Wednesday 29 June 2011

'Unwritten language, unnamed places'

Edition 7 of the >Language >Place blog carnival is online now at Julia Davies's blog, practice makes perfect. The theme is 'Unwritten language, unnamed places'. I especially love some of the poetry and images in this edition, and I love that the format and content of each edition is so different. Submissions for the next edition are invited until 20 July.

Tuesday 28 June 2011


These broken, carved fragments lie on the ground outside St George's Church, Bloomsbury, which is emerging from the tail end of major restoration. It's a great church in a small space, tucked between other buildings on a busy street. I'd never seen it, or at least never looked at it, before. I didn't visit the grand interior that day. Now that it's entered my consciousness, I'm sure I will. Instead, I paused in the rain and looked at these fragments lying in the fenced-in yard that faces a narrow back-street. They were compelling, full of shape and texture, each one a pattern and a story and together a complex, labyrinthine pattern of stories.

Opposite the church, across the narrow back-street, are the offices of the London Review of Books, whose resident designer and art critic, Peter Campbell, has written about the history and restoration of the church.

I've been reading quite a lot of poetry recently, slowly feeling a little bit less of a stranger to it. I thought: the church is like a grand, classic novel and these carved fragments, grouped here on the ground, are like poetry. They're a different use of stone, a different, freer but more concentrated use of visual language, spiralling through many layers of connection and meaning.

More photos here.

(This post became my contribution to Edition 8 of the >Language >Place blog carnival - featured theme: 'the poetry of place')

Friday 24 June 2011

Reasons for not blogging

What it amounts to is that, even if I totally eschew anything overtly personal, I have to know where I’m blogging from: any comment on or response to anything at all starts with some sense of myself in relation to it – and my sense of self is in trouble.

There is bad stuff: the sense that I’m living on a flood plain, much too close to the river of despair and insanity. Especially insanity, which actually hasn’t been my greatest fear in recent years.

But there’s also stuff that’s just confusing. Like, following serious fear of despair and insanity, I get up and stalwartly plod on as before. No superhuman effort, more the force of habit and that always surprising rediscovery of your own amazing resilience (I guess the knowledge of this inexplicable resilience, this life force, is the nearest I come to believing in God).

So I plod on, very busy - even busier after two days sick, mostly calm and mostly ok. Except that every now and then I spend about half an hour wanting to die and wondering why the hell I keep plodding on. And then I plod on again as before.

Somewhere inside, a voice is crying ‘help me – let me live before it is too late’. But there’s no help to be had. So you walk on towards nowhere, a tight-strung, patched together semblance of a person. You’re not really here. You’re holding up a cardboard cut-out.

Quite often when I want to die the problem is mostly tiredness, which is no doubt why just stopping for a bit will enable the plodding to resume. But I know, of course, that simple tiredness – however extreme - and despairing madness kind-of, um, shouldn’t feel like the same thing!

What lies beyond a fairly complete and lasting sense of hopelessness? It's an important question, but I don't have the time or energy to grapple with it. So I’m a bit lost right now and have nothing much to say about anything.

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Summer solstice

Sun then rain then sun,
then this eddying silence -
waiting for the turn.

Sunday 19 June 2011

Under the trees


This was my contribution to Edition 61 of the Festival of the Trees.

Saturday 18 June 2011

One moment of today

Send a small stone to Fiona and Kaspa on their wedding day! A present for them, and for the writer too - the present moment you stopped and noticed. Here's mine.

Thursday 16 June 2011

Wednesday 15 June 2011

Imagined depths

Is he imagining wilder, deeper waters, the boy who stands reflected in the narrow, concrete-sided pool, designed by Susanna Heron, at the Brunswick Centre?

The light is often lovely in the sheltered space among the shops and cafes of this refurbished 1960s housing scheme. I think that’s a lot of its charm. When I first moved to London in 1980, I worked just up the road and used to come here for lunchtime shopping. A supermarket, pharmacist and one or two other shops crouched within a wind- and rain-blown (in all my memories), stained and shabby square of concrete blocks. A sad example of would-be visionary 60s architecture gone wrong, it chimed with my dawning sense of alienation, that the move to London might have been a very bad move. I could see, though, that the blocks were an interesting conception and the flats must be full of light, that it could have been different.

Also here is the Renoir cinema, then and still, despite takeovers, the best place in London for foreign films, so I kept coming back through long years of neglect and years of scaffolding and plastic sheeting. Then one day, finally: a spanking new shopping and eating space within a square of pale, painted concrete cliffs. It’s not the truly exciting place this might be with a less commercial vision (see link above to an excellent Guardian article), but it has become a congenial, unusual and aesthetically pleasing enclave. The clean, leisured busyness where once there was grim emptiness lifts a heart that remembers those long-ago lunchtime visits.

