Monday, June 22, 2009

South Bank Curiosities by The Windowless Consultant

What exactly is the Festival of Britain? This question had concerned me in a barely conscious way long before I thought to wonder what I meant by it, whether what the festival had been, what had become of it, what about Britain now could be described as a festival, if anything at all, and if not, what would have to change for something to be. But at some point, I suppose, I had to try to find out.

I can trace my interest in windows back to my university years, and my studies of Interior Design. It went something like this: first I was into interiors as a whole, but then I sort of veered off into windows via exhibition displays. It was, in fact, the - then young - man known best to readers here as the London Archaeologist who got me into the habit of exhibition-going, for better or for worse, suggesting that it would help with ideas. And certainly it did. But there were other consequences, I think, and one of those was a recent urgent return to the site of the Festival. I had been there many times in search of a bit of culture, grub and society, but in distance, in that sort of distance which is the attempt to track this situation of the places becoming in some way the contents of a window or the window contents the place - the place itself also at some remove from what it habitually is -, how that might fit into the fact of my having less work now, never.

I've mentioned the feeling has been of a shop window opening up and spilling out its contents into the streets surrounding it, and this sense that what would normally be items in everyday use start becoming props in what might be a rippling out from where the first feeling comes.

The first feeling that day wasn't on the South Bank but across the river in the Royal Collection, and the spread less a rippling than a slow leap. They had a painting there by Frans Francken the Younger, Cabinet of a Collector. I'd never seen what a Renaissance cabinet looked like, but, since I was sure they represent an early influence on shop window design, long wanted to, went there partly just for that, in the way of research, in fact, for the Windows blog. But in the painting, the cabinet's being broken into, on the right, by a strange bunch of beasts who are, the exhibition bumph explained, standing in for Spaniards. I was standing there in front of it, thinking how I wished I'd had the Archaeologist with me, in fact, to go into some of that history for me, explain what the Spaniards were doing in Holland exactly, but regardless of what it all meant I found that I couldn't help siding with their ciphers, feeling in some way that it was a very good thing that the beasts should be coming in and smashing things up, that the effect it had wasn't only in the painting, that although something made everything appear frozen, in fact, the reality was not the cabinet but its destroyers, not so much frozen as permanently engaged at the same point of the action. So much did that seem to be the case that I wanted terribly to help them, to tear at the painting and the others in the exhibition to further their destruction. Although I'd never have been able to do that, I somehow felt that one equivalent would be to leave immediately with a photograph to include in the blog, so here they are. I'm no politician, but I read the news, and like anybody interested in design find the Royal family's interventions in the discussion stifling and unconstitutional. The rigamorticed fantasy the Royal Collection's buried in was no place for a painting like this one with life.

But also, I realised that the photograph needed a context, and the context couldn't be St James', where the painting was trapped, couldn't even be Westminster, but had nevertheless to be somewhere near enough for me to get there quickly while I understood the point of the exercise, and also maintain an effect on the area - within view.

It was a sunny day, and I knew exactly where I had to go, where people would be massed, and about which anyway I had this question. It was hot, I was sweating as I pushed my way through the crowds in the park, up Whitehall. I couldn't tell people that I was carrying in the camera a picture representing animals in urgent need of a new element to survive, that they needed me to feed images into the camera that they could circulate among free of their present stifling surroundings, where I knew the new pictures had to come from, why I needed to cross the water.

During the Festival of Britain, as every designer should know, the South Bank was broken up into a set of chapters to be negotiated by visitors, in which the space of the land as a whole would become amenable to local exploration in the form of a narrative unpacked into space out of the principle of a book. This I recalled from Year 2, though St Mary's was a long time ago, and the memories vague. Conran himself had given a lecture, I think, or featured in a video. The elements of air, water and land were separate. There were minerals and agriculture. The Dome of Discovery was the largest unsupported in Europe. It was Conran who had made the vertical column whose name had become that of the restaurant of his now there, where the wine list is highly recommended, and the views. All this I knew, memories I stirred as vividly as I could on the way, elements of the new habitat I would prepare for the furry animals in sixteenth-century dress and holding clubs. A few buildings had to be knocked down to make room for it, like the Shot Tower, where they used to drop liquid lead so it would hit the ground bullets, solid and round, but most had gone in the Blitz. The Empire had floundered, the country needed a shot in the arm. The space was in the picturesque tradition of Nash's Park Village, but somehow mixed with the principles of Modernism. It was all coming back. People came from all over the world to see again how the little island nation could still think big, new, even after the war, after the Empire, despite the rationing, fatigue and the bomb. There had been a space called the Fairway, the Skylon was on the Concourse.

For many years afterwards, the place had been largely empty, given over mostly to wind, occasional walkers training coattails in by the pockets, leaning heavily, on a good day outlined against darting flashes of sun on the wave tips, more commonly with the background grey. There had always been the debate about how to get people back, make the most of it all, and then something really did happen, and you'd just come one day and there it was like it is now in the summer, crowds everywhere on terraces, hardly a free bench, the whole river front railing one long cycle rack, the joggers, BMXers, skateboarders, lovers and drinkers laughing, whispering, screaming, clattering, people hunting down books.

