Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Possible visit to the Périphérique, by the London Archaeologist.

I have now verified that all the texts the St Pancras man referred to are genuinely published works. That dealt with in my last post was, it transpires, by Aragon, Le Paysan de Paris, or Paris Peasant, which, as I have just (re?)read it, I can say reflects all the man said. Hunting down a link for the text, I found an interesting translation/portation of its spirit into New York blogese, though for the accuracy I can't vouch, being unable to locate the exact spot in my copy.

A strange but compelling mixture of detailed description filled with circumstantial fact, philosophical reflection and the freest imaginative riffs, the book seems deliberately to set out to conflate any distinction between conscious fact and the unconscious fantasy. It seems to be the man's contention that what we believe we see as the real world is in fact a sort of convention, and represents a tiny fraction of the things that occur around us. Certain phenomena in the text share many parallels with those we've long been tracking on this blog. It would seem that, in Paris, as in London, for instance, there may be occult forces, let's say, inherent in certain locations which appear on the surface nothing special, but which careful investigation may be able to uncover. If the parallels are real, then, the wonders of pubsignstakenforwonders may not in fact be new in themselves, as it's been our tendency to believe, and may have been around long before Aragon himself wrote of them in the twenties.

The other text I investigated on that first day, though in relation to my experiences, it is more problematic, was perhaps no less illuminating.

Immediately after the visit to the Buttes Chaumont, I went in search of more places annotated in the map the St Pancras man had left with me as having been mine.

The nearest of these was at the perimeter, around the Boulevard Périphérique - the city's ring road. The book as the man had presented it was, although described as a novel, based on close factual description of a small suburban area and its inhabitants, on the one hand, and the life and times of a true historical figure who had given his name to a street at its centre - Avenue Ney, after the marshal of the Napoleonic era.

Densely descriptive, the text kept returning to a few essential features which had stuck in my memory thanks to the account at St Pancras. The cheap and characterless hotels, mostly there to serve the motorway, in which the narrator lived, the cafés, canal bridges, high-rise blocks, railway lines, and, at the heart of the story, beneath the motorway itself with its almost Ballardian vocabulary of approach roads and sidings, the pillars supporting its flyover, in which, the man insisted, the main characters lived.

It was in search of these details I went from the Buttes, then, in the expectation I might jog my memory. There was no way to be sure that the high rises I saw, the bridges and hotels were the right ones, but certainly the lexicon of forms was clearly recognisable. Whether or not the text, whichever side it lay of the divide between fiction or journalism, really existed, here at least was evidence that its subject matter was real. And even though, as at the Buttes, I couldn't be sure whether it was as a result of having visited before, read about it, or only as a result of the King's Cross man's description, my experience was certainly one of recognition. I don't think I thought at the time it was stuff for the blog. Rather, if I photographed, it was for evidence of the recognition, for later, when I'd be able to put it all together.

Now is perhaps that later. Since Jean Rolin's La Clôture, which answers to every detail of the St Pancras account, was published in 2002, it is quite impossible that I should have read it when I knew the St Pancras man, described it to him, or written the annotations on the map he claimed had been mine.

However, if this might suggest ruling out his entire story, other things still suggest otherwise. My experiences with the Aragon text, for instance, were similar, but that text I certainly could have read. And then, given the parallels in the Aragon text with our experiences here in London, if I was to apply its principles, as I clearly should, it may be that my sense of recognition, outweighing any narrow conception of factual possibility, should dictate its figuring in a blog such as this, bent on uncovering, not the superficial, but the underlying facts.

These, then, were the two mysteries presenting themselves to me at the end of the first day in Paris. Whether or not the events of the second day resolved the puzzle, I cannot yet say. However, the very least that I had was good reason to continue the search, and you can be sure I took as close a record of my activities as usual.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

To Catch an Angel, not a Terrorist, by The Landless Landlord

A whole line of signs particularly under threat is surely those relating to the nation's naval history. With the fall of the Empire, their relevance is fading from the nation's consciousness. Their continued existence, particularly in the metropolitan areas, is one of those anomalies cast by the forces of inertia on the shores of the present, the 100-gun First Rates swinging over our high streets appearing more ghostly every year.

