Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Roundabout Greenwich by The Windowless Consultant

I thought I'd stopped blogging. Work's been picking up a little recently, and I've had less time or therefore inclination. I'd begun to feel the experiences, a product of indolence alone, would simply prove irrelevant in the new mood, and found myself happy to think I might drop it for the clearer purpose of window design. I don't know if that will ever be possible again.

My journey to Greenwich was by way of research into a nautical-themed display for the window of an upmarket boutique already planning their Spring campaign. I could have gone to the coast, of course, but the expense seemed unnecessary given the village, so I'd at least do this first. Ocular evidence of one's research is becoming increasingly a pre-requisite for expense claims now, the pinched circumstances, even as we might perhaps be emerging from them, leading to increased caution.

The market has long exercised, of course, a powerful attraction over the amateur photographer, and, naively, I presumed that this would make my attempt to produce my own record of the place go unnoticed, but within seconds of my taking out my pocket camera I'd been approached by a market warden warning me that the stall holders objected to photographs being taken without their permission. I thanked her for the information and considered what to do. For proof that I had been there a generic shot of people and stalls was what I'd intended. However, given the number of stallholders I'd have to ask, the difficulty of deciding what really was in the photograph, this would clearly be impractical. Furthermore, if I asked stallholders, I should by rights ask customers too, but since they were so numerous and, given their constant motion, this would be impossible. Instead, then, I approached a single individual trader with the intention of photographing her stall alone.

Where was I from? she wanted to know first. As a question, this was more difficult than she appeared to realise. It would surely be clear from my accent I was from England, and then, how this should be relevant to permission to photograph was unclear. Perhaps she meant which newspaper, permission being dependent on her liking it, but as I was unconnected to a newspaper, this was harder still to answer, the grammar making no room for a negative reply. What's it for? She prompted.

What worried me was that, if I were to suggest that I sought proof that I'd been there looking for ideas, this person would be disposed to hear only 'looking for ideas' and send me packing as some sort of spy, perhaps for the Chinese. Maybe that's what the place question was about after all.

Fearing, then, that if I gave the truth I'd be forbidden to do my work, I tried what I considered a lie: it was, I said, not without trepidation, for a blog. I waited for her to ask me what kind of a blog that was, to be obliged to say that I wasn't sure, that its purpose, for me, was in large part to try to ascertain that; that I, along with some old acquaintances recently re-met, as though by coincidence, but we suspected it was more than that, felt that there were these things happening which, although we couldn't quite say yet what they were, we all felt were of extreme importance if she wouldn't mind just bearing with us.

Blog, came the stallholder's reply, clearly confirming already her suspicion. That's like Facebook, a blog, she didn't approve of Facebook, couldn't see any purpose in that, if she could, she'd do it herself, wouldn’t need me doing it for her, no, sorry, didn't want me taking photographs for a blog.

I could, I suppose, have gone around asking the other traders one by one who would let me include their stall to prove I was there, but I was too confused to want to try. Had I told the truth, that I wanted it as proof in my work as window display consultant, perhaps the woman's suspicions would have been justified, but that it was this lie, its content so innocent, that should have elicited the objection, flummoxed me.

What are they guarding here, I wondered, what are they trying to conceal? Anyone can look at these goods, handle them, even, buy, take them home. What would the camera be able to see, hold, record, that actual physical presence could not, to be allowed to stand, touch, buy, but not to photograph?

I looked around the market, then, again, a place where I would be unable to work, and sought for explanations in line with the blog they perhaps genuinely feared. I recalled, for instance, reading of the Archaeologist's experience on the roundabout at St Agnes' Well, my suspicions at the time that there may be connections between the experience and the form itself. It's true that on my approach, already, in the tunnel, connections to that post could be suspected, but I'd never have thought that Greenwich should harbour a key discovery concerning them.

One hardly thinks of the heart of Greenwich as a roundabout. And yet, of course that's exactly what the market is, when you think about it, albeit one defined, for the most part, by lusciously stuccoed Victoriana, and with the road encircling it ennobled by no less than four independent names: College Approach, Greenwich Church Street, King William Walk, Nelson Road.

I can't be the only person to have realised that the simple need of getting around's insufficient to explain the place of the road in our lives, the almost total control it has over the urban environment, for instance, transforming it into a permanent state of conflict between the foot- and the wheel-bound. The eccentricity of this form of social organisation's nowhere so manifest as on the gyratory, where the apparently innocent path, which the car would share with even the most elementary forms of organisation even down to that of ants in their neat little lines, not only veers brazenly from the logical, but then goes on deviating until it doubles all the way back on itself in a form surely unique.

At St Agnes' Well, I believe, the Archaeologist, perhaps without realising it, began to find an explanation for the eccentricity of the roundabout as social form. At Greenwich, I was beginning to suspect, I might be able to take the explanation a step further.

Greenwich has always appeared something of an eccentric in the London context - if London really is its context, and it seems to do everything it can to suggest that it's not. If, though, that's why I'd repaired there in the first place, little had I considered just how true it was. Mostly, the sense is overdetermined by its position on the river, firstly since the course of the water itself veers so suddenly off the straight to lap the tongue of the Isle of Dogs it leaves the village reeling and lost - on the spine the waterway forms, and yet so far South it might not be the city at all. And then there's the way the water's always steeped the area so deep in naval history no true inland urbanite can possibly feel entirely at home there. But on top of this comes the weirdest thing of all - the Meridian, not only arbitrary in itself as the one zero point that, setting out East or West, the traveller's position grows further away from, until you go far enough and it starts getting nearer again, but which, as a precondition, required an international race to produce the clock that would inscribe it. Here in Greenwich, it appears, no means is permitted to be direct. If it's predetermined, though, that Greenwich should refuse to remain London, the one thing that makes the refusal possible in the present is not this illustrious past, but that road which, veering from the straight, continues to veer further and further off it until it comes back round to itself as the market, the roundabout, which, simply to cross over to its centre, exacts the price from the pedestrian that they must risk their life to gain the heart of the village.

