Weala Broc

09Oct13

UK - London - Psychogeography walk follow Walbrook river

London, 51°30’54.22″ N   0°05’18.44″ W

Entranced by ancient lanes, psychogeographers continue downstream through Tokenhouse Yard towards the great parapet of the Bank of England.

And while treading water for a moment, they listen to mp3 audio of babbling waters and the prose of Tom Chivers, with the River Walbrook culvertized but still flowing below their feet.


UK - London - Union jack-covered box and plyboard hoarding

Bang on three-thirty, the UKIP smokers spilled out from Westminster Hall to light up after what was a gruelling group hug inside. MEP Geoffrey Bloom had earlier referred to their women members as “sluts” and whacked the political reporter Michael Crick across his comb over.

Grassroots UKIPers emerged to take in the air:  A lady with red hair and nicotine teeth with her party rosette sunk low; a suit who otherwise might have been a Guy Ritchie gangster, wearing a sharp Union jack tie (a U-Kipper?) and party £ pin – every bit a UK-PLC corporate; a country gent from the shires in tweed and sucking on a worn pipe with a freshly-brushed beard.

UK - London -UK - London - UKIP member's tie and badge detailUK - London -

Nigel Farage appeared too, crossing the cobbles towards sweating TV technicians. After racism finger-pointing, tweets were now zigzagging showing him on a screen grab with Hitler pixels across his upper lip – either a digital slip or well-placed larf by a BBC leftie. Politicos wanted his comment on this disastrous day and the leader stood with an earpiece plugging him into the wider networks like a snarling Clint Eastwood taking a bullet for the President. Bloom’s behaviour had wrecked the party conference, he needed to quickly admit.

In a city so cluttered and visually chaotic, plain backgrounds are valuable but it wasn’t until I neared the north end of Trafalgar Square later, that I saw a corner hoarding and the discarded fruit & veg box. While I hovered nearby, some drunks eyed me warily but the empty landscape of box and ply seemed compulsive as a metaphor of Britishness.

As fringe politicians try engaging us with tales of anti-EU xenophobia, here was the abandonment of the Union jack, our glorious national colours left as litter on the pavement, amid a background of banality.


UK - London -

51°30’38” N 0°5’7″ W

From the surface of the sun, about 93 million miles away, to a dozen paving stones on Eastcheap, the hotspot was heating up nicely.

At lunchtime, bareheaded north Europeans poured from their air con offices to experience the blistering heat, squinted into the Biblical light, and then photographed the phenomena with their smartphones.

Helios was having a blast.

UK - London -

51°30’38” N 0°5’6″ W

I started my psychogeographic route along the celestial pathway and photographed from the western side at 10.30am to the eastern end 4 hours later – each picture shown here in its longitudinal sequence.

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51°30’38” N 0°5’4″ W

UK - London -

51°30’38” N 0°5’4″ W

The Indian summer was already delaying the late autumn, spoiling Londoners for a further two weeks, when news came through of a strange event: An intensity of solar rays, reflected from the concave plate glass windows of one of the capital’s newest skyscrapers known as the Walkie-talkie, and focussing on the street below in the heart of the capital’s financial district.

A Jaguar owner returned to melted trim and wing mirror and a cyclist found his saddle smouldering. Tarmac turned to soft putty and thermometers produced from building atria registered a suffocating 50° and up to to 66° C  (144°F) – possibly the hottest place on the earth’s surface ever recorded.

UK - London -

51°30’38” N 0°5’4″ W

En route to buy their sushi, a fraction of the 386 billion billion megaWatts of solar energy scorched the Londoners’ foreheads but somehow, the Walkie Talkie’s developer Land Securities admitted his modelling had failed to predict this event.

Its Uruguayan designer Rafael Viñoly’s also shirked any blame:

“Architects aren’t architects any more,” he complained. “One of the problems that happens in this town is the superabundance of consultants and sub consultants that dilute the responsibility of the designers until you don’t know where you are.”

He also underestimated how sunny this metropolis can be, although skulking in the shadows then crouching in the inferno was a corporate dressed in grey and armed with an industrial thermometer – clearly taking regular readings, and very loathe to divulging his motives: “I won’t say anything, I’m working.”

