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!

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Kenneth: “Oops I’ve done it again”

I’m hardly a fan, but by process of elimination Ken gets (has got) my vote. Sorry, Boris; I just don’t believe you’d be up to the task.

Fingers crossed for status quo. I am, as ever, the political conservative (note capitalisation). And, like Ken, a card-carrying Londoner. Besides, Ken’s a Tulse Hill lad.

Horse logic

 

    

What is it about horses? They’re everywhere, it seems.

What set it off for me was Paul Muldoon’s latest poetry collection Horse Latitudes. Then came Bat for Lashes’ haunting song ‘Horse and I’, from her Mercury Prize nominated album Fur and Gold. Next, I was hosting a reading in Whitechapel and introduced two young poets, Abigail Oborne and Ross Sutherland. Ross delivers an extraordinary piece, ‘Horse at midnight’, which comprises over sixty consecutive adjectives to describe a horse. Then came Abi’s ‘Portraits of a seaside town’, a poem ostensibly about Whitstable, Kent – but really about…. Yes, you guessed it.

After work I drink beer and talk about how I think everything is a conspiracy, ‘I mean,’ I say, ‘I mean, take horses for an example, if you look closely you notice that all horses have exactly the same face.’

Another time, the title track from Patti Smith’s seminal album Horses came on the radio, whilst I was reading the late Bill Griffiths’ Durham & other sequences. And there they are again.

There is the clipping, trotting, and pony and trap
draw up.
James and Lisa come to applaud
and the horse shakes a bit at the childer hands.

See? Horses are everywhere!

HORSEWISDOM

Assuming I still have my sanity, let’s consider why the humble horse might be so popular amongst writers and musicians – of any age.

According to Wikipedia, which, alarmingly, is fast becoming my sole source of wisdom, the horse (or Equus caballus) is a large, odd-toed ungulate mammal. The horse has played a vital role in the development of human societies – as pack animal, in agriculture and in war. And it’s widely believed that contact with horses can benefit people with disabilities.

Okay, so we’ve established that horses are indispensable to us humans, whether we’re trading, growing stuff or killing each other. But that last point – that horses can benefit those with disabilities – points to a deeper, more psychological and symbolic understanding of the horse.

The horse, it is supposed, is a noble creature, blessed with intelligence and unusual sensitivity. Under human control, they can be tools and companions – from Black Beauty and My Little Pony to Mister Ed. Eating the flesh of the horse (hippophagy) is considered taboo in many cultures. It’s makruh in Islam and treif in Judaism. There is a rich tradition of horse worship throughout the world, particularly in Celtic, Germanic and Scandinavian cultures. In the sprawling world of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the land of Rohan is home to a horse cult. Its leaders are ‘horse-lords’, its warriors skilled riders with armour decorated with horse symbols. (Also, see this short video on ‘horse eroticism’ in the Peter Jackson film of LOTR.) Like much of Tolkien’s writing, this is fantasy fiction based loosely on historical fact. Rohirrim culture is Tolkien’s reimagining of an idealised Anglo-Saxon world. Remember that the first Germanic warriors to come to Britain, at the behest of Vortigern, were a pair of Jutes named Hengest (‘stallion’) and Horsa. Well, that’s what the Venerable Bede says anyway.

And what about the giant horse symbols carved into the very landscape by our ancestors, like the one at Uffington?

HORSEPLAY

Strangely, considering the long-established convention of the horse as noble and intelligent, an alternative tradition casts our long-faced friend as a symbol of lust, the animal metaphor for sexuality. Just think of the common phrase ‘unbridled passion’. The bridle controls the horse and ensures the dick remains safely within the trouser.

Chaucer, as you might imagine, loved this kind of stuff and would never have passed up the opportunity for a spot of comic word-play. In the Reeve’s Tale, the ‘swyving’ of the Miller’s wife and daughter by ‘yonge povre scolers two’ is provoked by the following episode, in which the Miller unbridles the students’ horse.

The clerkes hors, ther as it stood ybounde
Bihynde the mille, under a levesel;
And to the hors he goth hym faire and wel;
He strepeth of the brydel right anon.
And whan the hors was laus, he gynneth gon
Toward the fen, ther wilde mares renne,
And forth with “wehee,” thurgh thikke and thurgh thenne.