I've been learning over these posts that, given the disappearance of the pubs, the question of the signs has to be approached increasingly obliquely, the attention forced to direct itself away from the swinging panels, to stray even from the pubs, taking on the surrounding world itself.

At Albertopolis it was the memorial that, having become the original, was blotting out the pubs, the Prince Alberts, the Albert Armses - if you can coin a word for a disappearing thing -, or all those others created in what were surely the hostelry's greatest boom years, closed, renamed.

But the crux came for me at Islington, where the Community Support officer tried to force an angel from my camera, unaware it was even there, by means of Section 44, the supposed anti-terror law. Preservation even of the traces would be the matter of a struggle against time.

It was clear that, if I wanted to grasp the true nature of the naval genre before it sank entirely from view, I would have to converge on the sign at their centre.

But time was short. The possibility existed yesterday, and for only a couple of hours. Since the Angel event, and given two encounters of the Windowless, I've been following as much as possible other stories on the same subject. It would appear that, under the banner 'I'm a Photographer, not a Terrorist', there's a group dedicated to keeping present the possibility of capturing what are, in the terms they presented themselves at Islington, images of the Angel. On Saturday 23 January, Trafalgar Square, they were suggesting, that possibility would be on the line.

A 'Community' policeman tried for while to police, tried to enlist the 'real' police on his side, gave up. A street entertainer, baffled at the number, the nature of these tourists, the size of their cameras, their interest in him, each other, anything, made an impressive attempt at life as usual.

The point was to go there, to photograph, to be seen to be photographing. The event to photograph was the event making the point, the point being go there to be seen photographing, being photographed. The thing to record was to be the event recording it. This, surely, would be the test, not only of the Albertopolis theory, but of theory of the Angel, and in the hope of preserving not only the naval battle sign, its epitome in Trafalgar, but also of course, beneath it, a bar, a pint, a stool and a pleasant din, around it, the possibility of following where they're going, with the First Rates, Angels, and Alberts, of course, only a start.

Friday, January 22, 2010

A Sense of Déjà Vu at the Buttes Chaumont by The London Archaeologist

One of the perks of being back in at least semi-employment is the conference round. My last was to be hosted by the Société du Vieux Paris, or Old Paris Society. They invite me out every few years, and I'll always one way or another have someone from the society over here to talk in whatever institution I've worked for. This isn't back scratching. London and Paris, like all cities, for reasons both obvious and obscure, are intimately linked - more than many, and now of course with the tunnel, they have become extensions of each other's tube systems.

This isn't a work-related blog, thankfully, or there wouldn't be much to report, however. As a result of the wrong kind of snow falling on the train, I missed the conference. Instead I went out after it for two spare days just before Christmas.

The relationship of the twin cities is reflected in my own personal history. I spent time in the French capital before my University degree, during a brief flirtation with the idea of studies there. I know no one there any longer, apart from vague acquaintances associated more or less with the Société. All my visits are coloured by a sense of familiarity not only with the architecture and apects of the archaeology, but also, I now feel, with this familiarity's being that of someone increasingly distant from me now. However, whether this feeling is itself something that's genuinely grown over the years, or is an illusion resulting from what's been something of a sudden jolt I received in this last trip, I can no longer say with any certainty.

The weather was dry, clear, but with the sun skulking, rarely summoning the energy to peer over rooftops. As I left the hotel on the first morning, near the intersection of Boulevard Voltaire with Rue de Charonne, it was with a sense of inner reflection, but on nothing of purpose. To say that I was expecting, for instance, an encounter with this person I might recognise, but would never become, would be to go further than I could be sure of. Certainly nothing concrete for the blog.

However, I now rarely move without a camera in one pocket, a notebook in another, and a pen somewhere about me, and not long after setting out I saw the first sign of work to be done: 'square' in its planning sense is a word I've long been meaning to work on in the London context. Seeing it here in Paris shook me suddenly from my complacency. I had only a couple of days to see what they make, there, of the urban form, and what that might shed on their etymological source in London.

