thehuzzingsea

'So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information.' ― George Orwell

Category: Non Fiction

A soupçon of Ian Nairn – review of Nairn’s Paris 

To call Ian Nairn a great architectural writer is too restrictive; he was a great writer who happened to write about buildings and places. If your preconception of writing on architecture is one of fusty, jargonistic, dandruff-dull prose, then Nairn brushes off any shouldered burden that may concern a reader. With brisk pen and plenty of shoe leather, he does all the work. It’s a given now that any publication by Notting Hill Editions is pleasing to the eye (this one features a warm and affectionate introduction by Paris resident Andrew Hussey). What gives this title extra sheen is that it has been out of print since 1968, with originals fetching £50. Cities change, but the quality of Nairn’s writing will always hold. He will take you to unexpected places, make you look at the familiar anew, or at least poke you into thinking about them again (For example, Nairn describes the basilica of Sacré-Coeur as “a waste of talent”.) But as he says, “this book is not an invitation to argument but to discovery… go and decide for yourself”.

* Article first appeared in The Irish Times

The Green Ghost Town

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Masdar City (picture Foster and Partners)

‘If you build it, he will come’ is the castles-in-the-air catchline of the 1989 film ‘Field of Dreams’, where the regular Joe character played by Kevin Costner pursues his quixotic plan of building a baseball diamond after hearing voices emanating from his crop field in Iowa.

The (fictional) idea of building a small folly based on Midwestern murmurs coming from your meadows is a disturbing prospect to most rational beings. So where does the construction of the world’s first (real) zero-carbon city – and in the desert, no less – rank on the scale of delusion and downright daftness? Pretty high, it seems.

In 2006 work began on a masterplan drawn up by Foster and Partners for Masdar City, which was trumpeted as a carbon neutral ‘eco-city’ near Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. Its completion date is meant to be this year, but things don’t look good.

The city was intended to accommodate 50,000 residents and be powered by a 22-hectare field of almost 90,000 solar panels. Usage of electricity and water was to be controlled by sensors, and Masdar was supposed to be car-free: residents and workers would journey in futuristic pods programmed to go where commanded, while the compact urban scale would easily allow travel on foot or bicycle. It was hoped this utopian vision could be something of a Silicon Valley of renewable energy, and as a result attract global businesses to locate there.

However, the permanent residents that live in Masdar are all students at the Institute of Science and Technology – just 300 of them – and design manager of the city, Chris Wan, admits that Masdar is unlikely to ever pass 50 per cent carbon neutrality. The travel pod scheme was abandoned after two stops were built: the emergence of low-emission cars quickly put paid to that plan. Only a few international companies meanwhile have registered a base at Masdar, such as General Electric, Mitsubishi, and Siemens (which says it has 800 employees there) and the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) has taken over one of the major buildings, in what seems little more than a symbol of solidarity with the ruling powers. Much of the city remains empty, unloved, and unused.

Masdar City being on the fringes of Abu Dhabi means many workers commute, and it is said there is little in the way of human activity (aside from the students) after office hours. Abu Dhabi International Airport is nearby too, so many workers shuttle in and out of the city, making the travel agents in Masdar one of the few places where there’s a thrum of activity.

Other facilities on offer to any prospective citizen sound uninspiring. It reads like a bog-standard gated-community checklist: a medium-sized supermarket; a couple of cafes; a cinema, and so on; not very exciting for a place where people will be looking to escape usual  temperatures of forty to fifty degrees on a regular basis. If people do venture outdoors, the streets are made narrow and short to reduce heat, and pathways between buildings are shaded. But still, the plans all sound rather lacklustre for the major challenge of weaving a social fabric in a new community ensconced in the desert.

So why build a city here to begin with?

The UAE is one of the world’s major oil producers (globally, their reserve is the seventh-largest) but the remarkable drop in prices in the last few years has seen moves to ween their economy away from its dependency on fossil fuels. Masdar City was seen as the antidote. The President of the UAE, Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, backed the idea of a smart city, but the most recent estimated cost of $22bn (which naturally will rise if they ever do complete the project) it is quite a tab to pick up, even for him.

Ten years in to the project, and behind schedule, is this the ultimate hubristic gesture of our egotistic mismanagement of the natural environment? Time will tell. We have to question Masdar City’s environmental impact for good in a part of the world that hosts an annual Formula One race, that builds snow-caked ski slopes in its deserts, and constructs golf courses or islands in the sea. We also have to decide if this smart city model has any practical value for the rest of the world, considering its dependency on extreme levels of sunshine that are the norm in the Gulf states, but found few places elsewhere.

