Category Archives: Walking

More beautiful things in the Czech Republic

We stayed a week in Liberec while my partner lectured at the
Technická univerzita v Liberci, getting the chance to visit Ještěd Tower, which I have already written about, but also see a bit of the countryside. The rolling hills of the north are simply beautiful, mist-filled, green. We rolled through them on our train on the way to Hodvokice, just as filled with beautiful craftsmanship as Prague really, and of the kind I like more as it not as cherubbed and otherwise statued. This house I fell in love with, it is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen I think — the day was a terrible one for taking pictures however, so apologies:

IMG_9161The most stunning windows, and the detailing exquisite. The town’s wealth seemed to come from this factory — textiles perhaps, as Liberec? I am unsure, but it is also beautiful from the outside. Strange to stare at a factory and have not the slightest context for what it is, who works (or worked) there, what that is like. IMG_9169
I am, of course, obsessed by details and found some more door knobs for my collection:

IMG_9177 IMG_9175
There was also a wide use of tiles, as in much of Prague, and though some might have seen better days, they were still beautiful.

IMG_9170 IMG_9182
Just like the town itself.

IMG_9185 IMG_9179
Perhaps even more than in Prague — where beauty could possibly be seen as a project of Empire — I was so impressed by all that was functional yet exquisite:

IMG_9154
Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by the way that this craftsmanship seems to also fill the countryside — the antithesis of the hamlets of the Southwestern U.S. I know so well, which are always interesting but rarely beautiful and often creepy. But everything was well cared for and this kind of work very common:

IMG_9204
We came to this beautiful old place as well, now tragically falling down.

IMG_9216

We were walking up to Sychrov Castle, bought (as one of several) after the French Revolution by some aristocrats who had managed to keep most of their money. Their connections to the Bourbons fill the place through its decorations and carvings — and the carvings are exquisite. I didn’t take pictures inside, but here is a view of some of the details I did capture.

IMG_9233 IMG_9241 IMG_9260 IMG_9262

IMG_9228And a view of the castle as a whole — again, far removed from what an English castle looks like:
IMG_9220

IMG_9245
From the castle we walked down to another small village to catch the train back — you can wander over the tracks at will and the ‘industrial’ area alongside was very cool.IMG_9278
I know I have used the word beautiful far too much, but that is what the country is.

Save

Kafka: The Castle

An amazing book, and how lucky I got to read it in the Czech Republic! I had it for kindle, translated by John Williams I think, so I may have to read the alternative translations. A little fan-girl of me perhaps, but to be reading it as we explored Prague’s castle and the Kafka Museum (which I wrote about here) was brilliant really. Though also existentially terrifying, as I find all of Kafka.

The book opens with a concrete description of the castle, a clear vision of its place and structure as well as the clarity available to those living at that height, but one that becomes more and more complicated as he gets closer to it:

Now, he could see the Castle above him clearly defined in the glittering air, its outline made still more definite by the moulding of snow covering it in a thin layer. There seemed to be much less snow up there on the hill than down in the village, where K. found progress as laborious as on the main road the previous day. Here the heavy snowdrifts reached right up to the cottage windows and began again on the low roofs, but up on the hill everything soared light and free into the air, or at least so it appeared from down below.

On the whole this distant prospect of the Castle satisfied K.’s expectations. It was neither an old stronghold nor a new mansion, but a rambling pile consisting of innumerable small buildings closely packed together and of one or two storeys; if K. had not known that it was a castle he might have taken it for a little town.

This shifts into a more mundane reality of village homes, churches, streets. But always the Castle itself remains something always seen yet always out of reach, an impossible distance to cover. K. walks and walks, yet overcome by strange weariness and drifts of snow, he turns aside. Day by day the castle becomes ever more distant, unreal yet at the same time ever more powerful in its oppression of his spirit and his circumstances.

The castle is home to rarefied beings, almost supernatural in their powers over those in the village and their effect on them. Controlling K.’s fate is Klamm, yet he is as out of reach as the castle, and K.’s attempts to contact him are the stuff of daily nightmares. K. crosses boundaries and suffers the consequences — for example here, in a hidden courtyard he waits for Klamm to enter his waiting sleigh. Instead the coachman eventually leaves K. alone in the darkness, turning off the lights as Klamm cannot, will not face K.  This transgression of space is unforgivable and brings with it a Pyrrhic sense of defeat in victory:

…it seemed to K. as if all contact with him had been broken off, as if he were now freer than ever, as if he could wait here in this otherwise forbidden place as long as he wished; as if he had fought for this freedom as few others could have done, as if no one could touch him or drive him away, or even speak to him, and yet at the same time — and this conviction was at least as strong–as if there were nothing more senseless, more desolate than this freedom, this waiting, this invulnerability (loc 1792).

Above all remains the split between Castle and village, rulers and ruled at varying degrees of distance. There is a visual refinement in the faces of those who have been there, particularly the women singled out for gentlemen’s pleasures. Government is designed to preserve and enhance this split. The landlady tells K.