The soft light and the pale, monumental, abstract shapes as background to colour and movement are often photogenic. And the shallow water reflects it all: a simple design, but evocative. Yes, it's just a concrete, pedestrianised space to come and spend your money in. But it means a lot, I muse, staring into the water, that in the long years of living, perhaps mistakenly, in London, when so much has got worse, worse, worse, this particular place - one of the first to sadden and appall me when I came here - has got much nicer.

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Plastic chair art

Love these - I want the chair. So I can look at it, not sit in it. 

Monday 13 June 2011

Reality stutters at the edge of abstraction

One of the things that attracts me to the facades of Webber Street is their apparent two-dimensionality, a certain lightness and liberation in this. There's the third dimension of reflection, of course, but this somehow removes from perception the ordinary three-dimensionality of the street. Soon after taking these photos, I came, quite by chance, upon mention of a book of photos and critical theory: Unmapping the City: Perspective of Flatness, works by Alfredo Cramerotti and accompanying essays by Jonathan Willett, which seem to be addressing precisely this. It's clearly a book of heavy theory - perhaps a bit much for me. But I read the extracts given, along with a selection of photos, here with some recognition and excitement.
"The photographic effect is is to deconstruct the three-dimensional built environment in 'perspectives of flatness', which in turn re-construct a sensibility toward the concrete, rationalized spaces of urban cartography."

"Emerging from the social and historical complexities of the urban environment are a thousand cities of the imagination, as the shadow architectures of perception: these other places are the yet to be experienced vicinities of the city, the interstitial places that materialize in the gaps betweem 'perspective seeing' and 'perspective knowing'."
"reality stutters at the edge of abstraction"
Another, brighter selection of Cramerotti's photos is here. So many reasons why the city building-scape might veer, often does, towards the overwhelming and unreal - this is perhaps one tangible aspect, which, if engaged with, becomes less alienating and more potentially creative. "The 'perspective of flatness' becomes a means of negotiating the conditions of contemporary urban life": I think this is a direction I have sometimes taken all unconsciously. It's interesting that taking pictures has perhaps led to somewhere I would never have arrived at through words.

Sunday 12 June 2011

Saturday 11 June 2011

Friday 10 June 2011

South African renaissance?

There's a piquancy in the siting of Figures and Fictions, the V&A's current exhibition of recent photography from South Africa, close to a gallery of Italian Renaissance sculpture (above). It's a striking juxtaposition, but not a jarring one. The exhibition is so - what can I call it? - so full. There's too much of everything in London, including culture and cultural artefacts. At the heart of almost every exhibition - often vast, encyclopedic, daunting and exhausting, costing millions to stage and needing a million visitors to give a profit - is a sudden emptiness. It all generates an expectation it can never meet. There is accumulation, weariness, switching off... and suddenly a hole in the experience, a place of emptiness, of placelessness, of thinglessness. Too much is the same as nothing.

The emptiness has become all-too familiar and this is why the word that comes to me to best describe this terrific exhibition is full. It's in no sense a complete view of that huge country today or of those who make it their project to represent it - such a thing could never be, and a lot of the problem with the 'blockbuster' exhibitions is probably that they try for completism. It is, though, a view that doesn't break up into emptiness, but continues throughout to compel attention, surprise and reaction.

Seventeen currently active photographers are represented - a lot for a comparatively small exhibition; some by only three or four works, but striking enough that they still have impact. They're a varied bunch, in age, in race, in background and in their projects and perspectives as photographers, none of which, I think it's safe to say, is purely journalistic or indeed glibly definable in any way. The 'Figures' of the title is unproblematic - these are all photos of people, What the curators seem to mean by 'Fictions' is any created representation. As well as a range of complex artistic and technical strategies from the photographers, there's a lot of conscious self-representation, self-performance by the subjects, as you'd surely expect in portraits of people in such a multitudinous, complex, sophisticated and above all fast-changing society. The 'Fictions' raises a question, I suppose: what conclusions can we draw from these images about South Africa today? Should we draw any?

We can't avoid assumptions and generalisations about somewhere so vast, so varied, so iconic in its past horrors and struggles and its present delirious, uneven pace of change - better to be aware that we're probably making them. These are such powerful and compelling works, though. Their 'reality' is overwhelming, even while the levels and complexities of that reality raise a lot of questions. There are so many memorable images, memorable faces; the confidence and courage, defiance and vulnerability of people redefining their lives and work and sexuality; the wild costumes both imposed by tradition and invented for the camera; the shock of the new, all mixed up with the legacy of past horrors and the continuing violence, indignity - alongside dignity - and polarisation.

Enough abstractions: the pictures speak best for themselves. The associated website is a rich resource, with an interesting write-up and example on each photographer and some videos which are quality works in themselves. Another good selection of the photographs is here. Looking at these pictures, I didn't feel the kind of sadness I feel when I visit the National Portrait Gallery's annual photo portrait exhibition and see a polished, self-ironising homogeneity that can't but speak of decadence. There was a kaleidoscope of often difficult emotions, but not hopelessness. And the ones that made me cry: by an old, white man, David Goldblatt - which is probably fitting.

