"Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." — Samuel Johnson

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Celluloid Myths

Continuing my exploration of Maryon Park, S E London, location of Antonioni's seminal film Blow Up.....

Looking back at the pictures I took that day led me to wonder whether knowledge of a place's connections with a certain occasion or occurrence can influence the photographer to shoot in a particular way.  Being aware of the park's connection with the film, was I subconsciously looking for subjects which would reinforce the image of the place I had in my mind?  Perhaps I had preconceived ideas of this being a place of mystery and intrigue, of trying to shape my vision to fit that of the film?  Antonioni himself obviously had a specific vision in mind as he famously had the fencing and grass sprayed a unique shade of green!  Whatever the truth of it, the photographs that resulted often had an unsettling, ominous quality to them....

Wandering around the park, it became clear that mine was not the first visit following in the footsteps of the director - it is obviously a place of pilgrimage for many a film fan. There is an official commemorative plaque but not content with that, people have left their own mark to remind the world of the celluloid links, including a curious x marks the spot in the very place where the body disappears in the film.

If only it was that easy!

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Secret Theatre

Some films have London locations which assume a special importance - one of the most famous being Michelangelo Antonioni's 1966 film Blow Up.  The most seductive and memorable scenes occur, not in the trendy city streets of Swinging London, but in a quiet municipal park in unglamorous Charlton, south east London.  Maryon Park is another one of those rather unlikely places in London that has its own special atmosphere.  Author and psychogeographer Iain Sinclair devotes a chapter to it in his book Lights Out for the TerritoryThe pivotal scene of the film takes place in a secluded grass platform at the top of the park, which Sinclair suggests has a special psychic resonance -  "....that one covert strip of grass, with its sentinel trees, its wind chorus, its doorway into other worlds".

Scene from Blow Up

After rewatching the film a  little over a year ago, I was mesmerised by the sequences shot in the park, so decided to visit and see for myself.  Although the approach to the park has been much changed since the film was shot, once inside, the row of trees marking the boundary still stands exactly as before.  Just as in the film, on entering the park the noise and frenetic pace of the city are distanced.  Traffic noise is still audible, but the wind in the trees, the birdsong and the distant cries of children in a school playground have the effect of cocooning you from reality, almost transporting you to a different plane.  Sinclair describes a similar sensation:

“Coming into Maryon Park from Woolwich Road, as I did when I made my original investigation, is uncanny.  It plays directly into the film, into the very specific sound of wind in the trees...Antonioni took a lot of trouble to identify this enclosed meadow, to see it as the essence of his film.” 

The main part of the park is shaped like an amphitheatre with steep wooded sides and a rather dilapidated tennis court in the centre - the setting for the surreal mimed tennis game in the film.  To the left of the court is the flight of steps leading up to the private grassy area, the scene of the lovers' tryst where the supposed murder takes place.

Scene from Blow Up

Scene from Blow Up

Antonioni's production designer, Assheton Gorton, described this location as a "theatre box", an ancient place containing powerful energies, likening its spatial design to the work of Surrealist painter de Chirico and Antonioni himself chose it because of its "charged metaphysical atmosphere" (1)  This kind of mysticism can be traced back to late Victorian and Edwardian tales of the uncanny, popularised by the likes of Arthur Machen, and to the enigmatic cult of ley lines originally proposed by Alfred Watkins, where the effects of ancient events are superimposed upon the modern landscape leading to "a slipping of space and time".  It is in fact a place which has connections with a much older civilisation, being the site of an ancient Roman hill fort. 

I wondered whether this mysticism might just be the product of an over-active imagination, but after spending about 3 hours wandering around, I came away with the impression of a rather mournful place which did not give up its secrets easily, one where the presence of the past is almost tangible and more real than the present....

Sunday, 16 January 2011


Although you get the bigger picture by looking at streets and buildings, I often feel it is the small details which can give a place its special character.  Whilst traipsing around Clerkenwell recently, little fragments of life caught my eye which go some way to capturing the spirit of the place, contributing to its rather ambiguous melancholy identity.

A fitting end to this post and this first foray into Clerkenwell comes once again from the pen of Peter Ackroyd:  "So the secret life of Clerkenwell like its well, goes very deep. Many of its inhabitants seem to have imbibed the quixotic and fevered atmosphere of the area:  somehow by being beyond the bars of the city, strange existences are allowed to flourish." (1)   

I didn't come across any particularly unusual characters during my wanderings, but I like to imagine some of the bizarre lives that may be being lived behind some of these windows.