‘Herr Momus is Klamm’s secretary like any of his other secretaries, but his office and, if I am not mistaken, his official duties too…’ Momus, still writing, shook his head vigorously, and the landlady corrected herself: ‘Well, only his office is confined to the village, but not his official duties. Herr Momus deals with the written work relating to the Village…That’s the way it is; all the gentlemen from the Castle have their village secretaries.’ (loc 1841)

Absolute power reflected in the weakness and uselessness of petty officials. K. only seeks to be informed of his work, his purpose. Instead he is told by letter:

To the surveyor of Bruckenhof. The surveys you have made so far meet with my approval. The work done by the assistants is also commendable… (loc 1953)

He has done no work. He has been given no direction. The assistants are mad. Sill, it is the interview with Olga, sister to the messenger Barnabas, that I found the key to it all in my own mind. I was completely surprised by what was essentially an attempted rape at the centre…a letter demanding a village girl come to a Castle gentleman, her refusal at the heart of the entire family’s destruction. K.’s involvement in it all by extension. It is an extraordinary thing I thought, to find in this bewildering maze of rural geography and bureaucracy and madness. Something so much more real than in The Trial or the Metamorphasis, just as K. is better defined and more sure of himself. Yet K.’s initial outrage changes, shifts, softens to accommodate itself to Olga’s views, the villagers’ beliefs, and it all falls back into the nightmare as Olga continues to describe their desperation and scheming. After the museum, though, I was particularly focused on the geography, and these descriptions of barriers formal and informal, physical and mental, visible and invisible are so fascinating, they almost make me want to study the geographies of bureaucracy–or paranoia:

…it gives us doubts about everything. Is it really Castle work that he is doing, we ask; he goes to the offices, certainly, but are the offices actually part of the Castle? And even if there are offices that are part of the Castle, are those the offices he is allowed into? He’s admitted into some offices, but only some of them, then there are barriers, and behind these are more offices. He’s not actually forbidden to go any further, but he can’t go any further once he’s seen his superiors and they have dealt with him and sent him away. What’s more, you’re watched all the time up there, at least that’s what we believe. And even if he did go further on, what good would it do him if he had no official business there; he would just be an intruder. And you mustn’t imagine these barriers as a hard and fast divide, Barnabas is always reminding me of that. There are also barriers in the offices he visits, so there are some barriers he goes through, and they look no different from the ones he has not yet gone through, and so it can’t be assumed that the offices behind these barriers are any different from the ones Barnabas has been in (loc 2775).

It isn’t just the geography of bureaucracy that is opaque, confused, unreadable. Barnabas works for Klamm, he thinks, yet no one can ever be sure even just of Klamm’s appearance, so at times he is not even sure of that:

…all these differences are due to magic, they are quite understandable because they depend on the present mood, the level of excitement, the countless degrees of hope or despair on the part of the observer, who is in any case only able to catch a momentary glimpse of Klamm (loc 2809).

And so we come to the greatest fear of all perhaps, the method of governance instilling the idea that if one were only stronger, more connected, wiser, everything would be all right. That it is all your own fault:

What I mean by all this is that something is there, Barnabas is being offered something, at least something, and it’s his own fault if all he can get out of it is doubt, fear and hopelessness (loc 2923).

And all of it an exercise in collective (mis)understanding, world building:

Olga’s story was revealing such a vast, almost unbelievable world to him that he could not resist intruding on it with his own little adventure, in order to convince himself of the existence of her world as well as that of his own experience (loc 3402).

I loved most of all that amazing nighttime meeting in the bureaucrat’s hotel wing, which is itself an incredible description of physical space that is as much mental space, constricting, suffocating, claustrophobic:

Here everything was small but elegantly constructed, and space was used to the best advantage. The corridor was just high enough for them to walk upright. Along the sides was a series of doors almost next to each other. The side walls did not reach right up to the ceiling, no doubt to provide ventilation, for the tiny rooms along this deep cellar-like corridor probably had no windows. The disadvantage of these walls that were open at the top was that the noise in the corridor must have been heard in the rooms too (loc 3790).

Everything is concealed, bewildering, yet at the same time there can be no privacy:

The servant climbed onto K.’s shoulders and looked over the gap above the wall into the room. ‘He’s lying on his bed’ (loc 3803)

K. is betrayed by his own weakness, his own tiredness, he cannot take advantage of the interviews he obtains. And then follows the most brilliant of all scenes: the men pushing the carts, distributing folders, the opening and slamming of doors, whispered negotiations, hands emerging from rooms, peeping through cracks and recriminations. K.’s very presence throwing everything into complete chaos as no one can bear to let themselves be seen, much less spoken to.

It ends in mid sentence — I didn’t know that when I started, so it was an almost vertiginous ending. Kafka couldn’t find his way to the ending, I know the feeling, and I’m not sure it could have ended. I found the beginning quite terrifying in its way, but that steadily dropped off, you can feel the tension unwinding somehow, even as it gets more interesting in other ways.

There is so much more here — as always — but being in Prague and reading this, I am thinking most about Kafka and space and remember I found this in the museum:

…Kafka carries out a more difficult operation: he turns Prague into an imaginary topography which transcends the fallacy of realism. Kafka’s phantasmal architecture has other ends. Rather than a particular house, school, office, church, prison or castle being important, it is what these constructions reveal when they act as topological metaphors or allegorical places. What surprises does this transfigured Prague hold in store? Just how far can the metamorphosis of a city take us?

