Monday, April 27, 2009

Something about Soho by Windowless Consultant

A little way up from the Coach and Horses street on Charing Cross Road, two bookshops - Foyles on one corner, and Soho Bookshop on another - with which I was equally familiar, the one mostly from the inside, the other mostly only out. At Foyles, what gets me is not only the shop, but the cafe, whatever it is in the coffee keeps me coming back. I'm sure if I go there enough I'll catch up with what, many years back at St Mary's, I saw as my destiny - still, contemplative, never looking up at the world without a cautious finger keeping the page it distracts me from - an intellectual. I return from time to time, take a seat, and look out for the person I might have been had I not got into windows. I don't miss it, it's not melancholy - the windows have always kept me happy, busy, missioned up - just curiosity. Is that me, there, with the pencil, or somebody else?

The Soho Bookshop has always interested me in its window display for its effective mixture of subtlety with brazenness. Upstairs clear windows open onto a bookshop selling books dealing with an arty content – paintings, photography, film – at knock-down prices. Once inside the bookshop, though, stairs lead down to an area set aside for magazines and films for the over 18s. There you have the two sides of 'Soho' condensed. What somehow manages to preserve for the area a charm so much more pronounced, inimitable, heady, than other central London areas is the unaccountable mixtures it makes of business with pleasure, local cocktails unrepeatable elsewhere, where industry and idleness cross the street and pretend not to know each other. In Soho, on the other hand, the industries - music, film, sex, the hairdressers so over-represented there they must be servicing one, other, or both, and come themselves to take on louche connotations they're quite free of elsewhere - and the pleasures - music, film, sex, and haridressers - segue, as the local jargon would have it, so seamlessly into and out of each other the place takes on the exaggerated features of inbreeding.  

Liquid lunches spill onto the street there as nowhere else, sex is investment, music a way of life. In my consultancy role, I'd always felt the place belonged to me as it did the other media types, as a location to buy cloth, stock up on props, pick up fads, and of course use the cafs to plot, meet, note. And then, this was life, was the theory, which the window would dust off first, but replicate, life in a densely reproducible form, and the window of the Soho Bookshop, though a window, had as much a claim to be a part of it as any.

The fact the format is repeated throughout the area in several branches, making a small chain, suggests clear purpose: discretion, the upstairs serving largely as a front for the down. But then, why, in the windows, proclaim in neon, along with 'bargain books', 'licensed sex shop' with an arrow down? A curiosity, and one, I have always thought, if the shop window should always seek to flirt, to be coy – seek the optimal balance between revelation and secrecy, forthcomingness and withdrawal - that ought to be expected to bear fruitful lessons for the window designer sufficiently keen of eye. The fact that I have never been able to put my finger on what those fruit might be has always left me slightly frustrated, and in certain ways almost guilty at my unprofessionalism in not being able to identify it. The fact the shop does a roaring trade both upstairs, and, on those occasions when I have braved a reccy down, down, only exacerbates the irritation.

I say 'has always left me', but the tense was a dodge. Whether or not I am still a window consultant I leave unresolved - I am, as I ever was, but, while I'm not, I no longer am. It was seeing the window there today I understood something of the power of the other door. That same mixture of the blatant and the concealed, the shameful and the shamefaced, I had been naïve not to have understood on the Coach and Horses street,  and a door there I'd photographed for my first post, but, unable to account for its effect on me at the time, left out.

SHOP CUT WOMEN HOP a lamp, and between them, a door to a green hall, a naked bulb hanging, plastic flowers outside, signs on the wall within. Looking back at the photos of the barber's, something was undoubtedly suspicious. I realised that this other doorway was not, as I had thought, the entrance to the barber's at all, but a separate affair. The place at the same time advertised and concealed itself. Was this, I wondered, what had leant everything the unreal air on the street? The fact I'd missed it at the time making this more probable, I decided to return and check the next time I passed.

As I held my camera up, a silhouette appeared down the passage. Focusing, I waited for the form – male - to emerge, but instead, he withdrew rapidly into the shadows, and immediately I realised my mistake – a 'walk up', 'working flat' or 'knocking shop', whatever name you give it, is a place few are happy to be seen emerging from or entering. I stuffed the camera back in my bag and made off, irritated to notice an unaccountable blush to my cheeks, and disappointed to think that this should in some way have been at the origin of my discoveries. Soho.