Thus perfectly setting the tone for the subsequent cuckolding of the Miller.

Withinne a while this John the clerk up leep,
And on this goode wyf he Leith on soore.
So myrie a fit ne hadde she nat ful yoore;
He priketh harde and depe as he were mad.

In a similar vein, Walerian Borowczyk’s La Bête (1975) opens with explicit images of horse copulation – simultaneously setting the film’s uncomfortably erotic tone and prefiguring various human amorous encounters. Then of course there’s Peter Shaffer’s play Equus (1973), which counts that Potter boy amongst its recent leading men.

Study the English language (and no doubt others too) and you’ll notice that the horse features widely in its idiomatic expressions. Dark horse, high horse, horsing around, flogging a dead horse, from the horse’s mouth, even horseradish. I could go on…

Perhaps this is the best evidence of the way in which the horse has entirely pervaded human culture and society – as a tool, a slave, as animal companion and as symbol, a metaphoric screen onto which we project hopes, anxieties and desires. From contemporary music right back to the very first images daubed on cave walls. It’s a tradition with a future, that’s for sure.

Various Poetastings

I’ve been out and about a fair bit this last week, handing out flyers for London Word Festival of course. A promoter’s job is never done.

Eavan Boland

Firstly, The Poetry Society’s annual lecture at The Bishopsgate Institute on 31st January. This is where I organised London Lip with Iain Sinclair et al. and I’ll be seeing quite a bit more of The Bishopsgate and its lovely staff over the Spring when I take up my official poetic residency there. The lecture was given by the US-based Irish poet and critic Eavan Boland (above). A striking speaker whose poise lent her words an air of urgency. But not as fierce as she looks in the photo! As she explained, the topic was ‘The Cartography of Poetry’ – ie. a state of the nation address – but she would limit herself to an evaluation of ‘the political poem’. An apt topic, I thought, and something more potentially controversial than, say, a reappraisal of the sonnet or the villanelle (as Boland herself pointed out). It’s also a topic that has been much in the mouths of writers and literary commentators. Since the millennium, we’ve had 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq II and 7/7. And all that political instability alongside a growing sense of the threat of climate change. All of this brings the private, the domestic and the personal into the open, and forces writers and artists to question the value and purpose of their work.

Boland began by citing the well-known literary bust-up between Denise Levertov and Robert Duncan, a dispute founded on their divergent views on ‘public poetry’. Specifically, Duncan resented Levertov’s involvement as a writer in the Vietnam protest movement and considered her political poems not only to lack, but to actively betray, the poetic imagination. Duncan’s own position is that ‘the poet’s role is not to oppose evil but to imagine it’. This example sets up a number of complex distinctions, both ethical and aesthetical, which I won’t even try to unpack here. Boland herself argued (and it’s a position I applaud) for ‘a disabling of the either/or’ approach to poetry. She also spoke of the need for ‘a rich, diverse and risky poetry’. This last adjective is most important and gives away her true position on the Duncan/Levertov argument – Boland calls for a political poetry that takes risks, that avoids easy conclusions.

‘The political poem is a way of writing myself to the position to ask questions.’ (Boland)

I’m with her on that. When ‘political poetry’ resembles the lazy doggerel Pinter and Harrison came up with in response to the Iraq war, it’s not worth reading – that kind of work is politically and artistically safe; it asks no questions; its constituency is self-assured to the point of being self-regarding. Preaching to the converted, in other words. Rather, Boland advocated ‘a disintegration of we’. I’m with her on that too. That’s partly why I like Chris McCabe’s work (see below…).

Lastly, Boland touched on the politics of the environment, prophesising future conflict over nature poetry between, on the one hand, eco-poets who are socially, environmentally and politically engaged, and, on the other, those who espouse a largely Romantic, Wordsworthian approach (the latter being the more popular and well-established). Or to put it her way – a battle between a natural world which provides moral/spiritual instruction for the poet, and a natural world scarred and violated by human activity. This made me think of David Caddy’s work – rooted in the natural world and a small rural community, but international in character and politically and socially engaged. Readers might also be interested to note that political poetry, and specifically writers’ responses to climate change, is the subject of Making Nothing Happen, one of my London Word Festival events at The Bishospgate. Friday 29th February with Mario Petrucci, Melanie Challenger, Caspar Henderson and Neil Astley.