I think they do act as metaphors and allegorical places…in some ways I think they are also ways of imagining the barriers and impassible places in our own minds and actions. But the castle of Prague itself makes some concrete sense of this as well perhaps, the relationship between writer and city a dialectical one. Prague’s castle is no one large building surrounded by defensible stone walls that I would imagine from living in England or Scotland. We looked for it and I’m not sure when we actually found it, entered it, reached the castle. You go through this splendid arch just off the Charles bridge

IMG_8779
And you wander up and always up past a whole lot of Baroque magnificence, becoming more magnificent the higher up the hill you get. You go up a whole lot of steps and suddenly you are there, and walking through stately home sort of buildings to get to the splendidly gothic St Vitus’s Cathedral, which is surrounded by this labyrinthine pomp and what seems like administrative space. Maybe. But there is palace after palace up there, making sense of homes for the many named and revered Castle gentlemen. It is not until you are walking along part of the backside that you really get a sense that this is in any way the defensible space I associate with the word Castle — or was once:

IMG_8889
and there the contrasts are more striking:
IMG_8900 IMG_8898

There are some fake turreted kind of battlements at the top awash with tourists, but there you can also get a real feel of just how high above, how far removed this castle complex is from the rest of Prague:

IMG_8885

We went back down and I found more remnants of ‘castle’ the way that word sits in my imagination:
IMG_8908

IMG_8904
But really, despite the wonderful drain covers, to me here was no sense of any one place you could call a castle

IMG_8910
Instead it seemed a collection of powers, a complicated administrative centre…and of course, for much of its history, an empty shell, a representation, with the real power always residing with the Hapsburg empire far away. A Kafkaesque castle in more than one respect. Also a beautiful place:

IMG_8936

Of course, there are other candidates for the inspiration for The Castle, but Kafka grew up beneath this one, and being here made the book a little less dreamlike and removed from reality — just a little less.

I searched for images of The Castle to see how others had imagined it — conventionally I am afraid, the bookcovers imagine it most conventionally. But I also found this, the most startling, built by architect Ricardo Bofill outside of Barcelona. A modern day construction for your viewing pleasure:

1300835925-castell3-508x500

read more here

Save

A Terror of Cherubs

The only collective noun possible. I hate cherubs, hate their fat little bodies that no wings could possibly get off the ground, hate the mawkish sentimentality that they represent in a period where poverty was so high and infant mortality even higher. So I did not take pictures of the ubiquitous things until I could no longer help myself due to their ridiculousness. It could well be the result of the concupiscence of adult statues that fills Prague
IMG_9466
These are quite hilarious, and in spite of myself possibly endearing, in their silly state on either side of a grandiose balcony:IMG_8640

IMG_8641Some more
IMG_9347
And even more
IMG_9311
An explosion of them in seemingly unconnected pieces from what seems like the very mouth of hell on the side of a church:
IMG_9592
The worst is that our excursion into the Savarin Palace to visit the Museum of Communism revealed there are as many inside these Baroque monstrosities as there are outside:
IMG_8957
And they didn’t stop with the Baroque, disturbingly enough:
IMG_9312
This is only a slight taste of the cherub flesh surrounding you at all times, but I’ll leave you with a couple of more tasteful pictures that give a glimpse of the city, as I haven’t yet done that!
IMG_8901

IMG_8902

Save

Prague’s Erogenous Zones

The exuberance of rococo nudity in Prague is stunning, in every sense of the term. Large well-endowed women stare down at you from facade after facade with only their stoney flesh to keep them warm:

IMG_9386 IMG_9387

Not my favourite style, but it is carried out with such panache I could not help but be impressed, if only with its absurdity:

IMG_9424

I have never seen suggestively positioned, naked and possibly pregnant women used as supports for heavy masonry. The symbolism (or lack of it) fairly boggles the mind unlike the use of Atlas-type figures. They are wearing fish on their heads, however, so I suppose some symbolism is involved, as must also be the case for this guy with a chicken on his head (apologies he too is not nude, we’ll get to the men soon):

IMG_9580

Birds are almost as common as naked human beings, and sometimes they came together

IMG_8669With the rococo I simply shrug, though the scale and imagination was most impressive. Unsurprisingly you can only see so many naked women without ceasing to be aware of them or continue taking pictures. What was striking, however, was that this nudity continues on through the ages. There are some beautiful and extremely saucy art nouveau facades, different from anything I have seen before:

IMG_9318 IMG_9359
And statues as well
IMG_9427

But the social realists have also gotten into the act — though a little more chastely:

IMG_8952 IMG_8606

Modern sculpture is of course also represented:

IMG_9588

We also found a splendid sign, unique in everything but the nudity, which could equally well predate or postdate everything else pictured here:

IMG_8814

But it is not just the woman’s body that is celebrated, though the ladies far outnumber everyone else. This particular celebration has been painted so that it is camouflaged as much as possible, which is exactly what called my attention to it after such a surfeit of flaunting breasts over residential edifices:

IMG_9649I also loved this nonchalant (although well covered) pose on Prague’s famous Municipal House off of Namesti Republiky:

IMG_8950

Perhaps some of the most hilarious images are of men and their favourite bits — everyone’s favourite bits apparently:

IMG_8877
While at Ještěd Tower in Liberec there was a similar phenomenon, alien but very very male:

IMG_9072
More penii and grinning laughing tourists were to be found in front of the Kafka Museum:

IMG_8737

It was funny to later that same day run into this suspect statue up at the castle:

IMG_8894
Altogether there is one almighty celebration of the human body happening all over Prague. Next — the unfortunate result.

