Common spaces: downland churches

29 08 2013
Interior of St Michael's church, Up Marden

Interior of St Michael’s church, Up Marden

The South Downs is England’s newest National Park, created in 2011 and encompassing an 87-mile long ridge of low chalk hills, running from Winchester to the sea at Eastbourne. Yet, the majority of its land is still privately owned, often by large estates, and many of its paths are out of bounds for the walker, guarded by fences or ubiquitous signs proclaiming ‘private: keep out’ or ‘no right of way’. A far cry indeed from the unbounded freedom of the Peak District, where the ‘open country’ signs open up a different kind of meaning of the word ‘National’. For the Peak District, this was a hard-won and long-in-coming freedom, but one that is nevertheless a testament to the efficacy of popular (and disruptive) protest.

The road to Up Marden

The road to Up Marden

Yet, dismissive as it may be to the right to roam, the South Downs National Park contains its own unique common spaces, namely the ancient, and often tiny, churches that are hidden in the soft, undulating chalk and flint-scapes of these hills. The cluster of churches around the hamlets known as the Mardens on the Hampshire/West Sussex border are particularly striking examples. Always open to visitors (and nesting birds), the little churches at North Marden, East Marden and Up Marden are entwined as a thread of common spaces in this otherwise private landscape. They are also some of the most beautiful of England’s small churches – moving witnesses to early Christianity and its stubborn longevity.

Exterior of St Michael's church, Up Marden

Exterior of St Michael’s church, Up Marden

All the churches are small and undistinguished early medieval buildings: low, squat spaces rendered in the abundant local flint and covered in simple, terracotta-tiled roofs. No towers or spires proclaim the church’s dominance over the landscape and its people; no bells call the reluctant to worship; no transepts, aisles or elaborate tracery in the windows; just single, undivided spaces, bare walls and uneven floors of brick or weathered stone. Perhaps most evocative of all is St Michael’s church at Up Marden. Sitting as it does a hundred yards away from a tiny single-track road behind a barn and shrouded in trees, the 12th-century church seems to emerge out of the landscape in humility, the flint-strewn field adjacent to it mirroring the rough patterns of the flint in the church’s walls.

Nave, St Michael's church. Up Marden

Nave, St Michael’s church. Up Marden

Like other visitors to this church – like the architectural historians Simon Jenkins and Ian Nairn – I have never met another soul in or near this church. Yet its door is always unlocked and fresh flowers always adorn the tombstones and the altar. Clearly, someone cares deeply for this church, but in a way that remains mysterious: a presence in absence. Inside, the church is a space of extraordinary peace and simplicity: a single arch, crudely buttressed, marks a divide between the darker space of the nave and the light-flooded chancel, with its undecipherable fragments of medieval wall paintings emerging from the white-washed walls. Simple blue-painted candle holders give the interior an almost Byzantine feel, while the altar is as simple as possible – a rough-hewn cross sitting on an equally rustic table.

Remains of medieval wall paintings, St Michael's church, Up Marden

Remains of medieval wall paintings, St Michael’s church, Up Marden

What is the undeniable presence in this church, one that led the staunch atheist Nairn to visit it repeatedly when depressed and nearing his premature death in 1983? Nairn declared that the church moved him beyond religion: it had an atmosphere developed by ‘slow, loving, gentle accretion, century by century’. There is no didactic object that can explain this atmosphere – no carving, no buttress, pinnacle or stained glass. Instead, every human action, over hundreds of years, has made this church what it is today. Not the grand gesture of the esteemed patron, or the flourish of the craftsmen’s hand, but small and gentle actions; humble, yet determined; unseen yet powerfully evident. As it was for Nairn, for me this church is not a work of architecture but of humanity.

Candle holder, St Michael's church, Up Marden

Candle holder, St Michael’s church, Up Marden





Walking the girdle (part 1)

4 12 2012
1. The nine-mile walk around inner Manchester and Salford (shown in green)

1. Nine-mile walk around inner Manchester and Salford (shown in green)

2. 1844 map of Manchester and Salford included in Engels's 'The Condition of the Working Class in England'

2. 1844 map of Manchester and Salford included in Engels’s ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England’

In 1844, Engels described industrial Manchester as being planned as a series of concentric circles: an inner commercial core surrounded by a ‘girdle’ of working-class quarters about a mile wide beyond which were the middle-class residential districts (2). In this way, Engels argued, wealthier people from the outer areas might come in and out of the city on its roads ‘without ever seeing that they are in the midst of the grimy misery that lurks to the right and to the left.’ This ‘hypocritical plan’, as Engels called it, has persisted to this day, with the majority of the city’s thoroughfares being like spokes of a giant wheel, enabling easy travelling in and out of the city. And just as in Engels’s day, the further out from the city centre one travels, the more salubrious the surroundings become, today Mancunians reach all the way out to Alderley Edge in rural Cheshire, with its vast gated mansions: home of the footballers and their wives.

