Starting the year as we mean to go on

Monday 2 January 2006

Continuing on from last year, let’s get 2006 rolling with another photo of this website’s patron saint:

This is the Jeremy Bentham pub in Bloomsbury. Just behind him, further down the street, is the building that houses his notorious Auto-Icon. On the street corner is a large plaque set into the pub wall, telling passersby the Bentham story, much of which seems to have been cribbed from for the Wikipedia article about him, particularly the guff about his stuffed corpse being dragged out only for special university occasions. A stroll one block over will verify that the man is on permanent display.
Haven’t drunk in here yet, but the pub reviews I just looked up for the above link says they sometimes stock a cask of Orkney Dark Island, one of the world’s greatest beers. Must investigate.

I’m sure he was questioned by the police but had a watertight alibi

Sunday 18 December 2005

I recently mentioned how I’ve stumbled across a few of the more idiosyncratic London landmarks by accident, in the six months that I’ve lived here (the most illustrious of these would be, of course, the enbalmed corpse of Jeremy Bentham). Here’s another one, a short walk from the bunker in Victoria Park: a pair of statues called the Dogs of Alcibiades.

The two statues were donated to the park in 1912, and flank the main pedestrian walkway across the park’s narrowest point. I had only heard of these because they get a mention early on Lights Out for the Territory. The author, no friend to dogs alive or artificial, is dismayed on a visit in the early 1990s to find them freshly restored:

If the live animals, the shit-machines, are bad, the divine archetypes we’re supposed to worship are worse: twin white horrors, the Dogs of Alcibiades, raised on brick plinths. When they were blessedly removed, for months, my spirits surged – but, inevitably, this was no more than a truce. The frosty albinos are back, resprayed, restored (scrawny, loose fleshed, wolf-headed, genitally deprived): the gift of Lady Regnart. Posed on their red-brick chimneys, they howl in perpetual torment: as if fires had been lit beneath them.

No doubt he was pleased that they were vandalised soon after being relocated. Appropriately, given Sinclair’s metaphysical conception of dogs, someone sprayed them black, with eyes and mouth bleeding red, ‘666’ emblazoned on their sides. Barry from Bethnal Green‘s history of the East End shows the vicissitudes of the dogs’ recent history but, unlike webmaster Barry, I prefer them in their diabolical guise. Barry also relates an urban myth about the dogs’ otherwise unexplained presence in the park, but he gets the name of the donor wrong.
A few years ago, both statues were more seriously vandalised and have not been repaired. They now sit on their strange brick plinths, discoloured and pocked with weathering and lichen, more closely resembling Sinclair’s vision of them from a decade ago, as though his criticism were a curse upon them. The nearby trees have grown out to almost engulf each dog’s head with branches, the park authorities presumably hoping to lose them forever in the foliage.
Some photos of the dogs in 2005, taken this summer, are now on Flickr, click a photo or here for the first of them.

The Third Pilgrimage: St Andrew-by-the-Wardrobe

Thursday 15 December 2005

When I lived in Melbourne, I once photographed 20-odd places in the city centre, and re-photographed the same places two years later. Amongst the differences and similarities, one entire building had disappeared, another built in its place, while in a location two blocks away a ‘For Lease’ sign hadn’t budged in all that time. No one ever visits the same city twice: the waves of attention and scorn, construction and dilapidation, the money flows and fades from one street to the next like changes in the weather. It wasn’t so hard leaving Melbourne: by the time I left By the time I left Melbourne it barely resembled the city I had in my mind from when I first arrived. (If I’d lived all my life there it may have been a different story.)
I’ve mentioned before that I’ve been using Iain Sinclair’s and Patrick Keiller’s (another Lawrence Sterne fan) navigations of London as a means of getting my bearings in the city, but by revisiting some of their haunts I’m not attempting to vicariously connect with the psychogeographic significance bestowed upon them. Keiller’s London was filmed in 1992, Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory written mostly a decade ago: a long time for anything to survive unscathed in a city. Apparent permanence is irrelevant: I wouldn’t trust St Paul’s to be the same building as described in the literature. At most, I’m looking for landmarks not decided upon by consensus or public fiat, to better understand how an individual can form a relationship with the city.
(Sometimes these visits have happened by accident, as if the landmarks have come to visit me. The chapter in Lights Out that chronicles the troubled history of Rachel Whiteread’s House begins, typically enough, describing the shooting of “Big Jim” Moody in a Hackney pub. It was only when re-reading the chapter to write this that I realised the pub in question is my local, which, having moved to London from Brunswick, makes the place feel a little more like home. It also reminded me how much I still think of things I read about London as happening Somewhere Else. The site where House once stood is further down the road, an nondescript patch of fallow parkland. I cannot be bothered to see if the exact spot is marked.)
So I was anticipating neither surprise nor disappointment when I went walking down the narrow streets between St Paul’s and the Thames, looking for a particular alleyway. This was the scene I remembered most vividly from London, the most “other”: the narrow path between two buildings in shadow, somewhere behind St Paul’s, doorposts still displaying propaganda posters from World War II. This scene stuck with Sinclair too, and in Lights Out he goes looking for it, helpfully giving correct directions after prolonged searching without success. At first he mistakenly believes the church wall on one side is St Paul’s itself, but eventually finds the place, posters and all, beside another, much more modest Wren church, St Andrew by the Wardrobe, further down the hill.

