Blasting & Blessing: a rainy day edition

cats considering the nature of rain

It’s rained a lot in London over the past few days. Surely, though, that’s no bad thing?

For while it would be wrong to underestimate the greater and lesser inconveniences of rain — flooding, the hazards posed by deceptive reflections or slippery pavements, cabin fever on the part of those who, for whatever reason, won’t go out when it’s wet — there’s a lot to be said for the miscellaneous pleasures of swimming in an outdoor pool when it’s raining, going out for the sort of walk where it doesn’t matter at all how soaked one gets, or indeed, as far as that goes, staying in, and enjoying civilisation’s greatest perk — the primal satisfaction of observing gale-force winds and driving torrents from the safety of a warm, dry, comfortable, sociable shelter. Bless buildings.

Some man-made structures deserve more blessing than others, though, which brings us to the subject of Crossrail. In a word, blast Crossrail. For those of you fortunate enough to live in ignorance of this eye-wateringly expensive, entirely pointless enterprise — proof positive, as if we needed any more of it, that Britain is no good at all at les très grandes projets — Crossrail is a scheme involving digging up much of central London over a period of half a decade, demolishing historic buildings and causing unendurable levels of disruption to local residents and workers, in order to connect by rail a number of locations already connected by public transport. Yes, quite.

Whatever benefits are claimed for this ill-conceived essay in digging holes and filling them in again, however, the impact on Soho will be undeniably baleful. Dean Street, it appears, will be closed off at the north end until 2015 — assuming, of course, the project runs crisply to schedule — with all that implies for local businesses and the inhabitants who depend on them. At the top of Dean Street, the Bath House — which began trading in 1738 under the name of Green Man & French Horn, was rebuilt c. 150 years thereafter and now exists as a relatively unmodernised, very handsome Victorian pub — is earmarked for destruction. What sort of amenities for local people will be offered by the ticket hall that is destined to replace it? Meanwhile, 50 heavy lorries a day will thunder through the West End — one of the fastest-growing residential areas in London, including more young families than anyone seems to realise — removing earth from the excavations. Crossrail is currently estimated to cost about £16 billion. To which one can only really ask — why?

Is there truly no way to stop this grotesque, repulsive, incomprehensible extravagance? If anyone locates the relevant railing to which disgruntled Soho folk can chain themselves, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

On to more distant examples of blighted urban spaces enlivened by colourful local activism. I refer — as it seems I must now do in more or less every post — to La Serenissima. There, residents recently staged a mock funeral in commemoration of the fact that the population of Venice, if one excludes the Lesser Islands, has now sunk below 60,000 souls.

Well, bless them — I think. Having written previously about the perils of espousing what might so easily shade into being someone else’s demi-nationalist cause, nearly all of the subtleties of which are necessarily lost to outsiders, I’m conscious of the need to tiptoe softly here. But for what it’s worth, on the basis of their quoted remarks, the organiser of this event, Matteo Secchi, and his fellow activists seem encouragingly free of xenophobic bias. Their goal is to rebuild Venice’s resident population, which ran to nearly 170,000 as recently as the 1950s — complete with the sort of jobs, local services and shops selling something other than Chinese-made tourist tat on which resident populations depend. Secchi goes so far as to invite people from all over the world to move to Venice — ‘if you love Venice, that makes you a Venetian’ — correctly so, given the city’s history as a haven for refugees, merchants, mercenaries, heretics and eccentric ex-pats alike.

This, however, will entail diversifying the Venetian economy, currently alarmingly dependent on the monoculture of tourism. As one of Secchi’s associates puts it,

‘We need to attract colleges and universities, government departments and maybe a United Nations organisation like Unesco. We could become the Brussels of the south, or declare ourselves a free port. Banks used to have their headquarters here, but not anymore. When we lost a big Italian insurance company, 1,000 jobs went with it. The council has done nothing to stem the exodus.’

All of which does, slightly, raise a broader point regarding Venice’s place within its own region, and indeed within Italy as a whole.

