Saturday, 17 October 2009

I know this city!

The following is a series of extracts from BS Johnson's The Unfortunates, an experimental novel which for the most part was set in Nottingham - a city Johnson had visited on a number of occasions in the late 50s and early 60s. The following photographs are also from the same period and I have carefully matched some of his psychogeographic descriptions to what I believe are the exact locations. Well almost - there were no photos of the City Ground from this period which were suitable and so the following photo of Meadow Lane was more apt. Especially given the current fiasco. Why have I done this? Why I have ruined your imagination? Well, look away now if you don't want to see of course, but these descriptions, feelings, ramblings, observations, associations or whatever, are quite acute - that is all. Many thanks to Emily Kawasaki & James Forster for drawing my attention to this book some years ago - though I took my time getting round to it as per usual. Also thanks to Emily Wilczek for lending me the damn thing last summer. The photos are from here.

Covered courtyard, taxis, take a taxi, always take a taxi in a strange city, but no, I know this city! The mind circles, at random, does not remember, from one moment to another, other things interpose themselves, the mind's The station exit on a bridge, yes, of course, and the blackened gantries rise like steel gibbets above the Midland red wall opposite. I should turn right, right, towards the city centre, yes, ah, and that pub! On one visit here I came from this station sullen with depression, savage at myself for some reason I found it hard to define, isolate: and went into that pub, the nearer, on the corner, green glass, leaded panes, ordinary, for relief, which was a green shield Worthington, as I remember, if I remember.

Southwell, the Chapter House, the delicate, convoluted carving on the capitals, foliage is it, yes, leaves, the book The Leaves of Southwell, now I think of it, though I did not know of it at the time, but June did, she knew the cathedral was important for at least this, that was perhaps the main reason why we visited it, when was it, fairly late in our friendship, for I had begun to take a great deal of interest in architecture, at the same time they moved to Lincoln, but how could it be, for they had the car, we went by car, their little blue Austin, which I had picked up for them, yes how the mind arranges itself, tried to sort things in orders, is perturbed if things are not sorted, are not in the right order, nags away. Southwell, said to June it was a useful place to bring children, to show them differences, for the nave was Norman, the choir EE, and the Chapter House, octagonal, best of all was Dec. The carving I was marvelously impressed with, appropriately, from a technical point of view the depth under the leaves, at such angles, but did not see the point of representing natural things thus, why, it is all tied up with truth, with things being what they are, and so on and so forth.

After we were well away from the village, they were guiding me on a ride, a journey. Tony took over, drove well enough, all he needed was experience, he passed his test not so very long after this. The mining villages around this city, I had not seen them before this first journey in their car. The fields around, just fields, no slagheaps that I remember, and suddenly the great wheels at the pithead on the skyline round the bend, classically, as if not industrial, not black country visual clichés. We had a drink somewhere, near a new bridge here, on the way back, it was dark by then, though summer, and in the car park there was some incident, I think someone was backing into Tony's path, and he kept going, they both kept going, and I was supposed to be the one looking out for a learner, but I could not reach the brake as it was the other side of Tony, farther from me, and all I could do was to push the horn button, to touch the horn ring, did it have one, that model, and the other man stopped in time.

When shall I see a ground all of one piece, a new ground, all the English grounds I've seen are so piecemeal, are never designed as a whole, except for Wembley, and in most ways that's an even worse disaster than this one, which seems to have four sides developed at random, at different times, yet there has been, is an enormous amount of money in football, thousands of pounds a game, hundreds of thousands a season, the number of people who go, and the players who don't get it, were very badly treated until recently, still are in some respects, it must have been the directors, the owners, who just siphoned off all the money but for what they had to leave to keep the things running, and even though they have to give their players something nearer their due, now, they still don't have to spend money on these buildings, they see, the swine, still have corrugated iron sheds and charge extra for that, let the men on the terraces, their chief supporters , the sixpences of the masses, stand out in all weathers, and they do, the stupid bastards! Yet these buildings show them up for what they are, the directors and the profiteers of the clubs, there is yet honesty in this: the buildings proclaim that they are cheapjacks, charlatans, who might as it pack their bags overnight and leave, because in the buildings they would be leaving behind them the very minimum that could be left, which would, which does, corrode, disintegrate, rot to pieces every few years. So this ground, the usual mess of badly-shutted concrete badly finished, the scruffy collection of huts which are the turnstiles, fletton-backed stand beyond them, the unpleasantness of this brick in such circumstances, ah, why waste anything of me with these things that disgust me, where's the Press entrance, let's get on with the bloody job.