The result was in equal proportion illuminating and perplexing. The word, then, could be taken not only to have no relation to shape, but to require no terraced houses or perimeter road around it. This one was only accessible from barely noticeable passageways.

Taking my map from my pocket, I hunted down the nearest other to direct my steps that way. Much more like the English, 'Square Bolivar', despite the name, and though still alien enough to be of interest. Something would surely come of this. Lunch in a nearby café would be an opportunity to plot a route taking in further squares, with which to get to the essence of the shape as it appears through the tunnel.

The streets I tried abounded in cheap North African places whose menus, when they extend beyond merguez sandwiches, tended towards couscous. If I was going to try to grasp the sense of the local urban space, perhaps this would be a distraction. If I was to mine linguistic differences, perhaps I should immerse the tongue itself, eat French. Passing a park, I reasoned that something posher might be found in its perimeter. Serving a more bourgeois bunch, a trad. menu might be found there. Passing the Kaskad, given something in the spelling, my first expectation was of disappointment. In fact, the menu was fairly traditional. I took out my writing implements and waited for an Andouillette (sausage of 'boyaux', the waiter had informed me - narrow pipes, passages, tubes - and, seeing my perplexity, indicated the systems of his stomach), congratulating myself on my savvy deduction.

The wine, when it came, suggested, too, the advantages of my food policy, and looking to my left out of the window, I leant comfortably back in my seat. 'Cascade', of course, I realised, seeing the high mound of a park, topped by a little belvedere, and feeling my skin prickle.

On that first day coming out there, as I was searching in the chaos for a way out of Eurostar's insane mismanagement, I'd become aware of a beaming smile fixing me from the crowd. The man was both genial and intelligent. He too had been visiting Paris for some sort of conference, insisted we exchange cards. Although my memory was foggy, the man had a knowledge of my background - university life, my studies, of course, the Windowless Consultant, even, the Landless Landlord and events at the Arms - proving we'd once been closely acquainted. Insisting we go for a drink, he immersed me in anecdotes in which I figured, but had quite forgotten.

Amongst these, he kept on insisting that I'd spent an evening engrossing him in accounts of books I'd read in my gap year, out in France. In attempt to jog my memory, he went into such detail about them that I was entirely hooked - by what he told me not just about the texts, but also about the reasons I'd given him for my interest. It's all a bit vague now, a conversation shouted over the noise of the crowd and too many beers in the station 'pub', if our own Landless Landlord will excuse the term for a place that, despite what looks to me like a good beer policy, has, all told, a slightly tasteless cocktail air to it. And yet here was undoubtedly one of the locations. He'd shown me the map he'd been taking to Paris, now, finally, with the intention of following up my recommendations. There, beyond question, was a handwriting which, with allowance for change over the years, was to be recognised as my own. The map was mine, he insisted, had somehow got mixed up with his stuff in one of our drunken conversations all those years previously, now I must have it back so there I was with it in the Kaskad. Much of the writing was illegible, but two words were still quite clear: 'belvedere' and, alongside it, the more ominous 'suicide bridge'.

What I know of the book now's thanks to what he told me of what I'd told him all those years before, a walk around the place at night, philosophical reflections, a mixture of fact and fiction, sections, he said, down to chance.

The landscape the man described, though he claimed to know of it only from my account, was undoubtedly the same, the belvedere itself, on its high mound, accessible via the two bridges, one fenced around to stop the suicides; the other mounds; lakes; even an urban light railway, down there deep in sidings, now disused.

And yet, the more that his story was confirmed by the topography, the more irritated I became. The events were so long ago. I did feel I recognised this place. But that only made things worse still, since I couldn't be sure my recognition wasn't itself a result of my having visualised the minute description which, though he attributed it to me, I couldn't be sure wasn't his own. Now I thought about it, perhaps I hadn't deduced the presence of the Kaskad at all, as I'd flattered myself, but had remembered it, if not from a visit of my own, years ago, some reference in his account. As for the text, if he couldn’t recall the name, or even the writer, how could I know they were even real?

Obviously my interest in the squares project diminished. Instead, I rifled through the map for further annotations, places to test further my recollection.