Certainly, there are opportunities to be exploited. Not least, as long as Britain continues to indulge in its present all-party attempt to demote the City of London from a world-leading financial centre to stagnant provincial backwater, some of us will dream of new Venetian Republic, benefiting not only from advantageous East-West positioning and a culture of entrepreneurial alertness but also extremely liberal financial regulation coupled with the truly amazing stability that, last time round, Venetian political arrangements preserved for half a millennium or more. Time for a spot of online palazzo-shopping? Well, perhaps there are worse daydreams with which to occupy a rainy Monday morning …

More briefly, but still on an urban theme, blast street lighting, because I’ve never yet seen the Leonids. This park, however, sounds like a move in the right, agreeably pre-modern direction.

But by way of contrast, let’s embrace postmodernity for a moment. Bless this, through which it is possible to simulate the experience of wandering around the current Fantin-Latour exhibition at the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid without leaving the comfort of one’s own Soho-based, cat-infested sofa. Admittedly, as good as it is — for the freaks amongst us who always read the catalogue before visiting the exhibition itself, or indeed for those who, for all the usual reasons, are forced to give the real-life experience a miss — aspects of the simulation might be better. Although I can understand the lack of high-quality close-up images, for instance — intellectual property requires as much private policing these days as pretty much every other type of property — why the lack of detailed captions for each work?

Inevitably, given my total lack of skill in negotiating digital environments, it took me quite a bit of practice — and a protracted inspection of the gallery ceiling, as seen from various angles — before I managed to simulate anything other than intense engagement with a bottle or two of tempranillo. And of course, no online experience of art can ever really evoke the aura of the thing itself, the authentic charisma of an actual, real-life masterpiece. But as a second-best way of understanding how a show was hung, this will more than do, at least for the moment.

It’s time to think about the past again, though — specifically, 1997, which was when William Dalrymple’s From the Holy Mountain was first published. Blast, then, the fact that it has taken me so long to get around to reading this beautiful, eye-opening, in some ways heartbreaking book. Explicitly concerned with the parlous state of Eastern Christianity in the lands of its birth — from the shores of the Bosphorus to the deserts of Egypt — it is also, simultaneously, informative about quite a lot besides, from the destructive effects of secular nationalism on the Near East’s minority populations — Jewish and pagan, as well as Christian — to the fairly porous boundaries which existed for so long, in so many ways, between these apparently antagonistic faith traditions.

So while From the Holy Mountain is now twice-over a book about the past — the flourishing religiosity of Byzantium at the end of the sixth century, the embattled enclaves of Christian practice in the Near East in the early 1990s — it is also, in a sense, a book about our immediate future. While Dalrymple offers no easy answers, his leisurely, companionable, unobtrusive prose raises question after question with more than a little urgency. Specifically, how can different faiths — secularism very much included — be made to coexist with one another? And when coexistence fails, what do we all lose? This is, in short, a serious, important book, a world removed from most of the frothy and inconsequential travel literature amongst which it is typically stabled. I recommend it.

But since ‘Fugitive Ink recommends a book sympathetic to Byzantium’ rather lacks counter-intuitive grit, let’s end on a marginally more transgressive note. Bless the BBC — or at least its 1950s incarnation, which, as we recently learned, banned children’s author Enid Blyton from the airwaves, on the basis that her work was ‘second-rate’ and ‘lacked literary value’.

Needless to say, the critical judgement of these faceless BBC staffers was positively immaculate. Blyton is unreadable, full stop. Even if she weren’t unreadable, her books have nothing of any interest to convey. But in the unlikely event that even the most haltingly literate observer ventures to disagree, why not turn to the relevant chapter in Colin Welch’s indispensible The Odd Thing About the Colonel, a notably savage enterprise particularly commended to fans of a good nailing? Alas, though — not only have we long since lost Peter Simple, but we no longer inhabit a world in which a public service broadcaster regards ‘rather a lot of the Pinky-winky-Doodle-doodle Dum-dumm type of name’ as an undesirable quality in children’s programming, deeming ‘literary value’ an absolute necessity. Nor is there a mention of ratings or revenue in sight.