People had said it needed knocking down to start again, Richard Rogers had proposed putting that undulating glass roof over the lot, but then something just happened and it all changed. Mainly that had been the shops, restaurants and bars responding to the recent British invention of the inter-dependence of spirit and expenditure, but also other less tangible changes - changes in the attractive power of water, galleries and concert halls, the big wheel and the views it affords, perhaps things related to the blog.

Whatever it was, though, you could see it here, somewhere alive, and why it was dead in the Palace. Here where statues conspire with second-hand books to anoint hobbyists poet knights; where people dispense with heads in exchange for circular blobs, and deckchairs conspire with frosted window patterns, life ring cases, lamp posts and trees to draw fun-seekers into unsuspected relations. A poster playing the trumpet crosses the walkways from the BFI to the National Theatre bar, pulls up a chair, and blows a serenade in bubbles under the conducting gestures of a quadrimanual, bi-cephalous interval drinker, flitted among in outline by the dark outside: where there was a general atmosphere of the fair.

And it wasn't until nightfall, when so many mere shadows roamed, that I thought of the other kinds of life the Archaeologist speaks of in his posts. Is this, I reflected, where our projects join? Are the blob-head people, too, of that sort, and indeed the donkeys with the bodies of humans, and their clothes?

When I put this to him, and mentioned that it would be a place the Spanish donkeys would be happy, free of the stifling atmosphere of the palace, he was, though, although interested, suspicious. The Spaniards, he explained, represented in the painting by the donkeys, had been trying to impose their monarchy on the republic-minded Dutch. There wasn't, as far as the Dutch were concerned, anything remotely creative about the destruction. The painter would have been suggesting that their religious dogmaticism was anti-intellectual, against the spirit of adventure that the cabinet, and, yes, even the Festival of Britain, if I wanted, as an application of radical new ideas, represented. Besides, Strada, Giraffe, perhaps even Foyle's, he mused, were only jumped up chain stores, the whole place was an outdoor mall, things weren't what they used to be, that wasn't what he'd meant at all.

And yet at the same time, when I showed him the pictures he did concede that not only my own but the Dutchman's showed spirits close to his own, so either he too was on the wrong track, onto something more ill than he'd supposed, or else he'd just have to admit complications - hopefully at some later point to become clear.

I include the species, then, as planned. Whether or not they'll thrive on this turf I don't know. If so, I suspect it will be only by the constant addition of later posts allowing room to roam.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Studies in Toponymy at St Agnes' Well by London Archaeologist

A car park on a roundabout - that has to be your first thought: why? Who needs to park in the middle there? And then where do they go? When there's nowhere to go?

That had been my question, long been my question, seeing the circulation around it as I passed almost daily, nobody there, just the cars, marooned.

As I sped round, always too busy to investigate, the question had always simply put itself, then receded with the vision to be forgotten till I returned.

Things having changed now, though, the question began pressing itself more firmly on my mind, less distractions brushing it aside. Not only did it press itself on me with new force: I also had, now, time to seek out an answer.

Before arriving at the island, I had taken the trouble to do a little early research on the net. The Open Guide to London suggests, correctly, that someone ought to do some research into the issue, which, as I agreed, I set out to do, first on the web. Most references were to a location in Vancouver, the relation to the London one likely to be very tenuous indeed, but, rooting through a forest of ephemera, I came eventually upon the following on A Megalithic Portal. It's worth quoting at some length.

'This is a delightful find: an ancient conical well house often swamped by tall horsetails and covered in fernery and herbs, which lends a rustic and mysterious feel to the site.

Removing the surrounding vegetation will reveal more of this little six foot high conical stone structure. It resembles many such sites encountered in Cornwall, and one can agree with Horne (1923) author of a book of Somerset Holy wells, who describes it as "the most beautiful of the Holy wells of Somerset".

Its water is accessed via an arched doorway on the west side, believed by Horne (1923) to show clearly its Perpendicular origins (although there is no written evidence). Once opening the small wooden door, one can see that a large volume of clear shallow water. According to Horne (1923) the water rises from the centre and flows under the step to an underground channel some distance to emerge as a large pool : obviously for livestock. A pipe leads out of the well indicating that it is directly tanked for farm use.

Horne (1923) suggests that the dedication may have been inspired by a lady of the manor of the name of Agnes Cheney, who married the local squire, Edward Stowel. The well was once visited by lovers, usually on St Agnes' Eve to find their futures.

It is a bit difficult to find look for a small iron gate set in the side of the road to Cothelstone Hill. Cross a stream and turning right the well will be clearly seen, if probably immersed in foliage.'

Although a description of a Somerset homonym, the research seemed good and authentic, and at first I believed it likely to furnish applications here in London. However, I suspect that it may have been compromised by over reliance on a single source, as its origin in the name of a local individual would seem to beg the question of why the same name should be used elsewhere.

At the time, then, I believed that the trail died out there, and I'd quit the web research, preferring to make my own reccy on foot. However, if I quoted the entry in depth, it is because, retrospectively, I believe it may harbour other relevances.

