Sunday, May 23, 2010

Serpentine stories by The Landless Landlord

It's possible to see things that aren't there, of course, sometimes unavoidable; as an ability advantageous, it's biologically necessary, presumably, to survival - of the species no less than of the individual; of this blog.

Following the first Westbourne post, the New West End, my co-bloggers both felt that I was onto something that needed further research. It was one of our regular Foyles meets. They were working their posts, they assured each other, but needed a breakthrough of some sort, something to keep them in touch with the purpose of the project. I seemed to be it. If the aim of this blog's an archaeology of the present, the Archaeologist thought, finding those lives, customs, practices and beliefs of the city that remain concealed even from its own eyes, my dowsing, he believed, into the life of unseen rivers must be at least one way forward. But if seeing one thing in another, the Windowless added, might prove to be even nearer the heart of the project, as she claimed to in her Situation Is Movement post - seeing beyond another - to get to the heart of what an area is, how it changes, what it might become, then the work on the Westbourne must be considered with still more rigour.

If perhaps it was where their two takes on the project met, I might be able to feed them both with a lead.

This seemed a lot to lay on my shoulders, and perhaps they could help. They looked at each other then, as though to see who should speak first, determining on the Windowless. The park, was the Windowless' suggestion at least for a beginning, the Westbourne having, she pointed out, wound its way through there and into its form. Beyond that - on what to look for, where to find it and how - they clammed up. Same as always, was all. Above all, the Windowless suggested, handing me the camera she was lending me till I can afford such a model of my own, not too much plan. If there was one thing we could all be said to be learning, it was that.

I already recalled that the Westbourne does indeed make its presence felt most clearly visibly in the park, where Queen Caroline had it dammed and diverted into the Serpentine, and, within a few hours of our café meeting, I was to be lying back contentedly, clutching, in the camera and its chip, record, I believed, of some significance.

It will already have been noticed that I enjoy refreshments, particularly liquid, so it was not long before I found myself in the Serpentine, let's say Café, in search of, say, a coffee. To find the place as changed as it was in design was surprise enough, with not only wooden tables and chairs, but also sofas, standard lamps with old-fashioned shades, like in a home, flowers in old milk bottles, books dotted about on shelves, browny paint shades instead of white. To see that they've installed what can only be called a bar there, furnished, what's more, with taps, was sufficiently surprising to mean completely rethinking my plan for the day, and not just the idea of ordering coffee. Surely all this meant the Serpentine Café should more properly be called the Serpentine Pub. That being the case, surely my search was over: this was my first boozer named after a section of the Westbourne River - I'd arrived. A couple of shots of the café, even without a sign, would surely be what I'd been sent for: images for a post.

It was these I clutched in the camera as I bobbed, rays from the evening sun playing on my eyelids, drifting over the lake, dozing off the fuggy excitement and content of a day's good work and a very reasonable Cornish Doom Bar in day dream - vivid, absorbing even to the point at times of being physically disturbing in the strength of its sort of currents of pleasurable energies, day dream.

It was only late that evening, at home, transferring them onto the computer, I realised just what I'd caught with the images.

Lying back bobbing in the pedal boat, I'd had this sense of rushing along on a current mixing the blood I saw from the sun through the eyelids and the river, its movements exaggerated through the effects of a narrow pass, white waters over rocks and out again to calm, opening my eyes to find myself in a kind of present coextensive with, but behind or beyond the apparent present park after or before it in a much wilder state. The idea that I'd somehow managed to capture something of this shouldn't perhaps have surprised me.

The camera essentially reproduces the human visual apparatus - with the digital sensor, even down to the colour division and reconstitution of the cones with a sensitivity in many features surpassing the eye's. Anything that can be seen, then, can be photographed, and to spare. What's perhaps under-acknowledged is that even those absent things that the eye sees are amenable to photographic representation. So it was that I found the mountains, lakes, fields, animals, even, captured in the camera card were those, not only that I'd consciously perceived as external, but also of my closed-eyed reverie in the pedalo.

Thoughts like that, it has to be said, are easier to entertain late in the night of the day's excitement than after a sleep, and, by the time of our next Foyle's meeting I was considering alternative explanations. If the Serpentine fed the Wesbourne on its way to the Thames, couldn't the rushing I'd felt with my closed eyes have been the pedal skiff born quite literally into some new landscape, perhaps underground, accessed by a rarely taken twist in the culverts so carefully explored elsewhere, represented there on the memory card, before being born, perhaps by incoming Thames tides, back up to the Serpentine before opening my eyes? If this was too much to stomach, it could nevertheless have been more an influence thing, the fact of the possibility of that sort of thing happening meaning I'd been able to see around me in the park and so photograph things in a way not usually possible, from revealing angles, perhaps, or with original framing or the way the light fell making them recognisable in different ways. The relation of rivers to occult forces is well known, and of the Westbourne in particular recorded. Perhaps it was that.

