Wednesday, March 31, 2010

A Small Guide for Phantoms and the London Square by The London Archaeologist

I'm now ready to write up my second day in Paris.

The main task was to explore another of the heavily the annotated areas of the map the King's Cross man claimed had been mine, concerning a guide book whose content may be of particular relevance to this blog. The Little Guide of the XVth Arrondissement for the Use of Phantoms has, it transpires, received interesting blog treatment elsewhere, allowing me to confirm the man's account. The guide describes a certain kind of building unaccountably common in that one little area of Paris - the wedge-shaped slice sometimes encountered here in London as a result, particularly, of the course of railways sliced through terrace backs. Their inhabitants, the man explained, are said to be in some way determined by the nature of the buildings. In fact, he said, a grin forming across features otherwise slightly liquid, as I recall, or absent, perhaps from the effect of drink, during his research into the shape the writer finds that these elusive beings include he himself, only now recognising himself, attracted to investigate by obscurer forces than curiosity alone, at last coming to understand that what he's seen as his life's been some kind of illusion, the memories making up his past unreal.

During breakfast, I flicked though the map to plot an itinerary for the day that would take it in, but also allow for research into my other interest in the city - the sense of the French 'square'.

The nearest to my hotel, I noticed with surprise, was that landmark piece of urbanism I'd always known as the famous 'Place des Vosges'. Formerly 'Place Royale', according to the map it was also to be known as 'Sq Louis XIII'.

I'm still working on the question of the London Square. I began last summer, in Hanover Square, where I hoped to establish the effects of geometry on behaviour, but the project remained unfinished. Expect further reports, though I can't say when.

The very term 'square' in its application has obscure roots and entangled branches. A key stage in the development of its form in London was at Covent Garden, where it took on the name, of course, of Piazza to suggest the Italian influence of the buildings lining it and the Palladian purity of plan. The design of the form there, what's more, warrants the individuality of its name. As is again visible now in post-modern souvenir, the mixture of red brick with stone details, and, more still, the open arcades lining its terraces, were continental influences that were to be dropped from what would soon come to be known as the 'square': an open space surrounded by terraced housing as focus for a unified urban development. Inigo Jones visited the Place Royale before designing Covent Garden. Having been an influence on the form, that it was later to borrow back for a name suggested that, when analysing even such a specific entity as our local London square, peering into the behaviours it produces, as is my plan, considerations of its wandering - indeed rambling - abroad will always be à propos.

'Square' in French, according to fr.Wikipedia, is a legal term, brought into use under Haussman, describing only the central open space, not what we would think of as the entire area - their place -, and thus not the address itself, either, hence the ability of the Place des Vosges to be simultaneously also the Square Louis XIII. Furthermore, being legal, the term is less descriptive of the form than ours, as noted of Menilmontant, and defines more the sort of activities allowed and required inside. This I take to confirm my suspicions about the secret relation of the English form to behaviour.

From my research in Hanover Square, I had at first been unable to determine whether these relations were a result of the shape of the square or that of the photographic frame. It seemed possible that the forms that appear result from the coincidence of the two.

In our Foyles Café discussions, the Landless Landlord informed me that Phoebe White's seminal Photography and the Obelisk contains a chapter suggesting that this works on the same principle as - is a form of - photography. The cloister, he suggested, was shown there to function as a camera obscura, cutting out the random noise of terrestrial life to retain only the focused spiritual forces coming directly from the sky. These would then be recorded in the form of the inner state of the monk, spiritual texts such as meditations, or pictorially as illuminations. The same might surely be said of the gymnasium of the ancients, antecedent of both the cloister and the square, the postures of the athletes, the peripatetic philosophies themselves direct representations of a higher cosmic order.

According to the Windlowless Consultant, Marks and Umbridge's Secret History of Photography, which she'd come upon several months earlier, had better claim to seminal status, and contained what she suggested was a more scientifically grounded hypothesis. She herself had proved on British Land Land before his encounter with his book that it was the influence of Daguerre's ramas that first unleashed the photographic potential of planned space.

I'm not convinced arguments about origins are helpful, or that the theories are incompatible. I do, however, suspect that at least one of the books may well have contained a chapter on the town square, arguing that it performs an equivalent function to the gymnasium or cloister. Passers by entering the camera obscura centre would, while obviously maintaining their usual identities, in some way become simultaneously units in a larger representation in exactly the same way that the individual silver crystals, dyes or phototransistors positioned at the back of the camera box maintain their identity as the substances they are, and yet also have a role in representing objects and events from beyond the shutter.

This was the hypothesis I sought to confirm as I stood in the Square St Jacques at the end of the day.

