Saturday, September 29, 2007

Geoffrey Fletcher – ‘The London Nobody Knows’

We meant to go to Berlin, but I couldn’t get the whole week off and then when I could, it was too late for S. to get a passport, and so – London. Which I scarcely know at all, having been there only a handful of times. The last time was five years ago, passing through on the way to Shellac’s All Tomorrow’s Parties, and the time before that another nine years previously, my parents took us to the Tate for a Picasso exhibition so I’d have something to write about for an A-Level Art project / long essay. My sister scoffed all the garlic bread at Pizza Hut afterwards, which may or may not have deprived Tim, who hadn’t ordered anything, and she’s been embarrassed about it ever since. The exhibition was called ‘Sculptor / Painter’, and I still remember with a chill an impossibly heavy looking lump of bronze entitled ‘Death’s Head’ which with its skull stretched like skin and eye pits rather than sockets seems to prefigure the most horrific songs on Scott Walker’s The Drift. ‘Clara’ in particular, I suppose. This intense gloom was not typical of the exhibition and I was just as struck by the a sculpture of a baboon, in which the head was formed by two toy cars – VW Beetles, I think – one on top of another, the lower one inverted. An Egyptian sculpture I saw last week at the British Museum was strikingly similar. It was in the same room as these peculiar turtle headed figures.

This is the London I know. Specific times, famous places. As a tourist, I’ve never been there and not been tremendously busy. Apart from one morning last week, when I dug out The London Nobody Knows (suggested by Alistair’s side-bar and a Bob Stanley article) and went off on my own to look for Wharton Street and Percy Circus, the one area mentioned in the book which was close to our hotel. Even with the construction workers in orange jackets who had got there before me (there was a lot of scaffolding on individual houses, and similarly orange barriers all around Percy Circus), it was a relaxing place to wander, seeming to roll uphill through unruly ivy and nearly black bricks. The last of the summer sun across a couple of seven foot sunflowers, vertical gardening being the only practical kind in such small gardens. Two mounted police went by, perhaps solely for the visual effect of sun through leaves on the dappled grey. They certainly weren’t going to find any kind of trouble in this direction. At the top of Wharton Street is a square with a locked garden, and a little further on is the circus. A heritage plaque about Lenin is fixed to a rebuilt block – ‘bomb-damaged,’ explains Fletcher. Then:

These squares and circuses with their linked terraces are the logical way of living in cities – if cities are to be agreeable to the eye, that is, and not merely soul-destroying concrete and glass beehives; the squares of London are the city’s distinctive contribution to architecture. (p. 45)

Though this was the only place on his itinerary that I visited, I’d like to think that a lot of what Fletcher records of ’60s London remains today. None of it is prominent, of course, but all of it is old: what interests him is the evocation of the past in things one can still visit. He doesn’t want museums telling him how it was 100 or 200 years ago, he wants streets and buildings which have had the character and luck to survive that long – that they will have decayed accordingly, and had their use adapted, only adds to the accretion of history. At the end of the book is a plea not to continue to develop ‘hives’ (the metaphor is repeated), which will lead to London becoming: ‘…a new and ugly Babylon. And there were no aspidistras in Babylon.’ (p. 111). This is a dead giveaway, I think, of the nostalgia in Fletcher’s vision. He doesn’t write enough about the modern to get away with slamming it in this way, and the aspidistra is an incongruous thing to pine for.

For the most part, modern developments are avoided entirely, and in enthusing about old buildings (and the ways of life he extrapolates from these) Fletcher is wholly engaging. My favourite extrapolation:

One could devote a curious day to a tour of London laundries […] Of the collecting offices, the Sunlight Laundries, displaying a rising sun and tiles of an intense ultramarine interest me, and needless to say, those displaying the magic word ‘Bagwash’. The word, although in a class by itself, is one of those one would like to use for its own sake, irrespective of meaning, simply because they sound interesting. ‘Bagwash’ is pure East End, and suggests fat old women pushing prams of underwear. (p. 29)

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