Saturday, February 21, 2009
Friday, February 20, 2009
Remember that we can never know by the organs of sight the time of day, our dilating pupils compensate unnoticed lack of light. So we were told on day one of a camera course which our then employer had been kind enough to fund - or disappointed enough enough with site records. Hence, explained the trainer, we have the International Organisation for Standardisation.
On day two a job came up, a little window opening in the form of the foundation of an office block that, if we did not get in there immediately, would close again before we had recorded what was there. The content of day two will forever remain a mystery.
However, as I looked across Hackney Road at D.J. Simmons and Sons as was, or, indeed, D.&.J. Simmons, depending whether you looked up at the light or down at the dark, I wondered. Perhaps one never knew, but perhaps there never was one to know - no single time of day.
The foundation was of a Hobb’s Lane office block to be. The find there had been of woman’s head and shoulders in hard, shining black stone, dug up by a site worker with a conscience, it seems, since by the time we got there he had been sacked for letting on. Our presence thanks to his call risked holding up work potentially for weeks.
It was the ancient Egyptians that gave us the sixty-second minute, the sixty-minute hour. But in the early days, their units changed length according to the time of year. Had the Egyptians been as great travellers as they were builders, they would have discovered that the change should depend on place, as well, an equatorial minute shorter in summer, longer in winter, than a minute heading north for the pole.
Had they come to England, for instance, where they might have left the head and shoulders of a beautiful woman to be buried over time. As it was, the find proved of much interest, though how it had got there from Sydenham nobody could say. Though there are records of the Crystal Palace Egypt experience , they are at best vague, and and this very good reproduction in basalt of Cleopatra was indeed a rare find, and its interest was no doubt undiminished for Palace enthusiasts for the basalt’s being Siberian or the features a very good rendition of Isabella Glyn’s as she had appeared to such acclaim at Sadler’s Wells.
The arrival of standardisation already occurred in the later Egyptian dynasties and, and the immediate effect was to drive the differing minutes underground. The ISO reading, though, as it is a standard, can be used to uncover what is not. Turning it up allows aperture speed to descend, and to depths where only the slowest go.
It was once having stopped the digs that it occurred to me, that I had time, in fact, to try this, and what I discovered is that the length of the unit of time depends not only on place, but on person, as well. There is a people amongst us in the city who function, who remain lucid, who exist at a speed far below that of the others; another who live faster, who at slow speeds become blurred, a people of ghosts to the others, broken, passing as faded fragments, relics of another time.
When we first met I believe that, intuitively, both of us knew this, she on her side of the room, I on mine. But as with so much unconscious, the danger was that it would vanish, as it did. I recall it as a time of the purest excitement, though there is no recollection that is not vague. A man leant towards her to be heard over the din. She may have listened, but unabsorbed, looked past him at nothing present, past the dancing, laughing, drinking, smoking. Somewhere in South London, it may have been a club or a pub, more probably a squat, the walls in my recollection grey. We were both young, and I had at first taken her for a student like I.
At some point our eyes met. My friends were nearby, also students of archaeology, most of them, just as happy as I to forget it all for a night, to sacrifice, as we liked to put it still unconsciously conscientious, an evening on the altar of the present.
I would not at the time be able to say what, but something in that look told me that she could not be a student like I, and, more disquietingly, that nor could I, that my adoption of the role was somehow fraudulent.
I said, I think, that these times were full of a great sense of possibility. If I felt a twinge of chastening, of having been rumbled, it was a positive feeling, a feeling of having been drawn out of myself to some state somehow of election, that we had picked each other out across the crowd for some shared but nebulous purpose involving desire, certainly, but with it also other things that only time would reveal.
Whatever it was that that might have been, what it is that it was, never preoccupied me at the time or for the ensuing weeks, beyond the excitement itself it would have seemed contradictory to seek below the surface for messages in stifled whimpers and abandoned cries, significance in sweat on crumpled sheets.
And then, only now that I have emerged from all the period in between, I look back and recognize in that moment intimations of what is happening now, realise that the digs had been distractions, that their ces
sation would be responsible for these spirits’ now rising everywhere overground.
I passed the eye hospital, its green line on the pavement one knows, paradoxically, for the benefit of the patients.
