"Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford." — Samuel Johnson

Monday, 22 August 2011

Model Landscape

Following on from last week's post about the disappearing landscape of King's Cross, it's time to take a look and see what will be replacing it.  The reconstruction of the area, the largest central-London development for many years, will feature a mixture of office, retail, residential and public space as well as arts, cultural and community facilities, and will even have its own new postcode N1C.  The scheme is being co-ordinated by the King's Cross Central Partnership.

As a part-time resident of the area, over the past year I have been noticing with interest the proliferation of artist's impressions adorning the walls along the canal and around the site perimeter. Inspired by the existing industrial heritage, the unknown artists of these computer-generated visualisations show an aspirational world of bright, well-dressed, youthful people purposefully going about their business or obviously 'relaxing' in a clean and well-ordered landscape.

This vision seems to bear little relationship to the bleak industrial landscape which it is replacing but a high proportion of 'heritage' buildings are being retained and remodelled. However, the language with which the regeneration is described in the publicity material smacks of planning jargon and my heart sank when I read such deadening phrases as 'retail offerings', 'enhanced towpaths', 'food and drink cluster', 'dynamic retail or cultural opportunity', and 'animating the underside of all the bridges with art and lighting'. Contemporary urban planning is all about managing and guiding people to use a space in a particular way, usually with the goal of making them spend money - as evidenced in this particular little juicy nugget from the marketing blurb:
"At the centre of key pedestrian routes, the qualities of the heritage structures offer the possibility of engaging customers and passers-by in an innovative and inspiring retail experience." (1)
Get your heritage experience here! The consumer rules! This airbrushed version of the cityscape offers little to tempt the dedicated urban explorer or historical connoisseur - everything seems to be packaged to deliver a particular controlled and officially sanctioned use of space.

On the plus side there will be ten new parks and squares including a brand new public square the size of Trafalgar Square, the relocated University of the Arts, 3 new bridges over the canal and more than 400 mature trees, which in an area with a distinct lack of green space is a welcome addition.  Affordable homes are being included in the residential development and, after a competition to determine its use, the main Gasholder is to be converted into a recreational space (although to my mind it is a striking enough structure unadorned and I can't help wishing they had just left it as it was as a reminder of the area's industrial past.)

Wandering around the area recently I was struck by the contrast between the idealised world of the architects' impressions and the encroaching unruly natural world. These sanitised spaces are no match for the ivy, nettles and wild flowers which have been gradually and systematically invading their territory.

In addition, the inevitable blight of graffiti is no respecter of these fantasy worlds.

 The author of the following one succinctly sums up what they think of the proposed plans.....

Like a magnet, the graffiti attracts others, less articulate, to add their contributions.....

But someone obviously cares enough to clean it up...

We will have to wait some time before we can judge whether the scheme has been successful or whether it will be just another of those much-hyped but characterless developments that pepper the city.  In the meantime, here are some real people going about their business in the real world.....

(1)  King's Cross Central

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Disappearing Landscape

As the gentrification of London gathers pace, places which were previously almost no-go areas are gradually being changed beyond recognition.  One such area is King's Cross, the hitherto unloved destination of those newly arrived in London, known in the past for its seedy mixture of cheap hotels, prostitution, drug dealing and alcoholism. With the refurbishment of St Pancras Station and the ongoing development of King's Cross station and the surrounding area, all that is changing and there is anticipation in the air and bustling activity in the streets.

Most people's experience of King's Cross will have been limited to a brief passage through the station on the way to somewhere else but its reputation in the public imagination as an unsavoury place of shady or criminal dealings has probably been reinforced by a number of films shot in the area - directors wishing to portray the dark underbelly of London life would often opt to use King's Cross as a location.

The first of these was the 1955 film The Ladykillers made by Ealing Studios and starring Alec Guinness, set in the drab streets behind the station with the gasworks looming in the background. A gang of robbers rent rooms from an octogenarian widow and plan a security van robbery which takes place behind King's Cross station. Much of the action occurs in the house overlooking the railway which, unlike the terraces flanking it, was actually a set built for the film.

