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  • ‘Ascendant in Pisces makes Steve Jobs very sensitive to his relationships and to his environment. The body easily retains water or weight and is subject to psychosomatic conditions.’ Celebrity horoscopes. Because it amuses me.

A London particular

And a peculiarly London sun – against which nothing could be said except that it looked bloodshot – glorified all this by its stare. It hung at a moderate elevation above Hyde Park Corner with an air of punctual and benign vigilance. The very pavement under Mr Verloc’s feet had an old-gold tinge in that diffused light, in which neither wall, nor tree, nor beast, nor man cast a shadow. Mr Verloc was going westward through a town without shadows in an atmosphere of powdered old gold. There were red, coppery gleams on the roofs of houses, on the corners of walls, on the panels of carriages, on the very coats of the horses, and on the broad back of Mr Verloc’s overcoat, where they produced a dull effect of rustiness.

from The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad

Of all the things that have changed in London, that cut us off from our ancestors’ experience of the city, perhaps the most profound, more even than the sounds and the smells, is the fog. Not just the thick pea-soupers which brought visibility down to a few feet, but the continual smokey haze from millions of coal-burning fireplaces.

Just as people go on painting holidays to Cornwall or Tuscany, Monet and Whistler used to come to London for the special quality of the light. For Whistler

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 fairy-land is before us—then the wayfarer hastens home; the workingman and the cultured one, the wise man and the one of pleasure, cease to understand as they have ceased to see, and Nature, who for once has sung in tune, sings her exquisite song to the artist alone.

Chimneys become campanili, warehouses become palaces, and familiar buildings become strange to us.

Houses of parliament in the fog by Monet

The whole way the city was built was affected by the fog.

Building News, in 1881, discussed the fact that ‘the smoky atmosphere has done its best to clothe our most costly buildings in thin drapery of soot … they soon become dark and sombre masses … all play of light and shade is lost.’ That is precisely why architects decided to clothe their buildings in bright red brick and shining terracotta so that they would remain visible; the features of nineteenth-century building, which may seem vulgar or gaudy, were attempts to stabilise the identity and legibility of the city.

from London: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd

But it didn’t just apply to buildings; the city’s archetypal tree, the London Plane, which lines the streets and squares of the city and provides roosting space for the starlings, was planted because with its thick leathery leaves and flaking bark, it could survive the smoke. The classic park planting scheme — geometrical beds of brightly coloured hardy annuals — surely resulted not from a lack of imagination among park-keepers, but a need to show up in the gloom, resist the air pollution for as long as possible, and be easily replaceable if the plants died.

The sun was shining and at the end of the street between the houses the sky was blue. Gauzily the distances faded to a soft, rich indistinctness; there were veils of golden muslin thickening down the length of every vista. On the trees in Hanover Square gardens the young leaves were still so green that they seemed to be alight, green fire, and the sooty trunks looked blacker and dirtier than ever. It would have been a pleasant and apposite thing if a cuckoo had started calling. But though the cuckoo was silent it was a happy day. A day, Gumbril reflected, as he strolled idly along, to be in love.

from Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley

It’s easy to forget just how physically dirty the city used to be. There was a general griminess over the whole city; you get a sense of it looking at old photos, but you didn’t quite appreciate how dirty the buildings were until you saw them being cleaned. The process of cleaning away the smoke stains from central London has been pretty much finished now, but there was a time when you often found a newly cleaned building next to a filthy one, and the contrast was almost black and white. The Houses of Parliament used to be a gloomy, almost sinister-looking building; now it’s delicate and honey-coloured. It has shifted from vampire gothic towards fairy-princess gothic.

view of the Thames from the Savoy by Whistler

Searching for references to fog in the British Library collections, I found this, an account in the Penny Illustrated from 12th October 1861 of a display given by the great tightrope walker Blondin at Crystal Palace:

Blondin on the terrace rope, illuminating himself and the palace, was justly expected to outshine all former spectacles. Unhappily, the mist that had hung about all day and woven itself with the twilight into a veil that wrapped every every statue, tree, and tower in early darkness, thickened into fog soon after sunset. At half-past six, when Blondin started in his basket for the mast, he could be seen only a few yards off, until he lighted the pan of blue fire he carried in each hand. On reaching the mast he kindled the lights fixed there; but they did not suffice to show even the outline of his form. For the next half-hour or so he was completely invisible–at any rate, to our eye. Yet he must have traversed the rope right and left for a considerable distance; for he exploded the fireworks in his barrow, as announced, and made as brilliant an exhibition as the fog would permit. Here and there arose from the grounds an applauding recognition as he made his way back to the mast, and he was warmly greeted on his return to the palace.

