Thursday, June 17, 2010

Vauxhall Pleasures and the Shadow of SIS by the Windowless Consultant

It sometimes seems our first posts should be a long way behind us, as though we ought to be clearer about content now, as though progress could be the purpose, should be met.

At Vauxhall I thought I'd find it, had - the New Spring Gardens, soon to be Pleasure again.

It was the Archaeologist suggested we pool work, readers may recall, convinced we shared a plan. Sometimes I'm sure he's right, others I don't know. He seems to believe in beings or, vaguer perhaps, types of being of whose existence only he has hints, the Landless in signs no one but he can see, and I, this atmosphere which I can only ever call the world becoming props or props the world, the window opening out or the world rushing in, but where this description fails to do justice to the fact things stay the same, disaster without trace, ruin without change, events, but with no consequence.

This seems to have been the case - to have occurred - at Vauxhall.

I'd been in Pimlico, Tate Britain, after inspiration from the Turners, for window work I was doing in yellows, had time off after the job for a stroll, crossed for the opportunity to take in sights, and, as one of them, was attempting to photograph the headquarters of the Secret Intelligence Services.

The great paradox of the SIS headquarters is of course, notoriously, its po-faced stridency, the crazed ziggurat form at once dominating the area, visible from all over and, indeed, from across the river, in Pimlico itself, and yet, windows sealed and shaded blind, entrances gated, walled all round, its impassive mood is of such absence the life in its shadow has got completely used to going on around it in straight-faced pretence it's not there.

As I levelled the camera towards it, or, more accurately, at the staircase to an overpass in front of it, a passer by in a tailored suit asked me, extremely politely, if he could ask me politely what I was photographing. Figuring this for a be-suited spook I smiled, hiding my nerves, equally politely, chuckled, and mumbled something about oh, the stairs, angles, trying to catch something, nothing, pedestrians, you know, why? Suddenly it was his turn to look nervous, frightened, even, and clam up, perhaps a mark had been overstepped, perhaps it was me that was the spook, on a mission, oh nothing, just wondering, interesting, walked off, nothing there.

And there was indeed nothing there, at Vauxhall, that must be photographed, around this so attentively ignored building, which to aim a camera at to shoot was both dubious and, no, no, quite normal, this photogenic landmark which, as it wasn't there couldn't be photographed. Because this absence which the man and I had been alluding to by avoidance by no means owed itself to the presence of the Services alone. In fact, it might just as well be said that both the presence and the absence of the Services at Vauxhall arose from facts about the place itself, and, although it took the man's question to make me realise it, perhaps, these were the facts I was trying to pin by aiming at the building whose absence was perhaps anyway best explained, after all, by its being only their reflection.

Because if the SIS headquarters reflected this absence in photographic form, surely also, for instance, did the bus shelter, which shares something of the building across from it, and, as it can have no relation to function, can only arise from place. One of Vauxhall's most notorious landmarks, its fame, once lying in its design ingenuity in turning a monstrous traffic hub into an impressive location by means both light and strident, more recently attaches to its being the object of one of the earliest and most intriguing applications of the terror panic, an Austrian tourist having been forced to delete his shots of it by local policemen suggesting he might be plotting to destroy it by photographic means. As embodied in these facing locations, the atmosphere of Vauxhall, then, is to be found in this flirtation with presence and absence, or - a refinement of wording you find on wandering elsewhere - and distance.

The basic facts of Vauxhall's local history, as almost anywhere in the city, are so frequently repeated on the net and in the literature the source in some original becomes doubtful, unnecessary, the place it names an embarrassment, without measure, by turns a disappointment and de trop. These facts I myself was more familiar with as I explored than I was with the area they were supposed to relate to, a place I hadn't been to for some years, and perhaps the first hints of the event occurring were dropped by this sense of unmeasure, of having walked out of the description into the place described, on the one hand, and, on the other, though, having been unable to do so, of visiting not the place but the description, or at least, something that kept referring me back to it, its antichamber, redundant, as I say, except as a way to that description, dependent on it, all paths there, in whichever way they led, leading back to it, everything a sign to a description of Vauxhall, nothing you could determine on as the place.

And yet, perhaps that disparity is an important part of what Vauxhall itself is, I reflected, perhaps even the very name encapsulates this in its mixture of anonymity and notoriety, each concealed behind the other.