At the time of writing only five per cent of the city has been built and the resident count of a few hundred seems unlikely to grow. The completion date has been pushed back to 2030. Masdar City was meant to lead the way in smart, sustainable cities. But now that the idea of a zero-carbon city has gone up in smoke, it may have to check its ambitions and reluctantly reconfigure itself as a large modern education campus: with a very costly first lesson built in.

UTOPIAN VISIONS

Dongtan, China

It was to be built on a giant island on the Yangtze River and to eventually accommodate half a million people, with the slogan ‘Better city; better life’, Dongtan was to be unveiled as a joint-project between engineering company Arup and Chinese developers at the 2010 Shanghai Expo. But dreams of a green city with water taxis, state-of-the-art recycling and energy renewal has seemingly sank without trace.

Auroville, India

Envisioned as an international community free of money, religion, and government. It was designed by French architect Roger Anger on a former French colonial area on the coast of south-east India. Its visionary founder was Mirra Alfassa, a French expat known as ‘The Mother’, who saw it as a ‘community without nations’. It was built for 50,000 inhabitants, but only 2,000 have settled there. It has struggled with crime and allegations of child abuse and corruption.

Books which set the bar for journalism

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The Fields family, Alabama 1936 (Photograph: Walker Evans)

 

Nothing dates so decidedly as journalism. This is probably one of the most solipsistic statements to begin any article, but it’s true: so much spilt ink is soon swept out from the attic of memory; very little journalism is read twice. I refer to traditional journalism in this case, as new media listicles and click-bait copy are rarely read through at all, despite the increasing volume foisted upon our mental space.

Reportage remains a style of journalism which can lift itself above the frivolous freeway of traffic-generating content that obsesses modern media. In such form, the strange hinterlands of a good story can be transformed from journalism into literature. The continuing success of The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and The Paris Review proves that there is still a place for long-form writing even in our increasingly time-starved lives. The United States seems to cherish its indepth journalistic tradition somewhat more than we do in Europe. This noble lineage was brought into mind reading the posthumously-published Cotton Tenants by James Agee. The 30,000-word book – punctuated with remarkable photographs by Walker Evans – originally was an article for Fortune magazine from 1936, documenting the lives of three families struggling through desperate times in Alabama. Fortune chose not to run it at the time of its writing for reasons that are still unknown. The book portrays a world that essentially doesn’t exist any more, a snapshot of impoverished cotton farmers, and I could not put it down until I had finished it.

Agee is best-known for his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (written later, it’s a much broader canvas for his work in Cotton Tenants; one is meant to be sung, one is meant to be preached, said the author) and as a screenwriter of two classic films The Night of the Hunter and The African Queen. Despite this, Agee always felt a sense of dread of squandering his talent, which he carried with him to his early death from a fatal second heart attack at the age of 45 in 1955. He died in the back of a New York City cab on his way to a doctor’s appointment.

Cotton Tenants is a small book but it packs a heavy punch with its clinical details of the families’ subsistence, where the weight of living is crushing them slowly, grinding them into the very ground they furrow. The three families are inescapably locked into capitalism’s cruel cycle; their only release will be death, the finality of their laborious existence is their only escape from the abject misery of poverty.

This brutal archaic agriculture system is no longer part of American life, yet it remains heartbreaking to read their stories all the same. The book is compelling, largely thanks to Agee’s machine-gun fire prose, as he rattles out descriptions of the families’ lives: diet, clothes, education and so on. The fact he never lays it on thick is part of the book’s appeal; then again, he doesn’t have to. The suffering is there in black and white, and in the photographs too, even if they do have a compassionate dignity to them. That being said, a page never slips by Agee where he’s not lifting the prosaic day-to-day into poetry: the families’ disenfranchisement always finds an unsettling death dance under his pen. The writer Adam Haslett describes Agee’s prose style perfectly as “Jesus strained through Marx”. For example: “A civilization which for any reason puts a human life at a disadvantage; or a civilization which can exist only by putting human life at a disadvantage, is worthy neither of the name nor of continuance.”

Some may ask why we should read a piece of journalism that’s 80 years old and recounts an age that’s long since disappeared. One reason is because the likes of Agee’s work sets the bar as to what journalistic inquiry should be. Another reason is that dehumanization can take different forms and remains with us today, be it in sweat shops in Bangladesh, tourist hustlers in Thailand, or the absurd debt trap culture forced upon ordinary working people in western society. In the modern age, progress is always pitched in positive terms under the yoke of capitalism. However you will be hard pressed to find many positives from such a consensus in David Bandurski’s valuable account of rural resistance to economic regeneration in China.