The Chinese government will not doubt be praying that nothing similar happens in Beijing this summer.

» The photo is of Hyde Park corner, taken by Alvin Langdon Coburn and found on the British Library website. Other foggy pictures from his 1909 book London: Houses of Parliament, Trafalgar Square, Kingsway, Paddington Canal, Kensington Gardens. The Monet painting of the Houses of Parliament in the fog is one of several on Wikipedia. The lithograph of the Thames seen from the Savoy is by Whistler and is from the Tate’s Turner Whistler Monet exhibition from a few years ago. And as a reward for reading the small-print: Animal from the Muppets Animal sings Gershwin.

The Thames path, Westminster to Putney

I talked about the juxtaposition of the C19th Gothic of Tower Bridge and the genuine medievalness of the Tower of London: not, in my opinion, one of the great planning decisions in the history of London. Well, at Westminster, you meet with a similar case. The Palace of Westminster (i.e. the Houses of Parliament), started in 1840, sits over the road from Westminster Abbey, started six hundred years earlier in 1245, and does its best to insinuate that it’s been there all along.

The fact that this revival of a five-hundred-old style occurred in the throes of the Industrial Revolution is fascinating to me. And at a time when wealth was moving faster than ever from the hands of the landed gentry to industrialists and merchants, and when reform was broadening democracy and extending the franchise, the symbolism of choosing a parliament building in a style associated with feudalism and religion could keep the semioticians busy for weeks.

Big Ben

But symbolism aside, the finished result is far more successful than the Bridge/Tower combination. It helps that there’s a historical logic to it; it was after all built to replace the original medieval Palace of Westminster that burnt down in the 1830s, and it incorporates the medieval Westminster Hall. A lot of Victorian Gothic looks very Victorian indeed, because of the materials used or because a few Gothic motifs have been sprinkled on an essentially C19th building. And that’s no bad thing: much more interesting to reinvent a style for a new age than produce slavish reproductions. But in this case, given the location, I think it’s quite fitting that it does manage to look kind of ‘authentically’ medieval. Compared, for example, to the Buxton Memorial fountain marking the abolition of the slave trade:

Buxton memorial fountain

And if it slightly overshadows Westminster Abbey: well, it’s an important building. Having Parliament in a vast, grandiose, sprawling palace while the Prime Minister’s residence is an anonymous terraced townhouse must be better than the other way round.

Heading off along the river, the next major landmark is what I still think of as ‘the Tate’ but is now ‘Tate Britain’, thanks to Nicholas Serota’s empire-building and his ruthless crackdown on definite articles. And on the opposite side of the river, the building a friend of mine used to refer to as Ming the Merciless’s palace.

MI6 building

It is in fact the headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6). I don’t know whether the architects were specifically asked for something that squats on the riverbank like a gigantic stony-faced toad, or if it just seemed appropriate. I remember reading once that it was supposed to look from air like the portcullis which is the symbol for the Palace of Westminster; thanks to Google Maps you can now see that it sort of slightly does.

The impact of it is somewhat diluted now by the presence just over the bridge of St George Wharf, the ugliest building in London. I remember quite liking St George Wharf when it was first built; during my lifetime, London (and indeed the UK) hasn’t always felt like a forward-looking, self-confident kind of place, and a boom in constructing big shiny new buildings was quite exciting in and of itself. But it just looks uglier every time I see it. I can’t think of a single nice thing to say about it. And St George Wharf itself is soon going to be overlooked by a 49-storey tower built by the same company. Yay. Vauxhall wasn’t exactly a site of outstanding architectural beauty before the developers got there, mind you.

