Sunday, August 16, 2009

Between Cabinets at the V&A by The Windowless Consultant

The thought long haunted me that somewhere in the V&A to anyone with the key, who could find the cabinet, secrets extending far beyond design, into the most esoteric nooks of existence, might be discovered. The thought has always been an idle one, something in the nature of a dimly glinting not so much awareness as sense, and since for me idle moments had long been few, one I'd never had the opportunity to pursue.

Of course my trips in the line of work have been innumerable. I've only ever met one London-based window consultant who wasn't intimately familiar with the place as a source of inspiration, but in my experience opticians tend to live in a world of their own. Although my visits had always involved searching for some particular item, fact or design - the style of a Chinese temple, the decoration of the Crystal Palace, possibilities with cast iron, the exact appearance of an angel in flight - I'd always be troubled at some point on a visit by the sensation that there was something else there that I was missing, at the same time deliberately ignoring, and yet because even if I'd wanted to, I'd have lacked the means, not only to see, but even to look out for it. Call it a flickering in the corner of the eye, but of something subtler than colours or shapes, not so much the beginnings of an appearance, more a dim suspicion that there might be something that could, hypothetically, appear, less an exhibit, perhaps, than something about the spirit of collecting and its limits. Such, then, the intimations wafting elusively around the corridors untagged.

Because the place is stuffed with models, casts, proposals, examples, styles, designs, is itself in its architecture, layout, intention a further set of models, proposals, casts, designs, and styles, the idea that anything else than that should be sought there - that something about, not what people, societies the world over have said things might be made to look like, but what they are, for instance, might be found, what the world is, the universe, what it is to tread it, to breathe, eat, dream, to look there for answers, love, a home, adventures - would have seemed beside the point. Perhaps, at the time, if I'd asked myself, I'd have said that it was my firm belief that anyway, from life in general, what we ought to seek is in the nature of decoration: that the merit of the belief systems that have populated the earth through the ages is to be decided not according to the degree to which they match some reality they'd model, but rather according to their relative beauty - their beauty in themselves, in their role in their society, or as a part of the universe of which their society is itself a part. To the question, for instance, is there really a chance we're re-incarnated after death in the form of an ant the answer I might have given would have been yes, that is indeed a beautiful idea, in itself for its strangeness, socially for the elegance of its solution to the problem of selfishness, metaphysically for its expression of the interconnectedness of all things, of change, the relation of thought and matter, the shifting boundaries between the known and the un-. And yes, I'd say, I also believe in angels, particularly carved in wood, figuring in paint on a gold background, or Raphael emerging from the hands of Milton.

But at the same time, even though I don't think I'd have put things in that way, if only for lack of the time to phrase them, patience with the attempt, belief it might be worth it, the notion that the museum could teach me about the world as a whole, the universe as it's inhabited not only by humans or even animals, plants, or even only also things, although I can say retrospectively that it was that intuition that shadowed me as I searched out my design solutions is one I'd never until I found myself with this idle time allowed myself to entertain.

How many times have you been in love? This is a question, it seems, each new lover has to ask me at least once. Honesty hasn't, I suppose, always been a forte, and I've tended to seek either in their expression or my own mood for an answer. Are they pleading for me to tell them they're the first, and if so, is that what they really want, or need? Do they deserve the reverse? Is their look wicked, conspiratorial: will it be a high number that most pleases? Is there any reason why I should care what they want? Shouldn't I rather say whatever will most distress them, most pleases myself, dispenses with the need to think, punishes the error of seeking an answer?

The V&A's universe is one in which an encounter with things is always guided, chaperoned, by parties of others, but who hover always on the edges of vision. The traces they leave as they move out of the path of what you see are perhaps all they are. It's in that sort of thought, perhaps, that my own intuitions most meet the Archaeologist's.

We met, as I recall now, in a pub, run down affair, in time off. There was a reading group he was in that used to meet there, he had me join. Nobody ever seemed to have read the books, but the discussions were full of an intensity either naïve or visionary - it's too long now for me or anyone else to seek to arbitrate. I remember the young barman used to join us after closing once the doors were locked. 

I went with him to the bar once alone to get a round in, the group off behind us in a corner. He looked at me with a smile while a stout cleared black in its glass. The trouble with us students was that we were all so spaced on undigested theories, and the trouble with him was that he was so bogged down with work he couldn't swallow them. Did the fact, he wanted to know, that between us we seemed to manage such understanding depend on the beer, the drugs, the place, or a real affinity? Although I smiled, I somehow felt defensive. Perhaps this was some sort of proposition. He knew I was with the Archaeologist (to be), perhaps the most studenty of us all in the same way I was surely one of the least. 

Any similarities between the Mile-End pub and the refreshment rooms of the V&A would surely be hard to pin down, but something there on this last trip made me recall the conversation, and wince at my answer. If it had been disingenuous to deny the understanding between us, though, perhaps that was because what he'd meant had just been too elusive for me at the time.