What do they see, those who need that line to see? Clearly the answer is the line, clearly, the rest something of a blur. But the answer misses the point of the question. The line also makes you think of others, invokes others following it who see other things: a people, for instance, inhabiting a world narrow, green, straight, a people for whom not only is light green, but green light, the medium of all sight, a people of heliolators, for instance, following this line, the source of life itself, its origin and end, on its path from below to salvation. That you don't see such people passing, of course, along through their narrow world, cannot be taken to exclude their existence, just as perhaps they don't see us. It's enough to see the line to know they're there.
I was reflecting on windows, and a question no less real for sounding idle: the eye being a window onto the soul, the window, then, is an eye onto what? The simple answer would be a house, for instance, from the outside, or the street, from the in, and it would, of course, be true.
But it would again miss something implied in the question, that we know to be true about certain windows.
Across the road from the eye hospital is one I often pass, into an antiques shop. There is no particular reason why an archaeologist should like antiques, and I, personally, never did. Lose pieces, I found, they float around the world sawn from context in a growing mess of puzzles, making me despair for the archaeologists of the future. Antiques dealers, for me, were an especially cursed bunch, raiding the tomb that the past would have been for the future and dissolving its stories in cash.
Even the museum, though, sometimes horrified something in the back of my mind.
I remember taking the one I shall call Jessica to the Museum of London, showing her round, and surprising in myself a feeling at the time I wouldn't have been able to describe, I suspect, had I dared try. As we approached the same fragment of Apollo in the Museum of London that I had dug with my team from Walbrook mud, I increasingly felt, creeping to a pitch far in excess of the pride that had at first been mounting, another, deeper sense of a shame tinged with fear, that made me realise that I would be unable to point it out or refer to my role in its discovery.
The problem, I told myself, was that, when for your life you root in the ground, you come to appreciate the story as it appears there as the real exhibit, a hidden fruit just as you find it ripe for sight, which, sorted, cleaned and classified, on display, appears to loose that heady presence, comes to tell you by its mute desiccation more acutely about your own lack of vision than it does about the colourful superstitions of the past. Afterwards I was able largely to laugh off what in its own way, I decided, was a superstition - the diminished god with the pretty moue, dead in the present, somehow still alive in the past before our science and the future after, furious, waiting to return.
But, since then, no longer an archaeologist of the past, I find myself noticing things in the present of more pressing concern to me now than ever.
That the chance coming together of a mirror leaning on a fireplace, a street and its passers by, a spot, should be made by a window to reveal expectation, melancholy in a pair of statues, an inquisitive yearning to partake in life that is evidence of life itself: this was something I should never have hoped for either from the ground as a harbinger of information or in displays; that a line so manifestly intended for hospital visitors should be conveying these streams of others unseen.
Monday, February 9, 2009
I was there today – not for an exhibition, but for warmth. Since the work dried up, so did the leisure interest for me. There is no point pouring money I can no longer waste into a venture that no longer brings it back in, and to wander museum corridors would only be to taunt myself with the futility of any other sacked employee returning out of canine habit to the grave of a person they no longer are. These places have sufficient ghosts without us.
I had got up early in the morning to appreciate what I already knew somehow would represent a special day for me, although I could not know how. On waking up the first thing was the traffic. One is sensitive to these phenomena at unconscious levels, and I could not for a while work out just what it was. Cars were few, I could hear from my bed, but that was not it, and nor was what took for the sound of wet road. There was something else, some other quality that leant the time in bed a special pleasure. Something was making the world appear to be sleeping longer than I was. This thought seemed so right that, as I tried to hold onto it, a mounting excitement took hold of me. There was an opportunity, I knew, to see something, but it was for the moment unclear what. I was afraid to get up, to stir even, lest I break the spell, but knew I had to in order to take full advantage of it.