Save

Prague Entries (or, of knobs and knockers)

I’m often caught by small details, little things that I like to think almost no one else sees. Beautiful things, strange things, unlikely things. Those of us who see them are thus joined in this appreciation of the not-quite-hidden, the unique everyday, the unspectacular. Our lives contain more joy, or so I like to think. Maybe more of us than I think walk through the city awake and aware and reveling in these details. I myself do it surreptitiously when on the street alone, never able to rid myself of the ingrained dislike of making myself a target. Streets can be dangerous places.

Prague is the most dangerous of all, a city of details.

It is, of course, superficially and ridiculously gorgeous. But what I loved most about it is that this beauty goes all the way down to the minute; incredible craftsmanship abounds everywhere. Some of it was clearly put in service of evil — the ubiquitous cherub for example, to be explored in the next post — but damn. So much of it is of the beautiful and good. So this is a photo-essay of the beautiful doors of Prague. Because this is what they look like, even when we got onto the off-the-tourist-track streets walking down away past Florenc station. They’ve seen better days, but from the carved wood to the iron and grill work to the inlays and fixtures, they are so beautiful:

IMG_8759 IMG_8701

They’ve made me think about doors. What they stand for as a statement about a building, about the people who made the building and live in the building. What it means to pass through them. I am used to beautiful doors on cathedrals, on monumental buildings, occasionally on government buildings. Doors you pass through only now and again. Or perhaps you never have enough status, or share the required beliefs, to pass through them. These are places where an entryway is meant to have greater meaning, a non every-day meaning. You walk through them and enter somewhere power sits, or God dwells. They separate outside from inside like any door, but this separation carries more weight than our front door, which most of us blast through without a thought, hurrying out into the world or back home. Of palaces and churches, differentiated spaces, Prague has a number. Their doors are finer than anything I’ve seen I think:

IMG_8793 IMG_8700 IMG_8808 IMG_8823

IMG_8998

IMG_9461Still, this rampant use of beauty on apartments? How lovely. Even our wealthy neighbourhoods are in no way comparable on the subject of doors, and my initial feeling is that this beauty stretches some class boundaries, if only due to decline.  Of course I confess, we did not stray all that far from the city center, and perhaps this gorgeous craftsmanship is not found quite everywhere, but in visiting Liberec and some of the small villages surrounding it was much the same — though like cherubs, I’ll have more to say on them later. Here, however, are some plainer doors.

IMG_9445

IMG_8811 IMG_9433

But after a while even I had almost a surfeit of doors, too many, too grand, too beautiful. Camera fatigue set in. I made an exception for the doors belonging to the house of the Capek brothers, where the amazing word ‘robot’ was coined in the writing of R.U.R.

IMG_9440

Heavy, wooden, carved. Beautiful. But with this surfeit of doors I started focusing on other things, like the grilles:

IMG_8678 IMG_9429 IMG_9302

The faces:

IMG_8591 IMG_8761IMG_9462

The details of the decoration:

IMG_9651 IMG_9571 IMG_9351I had read that some fine examples of Art Nouveau was to be found here as well, but I was in no way prepared for the splendour of it:

IMG_9371 IMG_8648

IMG_9377This, which I’m not sure which style it fits into, but is understated yet stunning:

IMG_9299

I wasn’t prepared for any of it. I love the brightly painted red and green and blue doors of Dublin, and sometimes here in London or Bristol. But these doors of Prague are a different level. My favourite details? The handles. There is a joy in seeing such beautiful, functional things — more beautiful up the castle way, but uniformly gorgeous:

IMG_9525 IMG_8851 IMG_8862 IMG_8803 IMG_8781IMG_8819

And for last? This sculpture door that we found opposite the cubist House of the Black Madonna, with no explanation but I rather liked it just like that:

IMG_8596 IMG_8593

A little more from Prague…

Save

Save

Ještěd Tower, Liberec

I love it. I love it, and yet there is so little about it. We saw it shining on the mountain while looking out over the city, and of course, we had to go.

IMG_9033

It’s so brilliantly SF, half spaceship half future cityscape. You take a tram from the city up to the mountain, a funicular up to the base. Look at this amazing television tower/restaurant/hotel up close:

IMG_9052

There is a long blurb on the architect from penccil – a rather fascinating site of modern art and design and fashion (it allows you to create your own page on the site to show your own portfolio, you could get drawn in there for a while…)

The unique Jested tower, designed by architect Karel Hubacek, is a modernist architectural landmark of the Czech Republic. Combining television transmission tower and mountain hotel, it is a 94 meters tall rotational hyperboloid built on top ofJested mountain near Liberec in the Czech Republic, built between 1966 and 1973. Liberec (then called Reichenberg) was until the end of WW1 in 1918 part of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, and a traditional Austrian mountain hotel was perched on top of Jested (then called Jeschken) mountain. Karel Hubacek (23 February 1924 – 25 November 2011) graduated in 1943 and was then sent to forced labor in Nazi Germany, where he worked for the Askania Werke precision instrument factory in Berlin, which after allied bombings moved underground into salt mines south of Helmstedt, Germany. Askania produced the flight control systems for the V1 and V2 rockets and movie cameras which had been used in shooting the famous movie “Der Blaue Engel” with Marlene Dietrich. In 1945, he returned to Prague. In 1951, he got a job at the (then communist) regional institute for city planning in Liberec, where he worked until 1968, when he became a co-founding member of SIAL (Association of Engineers and Architects in Liberec). From 1994-1997 he was head of the Department of Architecture at the Faculty of Arts and Architecture at the Technical University in Liberec.