Scenes from The Ladykillers (1955)

The gasworks are a recurring motif and can be seen in the opening sequence of Alfie (1966) where, in a car parked in the gas-holder's shadow, Michael Caine's promiscuous character is conducting his illicit noctural assignation with a married women.  It can also be seen briefly in David Cronenberg's splendidly dark and disturbing Spider - the story of a schizophrenic man piecing together his childhood memories. After being released from a mental institution, Spider arrives at King's Cross station and wanders through the depressing, run-down streets in search of the halfway house where he is to stay.  The 1992 film Chaplin directed by Richard Attenborough also features the same location as a stand-in for Chaplin's childhood home in Lambeth although again the houses shown are in reality a huge set constructed especially for the film.

Scenes from Alfie (1966)

Scenes from Spider (2002)

King's Cross is the backdrop for Mike Leigh's 1988 film High Hopes - a film set in Thatcher's Britain dealing with the cultural and political clashes between the classes where the main characters Cyril and Shirley live in a council block overlooking King's Cross station. At the end of the film they take Cyril's aging mother onto the roof of the building and surveying the neighbourhood where she and her family have lived over the years she remarks 'it's the top of the world' - a world where the links of the close-knit working class community of the past are being severed.

Scenes from High Hopes (1988)

This little part of Britain's cinematic heritage only exists on film now since the entire area, including a row of Grade II listed terraces, has been demolished as part of the regeneration scheme.  The residents have dispersed and the famous gasometers have been dismantled for renovation and will be re-erected to form part of the scheme but in a different location north of the Regent's Canal.  In its place is a vast building site with all its attendant noise and disruption......

Regeneration always has to be weighed against the loss of some sort of heritage and it remains to be seen how the development will affect the area in the long run, but it is sad to see this little corner of cinematic history reduced to rubble.

To be continued.....

Monday, 1 August 2011

Unreal City

The heart of the financial district of the City of London might seem at first sight an unlikely inspiration for artistic endeavour yet it features in the work of one of our most famous Modernist poets - T.S. Eliot.  In the complex and challenging poem The Waste Land (1), published in 1922, there are many references to London landmarks and life in the city.  At the time of writing, Eliot worked as a bank clerk for Lloyds Bank in the City and must have had extensive knowledge of the banking system of the time.  Although the poem is full of both classical and modern literary references, a substantial part of it is set firmly in the real world of the City - and his daily working routine would have taken him through the streets he mentions - King William Street, Queen Victoria Street, Lower Thames Street, Moorgate and across London Bridge and along the River Thames.

Eliot conjures up the alienation and fragmentation of the modern world which characterised society in the aftermath of the First World War and which drove writers and poets of the time to experiment with different modes of expression.  In his lines you can determine the uncertainty accompanying modern city life and the ensuing loss of personal identity, where the individual seems little more than a cog in a gigantic machine.  

His 'unreal city' is peopled with ghost-like forms like the souls in Dante's Inferno. Sighing and shuffling along, their eyes on the ground in front of them, they flow over London Bridge to begin their monotonous day at their desks:
"Unreal City
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought that death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine."

At the end of the day people go home to their humdrum lives and petty passions:
 "At the violet hour when the eyes and back
Turn upward from the desk, when the human engine waits
Like a taxi throbbing waiting...."
And all the while the River Thames courses through the city "sweet Thames, run softly till I end my song....." bearing witness to London's past and present, where  "the barges wash drifting logs down Greenwich reach past the Isle of Dogs" and where:
"Elizabeth and Leicester
Beating oars
The stern was formed
A gilded shell
Red and gold..."

Eliot's 'unreal city' is of course universal, and can be seen as a metaphor for the poverty of spiritual life in modern metropolitan society, probably even more relevant today than it was almost a century ago.  Dodging the crowds of people streaming across London Bridge at the end of yet another hard day's grind, I felt glad that I was just an observer.....

