Saturday, 14 May 2011

Come friendly bombs

In a postscript to her classic The Pleasure of Ruins (1953), Rose Macaulay compared the appeal of the ‘catastrophic tipsy chaos’ of postwar British bombsites with the ‘morbid pleasure in decay’ that the Romantic poets and painters experienced among the wrecked remains of Gothic abbeys and Greek temples.

In Christopher Woodward’s book In Ruins, I found an interesting discussion of churches bombed in the Second World War. During the blitz the art historian Kenneth Clark declared that ‘Bomb damage is in itself Picturesque’. On 15 August 1944 Clark and others, including T.S. Eliot and John Maynard Keynes, proposed that some bombed churches should be preserved in ruins, to remind future generations of ‘the sacrifice on which [their] apparent security has been built’. The campaign was elaborated in a book, Bombed Churches as War Memorials, which, Woodward writes, was ‘the last great fling of the British Picturesque, summoning the spirit of Stourheard and Stowe to soothe the trauma of high-explosive bombs. These churches would not be cold, black slag-heaps of unforgiving bitterness, as at Dresden, but garden ruins haunted by birds and soft with greenery, places that children would be thrilled to explore. Stone colonnades truncated by the blast would continue as rows of trees, and roofless crypts become sunken, sheltered gardens.’

We have our own bombed-out church here, St Luke’s, about two minutes walk from where I work, which has been a hollow shell ever since the Liverpool Blitz exactly seventy years ago. Strangely enough, I discovered recently that this church is following me on Twitter. You can follow its own tweets, should you so be inclined, at @BombedOutChurch.

There are plenty more contemporary ruins in the area where I work, which has now been rebranded the ‘creative quarter’. The patchiness of Liverpool’s recent redevelopment allows for spaces within the city where accidental survivals from the recent past are visible. Even in the centre of the city, where real estate should be most prized, there are no man’s lands blocked off with corrugated iron or wooden hoardings, and unoccupied buildings with peeling paint, shattered brickwork and rotting timber. In the sidestreets off the main shopping areas, the less visually appealing effects of regeneration are evident: masses of rubble, wire fencing and cones, and the fronts of buildings unceremoniously ripped apart. The passer-by can look inside these buildings in cross-section at the remains of ordinary lives, such as wallpaper peeling from walls, staircases ending in thin air, and the holes left by fireplaces. As Stephen Barber writes, the contemporary idea of cities as supermodern environments paradoxically opens them up to history and memory, as ‘the visual arena of the city … move[s] through concurrent acts of construction and obliteration, extrusion and intrusion, incorporation and exclusion’. This process produces historical remains which cannot be recuperated by official forms of heritage and nostalgia, but instead expose what Barber calls the city’s ‘burning core of banality’.

There are some wonderful descriptions of bomb damage in Daniel Swift’s recent book Bomber County, including a brilliant account of Virginia Woolf seeing her old flat in Tavistock Square exposed to the elements.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Strange things happen on the edges of places, where two opposed landscapes meet to create a mutant zone, lacking organic consistency. English suburbia typifies this strangeness, endlessly seeking new ways to feel at home with itself while engendering contradiction and compromise. The suburbs, because of their presumed orthodoxy, exaggerate the extremities of mood and movement; the darkest alley in the seediest district of the biggest city will lack the sheer oddness of suburban neatness, where all that appears most settled conspires to make its own drama … English suburbia has become virtually synonymous with the sinister and the sad – the very opposites of its founding intentions.’ – Michael Bracewell, England is Mine

Saturday, 7 May 2011


I’ve been reading James Attlee’s Nocturne: A Journey in Search of Moonlight, which is among other things an eloquent argument against light pollution and in favour of darkened skies: ‘What a profligate civilization we are, burning up our resources to light streets that nobody walks down and shop-window displays that nobody sees, pouring light on the empty pavements as a ritual oblation to the god of money.’

Attlee also discusses an intriguing artwork by Katie Paterson, in which she transmitted a recording of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata to the moon via morse code using an EME [earth-moon-earth] radio communication system in Southampton. Reflected off the moon’s surface, a process known as ‘moonbounce’, it arrived at another station in Sweden about half a million miles and 2.5 seconds later. But the music had changed: ‘the moon reflects only part of the information back – some of it is absorbed by its shadows, lost in its craters.’ Attlee considers the new version an improvement on Beethoven.

Paterson’s work reminded me of the attempts to transmit TV signals long distances in the days before Telstar and other satellites, as they tried almost everything to get the high frequency waves over what Marconi called ‘the stubborn curvature of the earth’. In the early 1950s, there was an idea – never put into practice - to use aeroplanes as gigantic TV transmitters. The planes would travel in lazy circles 30,000 feet above the earth, sending out short waves that would blanket the earth’s surface like a giant inverted ice-cream cone covering an area 400 miles in diameter. Another plan was to bounce radio waves off the surface of the moon. In May 1959, Jodrell Bank, in co-operation with Pye, the now defunct British manufacturer of televisions, sent morse messages via the moon to Cambridge Air Force Base, Massachussetts, but the sound was poor and in any case the signals could only be sent once the moon had set, which would have had the effect of severely rationing television. Perhaps, for those of us who have had the misfortune to catch some of the recent offerings on ITV2, this would have been no bad thing.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Wall! I wonder that you haven’t fallen down in ruin, when you have to support all the boredom of your inscribers.’ Graffiti in ancient Pompeii, from Peter Toohey, Boredom: A Lively History

Sunday, 1 May 2011

In the metro

I’ve been looking again at In the Metro, Marc Augé’s book about Paris’s underground system. Augé began his career as an ethnographer of tribal societies on the west coast of Africa, and his analysis of the Paris métro is part of what he calls a ‘reverse ethnology’: a response to ‘the death of exoticism’, the discrediting of anthropology’s traditionally hierarchical relationship to a primitive ‘other’, by finding new areas of ethnographic investigation closer to home.

Augé sees the métro as an especially fruitful place for ethnographers, because it brings the middle classes together with people on the fringes of society such as impoverished artists, buskers, homeless people using the concourses for warmth and shelter, and more active beggars patrolling the carriages with children in tow, all brought together in a kind of collectively experienced solitude. On the métro we meet ‘proximal others’, who are not so different from us that they can be reassuringly exoticized, but who still force us to reflect on the extent and limits of community.

Augé notes the ways in which commuters exchange fleeting glances, or the flickers of emotion that can sometimes be detected behind the apparently blank faces of daydreamers. These silent acts show how much the métro is based on both peaceful co-existence and the impossibility of knowing anything about the lives of one’s fellow passengers. Augé admires the ‘virtuosity tied to habit’ of the metro users. The movements of regular métro passengers, he suggests, have the balletic economy of endlessly repeated actions, with no unnecessary or redundant effort. They will get set and on their marks before departing from a carriage; will know whether or not to quicken their pace based on the noise of a train whooshing through the tunnels; or will stand on the platform at the exact spot at which the train doors will open, and which will deposit them near their exit on the destination platform.

The fundamental quality of the métro is its ordered and contractual nature, which is found not simply in its explicit rules (the ban on smoking, for example, or the regulation of travel through ticket types) but also in its ‘collective morality’, the complex etiquette necessitated by its cramped and warren-like environments. Although it is true that certain people remain indifferent to these rules, Augé write that what is ‘most astonishing is that there are not more of them’.