On a very cold but sparkling day in November, I decided to walk Manchester and Salford’s inner ‘girdle’, as a kind of alternative way of apprehending the topography of both cities – a counter to the frustration of generally only knowing the city as a series of linear routes in and out (1). The areas through which this walk passed – Salford, Hulme, Ardwick, Ancoats – were all just outside Manchester’s city centre and, although most of the housing was relatively new, still very much had the character Engels first observed in 1844 – that is, ‘unmixed working-people’s quarters’.

3. Cast-iron columns bases at Plymouth Grove

3. Cast-iron column bases at Plymouth Grove

4. Bricked-up factory in Ardwick

4. Bricked-up factory in Ardwick

5. Textile warehouse on Hyde Road, Ardwick

5. Textile warehouse on Hyde Road, Ardwick

So, after taking my usual linear bus ride from the suburbs to the University, instead of heading to my office I walked eastwards towards Ardwick, in a counterclockwise direction, passing the half-redeveloped Plymouth Grove pub with its late-nineteenth century ornamental cast-iron columns by the Glasgow founder Walter Macfarlane, now rusted into rich golden hues (3). Heading westwards, Ardwick is a surprise, an old industrial area that’s still working, with textile factories still hanging on despite the tumbledown bricked-up brick buildings (4), one of which still bears the imprint of its several generations of owners, its signs overlaid as if deliberately preserving the building’s history (5). Continuing west, a great railway viaduct thickens towards Piccadilly, its enormous brick arches a sign of how Manchester’s Victorian railway (unlike London’s) ploughed its way directly through the inner city, straddling the working-class housing with apparent disdain (6).

6. Railway viaduct in Ardwick

6. Railway viaduct in Ardwick

7. Former synagogue on Pollard Street

7. All Souls church on Every Street

8. Abandoned tower block in Ancoats

8. Abandoned tower block in Ancoats

Across the thundering Ashton road, one enters the Medlock river valley, a green oasis in Manchester’s monolithic red-brick cityscape, and a reminder that, like many other cities, Manchester’s fortunes were originally bound up with its rivers. Onwards through the edges of Beswick, a sleepy suburb in the Medlock valley, crowned on the Ancoats side by an abandoned church on Every Street – its fantastic array of turrets challenging the utilitarian brick buildings around it (7). Entering Ancoats past the Bank of England pub and over the Ashton canal, one suddenly emerges into another world – a contested landscape of waste ground, ruined factories, angular post-modernist tower blocks, and 1970s working-class housing. As one resident told me, Ancoats is now a battleground: some of the residents have been forced out, their properties compulsorilly purchased and demolished to make way for gentrification that hasn’t yet happened. Here, older 1960s tower blocks stand in limbo, condemned for demolition but subsquently purchased for £1 each by the developers Urban Splash in the property boom of the late-1990s. Now too expensive to either demolish or redevelop, these tower blocks remain as petrified ruins (8).

9. The early 19th-century mills of old Ancoats

9. The early 19th-century mills of old Ancoats

10. Textile warehouse on Thompson Street, north of Ancoats

10. Textile warehouse on Thompson Street, north of Ancoats

11. New Co-op headquarters building in central Manchester

11. New Co-op headquarters building in central Manchester

Over the Rochdale canal is old Ancoats, created at the end of the 18th century as the world’s first industrial suburb, and still characterised by its enormous, utilitarian brick mills and warehouses that summon up images of the industrial revolution, with its din and smoke (9). Yet, today, this part of Ancoats is silent and spotless: a closed world of private apartments, offices and deluxe recording studios. With its tightly-packed grid-like streets, cobbled for over two hundred years, Ancoats here is less contested, more fully embracing of a new kind of exclusivity that’s so characteristic of former industrial quarters in many other British cities. Out of Ancoats across the busy Oldham Road, one enters a desolate former industrial area, the factories and warehouses given over to end-of-the-line textiles (10), with the futuristic shapes of the city’s new generation of skyscrapers rising up beyond (11). With the towers of Strangeways high-security prison looming in the distance, I head towards the half-way point around the girdle (part 2 to follow).