(1)  For an interesting discussion on the themes of the poem, listen to this episode of  Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Summer in the City

Summer arrived a few months early last week and the sun revealed a vision of city life to stir the soul and quicken the heart.  People lingered in the parks and public spaces, in groups, couples or alone, their faces eagerly turned towards the sun.  Everyone seemed more relaxed, carefree and friendly and London was looking its best, presenting its most attractive side to the public in the bright spring sunshine.

Walking through this benign version of London the other day I was reminded of a book I recently read containing some of the most lyrical descriptions of London life I have ever come across. Sam Selvon’s book The Lonely Londoners, first published in 1956, describes the world of the West Indian immigrants, lured by the promise of jobs aplenty and improved economic prosperity in post-war Britain.  London was the repository of their hopes and dreams, a magnet for those who desired a better life, but the welcome they found did not live up to their expectations.

Selvon has created a world which is in turns harsh and unforgiving and at the same time bittersweet in its beauty and pathos. In the introduction to the book, London is described as an ‘imagined city.... a promised land that despite its lure turns out to be an illusion.’ The book is narrated in a kind of modified Caribbean vernacular which takes the reader right into the characters’ world and makes us see London through their eyes. The London of the book is a constantly changing city, which mirrors the characters’ moods – sometimes optimistic and cheerful, at other times depressing and drab. The two main characters, Moses and Sir Galahad, offer contrasting outlooks to life and the London weather plays an important role in their different responses to the city. Moses, world-weary and introspective, is introduced in the opening lines of the book:
 “One grim winter evening, when it had a kind of unrealness about London, with a fog sleeping restlessly over the city and the lights showing in the blur as if is not London at all but some strange place on another planet, Moses Aloetta hop on a number 46 bus at the corner of Chepstow Road and Westbourne Grove....”
Sir Galahad on the other hand, is an exuberant optimist with an unquenchable zest for life, who sees London in a different light. He walks the streets of London like a king, thinking:
 “This is London, this is life oh lord, to walk like a king with money in your pocket, not a worry in the world. Is one of those summer evenings, when it look like night would never come, a magnificent evening, a powerful evening, rent finish paying, rations in the cupboard, twenty pounds in the bank, and a nice piece of skin waiting under the big clock in Piccadilly Tube Station.  The sky blue, sun shining, the girls ain’t have on no coats to hide the legs.”
With these few words Selvon conjures up the sheer joy of walking abroad the city when the weather is fine, life is good and all things seem possible. At times like these it seems there is no better place in the world to live than London. Later in the book there is a long ten-page passage – a sort of stream-of-consciousness ‘prose poem to London’ - in which he celebrates the pleasure of ‘liming’ in Hyde Park - hanging around with your mates, chatting up girls, drinking and eating:
 “.....everywhere you turn the English people smiling isn’t it a lovely day as if the sun burn away the tightness and strain that was in their faces for the winter....  all these things happen in the blazing summer under the trees in the park on the grass with the daffodils and tulips in full bloom and a sky of blue oh it does really be beautiful then to hear the birds whistling and see the green leaves come back on the trees.....”

London presents a different face over the changing seasons and it is one of life’s pleasures to be able to appreciate the variety, whether it is the freshness of the first weeks of spring, the hazy torpor of a hot city summer, the chill in the air of a sunny autumn morning with the leaves crunching underfoot or the melancholy of the briefest of winter days.  Towards the end of the book there is a sublime passage which conveys the sensory pleasures to be had in these seasonal changes and the excitement and wonder at being amongst London’s famous landmarks:
  “The changing of the seasons, the cold slicing winds, the falling leaves, sunlight on green grass, snow on the land, London particular.  Oh what it is and where it is and why it is, no one knows, but to have said: ‘I walked on Waterloo Bridge,’ ‘I rendezvoused at Charing Cross,’ ‘Piccadilly Circus is my playground’ to say these things, to have lived these things, to have lived in the great city of London, centre of the world.  To one day lean against the wind walking up the Bayswater Rd (destination unknown), to see the leaves swirl and dance and spin on the pavement (sight unseeing), to write a casual letter home beginning: ‘Last night in Trafalgar Square...’ “

Surely this would convert even the most ardent city-hater and persuade them of the beauty to be found in London’s streets?