The origin of 'Vauxhall' comes from the Fawkes family's having halled there, stored the explosives, even, of the notorious plot. At that time, Vauxhall already had something of the paradoxical atmosphere it has now - perhaps it was this that drew them into their bold attempt but also lulled them into incautiousness, living as they did in London's most least central area - of being so far away you could safely hide barrels of gunpowder in what seemed relative security, and yet of being only a few dozen oar strokes from the seat of the government. Even after centuries of building, this quality of distance in proximity has never left the place, and, still, nowhere else in London is it so acutely reproduced. Within yawning distance of the Houses of Parliament, one corner of the Spring Gardens rich with the smell of a City Farm, another plotted into allotments, it is here that the IRA came to launch their rocket at the SIS building, here the coachies unwind, sunbathing or watching the strippers after dumping the tourists in Westminster and parking round the gardens, that staff from the little Portugal that is the Madeira café/dehli stretch, London home from home of the expat Pastilla, come to lie down, stretch out, snooze. All these things, as I tried to get a handle on the atmosphere, certainly must have contributed to my sense of being absent both from the name in the place, and from the place in the name, but while at the same time escaping from neither into either. And, perhaps strangest of all, however specific to Vauxhall was the feeling, it was the feeling I've described as having had elsewhere, the feeling I've described in all my posts.

This, then, was the sense, aiming at the staircase up and over the road, I was levelling my camera at to record when the suspicious conversation occurred.

The political senses of 'plot', before their re-alignment, referred primarily either to the area of cultivated land or the mapping of a nautical course. It was the Fawkes who brought us the modern, political sense, and, indirectly thereby, the fictional, thanks to the playwrights of the time, the Beaumonts and Jonsons, who, obviously enjoying the political connotations, the incendiary hiding within the innocent, introduced its uses for the course of imaginary action, drama itself at the time still a dangerous enough practice to lend the analogy reality, the production of a play potential challenge to Parliament and Crown.

But what pinned the place most famously to the map, of course, is the Pleasure or Spring Gardens that were, their bringing together of social highs and lows, admirably represented now at the Museum of London listening to the finest music, admiring innovative artworks, getting drunk, and, the thorn in this Elysian being that money here changed hands, coming to rub more than only shoulders.

So much for the landward side. The travails and travels of the sounds, too, are well rehearsed, from Falks to Fawkes, Fawkes Hall through Folk's via Fox to Vaux, or, further afield, how, corrupt but preserved in Vakzal, it somehow came to form the Russian for train station, some contemporary visitors' mind merging the excitement, splendour, notoriety of the entertainment with the density of the transport hub.

All these things I felt I heard there, still, and saw, wandering the park and environs, more or less entangled or clear. The trains rumbling by, the cars timed to lights, perhaps even the high-performance bikes tested in the park had, it appears, in fact all been looped into a musical composition, staking a claim back on the place from the anonymous forces of business interests and local authority apathy, with historical references and present activity weaving back and forth in search of resonances, habitable consistencies, emplotted plots, by Vauxhall Pleasure. Whatever the place is or will be, it will be via what it has been, and, of course, in all it has been, greater than any other moment, greater, doubtless, than anything it will be ever again, the Pleasure or Spring Gardens.

And yet, the most perfunctory net trawl will also tell you the Spring Gardens have long since been destroyed, built over. That the houses that replaced them have themselves now been replaced by these new gardens bearing in reference the old name can no more make us think them back than a trip to the exhibit of the Museum of London. And yet, it is there that they were that they are. When we look at the ground, there it was, still named that way again. There was little sense trying to think of the place independently of the name. Developments in the name - Fawkes, Folks, Vakz - anyway paralleled those on the ground, the sounds shifts in the earth. What the name names it takes with it as it changes, and the changes take the name.

And this, doubtless, was the logic that, finger on the shutter, I glimpsed in front of the SIS, the point I've come to see as the disaster, the place changing the same. Whether I caught it or not, I can't say, this sense that what you wander around is not the place, but its image, the place itself an image of something before it's a place, that you sense, experience, even, but conceal, bury as you do, but can still wander there even as you bury it, uncovering it.

The point for me for the site is that of trying to get under, behind the name, to some sort of place independent of the name that would be the meeting of the three blogs - where the Archaeologist's other beings are, Landlord's signs are, perhaps, where my props and the things meet, the ruin. But whether this was the window I hoped to be looking through with the camera, glimpse of what's out there, then, clearly I finally have to doubt.