China’s seemingly unrelenting growth figures – which are readily cast in doubt by economists – has resulted in voracious demand for land and natural resources, meaning much of the ground rural villagers stand on is as valuable as diamond jewels. Hence the book’s title, Dragons in Diamond Village, from Bandurski who is an American journalist and film-maker. Being a fluent Mandarin speaker and having extensive experience of Chinese culture allows Bandurski to take us into the heart of the matter, and in meticulous detail he tells the human stories involved in the battle against corruption, cronyism and intimidation perpetrated by a faceless ruling class.

China had 320 cities when it put in place its economic reforms in 1978; as of this year the country has 660 cities, many of which have ruthlessly swallowed up urban villages, which traditionally were farmed and developed by rural communities. The Chinese state now wants even more of this land, at any cost, to continue the drive for economic growth, and (similar to the cotton tenants of 1930s Alabama) many poor people are at the mercy of the political establishment. There is no private land ownership in China; it belongs to the state. “State-held” land can be developed for commercial reasons, while “collectively held” land is controlled by village communities, and rural Chinese people consider this land their birth right. The latter is what the developers want to take hold of, by any means.

The villagers are organising and fighting back though, and Dragons in Diamond Village paints a painful, but brave, picture of their struggles against an unchecked ideology of communism on one hand, and capitalism on the other. (To give an idea of China’s development and monocratic political makeup, between 2011-2013 the country consumed more concrete than the United States consumed in the entire 20th century; as Bandurski notes, rural China is being paved out of existence. According to Forbes magazine more than 90 per cent of the richest people in the country are members of the ruling Communist Party). Bandurski makes a good fist of simplifying a complex land system and tradition, and densely details the plight of many individuals, while holding a light to the hypocrisy of the Chinese Communist Party. It is a just account of social struggle well worth reading.

Someone who had little time for any Communist party was George Orwell, a master of long-form reportage with such timeless non-fiction as Homage to Catalonia, Down and Out in Paris and London, and The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell’s account of the working class in north England has often (depressingly) been used to give him an intellectual kicking post factum, especially due to a particular sentence he included in the book: “. . . the lower classes smell”. A simple statement of truth never got in the way of a revisionist ideologue’s opinion when it comes to a minor critic bashing a major reputation.

Thankfully the English academic John Sutherland resides nowhere near this cul-de-sac of cranks, but instead uses this sentence of Orwell’s as a jumping off point to write a biography of one of his literary heroes, warts and all considered. Having lost his sense of smell recently, Sutherland decided to re-read Orwell’s oeuvre and was struck by the importance the author placed on odour throughout his writing, be it shag tobacco, or furtive rolls in the summer grass with a lady friend (Sutherland does seem disconcertingly fixated on Orwell’s “rutting” throughout the book).

Having read three biographies on Orwell before, I wondered what more could be excavated from the bones of Eric Blair and his alter ego George with Orwell’s Nose. Sutherland’s book is an excellent read though. Written with a breezy and freewheeling style, he skilfully manages to encapsulate the life of one of the 20th century’s most important writers in about a third of the word count of other books. The prose is infused with wry humour and apt judgment on George’s endeavours. If you’ve yet to read an Orwell biography, it is a fine starting point. If you can’t resist all things Orwell, like me, then pinch your nose and dive in on this admirable portrait of a deeply flawed man with faultless prose.

Orwell’s Nose by John Sutherland (Reaktion Books)

Dragons in Diamond Village by David Bandurski (Melville House)

Cotton Tenants by James Agee & Walker Evans (The Baffler)

* Article first appeared in The Irish Times

Street life: visionary who changed how we think about cities

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Jane Jacobs (photo: The Center for the Living City)

This year cannot be allowed to pass by without reference to its being the centenary of Jane Jacobs, the renowned American thinker and writer on cities and urban spaces. Jacobs was an activist who emboldened many to challenge the established order when it came to public planning, someone who said of the metropolis: “There is no logic that can be superimposed on the city; people make it, and it is to them, not buildings, that we must fit our plans.”

We should hold on to her ideas: Jacobs was a common-sense champion of how places should be allowed to grow and shape themselves around us, not the other way around.

Down the years her work has been a source of elucidation for many people who have cared for the environment surrounding them, but who perhaps have been unsure about how to mobilise their thoughts against the abstraction of civil bureaucracy, something which often seeks to depersonalise – disengage us from – our living space.

Understandably a raft of books have appeared to coincide with the centenary of her birth. Becoming Jane Jacobs by Peter L Laurence (University of Pennsylvania Press), Jane Jacobs: The Last Interview and Other Conversations (Melville House Books) and Eyes on the Street: The Life of Jane Jacobs, the biography by Robert Kanigel (Knopf) look like notable additions to the canon.