My own preferred means of transport is the pushbike - silent, clean, almost free, leaving the slightest trace possible, neither entirely with the cars, nor quite with the pedestrians, you are amongst the street life in a way that's not true of the car, and yet, unlike on foot, at a slight remove.

I had only before sped round the edge, where the cars, in waves with the lights, lap more thinly, a certain amount constantly spilling out at the exits. To advance round further into the torrent towards the centre of the well was harder than I had imagined, where, as the gravitational force of habit grew stronger at the centre, drivers expected me least.

As I neared the parking area, feeling something wrong in my wheel, and turning to see what approached in the lane to my right, where the island lay, I attempted to meet the impassive gaze I encountered there. In his hand was a wheel, guiding several tons of steel between me and the safety of the car park area at the centre. The squashy sluggishness grew under my feet. If I didn't act, the puncture it betokened would worsen, and my already diminishing control would only deteriorate still further. Leaning, then, suddenly over, turning the wheel, throwing every miserable scrap of power I could find onto my right leg, down onto the foot, I flung the bicycle madly over, saw briefly a flash of confusion illuminate the impassive gaze, heard a screech and horn, felt a skid, the tyre at last completely flat, and found myself sprawled on the tarmac of the island, somehow almost unhurt, the bicycle now beside me where I lay.

My first task on arriving on the island was to fix the inner tube. In fact, I am in the habit of having always with me in my cycle bag not only a camera and notebook, but also a puncture repair kit. To my extreme annoyance, however, I must at some point have taken out the tyre levers and forgotten to return them to their place. The traffic around me would not ease even with nightfall. If I was ever to be safe to leave, then, I surmised, I would have to find some long, thin object hard enough to replace it.

Glancing over the island, I quickly confirmed what I had expected: no one there, the rustle of bushes the only indigenous sound, itself barely perceptible above the tides of traffic. My first thought, whether intelligent I never did find out, was to seek in the bushes for something - for some reason the image came to me of an unwanted teaspoon, fork, knife - flung from a passing car.

Pushing into the underbrush, though, and studying the ground, I was soon distracted. A pit raised slightly to where it finished in a glass cover had me naturally looking down. There a liquid light mistily washed by the sun made me think back to the purpose of my search. Here, then, was the well. Distracted from my hunt for the lever, raising my camera, I focused as well as I could given conditions, and pressed the shutter control. To my amazement, just as I did, something passed rapidly through the viewfinder, the misty trail of limy green-blue water in its wake. Looking at the image as it formed on the camera screen, there, indeed, was the blur.

Magnification of the image revealed what I had hardly dared hope: there did appear, in fact, to be life on the island, the well, a light well, dry. Perhaps it was some sort of worker down there whose tools I might borrow. As I peered to see what might emerge, though, several more figures passed, of all ages, dressed in all kinds of clothes, of both sexes, of whatever gate, all apparently busy. There was, in fact, an almost constant, though intermittent flow, all passing about down there, unperturbed by the environment, evincing as great a resignation to it as only the force of the greatest habit could create. These people appeared to live here.

As the glass cover was firmly fixed, and, what is more, this would hardly have been the most discreet place to attempt to enter the world of these people, I decided to reconnoitre the island first in search of a more convenient entrance to the area below before attempting the glass.

Sure enough, nearby was a skylight the people obviously use for air and some sort of contact with the elements, and I found myself peering into a world whose strangeness now found itself still more pronounced for its familiarity. That those who lived there shared habits almost exactly reproducing our own, with no visible contact with the street, the world outside. In a pit. On a roundabout.

Turning from the skylight and surveying further I soon found a door, unlocked and open as though I had been expected.

Beneath street level, I further confirmed that St Agnes' Well did indeed prove to boast many of the amenities available in London proper. A bookshop, newsagents', hairdresser's, various cafés, a full-blown restaurant and even a key cutter's, a mobile phone unblocking service, clothes shops and florist's together ensured that the inhabitants could keep themselves in life's essentials while maintaining a neat appearance and despite being entirely cut off. Indeed, the presence of live music, the bookshop, suggested that there, as elsewhere, a life of essentials was not considered enough. 

Whether the people there missed the world outside and were attempting to reproduce it in model or were somehow perhaps even mocking it, there was no indication.

The easy course would have been for me to leave these people from the Well, making my way to the street by a course other than that by which I had entered. I would then have been able to convince myself, no doubt, that the place I had encountered was an illusion resulting in some way from changes in the ground level, from the light, etymological deposits in the name, or perhaps even the mode of discovery. But the easy way is rarely the honest or the true, and, after a coffee and a bun which, within reasonable limitations, tasted much the same as anywhere else, and having secured the kind loan of a pair of teaspoons, I returned by the way that I'd come, refreshed, certainly, but staggered to see that, so near the more ordinary space of London, where people go about what, in all honesty, must be agreed to be very similar activities one to another over a very broad space indeed, should be this other kind of life led in this other kind of place, as though entirely undiscovered, as though reproducing it in restriction.