Thursday, 21 February 2008

Tube maps redefined

The straight lines and elegance of the London tube maps has often been admired. Clean lines - like Eric Gill's typography and Edwin Lutyens' architecture; simple, manly, clean, all the values of a world fit for heroes (and colonialists).

But we're living in a more rainbow coloured age - one that doesn't necessarily respect logic and manliness, but prefers the right-brain,  the creative, the feminine. We might prefer flow to rules, synthesis to taxonomy. Beck's map is lovely but perhaps it's time for a rethink.

And to my great joy I find someone has been doing that rethinking and come up with a wonderful map that throws its tentacles in wild abandon to the outer rearches of Metroland like some mad outer space sea anemone  looking for David Tennant... Glorious, isn't it? I particularly love the not quite heart shaped finial on the eastern end of the Central Line, and the way the centre of London comes out not as a ring, a doughnut, or a rough rectangle, but as a squashed and wavy irregular form which reminds me of a prehistoric earthwork or a puddle of viscous liquid.

Elsewhere the splendid Max Roberts, designer of this intriguing new map, shows the accurate (in its day) tube map produced by London Transport in the 1930s and 1940s. What I find really lovely about it is that it shows the way the railway lines relate to watercourses, parks and forests - the manmade and the natural in relationship to each other. You never get that idea from the standard tube maps, which see the actual fabric of London and its boroughs as an irrelevance.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Things seen from trains

Because Liverpool Street Station appears to have taken an extended Christmas and New Year break, not reopening on January 2nd like everyone else, I ended up coming home to Norwich via Cambridge instead of on the regular line through Colchester and Ipswich.

Around Waterbeach, I was gazing out of the window when I saw the most amazing derelict farm buildings. At least I think they were derelict, though in East Anglia you never can tell. I thought to myself; those are just the kind of buildings I love photographing. And there and then I promised myself that when the weather gets a little better, I'll go out on the motorbike and try to find that farm...

Later on that same train trip I gazed out at the wilderness of Lakenheath Fen. Lines of trees, punctuated every hundred yards or so by a tree that's fallen, tearing its roots out of the soft peat, lying aslant the rows. The humpy mounds of the dykes that portion off the fen. Reeds swaying in the wind. Two deer in a field, perfectly still when all around them reeds and branches were swaying in the wind.

There's something special about things seen from a train. They come, you perceive them, they are gone. And as soon as they are gone, you want to find them again.

And then there's that little matter of the railway being a world of its own. How can you find these things again? They're not on a road, or if they are, you will have to twist and turn, over and under the railway, across level crossings, finding byways and back roads. Hardly anywhere does the road parallel the railway, so finding these places on a map is difficult; you need to triangulate, to somehow bring the road and footpath and railway worlds into a momentary planetary conjunction. It's a kind of alchemy. The view from a railway window transmutes the base metal of everyday experience into gold.

Once in Austria I saw a roe deer standing on the slope of a steep hill, just at the height of the train window and about five yards from me. It was a moment of strange intimacy; for two seconds I looked straight into its eyes. Then it was gone.

Sometimes, towards Shenfield on the Norwich-London line, I see a train heading along a  lower track  not quite parallel to our own. Sometimes, a train goes underneath our track, or starts to climb up a gradient beside the train I'm on, and then over our heads. Sometimes two trains vie with each other for speed on two parallel tracks, and the race can go on for five or ten minutes, the two trains changing position, one slipping back, the other gaining, then slipping back in its turn, till the tracks diverge and the other train is gone. Once I saw the driver take his cap off, reach across and put it down in the cab.

And most mysterious of all, trains that pass in the night. You see the people inside their little capsule. Brightly lit faces. One man in his City pinstripe suit, asleep. A woman reading a newspaper spread out across the table.

I have never seen another face looking out towards my train.

Saturday, 2 February 2008

Interiority - and what you don't see

It's easy to assume that when you've wandered round a city's streets for a few weeks, you know it.

But that's not always the case. It is in England, probably.  We tend to build our houses on to the street, so the frontage is the main aspect.

Even then there are exceptions. Wander down some of the mews in west London, and you get a different feel from the grandiose stuccoed facades on the squares and streets.  This was the built environment of a class-divided society - "the rich man in his mansion, the poor man at his gate," or in this case Milord in his town house and the servants in the attic and out the back in the mews. For some reason I've always felt more at home in the mews.

Edinburgh is quite similar - at least, in the New Town. Fine, tall, uniform, creamy stone Georgian facades on the main street - and hugger mugger single storey garages and sheds and cottages in the alleys at the back. You can walk the whole of the New Town and practically never come out on to the 'parade' streets if you feel so inclined.

