fallen a mile or so away in Hyde Park and had blown the leaves off the trees into these mysterious smithereens. It had seemed for a moment, like a new venture of the London climate, which we knew to be capable of anything.
Several hundred thousand dwellings were damaged in the County of London, that is to say more than eighty per cent of the total. And of these, nearly a third were totally destroyed. Little was left of the docks or the City. And about 30,000 people were killed; more than 50,000 injured. On December 29, 1940, all Paternoster Row went, and a favourite phrase, imported from American films, was that “London could take it”, whatever that may mean. London did nothing so exhibitionist, showed none of the characteristics of the prize-fighters’ ring, as seen by publicity agents. London was quite simply morose, fatalistic, frightened, depressed and fell back on that general practicality of mind that counts as calm. The climate had predisposed us to expect the worst and disbelieve in the facts. Fatalism is the English religion. “London can take it” is just the beer talking. At the George in Great Portland Street, I do recall two drunks discussing the kind of funeral they wanted, with a lot of circumstantial detail about the correct amount of flowers, during a bad half-hour. And there is no-one who could not supply a list of old aunts, grandmothers, and so on who stuck the whole thing out, immovably, sustained by a vigorous social disapproval of the whole shemozzle. Private life rules the world.
It was the silence of London in the early evening that struck one. One had never known it to be dead quiet before. The machine had stopped. One walked down mile after mile of empty streets to the sound of one’s heels only, and voices carried far, as if across water. I remember two painted old crones sitting out alone on a bench in Lincoln’s Inn Fields when I was fire-watching. They were, no doubt, caretakers, and I could hear their voices far across the square. They were talking about actresses and distant connections of the Royal Family, of course. One night I saw a soldier come fighting out of a pub and get his teeth knocked out. One could hear them fall as distinctly as pebbles, a hundred yards away.
* © 1962 and renewed 1990 by V.S. Pritchett. Used by permission of David R. Godine, Publisher, Inc.
[Special thanks in assembling this week’s feature are due to: Jim McKinniss; Mark Giorgione of the Rose Gallery in Santa Monica, California; Andreas Pauly at the Hofer Estate; and Carl Scarbrough at David Godine. D.S.]