Anyway, I crossed over Vauxhall Bridge because I wanted to do the next bit of the walk on the south side of the river; mainly because I wanted to go past London’s favourite white elephant, Battersea Power Station. I guess BPS isn’t very well known outside London except to Pink Floyd fans, but it’s an old friend to Londoners, particularly those who regularly take the train into Victoria from south London. It was designed by Giles Gilbert Scott, who also designed the Bankside Power Station which now houses Tate Modern. The building is protected because of its architectural importance, and since it stopped producing electricity in the 80s, a sequence of developers have supposedly been converting it to some other use (theme park, shopping centre, whatever). The cynical theory is that their plan is to let it deteriorate to the point where eventually the government lets them knock it down and stick up a load of apartment buildings.

Battersea Power Station

It was first built as a long narrow building with a chimney at each end (picture), and I actually think it was a more attractive building like that; elegant and cathedral like. But it was expanded in the 50s with a second turbine hall alongside the first, giving it its current upside-down table/dead dog look. Still, even if it messed up the proportions, it also made it much more striking and memorable. And if an impressive-but-ugly building sticks around for long enough, it eventually becomes much-loved. People even have nice things to say about the Albert Memorial.

As it turns out, you can’t see the Power Station especially well from the Thames Path anyway; the path cuts inland to go around the Power Station site and the site is surrounded by hoardings that largely obscure it. You’d probably get a better overall view from the other side of the river. Still, it was quite interesting; it goes past the market at Nine Elms, where the wholesale fruit and flower markets moved when Covent Garden was converted to a tourist trap; some nice houseboats, including one which, in what I thought was a particularly stylish touch, had a lawn on the deck; a recycling processing plant; and then Battersea Park, which was really very nice on a sunny day. The park has all sorts of different areas, but where the path goes it’s laid out in little elaborately shaped flower beds surrounded by iron fencing and looks, to my eyes, like a very classic Victorian city park; oddly enough it made me think of Paris. It’s also the site of the London Peace Pagoda, a distinctly random but quite attractive feature added in the 80s.

London Peace Pagoda

Then I went back over the river across the Albert Bridge. I think this might be the most attractive bridge in London. It’s nowhere near as striking as Tower Bridge, but it’s a lot prettier, with its decorative metalwork painted white and picked out in pale blue, pink and pistachio. It’s frothy and whimsical. The signs reading ‘All troops must break step when marching over this bridge’ only add to the sense of delicate lightness.

The walk then takes you through Chelsea, now of course one of the most expensive bits of London, but as recently as the late C19th it was louche and cheap enough to be where all the artists lived. The Hoxton of its time. Whistler did lots of paintings of Chelsea and Battersea, of course, and his is one of the many blue plaques that you pass on this section of the walk.

This is the last bit of the walk which takes you along the Thames Embankment. All the way from Blackfriars Bridge, in the City, to Battersea Bridge, there is a road that sweeps along the north bank of the Thames; it would give it a fine boulevardesque quality if it was a just a bit more pedestrian-friendly. In fact there’s too much traffic for it to really make a good place for a stroll; flâneurs should head for the South Bank or one of the parks. What’s not obvious is that it’s entirely built over a sewer; all the piss and shit of west London accumulates under there and is carried off downriver. It was one of the great civil engineering projects of C19th London, and put a stop not just to the regular cholera epidemics but the smell.

I can think of nothing interesting to say about Putney at all.

» These pictures and others can all be found in my Thames Path Flickr set. If you just want to see the ones from this section of the walk, they are tagged thamespath4. I’ve also posted some photos taken on the walk to my photoblog, Clouded Drab; they are tagged Thames Path.

Uncomplicated pleasures

Watching Chelsea get knocked out of the FA Cup by Barnsley, followed by a big plate of ribs, greens and Hoppin’ John.

My version of soul food wouldn’t pass the Southern Grandmother Authenticity Test, btw, but it was pretty tasty though I do say so myself.