From there, wandering up the street, I'd come to the bookshop, and found what had been staring me in the face there, then, stared me in the face again at the shop, too, stared everyone in the face, those who passed by and didn't see it, those who did see but without seeing, those - the one, I - who saw and saw. There was, I realised, something in the image that should explain the other moments, the moments I'm tracking, if only I could see it. There was something that had happened, that was yet to happen, that was visible, obvious, unseen. It was a private joke, a public crime which those who contemplated it ignored. The city, determined to get on regardless, stared at the image, frozen, hypnotised, as, seeing nothing, it rushed on about its business.

This one I would capture, hold, place here, perhaps identify the role of in events.

But while I was bent, focused, there in my viewfinder appeared a face, looking unseeingly at where the woman was, I knew.

I say knew. Many years ago, in fact, I had been married to him, before my present marriage, the husband in passing I occasionally refer to. Feels like another life. I didn't immediately straighten back up, but rather deliberately kept him there in the reflection, the world I held.

I hadn't thought of him for some while until just recently, when he began to return to my interest. I had started wondering what had become of him since we had drifted apart, divorced, lost touch. Indeed, a couple of weeks back I even thought I saw him, strangely,  in a kind of waking dream, in Holland of all places.

He had, in fact, been in my youthful imagination my only true love. I told myself in my imagination since, as things had started coming to divorce, I had learnt to mistrust those early feelings. Here he was, though, in this world in many ways of my imagination, coming at me from the porn/art shop window, and I found my eyes itched warm, sorry and glad. The idea of being able to will the clock back all those years was clearly ridiculous, love again the candid confusion on his face, as I liked to call it in jest, but I realised as I saw it again that's what it was, and a melancholy enthusiasm that had always appealed to me before at some point I'd begun to find it irritating. Something so delicate in a man, it used to give me a feeling approaching laughter it was so strong. Protective, although I knew he'd resent the idea he needed protecting – he didn't – it made me feel, of such breathless sensitivity.

Lost your dig? I joked, bending up. An archaeologist by trade, one of the things, I recalled, that had drawn us apart, was the depth of his obsession with his work – not the archaeology, which was appropriately charming for him to do, the protective care  over the supremely delicate, nurturing the broken, cherishing the irreparably damaged, recording the long forgotten had all seemed a part of who he was, affording himself, too, the rarefied air in which to flourish into all his trembling splendour,  but the politics, the jealousies and clawing for a corner of power within museum life diverting his attention into paranoia, his ardency into ambition, his sensitivity into bitterness.

But over his face I'd grown accustomed to thinking of as cold now fluttered a shadow at this jest in which I undoubtedly caught that melancholy and so once again guessed at the candid sensitivity I'd thought extinguished. I really have no idea why that should so have hurt him, but unaccountably in the same movement of regret I felt at having caused the smart, I was surprised by an inwardly laughing happiness that it was there.

A confession, then, it turns out, the purpose of today's entry, and not one the hubby would be that glad about my making, I'm sure, but then I blog in my growing downtime from the windows work, the windows work has always been the focus of our marriage, the time I find myself with now something else, somehow, apart from that, stranger and new. 








Saturday, April 18, 2009

Klingon Archaeology in Holland By London Archaeologist

Was in Holland last week for paid work.

Something happened that I believe might shed light on, well, what it is - whatever it is - I believe I'm tracking. Really, this blog deals with London, hence the monica. But something kept coming to me there: so much of Holland looks just enough like London to offer a doubled take on it. The impression is a replica of that distancing effect in certain dreams, where you know it, but it's not as you know it. Much there is familiar: the terraced street, the tightly packed medievally planned centre, the suburbs salubriously detached and verdant, aspiringly semi, or municipally blocked, posts in a story still transparent to the stranger – in the Hague the spread to Scheveningen, developing ribbons from the centre to the sea, for instance, each house clear as a tick on lab tape, exhibiting stages in the rise of beach culture, the decline of small-scale industry, the development of individualism, improvements in transport, the control of disease. The rain, the quality of the sun, the contrasted skies. Dockland reuse office developments along a river - so much bigger, much more densely trafficked - but brown, arterial, central much like ours.

But familiarity itself has become a strange thing, and frequently, wandering around, I was bombarded with recollections of long-forgotten dreams, that had apparently proleptically been set on a street corner I  was now for the first time seeing awake, a café for the first time visiting. Indeed, prompted not only by the sense of recollection, doubtless, but also of desire, regret, opportunity, that sense pervading dreams of essential but often vague life importance, of preoccupations made concrete, I'd been seeing even an individual person from the past for some while, but always in the distance, or the view somehow compromised by intervening details, so perhaps only a leg, a wave of hair, a gesture reached me, and the message I got I already knew: the person I call Jessica has been much on my mind again recently, something related to my losing the bulk of my work or starting these blogs bringing thoughts of her to resurface, perhaps, externalised.