The melancholy weariness my co-bloggers greeted these ideas with was at first deflating. The Windowless, they explained, had been to the Lake district over Easter, and had forgotten to clean out her card before lending me the camera - the pictures were hers, from around Windermere. If that was my idea for a post, perhaps they'd put their trust in the wrong place. Besides, the Archaeologist explained, hadn't I realised, the Westbourne had long been too dry to feed the Serpentine, the lakes having had their natural supply replaced by water pumped from the Thames. Only ever decorative in the first place, the feature was by now artificial in the sense of being a mock-up not only of nature, but even of itself.

I had, I had to admit, been lazy, distracted, perhaps, by the Doom Bar, but somehow, as I listened, I only found myself more convinced of the significance of the project, and the place of the scenes in the park. I'd have to return for more photographs to prove it to them. There'd been other signs I'd been perhaps too complacent to record that supported something about this idea of the Archaeologist's that the Serpentine, and not only that, but the park itself was a stand-in, a landscaped image of the place it pretended to be. In my day dream, if I'd seen it, although I personally hadn't photographed it, I was sure if I returned I could. The photographs that the Windowless Consultant took on her holiday in Windermere were nothing less than the representations of the visions I'd had on the Serpentine of the life beyond the park within. All I'd need would be shots of the transition points, the park's borders, its car showrooms, hotels and estate agencies, above all, the bus stops, roads and cafés of its outskirts to make of the Serpentine, the sign of a river it isn't, the sign of a pub it could be.

Monday, May 3, 2010

The Search for Water and the Real West End by the Landless Landlord

I was at West Hampstead, walking, trying to see. Where is the river Westbourne here, now? What does it look like, how does it sound? These are by no means idle questions to pose of the submerged urban waterway.

It's too easy to say of these things they've gone to ground, the concern now of the authorities only - the sewage authorities, drainage, rats, antiquarians and illegal moles, when the thought that stops you looking might be the result of not seeing, hearing, looking.

Often these things live on in the pub, at least in name, and it was in search of this I was there. The sign of such a pub would surely be a sign for this blog, last trace of a lost river, affirmation of the social role of the pub, recorder of our collective history, overlooked museum of the street.

The course of the river itself's well mapped, with a series of posts of the first water dedicated to it by a blogger to follow. The very first sentence is quotable: 'Three of London's lost rivers, and arguably the most important, begin in Hampstead.' Because that's a subject worth the argument, the animation rising all the way to kicking out time and, in good company, beyond. Those posts, in fact, were my first recourse in planning the trip, the course of the walk in search of pub signs plotted from that account, inspiration to keep a watch on green patches and water fountains, falls and rises in the road for signs at surface.

The area I chose to search was a triangle, I came to appreaciate as the day wore on, with one side straight - Shoot Up Hill to Kilburn High - and two distorted, rippling - Mill Lane gently, West End frantic, winding. The choice was governed by three criteria, one for each. West End was the source of the Westbourne; Kilburn, of course, as 'burn' suggests, was the name of the river; Mill Lane, I reasoned, could be interpreted as a reference to a wheel turned by the current. Any sign of a Mill Tavern, a West End Inn, a Kilburn, then, duly photographed, would function as banners; posted on the blog, instruments of resurgence.

I touched down at West Hampstead, one of these tube stations on a line that, sharing space in deep sidings with rail, feels always disproportionate, all this space down there, below the level of the houses, so wide with rails, the terraces rising great cliffs above.

The street level's defined by rails and the stations they bring, and not only because it was them that brought the dense building to the area, either. The character of the centre, the heart of this street, the sort of intimacy allowing estate agents to tag it 'village', is defined in large part by the intimate size of the shops and the rolling rise and fall arising from the fact it's no more than a viaduct, unassuming Rialto.

I snapped the sign of the Railway Tavern for the record, but in no pub on the street found reference to the river, all the way to the green at the top, where I turned onto Mill Lane.