However, it is a masterwork from her own pen for which Jacobs will be best remembered. The Death and Life of Great American Cities was first published in 1961 – a reprint is available from Vintage – after an article by Jacobs three years earlier in Fortune magazine was noticed by the Rockefeller Foundation, which offered her funding to write about cities.

A postage-stamp synopsis of the book is that Jacobs felt cities to be organic, that they evolve and develop over time depending on how the people living in the space use it; cities would not be formed with some painting-by-colours methodology of planning.

The streets are what make the city, wrote Jacobs, which was contra-modernism and its fashionable Corbusien ideas at the time of neat grids and high-rise towers lifting people off the streets. These ideas would have resulted in a place where people are looking inwards at courtyards, rather than outwards to what Jacobs called the ballet of the daily workings of the street.

“Cities have the capability of providing something for everybody, only because, and only when, they are created by everybody,” said Jacobs, in her ardent opposition to one-size fits all planning. She wanted diversity, density and engagement and maintained that cities were safer with “eyes on the street”.

Jacobs was an autodidact and an outsider, just like that other great poet of place Ian Nairn. She was not some sleek metropolitan and The Death and Life of Great American Cities rocked the establishment and rattled architecture’s gilded cage.

Quite an achievement for someone born in the unfashionable coal-mining town of Scranton, Pennsylvania in 1916, and who had no college education or formal training.

It is also worth bearing in mind the general attitudes to a strong-willed woman in that era; all these facts probably added to the shock felt by Jacobs’s temerity; the New Yorker critic Lewis Mumford dismissed her reflections as naive while reviewing the book under the headline Mother Jacobs’ Home Remedies, for example).

Born Butzner to a doctor father and school teacher mother, it seemed young Jane was something of a firebrand from early on: playing pranks at school, showing little concern for authority by secretly reading books during lessons and holding imaginary conversations with Thomas Jefferson or Benjamin Franklin (depending on who was lodging in her imagination at the time).

She chose an unpaid internship at the Scranton Tribune instead of going to college, before moving to join her sister in New York in 1934. She worked various jobs, all the while immersing herself in the big city, before her first writing opportunity came. It was an unglamorous one in a metal trades paper, but it got her started, leading to a series of commissions from Vogue magazine.

Supposedly her pieces about the city were earning Jacobs $40 a time, while she was on $12 a week working as a secretary. While hosting a party in her apartment in April 1944, she met her husband, Robert Jacobs, an architect, and they married in May. Jacobs said later in life that she only wrote books due to his encouragement.

The Jacobs made their home above a sweet shop in 555 Hudson Street, in Greenwich Village, which these days can attract as many fans of architecture as any modernist masterpiece. Here she watched the dance of the street at dawn and dusk and evolved her ideas on urban planning even further by taking a position at the Architectural Forum.

The esteem bestowed on Jacobs after the publication of The Death and Life of Great American Cities saw her become involved in the protests against New York City planning chief Robert Moses’s proposals to build the Lower Manhattan expressway. This was to run through the heart of Greenwich Village and the very streets where Bob Dylan would scuff his shoes and polish his verse.

The tussle between Jacobs and Moses has already been well documented (there’s even an opera based on it) so there is no need to go into it here. But the victory and Jacobs’s organisation of like-minded citizens who fought to preserve the Village was the embodiment of citizen empowerment. It showed everyone else that planning was too important to be left to the planners.

The long-running dispute has become the stuff of legend, partly because “ordinary mom” Jacobs took the fight both on to the street and into the corridors of powers. She took on Moses, one of the most powerful figures in the US at the time, and won.

Many on the left saw her as an inspiration of how an organised community can take on capitalism and come out victorious. Of course, Moses’s haughty attitude to the public played a significant role in the project’s defeat as well: at a proposal hearing on the plans, he was quoted as saying: “There is nobody against this – nobody, nobody, nobody but a bunch of . . . a bunch of mothers!”

As time went on, and the proposed motorway’s momentum faded, one imagines Moses probably affixed another word to the merry band of “mothers”.

In the end those who fought to save Greenwich Village were triumphant, although the Jacobs moved on. They went to Canada in 1968 after their two sons said they would rather go to jail than be conscripted to fight in Vietnam.

Unsurprisingly, Jane Jacobs soon became involved in similar campaigns in Toronto. She remained there until her death in 2006, aged 89.