If much of this goes unrecorded photographically here, that is because, until I came upon what I came upon, it never occurred to me to include it. Which makes me think: I've been doing a lot of photographing recently, and, indeed, on sites had always done a fair amount. I wonder why I have never attempted to take a photograph in a dream.

One picture I did take. An extraordinary relic in the Hague is the Panorama. There is, in the Museum of London's Docklands site, an extremely interesting, though very rudimentary installation in the round of a last surviving London one. Just near Regent's Park is the only surviving rotunda building – now a church, as I remember. I shall see what I can do about pictures of these at some time. In the Hague, though, you have one of only a score such internationally in which not only is the picture in tact, but it is still displayed as originally in its purpose-built location. 

My visit was in large part, then, an investigation into the sensation that ought to grip the Docklands Museum visitor – of a dark tunnel cutting one off from the world, disorientating, creating suspense before spiralling up into the light where the world reappears in its reproduction. So, on climbing the stairs, to be met with a replica not only of the Hague, but also, from the angle that met me, of what, for once, I can call without inaccuracy, thanks to the effect it had on me, since it nearly winded me, that blast from the past was at the same time quite extraordinary and thoroughly appropriate, in this environment both familiar and strange. Surreptitiously, then, and attempting the manner of any tourist on location, I reached for my camera and snapped an angle I hoped would include this visitor while appearing to aim only at the display. This somehow failing, I went to try again, but was pre-empted by an instruction from behind in near perfect English displaced only faintly by just enough of that rather chewy or perhaps rubbery sound that makes even communicating in one's language in Holland, as one so disconcertingly always can, itself an unfamiliar experience: photography without special dispensation is disallowed, sir. Perhaps that is indifferent as far as the blog goes: I would not have risked posting even the likeness of her likeness had I had one.

The encounter came soon after. It was on a Canal – in itself, of course, not so surprising. Indeed, that is only another instance of how a familiar London detail becomes, there, as though reflected in an estranging medium, in this instance one of the multiplication of parallel mirrors, suggesting a vertiginous denial of sense, or rather a dream-like hidden one – why could there possibly be need of so many? 

Facing the canal, some sort of exhibition space, but I don't understand the language. I had time on my hands. There's an excitement I was discovering in the failure to understand, in rifling through clues reflecting those in the urbanism – a familiar set of habits in the people slightly altered, words, gestures, phrases needing to be read in the same way as relics, but here living, gesturing, able to be addressed.

'Do you know what the Klingons are, can you place them?' was the address I was met with in this instance, the accent so good I was not sure whether the rubbery tones this time were even there, or were my own projection. I did, could, I said, preserving my archaeogical kudos. This man, or team, I have not yet grasped which, had taken up the archaeological investigation of none other than they. The displays of his/ their findings were in a mixture of English, Dutch (I take it) and Klingon itself. From these, our conversation there, and my visits to their website ( I have been able to gather the following:

The Klingons are a people and a culture although not of the present, nor of the past, and yet their traces are discoverable to archaeological research; the culture of the Klingons must be discerned from what has already been discovered in order for discoveries to be made; the culture of the Klingons clearly belongs alongside those of the more studied human groups, with visual and musical arts, fashions, writing systems and myths, and yet, as there is nothing that is not disconcertingly alien, it cannot be classed among them.

As far as I understand it, since the Klingons' distance is neither spatial nor temporal, my own work and that of Floris and his team are close. It is perhaps for this reason that during the encounter I felt a strong sense of recognition, though of something I knew to be different from the thing I recognised it as.

I had the presence of mind to take two photographs of Floris. In one, he leans forward and inspects the musical scores he or his team have discovered carved in stone and are making use of in the production of Klingon operas. Their system appears to have interesting similarities with the graphic scores of the '50's American Avant Garde, though the principles seem to be very different. 

In the other, he stands beside scrolls of their myths, translated behind him into English on the wall. These photographs Floris granted me in exchange for two he took of myself for their own archaeological annals. 



Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Sign of Life by the Landless Landlord
That this one struck me as worth including could seem surprising at first. Gloomy little empty thing good for nothing but a gripe about where they're all going. Not just the sign, but even all trace of the support gone, just a few letters left up top. 
But it's the new occupant that caught my gaze. I suspected the place was squatted when I first came on it - hoped at least it served that function, late night parties recalling lock-ins among the wildest, the deserted island space perfect for the beefiest sound system, imagined the bricks puffing mortar to bass rhythms at night. But in fact, passing late, it seems to have gone unnoticed by those in need of free accommodation, 
Which all leaves the little creature at the breeze-blocked door doing ghostly office as a sign. What that could be of, what kind of Duke this is of what Cambridge I couldn't say, but it seemed to need recording before it peeled, a new occupant was found or the place demolished.