In all honesty I've been in love, really in love, I've sometimes thought, three times. Three known times. And yet I do wonder how many other times I might have been, how those other stories, too, began and ended. These can only be known, perhaps, by analogy with the times I'm aware of, fleshed out with the accounts of others. As eluded to in the refreshment rooms of the V&A, I wonder whether they've only been with people, what affinities we really have with other things, qualities of atmosphere, arrangements of things, currents of air or light, traces of movement, to name some, only, of which we're most aware. 

I do have jobs: they're just less frequent than they were. My last one involved a Knightsbridge jeweller's, was so well remunerated I stretched the term towards its synonymy with 'heist'.

For the brief, we sat back-store in the office, the manager, a woman he failed to introduce who mostly nodded, champagne on ice between us, a table, choice pieces displayed. They wanted, he said, something romantic. That was an extremely wide brief, I suggested, and perhaps he could be more exact. What, he wanted to know, was romance for me? The other woman counted the bubbles above the mouth of her flute. The cut of her skirt was perhaps responsible for her stiff appearance. If she'd uncrossed her legs I'd have been able to tell you more about her anatomy than you'd perhaps want to know. Something in the atmosphere told me the manager already did, perhaps only for having thought so hard about it.

Lies, I said. Hypocritical excuses for a bodily pleasure that didn't need them. The silent woman smiled, sipped, crossed her legs the other way, looked up. The manager looked back at her and then at me. That's what he wanted, then. He smiled, raised his glass.

I knew what would work, needed no research. A trip to the V&A would furnish me, not with ideas, but with something extra for the invoice. 

So my visit there last week, for the first time, was one without aim, although on my first job in a while now, the first that was purely idle.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Signs of Destruction by the Landless Landlord

The first thing I did when I woke up today was try to go to sleep. I was overcome by a sort of remorse-cum-anxiety concerning my Landlordly past and how to, if not repair it, at least forget about it. The fact I was convinced that as soon as I acknowledged that I'd woken up I'd be beset by a hammering in the head helped focus my attempts to keep all thoughts from emerging from under the pillow.

Thoughts of the pub, the old days of drinking, the wife, why she'd left, my early hopes at Mile End, all the things you could do with a pub, my friends the students of the time, what's become of them since. My decision to stop drinking, the difficulty of remembering why that was supposed to help once the wife had gone and the pub closed.

But at some point I just had to acknowledge that I'd long been completely awake and open the blinds. What I thought was going to be the first crack in a storming headache turned out to be a lovely sunny day and a strange sense of slightly dazed optimism.

Last weekend I rediscovered Utobeer and the Rake, found Brew Dog.

It's been a long time since I posted, a terrible, long time, and has had me wondering if there was any point in the present blog, which I'd placed so much hope in. Put simply, if, as it seemed, London suffered a dearth of signs, the nourishment of Pubsignstaken, the site, starved of material, would die. The sings I'd been looking for, hoping for, were visual, things that would make interesting images, but of course, as a result, I thought at first, of rising literacy, their numbers are in steep decline, increasingly boozers relying on just the letters to make the name, leaving problems for a blog, of course, premised on the picture. Normally, that wouldn't have mattered to me, but recently, with the work gone, I'd been counting on it for at least a sense, however pointless, of purpose.

I'd gone down to Borough in search of photographs, sure that, of all places, what, in Gustave Dore and Blanchard Jerrold's day, the days of 'London, a Pilgrimmage', was known as the town of Malt and Hops must furnish something in the way of signs, still, worth recording. 

The idea that it might not, that the place might prove as barren that way photographically as elsewhere, I hardly dared allow into the back of my mind until it forced itself on the front. Perhaps I would simply have to admit the existence of a world without signs, the pointlessness of the site.

But surely, since for the time being I've got nothing else, the search would have to go on, in the absence of signs, substance of some other sort would have to be found to replace them, even if only the illustration of failure, and I made my way through the throng of visitors to what I knew from my drinking days was the nearest competition, in terms of knowledge, cordiality and character, a London off-licence could offer to the on-: Utobeer, heir that way to the hop laurels abandoned by the Beer Shop, late of Hoxton.

Looking closely, though, it occurred to me that perhaps what I was looking for, the signs in question, were there in front of my eyes: the labels on a range of bottles an extremely knowledgeable sales assistant was recommending to a customer. These bottles and many others in the place I felt to have a charm equal to that which I'd been finding so difficult to locate on the street. Just as I took out the camera, though, and started to set parameters, I noticed a sign: 'no photographs', it explained, unless you intended to buy. Here was a difficulty for a man on the wagon. I could, I had to say, understand their position. The market was so full of people photographing that it seemed to threaten even the material substance of the place. If they continued like that, was there a danger that in some way the market would be unable to continue to exist? It's hard to believe that you can just take that information away, that colour, those tones and forms, so many times and leave the residue unaffected, the colours unbleached, the objects undiminished, and then, trade: would it not at some point become, instead of a market, a photographic opportunity, only, a pretext for photographs of a market, the trading gone, no market at all? Was it perhaps the responsibility of the traders to attempt to put a hold on this, preserve at least the illusion of normality, even if only for the photographers themselves, to leave them something to take?

