Monday, April 5, 2010

More Pimlicos, Past, Present and to Come by the Landless Landlord

To All Trauellers, Skelton suggests in introduction to Pimlico, YOu that weare out your liues and weary your bodies, in Discouery of strange Countries, (bee it for pleasure or profite) Rig out a Fleet, and make a Voiage to an Iland which could neuer be found out by the Portugals, Spaniards, or Hollanders, but only (and that now of late) by Englishmen.

I don't know how much literal truth Skelton can have intended in his image at the time, but certainly he can't have known how true it would become.

It's not only the signs that shift, go down, come up, name suddenly different things. If also, as I'm discovering, not just the people, but also styles, habits, moods, buildings, the earth itself of the city move, sometimes independently and others in concert, and if the names for things sometimes accompany these movements, sometimes oppose them, or follow entirely independent courses, it may not be possible to attempt to establish long-term facts, but only to develop enough sensitivity to their movements to form tentative logs.

Too long I used to ignore these shifts and flows. This was excusable in a period when I barely had time to emerge from behind the taps beyond a trip down to the cellar to change a barrel, vent a cask, or upstairs to fall exhausted into bed, but it's no longer possible. Occasionally now, passing through some much visited area, I'll look up at a row of shops, an alignment of houses, a street layout, and, feeling I recognise it, be struck by a sense of disorientation. It's as though the moment I believe I'm in the same place for a second time I've succumbed to an illusion, must look more carefully, move on, perhaps return in another mood or from a different approach having learnt something new, disarmed myself of some assumption.

I already realise that if I don't return to Pimlico some time in the future that'll only be because it's somehow returned to me, and if I don't realise that, that'll be because it's under a different name, with new owners, its style has changed, atmosphere, appearance, ground.

I originally thought I'd say here all there was to say and be done, move on. The idea's absurd. Google it. Among the growing thousands, millions of references, for all the information that's shared, the facts, conjectures, opinions recycled, renewed, you'll find hardly two that agree on a single detail without another about which they differ. And if they do seem the same one day, come back another and something'll have changed, one of the sites will have unearthed something new, responded to some development.

And all this despite the fact that one of the things that creates a certain amount of agreement about Pimlico's that it seems to respond more slowly to changes than does the surrounding city. Phil Baker, in 'Secret City: Psychogeography and the End of London', refers to the special 'time zone' of Pimlico Road, and how the first Starbucks to have arrived infringes on it. The place of the cafe in gaging these things is well known, the fate of the classic logged elsewhere with as much concern as that of the pub sign here. That Pimlico was so late to get these chain cafs, supermarkets, and many of the other of the alterations taking such a grip on so much of the rest of the city isn't accident. Wikipedia describes the 'highly disciplined grid of residential streets' as an area 'separated from Belgravia to the north by Victoria Railway Station, and bounded by the River Thames to the south, Vauxhall Bridge Road to the east and the former Grosvenor Canal to the west'. Being cut off, then, by features both man made and natural is part of its essential nature, part of what the name names, and this can easily make it seem to inhabit a slower time.

That at least was my assumption on my last couple of fact finding visits, my aim to record the ways that was true, log the chains arising, record the effects, their slow pace. In fact, though time in the western Pimlico certainly passes differently, it would be a mistake to put the difference down to speed alone, not least given that it's inseperable from qualities in the space.

Besides, the place has always been rich in innovations.

Churchill Gardens to the South was the first development to contain a space of lower slabs within higher blocks, and the Thatchbrook estate to do such higgledy-piggledy dense. Enterring the district through either of these experiments still leaves the visitor with the strange sensation of having stormed a walled city. These feelings remain novel even now. The Thatchbrook's willful. You can't move two yards straight, are only allowed to traverse after a certain minimum of twists and turns, up and down steps, through dark passageways, across quiet squares, under balconies, round the thick trunks of age-old trees has convinced you that, if you do arrive on the other side, it will be to find yourself on a road winding down a slope in Umbria, Turkey, perhaps the Alps. To be once more confronted by a familiar terraced brick street only adds to the disorientation.

Pimlico was the only place of its scale in London to be developed with such careful uniformity of plan. The almost comically apt name of the developer at times seems to offer a key, Thomas Cubitt having let rip there as nowhere else. The vast stuccoed terraces of its core grip the visitor with such crystalline rigidity the repetitions become indistinguishable from illusion, and so illusion. Either such exact repetition is the result of a more limited series being multiplied in reflection, which is impossible to believe, or else every street, every house you see's real, individual, but that's impossible to see.

Another of the most frequently sited Pimliconian facts is that, in order to fill in what was originally uninhabitable marshland, Cubitt brought earth from East London's St Katherine's docks. Everybody seems to understand there's something essential about this, I reflected, staring at the tastefully coloured stucco, but nobody will say what it is.

I recalled how the name originally referred to Hoxton, the brew there. This itself, it seems, took its name from the person brewing it. How this brewer got the moniker's unclear, but certainly it came from North America's Pamlico river, the landlord having perhaps done a stint out there. To then move from Hoxton to the Westminster fringes, the most convincing account's that it followed the beer to a pub that served as a stop on the way to the pleasure gardens of Ranelagh. Given what we've seen in Skelton's account of Hoxton, it may be that the intoxicated mood supported the spread of the brew name out to its area, and a reference to the riverine location of the original Amerindian name was surely latent.

And that, I think, is the line of thought that brought me to the beginning of Skelton's song.

Pimlico, I decided, as Skelton suggested but, given he wrote a century before the name moved to the western district, can't have known, is indeed an island, and the fact the waters on two sides of the triangle have been covered over changes nothing except perhaps the conscious awareness of what defines it. To the East, Thatchbrook Street and the market follows above the course of the Tyburn, the sound of the river still audible in the name (a recording from an upstream manhole's available here, in fact). Bazalgette's pumping station towers signal above the canal that railway lines replaced to the West, and which the roads in still acknowledge with a hump.

For a brief period this appeared to explain everything, but the closure lasted only until I emerged back out at its edge. As it's come from America to East London to West, it would be absurd to presume that Pimlico's movement would stop there. A quick internet search, for instance, reveals it to have long wandered back over to name an apparently legendary Maryland racecourse. But without knowing anything about its next London home, it was impossible to guess what sort of atmosphere would hold there, what the next Pimlico will name. Whether this shifting about's true for all London place names, whether it offers insights into more general facts about the disappearance of the pubs, for instance, their replacement with the cafés, what's more, I can't say, since even to count on its being true the next time I visit, wherever it might be, would require unlearning everything it's taught me.