I was allowing myself a degree of superstition, I might once have called it, utterly new for me, revelling in it, even. To discover that simply by stopping working I had been gifted with a different, slower world, this was unheard of, frightening, perhaps. A muffled world, too, now I thought of it. It had been good, but now I simply had to dispel whatever illusion I was under, and as I bounded out of the bed to the curtain I was already as awake as if I had a job to go to, inquisitive, and more slightly irritated with myself at my disquiet than really allowing my disquiet to lay a hold of me. My first feeling on seeing the thick white padding on all the surfaces, the blizzard air, was that perhaps there was, after all, a banal explanation for everything, and I turned disappointed to return to bed, to try to recreate the sense of something special; if I could, even to feel afraid.
As I lay there, listening to the rhythm, the speed, the quality of sounds coming up from the street below, I could not help recalling the image from the window. It had been dark for the time of the morning, still night, I recalled, though I'd expected day, and yet also, the white everywhere leant the scene a sense of extreme clarity, the effect of a burnt out retina. What rare pedestrians there were, wadded thick, hid their faces and looked at the ground, leant forwards against the snow swarming about them. Cars crawled. The sense of softness, the muffled sound, the spectrum reduced to a minimum, heat at zero, the constant swirling blur in the air, the creamy footsteps appearing and slowly fading on the pavements, the dark lines traced by sighing cars constituted an environment so different that the simple word 'snow' seemed obfuscation, concealing the facts beneath a banal explanation failing to do them justice. I could not say this was not the same city as the one I had gone to bed in the previous day, that it would revert to tomorrow or the next, but there would be things visible that, though by no means reducible to the elements, the snow melted, would be gone.
I can't for sure rule out the possibility that it was a dream, but I have a recollection of an evening in the early days with Jules. We had walked long, at night, through London, as we often did back then, but into a later night. At that time our knowledge of the city was thin and patchy. I had been brought up in the far West, and rarely had I had cause to come in beyond, say, Charing Cross Road, where I could spend hours browsing second-hand book shops before returning home with a quarry which, I have to say, would frequently, having gathered dust on the shelves unconsulted, eventually have to be taken back in bulk for resale at painfully reduced prices to make room for more.
We may have been on our way to a party, or a visit to a friend. We had perhaps left the tube at Barbican and decided to go on foot to Islington, a bit of time on our hands to see what was between. Everything that precedes or follows from the memory is more or less blur, but there is this point when the tightly compact housing, the narrower streets that we had been traversing, the buildings low on difference or detail suddenly parted onto a spacious area with more trees, perhaps over grass, where the architecture became more various, with differences probably of material, of height, period and detail.
Jules had been slightly irritated, I'd been feeling, at my having led us there. Orientation came down to me as the putative Londoner, Jules being a Home Counties girl, and it was a role that I enjoyed despite, at times like that, having no more knowledge than she. I don't know what was responsible for it, though it is for me associated with this change in the atmosphere of the built environment, but I suddenly felt that we had both at the same time, each reflecting silently, realised that the gloomy mood that we were in fact both under was you might say extraneous to our relationship, or rather perhaps was a part of it but only a part, that we had emerged from it now together into a bright patch which, if it would be simplistic to suggest was the truth that the dark was an illusion to, brought with it at least the impression of an ability to see over greater distances, to find perspective to appreciate, for instance, the sheer good luck of our being there, together, at that time, investigating the city for the first time together, basically happy, both of us, with each other. We had stopped, and were looking at each other. Jules was met my gaze with an expression at the same time clear and intense, a smile very much reflecting what I believe my own showed, that same sudden sense of relaxed but ardent enthusiasm, but also slight amusement. It was, I think, an amusement less at that particular sulk that we had had than in general at the fact that we would, it had to be said, often have such times, and each time emerge again from them as though from a confusion, and be surprised again to recognise each other as not such a threat after all. 'One day,' she said, 'I could see you clamming up for ever just to piss off the whole world for some offence that no one but you could ever possibly appreciate had been given.'
I frowned, then, but smiled still. She hadn't, then, apparently, been sulking. The source of the ill humour had been I. She appeared to understand and forgive in me a propensity I was not sure I recognised or was willing to accept – she could hardly claim to be more exempt than me from unwarranted grumps. And yet I found myself chuckling with her in complete understanding, holding her in my arms with great relief and, as I remember, even throwing my head back to take in the night sky over wherever it was we were and venting a sheer enjoyment at having in a sense been rumbled, forced out of cover by the person I loved.