But some cultures have much, much less open to view. For instance, you'll never understand St Petersburg unless you go into the courtyards of the big apartment blocks in the centre.

Outside, they're just grey blocks under a greyer sky. And outside, Natasha is just a bundle of warm clothes with a human being buried somewhere in it, struggling against the wind and slushy snow.

Inside, Natasha emerges from her wrappings and becomes a retired art history professor with a graceful presence and a dry sense of humour. And inside, her flat is lined with books and fine porcelain, abstract paintings, and a spotless white carpet makes up for the fact that the snow outside is grey with the dirt of a whole winter.

Russians keep all their best things inside.  Perhaps that's at least partly about living in an unfree society; you keep your thoughts to yourself, and you keep you culture to yourself, and you keep anything that really matters inside your own house.

Southern Spain is like that too. Look at the Great Mosque of Cordoba from the outside and you just see a blank wall, divided by big bulky buttresses, with a few finely decorated doors but otherwise plain. It could be a town wall, a garden wall. It gives you no hint at  all about what's inside.

That's something you find in Arab culture in the Middle East too. Courtyards become the focus of life - they are cool, they are secluded. No one does anything on the open street. Souks are interiors rather than exteriors; the market happens inside a huge building, a huge set of covered ways, rather than in the open.

So in Cordoba, you can't understand the city unless you understand the way it is shot through with greenness, the way the fabric of the city and its streets has a weft thread of courtyards and gardens running through it. There are a couple of patios (courtyards) which are always shown off to visitors, of course, but by the very fact of being shown off in that way they've become open spaces - they've lost their interior feel.

It's little alleyways like the Callejas de la Hoguera which goes past the Islamic University, or the Calleja del PaƱuelo, which still preserve that feeling to some extent. With the Callejas de la Hoguera, there's that interconnectedness between public and private space which is a characteristic of Moorish architecture in Spain - you're walking down the alley, then suddenly you're in the garden of a restaurant - is this public or private? a through way or a back garden? You just don't know.

Cordoba has an association devoted to the patios. At Christmas last year, they opened some of the courtyards and performed villancicos (the Spanish equivalent of carols). In May, more of the courtyards are open and there's a competition for the best gardens.

That interiority, that feeling of seclusion, is what finally won me over to Cordoba. It's a difficult city to know - because all its best sights are on the inside.  But it's worth knowing.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Lamenting lost London

I've blogged before about those little losses we suffer when the city around us changes. The eel pie and mash shops, the old cafes, those little places that used to be an unchanging and almost unnoticed part of our world - and then, suddenly, they're gone.

Someone else feels that way. They're using the internet to erect a memorial to the lost places of London - London R.I.P.

One of these days I will have to write a history of the number 76 bus route. Or the 73. And the things that have gone;

  • a stonemasons' yard, which I think was the same firm that used to have a yard next to Cambridge station. Ricketts? was that the name?

  • a house entirely surrounded by corrugated tin fences, mostly boarded up,almost derelict; there was a story that the man who lived in it was digging tunnels under his garden, under the house next door, across the road even... I never knew whether to believe them, but there was definitely something odd about the place.

  • Baring Street Metal, a scrapyard in the middle of Islington.

  • Hackney Wholefoods. Every time I passed it with a friend one or both of us would proudly say it as it has to be said - 'Ackney Olefoods'.

  • One building near Old Street where absolutely every window was blocked with old newspapers piled all the way to the ceiling. It must have been a terrific fire hazard. One of those things you only notice from the top floor of a bus, when your mp3 player's packed up and you forgot to buy the newspaper, and you're staring out of the window, bored, and not quite able to doze.

I'm going back to RIP London now to look for some of my old favourites. It will be nice to see them again - even if not in the real world.

"There's nothing there!"

I want to go to Iceland.

I'd loveto take a horse, I don't know, a car, a bike - and go from one side to the other. From icy sea to icy sea.

I said this to a friend. He said, "There's nothing there."

That's exactly why I want to go.

Our everyday world is so full. Full of things. Full of advertising. Full of information. Full of people. It's a monstrous flow of attention-grabbing stuff.

Even the English or French countryside is full. Birds, hedges, trees, villages, roads, road signs, ploughed fields, dry stone walls, barns, corrugated tin shacks, coppices, cows. A very full landscape.

And my life is too full. Too much work. Too much reading. Too many books. Too many pictures on the wall. Too many plans. Too many people.

So I'd like some emptiness in my life.

The funny thing is, I think if I'd said the Sahara, my friend would have understood.