Yates's is friendly, the first impression going in, the first time I have felt that kind of warmth since I came to this city this morning, an alien city, though I know it, really, I keep telling myself, friendly here, a relief, a great relief! Nearly full, push my way through, here it was I spoke to that Russian seamen so long ago, without Tony then, where was Tony, what was I doing on my own? Now there was a group there discussing football, they must be going later on, yes, what time is it, the to one, yes time for a good drink and then lunch, noticed a restaurant underneath as I came in, nearby, looked okay, shall go there, perhaps when I have finished here, what shall I have now, a wide range indeed, in Yates's, imported beverages of all descriptions, Commonwealth ports and sherries, Australian White and Red, very cheap, remarkably good value, no doubt, but I'll have Marsala, I think for no other reasons, but that I need something thick and sweat and comforting, I need comforting, why do I need comforting?

This pub, then, what signs of venerableness does it bear, to be seen, claiming to be one of the oldest in England? Black beams, low ceilings, but preserved in various ways, varnish, worm repellent, that detract from the seeing of age, prevent me from venerating it. Which leaves me with only association. This room, yes I recognise instantly as being one where Tony and June and Wendy and I sat, yes, but why should that seem remarkable, as it was only a few years ago, the memory is not that bad, I am overdramatizing this, his death, this place, these occasions. But this is still a place for students where the four of us sat then years ago, was it, something like that, rexine seats, life goes on, ha, bring Fortinbras and cart the corpses off. Cast iron garden tables, look original, not found, the old built-in kicked cupboard, brass fittings, most this looks Victorian, older in one sense than the eighteenth and earlier, the rooms cared from the friable sandstone, that is now to me a cliché, everything is reducible to a cliché, the action of carbonic acid on limestone. I'll have another sherry, I used to drink beer then but do not now, so much there’s another change, it's meaningless, though, it all is, this wallowing in recollection, stupid even, as well, I mean, where does it all lead, there we were students then, there these still are, students now, and so?

Cast parapet, pierced rondel design, the canal oiling its way under, under, and the great letters on the end wall of a warehouse BRITISH WATERWAYS, weathered, flaking, the midland red brick sound, it appears, the red strong enough to come through that amount of blackening, of discoloration, and the buses, I remember, great green and cream buses, and yes, they have trolleybuses in this city, too, the disfiguring lines overhead, quaint even, now, how long is it since they were running in London, remember them taking down the supports, masts would they be called, poles, the relief of the clearing of the air, literally, in certain streets, King Street Hammersmith, for one place, which seemed so much less oppressive once the overhead lines had gone.

This visit it must have been we made the journey to Newstead Abbey, yes, we went by bus, they did not have their car at that time, no, and walking the mile or more up the long rhododendron-lined drive, towards the house, the Abbey, that Byron so loved, and sold, the house buttered up against the single standing west front Abbey, so arrogantly intimate with it, EE, though late, I thought, as I remember, transitional. June went and sat beside the upper lake, pregnant, taking a book, having been here several times before. Tony and I paid to walk round the dead house, not lived in, saw Byron's skull cap, or did we, had it previously been re-interred, a dueling sword, yes, his bedroom, so ordinary now, like a film set, uncomfortable, un-lived in, obviously. The dead things the dead leave behind them as well as the living things. But in the gardens, grounds, the poem to Boatswain cut on a monument was still living, and inside the house, of course the relevant part of that tree, dead now but curiously alive, that Byron cut his and Augusta's names into that two-trunked sapling springing from the same roots.