… into the maze of alleys and half-forgotten streets with boarded windows… a limbo of medieval prompts hiding as much from the Great Fire or the Blitz as from crass development… the light stopped down to the limits of the visible, an illumination that depended more on fossils in the brickwork… as we emerged into St Andrew’s Hill, we discovered an abandoned bookshop – the individual letters of its title, as they peeled from the glass, reflected on a shelf that was thick with dust.

It seemed a slim chance that this microclimate could survive undisturbed another ten years in the centre of commerce. If I didn’t have inital doubts about the longevity of psyhcogeographic nuance, crossing the new Paternoster Square past St Paul’s showed that as feared, the cathedral itself would be unrecognisable from the place once known by Sinclair and Keiller. Paternoster Square, in redevelopment limbo for some twenty years, is now “completed” in the modern sense – a perpetual worksite nominally open to the public, but made largely inaccessible by temporary construction fencing encircling a large expanse of featureless pavement. The buildings are, naturally, occupied with stores and Starbucks, and are as distinctive as a shopping mall in Brisbane. The inert air of simulacrum is generated by an anonymous column standing in the square without explanation: it’s a fake, a replica of part of the Square’s portico destroyed in the Great Fire. It looks like a scale model of Wren’s Monument to the victims of the Great Fire, as if to gull tourists away from the real thing further downriver.

More confusingly, you cannot cross the square to the cathedral without passing through the Temple Bar, which was built at the west end of Fleet Street in 1671 but had been sent into exile in Hertforshire in 1880. A year ago it was returned to London, and reassembled at the wrong end of town, beside St Paul’s. Sinclair writes about London’s maniacal need to perpetually disorientate itself, misaligning its landmarks, forgetting and misremembering. In some way it is reassuring to witness the process for myself. The Temple Bar once regulated the flow of traffic in and out of the city; now it regulates the flow of tourists to and from the cathedral toilets.
So, my hopes were not too high when I negotiated the tangle of streets below St Paul’s. No tourists, but everything had been repainted, renovated, refitted. The oldest building would have been the one wrapped like a Christo, awaiting its refurbishment. Office workers on overtime loitered in doorways nursing cigarettes and takeaway coffees. Everything had been exposed to air and light and St Andrew, when I found it, had its own breathing space. No wartime ephemera could cling to these fresh surfaces, ten more years of trophy hunters.
True heathen, not knowing which alley was the true passage, I walked and photographed the perimeter of the church, ready to accept numinous energy from any point. The light was too bright and clear, the corner of Addle Hill and Wardrobe Terrace rebuilt and sandblasted, CCTV cameras fixed on the cornices. One side had buildings too close to the church, its secrecy scoured by a shaft of light from the gentrified St Andrew’s Hill. Through a window I saw into the back of a fashionably spartan office wine bar; on its front side it retained the name of the previous tennant, a bookshop.
The church is a brown, oblong monolith of a building, so plain it seems that its ornamentation has been worn away by the years. Its door sits flush and comouflaged with its outer walls, discouraging casual visitors from testing it. On the south wall I found some benches mounted like monuments (“stationary vehicles of mortality” as Tom Phillips describes them) on their own flagstone plinth, looking into, more than over, some effaced stone tablets in the bushes masking the traffic in Queen Victoria Street.
Pinned to the gatepost notice board were some inkjet photographs of a congregation apprently enjoying themselves very much on the streets outside the church. There was a weathered notice for the parish’s annual ceremony of Beating the Bounds at Rogationtide, Wed 4 May 6 pm. The notice ended with a quote from the Lord Bishop of London.

“What we celebrate is ancient and stands for deep continuities and rituals without which people become disorientated.”

And I don’t feel so good myself

Wednesday 7 December 2005

Tonight, walking home, down a dark street. An ambulance stopped by the kerb. The lone paramedic slowly pacing in front of the headlights, looking around bemusedly. Noticing a damp patch on the bitumen, he squats down, touches it, brings his fingers up to his nose and lips.