After the Square Louis XIII, my first destination had been Caillois' XV Arrondissement. There, as with the other locations, I was unable to decide with certainty whether any sense of recognition I might have stemmed from having truly been to the place before and read the texts that the King's Cross man, who might on the basis of his activities both on and off duty be called the Legless Lecturer, claimed I had. It was possible the man had implanted in me a false sense of recognition by the powers of suggestion alone. Indeed, as I photographed the oversized air vents the otherworldly beings were said to emerge from or the unnaturally thin buildings they inhabited, and thought back to the man's blurred features and manic grin, I wondered not only whether he himself might be one of the creatures, but also whether he might have been seeking to imply that I too, would be one, trying to entice me to the habitation I would, seeing it, recognise as my own, attempting to rewrite some kind of new past for me.

It was not without trepidation that I made my way to my next destination, the rails behind Montparnasse, also marked on the map as figuring in the work of another writer, whom I've been unable to track down. If I ever were to become sure about my recognition, and yet if this recognition were unfounded, would that not perhaps confirm my status as one of those creatures that it's the object of this blog not to represent but to record?

At Square St Jacques my purpose had not been to follow up annotations on the map - there were none for that location - but to pursue the work on squares. Directing my lens towards the centre, though, I immediately recognised the tower as the subject of innumerable other photographs, including, most notably for me, one in a book I was sure I'd once read. If there were such a work, that would strongly imply that I was in fact able to distinguish true recognition independently of the Legless Lecturer from that vague sense arising from his suggestion. That text, to my relief, I've found. The fact that I do recall enthusiastically reading Breton's L'Amour fou all those years ago when I'd lived in Paris proves beyond doubt that the Legless Lecturer was some sort of impostor. In fact, I seem to remember that early on in our conversation we'd swapped cards. It's in many ways to emerge from a nightmare to realise that if, instead of that I use for my archaeological practice, I'd accidentally given him that of the blog, he could, say with an iPhone in a visit to the toilets, have gleaned from a few posts there much of that information about my past by which he'd convinced me that we'd known each other all those years before.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Of Pimlico Now Let us Sing by the Landless Landlord

'Of Pimlyco now let us sing,

Rich Pimlyco, the new-found spring,

Bewitching Pimlyco that tyes

The rich and poor, the foole and wise,

All in one knot. Of that we write;

Inspire your poet to indite,

You Barlie Muses Pimlyconian.

He scornes the Muses Helyconian;

(Poore soules) they none but water drincke,

But Pimlyco dropt into his ink,

His lines shall flye with merry gale,

No muse is like to Pimlyco Ale.'

Thus John Skelton.

If there's disappearance, there's also persistence, resurgence, re-appearance, emergence. Whichever of these it is, the case of Pimlico, particularly strange, is not uncommon. If pubs go under and signs come down, some must stay, others replace them.

I first became interested in Pimlico by way of publicity on a pub wall in Seven Dials recording a discontinued line. Naturally my original assumption was that the area gave its name to the beer, but that isn't in fact the case. The name Pimlico, centuries before it moved snugly into its present West London home, referred to a place in Hoxton. On Early English Books Online, the first references tend to be to an 'ale house', a place of questionable reputation, and best summed up by John Skelton's Pimlyco, or Runne Red-Cap, Tis a Mad World at Hogsdon, written some time before his death in 1529 and quoted in part above.

It opens with the poet wandering around the spring fields on London's then outskirts, admiring the love-makers who meet there for the flowers and rural solitude. As he approaches the city, seeing increasing crowds converging on a little spot in Hoxton, he follows to see what they're after. Pimlyco, man, they tell him, reeling and falling laughing, Pimlyco. Perhaps this is the name of a new play, he thinks at first, the area already associated with drama, but is eventually put straight, and, munching on a local cake, joins them in enjoyment of a pint of what it is they're all enjoying - Pimlyco, it transpires, being a brown ale of exceptional strength.

This then, and despite the later move west, was a phenomenon like that at the Angel - the pub, itself gone, leaves a whole area bearing its name, its mark, shadow, ghost; an area become pub sign, and so material for a post.

Opening an A-Z I was quickly gratified to see there was still a Pimlico Walk in Hoxton, and made my way there.

I was soon confused to realise that it clearly wasn't a continuing presence of the place name, but only a reference, invented, I had to assume, by councillors trying to salvage a sense of continuity from slum clearance/bomb rebuild. Further place names around the local development confirmed this: Macbeth, Oberon and Caliban House all clearly part of a recent street plan, referred back to the time of the original Pimlico moniker, when the place had gained those same associations with the stage Skelton already refers to. Even the Macbeth boozer opposite, I reasoned, must be a nod to this same business.