(1)  Ackroyd, Peter, London the Biography

Friday, 14 January 2011

A Sense of Place

One of the things that constantly surprises me about London is the imperceptible way in which the atmosphere of an area can change over a very short distance. The district may be architecturally or topographically almost identical to its neighbours, yet there is a distinct shift in atmosphere.  One such place is Clerkenwell, wedged between the corporate might of the City, intellectual Bloomsbury and trendy Islington.

Travelling through Clerkenwell on a bus many years ago, I remember being struck by its rather desolate and faded air.  Even in the middle of a sunny working day, there seemed an emptiness about the place in stark  contrast to its neighbouring districts. It has since undergone a spectacular regeneration, its warehouses converted into lofts, its streets dotted with interior design and IT offices, smart restaurants, cafés and delis. And yet you don't have to go far to find evidence of the Clerkenwell of former days.  Just turn a corner or venture down one of the many alleyways and courts and the mood can rapidly change....

Peter Ackroyd describes Clerkenwell as one of those enchanted areas which "remain powerful and visible to anyone who cares to look for them." (1)  Despite the recent spate of redevelopment, it still exhibits what he terms "other signs and tokens of a different city ......examples of the many continuities that charge Clerkenwell and its environs with an essential presence."  Over the centuries it has been home to rebels, outcasts, prostitutes, political dissenters and radicals including Jesuits, Chartists, Lollards, Quakers and Freemasons.  Charles Dickens used Clerkenwell Green as the setting for the scene in Oliver Twist where Fagin and the Artful Dodger teach Oliver the art of pickpocketing.  Lenin set up a socialist printing press in the same place, his office now preserved in the Marx Memorial Library.  Clock and watch makers, jewellers and printers practice their trade in the area as they have done for centuries.   Ackroyd claims that this continued human activity contributes to a kind of melancholy which derives from "the weariness of prolonged human settlement with all the cares and woes which it brings."

Whatever the reason, Clerkenwell exerts a powerful fascination - its melancholy atmosphere still tangible after all these years.  In certain corners, time seems to have veritably stood still....

(1)  Ackroyd, Peter  London The Biography

Monday, 10 January 2011

Past Traces

In his masterly work London The Biography Peter Ackroyd describes the history of London as a "palimpsest of different realities and lingering truths".  Evidence of the past manifests itself all over the city - in street names and maps, memorials and statues, churches and ruins but also in the atmosphere of a particular place.  According to Ackroyd in London "the past is a form of occluded but fruitful memory, in which the presence of earlier generations is felt rather than seen".

This is not the London of the tourist guide or sightseeing tour with their historical facts and re-enactments or tales of ghosts and murders.  Rather it is to be felt as a kind of resonance, whilst wandering some unremarkable street, lingering in some old and dusty churchyard, seeing the layers of different architectural styles jostling cheek by jowl - the endless cycle of destruction and renewal.

Nicholas Dyer, the protagonist in Ackroyd's novel Hawksmoor describes this phenomenon thus : 
  "We live off the Past: it is in our Words and our Syllables.  It is reverberant in our streets and courts,so that we can scarce walk across the stones without being reminded of those who walked there before us; the Ages before our own are like an Eclipse which blots out the Clocks and Watches of our present Artificers and, in that Darkness, the Generations jostle one another.  It is the dark of Time from which we come and to which we will return".

As I wander the city streets, I like to think that I am one in a long line of those who have passed this way before.

Saturday, 8 January 2011

Why London?

I ask myself this question every time I go there.  What's so special about London?  Why am I drawn to it like no other city?  There are plenty of cities which are more beautiful, elegant, exciting even.  London is not chic like Paris, vibrant like New York or friendly like Amsterdam.  It can be a dirty, noisy, lonely, dreary, dangerous place.  Yet as my car heads along the Westway with the city spread out before me or my train slowly pulls into Marylebone station, my heart gives a leap of excitement.  It is as though the whole city is waiting for me to explore it, plunge into its unknown byways, discover its hidden secrets. It is then that I understand Samuel Johnson's well-known quotation - to paraphrase "when you are tired of London, it is time to retire to the countryside with your pipe and slippers!"