Mass ornament: Parisian love padlocks

3 08 2012

Love padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché in Paris

On the extraordinary cast-iron extravaganza that is the Pont Alexander III in Paris are a group of padlocks attached to the legs of an ornamental crab. At the time I saw them, I thought they were isolated tokens of eternal love offered by daring tourists – small padlocks inscribed with hearts and the names of the enamoured couples. Only the next day, approaching the Pont de l’Archevêché, just south of Notre Dame, did I realise the full significance of these love padlocks. From a distance, the bridge sparkled and gleamed in the bright sunlight; only closer did I see that its simple lattice railing was covered in a multitude of padlocks, completely obscuring the structure behind. Hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of multi-coloured padlocks hung down in great bouquets of metal, many with coloured ribbons attached, overlooking that great emblem of Parisian romance, the cathedral of Notre Dame. Only a scattering of locks adorned the other side of the bridge, facing an altogether lesser symbolically-charged urban landscape.

Love padlocks on the Pont Alexander III in Paris

Only later that day did I discover that these Parisian love padlocks are part of a world-wide phenomenon, with the first appearing in cities in the early 2000s and now adorning a diverse range of urban structures, including Tower Bridge in London, Liverpool’s Albert Dock, the Hohenzollem Bridge in Cologne, the Ponte Milvio in Rome, the Butcher Bride in Ljubljana, and the ‘Mother-in-law’ bridge in Odessa. In all cases, lovers fix their locks to a fence, gate, bridge or similar public monument and, in an action symbolising their everlasting love, throw away the key. Despite periodic clampdowns by municipal authorities – many of Paris’s padlocks were removed in 2010 – there seems to be an unstoppable momentum behind these tokens of eternal passion.

Individual padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché

The unity of the mass on the Pont de l’Archevêché

It’s difficult to explain the sheer extent of this phenomenon; according to one source, the affixing of love padlocks in Rome can be attributed to the practice first being depicted in the novel I Want You (2006) by the Italian author Frederico Moccia; while those in Serbia can even be traced back before the Second World War. Whatever the explanation, the proliferation of these love padlocks clearly points to a growing need to express, in a concrete, public and collective form, the deepest desires of couples in their individual unions. I would argue that love padlocks create a form of mass urban ornament, at once highly subjective but also cooperative, forming an ornamental whole out of a multitude of basic components. So, on the Pont de l’Archevêché, the seeming chaos of the individual padlocks resolve themselves into a pattern when viewed from a distance;  some have even been spray-painted in different colours – presumably by a third party – to create a further sense of aesthetic unity.

Spray-painted padlocks on the Pont de l’Archevêché

The notion of these love padlocks as a mass ornament can be related to the work of the German theorist Siegfried Kracauer. Writing about Berlin in the 1920s, Kracauer argued that urban ornament can be seen as evidence of a counter-current to the rationalising and ordering tendencies of the modern metropolis, dominated by planners and other controlling forces. For Kracauer, ornament provides access to a different kind of city, one that gives free reign to the subjective world of the individual – a ‘field where civilisation’s process of repression has met resistance’. In this sense, personalised ornamental expressions in everyday life – making doodles, fashioning hairstyles, even cooking – are important signs of the individual’s contribution to the whole; they represent the ‘will to art’, implying the possibility of new relationships to space and city. I would argue that love padlocks are a significant contemporary instance of this ‘will to art’. They inscribe on the modern city – with its abstract circulations, regulated movements and absence of historical memory – a subjective piece of history, representing both a concrete  moment, a subjective memory and a utopian form of time, that is, in the everlasting and the eternal love that has been promised.





Advertising the underground: London’s first Thames Tunnel

23 06 2012

1. Fair in the Thames Tunnel, 1855, as depicted by The Illustrated London News

The Thames Tunnel was the one of the first attempts to exploit underground space in a major urban centre. Running from Wapping to Rotherhithe in the East End, it was begun in 1825 by the engineer Marc Brunel but only completed, after many setbacks, in 1843. In its early days, the Tunnel was a fashionable space for promenading by both Londoners and tourists alike, and was the site of numerous popular entertainments throughout the 1850s and 1860s.

2. The Thames Tunnel after its conversion to a railway tunnel in 1865

3. One half of the Thames Tunnel today – part of the London Underground network.

The Tunnel gradually lost its sense of glamour and was eventually sold to the East London Railway in 1865 (2), and, to this day, Transport for London uses the tunnel as part of its network of trains (3).