The Castle too, a round of visits obviously, on either the Saturday, or more probably the Sunday. Wendy, her hair windblown across her face, the view across this city, the museum, the posters and displays commemorating labour troubles, this was some sort of centre for nineteenth-century resistance against the exploiters. Pubs in the evening, particularly two very good ones, students, locals, good drinking. Talking again, always, Tony was hardly interested in drinking, but only in the talk which accompanied it, only in the company he could hold converse with.

Their new flat. Either Sunday or the Saturday afternoon we went to see the new flat they were about to take on or hoping to take on. It was in a superior area of the city, the Estate or something like that, great houses built during the boom in the lace industry, whenever that was, nineteenth century some time, late probably, large red brick mansions, no two alike but somehow all alike, set square into the steep sides of a series of small valleys, green spaces between, wide private roads, No Thoroughfare, gates at all entrances. We all four went there. It must have been for Sunday tea, yes, tea with the old woman who was to be their landlady, very welcome she made us , we two strangers as well. Tea in the drawing room, looking out through French windows on to a lawn, sloping to the floor of one of the small valleys, and, yes, there was a dog, she loved dogs, Wendy, and this was a spirited dog, perhaps it was still young, would rush about indefinitely with her, making those rushes and last-second deviations, which some dogs are given to, I have noticed, perhaps with them it is a form of organised sport, with its own rules, etiquette. I joined in, as I remember, joined in with her, to participate, rather than with the dog, to show that I was spirited, gamey, too, would not be left out, would make her share everything of hers as I made her share everything of mine. That was the way I wanted it. That was the way I went out to get it. And where I went wrong.

At dinner, in Hall, top table on the same occasion, discussing with Tony Barker and Tony the interesting man who worked in the kitchens there, a refuge, who had written and published at his own expense a treatise on the ills of the world, and his own proposed cures, and had given copies to both of them. Sometimes Tony's enthusiasms were too extreme, I thought, too indiscriminate, in this case, for instance, as I remember. The new Hall of Residence, neo-gothic, architecturally sterile, aping the Oxbridge dead.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Myths of War: The War Memorial, Victoria Embankment

Fig 1. Triumphant War Memorial. Portland stone with intricate iron detailing.

Between Wilford and Trent Bridge, the riverside was embanked and landscaped as a place of Edwardian recreation. The suspension bridge, the playing fields and the embankment were all created in an effort to improve local amenities for recreation during the industrial revolution. This was funded by the city and local liberal philanthropist Jesse Boot, who contributed to public works such as the war memorial and gardens. The memorial is undoubtedly well designed, built and maintained, but does this structure perhaps looks a little like a triumphant arch? Of course it does, Pevsner says so but that's all he says.[i] This may be a moot point, but it is worth remembering how the seeds of the Second World War were sown during the aftermath of the Great War. At The Treaty of Versailles in 1919 France and Britain acted victoriously and with vendetta by severely punishing Germany with reparations.[ii] In so doing this left Europe's biggest country with a fragile interwar economy and created a breading ground for extremists. The guilt of war laid on Germany at Versailles was a frequent theme is Hitler's mad mouth foaming speeches. Belligerence breeds belligerence. While much is done to remember the ‘Glorious Dead’,[iii] perhaps more could be achieved by remembering Versailles with equal Daily Mail pomp publicity? Nonetheless, this is still an attractive structure which relates well to the riverside and garden location, and we are lucky Boot had the good taste not to commission a corpse, a Portland stone artillery gun or a lion trampling a snake.[iv] Nottingham’s nationalist hoodwinking is thankfully a little more subdued and this could be attributed to the patron and city architect.

Fig 2. Boots’ modernist gate house, Beeston.

