Overheard on the DLR (Heron Quays Station)

Wednesday 6 February 2008

“So she’s not coming in today either. She called in sick yesterday then went shopping and broke her leg falling out of a taxi.”

Brockley Nocturne with Effect of Dormobile

Saturday 26 January 2008

I have a feeling we’re not in Crouch End any more.

Wednesday 9 January 2008

Soon after arriving home from Australia I caught a few minutes of a TV show on one of the more obscure digital TV channels available in London. An American couple were walking lost around some empty streets in – a town. (I’m tempted to say an inner suburb, but even that statement is too revealing.)
According to the story, the couple had just been married in America and had come over to London to spend their honeymoon in Crouch End – you know, the same way tourists flock to New York to go sightseeing in Queens. Even though this was one of those cheap TV programs which always frames the actors’ heads as tightly as possible, and even though I’ve only been to Crouch End once, and then at nighttime, I instantly recognised where these two were; and it wasn’t Crouch End.
They were in Melbourne. North Carlton, to be precise. My girlfriend’s from south of the river and so thinks it was Middle Park, but I’m feeling cocky and reckon it was around Station, Fenwick, and Canning Streets. Something about the houses, the light, the width of the streets, immediately made the place unmistakable, even when partially glimpsed in the background.
I wonder if anyone in Britain would have been fooled by the substitution? No Londoner would have, even if they had never been near Crouch End. It’s possible, however, that they might assume it was filmed somewhere else in England. An American wouldn’t have a chance in picking this deception.
In time you come to know a city the way you come to know a face. It’s not just in the skylines, or the streetscapes, but in the way the people inhabit their space. On another TV show years ago, an Australian documentary, a friend and I watching immediately called out “Melbourne” when the film cut to a brief shot of a group of people walking down a street. The narration later proved us right: it was something about the way they were casually drifting off the pavement onto the street itself that couldn’t happen in any other large Australian city (except Adelaide, but that city always gives itself away.)
With the increase of Hollywood-funded filmmaking in Australia, these places have been turning up more and more often, the streets and buildings as actors, playing a fictional role. Sometimes they play disguised under heavy make-up – I once watched a corner of the University of Adelaide transformed into a Parisian street for a TV commercial – but often they appear as they are, expecting the viewer to mentally substitute the fictional location for the real (or is it the other way around?)
For the non-Australian majority, these urban locations act effectively as generic Western cities, shot without any readily identifiable landmarks in sight. Their acting function is less as a supporting role, and more as an extra, faceless and interchangeable. If Peter Jackson made New Zealand a stand-in for the otherworldly, then Australian cities have been made a stand-in for the real world.

(Crossposted at Sarsaparilla.)

Dormoblies of Brockley (Slight Return)

Thursday 11 October 2007

The number of Volkswagen campers lurking between my house and my local café has cracked double figures, now that this specimen has parked down the street.
Also, the name and subject indices are gradually being updated, having now got as far as mid-August.

Next thing I know it’ll turn out that St James’s really was eaten by a giant adenoid

Sunday 30 September 2007

Mrs. Quoad offering a tin of that least believable of English coughdrops, the Meggezone…
The Meggezone is like being belted in the head with a Swiss Alp. Menthol icicles immediately begin to grow from the roof of Slothrop’s mouth. Polar bears seek toenail-holds up the freezing frosty-grape alveolar clusters in his lungs. It hurts his teeth too much to breathe, even through his nose, even, necktie loosened, with his nose down inside the neck of his olive-drab T-shirt. Benzoin vapors seep into his brain. His head floats in a halo of ice.
Even an hour later, the Meggezone still lingers, a mint ghost in the air…
Thomas Pynchon, Gravity’s Rainbow, pp.118.

It’s all harmless British eccentricity until someone loses an eye

Saturday 8 September 2007

Tonight I’ve been editing music while the girlfriend watched The Last Night of the Proms on TV. When the “Land of Hope and Glory” bit of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No.1 kicked in, someone in a house up the street started setting off fireworks.

Dormobiles of Brockley Redux

Sunday 8 July 2007

A sunny afternoon and out they come. These two were snapped in the same fifty metre strip as this one and this one.

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?

Dormobiles of Brockley

Wednesday 2 May 2007

It must be all of a 500m walk from my house to the café, and this is what I see along the way. It’s a restless, rootless neighbourhood that I live in.

Tourists at the Gates of Hell!

Saturday 31 March 2007

Tourists at the Gates of Hell!

Tourists at the Gates of Hell!

And what evil lurks behind the Gates of Hell?

A bloke eating crisps.

Can’t believe the NHS is losing money with careful organisation like this

Sunday 4 March 2007

If you’ve been wondering why I haven’t posted here for the past week, it’s because I’ve been stuck on a bus behind an NHS protest which decided it would be a good idea to stage a march up a street that’s been closed off and dug up, and have only just got home. To be fair, the street’s only been closed for the past three weeks so it’s not like they had time to plan for this.

Dalston Kingsland, North London Line, 6.00pm

Saturday 27 January 2007

You all racist, all of you, but you don’t know nothing! You not even white! You know the name they got for you? Caucus Asians! That’s what you are, you all Asians man. You ain’t even real Asian, you all dead man, you’re all caucuses, you’re dead bodies. You ain’t white, you dead. Caucus Asians!

