"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, 27 April 2011

Summer in the City

Summer arrived a few months early last week and the sun revealed a vision of city life to stir the soul and quicken the heart.  People lingered in the parks and public spaces, in groups, couples or alone, their faces eagerly turned towards the sun.  Everyone seemed more relaxed, carefree and friendly and London was looking its best, presenting its most attractive side to the public in the bright spring sunshine.

Walking through this benign version of London the other day I was reminded of a book I recently read containing some of the most lyrical descriptions of London life I have ever come across. Sam Selvon’s book The Lonely Londoners, first published in 1956, describes the world of the West Indian immigrants, lured by the promise of jobs aplenty and improved economic prosperity in post-war Britain.  London was the repository of their hopes and dreams, a magnet for those who desired a better life, but the welcome they found did not live up to their expectations.

Selvon has created a world which is in turns harsh and unforgiving and at the same time bittersweet in its beauty and pathos. In the introduction to the book, London is described as an ‘imagined city.... a promised land that despite its lure turns out to be an illusion.’ The book is narrated in a kind of modified Caribbean vernacular which takes the reader right into the characters’ world and makes us see London through their eyes. The London of the book is a constantly changing city, which mirrors the characters’ moods – sometimes optimistic and cheerful, at other times depressing and drab. The two main characters, Moses and Sir Galahad, offer contrasting outlooks to life and the London weather plays an important role in their different responses to the city. Moses, world-weary and introspective, is introduced in the opening lines of the book:
 “One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if is not London at all but some strange place on another planet, Moses Aloetta hop on a number 46 bus at the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove....”
Sir Galahad on the other hand, is an exuberant optimist with an unquenchable zest for life, who sees London in a different light. He walks the streets of London like a king, thinking:
 “This is London, this is life oh lord, to walk like a king with money in your pocket, not a worry in the world. Is one of those summer evenings, when it look like night would never come, a magnificent evening, a powerful evening, rent finish paying, rations in the cupboard, twenty pounds in the bank, and a nice piece of skin waiting under the big clock in Piccadilly Tube Station.  The sky blue, sun shining, the girls ain’t have on no coats to hide the legs.”
With these few words Selvon conjures up the sheer joy of walking abroad the city when the weather is fine, life is good and all things seem possible. At times like these it seems there is no better place in the world to live than London. Later in the book there is a long ten-page passage – a sort of stream-of-consciousness ‘prose poem to London’ - in which he celebrates the pleasure of ‘liming’ in Hyde Park - hanging around with your mates, chatting up girls, drinking and eating:
 “.....everywhere you turn the English people smiling isn’t it a lovely day as if the sun burn away the tightness and strain that was in their faces for the winter....  all these things happen in the blazing summer under the trees in the park on the grass with the daffodils and tulips in full bloom and a sky of blue oh it does really be beautiful then to hear the birds whistling and see the green leaves come back on the trees.....”

London presents a different face over the changing seasons and it is one of life’s pleasures to be able to appreciate the variety, whether it is the freshness of the first weeks of spring, the hazy torpor of a hot city summer, the chill in the air of a sunny autumn morning with the leaves crunching underfoot or the melancholy of the briefest of winter days.  Towards the end of the book there is a sublime passage which conveys the sensory pleasures to be had in these seasonal changes and the excitement and wonder at being amongst London’s famous landmarks:
  “The changing of the seasons, the cold slicing winds, the falling leaves, sunlight on green grass, snow on the land, London particular.  Oh what it is and where it is and why it is, no one knows, but to have said: ‘I walked on Waterloo Bridge,’ ‘I rendezvoused at Charing Cross,’ ‘Piccadilly Circus is my playground’ to say these things, to have lived these things, to have lived in the great city of London, centre of the world.  To one day lean against the wind walking up the Bayswater Rd (destination unknown), to see the leaves swirl and dance and spin on the pavement (sight unseeing), to write a casual letter home beginning: ‘Last night in Trafalgar Square...’ “

Surely this would convert even the most ardent city-hater and persuade them of the beauty to be found in London’s streets?