UK - London -

51°30’38” N 0°5’3″ W

So bright were the multiples of suns appearing in the glass (it was difficult and foolish to decide exactly how many though 4 seems a good number) that sunglasses proved ineffective, as if an eclipse was luring the over-curious into burning their retinas.

UK - London -

51°30’38” N 0°5’3″ W

UK - London -

51°30’38” N 0°5’3″ W

As qualified as the suits may be, in quantitative easing perhaps, under the glare they reverted to adolescence. Eggs and Teflon frying pans appeared and while there was a certain degree of sizzling, few realised that the hottest zone was on the periphery of the brightest light. In a moment of overheated excitement, German TV crew cracked their own yolk on the boot of a Mercedes, too hot to touch, until stopped and questioned by police about criminal damage. If there were wider health & safety issues, no official in a hi-vis and hard hat was present to bother about anything as improbable as a spontaneous combustion.

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51°30’38” N 0°5’3″ W

Others took selfies of themselves under the brightness, like space tourists beneath an exploding supernova.

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51°30’38” N 0°5’2″ W

The solar rays took a little over 4 ½ hours to transit east along the 150 yards of Eastcheap with the most intensive being half way, near the corner of St Mary at Rood, at 90 degree right-angle to the skyscraper. Here was the best location to stop with your sandwich and feel toasted.

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51°30’38” N 0°5’2″ W

Despite being so widely-reported, this astronomical event seemed to have escaped the notice of some visitors to the capital. After all, a free space is a free space.

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51°30’38” N 0°5’1″ W

UK - London -

51°30’38” N 0°5’1″ W

UK - London -

51°30’38” N 0°5’0″ W

After heat damage to the frontages of a some businesses, a netting screen was placed as a celestial shield.

UK - London -

51°30’38” N 0°4’60” W

In places, the light was cinematic. So HMI-bright, that one’s shadow reflected from the skyscraper was harder than direct sunlight. In other places there were no shadows.

UK - London -

51°30’38” N 0°4’59” W

As the sun’s angle to the building increased during the afternoon, its intensity fell away too and my hot walk along the sun’s spectacular line was fading.

Our star burned on – always unaware of its effects on strange humans below.

More of this photography can be viewed here.


Was The Marshes

04Jun13

UK - Halstow Marshes - Ramblers walk across potential airport landscape

Our band of weekend ramblers left south London early for the beautiful north Kent marshes. During the hour’s car journey east, we imagined a dash to a future airport terminal where a sprawl of concrete ramps and runways would take over the landscape – all yet to be built but ‘on the drawing board,’ as they say.

By late morning we were making good progress on the Saxon Shore Way, passing the exquisitely panelled Kentish rectory (more New England than home counties) at St Mary Hoo; then isolated clapboard farmhouses and the wonderful rusting hulk of an agricultural Nissen or Quonset Hut.

UK - St Mary Hoo - Arched corrugated shed detail

After another 2 downhill miles of estuary panorama towards the river itself, we stopped for a sobering lunch on the sea defence embankment, our backs to the Thames and its keen breeze to speculate on what might be in store for this lovely remote place, only 30 miles from the city.

Around us surely, was the argument against building the £50bn airport, planned to handle 150m passengers a year at nearby Cliffe, bordering an RSPCA bird sanctuary. I does have huge support, if not from the government – from London mayor Boris Johnson. But it would only be viable if Heathrow itself closed and just as with the former Greenham Common air force base – its Neolithic acres ironically returning to common use, its hamlet residents re-established, its own wildlife reverting to pure habitat.

UK - Halstow Marshes - Ramblers resting in potential airport landscape

As we chewed on home-made rolls and sipped imported London tap water, there was little to disturb our peace today. Some of us snoozed in the sun and others looked back across Halstow Marshes where interested young bullocks grazed near the runway-wide irrigation dyke may have been excavated many centuries ago. As we munched, we considered the Blitz, when Göring’s Heinkels lumbered overhead on their missions to bomb the city, the river serving as a Google Map to help find shipping and warehouses. In 10 years, we may return to see a very different place. Instead of oystercatchers there would be Boeings – replaced by a political deal to feed a hunger for runways.