There are some wonderful photos — far better than what I managed as it was heaving with people on a sunny November holiday, though bitterly windy and cold. Still, I got a few:

IMG_9058IMG_9083 IMG_9062

There is a martian as well! A particularly well-endowed one

IMG_9072

And the sun started setting and the world was just beautiful, you can see the shadow of our space building fall across Liberec:

IMG_9090 IMG_9096 IMG_9097 IMG_9098

The hotel website (I do wish we had stayed there, the furniture, the fittings, everything looks amazing, but we didn’t) talks about this as a symbol of Liberec, and how wonderful? How wonderful to create this amazing building so playful with our dreams of the future, that could have been a simple ubiquitous television tower but instead becomes this amazing place. This is in some ways what the dream of socialism should have been, brilliant design, care, and attention to innovative detail to make something so functional also serve city residents as an escape from the city, a place to step out of the ordinary, to look out over the city and the countryside and think about the world’s form and your place in it. A place for everyone, though I don’t know if that’s how it worked when it was first built. But it felt like that while we there, full of both Czechs and tourist families, couples, young folks. It was lovely, but god, it was cold.

Save

Hyde Park Farm

It is hard to imagine this area — this border between Lambeth and Balham and Wandsworth — as nothing but fields and farms, even when standing on the edge of Tooting Bec Common on a gray day with a huddle of local residents already chatting happily about their neighbourhood and their memories. Long ago representative of the parishes would meet near here, under a great tree on Brixton Hill, to discuss regional matters. While not representatives of anything in particular, we are examples of inter-borough solidarity and here for a tour held as part of Lambeth Heritage Festival, led by John Rattray of the Balham society.

Part of what we now know as the common was known as Hyde Park Farm, bordered by other farms and would come to be specially known for the quality of its pigs. In 1587 the farm was sold to Emmanuel College, Cambridge, and in honored London tradition, this can be seen in the street names of Emmanuel and Scholars Roads. They used it as an income stream, leasing it out to a succession of local farmers. As times changed the farm became less farm and more market garden, opening up much of the land to become sporting fields. When it was sold it was growing flowers — up for auction were 1,000 roses and 5,000 aspidistras (!). I knew of aspidistras through Orwell and Sayers, but a few of the younger (no one was at all young, I must confess) people had not heard of such things. The group agreed they were particularly Victorian. I am intrigued by the aspidistra, but moving on…

These grounds were the centre for baseball at the peak of its popularity in London. Baseball! That interesting fact was not followed up by our tour guide (being English and not very interested), so I have researched further and that will one day be a post in itself.  

thrale-house-00074-640There was only a scattering of mansions here alongside the farms, beginning in the 1770s. In looking something else up I discovered that this is near where Hester Thrale lived — so often visited by Doctor Johnson, her home a lively salon of wit and knowledge and probably no little pompousness. The housing built on the old farm site that we wandered through was begun in 1896 at the corner of Radbourne Road and Telferscot Road. The old topography is recorded here as well, the road named after Telfer’s Cottage which once stood here. Somewhere. We stood on the mound on the common’s corner, beneath which lies the old air raid shelter. An earlier tour had called forth an elder who had spent some time down in it during the war, but ours sadly did not.

HydePark5We paused at the corner, Cosy Corner, where the little shop has recreated the old sign that used to hang there. Many of the folks on the tour had lived in the area for decades, and remembered the two old women who had run the shop from before the war. The lovely kind you don’t see anymore whose lipstick always fought the limits of their lips. We walked down Radbourne Road. Along it developer Ernest Hayes-Dashwood set aside flats to be occupied rent-free by disabled veterans. Beautiful plaques commemorate this gift into perpetuity, even as the hip young professionals obstructed from their doorways by our tour demonstrated that not all of them are so occupied. I investigated that too, of the 150 units, 50 are leased on short-hold tenancies, and the income is used to maintain the rest of the properties. Sensible enough, more information and history can be found here.

HydePark3

There is also a lovely school, some of which was sold off for quite beautiful luxury flats — of course now the school is overflowing and there are portable classrooms. It will be expanding to the north, where an old shed stands, once home to the local scout troop but now falling apart. This area was briefly a site of contention, when ‘Red Ted’ and his gang tried to get the whole thing knocked down to built a large tower of flats and the local residents organised to keep the school. It’s a beautiful school, I’m glad they did, though in general I’d be on the side of housing.

I know about Red Ted — and enjoyed the glee in resident voices as they said the words knowledgeably — but I had no idea Lambeth was a Tory borough until 1971, and in fact is where John Major got his start. Still less did I know that he oversaw housing and lived in an estate here. My mind reeling, I could hardly focus from them on. I do remember the handful of villas left built by Thomas Cubitt as part of the Clapham Park Development — on the grounds of Bleak Hall Farm.

