Monday, October 26, 2009

The Barred by The Landless Landlord

A newspaper's a thing to open with trepidation. If it's not blaming landlords for binge drinkers it's hysteria about the effects we have on the nation's livers, and if we escape these intimations we should all be closed down, it's only to make way for despairing reports about how many of us already are.

But one story rumbling away over the last couple of years seems to have gone unnoticed, articles which, collectively, undermine a vast swathe of the country's signs. Since there's no portrait of Shakespeare, the experts tell us, that can be said to have been a painting of the man himself, there is, of course, no substance in a sign of the Shakespeare pub using his representation in illustration. The name itself 'the Shakespeare' is in doubt.

The pub opposite me, for instance, based upon one of the greatest frauds in the history of art - the 'Flower Portrait' artist unknown, product of some nineteenth century joker. In fact, looking closely at the Flower Portrait, a sly smile reveals a secret awareness of the fraud. Perhaps the portrait represents, then, not the appearance drawn from the life, but the spirit of the man - actor, that is, and fictionmonger. Although on the pub sign the smile has been expunged, it's only to displace the acknowledgement to the masks at his shoulders: don't trust the sign, there's no such thing as this Shakespeare.

Of course along with the image, sufficiently little is known about the life to give credence to the deniers. Since one thing we do know of is his links to Edward Alleyn and his company, anyone seeking to get behind the smile to the flesh would, like me, jump at the rare showing of the Dulwich Picture Gallery's original Alleyn bequest. Here at least we find paintings of people who had looked at him and worked with him, and could tell us, yes that smile is genuinely his - the knowing eyes and improbable forehead - or no, not even the spirit of the man is recognisable there, close the pubs, proven beyond foundation.

Perhaps the portrait of Alleyn could make a sturdier sign.

This drift from the original was chastening, and it was with a tinge of melancholy that I made my way back down the drive of the gallery and away towards the city, a mood only deepened by the discovery of the Beer and Wine Houses, not one room, you can be sure, kept aside for an industry worker on hard times.

It was then I recalled one of the most enchanting encounters I think I've ever had nearby in Nunhead. It was only last March, shortly after one of the more recent Shakespeare portrait debates broke. I'd recently closed the pub, hadn't long been single, had been happy to find myself invited to a party. There'd been a woman I'd never met before, intelligent, oval face slightly tilted forward as though in world-weary thought, smiling, but melancholy, the dress in flowing white folds, leaning her body onto a full hip, her skin so pale it had, as well as an ethereal and perhaps goth quality, gothic, a gentle sensuousness I found it hard to keep from looking at, but also, throughout the evening, impossible to address, as though a product of my own imagination. I'd stayed the night, and, the next day, not a little hung over, still, after a late breakfast, had headed for the station, diverting the route through the cemetery on the host's suggestion: follow the paths, see the headstones, charming lodges, at the centre the ruined chapel. There I'd met the woman from the night before, wandered around with her on the way.

At the time, depressed as I was about having lost the job, I was also excited to be discovering the city again. I had a new camera, too, bought to photograph the signs for the new blog. As we talked I'd train it on details around us, not for the blog, but just happy to be discovering them, wanting to confirm the happiness.

I sensed that something slightly irritated her about this. We were sitting on a bench. We'd done the circuit of every path there was in the cemetery, but I, and retrospectively I realise obviously she too, hadn't wanted to part company, happy to drift from subject to subject sharing our thoughts, finding out about each other, joking, silent. I'd been wanting a shot of her, hadn't known how to do that naturally, decided that doing it unnaturally, asking her to pose for me, would be exciting in itself and perhaps bring us together, but she'd refused.

She'd been reading this book. The world's always had ways of representing, the camera just another. The first means of photographic representation was the pyramid.