It was once, what must have been many years later, on a walk with Jules through Finsbury's King Square, that suddenly I recognise what must have been the place where this had happened, and I turned to her and asked if she remembered having been there all those years previously, but she did not. You know, I told her, we were on our way to Islington, I think it was, a party, or Mark's place, or that time perhaps we went to the restaurant, you know, the Turkish on Upper Street, or something, but she insisted that no, although we had been to King's Square many times in more recent times, never in those early years, and, indeed, never a walk that way at night. It may be she that is wrong or I, but the memory, dream or confused invention retains a fragment focus that has, if anything, grown over the years as it has become increasingly isolated.
It was looking out at the white, then, that that memory in itself, and the many other times I had recalled it, questioned Jules or wondered silently about it, embellishing, perhaps, each time, too, as one does, came back to me with what I would call a sudden clarity far surpassing any previous recollection of it. Perhaps the snow made a clear path to it, or covered over distractions, or simply, by its relative rarity, brought me closer to past years by jumping over those that had been between. Whatever it was, though, I felt that same feeling that, if my memory is true, I felt from Jules' face, of recognition, understanding, acceptance, and excitement on seeing London like that from my window, and realised that to simply crawl back under the streets and deny it would, even in the absence of a job to go to, be, if not impossible, far from anything I could realistically contemplate: that I had to get out.
When on site work, I would systematically take my camera to supplement the team pictures with my own record. Since stopping, I have most usually continued to lug the apparatus around with me to record the events that have begun above ground. I keep the small pocket camera by my keys near the door. On the day the snow fell, as I left, I looked at it there with the expression of a dog owner leaving the whining animal inside for once to take a solitary walk. The departure from habit, I decided, would have to extend from the city to myself. The possibility of my feeling the situation correctly required that my experience should be independent of aperture, unframed, beyond the reach of ISO, digital pixilation or indeed record of any sort. I was did not wish, essentially, to reduce the genuine strangeness to apparent normality.
Strangely, though it was the snow I sought, I had soon descended into the underground, perhaps out of habit, to seek warmth, or following the thickening crowds, and, as though, like them, I worked, it was into central London I headed. I descended at no particular stop and chose direction only by the quality of the snow on the ground, the scarcity of pedestrians, and with an ear on the quiet and how it was brought out, muffled or bare, intermittent or constant, the activity on the streets. Oxford Street was interesting, and many times I crossed it heading east, back towards home, from around Marble Arch. There was almost no traffic at all, barely a pedestrian, only the odd cab crawled, half gripped, half drifted, the wheels still, with a slow sigh over the ice, not one bus. One hears so often of deafening silences that the phrase has almost drowned out its own sense, but, though sounds still did occur, and even though they never quite entirely perished, in that degree of quiet, the shops already open to a custom that failed to materialise from the white, visibility low, the rare silhouette, gripping flapping coats around it, caught up in its slow struggle to progress, the pounding roar of the place could be heard as an absence, it seemed, still more acutely than when it was there.
As I watched somewhere north of there, somewhere in the Harley Street area, perhaps, a man sat in a car at a light looking back over his shoulder.Following his gaze, I saw the driver of another car, who had also stopped at the lights, approaching, his hands on the wheel, the pair looking at each other, waiting.
I don't know when it was – perhaps in response to the impact – that it occurred to me at the same time that I was cold and would have to seek warmth, that I had seen enough, and that I would, after all, be disappointed not to have at least some record of this. I had, on occasion on a dig, forgotten my camera and had to have recourse to my mobile. Picking a find out from the mud into its low-res., high noise grain somehow always had about it something satisfying for me, perhaps only in the departure from habit or the unprofessional schoolboy feel of the gesture. Here, the mud white, the grain already in the air, a noise hovering, floating, drifting to the ground where it stacked, making new forms of its own, finds were surfacing undug which, without a team, would sink again forever unless I acted, which, then, somewhat mechanically, I did: the taxi, the square, the stillness drifting, falling, thickening, compacting.
