"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

Monday, 28 February 2011


Walking through London's streets can sometimes feel a little like entering the Tower of Babel - you hear snatches  of conversation in a multitude of languages, jostle with people of all ages, types and nationalities against a backdrop of buildings both ancient and modern. Everywhere is a tangled mass of narratives, overlapping in space and time.

Something of this idea is evident in the work which  sound artist Janet Cardiff devised in 1999 in association with Artangel, a London based arts organisation which commissions and produces site-specific projects by contemporary artists. Entitled The Missing Voice (Case Study B) the work is a compelling audio experience involving listener participation, comprising a set of recorded instructions and enigmatic observations to be listened to on a Sony Walkman borrowed from the Whitechapel Library.  The library is no longer in the same building, but it is still possible to follow the walk 12 years later, picking up the thread from outside the building which now forms part of Whitechapel Gallery. It can be downloaded as a podcast.

Described as 'part urban guide, part detective fiction, part film noir', the listener is immediately transported on a journey through time and space as Cardiff's voice whispers conspiratorially in your ear, her observations intertwined with fevered stream of consciousness scenarios involving memories, a complicated relationship, stalking, pulp fiction, newspaper headlines, a missing woman with long red hair, murder. "I want you to walk with me.  There are some things I need to show you," her gentle yet hypnotic voice intones against the backdrop of ambient noise from the street - conversations, traffic noise, footsteps, sirens, music, dogs barking.  As you walk and listen you see the outside world through her eyes, experiencing unexpected new perspectives on your surroundings, the past and the present intermingling until it is difficult to differentiate between what you are hearing on the tape and the sounds from the real world outside your headphones. Passing strangers briefly become your companion.   "Someone is following you" a man's voice suddenly breathes in your ear..... 

"Have you ever had the urge to disappear," she asks, "to escape from your own life, even just for a little while? Like walking out of one room and into a different one."  Being in the city on your own offers an opportunity to assume different roles, to blend in with the crowd, to observe unseen. "I like not talking to anybody all day, except when I pay for a book or a cup of tea or something." she says, "It's like you're invisible." There are echoes here of Virginia Woolf's Street Haunting where she writes of 'shedding the self our friends know us by' as she slips out of her house and into the streets. She also shares Woolf's delight in dispassionately observing everyone she comes across, noting little details and idiosyncrasies and then moving on. But there is a darker undercurrent of fear and paranoia running through Cardiff's monologue which had me looking over my shoulder on numerous occasions. "There's a man in a black suit walking behind you" the man's voice interjects again suddenly....  

To be continued....

Monday, 21 February 2011

Colourless Serenity

The dome of St. Paul's Cathedral might not dominate the London skyline as it did in the past, having to compete with the likes of the Gherkin, the rapidly growing Shard and sundry other modern edifices, but it is still one of London's most iconic buildings.  It has been the inspiration for many writers, painters and photographers over the centuries. Sir Christopher Wren's elegant design replaced the old Gothic cathedral that stood on the site after it was destroyed in the Great Fire of London of 1666. Diarist John Evelyn described how the flames engulfed the cathedral:
"the stones of St. Paul's flew like Grenades, the melting lead running down the streets in a stream, and the very pavements glowing with fiery redness, so as no horse nor man was able to tread on them."  
Four centuries later the scene was repeated in the Blitz when the Luftwaffe firebombed the City of London in 1940.  One of the most famous and symbolic pictures of the time is the photograph showing St.Paul's rising proudly like a phoenix from the ashes above the devastation inflicted by the bombing raid....

St. Paul's Cathedral in the Blitz, Herbert Mason

But for me the most evocative image of St Paul's is Bill Brandt's photograph of the cathedral in the moonlight, part of his series documenting London during the blackout, which combines a kind of forlornness coupled with majesty....

St. Paul's Cathedral in Moonlight, Bill Brandt

Canaletto depicted the newly built St. Paul's with the river in the foreground in his own inimitable style, making it look like a scene from Venice....

The River Thames with St. Paul's Cathedral on Lord Mayor's Day, Canaletto c.1747-8, 

Its dome has dominated the skyline for four centuries, a fact noted by Virginia Woolf in The London Scene, a collection of articles originally written for the magazine Good Housekeeping in the 1930s where she compares St. Paul's with Westminster Abbey. 
"It is a commonplace, but we cannot help repeating it, that St. Paul's dominates London. It swells like a great grey bubble from a distance; it looms over us, huge and menacing, as we approach. But suddenly St. Paul's vanishes. And behind St. Paul's, beneath St. Paul's round St. Paul's when we cannot see St. Paul's, how London has shrunk!" 
 It is indeed difficult to get the measure of St. Paul's unless you view it from across the river, its very immensity seeming to undermine all attempts to grasp it.

She compares the faceless, jostling crowds in the streets with the monumental calm and bulk of St. Paul's:
"..behold how we jostle and skip and circumvent each other in the street, how sharply we cut corners, how nimbly we skip beneath motor cars.  The mere process of keeping alive needs all our energy.  We have no time we were about to say, to think about life or death either, when suddenly we run against the enormous walls of St. Paul's.  Here it is again, looming over us, mountainous, immense, greyer, colder, quieter than before."