If there’s anything I took issue with in Eavan Boland’s lecture, it’s that I don’t really believe in a clear distinction between the political poem and the non-political poem. In many ways, all poetry, all acts of representation, are inherently political. I guess I agree with Jamie Wilkes on this one. So the argument is not between political and non-political, but between different kinds of politics. Then again, perhaps it’s just a matter of semantics…

The rest of the evening was spent in The Water Poet, Folgate Street with Simon Barraclough and Isobel Dixon (whose responses to this post I await!). We wedged ourselves in the only space not entirely overrun with loud city workers – the pool room. Conversation ranged from poetry (obviously) to soap operas. Coronation Street was a favourite of mine and Simon’s, whilst Isobel introduced us to the South African soap Egoli (meaning ‘Place of Gold’). I also argued hard for The Bill, which I was missing at the time.

The Troubadour

Then onto The Troubadour,West Brompton (above) on Monday night to witness the long-running Coffee House Poetry series coming head-to-head with Salt Publishing. A whopping ten Salt poets read (though I missed one or two, sneaking in during Tamar Yoseloff’s set) in the atmospheric basement venue. All the poets I saw were excellent and representative of the diversity of Salt’s growing stock of writers. Particular highlights for me were Isobel Dixon, Luke Kennard and Chris McCabe.

Isobel’s work is gently pervasive. She reads with a confidence and firmness that belies the lyrical lilt of her poetry. Every consonant of her finely-tuned lines is articulated, which I like. All too often poets rush through readings, aiming no doubt to capture the rhythms of speech, but ultimately mushing all the language into some comforting but unrecognisable pulp. I remember a particularly good line of Isobel’s about how her father’s beard hid a small face, or something like that. I paraphrase. Clive James is also a fan of Isobel’s book A Fold in the Map.

It’s always a pleasure (I initially wrote ‘joy’ then crossed it out) to hear Luke Kennard read. I’d heard a few of the poems he performed before – like ‘The Murderer’ for instance. His newer work was excellent too; in particular a piece about a couple meeting in an elephant’s graveyard. Luke’s a proper satirist, and also a very nice man with a fine selection of jackets. His poetry is popular even with people who don’t really like poetry, like the barmaid at The Troubadour, who asked him to post her a copy of The Harbour Beyond The Movie. This is always a good sign.

The real highlight of the evening was Chris McCabe, who I’ve known since I published a poem of his in Keystone (Issue 5, 2004). Chris works in The Poetry Library on the South Bank and has recently become a father for the first time. His work combines linguistic experimentation and plenty of tonal disharmony with a genuine accessibility and, importantly, wit. I’m never shy about giving my opinion, so here it is: Chris is the most exciting poet currently writing in London. There you go, I’ve said it… His first book The Hutton Inquiry is an impressive debut but too long and a bit patchy. His second book, also from Salt, is due out this year, and if I remember correctly from our conversation is entitled Zeppelin. I for one can’t wait. In fact I don’t have to, because David Caddy has accepted some of his work for the forthcoming Tears in the Fence. My recommendation? If you get the chance to see Chris read, take it up.

Brahmodya

Whole books are written in the quest to define the art of poetry.

Not a definition as such, but I rather like this, which I came across in Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation. She’s talking about the rituals of the Aryan people of the late Vedic period (c. 500 BCE).

When the king arrived back safely from his raid, with the spoils of battle, he had become one with the brahman. He was now the axis, the hub of the wheel that would pull his kingdom together, and enable it to prosper and expand. Brahman was also experienced in silence. A ritual often ended with the brahmodya competition to find a verbal formula that expressed the mystery of the brahman. The challenger asked a difficult and enigmatic question, and his opponent answered in an equally elusive manner. The match continued until one of the contestants was unable to respond: reduced to silence, he was forced to withdraw. The transcendence of the brahman was sensed in the mysterious clash of unanswerable questions that led to a stunning realisation of the impotence of speech. For a few sacred moments, the competitors felt one with the mysterious force that held the whole of life together, and the winner could say that he was the brahman.

Cultural (mis)adventures

Two recent adventures.

