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 …
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.