Novelist Monica Ali follows in Woolf's footsteps in a short essay After Wolf, wandering the same streets and taking in the same sights, 'catching at thoughts and impressions'. She notes Woolf's description of St. Paul's as 'august in the extreme but not in the least bit mysterious' and observes that:
"Mystery is still in short supply, though for different reasons now. Heritage Inc has snuffed what mystery remained. St.Paul's has a corporate identity, a corporate colour (red) and all the many signs are multilingual and very smartly designed. It seems, too, to have a corporate voice which speaks in warm and friendly tones, the kind of customer-centred "care" that we have come to expect. "St. Paul's audio tour. Try me!" "Thank you for visiting us. We hope that you leave the Cathedral inspired and refreshed and will return again one day." 
This is probably the price we have to pay to maintain our heritage these days - our experience of the city's great monuments seems to be sanitised and homogenised to such a degree. Woolf characterises St. Paul's splendour as residing in its 'colourless serenity' and claims that on entering the cathedral we undergo a 'pause and expansion and release from hurry and effort'.  Unfortunately on this occasion I wasn't able to share this experience as I felt disinclined to fork out £14.50 for the rather hefty entrance fee - it seems they even charge for entry into heaven these days!

Monday, 14 February 2011

Alone in the city

In literary descriptions of London, the city is usually characterised as crowded, pulsing with life, its streets teeming with a multitude of people going about their business. One of the delights of being in London is the ability to be anonymous amongst this multitude, to be able to step back from the crowd and observe.  Virginia Woolf relished the kind of solitude entailed in wandering around London, where one's identity is almost subsumed - in her essay Street Haunting she describes her pleasure in walking the city and becoming part of that "vast republican army of anonymous trampers."
(see my post A Question of Identity)

Rebecca Solnit illustrates this point well in the chapter on urban walking in her book Wanderlust where she compares it to "a sort of basking in solitude". Being alone in the country outside of any human contact is quite different to being alone in the city, where you are alone amongst strangers and she maintains that it is one of life's starkest of luxuries to be "a stranger surrounded by strangers, to walk along silently bearing one's secrets and imagining those of the people one passes".

This theme is also touched upon in a book I am currently reading London Fragments - A Literary Expedition by Rüdiger Görner - a collection of essays exploring the capital's literary landscape from the point of view of the outsider, the non-Londoner.  In a chapter about the London inhabited by European exiles, a quote from the novel 'Die Unsichtbare Wand' (The Invisible Wall) by the writer and scholar H G Adler, sums up the way in which London seems to suck in and find room for all its inhabitants:
"Let me disappear in the cosmopolitan city.  It is incalculable, confused, eerie... it has mysterious neutrality....You cannot belong to this city, yet you are in it, independent, almost free, you are little touched by it and everyone minds their own business.  I can foresee that I will never be completely lost specifically because of its forlornness."  
This forlornness is sometimes quite palpable in certain areas and seems to be the default mood of the city - a kind of melancholy which haunts the streets despite the crowds and the noise, where each one of us is alone with our thoughts yet part of the fabric of the streets.

However, things have changed since these words were written and it is probably true to say that nowadays you are never truly alone in the city.  Wherever you go, just look up and you will see the ubiquitous security camera with its all-seeing eye trained on you.  At least they can't read your thoughts......yet.

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Kisses from London

I recently visited the unappealingly titled but fascinating exhibition The Urethra Postcard Art of Gilbert & George at White Cube Mason's Yard in London.  The exhibition consists of arrangements of hundreds of framed postcards and telephone sex cards, each frame containing 13 identical cards arranged in a pattern based on the medical symbol for the urethra.   The postcards are of iconic London sights and cultural icons such as the union flag, Big Ben, the Tower of London, London buses, bridges, Harrods, black cabs etc. Hanging side by side with these are the cards to be found in telephone boxes, advertising all manner of sexual activities on offer, ranging from 'two way corrective massage' and 'spanking delights' to 'transgendered boy' and 'medical fantasy specialist', and anything else in between that you care to imagine. The repeated juxtaposition of the two creates a bizarre yet compelling effect - the civic pomp and pride and sleazy, sexual energy both being products of the same modern urban world, dual aspects of contemporary London.  Perhaps you can't have the one without the other.

Gilbert & George Urethra Postcard Pictures

Gilbert and George have been using symbols associated with London life in their collaborative art for many years.  In a review of the exhibition, the Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones recognises the importance of London as the setting to their work:  "But there is a third player in this creative team: London. In these works, Gilbert and George seem to be channelling the city, letting it flow through them. This paper trail – of London sights and its citizen's secret affairs – adds up to a monstrous portrait of the city, in all its bombast and sleaze."  

The tourist view of London is one that normally passes underneath my radar - the sights have become so familiar that they hardly register in my consciousness.  Yet this is the image of London that most visitors take away with them.... 

The famous red telephone kiosks in central London are still stuffed with their sad little displays of sex cards though I didn't see any advertising anything as adventurous as in the exhibition.  Does anyone really use these cards or are they just taken home as a souvenir of your visit to London?  With mobile phone use almost universal, I couldn't remember the last time I actually saw a phone box in use.  But as luck would have it, that very same evening, I spied an occupied one - was he calling a cab, phoning Directory Enquiries, dialling the Speaking Clock?  I like to think that perhaps he was enquiring about a Medical Fantasy Specialist....