Chastened, I let my camera hand fall to my side, slip guiltily into my pocket, re-emerge empty. Perhaps the very will to blog was contributing to the undermining process these people were protecting us from. It was possible that my lamented paucity of pub signage in the city was directly linked to the untrammelled urge to photograph, the signs among the first victims, leached of life, colour, purpose, interest by the whirring plague of machines alighting in its devastating swarms, gobbling up anything of interest, leaving a barren waste.

Certainly that would explain the link between buying and photographing implicit in the sign that had caught my attention, photography actually itself an unacknowledged act of consumption. And certainly this explained the process involved in my transforming, then, my former days enjoying beer into now only photographing the signs. Clearly, then, to buy the bottles, to take them home, photograph them there would be the only conscionable way to continue blogging, and I was happy to be instructed to do so.

Only at home did I realise that even if it was just the labels I intended to write up, not to at least taste one just to be able to at least refer to what was behind it all would impair my judgment of the labels themselves. But then, as I did, the taste was so good it was impossible to know if that wasn't just because it had been so long, which meant I had to stick with it at least to the bottom of the bottle, which I did confirm to be of premium quality. But still, that could easily have been just the one beer or even the one bottle that had the qualities, I realised. Pop went the second top. By the time I came to the bottom of the last, Punk IPA, after a couple of photos, I was ready for bed. For the first time in my life I had personally verified the rumour that the less often you drink the greater the effect, and, though somewhere dimly aware of problems in my new project, I fell quickly into a sound sleep.

The next day I had already a slight hangover, which seemed unfair given that the bottles had all been so small. What's more, I realised that photographs of bottles, finished or otherwise, would be no answer to my problems. The idea'd been nice while it lasted, which had turned out no longer than the effect of the drink within them. However, if a blog relying on photographs of beer labels would work no better than one full of pub signs, perhaps that released me for other things. There were other ways, after all, to spend time. 

Just round the corner from their shop Utobeer also have one of the most interesting pubs in London when it comes to range. Some years ago I'd experienced Thomas Hardy's ale on tap there, the first time ever a barrel of the stuff had been cracked behind an English bar. Today, I knew for having discussed it with the man at the shop that they had Brew Dog IPA there on tap.

To be able to compare the tap to the bottled version: that would be something. And with the hangover came a dry mouth that certainly added urgency to the question. I can now say that the tap version has perhaps a slightly smoother condition, but is paradoxically still a tad more airy. It feels to drink it as though it's been kept in a place at the same time dank and fresh, still and flowing, deep and shallow, keeping it sprightly, youthful, but investing it with the melancholy of age. In fact, when you look in a well and you see the gleam of daylight on the water at the same time as the dark inside, something clean and inviting at the same time as a mortal fear of the depth of falling in. It had been a mistake to think a life on the wagon was the answer, and it was with the added zeal of making up for the months off that, after further investigations of the offers on tap, I headed back up the road to the shop for materials for further research. The loss of a blog, I told myself, was far outweighed by having at last been reunited with this other project. Now that I had little other work, what's more, I'd have more time than ever to seek out the perfect pint.

It was at the entrance I saw a sign: Utobeer, there before me, before Utobeer, under the sign; a woman taking half the head of the knowledgeable sales assistant. Perhaps, I thought, if I take some of what she's removing away less will be removed. I snapped. 

Something then made me want to show the assistant, who, interestingly, was grateful. Too many people, he said, take photographs of a person working without even asking. It was driving him mad. Looking around, I saw them everywhere. 

These, perhaps, were the missing signs of the city, these I would record. The things were so ubiquitous that just the attempt to snap them up was dizzying. If you take a picture of a person, it seems to me, recognisably central and large, especially a person at work, you ought to ask, and I do. The photograph of someone's photograph of a common space is a greyer area by far, and if sometimes I asked, sometimes I took. 

Sometimes I tried to take and missed it, or the image would disappear from their screen as I pressed and leave me with nothing for mine, or the word 'saving' alone; sometimes I saw it too late - a hand raised exquisitely above a sea of heads to capture a shot of some colourful trader, produce, sign - or I noticed just in time, for instance, the suspicious face of a friend or relative warning me off. Sometimes, overcome by shyness at having asked a man wielding an SLR, lens big as a horse's, poking my little pocket at its screen, I'd lose concentration and the focus would go. But whatever happened there were more where they'd come from. Once or twice, noticing a trader recognisable in a picture that had been given me, I located them, obtained their permission to use their image here.

These were not the signs I'd been looking for, but since perhaps of where it is they're going, the swarming maws of the plague destroying them, at least, something to show on the subject, signs, with which to keep myself one more day in images.