HydePark1

Note to self to look more into that…and into the importance that changing transportation had, as these homes were made less desirable as rail allowed the wealthy to move even further away. Or so the story goes. Also to investigate is Zennor Road, now an industrial estate but once apparently one of the area’s few slums.

A little shy and far from knowledgeable, I said very little, but enjoyed listening to everyone else reminisce about the neighbourhood, several of them as knowledgeable as our lovely and knowledgeable tour guide. It allowed for the creation of a more collective history, as we peeled off track to the left to see the last original iron gate in the area,

HydePark2

heard about resident efforts to preserve the old buildings and stories passed down. New Park Road with its business and splendid diversity feels miles rather than minutes away from these Edwardian row houses and their inhabitants, but it was good to get to know them a little better, and to share their love of their piece of the city.

Save

The London Adventure or The Art of Wandering

The London AdventureA delightful book of meanderings, almost too meandering because there are some really brilliant things in here that deserve some deeper thought but the style of it almost carries you right past them. I know, I know, that the style of the book maybe reflects the art of wandering itself, stumbling over the unexpected, taking up the digressions, exploring the byways. But still. I wanted more places, more stories of places, more London. Still, there are some real gems about the city, how we experience it, where its wonder lies, speaking both as urbanist and as author. And just thoughts on being human in this world of toil. This is clearly someone who has known toil.

In this pleasant and retiring spot I was sitting not long ago, enjoying gin and that great luxury and blessing of idleness, concerning which so much cant and false doctrine have been preached. (6)

On writing:

Always, or almost always, I have had the horror of beginning a new book. I have burnt my fingers to the bone again and again in the last forty years and I dread the fire of literature (12).

On life:

It is possible, just dimly possible, that the real pattern and scheme of life is not in the least apparent on the outward surface of things, which is the world of common sense and rationalism, and reasoned deductions; but rather lurks, half hidden, only apparent in certain rare lights, and then only to the prepared eye; a secret pattern, an ornament which seems to have but little relation or none at all to the obvious scheme of the universe’. (21)

One of my favourite phrases of all time is now ‘amiable Conandoylery’ (27). It certainly takes him a while to describe the purpose of this book he is being paid to write — and this sense of literature as something for hire, something you must sell to live and feed your children is never absent here, anchoring his wonderings and wanderings. His dread as he sits ensconced in a comfortable pub that Spring has arrived and the book must be begun opens every chapter, humorously to be sure, but not entirely. But it is still on a subject he loves — rambling the city:

[the book] originated in old rambles around London, rambles that began in 1890 when I lived in Soho Street and began to stroll about Soho and to see that here was something very curious and impressive; this transmutation of late seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century social stolidity and even, in some cases, magnificence, into a wholly different order (30)

What he loves is not about tourist stops or antiquarian wonders but:

the general queerness; a piece, a tesserae, that fitted in very pleasantly with that hopeless 1860 terrace and that desolate 1900 shop, and the cabbages, and the raspberry plantations and, above all and before all, with the sense that I had never been that way before, that the scene to me was absolutely new and unknown as if the African Magician had suddenly set me down in the midst of Cathay, that I was as true an explorer as Columbus, as he who stood upon a peak in Darien. For if you think of it: the fact that the region which is to you so strange and unknown is familiar as daily bread and butter or—more likely—the lack of it to multitudes of your fellow men is of no significance on earth. (40)

There’s some interesting colonial stuff here, though I think it echoes in my own mind far different than in his for I cannot divorce colonial exploration from despair, conquest, slavery and death. I am hesitant to strip these away, but in Machen’s writing it seems to be simply the seed of wonder at what is new, and the acknowledgment that this lies alongside hunger and misery and want. Lightly done, but it is there.

My book, then, was to take all these things into account: the old, the shabby, the out of the way; and also the new and the red and the raw. But it was utterly to shun the familiar. For if you think of it, there is a London cognita and a London incognita(49)

He seeks the incognita, the overlooked. Finds the things that I too love:

I can look with a kind of pleasure on a very doorstep, on a doorstep approaching a shabby grey house of 1810 or thereabouts—if the stone be worn into a deep hollow by the feet of even a hundred years and a little over…The feet of the weary and hopeless, the glad and the exultant, the lustful and the pure have made that hollow; and most of those feet are now in the hollow of the grave: and that doorstep is to me sacramental, if not a sacrament, even though the neighbourhood round about Mount Pleasant is a very poor one. (48)

There is a section imagining the life of the reporter as a road, traveling through cities, opening up the countryside, ‘where there is no money but plenty of happiness’ (62). That old city/country divide. There is also, of course, a touch of the gothic here, a familiar strand running through so much literature of the city:

Strangeness which is the essence of beauty is the essence of truth, and the essence of the world. I have often felt that, when the ascent of a long hill brought me to the summit of an undiscovered height in London; and I looked down on a new land. (127)

I loved the idea that we must no longer seek wonder in castles and keeps, but in the everyday. Even then the sense of the madness of developers and real estate, the joy in the battered cottage amongst plate glass and brick shops, a hold out against profit. On this score there are some brilliant descriptions of Enfield being developed (35) to return to, perhaps after I’ve visited Enfield.

Why have I waited so long to read his fiction? It’s available, unlike this book, which was an amazing birthday present in the form of a first edition.