Contextualising the contemporary artist within capitalist society: a case study

Tuesday 5 December 2006

(Fournier Street, Spitalfields. Evening. A TOUR GUIDE is leading a small CROWD on a Jack the Ripper tour. He stops to point out the sights.)

TOUR GUIDE
Here we see Christ Church, the masterpiece of Nicholas Hawksmoor, known as “the Devil’s Architect”. People have spent decades trying to decipher the occult symbolism behind its mysterious design.

CROWD
Aaah!

TOUR GUIDE
Opposite, we stand before the infamous Ten Bells pub, where the Ripper would select his unfortunate victims from among the ladies of the night.

CROWD
Oooh!

(Concluding his lurid peroration, the CROWD continues its walk up the street a little further, when the TOUR GUIDE stops again to call attention to another place of similarly sordid interest to the tour. He gestures at a doorway in a modest row of brick houses in the shadow of the church.)

TOUR GUIDE
And this house is the residence of the notorious modern British artist Tracey Emin, who paid one million pounds for the house several years ago.

CROWD
Whoah!

(On one of the upper storey windows, a wooden shutter suddenly bangs open. The head of TRACEY EMIN appears, leaning over the sill to yell into the street below.)

TRACEY EMIN
One POINT ONE million!

FINIS

Also published at Sarsaparilla.

Another London Pilgrimage: Wyndham Lewis

Sunday 19 November 2006

This jolly building is No. 4 Percy Street, Fitzrovia (“it would be called Soho by a careless guide”), sometime home of Wyndham Lewis at the time he was writing Tarr. No blue plaque marks the site, although Charles Laughton and Coventry Patmore have plaques on the same block. Appropriately, the ground floor is now a boutique called “Almost Famous”, and the first floor houses a “brand development” company.
(In fact, Lewis does have a blue plaque, but at one of his later residences, in Kensington.)

A little further south, across Oxford Street, is Soho Square, where T.E. Hulme once hung Lewis from the railings after an argument got a little out of hand. “I never see the summer house in its centre without remembering how I saw it upside down.” According to Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of Pound, the dispute was about which man had bonking rights over Kate Lechmere, but I haven’t found corroboration for this anywhere else, and Carpenter had a habit of ascribing motivations to his subjects based on nothing more than his distaste for them.
The statue is of Charles II. Despite his presence, there are no pelicans to keep down the rampant pigeon population.
Soho Square is also the place where Hulme was once apprehended by the law for urinating in public, in broad daylight. Hulme was indignant: “Do you realise you’re addressing a member of the middle class?” The policeman apologised and went away. I looked, but couldn’t find a plaque to commemorate the event.

London: City of Disappearances

Friday 10 November 2006

As part of my recurring curiosity about London’s psychogeography, I went to the launch of the book London: City of Disappearances in Bishopsgate. Bishopsgate was an appropriate location for the launch: the City’s frontier, the line of the old city wall acting as a threshhold where the establishment’s corporate bastions give way to the rapidly redeveloping East End. All around the Bishopsgate Institute’s Great Hall are new cafes and bistros built over what was formerly bohemian squalour, and before that working class and immigrant enclaves.
My own place in Hackney is on a similar border, but between two manifestations of the same economic weather. To the west, gentrification and property speculation encroaches, as the housing estates gradually disappear, one by one. Just to the east lies Olympic territory, the Hackney Marshes destined for wholsesale reconstruction by 2012.
The book, a collective repository of memories from the famous and unknown alike, solicited from an open call for contributions, was edited by Iain Sinclair, whom I have discussed several times before. He spoke of the intertwining of history and myth, of the city as a tissue of ephemera related from one individual to the next, its identity made or lost through what someone remembers or forgets.
“Every appearance is a disappearance,” we were reminded, thinking of the construction sites that surrounded us. It was not a necessary injunction. As a newcomer, I knew that arriving in a city entails always being reminded of how much you have already missed. As for Londoners, they are so preoccupied with memories, with conservation and preservation, that every change in the city is regarded as a loss. The preservationist urge is so strong in most Western cities today that the population’s response to the cityscape is almost entirely reactive, focussed exclusively on what is to be destroyed, with no deep consideration of what is to replace it. Really, it would be more instructive to remind ourselves that every disappearance is an appearance, for ill or good.
Sinclair himself has been guilty of this kind of barbaric nostalgia – who, not knowing what is of value, hoards everything – reacting to every alteration and relocation with an innate fear and mistrust. Transported back to Victorian times he would have doubtless been dismayed by the excavation of the sewers. His attitude has become more enlightened lately, having explored further afield into the suburbs, and learning from J.G. Ballard how to appreciate the new city that has sprung up in the Docklands.
Someone asked how he knew that all the stories collected are true. “I don’t.” Everyone invents their own world, and so each London described cannot help but bear a greater or lesser resemblance to the city you or I would recognise. Some of the collected memoirs are likely fabrications; some flatly contradict each other. (Two ageing anarchists in the book claim to have been working in the same Charing Cross Road bookshop at the same time, and each vociferously denies that the other was there.)
The book will not give a definitive overview or coherent mapping of a city plainly seen, but hopefully in its omissions, repetitions, dead ends and contradictions, its confusion will make a truer reflaction. As someone who prefers to play the hunter-gatherer of used and remaindered books, it will again be a portrait partly eclipsed by time when I get around to reading it.