I told myself first, I think, I needed the lions. I had never seen them like that, released by the snowstorm on the city from their role of impassive inanimation to something comical, grinning guardians in borrowed pelt. I vaguely recalled stories of Rome under civil war, an emperor dead or to die, the beasts from his menagerie released, prowling in a storm, attacking, with one, perhaps, of the conspirators mauled. It was not without a slight sense of guilt, unconvinced by my own story about warmth, slightly dazed at doing it without apparent control, having gravitated there, apparently, under the cover for pretext of the snow, that I pushed on past the novel species to the hall, stamped the snow off, looked bemusedly around me, and headed on, slightly desperate and, though resigned, unaware of what lay ahead.
Interestingly, the comportment of the tourists was hardly less unusual than my own. They, too, appeared barely more sure what they were doing there than I. Many rooms were closed, guards having been unable to come into tow. Through those that were open, visitors passed mostly without interest in the exhibits, apparently unable to engage. The strange dark, I realised, from outside, had somehow not ceased now we were inside, but increased. Indeed, the further I had drifted in from the outside, the more the disorienting quality of the light had followed, and the more still it had become, a dark more enshrouding, inearthing, indeed entombing than I had thought on my walk. I looked up automatically in confusion. Above us were indeed snaking trails in thick slices of deep grey-blue plunging the place into its brooding mood, perhaps the source, then, I reasoned in the flagrant paradox of confusion, of the earlier disorientation.Following round the ellipsis, with my phone out in front of me and above, and looking with it forward and up, I came to the stairs winding up to the West of the old library, past the capitals of the old portico on which they had always bestowed slightly confusingly the quality of the ruin buried, since it was a working museum, alive.
It was only at that point that I knew what I had come for, what had got me out of bed, but which had left me in fact still dazed until that point, as though still not having come out from under the covers, what it was that I had sensed had happened to the city and certainly needed, I felt vindicated to discover, to be recorded.
I may no longer visit the museums or their exhibitions, but that has never stopped me reading up a bit on what is going on, and I knew, for instance, that in this one, up those stairs at that moment was the nineteenth-century northern painter John Martin's attack on the southern capital whose lure even he failed to avoid. Lightening tore down, as I recalled it, on the Babylon he condemned it for, as a confused Nebukadnezzar finally learnt the truth of the writing on the wall, and despairing citizens fled too late the ruin they had brought on themselves. And here they were, approaching inexorably not so much in spite as because of the writing, white on blue on the wall as it tottered, crumbling so silently from the sky about their ears. I must not, I perceived, accompany them. To mount the stairs would be to shatter not the city, nor so much the illusion as the possibility of realising it, the truth that it held there, and which would be melted by the following day. I turned on my heels and nearly ran through the remaining court, the lobby, onto the steps, refusing to look behind me or listen to the crash that I hardly dared hope hear. With Babylon, under the right circumstances, that near, perhaps there will after all never be work for me on a dig again.
Tuesday, February 3, 2009
What we only see out of the corner of the eye we needn't always automatically disbelieve. I have long felt that those who claim to know for sure that there are no gods, no ghosts, no telepathy, flying saucers, Martians, talking fish, or nearby end of the world have insufficient evidence to stop those who want to from hoping. I also long felt that they were right, that the rational is the banal, the banal the true.
It must have started as I emerged from childhood. Slowly avenues close without your realising it. You learn first of all that matter cannot be either created or destroyed, which at first seems interesting. You are then told that the sense of touch is produced by electrical charges extending from the outer body to the spine and thence to the brain. Life on earth is a random occurrence resulting from admixtures of chemical compounds, the people inside the television are only an image of people projected onto glass. The monsters are not monsters but things that look like monsters. It is compulsive, fascinating, apparently without end. You want to take in more and more of this information. And then you begin to feel that with every possibility opened, others, more interesting, close, that with every step another monster vanishes, another being is excluded from life, another animal rendered mute, matter inert.
At the beginning of my career as an archaeologist, my hope had been, in fact, that by helping to finally give a place to all the superstitions that society – my society, the European, English, perhaps, or British, all in the broadest, vaguest sense – had been prone to, tracking them to origins, throwing light on innovations, bringing them back to functions, an end should be put once and for all to the sort of airy, fuzzy thinking that people hide behind when they pull the wool over each other's eyes. Freedom, at last, from the irrational.