UK - Halstow Marshes - Summer flowers wetlands landscape

There is still no aviation kerosene nor concrete ramps and taxiways here although behind us were the stark reminders of spreading heavy industry – white storage tanks of the Coryton refinery across the river while further upstream is the new Dubai-backed Thames Gateway container port. In the other directions are the chimneys of power stations such as Kingsnorth, the scene of passionate climate camp protests.

But airport land grabs or not, our wetlands are still under threat: In England in Particular (Common Ground, 2006) it says of grazing marshes, “The intensification of coastal developments and agriculture has significantly reduced grazing marshland, now estimated to stand at less than half a million acres. Two-thirds of the Essex marshland and half of the Romney Marsh were lost as grazing marsh between the 1930s and 1980s. What remains is drying out and suffering nutrient overload from fertilisers. Only 12,000 acres of unimproved grassland remain ..”

Just like Pip in Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861), I’d like to say – although only in the spirit of this post – that I grew up out on the salt flats. But our own east Essex family branch is in fact traced to wizened agricultural labourers on the exposed Foulness Island, itself the site on Maplin Sands of a 70s airport plot though now only offering one firing range and one pub.

UK - Cooling - Childrens' graves featured in Dickens Great Expectations novel

On our way home we left the cars against the stone wall of St James, Cooling, the location of Dickens’ dramatic opening scene. We might have brought the book along but a copy wasn’t to hand. Instead, we had to rely on an app (2013) and one of us stood with their iPhone over the lozenge graves of 13 unknown children in the churchyard – and read aloud:

Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea .. Beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river.”

.. To five little stone lozenges, each about a foot and a half long, which were arranged in a neat row beside their grave, and were sacred to the memory of five little brothers of mine – who gave up trying to get a living, exceedingly early in that universal struggle ..”


Small Steps

09May13

COPYRIGHT_RICHARD_BAKER

Contact #102 of 136, Summer 1996 (click to enlarge).

Throughout the hot summer of 1995, during the latter stages of my wife’s pregnancy, I planned to make some form of diary – of written words and documentary pictures – during the first year of our first child’s life. A first thought was to add my own contribution to our family tree and create a visual document for the older person to look back on, to give – as a personal memento far beyond earliest memories of childhood – on its 18th or 21st birthday.

When a pink dawn broke across south London rooftops, I felt my legs give way and tears fall in the delivery room as our daughter came to us. Until then, we had we no idea if  we were to have a son or daughter, healthy or not so the decision to photograph this tiny baby’s journey from birth to first birthday, as well as her mother’s adventure from expectant to actual motherhood, became a very uncertain project to explore.

Before I started the project that became ‘Ella – From Womb to First Candle’ the work that took a year of hard photography and 60,000 words of daily diary entries, the idea of tackling something more personal than any other personal project, was one of the toughest. If there was a story to tell about parenting, then I was also to discover my role specifically as a doting father. And not only that, I was endeavouring to be around whenever key moments unfolded: The visits; the registry book; inoculations; first haircut; first steps; outings and tears.

In the contact sheet above, it is now the following summer. Ella has been with us to Portugal where she has attempted some tottering first solo steps, the result of which was an immediate tumble onto hot sand and hotel grass. We guessed she was soon ready to walk properly under her own steam and I wanted to make a picture that showed leaving her first symbolic footprints. In the first and last frames I can see myself holding a remote trigger so Ella would launch herself, her mid-way totter between parents.

The perspective I saw from my position was at 90 degrees to the static lens so the processed photography showed an event unseen.

UK - London -

Frame #31

The resulting sequence tells us of Ella’s first independent steps, escaping from the clutches of her mum, 11 months after leaving the womb, of leaving safety. The 2 frames I marked (#27 and #31) and the one I liked best (#31, above) has better time and space. I like the evolutionary Homo erectus upright posture, the hominid’s mastering of balance and momentum.

COPYRIGHT_RICHARD_BAKER03

COPYRIGHT_RICHARD_BAKER02

Ending the year’s work came to represent for me as a father, a wonder. Published as a Mother’s Day essay in many countries, it also became a turning point for me as photographer.