Two weekends ago I travelled up to Cambridge for the annual Procession for Advent at King’s College Chapel. This is less famous than the Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols (broadcast annually on BBC Radio since 1928), but no less atmospheric. With its giant nave and astonishing fan vaulting the Chapel is one of the most beautiful buildings anywhere. Beautiful in an imposing, awe-inspiring way. Which is presumably what its founder, Henry VI, intended. He was an acutely spiritual man and had he been alive would not, I think, have approved of the later additions to the Chapel by Henrys VII and VIII – dozens of clunky Tudor Roses stamped on the Chapel walls like giant stone logos, symbols of the burgeoning Royal authority over the Church.

  

Tudor Rose

  

My guide to the Chapel was my father, a former chorister and choral scholar at King’s. He informed me that when he was a chorister the ceiling was so black from the centuries of candle smoke that you could hardly make it out. I couldn’t help but think that despite the exquisite craftmanship of the vaulting, there must have been something profound about gazing up into the unknown dark, unable to capture with your eyes what your mind must believe is there. I always thought that the point of a spire is not to be seen.

The Service itself was spine-tingling, looping and swelling between long silences that seemed to fill every litre of air in the Chapel; from a lone voice in the nave to the grand communal singing of carols. It is the almost elemental relationship between the building, the choir and the congregation that makes this Service so special. At one point the choir sang from behind the closed doors of a side chapel, so that the sound was simultaneously near and far. And then they were right there, in front of you – a very human rag-bag of boys and young men assembled in the apse by Rubens’ Adoration of the Magi, somehow producing this extraordinary music.

  

* * *

  

And then there was Macbeth. Specifically, Rupert Goold’s production at The Gielgud with Patrick “make it so” Stewart in the lead role. First of all, let me get something out of the way. This was probably the most uncomfortable theatre experience I have ever had. Sarah and I were perched on the edge of the Grand Circle, on a hard bench of about seven seats (each worth £20). As we were acutely stage-left, we spent the entire performance leaning right forward with our necks twisted seventy degrees just to see half the stage. In their great wisdom The Gielgud had then decided to fly a rig of three of four lights from this point in the Grand Circle, obscuring the view by another twenty-five percent.

OK, I thought, so I can’t see everything, but surely half the enjoyment of Shakespeare is the language? I will simply close my eyes, sit back, and enjoy the poetry… Alas, no! I could hardly make out the pentameters between the constant coughing and sniffling. Whether it was the Stewart effect or the inclusion of Macbeth on this year’s A-Level syllabus, it was clear that this audience was not used to sitting in silence for long periods of time – something they might learn from the congregation at King’s.

  

 Patrick Stewart as Macbeth

  

Right, rant over. The play. Well, the first thing that hits you is the set, a bleak space surrounded by dilapidated walls and decorated with a rancid-looking basin, rusty radiator and a couple of rickety tables. An old-fashioned car lift with metal grilles is positioned upstage, the main entry point. It could be a communal shower room, torture chamber, prison cell or soup kitchen. It is of course all of these, and in the first scene a makeshift military hospital. Video is projected onto the walls, flickering with dark, vague images. The whole affair is like something out of the new wave of DIY horror films like SawCreep and 28 Days Later.

The Weird Sisters, whose lines are thought to be interpolations from a play by Thomas Middleton, are just as protean as the set. They appear variously as nurses, cooks and waitresses. In fact they seem hardly off the stage – ever-present reminders of Macbeth’s motivation and the ultimate vulnerability of his position. It’s hard to fault Patrick Stewart‘s performance. His seven years of exploring Galactic quadrants from the bridge of The Enterprise have clearly paid off – he displays the natural authority and stage presence required by the role, and delivers his lines with surety. Never too loud or too rushed, and with an instinctive sense of rhythm. There’s also something faintly schoolboyish about him, particularly in the scenes with Kate Fleetwood’s Lady Macbeth (whose performance was one of the few disappointments). But he’s equally comfortable playing the devilish tyrant and is brilliant in the banquet scene, reducing Mark Rawlings’ Lennox to a whimpering wreck when he snatches an unlit cigarette from his mouth and slowly deposits its contents over his head.