But if antiquarianism's not the object of these posts, nor could a way in be the present Pimlico Walk, its spawn. Clearly a councillor not too long ago had done the same research I just had, uncovering the theatrical past of the area and the beer, and naming the little passage accordingly. To have come here in this earlier antiquarian's footsteps was to have sent myself in circles, following exactly in my own, believing them another's. The present name was a fictional re-invention of the past, and to make it the object of research was to have entered into that fiction.

Around 3.00pm, it was too late to go wandering around the market looking for a way back in, the stallholders already shutting up, taking with them what may have amounted to subjects for a more concrete post, leaving only the streets, litter, the stalls bare.

Of course I snapped any intriguing pub signs I passed, for the record: the Howl at the Moon, for instance, for its wild feel, the Bacchus for the priapic propagation of the patronym, the Macbeth, opposite Pimlico Walk, remarkable in its cartoon excess, but not with any hope, I admit, of uncovering signs of significance. All this was part of Hoxton, Pimlico was not. And yet it was from Pimlico, pure invention, wandering around the market, I was unable to leave; it was Pimlico, imaginary presence of a distant past, I continued to photograph.

As I reached back to the southern end of Hoxton Street in the evening dark, Old Street was already busy with the night crowd. I followed various flows, up to the station a source, back around, towards the Walk again, following a steady stream of pleasure seekers now, to the Macbeth, where the lights now coming into their own made clear what the excesses of its sign should earlier have suggested to me: this was a pub for the night crowds, not a market pub at all, and I decided to investigate the interior.

On a stage at the end of the bar Girls Names warmed up, watched over by a sound engineer, two men who turned out to be producers for a small local label, and myself, testing the Guinness. A man sat on a bench reading; conversations were quiet, punctuated by the occasional clack and thud of pool balls.

On the wall behind the red baize table an elaborate tiled mural caught my attention. Before his happily carousing guests, Macbeth extends a trembling hand to a ghost only he can see. I studied what was an impressive work in detail, somewhere between a visualisation of what might be a stage production and a direct realisation of the story behind it. Whether this is a genuine visitation or a hallucinatory externalisation of guilt is left undecided. The laughter of the other guests may suggest they attribute their host's vision to inebriation alone, or perhaps simply that they themselves are too drunk to notice anything unusual's going on.

The landlord, whose name I recall as Mark, confirmed that the mural was original - listed, in fact. Though the evening's unfolding events were to blur details, the general subject of our conversation was the picture itself and its place in local history. As the mural confirmed, the name of the pub long predated any council invention of Pimlico Walk. The area's associations with performance were of course not the preserve of the local authority. Others had clearly been drawing on the past to support other, independent agendas.

In the nineteenth century, pubs, especially in a working-class area like Hoxton, were frequently criticised as corrupters of morals. Perhaps the reference to the entertainment associated with the early days of the area, when no less than the Bard himself may have been out here on the piss, was a defence - unassailable in our opinion - of an activity at the heart of the nation's heritage. As an inscription on the front of the building proclaims, gin had originally been distilled here. Perhaps the hallucinatory content of the tiles was a wink, in fact, to the wild deliria of that drink, whose effects on the lower orders were even more concerning to the middle classes than those of ale.

'Last great poet of Catholic England', as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has it, Skelton led what seems a colourful life as tutor to Henry VIII, libertine, satirist, carouser, jester, learned social critic, thorn in tender sides. In Pimlyco, he tears through what reads like an unruly array of poetic styles from classical to doggerel, nonsense, satire and song, apparently, within the situation of the story it tells, under the effect of the generally chaotic joy of carousing.

Meeting the landlady, he learns her secret: the ale, it seems, is brewed under roosters, whose deposits give it that edge over its rivals that excites the insatiable appetite of the crowds. This special quality, he understands, bursting into hallucinatory song, crowned laureate by a hop-spun aureole of confusion, makes of the ale also his muse.

In the pub as a whole, the atmosphere, already pleasant from the outset, appeared to grow ever warmer as the evening wore on, the staff and punters, the sound man, producers bands and fans all equally determined to enjoy themselves. Stella, as I recall the name of Mark's step-daughter, runs not only the upstairs taps but also the Macbeth pub blog. She was contemplating posting about a pub ghost which, she'd heard, may haunt the building. We discussed whether the stories were credible and agreed it was not the point; the fact was they were real - one of the barmen downstairs, for instance, able to raise hairs with them - and as such they deserved inclusion.

Emerging with the last drinkers, I already realised the story of Pimlico was unfinished, will need at least one further post - expect an investigation of the West London area soon. Perhaps the western Pimlico, too, will turn out to be invention. The investigation of how exactly the signs work, the forces that decide which name will spread from a pub to the surrounding area, or leap across the city from East to West, which will disappear and which re-emerge, can only occur piecemeal, but, reality or fiction, both Pimlicos, each on their side of the city, would at least have their post.