Saturday, 2 April 2011

In Memoriam

"Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends"  John 15:13

Last month I found myself by chance in Postman's Park, a little oasis of green tucked away in the heart of the city and the site of an unusual memorial to those who have died trying to save the lives of others.  The memorial was conceived by Victorian artist George Frederic Watts and consists of simply decorated ceramic tiled plaques detailing names, dates and acts of bravery. A couple of weeks later, in one of those strange instances of serendipity, I came across a moving tribute to this very memorial on a visit to artist Susan Hiller's exhibition at Tate Britain.  Entitled Monument (1980-81), it consists of a large-scale arrangement of photographs of 41 plaques - one for each year of the artist's life at the time of making, - a park bench and a cassette player and headphones.  The visitor is invited to sit down on the bench, don the headphones and listen to an audio tape of the artist's voice musing on the nature of absence, memory, death, heroism and representation.

Susan Hiller's Monument at Tate Britain

Hiller's work often deals with notions of 'cultural artefacts' which have been forgotten or overlooked.  Whilst photographing the tiles, she noticed that people sitting in the park appeared not to be aware of their existence: 
"....there were people sitting on park benches in front of them eating their lunches, who turned round over their shoulders to look, as if for the first time, at what I was photographing. And when they had seen the plaques they said things like ‘Oh! Isn’t it sad? Isn’t it dreadful?’ But what struck me was that they had sat in front of these perfectly visible objects for years and years, and the objects had been, literally, invisible." (1)   

As the viewer settles down to listen to the words on the tape they become part of the installation: "You are sitting, as I've imagined you, with your back to the 'Monument'. The 'Monument' is behind you. The 'Monument' is in your past." Each person commemorated by a plaque existed as a living person but also continues to exist as a representation - she lists their names and their two modes of existence "....Ernest Benning....in the body 22 years, as a representation 98 years, Elizabeth Boxall...in the body 17 years, as a representation 98 years..... " She quotes the words of Goethe "You can think of life after death as a second life which you enter into as a portrait or inscription and in which you remain longer than you do in your actual living life". However, she acknowledges the impossibility inherent in the act of representation:
 "An inscription, a registration, a trace; you can't represent anything in the present; when you represent it, it's already in the past.....representation is a distancing in time and space.  It's a re-generation of images and ideas. Time can't exist without memory. Memory can't exist without representations."

How long does a memory last?  The memory of a particular person dies out within a few generations, when there is nobody still alive who remembers the dead person. What remains is just a memorial - words, inscriptions, photographs - an attempt to confound the implacable nature of time and a futile gesture against the inevitable transience of all human life.  Of all the methods of memorialisation, however, the photograph must surely be the most powerful.  The photograph has a direct link with the living body of the person portrayed. According to philosopher Roland Barthes in his famed treatise on the nature of photography Camera Lucida, it does not 'restore what has been abolished....but attests to what has existed.'  He maintained that photography was a kind of resurrection: "what I see is not a memory, an imagination, a reconstitution.....but reality in a past state: at once the past and the real." (2)

As we stand and read the inscriptions on the plaques, we do not have the benefit of a photograph to remind us of the existence of these brave souls. The words do not conjure up the flesh and blood, only their final acts of bravery. When we look at these memorials the main effect they have is to remind us of our own mortality. We marvel at the self-sacrifice, but then we look at the dates, compute the lengths of their lives, and measure it against our own.  Artist Christian Boltanski, noted for his work on identity, memory, time and death, succinctly summed it up:  "What remains when life ends? Two dates and a short black line...." (3)

Perhaps then the most lasting memorial of all is the one that the artist leaves behind - their art....

(1)  Susan Hiller, exhibition catalogue, Tate Gallery Liverpool 1996
(2)  Barthes, Roland:  Camera Lucida
(3)  Boltanski, Christian: Time