Save

South London Botanical Institute

Amazing that South London has a botanical institute, I had never heard of it until perusing the tours for Open House London — a pretty exciting weekend that I should have booked up far in advance. A brief description from the SLBI website:

indexFounded in 1910 by a keen botanist, Allan Octavian Hume (1829-1912), the aims of the Institute have remained almost unchanged in 100 years. Hume’s lasting contribution has been to provide an environment where those interested in plants, be they amateur or professional, may meet and develop their knowledge of plants.

It seemed to me quite quintessentially British, this place. The white middle classes thronged, generations of them — I suffered a little class anxiety but I am always made happy seeing grandparents out for the day with their grandchildren I confess. There was tea, and I had some quite nice cake that I took away wrapped up in a napkin that involved zucchini and cream cheese frosting. There was a lovely garden, despite the time of year, with an offering of a number of well marked flowers and herbs. My love of plants has never yet led me into an herbarium, but I discovered their massive collection of beautifully pressed plants, preserved for study in rows of custom built containers, and frozen now and again to ensure there are no insects feasting on them like aged cheddar. They also had a lovely library with the most wonderful books lining the walls, and treasures in these giant old herbals lying open on the table.

First, The Gardener’s Dictionary: containing the best and newest methods of cultivating and improving the kitchen, fruit, flower garden, and nursery, as also for performing the practical parts of agriculture, including the management of vineyards, with the methods of making and preserving wine, according to the present practice of the most skilful vignerons in the several wine countries in Europe, together with directions for propagating and improving, from real practice and experience, all sorts of timber trees .

98f0d486-f36b-11e2-9dd0-c0d9b14f5737

Put together by Phillip Miller, curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden, the first version was published in 1731. It was a foundational book in forming the knowledge, practice and taste of gardening, or so it is said by the wonderful University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, where you can see all of it .

219x322xdictionary_roots.jpg.pagespeed.ic.frEE-yMXtV 219x342xdictionary_plants.jpg.pagespeed.ic.RV8iOxztKr

One of the other books was entirely London plants, a beautifully illustrated financial disaster: The Flora Londinensis [electronic resource] : or plates and descriptions of such plants as grow wild in the environs of London: with Their Places of Growth, and Times of Flowering; their several Names according to Linnaeus and other Authors: with A particular Description of each Plant in Latin and English. To which are Added, Their several Uses in Medicine, Agriculture, Rural Oeconomy, and other Arts. By William Curtis, Demonstrator of Botany to the Company of Apothecaries. Again, based in Chelsea.

book-2013-09

A wonderful description of the book and its publishing can be found here. The pictures are exquisite, as is the book.

cfl116-141

Financial disaster came because the book proved expensive to publish and not a big seller. The public was not interested in local flora, desiring pictures of the bizarre and the exotic instead.

Hume, the founder of the South London Botanical Institute, knew all about the ‘exotic’, having been a collector of flora and fauna in India for many years — as well as playing a prominent role in the Indian civil service, and having served in military actions during the rebellion of 1857. Despite the way it feels so rooted here in South London soil, this building and its collections are intertwined with notions and practices of Empire — even if in some ways a return to more familiar plants. The Open House London description is here, notes written by Judy Marshall, Council Member of the Institute in 2006. An extract:

His natural history collections from India were legendary, with the bird and animal collections being presented to the British Museum Natural History as it was then called. Back in England, with help from his friends, he immediately started collecting British plants. These collections form the nucleus of the Institute herbarium. He also designed the herbarium cabinets. The library was started with books owned by him. The garden was to be used partly to grow alien species missing from the herbarium. We do not know whether there was an original conservatory: the present one replaced the existing one, riddled with dry rot, in 1990. This was made possible with a grant from the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust. The Institute was cared for by resident curators.

It is interesting to speculate on why such a very distinguished and energetic man as Hume should have spent his final years, then aged over 80, pursuing such an unusual aim. According to the original Memorandum of Association, ‘The sole object for which the Institute is established is to promote, encourage and facilitate, amongst the residents of south London, the study of botany exclusively’.

I wonder what it meant to him to return to his own country, specialise in its own plants in a way that the explorations in service of empire demanded abroad. Hume’s history in India seems to be one of liberal action pushing democracy and improvement as far as the framework of empire would go, founding free schools and promoting agricultural improvements. Not radical enough to challenge the empire itself, he did enough to earn himself a demotion and eventual dismissal. So I like him. He also went on to help form the Indian National Congress…there are a number of interesting talks to be found on his role in India and his ornithological and botanical interests here. It somehow all came to rest in this place, on Norwood Road.

This is an interesting place to think through some of London’s connections to Empire, our natural love of, and curiosity about, the incredible world we live in, and how it can be structured and appropriated by imperialism and exploitation. The role of botany and cataloguing and scientific exploration in conquest as well as furthering human knowledge. The corresponding influence of a role as civil servant and political figure in the pursuit of natural history and collecting. The study of botany and the collection of plants are irrevocably tangled in these imperial histories, even when not as tied to such a career as that of Allen Octavian Hume. There is so much more to explore here, and there is a little more here.

