Monday, February 9, 2009

Babylon by London Archaeologist.

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.

The impact, when it came, in the quiet, came unrealistically loud, perhaps the first unmuffled sound I had heard since emerging from the underground, and then all returned to silence until the men left their cars, trudged out to inspect. At some point, a black-and-white form slid into focus as a taxi, and the man descending to pay, riffling change in a cold palm, suddenly suggested Moscow.
The trace of a moving car would lie thick behind it, slowly fade in new fall as you watched. Still cars appeared, under the thickening drifts, to follow motionless through them around the empty streets. Fitzroy Square, at two times of day, wore a halo over a sculpture.

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.

No comments:

Post a Comment