Postcard from London

Sunday 4 December 2005

“What’s London like?” the folks at home often ask me, and I tell them, “the streets are lined with thousands of cheap-arse fried chicken shops.” I’ve been meaning to take photos of them (that and off-licenses), but they’re so numerous the project has always seemed too daunting. It’s like embarking on an ocean cruise with a mission to photograph the horizon.
Luckily, someone has done the hard work for me: Bad Gas has a gallery of fried chicken shops, 122 of them so far. Some of them come from further afield than, say, Walthamstow, but they are all so much of a piece that clicking through a couple of dozen of them gives a much more vivid sense of walking London’s streets than watching The Bill could ever achieve.
The curators have helpfully added the rules for making a successful chicken shop sign, along with more detailed observations which experience qualifies me to vouch for.

If you call your shop Kennedy Fried Chicken, there’s a law stating that you must display a picture of the Statue of Liberty.

Enjoy your virtual holiday in the Empire’s capital, and keep an eye out for the line-dancing rooster.

They’re big and salty and brown

Monday 21 November 2005

Despite living in London for, oh, months now, I am still prepared to be amazed on my trips to the local supermarket. My enthusiasm at finding Sudafed freely available has been slightly tempered by the checkout chicks’ ruthless vigilance in preventing you from buying more than 2 packets of paracetamol at the same time – regardless of how big the packets are. I haven’t found out yet whether paracetamol can supposedly get you wasted, be used to make bombs, or contain dangerous amounts of lead.
Sometimes, I am certain the British are doing this stuff on purpose. By ‘this stuff’ I mean selling products like:

Mr Brain’s pork faggots – two steaming balls for your enjoyment. I had to take them home with me. It was only after eating them (not bad, in a comfort-food kind of way) that I remembered: I’d heard of these things before. Nearly three years ago they had been a minor meme around the world when the company (I’d like to think personally announced by Young Mr Brain himself) crowned an unfortunate household from Wolverhampton Britain’s Faggot Family.

The Doody family

from Wolverhampton has been crowned The Faggot Family in a national competition, and to kick off their reign they will launch National Faggot Week.
The Doody family were chosen to front the campaign after impressing judges at the Savoy Hotel in London in November.
“The great British faggot is full of flavour and a great belly warmer at this time of year.”
Faggot facts:
Faggots were called “savoury ducks” in the Middle Ages
… and they still are in certain nightclubs around Soho. Mr Brain used to have a website but it seems to have disappeared – perhaps it was taken down by outraged but misguided Daily Mail readers. A slightly damaged archived version survives, featuring tasty news items such as “Faggot Family go Public.”
I wonder where they are now?

Title Pending

Sunday 6 November 2005

Blogger’s been down, so no post for you. Presumably the server was accidentally blown up by a stray firework or ten last night. For the past week the bunker has been surrounded by small clumps of locals setting off cheap-arse fireworks with such irritating regularity that I can’t phone aged relatives in Australia without them assuming that I’m calling from Basra or, worse still, France.
Of course, it’s all part of the festivities commemorating the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot and reenacting the misdeeds of Guy Fawkes, who was apparently a Nigerian who went around attacking pets with bottle rockets.
So much of the weekend was spent hiding down the pub. Here’s a picture of my local and, hey, check who’s street it’s on!

“London. Og.”

Tuesday 18 October 2005

I woke up early yesterday afternoon and finally saw some genuine London fog, viz:

However, this was still not enough to end my year-long summer: I can still comfortably sit around in the bunker without heating or a jacket. I am beginning to suspect that British weather is much better than the locals and the Australian Tourism Bureau would admit. Perhaps they exaggerate the bad weather here as part of the self-deprecating humour that defines the British identity, but I thought that it was supposed to have some grain of truth or element of defensive self-aggrandisemment (see also British food, the London Underground, Tim Henman).
From the way they talk about it you can tell they will go into the same collective hokey-pokey that Melburnians do the first day the weather looks the slightest bit wintry (“IT’S UNPRECEDENTEDLY COLD AND WET! THIS HAS NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE!”), but I’m not sure if there’s a newspaper in London as gormless as The Age which will deem the change of seasons newsworthy.

Jenny Holzer is alive and well and working at Gatwick Airport

Thursday 13 October 2005

The gentleman in the photo above is a trainspotter, the first I’ve seen; at least the first I’ve noticed in flagrante. This was at Clapham Junction, “Britain’s busiest railway station”, so I guess if I couldn’t find one there I may as well have given up. Look closely and you can see his binoculars and notebook.
I’ll let you make the next joke, and when you’re done will counter that it makes you a trainspotterspotterspotter. Happy now?
What I couldn’t get a good photo of was the Flight Information Screens at Gatwick Airport, whose digital displays read PLEASE LOOK AT TELEVISION SCREENS FOR INFORMATION. Thanks for that. Nothing about raising boys and girls the same way, though.
If you’re thinking of making a pilgrimage to Clapham Junction, don’t bother: it’s a shitheap.

New Gherkin!