‘Duchamp Man Ray Picabia’ at Tate Modern

The exhibition is subtitled ‘The Moment Art Changed Forever’ and the poster is illustrated with Duchamp’s Fountain, the famous work that just consists of a urinal signed with the name ‘R. Mutt’. In 2004 Fountain was voted the most influential artwork of the C20th, presumably for having sharply and clearly established the principle that art is whatever the artist says it is. So I can see why the Tate is emphasising it; but in fact those kind of ready-mades make up a fairly small proportion of the show; which is probably just as well because they are pretty one-dimensional. Sure, it was a gesture worth making, and Duchamp did it well, with a good choice of object and title and so on; but I wouldn’t want to see a whole exhibition of them.

Other stuff in the show includes paintings and sculptures themed around the body, sex, machines and movement, including familiar pieces like Duchamp’s Nude Descending A Staircase and The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) which is in the Tate anyway; there are paintings as well as photographs by Man Ray. Picabia was the artist whose work I knew least about beforehand; lots of the Duchamp and Man Ray has been in previous exhibitions about Dada and Surrealism. Picabia was also probably the least interesting, but some of his paintings were quite fun.

Daughter Born without Mother by Picabia

I can’t say I was wildly excited by the show, but if it’s the kind of thing you like it’s certainly worth checking out. The most covetable objects are mainly Man Ray photographs and Rayographs (made by placing objects on photographic paper and briefly exposing it to light), though there were some small, very abstract late paintings by Picabia, just a few dots of colour in thick paint on a plain coloured background which I would also quite like on my wall.

On thing I would say is: don’t waste your money on the audioguide. The commentary has a kind of coy, knowing, vaguely patronising tone, as though the narrator was trying to seduce a slightly dim 12-year-old; so that was deeply irritating. It was also short of insights that reached beyond the blindingly obvious. If I’m standing in front of a painting, I don’t need the guide to carefully tell me what the painting looks like; I want some kind of extra information that I can’t see for myself. You can actually hear some of the audio tour on the exhibition website (this page, for example) if you’re curious.

On top of the tour itself, the controllers were also a problem; instead of the standard audioguides with a big keypad, the Tate has got some little touchscreen devices. Which would be fine in principle, except that the touchscreen is erratically responsive, you have to carry around a stylus, and the user interface is badly designed. This is a machine which people are expected to just pick up, use for about an hour and hand back; there’s no time for a learning curve. So make the controls large, use standard icons for play/pause etc, and if necessary label the buttons with text. I spent a couple of minutes trying to figure it out and nearly crumbled and went and asked for help. Even when it was working, some design decisions were just bad; for example, when you pressed the ‘Go’ button to start a recording, the screen changed and the play/pause appeared on exactly the same part of the screen, with the result that many times, I accidentally pressed the screen twice and found I had paused the audio by mistake. And just when I was coming to the end of the exhibition, it crashed and I lost the tour altogether.

» The painting is Daughter Born without Mother by Picabia, from the exhibition website.

Yay for Blasphemy!

Or, to be more exact, yay for legal blasphemy. We’re not quite there yet, but the House of Lords has voted to abolish the offence of blasphemy in British law.

Virgin and cat

The current situation, with special legal protection for the Church of England, was obviously ludicrous in a modern multicultural society; but then in a country where bishops have seats in parliament and the Archbishop of Canterbury is chosen by the Prime Minister, ludicrous can never be ruled out.

» Paintings by Cranach and Rousseau.

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Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar by Simon Sebag Montefiore

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar is a biography of Stalin, focussed on his domestic life and the tightly-knit group of people around him: his own family, and politicians, bodyguards, and their families.

As a piece of history, it’s very impressive. It’s clearly the result of a huge amount of research by Montefiore: he seems to have personally interviewed just about every living relative of the major figures, quite apart from the endless reading of archives and memoirs that must have been involved. As a casual reader I found it slightly hard going at times. I didn’t do it any favours by largely reading it in bed at night, but even allowing for that, I found it hard to keep track of all the people involved. I found I was having difficulty remembering which was which even of the most important figures, like Molotov, Mikoyan and Malenkov.

I don’t know if that’s an inevitable result of a book with quite so many people in it — it’s not a subject I’ve read about before, and all the unfamiliar Russian names didn’t help — or if it’s my fault for reading it while drowsy, or if there’s more Montefiore could have done to fix the various people in my mind. I didn’t find I got much sense of their various personalities that would have helped me keep them separate. Still, what I did get was a strong sense of Stalin himself, and his trajectory from a charming (though ruthless) young man living an almost campus lifestyle at the Kremlin, surrounded by the young families of his colleagues, to a sickly, garrulous old despot wandering nomadically from dacha to dacha and living in a vortex of terror and awe.

