Friday, 30 November 2007

Another wonderful piece by Simon Jenkins in the Observer, on London's maps.  Unfortunately the web version doesn't come with the fine pictures.

One of the most striking pictures for me was the Rhinebeck panorama - a view of the City in about 1810. What's lovely is the way the view is dominated by the spires of the City churches, soaring above the grid like streets of plain houses; now, with the gherkin, the Shard, and other skyscrapers being built, that view has gone for ever. (In fact, though, it's not really the new generation of high buildings which are destroying the City's skyline - it had already been done by an increase in the overall height of buildings over the course of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In a way, the Gherkin and its peers are reviving the idea of a view dominated by towers - they are the new spires.)

The geological map of the Thames basin gives you a completely different feeling for place. It's like seeing a dissected body - what lies beneath the skin - and it gives the same sense of shock. The loops of the meandering Thames are instantly recognisable, but the greens and pinks and blues of the geological strata are strange, unknown.

Of course we make maps not only  to represent reality, but to organise it in our minds. So I was interested to see the 1908 tube map - one which shows the underground railway lines as they really lie, not in a tidied up, regularised way like the current map. The District Line wiggles between Earls Court and West Brompton (and Fulham Broadway is shown as 'Walham Green'); the eastern end of the railway system is all squished up, coming to a point at Aldgate, with Moorgate and Liverpool Street all crushed up together; and the colours are wrong - the Central Line (now red) is purply blue, the Metropolitan is red instead.

We hit the twenty-first century with a house price heat map from - hot red areas of privilege in the west of London and in the suburbs,  and dark cold blue in the eastern corridor where prices are low.  Mind you, since the prices only appear to run up to one and a half million, this map has to be several years old....

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Food and tourism

A collection of tips from travellers at included one that appealed to me: make your first stop a food market.


Big markets like the Boqueria in Barcelona can be a real pleasure to peruse. In smaller French towns it's worth noting what day the local market is; you'll get brilliant fast food (though it may include andouillettes, or 'shit sack sausages' for those who don't like them).  Even rather boring places like Boulogne, where Speedferries arrive and most cars head straight out of town to the motorway, can be transformed in market hours, when fishermen unload their catches at the quay.


But I'd say, don't overlook the appeal of supermarkets. Spend some time in a Champion or Leclerc for instance, and you'll get a feeling for the real differences between the French and the English attitudes to food. No baked beans, certainly not an entire side of one aisle given over to different brands of tinned beans and spaghetti. Fresh fish including a lot of spiny, odd things you won't have seen before, and, usually, oysters and fresh mussels. An absolutely massive range of cheese, usually including at least one local cheese.


And labels on all the fruit and veg (and meat) telling you where it's come from - if it's French, even telling you the département where it originated.


Plus, a choice of beef according to the breed of animal.


So always head for a food market, or a supermarket, or just a corner shop, and find out what people eat...  and you will find out, without really trying, about the local culture.

Travelling local

There was a really good piece about Slow Travel I noted recently (Josh Kearns, on Brave New Traveler). Slow Travel isn't just about speed; it's also about taking time to appreciate the locality, and the lives of local people. Not just seeing them as 'character' for a photo, a bit of local flavour - but seeing them as potential friends, with their own desires and needs.

It's about helping a child understand how solar installations work rather than just giving him a pen or a sweetie. Or helping fix a motorbike or dig a field. Or having a long, rambling talk with someone about their lives - rather than just visiting the top three tourist attractions.

I had a little Slow Travel moment in Seville a while back. Definitely my least favourite of the three great Andalucian cities... till I walked into the Hospital de San Juan de Dios, and met a charming black-clad little old lady. (She was little, too; she didn't come up to my shoulders, and I'm only 5'4.) She showed me round, and we chatted a bit, and passed a happy quarter of an hour; and she was honestly proud of her city.  I wasn't actually Slow Travelling - I was getting some research done for an audio tour; but I made the time for it. And I remember Seville with rather more warmth than I would have done.

So if Slow Travel is really ethical travel - perhaps we should all be doing it?

I suppose Couchsurfing is one way of doing slow travel. Find a local friend. Hang out. Chat. Have a few beers. See their city through their eyes. It's just a pity Couchsurfing is so much a Club 18-30 thing - youngsters for the most part. And at just over 40, I@m really feeling my age.

Monday, 19 November 2007


I'm sorry if this blog has started to look like London Buses - no posts for a month and then three come along at once...

I've just spent some time with Peter Ackroyd and London. First, his immense and strange book: 'London - the biography' - and then a videotape of the first programme of his BBC series on London, which a friend made ages ago and I've only just had time to look at.