Monday 19 September 2005

Of course, the window has been vandalised, but that should go without saying

Sunday 18 September 2005

On the District Line train at Blackfriars Underground station. These have been up since long before the bombings in July, so don’t get any particular ideas about overreaction, although it does seem a slightly excessive response.

So remember, if you plan on slashing the seats on the London Underground, you can expect the Metropolitan Police to send Jean Reno in a helicopter down the tunnel after you.
Significantly, these signs only appear on the oldest Underground lines, the ones with the bigger , shallower tunnels; so this does not appear to be an idle threat.
History buffs will note the iPod Nano poster on the platform. I’ve been meaning to take a photo of this sign for months but haven’t had the chance until now.

And definitely no “Sometime in New York City”, either

Thursday 15 September 2005

“Instant Karma” permitted on Saturdays before 11pm.

“It must be very difficult coming to London from Australia, having grown up so far away from the cultural centre of tradition.”

Saturday 10 September 2005

Not dead yet, but working on it

Monday 5 September 2005

People have traditionally characterised Britain as a slow, backward, inefficient country but I’ll have you know that it’s leapfrogged into the 21st century. British Telstra or whatever they’re called took a mere three weeks to activate ADSL on the bunker’s phone line, a response time that is staggeringly fast by OECD standards but even more amazing when you consider that I live several miles from the GPO!
Even more astonishing is their boast today that it will be only a matter of days before I receive the final bill for the discontinued phone service in the bunker I moved out of a month ago. Apparently it would have taken even less time to calculate the amount owing but someone kept opening the door on the computer, allowing the small, prehistoric bird working the treadmill inside to break the fourth wall and say “Wak! It’s a living.”
I don’t know if BT have been privatised or not so I don’t know which rant about bad service to pull out, so I’ll compromise and say that they’re owned by the Queen. And, as the movies have taught us, bad giant evil bad corporate behemoths are always run by just one evil person who personally carries out all the really evillest schemes. In other words, to make sure my phone line stays in working order I’ll end up having to punch it out with the Queen, until she plummets to her death from the top of the Jewel Tower, with her yelling and firing her gun straight up in the air all the way down. In slow motion.
This means I’ll have to also kill a lot of Beefeaters along the way, finishing with the really evil tough Beefeater: the one who looks all pissed off when he’s getting photographed with tourists because he thinks it’s beneath him and his job really is to stop the ballistas and arbalasts being stolen by Al’Qai al-qaed the Germans.
Just backing up a couple of paragraphs: why was all the machinery in The Flintstones powered by birds on treadmills? Given that they spent all their time trapped in confined spaces and pedalling things, wouldn’t lizards be more suitable? I’ve read some history and I know that birds were cumbersome and expensive back in those days! Perhaps The Flintstones were British. Sorry, are British.
Still, at least renovations of the bunker are progressing well.

A second pilgrimage, of sorts

Saturday 6 August 2005

I had two points of entry into London: Patrick Keiller’s film London (now out on DVD) and Iain Sinclair’s book Lights Out for the Territory. Between them they painted an idiosyncratic, irresistable portrait of the city’s complex psychogeography (Sinclair is the more metaphysically paranoid of the two) that made me want to explore it all for myself.
Before I can hope to get a handle on this place I have been visiting some of the sites mentioned in these two works, in an attempt to sense what type of signals I should be alert to when walking the city in search of points of personal significance, of the kind that won’t be found in the Time Out guides. This is why I wound up one sunny afternoon standing in front of the Tate Britain at Millbank, facing the other way and photographing the nondescript building on the south bank of the Thames.

For a similar reason I had gone to visit the Henry Moore sculpture Locking Piece: Sinclair draws a connection between this artwork outside the Secret Service headquarters and another Moore bronze, Two Knife/Edged Bronze which sits on College Green, outside the houses of parliament. Anytime you see a shot of a journo on the news standing with the Palace of Westminster in the background, odds-on they’re standing on College Green, where the sculpture “comes into its own as somewhere useful to stack camera equipment.”
Three buildings downriver from Locking Piece and the MI6 Building is the tower block pictured above, that I knew as Alembic House. The central episode of Lights Out for the Territory is when Sinclair gains entry to the building’s penthouse apartment to meet its owner and occupant, Jeffrey Archer. Archer, pre-disgrace, isn’t home but has granted Sinclair permission to look at his art collection and admire his view of the river. By chance, the two of them bump into each other soon after, on College Green.
Now I need to find the other Moore bronze on College Green, but in the current climate I don’t feel like taking lots of photographs around large numbers of police armed with automatic rifles.
Alembic House was recently renamed Peninsular Heights, and as far as I can tell Jeffrey Archer still lives in the penthouse, prison stretch notwithstanding. If you want to make a call to find out, the phone number ends 0077 – the legacy of the penthouse’s previous owner: John Barry, composer of James Bond movie soundtracks.