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!


Digging around in Bishopsgate

I spent this afternoon digging around in the Bishopsgate Institute‘s archive, which is housed in the basement of the building. Much of the material is stored in heavy-duty grey boxes with labels like ‘London Collection 3/5’ and ‘ICA Minutes 192-208’. You’ve just gotta start somewhere, so I pulled out one of the London Collection boxes. Inside, lots of what you’d call ephemera – news clippings, land and property deeds, picture postcards, eighteenth century cartoons, advertisements for Charles Chubb‘s Improved Patent Detector Lock and Wiss’s Self Acting Portable Water Closet.

I found a fascinating little typed-up text entitled ‘A Young Jewish Workman in the 1930s’, which appears to be an excerpt from Emanuel Litvinoff‘s Journey Through a Small Planet (1972). I’ve adapted the text into a poem, as follows:

Improve Yourself

All day I inhaled the hairs of
dead foxes, skunks and rabbits
in Dorfmann’s workshop.

I slept amid the debris of failure.
God had torn up my dreams
like an impatient schoolmaster.

Dorfmann’s wife, the machinist,
had big, muscular arms
and shaved every day.

Luba, the finisher, wound
braided plaits of jet-black hair
around her delicate ears.
I was her prisoner.

Thinking of her hotly,
I stroked the silken pelts
spread out on the bench.

These were the wages of lust.

Also of particular interest was a series of cartoons entitled ‘Skelts Characters in Harlequin Jack Sheppard’. Sheppard was a notorious eighteenth-century criminal and popular working-class icon who escaped from prison four times in 1724 before being hanged at Tyburn. He was born in White’s Row, Spitalfields. The series depicts numerous humourous characters including Fleet Ditch Darrell and Winifred Wood; very much in the style of eighteenth-/nineteenth-century satirical draughtsmen like Hogarth and Rowlandson. Skelt is the publisher Matthew Skelt. Don’t know much about him, but he was based in The Minories – a road that runs from Aldgate to the Tower.

I then got stuck right in to the Goss Collection. Charles Goss was the legendary librarian of the Bishopsgate from 1897 to 1941. I spent a good two hours immersed in the peculiar world of this enigmatic man, once described by a fellow librarian as

Pugnacious little Goss, his huge moustache a-bristle, his pen running venom.

Goss was a controversial figure in the library world (opposing the open-access system), author of several acclaimed books on London history, and a ridiculously prolific writer of newspaper articles on subjects as diverse as Jesters, Preparing Mummies and Christmas Customs. Whilst clearly a brilliant mind and energetic librarian and local historian, it seems to me from reading through his letters, articles and other scraps in the collection that Goss nurtured serious status anxieties.  Even his signature – a mess of heavily embellished curls and swoops – shows a man obsessed with his own self-image. I might be wrong, however. As a kind of tribute to this, I am working on a poem, every line of which begins with ‘Mr Goss’. I hope he likes it. I definitely felt a strange presence peering over my shoulders as I read through his letters!

Poetry on demand

Easier said than done, this commissioned writing lark. I’m used to letting language lead the way in a spontaneous, organic fashion; the ‘poetry on demand’ approach is trickier and demands a lot of patience, although it is, to a degree, time-limited. I’m not sure exactly what I’m going to come up with in my residency at The Bishopsgate Institute, but I hope it covers quite a few bases. In fact, I’d echo what Roddy Lumsden has to say. He’s just finished writing poetry with/for Kate Moss in a project called Flowers4Kate. This is from an early entry in his residency diary.

I’ve been on the set for a couple of hours now, watching as things are being prepared. I’m not sure how many poems I’m going to produce, but I want to create a variety of pieces, some unusual, others more conventional. Since flowers are central to the shoot, I’ve brought some books with me which contain information on the lore and language of flowers. I want to start by creating a sing-song list poem which incorporates plant names and their derivations, plant lore and uses, mixed in with more abstract phrases which occur to me as I make my notes. I’m taking care not to make it too ‘flowery’.

The good news is that I’ve now got three finished poems. I say finished – they may well change over the course of this month. ‘Mr Bradlaw’s Fishing Tackle’ is set in the Institute’s library and is a reworking of ‘Megalithic Software’ (below); ‘The Blackpool Mile’ is based on memories of living and working in the East End (thanks Laurie); ‘Queer things in Egypt’ is a looser, less narrative/observational piece which focuses on ideas of inwardness and outwardness, I guess – the title refers to a lecture given at the Institute in 1940 by one Rev. GW Kerr.