This spread (using a horizontal chronology) ran in one of the last printed issues of LIFE, in June 1998. Three fateful double-page and full-page cigarette ads (“No Waiting! This is where you find satisfying taste at ultra-low tar.”) rings the death knell of this once fine magazine that I read myself as a child.

Ella is 18 soon and I want to mark her reaching adulthood by having this re-published somewhere. There may be a self-published book for her too.


UK - London - St George City costume man

Although he had just dismounted from the iron rooster that brought him to Liverpool Street station, St George of the Thames estuary was pacing breathlessly down Bishopsgate minus his horse.

UK - London - Morris Men on St George's Day

Nearby Leadenhall Market seems to have become an annual gathering place for anyone with a smattering of patriotism, a nostalgia for old England in a red-themed tie and rose – suits from all corporations, supping English (and German) ales and assorted grogs. In the centre were the Ewell St. Mary’s Morris Men, a troupe of middle-aged Britons in baldrics and breeches, jigging and sweating under stove-pipe hats. Tossing them into the air at the finale of their folksy hopping, the men stretched up with hankies towards the bunting – a tribal worship to the national divinity like pagan prayers to the stars in neolithic Stonehenge.

UK - London - Don't wee here notice

I last wrote about England’s patron saint’s day in 2009. Then, office juniors were “pinching Wasabi chopsticks” and an Enzo that almost ran me over gave no clue of the gathering double-dip recession. This time I should mention how in the post-banking scandal era, the City is still enjoying its gluttony of bonuses and tax dodges.

But such was the scrum around the merrie band that I instead escaped for an espresso near Watling Street. There I spied an Evening Standard vendor’s tin shelter that is seemingly used a lavatory by perhaps the same young men who have crawled to the pub opposite.

The warmest day of the year lend a second good excuse to sink more booze and expel a public wee – a higher priority than a sense of national identity or moral duty.


Look Right

01Feb13

UK - London - City pedestrians on wet traffic junction

The rain had lashed the City twice by mid-day yesterday and each time the sun shot back out, shards of white light reflecting green off the plate-glass.

At the crossing, lunchtimers paced with sandwiches and shopping bags back to their paused PCs before the second half of trading. The City was reliving its daily ritual, evolving since ancient times. Passing merchants, carts hauling the produce brought in from market gardens outside the city walls.

UK - London - Plate glass city workers reflection

And along Poultry and Cheapside more workers emerged, a timed population on a mission before their hour was up.


UK - London - Dulwich Park Peace Garden post

As much as to free a stiffened lower-lumbar region than to breathe cold air on Monday, I walked through the urban countryside of Ruskin Park to central Dulwich.

Crunching along the still frozen paths of Red Post Hill that Ruskin may have been thinking of as “a precipitous slope, to our valley of Chamouni (after Shelley),” I passed the snow closed Charter School and the bridge over the unused pair of rail tracks that countless stranded commuters dreamed of riding.

In the Village the florist was open, closed blooms in buckets, an assistant brushing the slush. And a crowd in fur hats and big jumpers talked of creative meetings in the cold sun as if glugging Glühwein outside their chalet.

UK - London - Dulwich Village in snow

After the fine Georgian period homes on whose driveways were parked Mercs and Audis, that once accommodated Brougham carriages and strong horses from the City, I passed beneath the immense gates of Dulwich Park, a Narnia of icy and rutted tracks from the weekend’s family sledges.

We run through here every Saturday morning, giggling at the platoon of bullied BMMs (British Military Masochists). Our own loop takes us from Herne Hill and out past up to the Dulwich College toll gate then back home via the Greendale summit that reminds me of scaling Great Gable during Outward Bound in 1976 – that’s right, the notorious heatwave of seventy-six.

On this day, my boots cracked on even the virgin snow whose crust held my weight for a moment before letting me sink into its soft centred-depth. Apart from a few wandering south Londoners, the landscape seemed more a Christmas card of rustic paysage and on the outer circle, one of London’s great trees, the Turkey Oak spread its centuries-old boughs over Dulwich pooches.

Not far from where Barbara Hepworth’s bronze Divided Circle once impressed us before its brutal execution, a Peace Pillar between two Cabbage Palms with the words ‘May Peace Prevail on Earth’ – looks overwhelmed, a Hiroshima-inspired memorial being buried in the depths of a nuclear winter. And it was absolutely silent there. No aviation seemed to be tracking this way, the snow doing that muffling of acoustics that often makes us stand in quiet contemplation, just as we do on any 11/11.