This, then, explained the fierce independence of the locals, their determination to be - that I be - from somewhere else. They needn't be afraid, then. Blog, we know, comes from the marine log, recording a journey in an act of plotting. Its very nature would preserve the village's independence, recording it as the journey that it was.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Trail to Get Lost: Between Old Street and Barbican by The London Archaeologist

Been doing consultancy work on a recent find in the West City area. Fascinating work, it would have seemed to me when work was something I could count on. Since it ceased being regular, though, I've found myself disengaging, staring out of the window during meetings, or wistfully up at the palisade from digs, thinking only of getting back to the street.

It's not that I know what to do once there, how to approach it, what I'll find. There are none of the protocols as there are on the site, which, for all the mud, ruin and mess, maintain at their best a rigour and purity aligning them with the lab, the operating theatre, the crime scene. The greatest enjoyment of the inner-city dig for me had been, I suspect now, less the research than this ritual, entering a space through a gate shearing it of connections with everyday life, which you might imagine has ceased going on around it. My outing this time was up Old Street. It was the way I'd been going to work every day, and I knew it well, but something drew me back, the suspicion that there were finds of some sort that way even if I couldn't yet know what. I'd made discoveries there before, what's was more - the Well, the nearby Eye hospital -, should be able to do so again.

At the outset as I went, the journey was hobbled, though, with doubt. All the time I'd been working, to have been waiting only for this: to set out as though to work but with neither hope of remuneration nor aim. Around me the street was as busy as it always had been, as purposeful, but with a purpose which appeared to have no place for me.

I looked into the faces of passers by. They appeared at their most normal, but this their most monstrous. A recent post of the Landless Landlord focused my mind a little, reminded me of my own, what I'd been after, if these could all, perhaps, be the angels, if I could find them that way, or what for want of other words I've elsewhere dubbed gods.

But for that, I'd have to see each one not as a person on the way to work, which was what I was doing, still, automatically: making my way to a job that wasn't there for me. Somehow I was going to have to lose not only this, but my sense of the way. Arrive at a dig, but one without recognisable difference from its surroundings, no protocol, no palisade, seamlessly, leave the city without a gate, only ceasing to recognise what I knew.

A major artery, Old Street nevertheless manages to keep a certain hectic intimacy of scale, and its role of drawing a definitive line between the City atmosphere of offices to the South from the northerly residential zones gives itself a mixed feel all its own. It was in Soho I'd realised the place in the window of the glass itself, the worlds in the images it brings. Here would surely be others.

My first recourse was to lose myself among the reflections of the design showrooms - office and residential, furniture, furnishings, paints -, computer shops, cafes, hairdressers, watch repairers, clubs, bookbinders and printers. The sort of place to place the Barbican towers by Parliament, this, in a poster shop, or in a bar draw a plastic monster through a shop front opposite. Propose designs for a plane tree, colour chart a brick wall, screen save a street. A low cloud hung over the morning, refusing to lift in line with the breakfast forecast. There appear to be types of lost, and even with the seemingly propitious combination of windows from which might be hoped to appear the other space, I sensed that something withheld itself.

The cloud was already beginning to clear as I glimpsed what I felt would be my final opportunity. I'd crossed the Fleet valley of Farringdon Road, where Old Street, already having changed nominally to Clerkenwell Road, becomes Theobold's Road, though retaining its atmosphere briefly until Gray's Inn, beyond which the story would have to change. The final shop, on the north corner of the street, would have to turn things around. I knew what was there from having passed before, tagged it for a resort. If the reflection in the window of a magic shop didn't work, nothing would.

With these in the memory as stimulus, I returned back down Old Street, something achieved, perhaps, more sensitive now, clearer about what I was looking for, and with the sun, at last breaking definitively through the cloud, on my side, lifting images from one side of the street to the other, suppressing one detail and replacing it with another, less congruous.

I was surprised to see lunch rush in the cafés. This was a good sign, as it confirmed that at some point I'd lost touch with the time around me, and I joined a queue for service with the reassuring sense of involving myself in a ritual not my own. Indeed, I had to join twice, not having understood the local technique: order first, collect a ticket, and only then queue to pay. That I might have been at the airport, the cinema, the doctor's or a fairground boded well.

Getting up from the terrace table, I abandoned the Old Street plan. Whatever I meant by being lost, I wouldn't achieve - or indeed, if I now was, maintain that state by remaining in a bounded space. I needed to leave the windows. Besides, the light on Goswell Street, north/south, was by now so sharp in contrasts they weren't needed.

Passers were by now behaving strangely, flitting out of the corners of buildings, lost too, in the sense, I wasn't sure that there was a difference, that they can't find their own way or that I couldn't find them in some other way.

Finally, a fence, a trail of tape leading to it and, through it, a sculpture I vaguely recalled from my days at the Museum of London, surely what I'd been looking for but could only now that it confirmed that I and those I'd been tracking had been lost know it.