Thursday 9 June 2011

After the struggle

Statue of Nelson Mandela on the South Bank of the Thames by the Festival Hall. The statue stands against a pale wall, made paler on that day by blazing sunshine. So it took only a small adjustment to remove the wall completely from the photo. I like the aesthetic effect of this. Also, though, it seemed symbolic of a certain limbo that has overtaken the heroism of Mandela, such a few years after his release from prison and the end of the Apartheid regime. Which leads into the next post, if I ever get around to writing it.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Dog in the window

Two rows ahead of me on the bus, nose pressed to the grubby window, looking out.
The life-enhancing moment. Why photography is redemptive :-)

Tuesday 7 June 2011

From above

Looking down at people on the floor of the vast Turbine Hall at Tate Modern. They seem to float through that huge space, along the slightly uphill path towards the exit where daylight filters through the impossibly tall windows.

Monday 6 June 2011

Green chopsticks

At the lovely Urban Orient Vietnamese cafe in Crystal Palace. The Vietnamese word for chopsticks, I think, is dua (sorry, Blogger is objecting to diacritics lately. I need to look into new ways to insert them).

Sunday 5 June 2011

For the cell of a recluse

The sun was gorgeously caressing and not too hot, so after work I crossed over Waterloo Bridge and took a walk along the river to see the Miro exhibition at Tate Modern, open late on Fridays. The riverside was crowded all the way and my gallery attention span proved, alas, to be about thirty minutes. I know, at least, what I want to go back and spend more time with. Here are my favourite paintings from this visit, interspersed with a few photos. They tell their own story of what I could relate to on a Friday evening.

There's a mood, a mental space where words rush into my head, make patterns faster than I can write them down. I'm almost never in this space - I am too tired. After work, I need silence and emptiness and it's all I can manage, but I also need words and need to write. After work I need rest and solitude and it's all I'm capable of, but I also need people, stimulation and activity. I'm not able to balance these conflicting needs and must learn how. The alternative is a kind of death.

Miro: Drop of Water on Pink Snow, 1968

Miro: Painting on White Background for the Cell of a Recluse, 1968

Miro: Head of a Catalan Peasant, c 1925

Saturday 4 June 2011

Friday 3 June 2011

Webber Street

Webber Street, behind The Old Vic - photo set here.

Thursday 2 June 2011

Edition 6 of the >Language >Place blog carnival

Dauntingly busy lately, I've only really made time today to explore the new edition of the >Language >Place blog carnival, hosted by Michelle Elvy, in New Zealand and right here and everywhere in cyberspace. The theme was 'language and place on the edge' and my reading was a tantalising, liberating journey away from my office desk and through the edge of places, images and minds.

Edition 7 will be hosted by Julia Davies in Germany and cyberspace. Submissions are open until 26 June.

Street furniture

This is the scale of streetside excrescence I can deal with, even welcome. On a less acceptable, indeed terrifying scale, the LRB blog has a great post by Rosemary Hill on The Shard.

Wednesday 1 June 2011

Small Stones Blogsplash

The best thing I've done this year was to take up the daily practice of writing 'small stones' - one single, small, attentive thought each day. I started with the challenge to write one every day in the month of January, was delighted to be included in the book of that month, and here I am still writing them in June, on a separate blog. It's a small thing that can make a huge difference, wake you up and calm you down in the midst of rushing and routine and sometimes turn the whole day around.

So I'm very happy to be part of the small stones blogsplash - a chance for those already familiar with small stones to give something back to Fiona, who founded this practice, and Kaspalita  and for others to give it a go, on 18 June, when they'll be getting married. This will be a lovely thing  - all these small, attentive thoughts collected on their wedding day!

From Fiona and Kaspa :

We are both on a mission to help the world connect with the world through writing. We are also getting married on Saturday the 18th of June.

For our fantasy wedding present, we are asking people across the world to write us a ‘small stone’ and send it to us here.

A small stone is a short piece of observational writing – simply pay attention to something properly and then write it down. Find out more about small stones here.

If you’re willing to help, we’d love you to do two things:

1) Re-post this blog on your own blog as soon as you can (any time before June the 18th) to give your readers a chance to hear about what we’re doing.  Just cut and paste or you can find the html here.

2) Write us a small stone on our wedding day whilst we’re saying our vows and eating cake, and post it on your blog. There’s more information about how you can do that here.

You can find out all about our project at our website, Wedding Small Stones, and you can also read our blog at A River of Stones. If you get bitten by the small-stone-writing bug we also have a challenge coming up, when we’ll be challenging you to notice one thing every day during July and write it down.

Thank you for listening, and we hope we’ll be returning from our honeymoon to an inbox crammed with small stones, including yours.

Warmest, Kaspa and Fiona