Ackroyd is less weird than Sinclair but he's definitely on the occult end of the spectrum as far as London historians go. He sees London as a living creature - a threatening organism that can kill, ravage, burn; a creature that is regenerated through fire. He actually begins the programme by mentioning his heart attack - the day after he delivered his book on London to the publisher - a testimony to the city's maleficent powers (though also to its healing ones).

What I particularly like about Ackroyd is his ability to shift from extreme detail to extreme distance - from close up to panorama. His immense depth of research enables him to spin perspectives, to separate or to merge the layers of history. And there's always a feeling of the paradoxical closeness and distance of the past - epitomised in the Saxon brooch that was dropped so long ago, in a bath house where he now stands.

Ackroyd refers to the concept of 'psychogeography' - but unlike Guy Debord who originated the concept of geography's impact on individuals, instead Ackroyd sees the city itself as a living thing, modelled by multiple human experiences.  It's an approach that frees him from purely formal scholarship and sets the mind travelling along the ley lines of history; and that's why the book is a biography, not a history, of the city. Marvellous stuff. I'd love to do the same for Norwich.

I'm not sure about the series.  Quite a lot of it is fine, but the re-enactments of figures such as Tacitus, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and Christopher Wren seem rather prosaic and mockumentary besides Ackroyd's own magisterial yet self-deprecating presence. The one thing that is absolutely true in the series, though, is the wonderful precision and zest of his language. And that is something you can experience in the book.

I so wish Ackroyd would now go to live in Rome for a few years. True, he wouldn't have the lifelong experience that makes his work on London so deeply felt; but he is one of few writers these days who I think could bring alive those multiple layers and alarming continuities that make Rome such a bewildering and satisfying city.

Things vs Experiences II

Daniel Libeskind obviously believes that the traditional museum - a box you keep things in - has passed its sell-by date. His Jewish museum in Berlin creates spaces that are in themselves an artwork and a reflection of the Jewish experience in Germany. A traditional museum has room only for fulness - for glass cases full of objects. His museum has room for a void - for openness to emotion, to free thought and experience.

While museums have always commissioned fine architectural designs, the nature of those designs has changed. In the Victorian age, museums such as Waterhouse's Natural History Museum provided an assertion of the continuity civilised values by the use of classical, Gothic or Renaissance building styles; but they were essentially containers for a collection.

Now, the focus is less on the fine facade than on interiors that can be experienced by the museum-goer. I suppose that must have begun with the Guggenheim spiral ramp, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (1957).

I have a suspicion though that we are losing objectivity. The great thing about seeing objects in a case is that you can make up your own mind about them. Yes, you have to do the work - you'll have to read up on things before you go if you want to get the best out of the place. But if you want to pursue a particular line of thought, you can do so. (One such line of thought led me into the back bits of the British Museum one day to see, in the flesh, an Eishi woodblock print, with its sharp lines and glistening mica background. It wasn't on display - but you could ask to see the reserves; and I did.)

Now, the museum wants  to tell you how to experience things. It wants you only to see the best, the most typical things. And it's not a hundred miles from there to dumbing-down - lists of 'Top ten things to know about the Romans in Britain' (and I don't mean Howard Brenton's play), or the critically panned Tutankhamun exhibition, high on glitz, low on scholarship.

That said, Libeskind's work is anything but dumbing down. But it does challenge our ideas of what museums are all about.

Things vs Experiences

The opening of France's new Immigration Museum last month was well noted in the press - less so by the great and the good, with Sarkozy and his immigration minister deciding not to attend.

What I find interesting is that this is a museum which tries to address concepts and experiences. The whole concept of 'being French', for instance. France has always had a strong centralising, classicising culture; a strong tradition of linguistic correctness, style, a canon of work. (Braudel, a historian whose work I find particularly interesting, comments that this can be set against a very strong regional and local trend - the 'terroir' - so it's not only immigration that challenges this centralised Frenchness, it's the tendency of individual French people to identify as Savoyards, Provencals, Bretons, or Burgundians... but I digreess.)

So immigration challenges the core of French culture; the unified, single-language, single-system, statist view of culture. The view that says whatever your origins, you are 'French' - where in England we say 'black Briton', 'British Muslim', in French the phrase is 'd'origine Martiniquaise', 'd'origine Algérienne'. You are only of that nationality by origin - you are French by essence.

Now how does a museum go about addressing these issues? Museums are truly great at showing you things. One of my favourites; a study room at the Metropolitan Museum of Art entirely full of ushabtis (tiny Egyptian tomb figures). Another; the cases of Tanagra figurines in the British Museum.  You learn something about that country and that period by seeing them, but the focus is on the things themselves.  The same with art galleries; you might actually get some good ideas about Van Gogh by, for instance, lining up one of his pictures with photographs of the landscape, or of contemporary interiors in real life, but what the gallery is about is showing you things. You're then in charge of the experience.