But even a sense of what Stalin was like to live and work with doesn’t get you much closer to understanding his motivations and the motivations of people around him. Was it just about power or did he believe to the end that he was acting in the interests of Russia and the party? The inner clique around Stalin clearly knew at some level that all the denunciations and show trials were arbitrary and could attach to anyone: they saw the process happen over and over again. And when colleagues they had known for years confessed to ludicrously unlikely accusations, they surely can’t have believed it. But the things they said and wrote suggest that at the same time they sort of did believe it, and remained theoretically committed to the ideology to the end. It made me inclined to reread 1984, because the concept of ‘doublethink’ is so startlingly apt.

In some ways the Stalinist purges are even more incomprehensible than the Holocaust. The Holocaust at least has a kind of simple central narrative: an attempt to exterminate the Jews. It fits into a thousand year history of European anti-Semitism as well as a broader human history of racism and genocide. The purges don’t offer any kind of similarly clear story: at different times they focussed on different things. It might be a whole social class, a profession, an ethnicity, or it might start with one or two individuals that Stalin was suspicious of and spread out through their colleagues and families to take in hundreds of people. Targets included kulaks, engineers, doctors, army officers, Poles, Jews, ethnic Germans, Chechens, Estonians, Latvians, Ukrainians, Koreans: in fact any ethnic minority that could provide a possible focus for dissent. The total number of deaths, including not just those executed but those who died in slave labour camps or famine, is disputed; but 20 million is apparently a plausible ballpark figure.

At one stage Stalin was setting two quotas for the different regions: the number to be shot and the number to be arrested. These numbers were in the tens or hundreds of thousands, but the regions were soon writing back and requesting that their quotas be extended — out of ideological zeal? In an attempt to demonstrate their loyalty? Or just because these things have a momentum of their own?

It’s a staggering story and despite the slight reservations I expressed earlier, this is a very impressive book.

» The photo, Posing for communisim, was posted to Flickr by famous boxer and is used under a by-nc-nd licence. It was taken at the 2006 May Day protest in London and shows members of the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist). The CPGB-ML website has a link to the Stalin Society, “formed in 1991 to defend Stalin and his work on the basis of fact and to refute capitalist, revisionist, opportunist and Trotskyist propaganda directed against him.” Which just goes to show… well, I don’t know what, really.

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More medievalish London

In my last Thames Path post, I commented that London’s medieval history is rarely visible except in the shape of a few street names. Which reminded me of something. When the Queen Mother (gbh) died in 2002, her coffin was laid in state in Westminster Hall for people to go and pay their respects. I was going to meet some friends for lunch, and when I arrived at London Bridge, I was startled to find myself at the end of the queue, which started in Westminster, went over the river, and ran all the way along the south bank. There was something about that moment that struck me as weirdly medieval; not just the fact that thousands of people were queuing to view the coffin of a dead royal, but the idea of a queue stretching from Westminster Abbey to Southwark Cathedral.

I know some people who think that the ceremony surrounding the Royal Family — the gold and ermine and glittery carriages — is the best reason for having them. And I can see the argument; it adds a bit of colour and texture to British life which is broadly harmless.

But it makes me twitchy. As long as the royals confine their activities to opening museums, launching ships, inspecting troops and so on, they don’t bother me at all. But all that pomp brings out the Oliver Cromwell in me. The symbolism of it all, of crowns and sceptres and thrones, of aristocrats in red robes and bishops in big hats is, well, medieval. In a bad way. And I know that very few people would admit to taking that symbolism seriously — it’s just a historical relic, right? — but it must surely have a powerful subconscious impact.

Though having said that, the massed pipes and drums of the Scottish and Irish regiments playing appropriately dirge-like music at the Queen Mother’s funeral were just fabulous.

» The photo is of the waxwork in Madame Tussauds. ‘The Queen Mother (Gawd bless’er)’ was posted to Flickr by xrrr and is used under a CC by-cc-sa licence.