Monday, January 17, 2011

Walworth II: Two Hearts in Example by the London Archaeologist.

Hats to the left, hair in the middle, ears on the right, all at the front, looking onto the street, Moss Side boy, Craig the Indian at his window. When he first came down here, he sold the CDs on the pavement, dodging the council workers, whose job it is, we know, to disrupt those who can be. But the man’s a growing web of connections, and before long the barbers’, catching hold of the flitting presence, suggested he move into their shop, a little stall constructed for the purpose, and there he’s to be seen most evenings, someone ducking down for a chat, a purchase, the hand reaching out into the street for an exchange.

I was there on the way back from more southerly exploration of the area, my attention caught by this set up with the stores, the conversation begun with my asking about a shot of the fronts, since he’d of necessity be in it, the opening of the window, though small, enough to find him part of the street.

In fact, he appears to spend as much time out the front as inside, out chatting to acquaintances, passers by, me – noticing, for instance, before I did, that the lads in the entrance to the block next door didn’t necessarily like the look of this, perhaps a copper, trying to catch shots of them up to something, or at least someone after trouble, which if I wasn’t careful I’d find, but it’s alright boys, he explains, the photographer’s with me, and, as for so many others on this stretch of Walworth Road, it’s true, I am.

Indeed, so much is he out, at the moment, I never seem to find him in, and for a portrait, which I hope he’ll agree to when I eventually track him down, you’ll have to wait till a future posting.

What’s it for, he wants to know, and, learning of the blog, before I go passes me a DVD, just in case, you never know where it might lead. A bunch of skateboarders have made it, passed it to him to see if he couldn’t pass it on to someone who might be interested, perhaps connected, they’ve been doing their thing, looking for an outlet, perhaps I might know someone, or someone who knows someone. The man points out that the photographs I’m taking are not to be described as an amateur affair: underground is the correct word, and immediately the camera holds weightier, sprouts wheels, grows claws.

It was clear from the first a single post would never be enough for Walworth, and don’t think this the last, either. Bermondsey, New Cross, Lewisham, even, Blackheath, Camberwell, Peckham, Vauxhall, Lambeth or Brixton, no less far than Walworth from the northern power centres, are all of them surely in one way or another better known. Of course, a glance at the map will answer for much; if the tendency is to call Walworth at its North the Elephant, hand its East over to Bermondsey, and divide between Peckham and Kennington the South and the West, that will be accounted for by the transport: a station - rail or tube - becoming the heart of a catchment, a maelstrom sucking or geezer spewing population, destination for one leg or outset for another, will tend everywhere to impose name.

The effect of the tube on our impression of the city is huge, hard to grasp, surface space no continuum but a network of interlocking ripples, densest in population around round the stations, thinning out between, and set off by occasional thundering, lights flickering, in the silent darkness below.

And then, anyone seeking to pin the area down with its architecture is confronted by a variety greater than many others better known. There are, there, some of the most attractive of the LCC style estates at their heyday, interrupted by the odd sudden Georgian square, even a church by no less than John Soane. Amongst these are warehouses, workshops or indeed a large park, frowned over by some of London’s largest tower blocks, loosely in the Brutalist style, and to be called equally accurately beautiful, indifferent, or shocking, terrifying, so sublime, in the sheer indifference to human need, flitted with glimpses of an early twentieth-century suburban vernacular looking lost to have found itself so far in, and traversed at its centre and borders with ribbon, again in the Georgian style.

So the visitor must never try to look for the heart of this area any more than of any other, but rather a system of hearts, some pumping objects, some stories, some traffic, and others, for instance, those atmospheres our awareness of which comes and goes.

For the objects, at one point or another it’s to Architectural Rescue they must come, things between owners, down on their luck, looking for a sense or purpose, where, protected from the stifling effects of their slavery to our interests, they’re allowed – encouraged, even, in a form of therapy that has lessons for us all, the mere couch crippling by comparison – mingling and meeting their peers, their predecessors, too, or objects to which they’re completely unrelated, of completely different class – like and unlike minded alike - to reinvent themselves, learn to live a little, imagine for their own and for our benefit a world driven by other needs than function, a world which, since it’s a refusal of meaning, the visitor may be shocked to understand.

Of this universe it’s the Powells to whom the smooth running is entrusted. Luke, cousin to the present owner, presides over the exchanges when I pass by, from an office shed that, so much is it in the spirit of things, threatens at all moments it, too, to join the class of objects removed from functionality. The business, he tells me, has been in the family since before the war. Although most of their stock, of course, of necessity is passing through, certain items, such as the kitten-size cherub I enquire about for some practice with artificial lighting, elect to stay, his uncle clearly as aware of his responsibilities in overseeing the mysterious relations of these objects among themselves as he is of the need to profit from them: like the shark, the locomotive engine, or indeed the mask of Elvis himself, Cupid’s not for sale.

If Architectural Rescue saves our objects, ensuring their healthy circulation, Craig’s trade’s connections themselves, his window where they come to be made, remade, and extended.

The video reveals skateboarding to be not only a sport for the bored, but a method, methodical, a means of experiencing the city, the boarder in fact a flaneur on fast forward, having swapped the absinth for controlled self-admistered adrenaline alone, speed the new slow, the wheels as much a pretext as Nerval’s lobster, of dipping out of the ordinary flow, inventing a new city where at last nothing is as it should be, where movement never leads to progress, must always be repetitive, obsessive, seeking a perfection that ends in itself alone, where bench backs are roads and roads go up walls, where wall tops are banisters, but to slide down the street, bins are bounce boards, bollards bridges, and bridges, little lines between life and death.