All rather nostalgia-inducing, in other words — so, perhaps, not as counter-intuitive as all that! Still, at least we have the autumn rain to cheer us up.


Filed under art, blasting & blessing, books, culture, London, media, Tory things, Venice

14 responses to “Blasting & Blessing: a rainy day edition

  1. There’s a wonderful bit in C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra trilogy — I’m not sure which book — where a married couple talks about how much they like weather. Not, they point out, sunny weather. They like all weather. They then point out how people go out in the rain: Hunched over, bent, eyes screwed up. Of course those people hate the rain! Who would want to go out like that?

    Lewis’ characters are right: If you go out in the rain standing straight, without an umbrella, and simply accept getting wet, it’s fine. Except when it’s cold (when you’re flirting with hypothermia). And also except my glasses, which always end up too wet to see through.

    Aside from my glasses, though, I don’t mind the rain so much any more.

    As far as Crossrail, it sounds as if London politicians learned the lesson from Boston’s Big Dig: If you make it big enough, you can skim enough off the top to get rich, and you never ever have to finish.

  2. Long before blogs were invented, Chris, I used to go running sometimes — and soon learned that running in the rain, on a warm evening when there was no particular reason not to get soaked to the skin, was actually one of life’s more genuine sensual delights. And although, fair enough, the combined forces of central London and maturity render re-enactment difficult, I haven’t forgotten what I once learned. Rain’s a good thing.

    As for Crossrail, though, cynicism bred from Bostonian stock rarely fails to win blue ribbons. What you say is clearly spot-on. All I ask is that, if they have to start somewhere, it isn’t in my Soho — and if they have to leave somewhere unfinished, it’s the demolitions up at the top of Dean Street.

    Or to put it another way, I’ve never really understood why people here sneer at the logic of ‘not in my back yard’ — it’s rather like sneering at the logic of ‘not on a subject about which I actually know a good deal, and care even more’. Why an incoming government wishes to spend £16 billion on a project most Londoners hate — a mere year or two before the next London elections — remains a bit of a mystery, and not even a very nice one at that. But we’ll save the conspiracy theories for another evening, perhaps.

  3. crywalt

    The problem with NIMBY, of course, comes up with things that have to be in someone’s backyard. They just put a cell tower up practically in my backyard — literally, it’s less than two hundred feet from my side door — and some of the neighbors were very upset about this. Their main objections were rooted in ignorance — “What will the radiation do to my kids?!” — and, honestly, I’d love to be able to use my mobile phone at home. Our area needs a cell tower somewhere nearby, and it’s going to be in someone’s yard. (Personally I wish it was in mine, because I could use the rent. They could build it right over my bed for all I care.)

    Of course, NIMBY is perfectly reasonable for unnecessary projects. If it doesn’t have to be in anyone’s backyard, then why put it there?

    I just watched a Smithsonian HD feature on the search for Leonardo’s “Battle of Anghiari”. What’s great about that is seeing that Vasari, charged with renovating various buildings at different times, did everything he could to save the frescoes as he found them. A man after my own heart. “First, do no harm” should be the commandment of many more professions.

  4. Your second point about NIMBYism is precisely what I was trying to express, Chris — that if people don’t want something in their own back yards, then it might be worth evaluating whether that something, whatever it might be, truly has to be in anyone’s back yard at all, if only because the cost-benefit analysis being conducted by those poor sneered-at NIMBY folk may well in fact be more profound than that conducted by those less closely involved.

    The Vasari story’s an interesting one. What with my nonstop whining about Dean Street demolitions and so forth, I probably give a pretty good impression of believing that no old building should ever been demolished — which, in a built-up place like London, implies that no new building should ever be constructed. That, however, is clearly madness. Most of the best and most historically resonant buildings that exist were, I suppose, built on what must have been, at the time, the still-livid scars of some earlier, much-loved structure. Change is part of life. Nothing man-made lasts forever.