Talking of which, Goold’s production can be noted for its superb reimagining of the banquet scene, during which the ghost of Banquo – whose death Macbeth had ordered – appears twice. As the diners tuck into their first course (Macbeth at the head of the table with his back to us), a bloodied Banquo descends in the lift, steps out and, as Macbeth recoils in horror, leaps onto the table and strides towards him. At which point the lights go out, some video flickers, and the first half’s over – we applaud, then rush to the bar. When the second half starts, rather than continuing from where he’d left off, Goold rewinds the tape, stops and presses play. We’re back at the start of the banquet scene. The table is set, the guests welcomed, and Macbeth repeats his humiliation of Ross and Lennox with military precision. And this time, when they sit to eat, and the King startles from his place, Banquo’s ghost is nowhere to be seen. This bold move of repeating the scene allows us to view the action first through Macbeth’s eyes and then from the perspective of his bewildered court. The effect is astonishing, visceral. We watch the characters perform their actions and say their lines – as much ‘actors’ as Stewart & co. The flickering projections on the tiled walls of the set assume a symbolic status – we watch for glitches in the film, disturbances in the air, the moral malfunction at the heart of the play.

As I type this, my girlfriend, a PhD student at The Globe Theatre, informs me that Macbeth was probably performed for James I of England (VI of Scotland) at Hampton Court and that Shakespeare may have intended the character of Banquo to represent the ‘true’ Stuart line of Scottish rule. In Act IV the Weird Sisters show Macbeth a vision of eight Scottish kings – the descendants of Banquo. The last in the line carries a mirror. One imagines it being help up to James, ‘the wisest fool’. This political edge is important. Macbeth is a play about kingship – how not to rule. When Macduff is told that his family have been slaughtered, we are watching, waiting for his response. His is true emotional despair, the natural outrage of a good man, and here Michael Feast’s rendition provided one of the highlights of a production that comes highly recommended. Just avoid the ‘cheap’ seats.

Books and more books

Reader, I’m a terrible reader, with the attention span of a mosquito. Although, in fact, mosquitos must have rather long attention spans if their noisy commitment to nocturnal blood-feasting is anything to go by. Anyway, my planned holiday reading remains half-read. I think I was a little overambitious. My suitcase was so heavy I was almost charged extra by Sleazyjet.

This was largely down to Steven Pinker’s new book The Stuff of Thought – it’s a lovely big turquoise hardback that runs to 439 pages. I’m 77 pages in, and enjoying it. As a practising writer I find his investigation of metaphor of particular interest. Pinker’s is a very theoretical approach to linguistics – he’s interested in grammar and semantics; the rules that govern everything we say. I occasionally miss a more sociolinguistical approach. It would fill in some of the gaps and paint a more realistic picture of language production.

  

  

I’ve also purchased a copy of Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation: The World in the Time of Buddha, Socrates, Confucius and Jeremiah. I’ve always had a passion for comparative religion and can’t wait to get my teeth into this one. Despite the threats of bigotry and backwardness posed by (amongst others) radical Islam, nationalist Hinduism and evangelical Christianity, I am pleased, I think, that religion is back in fashion. It’s interesting to note that in the cases of Islam and Christianity at least, radical thought tends to be the result of a doctrinal enslavement to text. A rigidity that does not allow for the evolution of religious and cultural practices, and which seems to me utterly alien to the postmodern world-view. Speaking as a ‘resting’ Catholic, I would consider the Bible to be a starting point not the be-all and end-all. Two thousand years of organic, often pragmatic, theological development seems like a good thing to me. The original tenets of faith remain, but filtered through the cultural standards of each successive age.

  

    

I did manage to read Ben Borek’s Donjong Heights – a brilliant, virtuosic debut by a young poet from Camberwell (South London represent!). The prospect of a 150 page novel in verse – written in Onegin stanzas after Pushkin – hardly set my heart racing, but I was pleasantly blown away by Borek’s sheer linguistic verve and sharp eye for satire. This is a highly recommended read, and congrats to Eggbox for producing such a fine thing to handle.

  

Donjong Heights

  

Finally I read most of London Noir, a collection of crime stories edited by Cathi Unsworth. A mixed bunch to be frank, but I did enjoy Stewart Home’s Rigor Mortis, a short narrative set in Ladbroke Grove (an area I know well from my skateboarding days).