I remember one of the earliest times I gave expression to the opinion was with my then girlfriend, then wife, now estranged, though recently I'm not sure, but I still like the ring of the word ‘estranged’. In fact, not so much 'still' as now that I'm not sure it applies, that it is free to imply the sorts of things it perhaps should have done from the first. We were in front of a Chancery Lane jeweller's, she looking lustfully into the window, I absently at my watch. This was the last day of an exhibition – I don't remember what, but something Egyptian, ancient, at the British Museum. It was a Saturday, with no one about, the jeweller closed.
I was ready, even happy to tie, as the quaint phrase has it, suggesting tantalizingly some lost ritual, the knot. Indeed, I wanted to, for the respectability, I suspected, would help me to progress better at work, to appear to my bosses more responsible than I was able by then entirely to feel. But I would not accept that the simple fact that we had just broached the subject, that the word 'wedding' had just been uttered between us in reference to our own for the first time, at the exact moment that it appeared on a sign to our right, boded either well, or indeed ill for the joint decision. Coincidences, in a capital, above all, so dense in information all around you, and in which you have grown up, abound, and to allow them to dictate the course of your life is not only sentimental, but perhaps dangerous. There was, opposite, a favourite café on these weekend walks to the museum, and if we did not quicken our pace, we would miss the opportunity. The waitress had spied us and we exchanged nods. Yes, yes, diamonds are lovely but emeralds pick out better your eyes, ruby can be beautiful and jet is intense but funereal. I looked at you then as you peered into the window, your reflection peering back out, rubbing foreheads.
Among the many rituals the Egyptians passed down to us was the exchanging of rings. I would tell her that as we wandered around the exhibition. These visits were, I realise now, an innocent enough way of taking on a reassuringly gendered pair of roles – I the teacher, she the student. But I knew if I mentioned it then, and again she saw that as a sign, I would become irritated, and on that, above all, our first day engaged, the first minutes of the state, to be losing my patience would be to set things off on entirely the wrong foot. I turned fully to face the window with her then, and leant forward too. The coffee would be for another time. For now, if I could not give myself over to the moment with her, never perhaps to any would I have again the right to claim to.
So when she asked me - in fact in the Great Court, where we did eventually, the exhibition over, have time for the coffee not taken on Chancery Lane, whether I did not find it fantastic that we should, on that day of all, the day we saw one of the fist nuptial rings ever to have been produced, be living our own first ever day engaged, my answer followed the circumstances themselves. Some of the earliest Egyptologists, I said, saw in the work they did the opportunity to confirm the tenets of their own Christianity by what they saw as pre-reflections of it in the earlier pagans. What never occurred to them was that in fact, as should have been obvious, Christianity had picked these facets up from the earlier religions. Now, my job, that of all responsible archaeologists now, is to dispel just that sort of mythical thinking, to put things back in their places where we can all be clearer about what it is we want. The fact I want to marry you is not going to be influenced by any such obscurity as a set of coincidences on a given day, and if the marriage is going to work, and of course it’s going to work, it will be based on the same principle as my work: that it is only by knowing, clearly, and where we don’t know trying to discover, where we are, how we are what we are, where what we are comes from, that we will be able to put a guiding hand to what we’re to become.
When I lost my job, I was interested to discover that it was the result of an unpredictability within a system that I had believed to be of the firmest, so little did I understand it. It might seem a strange logic, but the abundance simply of terms that were entirely obscure to me – derivatives, hedge funds, futures markets, even - meant to me only collectively, that the world functioned according to named principles which, though unknowable to me, by virtue of being named alone, manifestly made sense to others. One day, perhaps soon, the property market will pick up again, and I will find myself in work. I will pick up the trowel and brush, pull on the Wellies, and engross myself in the record underground.
But for now I cannot help wondering whether the things that are happening above ground are not in some way connected to the drying up of the work below, whether the same forces that they sought to contain previously in the images of their gods, heroes and monsters are not somehow coming back after me up here, hunting me from the corner of my eye, winking at me in this way, offering us back the secrets that we thought – I, at least, as the rationalist that I still like, with a smile in which there is possibly a hint of the wicked, to consider myself as being, thought – as just a simple part of the life of the city from day to day.