    But at the same time, I do think there’s a point at which destroying a set of buildings — in this case, a large city block — tips over into destroying, or at least altering in a brutally unsympathetic and largely negative way, the character of an historic neighbourhood. And that, it seems to me, is what Crossrail is doing to the north end of Soho. Probably it’s far too late to stop it now, but still, I’m going to do what I can …

  5. crywalt

    Old buildings aren’t always worth saving, it’s true. Sometimes it’s too much money to save them, and sometimes the building is one of those Brutalist monstrosities that should be knocked down (I’m with Prince Charles on that one). And of course there are times when you’re definitely going to put up something better in its place.

    But so many people are so short-sighted, I find myself thinking we need people who just say, “Preserve EVERYTHING!” simply to balance them out.

    Who knows? In a hundred years someone may be saying “Save Crossrail from demolition!”

  6. Oh, absolutely, Chris!

    And indeed, if this were 1737, I’m sure I’d be right up there at the front, complaining loudly: ‘Knocking down this hovel to build another pub? Look, it’s nice old hovel! And London has too many pubs already! What can these people possibly be thinking?’ (etc, etc.)

  7. crywalt

    Sounds like a Monty Python sketch.

  8. Worse things have been said about the comments here!

  9. Gaw

    I had no idea Crossrail was going to mess up the Soho film and music industry so much – the noise and vibrations affecting sound recordings. As advertising is one of the things we do rather well this seems pretty destructive.

    But on the other hand, it would be handy to have a station in Farringdon to take me to Heathrow direct, for the one time a year or so when I’m absolutely forced to use this dreadful airport… Surely that’s worth £16bn and the destruction of a few thriving businesses and precious buildings?

  10. Your logic would be typically unarguable, Gareth, were Crossrail ever actually going to be finished.

    It won’t be, though. The Dean Street demolitions will, of course, go ahead as planned, probably early in the new year. But as for the project in general, once the Tories take office, crucial portions will be ‘delayed’ or even ‘postponed’, for all the usual planning / funding / kicking-into-the-long-grass reasons. So we’ll be left with the terrible, bomb-site beauty of a big hole in the ground, while you’ll be left with your annual pilgrimage to Heathrow, in all its carefully-preserved, unchanging hideousness.

    (I promise you this is true, by the way. You must picture me as a sort of Cumaean Sibyl, crouched over my MacBook Pro in the depths of pitch-dark, unfathomable cave in the ruins of what was once thriving Soho, in order the achieve the full effect of this prediction.)

    But since you’re clearly in the mood for trawling the Department of Silver Linings for sundries, I’ll admit that I’m rather looking forward to the results of the archaeological survey that will precede, briefly, the demolition, as it will be entirely life-enhancing to learn that sabre-tooth tigers and mammoths once growled and grazed, and dark men with stone-tipped arrows hunted both, in the shadow of what is still, for the moment, the Dean Street branch of Tesco.

  11. NB.

    “We could be the Brussels of the south”

    Ooh, the first hint of a reversal of the ridiculous ‘Venice of the north’ claim made by countless northern european cities, usually in times of some despair. Jonathan Meades would be pleased, T Dan Smith not so much.

  12. Good point, NB. I’m reminded of that old, quasi-Venetian Boddington’s advert — “by ‘eck it’s gorgeous” — although of course the ‘Cream of Manchester’ is now made somewhere else entirely. Hmm, perhaps the more forward-looking folk near the Molino Stucky ought to kick out the Hilton Hotel that squats therein, and get on with a spot of bitter brewing? I’m sure a bit of Lagoon-related tang wouldn’t do it all that much harm …

  13. Liberanos

    You ain’t got nothin to worry about, missus.

    How’d you like a bleedin great runway up your back yard, eh? All that noise and mess and concrete and that. And for what? Blokes changing planes and not even staying here to long enough to spend any moula. I dunno. Almost makes you feel like voting for your lot.

  14. You’re right, Liberanos — there’s always someone worse off — although given the distinctly limited charms of easternmost Oxford Street, especially at this time of year, the idea of making it into an airstrip is not entirely without appeal.