4. Thames Tunnel watchpaper, c.1840s (Rickards Collection, University of Reading)

Tunnel souvenirs, like these commemorative watch papers (4 & 5), introduced a new iconography of underground space to London’s populace, reproduced on a wide variety of other goods such as cups, plates, snuffboxes, posters and guidebooks. Typical representations of the Tunnel were of the construction process, shown above (4). Here a split-level view depicts a scene on the river rendered in perspective, beneath which an outsized cross-sectional view of the twin shafts shows the tunnel being built by the miners, rendered in blue and red. Below (5) is a perspective view of the inside of the tunnel, its arches seemingly receding infinitely, their scale emphasised by the diminutive visitors. In the borders of both watchpapers are Tunnel statistics: above (4), explanatory text as to the location of the image; below (5), information on the cost of the project and the materials employed in its construction. These combination views of underground space – on the one hand, technological, on the other picturesque – would become commonplace as London developed its subterranean infrastructure of sewers, railways and subways from the 1860s onwards.

5. Thames Tunnel watchpaper, c.1840s (Rickards Collection, University of Reading)

Watchpapers were small printed round paper inserts placed in pocket watches to protect their inner workings from rust. They were also employed by watchmakers as product labels, that is, as a way of advertising their wares. The use of this medium for advertising the Thames Tunnel demonstrates how the popular appeal of a particular sight might displace conventional forms of advertising. Although not an organised advertising campaign as we understand it today, the marketing of the Thames Tunnel nevertheless represents an early example of ‘total’ advertising, one that organises itself around a particular spectacle in the city rather than an individual commodity.





Curiosities of the Victorian census

25 04 2012

'Filling up the census paper', Punch, April 1851, p. 152.

From the introduction of the modern census in 1841, the census anecdote or ‘curiosity’ became a regular feature of newspaper columns. With the 1851 census came a plethora of ‘amusing’ returns: an Anglesey householder including all his animals on his census paper; a rural householder near Belfast writing under the column ‘Deaf and Dumb’, ‘Husband, not deaf, wish he was’; while a householder in Great Bowden in Derbyshire wrote ‘married, and sorry for it!’ in the column on marital status.

'Case of census-conscience', Punch, 15 April 1871, p. 147.

The 1871 census brought stories of the death of a young woman in Liverpool while filling out her census paper, and the case of a householder in rural Devon who was fined £1 for refusing to fill out his schedule because ‘he knew neither his own name nor his place of birth.’ Coverage of the 1891 census included more stories of householders refusing to complete their returns and widespread coverage of the sad story of Lord James Douglas forced to appear before the West London Police court after his children filled out the census paper while he was ill in bed, describing his wife as a ‘cross sweep’ and a ‘lunatic,’ and his son as a ‘shoeblack.’ The public ridicule he suffered seems to have contributed to his tragic death by suicide on 5 May 1891.

'Humours of the census', 11 April 1891, p. 479

If newspapers found amusement or pathos in the census returns, others found opportunities for social satire, especially on the question of women stating – or rather misstating – their ages. This problem had been of serious concern to the General Register Office, the organisers of the census after 1841. In 1851, they suggested that women over 20 depressed their ages because they ‘choose, foolishly, to represent themselves as younger than they really are,’ a point reiterated by them even as late as 1901.

'The census', Punch, 20 April 1861, p. 162

From 1841 onwards, satirical publications seized on this subject to make polite social comedy. If The Satirist set the scene in 1841, arguing that the ‘vague’ question on age in the census schedule was in response to women not wanting to state their exact age, then Punch, founded in that year, took up the subject in almost every subsequent census. Its 1861 cartoon ‘The Census’, shown above, is typical of its coverage, showing a middle-class family of two with their census-night visitor grouped around a table, on which the elderly head of the household is filling in the census paper. Asking his equally elderly spinster visitor, Miss Primrose, what he should write for her age, she states ‘The same as dear Flora. Twenty last birthday!’ Such gentle satire could descend into outright farce: in the same year, the Adelphi theatre in London staged its own take on the census, titled The Census: a Farce in One Act, in which the census schedule took centre stage, around which a variety of social embarrassments were played out in quick succession.





Communal reading and everyday life

13 04 2012

Taking an everyday journey on the London Underground in August this year, I witnessed many different types of reading; in the carriage in which I travelled, a middle-aged couple jointly consulted a London guidebook; a man next to me perused a map of the Underground; a young woman opposite studied some hand-written notes; two passengers read the newspaper; while one was engrossed in a novel. Finally, whilst observing my fellow passengers, I scanned the advertisements on the walls of the carriage. In short, I witnessed and engaged in varied kinds of reading at work on equally varied kinds of reading material.