Megalithic Software, and other curious tales

The Bishopsgate Institute’s library is the more surprising the further you delve. I spent a good few hours there yesterday, reading and writing. Well, scribbling is probably a more accurate word. The library spans two large rooms – gorgeous, proper bookcases and lots of wood everywhere. A frosted glass partition separates a staff area in the second room. A funky spiral staircase leads to a gallery, which is off-limits to the public. This is where the Institute’s substantial London collection is to be found. Some very esoteric items, and some beautiful ones too. I spotted a copy of the famous-ish Liber Albus (not original) and several important City documents such as The Ordnance of the Stationer’s Company (16something). Also lots of books on pubs.

The library was very busy at lunchtime, with a diverse (age/race/dress) crowd. During the afternoon it was a bit clearer but always in use for various purposes, including computer access as well as the more traditional reading, researching etc.

In the morning I met up with Anna Salaman, Director of Public Programmes. Her office is high up in the oldest part of the Institute. What strikes me when talking to staff here is that everyone finds the Bishopsgate inspiring. Anna ran through the plans and policies of the Institute – particularly important in the run-up to a major refurbishment/development project – but she was also personally passionate about the building, the organisation, its history, current and future role, and so on.

Here’s a poem, or poetic notes, unfinished, temporary, or what you will.


Megalithic Software

Yes, he keeps his jacket on
keeps his hat on, holds
A Concise Dictionary of Theology
to the light, rustles The Bible
flicks through New Scientist



The network flickers
in and out of connectivity

fixtures and results
flash up. scroll, scroll, click

no use for Burke’s Peerage
(sponsored by Schweppes)
Megalithic Software
three volumes of Stowe’s Survey
Bygone Kent

Cockney Ancestor

The day’s ephemera
collects right here

If you could only catch
our words between the
thick leather covers of
Punch, 1888. But she

types with furious speed
then stops, surfs away
to check her emails

smiles, puffs out her cheeks
then giggles, at her side
an antiqued Filofax
the same weft and weight
of Mr Bradlaw’s fishing tackle

Visions of the City!


You heard it here first…

This series, curated by Bishopsgate Institute’s Poet in Residence Tom Chivers, will introduce some of London’s most exciting poets – writers whose work explores the complex, fluid and multivocal character of the City. Alongside their readings Tom will also premiere his own new work produced during the Residency.

Visions of the City I – Thursday 5 June

Oblique, bleak bloke Tim Wells has supported The Libertines with his riotous ‘Cockney Hell’ poetry show and his collection Boys Night Out In The Afternoon (Donut) was nominated for the prestigious Forward Prize.

Simon Barraclough‘s debut collection of poetry Los Alamos Mon Amour (Salt) has not yet been launched but is already creating a stir. According to The Guardian, Los Alamos ‘wheels through forms, moods and locations around a sensual core of love poems’.

Jay Bernard is fast establishing a reputation as one of the UK’s most talented young writers with her poetry collection Your Sign is Cuckoo, Girl and has performed at venues across the country including the London Respect Slam.

Visions of the City II – Thursday 3 July

Iain Sinclair is the de factor chronicler of contemporary London. Poet, novelist, essayist, anthologist, filmmaker and former book dealer, Sinclair has been described as ‘incomparable … the De Quincy of English letters’ by Peter Ackroyd. He is the author of numerous books of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, the latest of which is London: City of Disappearances (Hamish Hamilton).

Chris McCabe’s poetry is raw, energetic and experimental, covering topics as diverse as Iraq, fatherhood and Pete Doherty. His second collection of poetry is published this year with the provisional title Zeppelins and follows his acclaimed debut The Hutton Inquiry.

Hannah Silva is a young, fast-talking poet, performer and theatre director from Devon. Her City Fragments captures the speed, energy and contradictions of 21st century urban life.

Both events are held in the Bishopsgate Institute’s Library, which has limited capacity, and start at 7pm. Tickets are £7, £5 concessions. Booking is essential (details here).

Residency at The Bishopsgate Institute

Good news. I have been appointed Poet in Residence at one of my favourite local places, The Bishopsgate Institute. This is a first for me and them. Very exciting. I’ll be spending time there in April researching in their archives, talking to staff and visitors and finding material in the nooks and crannies of their historic building.

By the end of the Residency I will have produced a series of poems, some of which will be displayed in the Institute. I’ve also curated two events for June and July, where I will ‘premiere’ new material, and introduce some of my favourite poets. This mini-series is called Visions of the City and I’ll announce the lineups very soon.

Finally, I’ll be documenting my experiences on this blog, so if you want to keep track you know what to do!