The Jesse Boot story is a real rags to riches tale of a local druggist who built a pharmacy empire from a small Victorian terrace shop on Goose Gate. Like Woolworths, Boots soon discovered that the largest potential market was to be found in the rising incomes of the working class - the populist taste of the proletariat which is now universal law. Also known as drugs, fags, bikes, booze and a bit of fashion. Before his death Boot sold his business to the American United Drugs Company, who were more aware of this market and dedicated their new site at Beeston to Detroit style production lines and industry friendly modernism. A marked change from Jesse's paternalist liberal taste. It is perhaps a shame that the architecture of the Boots estate is restricted from public gaze and as of 2008 the company allegedly no longer pays any tax in the UK. According to the Guardian, under new owner Stefano Pessina (one of the 500 richest people in the world), the Boots headquarters are now based on a Pirate ship in Zug, Switzerland.[v] For Jesse Boot however, his company was always based in Nottingham and he gave liberally to his home city. Alongside this memorial and the adjacent gardens, his gifts were numerous, including Highfields Park for the University of Nottingham and the rebuilding of the Albert Hall in 1909. But the style of those gifts is telling. According to Eric Hobsbawn, the industrialists of England were always very different to those on the continent, primarily because their society had never undergone social upheaval and so they often complied to social hierarchy with the aim of entering the society of gentleman.[vi]

“It was Lloyd George who made provincial towns into ‘cities of dreadful knights’. The absorption of the sons of grocers and cotton-spinners into the aristocracy was a consequence of the loss of impetus in British business, not its cause…”[vii]

Boot achieved his elevation with flying colours; he was knighted in 1909, created a baronet in 1917 and finally became Lord Trent in 1929. In light of this it is not surprising that his favored architectural style was classical - the architecture of hierarchy and tradition, with little respect for the then current social rebellion of continental modernism.[viii] Boot’s chosen architect was T. Wallis Gordon, the city architect who was also T.C. Howitt’s boss and both had similar civic gestures to Luytens and Vincent Harris. For Howitt and Gordon, interwar Nottingham was being recast as a European city, but in the classical tradition, Howitt of course had been on his own 'Grand Tour' during his formative years as an architect.[ix]

Fig 3. T. Wallis Gordon's triumphal arch.

This triumphant Portland Stone arch complies with the Liberal Prime Minister Lloyd George’s view of the war as a costly victory over a war hungry Germany, rather than an unprecedented waste of life created by a long-term Victorian nationalist myth, imperialism, industrial ignorance and the short-term conflicts of a European aristocracy. Like Lloyd George’s commissioned Cenotaph, it may speak of ‘death, duty well done and remembrance’,[x] but promises nothing in creating a brave new world.

It's a devise for making the unacceptable tolerable. A big euphemism. Certainly in the marshal life death is close at hand, or rather, the dead are - which is different. The way they got to be dead - the cause of the greatest physical mutation - is forgotten. The dead are the dead. The literally vital precondition of being dead, the fact of being alive, is forgotten. The indignity of having life extinguished is forgotten. Death is forgotten. The enormity of its belligerent causes ignored. The dead get an arcadia to sleep in. They get a bit of respect when really it's too late. If only they could have lived in such peace.[xi]

[i] Pevsner, Nottinghamshire, p. 374

[ii] S. Marks, ‘1918 and After: The Postwar Era’, in, G. Martel, (ed.), The Origins of the Second World War Reconsidered (London, 1999), pp. 13 – 37.

[iii] Allan Greenberg is polemic in his praise for the Cenotaph. See, A. Greenberg, The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Mar., 1989), pp. 5 - 23.

[iv] Nicolas Penny is more critical than Greenberg but still fails to see the wider historical context. See, N. Penny, ‘English Sculpture and the First World War’, in, Oxford Art Journal, Vol. 4, No. 2, Sculpture (Nov., 1981), pp. 36 - 42.

[v] The Guardian, 9th February 2009, From the High Street to a Tax Haven.

[vi] E. Hobsbawn, Industry and Empire, (London, 1999), p. 161.

[vii] E. Hobsbawn, Industry and Empire, p. 163.

[viii] N. Pevsner, An Outline of European Architecture (London, 1972), pp. 404 – 435.

[ix] E. R. Scoffham, A Vision of the City: The Architecture of T.C. Howitt (Nottingham, 1992).

[x] A. Greenberg, ‘Lutyens's Cenotaph’, The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 48, No. 1 (Mar., 1989), pp. 5-23.

[xi] Jonathan Meades, Brick and Mortars Part2/3 2mins.