Time, she said, holding up a flat hand, the fingers together, parting one by one as she spoke, is a process of splitting, the present a permanent branching off into the past. The pyramid's a representation of that, the top in the present, the base the memories. That's not symbolism, it's how it works as a mechanism, what it is. The camera's always at the top, as you press, the present divides, splits with the click into itself an image of itself that slowly descends the pyramid, towards the past. An early photographic approach, now sadly forgotten, was lithographic, photocromosomes, light engraving stone. These stones around us here now, too, are film like a camera's or sensors, now, in your digital, taking the light, the elements, the lichen on them, moss, photosynthesing images, too. And not only the stones, the leaves, traces of light as they grow, the cells splitting, the veins, or as they shake, of the wind. Even my hand, my face is a photograph. Places themselves and the things in them. There was a spring wind, she looked to the left as I sat on the right, some of the words were taken away, I was tired, but I felt I grasped the sense, the shot there already, in the stones, her, the place.

The pyramid, she said, became fashionable for headstones in the 18th century, as a result of Newton's investigations into light, the cone, the relationship to perception, the camera.

She seemed to know a lot, hard to follow. I'd been too busy to read much in a long time, found her intimidating. My thoughts of getting close to her receded. Instead, I asked for one last photograph: that of the cover of the book, with the aim, since dropped, since I've been unable to track down a copy of the thing, untraceable, of bettering myself that way.

I'd largely forgotten that morning until then, coming out of the Dulwich gallery, it came back, with the idea of returning.

Everywhere, all there was seemed to be photographs producing themselves at various speeds without camera, the present splitting, forking, dividing and dividing, piling into images.

I let out a chuckle to be taken off by the wind, again pronounced, this time autumn's: to have gone for a likeness for Shakespeares after even the woman in the cemetery felt unreal.


Saturday, October 10, 2009

No Sign of Albert by the Landless Landlord.

To identify where the signs are going, it was about time I addressed what they do. While it would be absurd to say that the sign is the name, nor do they just illustrate it, since the name - the Carpenter's Arms, the Dog and Whistle - clearly follows the image, not the other way round. But, since nor does the fact they should be attractive, of course, mean that they only adorn, or that they're noticeable exhaust their purpose in the beacon, I realised that the function for me, after all these (those?) years in the industry, remained a mystery. There is the pub, there is the name, there is the sign, but to sense suddenly in the repetition profligacy, the sign, for instance, an unnecessary addition, would have been to side with their reduction - names, signs, pubs - and by fifty-two a week according to the most estimable estimates. They form a trinity, mutually dependent facets, but each to be admired in itself. At the same time, I had no explanation for why, and for justification sought more examples.

After the Angel, where the name proliferates but the sign is long gone, it seemed to me wise next to consider the opposite scenario. A good example was sure to be the Albert, since there we have the manifold signs for the one name - with Arms or Head appended, the Royal or the Prince.

Since I live East, I picked a couple to visit on the way in towards town by means of a Googlemaps app.. First stop, though, Elia Street, off City Road, the Prince, already was erroneous. Here was no Albert, but an essayist in profile view, the city he presumably loved, lived in, described, addressed, some instruments of his work, and samples in quotation. The nature of this one, hovering, wavering between image as picture and as word, perhaps this might tell me something about the demise of the hostelry tag as medium, but also its fight for survival. The words after all were not image as word but word as image of word, the notebook not a notebook but an outline of a notebook, there to denote the man, the pub sign still a pub sign then, not a description or a name tag hung on a wall. The essayist being one of life's loggers, that here he was doing whatever it is pub signs do and that I must discover seemed in itself noteworthy, and although I'd thought at first my research had been fluffed to have led me here, all was not lost if a lesson was to be learnt. A pub sign could be a kind of protoblog, seemed to be the message, or perhaps even, I wondered, with a mixture of excitement and remorse, a blog a pub sign, a part of their disappearance or a hand in their renewal.