UK - London - Dulwich park snow landscape

On my route back from the whites and off-whites of Ansel Adam’s Zone System I slipped down Court Lane. But before the plague pit burial ground I noticed a plaque recently installed by the Dulwich Society – a memorial to Ethel Cartwright, 55; James Cartwright, 59; Peggie Gould, 20; William Gould, 58; Emily Holland, 54; Patricia Holland, 6 and Joseph Stone, 59.  Seven fellow-Londoners and neighbours killed together on 6th January 1945 by V2 rocket number MW 20826 whose 323km flight from the Karlshagen launch pad on Peenemunde, landed a few yards from here at 17.06. (See also And We Were Young).

Twenty-eight thousand pounds of warhead falling just weeks before war’s end.

UK - London - Dulwich V2 memorial plaque

One witness remembers the devastation. Especially “.. a wall and chimney were still standing. High up on the chimney, still in place and unmoved by the blast was a picture of Christ ..”


From the top of the 36 bus that had brought me from Camberwell to Hyde Park Corner, I could smell the noxious smoke – then see the flames.

The lone Mercedes abandoned by the wall of the palace’s northern perimeter was burning well, melting engine parts popping and frothing. Samsung at the ready, a taxi driver steered past one-handed, snapping photos to show the wife later. To this Londoner, it was just another ordinary moment in the life of their capital. And Dutch tourists uploaded the drama to their Facebook pages thinking this an interesting holiday incident worth reporting too. A cyclist steered around the cordon and pedaled on unimpressed towards Victoria, this road again reclaimed as it was during the summer triathlons.

In context with the last two thousand years, nothing has really changed in this city of antiquity. The previous night I had closed Peter Ackroyd’s London, The Biography for the last time. His epic reportage of life-stores and myths through the millennia was exhaustive and leaves the Londoner with a fatter appetite for their capital’s heroic sagas.

When we walk over a worn footpath, our own boots add to the prints left by our ancestors, but when we criss-cross the streets and narrow passages, we leave no hard trace on this ancient city’s modern pavements apart from how we add to the same day-to-day theatre and the occasional emergencies that our forebears way back took stopped to gawp at. For the regular watchers of executions then, we stop today to read the floral memorial poetry to an unfortunate pedestrian.

Everyday street spectacles: Tragic fires or the rioting mob, there are countless, similarly documented events in this century that bring nearer the sum total of an organic metropolis. Throughout the ages London has itself repeated – scenarios forever rewound. In the aftermath of the Blitz, bomb sites reverted to nature with species not seen since genteel Tudor times.

When the black smoke from the car’s plastic fascias blew towards us bystanders, I moved on. Crossing the resulting gridlock of Park Lane then northwards past Stanhope Gate and beyond I was astounded at the irregular street ends. Described by Ackroyd as “.. A remarkable physical token of the past – streets laid down upon the pattern of the old acre strips of a village (field) system of the Saxon period.” So where drivers sat drumming their fingers in stationary white vans and Chelsea Tractors, a lost world of pastoral serendipity lay metres below. Amid the asphalt rather than the meadow, the topography – albeit buried – remains unchanged.

In fact, during the 6th decade of each century since medieval times, Ackroyd tells us, London has suffered adverse architectural change – in particular, the great fire of 1666 but more generally, the 1760s when the surrounding Roman walls and gates were pulled down to allow greater trade to enter the city’s inner sanctum; the great Victorian building projects of the 1860s that helped the urban sprawl – and the disastrous town planning of the 1960s high-rise estates. And so London may suffer again in the 2060s, to erase the remnants of the 20th century!

My appointment that day was with a client in Paddington and after our espressos and handshakes I walked back south to see for myself another of the book’s revelations.  At the southeast corner of Connaught Square W2 (passing the armed police who guard the home of Tony and Cherie – round the clock, I think we say nowadays) I stopped to consider the original swinging Londoners at the corner with Seymour Street, considered by Ackroyd and other authorities to be the site of the Tyburn gallows.




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