Image

On the same day I took this photograph of a group sitting on a bench along the South Bank. These three Italian visitors were engaged in an act of shared reading common to any group visiting a new city: in the centre the older female holds a London guidebook so that the other two people can read it. She looks down at the text, as does the male figure to the left, presumably her partner. Meanwhile the girl on the right, presumably her daughter, looks ahead, not reading the guide, but nevertheless closely tied in with the act of reading by the other two figures. This kind of reading would almost certainly be interrupted by other activities: conversation about decisions to be made or unrelated matters, or observations of surroundings. Finally, we can imagine this kind of shared reading replicated countless times across London at every moment of the day, perhaps more numerous and visible in areas popular with tourists.

Image

When studying readers of the past, such shared reading must be considered alongside the traditional emphasis on readers of literature, absorbed in their books in splendid isolation, such as those seen in David Vincent’s Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: a Study of Nineteenth-Century Working Class Autobiography (1982), which states that ‘reading is a solitary activity’ (p. 125) despite the cover illustration showing a group of Victorian working men collectively reading a newspaper. Bringing to light the experience of shared reading, such as that seen in this photograph, might tell us much about reading as a ‘functional’ activity, that is, one that presupposes concrete acts in the world. By studying such experiences in the past, and analysing the relationship between reading and action, we will uncover varieties of everyday experience that have so far remained ignored by historians, but, like other forms of reading, warrant our close attention.

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Ornament and memory

27 03 2012

Cast-iron capital, Skipton station, Yorkshire, 1880

‘All I remember of Pilsen, where we stopped for some time, said Austerlitz, is that I went out on the platform to photograph the capital of a cast-iron column which had touched some chord of recognition in me. What made me uneasy … was the idea that this cast-iron column, which with its scaly surface seemed almost to approach the nature of a living being, might remember me and was, if I may so put it, said Austerlitz, a witness to what I could no longer recollect for myself.’

For Austerlitz, the eponymous narrator of W. G. Sebald’s 2001 novel, the repressed memories of his traumatic childhood in Nazi Germany keep resurfacing in unexpected and disturbing contexts. These memories form the basis for the novel’s narrative structure – a kind of stream-of-consciousness text with no chapter or even paragraph breaks. But why might an ornamental cast-iron column in a provincial Czech railway station stir long-submerged memories?

Liverpool Street Station, London, 1875

Sebald, of course, doesn’t give an answer, but it’s something to do with the ‘puce-tinged encrustation’ on the iron capital which makes it seems almost alive and therefore conscious and capable of memory – of remembering Austerlitz when he was a child. A ridiculous idea, no doubt, but one that I find has strong resonances with radical notions of ornament developed by the German theorist Siegfried Kracauer just at the beginning of the rise of fascism in Germany in the early 1930s.

Paddington Station, London, 1852-55

Like other intellectuals of his generation (particularly Walter Benjamin), Kracauer was worried that the modernists’ banishment of ornament would lead to it returning in a ‘dislocated, unmediated’ form that could be utilised for the strengthening of totalitarian power – think the Nuremburg Rally or Nazi propaganda films. Yet, Kracauer also saw a radical potential in ornament. In his autobiographical novel Ginster (1928), the protagonist – an architect – challenges his own sense of alienation in modern Berlin with a developing notion of ornament – encompassing much more than conventional visual decoration and including accidental ornament (creating by the smudging of a window), schoolboy doodles, or the patterns in decaying walls. Kracauer’s broad notion of ornament allows the individual to ‘resubjectivize’ the increasingly objective and rationalised modern city by fixed visual images that mediate the present and the past, thus breaking down the distance between the individual and the whole.

York Station, 1877

It’s precisely this function of ornament that infuses Sebald’s Austerlitz with its narrative potency. Without him knowing it consciously, the cast-iron column in the railway station mediates present and past, partly because its visual appearance – covered in the encrustations of decay – provokes its appropriation as an object that is both present and bears witness to its history. And cast iron seems peculiarly suited to this kind of mediation. In countless railway stations, Victorian cast-iron ornament remains part of  structures that are at once powerfully present and also connected to a past, nebulous as that connection may be.

Preston station, 1880

From their inception in the 1830s, railway stations have functioned as potent symbols of modernity – the onward rush of technology – but also places of immense stillness – of waiting, where time past flows into time present. And, within these spaces, if one cares to stand and look, as Austerlitz did, the cast-iron ornament (especially if it’s rusted or stained) reminds us of these slippages in the sleek image of the modern. They are places where the whole is perceived – the milling crowds, the endless departures and arrivals of modern life – and, paradoxically, where we feel our individuality most strongly and the deep well of memories that we all carry.

Hellifield station, Yorkshire, 1880








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