Next stop was a house of the same name on Acton Street, where I understood what had been - and what an extremely useful site, a kind giving not pub but ex-pub addresses, a kind of anti-fancyapint, or fancyapint of the departed, has since proved to have been - the source of my previous disappointment, too: not a googlemap error, but a result of change of use, the earlier to the Lamb, this place now to from Prince Albert proper to Konstam at the Prince Albert. Inside, instead of taps, the offensive sight of coffee and wine, tables all with napkins folded into glasses, not a beer mat in sight. I like coffee very much and love wine, but at the expense of beer, in the Konstam, they were agents in the demise of the Prince Albert. An accompanying agent, of course, was the removal of the hanging sign, featuring, as must be presumed, its representation of the royal - no mere ornament, then, signs, but an intrinsic part of what the hostelry is, which, for the hostelry to move on, must go.

The only other Albert I recalled, to continue on my trail, was in Kensington. The fact that this one was no pub sign at all was an important part of why, I sensed, I had to go there.

But the result was unexpected, so clear it was impossible not to suspect causality. Everywhere in the city, on the signs, his portrait disappearing and with it even the name, and then here, at the centre, the opposite, the portrait incessantly reproduced, cameras from all over, not just London, but the world, descending on the area, filling the air with their clicks, noisy, barely perceptible, or, equally, silent. And the sculpture was pre-figuring the actions of the photographers. Dictating. The urge to photograph was automatic, unconscious, it would seem, irresistible. In some way the idea was to suck the outskirts dry, the centre becoming increasingly dense, repetition not only of the act of photography, but also, and reflecting the repetition of the picture a photograph takes of a scene, the image the photographer makes of the seen, their gestures those of the stones. Here the air became a crystal medium, movement jagged and interrupted, ritualistic. I had not understood until now. This, then, was why I, too, had come in search of Albert, felt my own arm rise, camera in hand. Deflecting the force from the statue, perhaps I could at least focus, not on the sucking centre, but on his reflections everywhere abounding, multiplying off each other, each passer by a facet, of the crystallized spirit of the man - appropriate the power for myself.

This was not the chaos of Borough, clearly, though at the ordering system for now I couldn't guess, just record, work it out later. The repetition was kaleidoscopic, one photographer going, another arriving appearing to disappear and reappear, the same, but different, reflections of each other, themselves, the stones, folded into and out of the revolving facets of the very air. This man, for instance, who seems to be taking a photograph of this woman reading, reproducing the man reading behind her, the stone looking back at her with the force he's tapped of her life. No, who's looking at me, this man, photographing him, who's a man I've seen before, a man I know, knew. The man who's come to be known as the Archaeologist, I find, and who, as me, as though we'd never lost contact, had always had this rendezvous, had been drawn there to the memorial in search of material for a - this, it will turn out to be - blog.

From here on detailed account is superfluous, since it's been made before in the blog that this one is now itself joining, but I feel perhaps some reduplication is nevertheless necessary for a sense of completion and unity within the post, to express our surprise, for instance, as we did, at seeing each other there, and how little we'd changed since the university years, how we wouldn't perhaps have recognised each other, though, still, after so many years, the way you don't, unless we'd started thinking about each other recently, something about having lost our jobs, thinking back to before, our university days - his when he was at it, mine when I was near.

I feel I've been approaching something in these posts, the experience at the monument the nearest, but I don't know if I could arrive at it alone. It's for that reason that I agreed to join forces with someone from a so distant past so propitiously met. I don't quite get his reasons, but the compulsion was contagious, and that he feels we share a search is promising. Since, in fact, loosing the steady work, I've been mentioning the man increasingly, in these posts, and his girlfriend, or rather, since I no longer knew him, the student that he was, the girlfriend she then was. It's almost as though it was them that I'd been looking for, though of course, not least since, having now found them I feel renewed vigour in the search, that can't be the case, that would seem to be a red herring of some sort.

This, then, my first post with the archaeologist and the consultant, the last on Pubsignstakenforwonders, where I've packed the bags into a bundle to unpack them integrally on The London Archaeologist and the Windowless Consultant, tying my dates in with theirs, but maintaining my own label down the side.