Now the museum of immigration can certainly put together a number of things. At danger of stereotyping; a kora for Senegal, tea glasses for North Africa, Chopin's piano for the French Poles, a Torah for the Jewish community (though whether you can call French or English Jews 'immigrants' - or indeed whether you can spot a 'typical' Jewish experience when Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities had such different histories). Things.

But actually those things don't tell you anything about the immigrant experience. Perhaps it's only art work that can do that. An installation of insidious voices for instance. Accounts of their lives, taken from immigrants of different generations and origins.  (To its credit, this museum has tried to do that by engraving their words on the glass of some of the cases.)

So I suspect this museum, for all its honesty and integrity, rather fails.  Because it's difficult to square the requirement for scholarly integrity - which has always been based on showing things -with the need to admit experiences.

Friday, 9 November 2007

The ancient railway revived

A marvellous post by Simon Jenkins in the Guardian about the opening of the St Pancras Eurostar terminal, which reuses the Gothic fantasy that is the Victorian St Pancras station.

What I love about this article  isn't so much the puncturing of certain hypocrites who turned up for the opening while advocating the demolition of other, equally important monuments of the Victorian railway age. It's the well researched, grateful roll-call of those who have helped to save the station, from John Betjeman to railway managers you've never heard of.

I do feel sad though in a way that the building has been so grandly 'revived'. London used to be full of marginal spaces, half-ruins, areas where you could start up a shop in an old building for nearly nothing, where artists and actors and anarchists could live on almost nothing, where things could happen, where you could just hang out. King's Cross, Bermondsey, Whitechapel, Spitalfields.

And now? There's nowhere like that left. It's all been cleaned up, formalised, taken over by gleaming buildings.

Spitalfields market for instance was a place I used to go at weekends for organic meat, second hand clothes, old books. You could rent a stall there cheaply and many people did, selling their own photographs, or second hand musical instruments. There was cheap food, there was space, you'd get drawn into an interesting conversation.

And now the space has been taken over by bright modern shops. Bright modern shops with bright modern rents. And the life has gone out of the area. Instead of informality, experiment, spontaneity, there are expensive brands, luxury, credit card symbols on every door.

London has lost something. I don't live there any more and I'm glad; it's not a city of villages any more, it's a city of mortgages.

But with St Pancras revived, at least the city hasn't completely lost its Victorian roots.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Old buffers

I travelled down to Surrey yesterday and had one of my least favourite experiences; trying to connect from Liverpool Street Station to Waterloo. For some reason, there are at least five different ways to do this, all of them involving at least one change and none of them very good.

But I had a couple of minutes spare when I got to Waterloo and was able to look around. It's not London's best train shed by any means; it's expansive, but it lacks the class of Saint Pancras or Liverpool Street. All the money was spent on the rather pompous frontage.

What I loved, though, were the huge hydraulic buffers at the end of the tracks - proudly marked  with the name of Ransomes & Rapier, Ipswich. The firm is no more, unfortunately, but the buffers stand proud today.

There's something rather nice about old ironmongery. Many French villages retain their old village pumps - some still working, some purely decorative - and it's interesting how each region seems to have had its own dominant firm of ironfounders.  It always makes me sad when I see an old pump or fountain that's fallen into disuse; but when they're working, and particularly when resplendent with a fresh coat of black paint, they give the place life and verve.

Old signal buoys sitting on the docks at King's Lynn, streaked with rust and spattered with estuarine mud, the lines of rivets like buttons on a guardsman's coat. The fine swing bridge at Leith,  its x-shaped girders marching under the fine curve of the top beam. These are functional bits of metalwork, but they somehow have more than just functionality; they have character.

I wonder if we're now appreciating old ironwork not so much because of nostalgia for the past, as because architects like Calatrava, Richard Rogers, Frank Gehry and Edward Cullinan (designer of the Gridshell at the Weald & Downland Museum in Sussex) have accustomed us to looking at structures and grids, at exposed structural parts, rather than the veneers and smooth surfaces of conventional architecture?

Most people associate Victorian stations with John Betjeman and the old fogeys. They're looking at the picturesqueness of the work, at the echoes of Gothic architecture, the coats of arms of railway companies, the feeling of a lost world.

But I think the appreciation of  elegant software solutions and post-modernist architecture gives you a different perspective on the Victorians and on functional ironwork. It's not about picturesqueness, but about the integrity and imagination of a daring structure - of a great bit of engineering.