It was, I began to realise as I made my way down this street, perhaps a bit naïve to have thought I could just go off in search of a pub name associated. There were several places that looked like they might once have been pubs, now converted, and any of these might have born the name, but I should have known things would have changed. Many of the shops there were empty, others just opened. Antiques shops, fancy furniture and framing, the older down at heal, the newer in upmarket taste - everything spoke of resurgence, gentrification, basically change, submergence.

By the time I hit Kilburn I'd realised the original project had little hope of success, I think. If the place lacked a Mill why a Kilburn, an area on the surface less aspirational, for many harder to love?

London as a whole, splayed flat on a map, can be considered in shape a spider's web, traversed by myriad infill, but pulled out and pinned down by the ribbons, stretching straight and endlessly out into the countryside from the centres where they converge. These long, straight arterials, however different, always share qualities amongst themselves. Kilburn High, Kingsland, Old Kent, Kennington Park, even in more hidden ways Kensington High or the King's Road share qualities their distance from each other conceals even and above all from their users. Often as not, as at Kilburn, old Roman, they're where the web catches its prey, those drawn to the city not for prosperity, but by need.

By now, then, I knew at least to stop looking for what I'd come for. Signs of the river would come in characters, perhaps, unamenable to the board. I combed the betting shops, phone unblocking services, cinemas converted to save souls. Here red brick predominated massively, tall terraces set off with plaster in stripes, key stones, moulded heads, Dutch gables grinning down, occasionally breaking out into gaudy pub front. With this railway ribbon I was in the realms of Kingsland Road and Old Kent, so far from Mill Lane it was impossible I'd just turned off it.

Here was that feeling again of being lost, rising like a mist and clearing, sure sign of a new coast approached. A key perhaps to the ribbon line's the number of name changes. The whole only in the imagination, grasped only in pieces: Vauxhall Bridge Road, Grosvenor Place, Park Lane, Edgware Road, Maida Vale. The change to Kilburn High from Shoot Up had occurred under the railway bridges, where they part, blue, the colour of the sky above, certainly, but below also of water, the concourse submerged in darkness, with the frequent muffled clatter and rumbling overhead thoughts of pebbles shifted by the currents racing downhill into town, up and out.

The journey should have ended back down at the bottom of Kilburn High where it meets Maida Vale, with a pint at the Old Bell. The name of the pub echoed the original Bell, in whose grounds the Kilburn Springs had first been discovered, giving the area its first great draw before the trains, rivalling Sadler's Wells, the pub open from breakfast on, the Encyclopaedia of London informs us, a milky, bitter carbonated purgative sold fresh from the ground alongside the more usual brews. The original Bell had long been destroyed, and it was certainly strange that the Old Bell should commemorate it, rather than the other way round. The anomaly found its way skewed further onto the sign in the form of a painting of a cracked painting of a bell, rather than, for instance, of a cracked bell. This, certainly was a sign, and one indirectly of water, but it confirmed more that things shouldn't be expected to be where I thought they were, than that the search had come to its end.

Ever since the bridge the houses now in the sun gleamed still, wet with a water I'd never otherwise have seen than having come looking for something else, for one thing, but also along the arms of this triangle with the other roads. Back at the lowest corner, I realised I had to head at least one more time back round, this time looking not for the words, not even the boards, but what it was about this confluence that had the atmosphere of water.

There's some controversy over the naming of the West Hampstead stations, a fast growing facebook petition pointing out the name's a fiction, the area myth. Certainly locals complain of the number of tourists emerging lost and blinking from the station in search of Hampstead Heath. As for the West End, although it may have been the first so named, as west of Hampstead, once swallowed by the city, its claim to anything but confusion's long gone, handed over to the theatres, clubs, intensive shopping, general chaos, or whatever you want to be named that way, far off down the hill.

And yet there's still a foothills feel to it, of the more well-to-do cousin, the further up you go towards it, the more independent cafes there are, serving Frenchified or Italianate meals, or even indeed, as you begin to wind also towards Golder's Green, potato latkes, chopped liver.

Turning left onto Mill Lane, this sense remains for some while, the last time named explicitly in the framing shop Thou Art in Hampstead. Though arguably by that point an expression more of will than of fact, supported by the gentrification it's there to serve, this is a will with a way.

It's in the nature of the web form, as in a net, that you can almost arbitrarily cut smaller webs from it and catch something. Here formed by this triangle, it was the net itself that would be the sign, I realised - not the sign already up of the pub that would be called after the water, but one waiting, which, drawn perhaps to the right angle or into good light, occasionally caught traces of a water always there. That would be a kind of submerged or dispersed, diffracted pub sign that would have the virtue of lasting as long as there was anyone there to look hard enough for it.