Duke of Cambridge, Cambridge Crescent.

Ruined Bank Standing for Today Originally posted by London Archaeologist April 4, 2009.

A clue to what's occurring came on Threadneedle Street the other day, as I turned a corner to the Bank of England.

The building has always intrigued me, ever since I saw Gandy's watercolours as commissioned by the architect, Soane. 

Why would the designer of the national bank begin by imagining it a ruin? This question I first put to myself many years back, in the Soane Museum itself. An archaeologist's dream, it occurs to me that the time I took Jessica to this adventure playground of the past was the beginning of our parting ways – our first date. Since she needed ideas for a project on her interior design course and I needed others on the sublime, I'd suggested we go together. 

As we went round, I was happy to discover that through my knowledge only of European thought and literature – the subject of my degree - I was able to answer many of her questions about the exhibits: what is a stele? why are sarcophagi so large? who was the lady with a  bow? It was in part in the satisfaction at being able to answer the questions I could and the frustration at not knowing the answer to those that I couldn't, and, more interestingly, the vertiginous interest of seeing so many puzzles opening up, the invitation of so many leads that lay the burrowing of my interests subsurface. Re-emerging now from the digs, finding myself with the spare time and attention to encounter these prompts, I look back on someone else's front room from the street, wondering how I got here, the past uninhabitable, from where the room's a ruin. Since the digs, too, are now off bounds, somehow I'll have to wander or rebuild. 

Soane was the student of George Dance the Younger, designer of the old Newgate Prison. Nothing's left of the prison itself, but you'll occasionally see a vestige. There's a plastic reconstruction of part of it in the Museum of London. If I can bring myself to return to what was so long a place of work I'll take a snap to post here. The fate of the prison is famous, of course: as recounted in Dicken's Barnaby Rudge, it was stormed by rioters on Little Bastille Day, the young William Blake one of those to be seen in the crowds, in whose angelic face, flickering in the light from the raging fires, could already be glimpsed the thirst for incendiary images to sear onto the plates, Los reforgeing the canon with Milton. Otherwise, there are two places to go for an idea of the old prison, one of which an old electricity substation in Islington, surprisingly, very clearly modelled on it. 

The other is the Bank of England. It must be remembered that Gandy's vision came earlier than they might have expected, and it is now one of those phenomena so common in the city, a ruin concealed in the form of development so only parts – including, though, much of that snaking perimeter wall – were spared as the grasp of the bank expanded. However, much about the remaining proportions, the dark atmosphere, and the means to breathe ghostly life into a blind wall had all been suggested to Soane by the magnum opus of his teacher – the opus whose ashes must be mixed with the foundations of the Old Bailey taking its place. If what Soane was intending by pre-inscribing ruin I don't know, the effect suggested itself, as I say, as I rounded the corner.

I should have been informed, I suppose, as to what was happening, should have been reading the papers, but have been cutting myself off of late, reducing the flow of information to sensitise myself to the less recorded. That something was, though, happening had long been clear. The people in the city were different. It's not that they weren't in suits, but the suits were different, not that there were no casuals, but many of the casuals differed. What were clearly City office people would walk past in casual clothes, as though pretending to be attempting to conceal themselves, others in City clothes, both apparently in mock. Already, I'd thought, it's happening, what I'd sensed. These were the gods I'd mentioned in my earlier entries, coming into the open out of hiding, waking up to their roles, which, it would appear, involved some sort of acting, but in a way bent on some sort of change. 'Gods' was the wrong word, I realised, seeing them like that, but it was right that it had been wrong – things were different now, there hadn't been a word. It was slightly reeling, then, in search of my own role, I moved, lifting the camera to record a little, but really a little, randomly, since I thought with the arrival the need itself to record had doubtless disappeared, was just pressing the buttons for old times' sake, recording for posterity the last moments of one world as it vanished into another.

The signs and activity at Bank, where the intensity of activity was that much greater, where clear lines were drawn between sides, if on the surface they appeared to explain much away, in reality left the puzzle just as unresolved. Certainly this was the moment that Soane appeared to have plotted, Blake had represented, Milton seen. But although it was indeed the real event I'd guessed at, here I could see it was at the same time still in rehearsal, something keeping the ruined bank standing for today.