Tuesday, April 14, 2009

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.

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