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.

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