It’s National Poetry Day

… and I’m featured in a BBC Radio 4 programme called ‘Blood, Sweat, Tears & Poetry’ today at 11.30am. I’m talking to presenter Patience Agbabi about my residency at Bishopsgate Institute.

Then tonight I’m heading off to the Whitechapel Gallery for Plum – an excellent fiction / live lit night. I am giving a talk on the extraordinary poet Barry MacSweeney, and will be playing some previously unheard audio from Barry’s last ever reading.

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Blood, Sweat, Tears and Poetry

Today I spent a couple of hours at the Bishopsgate Institute being interviewed for BBC Radio 3 by Patience Agbabi and her producer Simon Evans. It’s for a programme called ‘Blood, Sweat, Tears and Poetry’, broadcast for National Poetry Day on 9th October at 11.30am. This year’s theme is ‘Work’ so they’ve been interviewing poets who have been ‘resident’ in workplaces (from April to July 2008 I was the Bishopsgate’s first ever Poet in Residence).

Of course, many artists and writers spend their lives in perpetual guilt that they’re not doing ‘proper’ jobs. Seamus Heaney’s famous poem ‘Digging’ – in which the father’s spade is transformed into the son’s ‘squat pen’ – comes to mind.

In other news – I am soon to move into a garret in Aldgate. True enough.

Berets by registered post, please.

Newborn

Being but men, we walked into the trees
Afraid, letting our syllables be soft
For fear of waking the rooks,
For fear of coming
Noiselessly into a world of wings and cries.

         Dylan Thomas

Birth is a kind of entrance. But how fast the river seems.
Faces turn to greet the moon. You walk into the trees.

Outside the rain collects in pools; a sudden breeze
runs through the Hall, and stops. You walk into the trees.

The city breathes, its pores secrete, it bleeds; streets
unfold, towers cleave. We open up and walk into the trees

and find a girl with knotted hair and matted, rough chemise
who sees herself reversed and flipped and tails into the trees.

The gates of Bedlam swing unhinged, release shale beads
and bracelets from the brickearth. All this turned into trees

will crease and freeze – nothing ceases, but is stored, as seas
hold heat, as a heart grips another. We listen to the trees.

Refugees in borrowed clothes will come in twos and threes,
restock the valley, ford the rivers, walk among the trees,

map the perfect sphere of skull, still fusing, crumpled knees;
your eyes’ dark blues and greens return a forest to its trees.

Being not machines but men, we misremember in degrees.
But then, as Thomas told, we dream and walk into the trees.

New Bishopsgate poems online

A selection of poems written during my residency at Bishopsgate Institute are currently on display in the building. They are also online here, with explanatory notes.

The poems are:

  • The Archive
  • Wake Up Lazarus
  • The Coder
  • Queer things in Egypt
  • The Blackpool Mile
  • Mr Bradlaugh’s Fishing Tackle
  • Bishopsgate, in elevation
  • Bishopsgate, from Bishops Square
  • Mr Goss is Mr Goff
  • Improve Yourself

Any comments – from staff, visitors or anyone else who’s interested – are most welcome!

Don’t forget to book for the Visions of the City mini-series. The opener is next Thursday, with Tim Wells, Simon Barraclough, Jay Bernard and myself. Booking line: 020 7392 9220.

Tall Buildings

Last night I attended a talk at Bishopsgate Institute entitled ‘A Brief History of Building Tall in London’, given by Susie Barson of English Heritage (I missed the second half, which was given by Rosemarie MacQueen). Barson’s talk was an engaging, if necessarily brief, overview of building tall from medieval to modern London. She spoke well on the Tower, St Paul’s (old and new), Gilbert Scott‘s Midland Grand Hotel (St Pancras), Senate House, and the new ‘Eastern Cluster’ of skyscrapers. I was particularly interested to hear about the way the London skyline has been shaped by persistent restrictions imposed by city authorities on planners and architects – often for practical rather than aesthetic purposes (eg. fire regulations in residential buildings).

However, I left feeling a little annoyed. As Barson’s talk came to an end – and the focus to contemporary concerns – it became increasingly obvious that she, and some of the audience, represent a particularly militant form of architectural/cultural conservatism. Now don’t get me wrong; English Heritage is an important agency who do vital work in preserving historic sites and ensuring that developers take a sensitive approach to their task. But I couldn’t help but think that Barson’s vision of London was not one I shared. She spoke of how English Heritage have developed a quasi-scientific ‘methodology’ for the protection of urban skylines (most famously, views of St Paul’s from key positions). Yet her own disgust at the current building boom in London revealed a more subjective approach. She really let the cat out of the proverbial bag when complaining that one of the proposed skyscrapers (I think it was Heron Tower) would blot out her view of St Paul’s from where she lives – I quote, ‘the heights of North London’.

I felt she was implying with that, and other statements, a sense of personal ownership over a view. But what about people who actually live and work in the centre of London, in the crazy, busy, messiness of it all? And, what with a recession and the Olympics around the corner, what about the city’s social and economic needs?

I suspect that this conservatism is inspired by a long tradition of skyline preservation. I’m thinking particularly of the way Renaissance representations of London by artists such as Van Visscher established a way of looking at the urban environment that incorporated elements such as perspective from the pictorial tradition. And then there’s the eighteenth century boom in all kinds of panoramas that Robert Barker called ‘a kind of pattern for organising visual experience’. You could also call it a kind of framing. I almost imagined the speaker last night holding up her fingers to form a picture frame, squinting through to find the perfect vision of London. But the city is to be lived, inhabited and experienced. It is a muddled, imperfect space full of bodies, interests, ambition and cash; not a picture postcard or a pastoral scene. Barson mentioned Canaletto in her talk, and here’s a Venetian master who, despite those unreal skies, really engaged with a burgeoning capitalist London, recognising that its beauty lay as much in disorder as order.

Barson described how coming across a skyscraper is like something ‘crashing down into the street’. She meant that pejoratively, but this is just the kind of urban experience that excites and challenges. The Gherkin is a good example and, whilst initially condemned from some quarters, is now very popular. If people want long vistas and avenues, move to Paris, where Haussman did what Wren couldn’t (his utopian vision of a post-Great Fire London was rejected due to the city’s complex system of land ownership, and a largely medieval street plan is maintained to this day).

Yes, there are issues with unrestricted urban growth, and yes, agencies such as English Heritage do need to make sure we’re developing in a way that is sensitive to the existing landscape and avoids problems such as sun-blotting. It’s also important that the city is not driven just by big money developers. But I for one hope that this cultural conservatism, based on a narrow and idealistic conception of the city as a picture to be gazed upon, does not come to dominate architectural discourse. I welcome the Helterskelter, Cheese Grater, Walkie Talkie and other strangely-monikered constructions.

Incidentally, I hope the Bishopsgate continues putting on events like this. I may not have agreed with Susie Barson’s talk, but it was thought-provoking!