Save

Invisible Vauxhall

I loved this tour by author Gabriel Gbadamosi, who was unprepared for his own popularity and expected 3 or 4 arrivals instead of the 15 or so. We trooped around the little park in a group more diverse racially, culturally, and in terms of age than I was expecting. I loved that. He is a storyteller, and I don’t want to steal his stories or recast them in my own voice, they are too good. I am looking forward to encountering many of them again in his book, which sits beside me now, though I have not yet had time to read it. Another day, another post.

vauxhall__full_cover_final2

A taste though. We stood on a little hill in the new Vauxhall Gardens — a fraction of the site of the old Vauxhall Gardens, famous and infamous pleasure gardens of the 18th and early 19th centuries. I brought all kinds of knowledge of those along with me, having encountered them in my mother’s historical romances, in Dickens’ brilliant descriptions of their magic by night and their tawdriness by day — the days only revealed in a last ditch effort to maintain the gardens as profitable. I knew that Hogarth had painted the scenes and held a golden ticket. I thought back to the fairly fabulous Museum of London display that attempts to immerse you in this past with its fairy lights and sound recordings and murals of graceful ladies in their beautiful dresses. I believed them completely gone, covered up by the relentless creep of development. In fact, they were.

This piece of ground had been here and I had found it on an earlier attempt to discover Vauxhall for myself, but it was labeled as something else and not very appealing as a park space. I missed the presence of the farm all together, never connecting it to those pictures of my friend’s children amidst the animals, when I glanced in and passed it by. Redevelopment has now motivated the council to commemorate its past grandeur, but not the people who once lived there. Gbadamosi grew up in a row of houses once standing on that grassy knoll, one of them bought through toil and struggle by his father, occupied and loved by a host of Irish Nigerian children. Torn down as a plan of slum clearance by the council. He passed around a photograph showing his sister, a beautiful old car, a  neighbourhood that stood where we stood that to my American eyes was quite beautiful. There is nothing left to commemorate it, you would never know it had ever been there. I think so much about buildings, ruins, the ease with which our histories are erased when the buildings that have held us are gone. Words are all that are left. Pictures. Memories. Loss. On a lighter note, where will they put his blue plaque?

And so I felt at home on this tour, the memories of a poor childhood but a happy one, a culturally mixed and intermingled one, and the anger over a home lost and the understanding of how much more that meant than just the loss of four walls. I’ve been reading Marshall Berman lately too, and wonder if everyone who loses their home carries around with them that anger, that pervading sense of loss. I suppose we, the dispossessed, often have little ability to express these things in ways that can be widely heard, nor is it something you can casually drop in conversation.  It has shaped my life so much, and while it does not make me happy to find it in others, it makes me feel that I am part of a community. These are my people, because they can understand the way that this event (events in the plural I suppose now, in a way) rumbles on through my thinking, so fundamental to who I have become. There are more and more of us, victims of the slow violence of modern displacement for profit through clearances, foreclosures, evictions.

Of course, I love this community of shared experience most when it also joins a fascination with history and some good politics. We heard about the mixing of the high and the low in the gardens, references to it in literature. In contrast, there was the industry along the bank of the Thames, the potteries and factories and Blake looking out his window upon Dark Satanic Mills. Vauxhall is also of course the new(ish) home of MI6 in the obvious and not so obvious places (for some lighthearted spy geography, much of it in South London, see this post from the Londonist), the site of new embassies — and of course that is where the Americans are coming to rest. The secret services undoubtedly make them feel safe, unlike the rest of us. Where we stood was also the location for the launching of the missile at MI6 by the IRA in September of 2000.

Two things that struck me most: the homeless folks and addicts that lived in the arches under the railway, who were allowed to use the Gbadmosi’s outside (!) toilet, often given food. His Irish Catholic mother said they were angels, tests of our charity, you should always help them. His Nigerian father said they were like the dead, and so you should always help them.

I pondered that, it has not left me. The mercifully brief presence of a young heckler already drunk on our morning walk showed that some other aspects of the past had not left us. I was almost glad to see it, it means those surviving on the edges, can by can or hit by hit, still have a place among us. That there may still exist some desire to deal with root causes rather than simply forcing our people suffering such problems into the outskirts and the shadows. Of course, imagining that our council has any desire to deal with root causes is a little idealistically indulgent.

The other thing is that as children who had not lived through WWII, to Gbadamosi and his siblings the word bomb site meant only an open space to play in. I am a bit fascinated by bomb sites, how they were incorporated into everyday life for so long, how they were gradually filled in — and you can see the filling. How they opened up opportunities to build social housing across the entire city — a promise of social quality that has since been renounced. The horror of Gravity’s Rainbow, pictures of flame and death and ruin, a mystique of wartime bravery and camaraderie. A common reaction I suppose, and I digress.

After leaving the park we walked down to see the old Doulton factory, pausing to look at the tiles and mosaics under the bridge on Salamanca Street. On the way we stopped at a highly secure building I’d always wondered about, and is apparently the headquarters of the firm specialising in transporting the world’s masterpieces of art. So cool. The old factory itself is stunning, I remember wandering past it for the first time and wondering how such a beautiful thing of craftsmanship was built. It too was bombed, but this piece of the facade thankfully preserved.

VauxhallVauxhall

There was so much more but I shall send you to Gbadamosi’s website to read essays and get his book, the multiwalks website and phone app to experience a much expanded tour for yourself — more on that when I get a chance to explore a little more.

Save