Networking, Craig explains with a smile to an older woman who looks admonishingly at him as I pass, someone he clearly knows, and it’s true, but not as many might know it – network being no term for business here, other than the business of life to form relations, which come here to refresh themselves, to extend, branch out, and reconnect.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

After a Portrait off the Lines of Desire, Regent Street in the Sales by the London Archaeologist

It had seemed simple. Go to Regent Street, set up a tripod down one side street after another, photographing the thick paste of pedestrians smudging across the field of vision at its end, occasionally pick out a fleeting face, perhaps with the help of flash.

These plans rarely come off.

I’d long meant to work the street into a post, as a famous first in town planning, beautiful, successful, frightening. Part of the beauty lay in the elegant ensemble linking the new Regent’s Park to the North down to St James’s in the South, with two cleverly handled corners, a kink and the famous curve making picturesque sense of obstructions on the way.

More significant, perhaps, was its other success, the street intended to separate the grime, crime and grind of Soho from the developing Mayfair, forming a barrier to movement, a firewall which, by discouraging the hoi polloi, has managed to this day to see to it that the newer area to the West would remain the most exclusive in London, pompously impressive and, however busy, always dogged by funereal pall.

Soon copied on an enormous scale in the Paris of Haussmann, this first step in a rationalised town planning process has now become only one weapon in a panoply, going under one of the science’s most evocative terms – because what I’d hoped to photograph at work was the phenomenon of the original planned-in ‘line of desire’. A phenomenon originating from informally formed paths across, for instance, grass, and perhaps extending to the internet, to routes between sites, a quick search revealing the term to have generated much traffic of its own, a site dedicated to their sightings perhaps a-plot, with the increasing planning demands of the growing metropoles, someone at some point had to learn to harness its forces for control, and that man was Nash.

If the city’s security forces can use this, clocking citizens as suspect for the simple fact of their having strayed from the more frequented thoroughfare, so surely could the blogger seeking to get a handle on the other forces at work in the city. Through this contrast in these shots, I’d be able to capture in the empty spaces some of what it is that eludes us, bringing us a step further, surely, to pinning down the subject of this blog.

But of course, arriving on site, almost nowhere could such a clear demarcation be found, and when it did seem to show itself, it lacked the expected significance. Clearly activity was much more dense on Regent than the surrounding streets, but the line was blurred, the differences indistinct and, unpredictable, not terribly telling, people forever wandering off down side streets, individually for a rest or to make a call or in couples or groups, to gather thoughts, cuddle, take stock, look at maps, even frequently in vast numbers, endless flows spilling off from the major lines into further others.

At some point, though, as I moved among these formless flows, nevertheless trying to make some sort of sense of it, it occurred to me that there might perhaps be another sort of contrast than that with the quiet side street. A sort of island in the constant movement would frequently occur, and this almost exclusively on the side streets, in the form of smokers, alone, grouped, standing, leaning against a wall, sitting on a step, squatting. Little friendships build up this way, one can see, among people who might usually find no bond between them other than these moments of chilly respite from the hectic activity of the offices or shops indoors, or the rush of pedestrians out-. This evocative sight, unintended consequence of the new smoking laws, was perhaps what would after all furnish something of the contrast I’d set out for, not in any way absolute, but, relative and vague, all the stronger for its instability.

Of course this sort of thinking’s photographic, and would come to nothing without shots. Such shots being almost of necessity portraits, I would have, of course, to approach, and, in the few minutes it would take their pretext to expire, elicit their complicity.

Talking to these people I experienced some of the rare moments when I regret having given up myself, all those years ago. Indeed, I was told by one that he had himself earlier given up, but the Regent Street job had got the better of this, these snatched opportunities too valuable now to forego.

I suspect that the profundity of the pleasure might be related, too, to my own failure to persuade more than a couple to agree to a shot. It’s not that anyone said as much, and the reasons given – because, without wanting to push, I would at least come away with a reason – were surprising for their variety. Some suggested they didn’t want their boss to chance on a posted shot of them, others that they kept their habit secret from absolutely everyone that knew, or felt they knew them. Certainly, when it comes to the big retailers, it proved a general rule that an employee will avoid recourse to a passage next to their own store, but always prefer one up, one down, or across.

Some held that they had something against photographs in general, others only those of themselves. One reason I appreciated, particularly, for its interest, was that she’d in fact given up, really, and a portrait would give her smoking the stamp, the appearance of a reality she’d rather avoid. There were those who were shy or anxious with strangers, and others who clearly didn’t want their colleagues there with them to see them taken for a ride, giving something, be it a mere image of one’s appearance, away to a stranger with nothing in return something of a mug’s game.

But mostly, though no one said it, or even seemed particularly to respond when I offered it as a reason, I suspect that, if the purpose of the moment was withdrawal, release from the hectic transactions of the busiest time of the year on one of the city’s most crowded streets, even in its very midst, to have the lens come rooting around in there on its own agenda would be desecration.

And so the substance of this post is given over to those who, on Regent Street, or mostly off, if only for a moment, cease to engage. The absence of almost all of these is a measure, of their success, certainly, but also perhaps of the blog, at least to have sought, approached what, if unrecordable, may well turn out to have been at the heart of the events considered a city.