We connect John Cage with James Bond.

Sunday 20 May 2007

As I’ve mentioned John Cage a couple of times recently, I may as well go on and mention that Silence, a collection of his essays from the late 1930s to 1960, is one of the most useful, entertaining, and best-smelling books I own. In his lecture “Indeterminacy” he tells, in part, how he came to be a composer. Instead of finishing college, Cage left California and went to Paris where, eventually, he ran into one of his former professors.

He gave me literally a swift kick in the pants and then said, “Go tomorrow to Goldfinger. I’ll arrange for you to work with him. He’s a modern architect.” After a month of working with Goldfinger, measuring the dimensions of rooms which he was to modernize, answering the telephone, and drawing Greek columns, I overheard Goldfinger saying, “To be an architect, one must devote one’s life solely to architecture.” I then left him, for, as I explained, there were other things that interested me, music and painting for instance.

When I first read this, and for years after, I knew nothing about this architect other than Cage’s single name-drop, and assumed that the name’s retrospective connection to a James Bond villain was a coincidence. This situation changed soon after I arrived in London.

For several weeks I wondered about the unusual tower building visible throughout much of north west London, until I found that it was written up in my Time Out London guide:

Trellick Tower, built in 1973 by architect Ernő Goldfinger and considered by some to be a hideous eyesore and by others to be a significant piece of modernist architecture. You might wonder about the concordance of Ernő’s name with a James Bond villain? That’s the penalty for irritating Ian Fleming.

Goldfinger left Paris in the mid 1930s and moved to London; most of his designs were built in England. Trellick Tower, on the northern edge of Notting Hill, is his most famous building – or notorious, depending on your point of view.

There are two persistent myths about Goldfinger the architect. One is that he committed suicide by throwing himself off Trellick Tower in a fit of remorse over his creation, and the other, more pervasive one is that Fleming maliciously named his villain after the architect as a rebuke to the latter’s aggressive modernist tastes. Goldfinger had built an avant-garde terrace house in Hampstead as his own residence, allegedly to the displeasure of his more conservative neighbour Fleming.
Nigel Warburton, Goldfinger’s biographer, has debunked this oft-repeated story, showing there is no reason to believe Fleming had any grudge against the architect. Fleming had most likely heard of Goldfinger through a mutual friend and took the name for his own use, as he often had before with other friends, relatives, and acquaintances – to their occasional displeasure.
Fleming’s irritation with the real Goldfinger came after the fact, when the architect sued for defamation. The publishers, unable to deny that use of his name was coincidental, settled out of court, and presented Ernő with six copies of Goldfinger. Fleming’s own suggestion that an errata sheet be inserted in the novel, explaining that the character’s name should be Goldprick, was not taken up.

Trellick Tower has always been a contentious building to Londoners, to a greater or lesser degree over the years. Apart from its brutalist style, by the 1980s it had become one of the more conspicuous failed modernist housing projects, rife with crime and squalour. Living conditions have since improved immensely since the local council invested some money in the site, and employed a concierge as Goldfinger recommended in the first place. The building now has a heritage listing, and has acquired some cachet among the fashionable.
Warburton has collected a number of related articles and book excerpts about Goldfinger, and Trellick Tower in particular. (His book cannily puts the Fleming story at the very beginning, to save journalists the trouble of searching the entire thing.)
Now that I know something about Goldfinger, one aspect of Cage’s story becomes unusual. Goldfinger was only ten years older than Cage, and was in his early thirties when Cage was sent to work for him: why did Professor Pijoan decide he would be a suitable mentor for Cage?