The historian Robert Caro, who has written a tome on Moses, said she was not the first person to stress the importance of neighbourhood, which is correct, but he went on to add: “But no one had ever said it so brilliantly before. She gave voice to something that needed a voice.”

What Jacobs would make of what we call “gentrification” today is hard to say. She believed in cities growing by themselves, so would her theories apply to the tech generation that has taken over San Francisco, squeezing out the diversity and freakbeat fabric that made the city one of the most distinctive in the world? Or to Paris, which is now mostly an urban centre for the wealthy, ringfenced by poverty and the rest of the population?

Organic developments can also embody undesired change and urban cleansing; it would have been nice to have heard her views on such places.

Ultimately, Jacobs helped change the way we think about cities, whether you believe her ideas stand or fall. She gave us another prism through which to consider how we plan our urban space: when we do intervene, it shouldn’t be just about making things new, it should be about making things better.

One hundred years on from her birth, we now have the necessary perspective to realise how perceptive she was. Those “eyes on the street” she talked about included her own, always framed by those striking owlish glasses. We were lucky to have them.

* Article first appeared in The Irish Times

The émigrés who built modernism

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Glasgow School of Art (Charles Rennie Mackintosh) Credit – John Peter Photography/Alamy

Finsbury Health Centre in London, De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea, and the Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank were important urban developments during inter-war 20th century Britain. Now rightly categorised as landmarks, each of them has a commonality worth pondering in the context of the social narrative dominating political discourse in modern-day Britain and Ireland (England, especially). Each building was designed, wholly or in part, by refugees or émigrés.

Reading Alan Powers’ excellent 100 Years of Architecture, which begins in 1914, it is striking to see the positive role played by immigrants in their new communities in an age defined by upheaval and mass movement of people. The book traces the path modernism beat through the 20th century; it is well written, smartly defined and put together, and a pleasure to leaf through (Powers disputes categorising all the building selections under the modernism label, but that’s a moot point).

The residual positivity and original thinking one finds in early- to mid-century modernism is remarkable, and its legacy remains in the buildings that are still relevant and used today. This era saw an England that welcomed Erich Mendelsohn as a refugee in 1933, when he began working with the Russian-born Serge Chermayeff.

A year later they had won the competition to build De La Warr Pavilion in East Sussex, which created a space for the public to enjoy a seaside setting; a simple, but nourishing pleasure. The sweeping, cantilevered, glazed staircase inside is a modernist icon and thankfully the pavilion remains a concert and arts space, or simply somewhere you can rest your limbs in an Aalto chair.

Polish-born Mendelsohn served in the first World War and soon made his name in designing what became known as the Einstein Tower – a 1924 commission for an observatory to prove the scientist’s theory that gravity changed the colour of light. Mendelsohn also designed an exemplary shop style with the Schocken Department Store in Chemnitz five years later and after his time in England, he worked in Palestine (under British Mandate) where he produced the impressive Hadassah Hospital and Medical School at Mount Scopus in 1939, before eventually settling in the United States.

Work on Finsbury Health Centre began the same year De La Warr Pavilion opened in 1935, and was based on plans by Berthold Lubetkin. An émigré from Georgia, Lubetkin arrived in England in 1932 and was soon creating waves in architecture with his newly-established partnership Tecton.

The health centre was ambitious for its time: doctors’ consultation rooms, a dental surgery, lecture hall, solarium and antenatal facilities were some of the features inside a markedly modern-looking building.

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Quarr Abbey, Isle of Wight, England, Dom. Paul Bellot (1876–1944) Credit – John Henshall/Alamy

German-born Peter Moro was also an émigré, and a former assistant to Lubetkin. As interior designer, Moro became one of the visionaries behind the Royal Festival Hall (alongside Robert Matthews and Leslie Martin as part of the London County Council). The opening of the new festival hall coincided with the Festival of Britain in 1951. As Powers notes, it came from the “pent-up ideas of 15 years of wartime austerity and its aftermath burst forth in a collaborative team effort”.

The building helped transform the Southbank area on the Thames into one of the main public arteries in the heart of London. Here, in one space, we find the openness and internationalism the city embraced, and which defines it today; the place pulses with energy.

The bestowal of buildings built by ‘foreigners’ is acknowledged long after the fact, although it can be lost in a present climate dominated by thoughts of getting rid of émigrés; preventing them coming in to our countries; building walls to keep them out.

A dominant right-wing political establishment and media in both Britain and Ireland has forced this shameful agenda. The debate on the Brexit referendum, for example, became a debate on immigration after it was hijacked and distorted with misinformation from the Leave campaign.

In Ireland a similar agenda was set during the boom and bust years, when the arbiters of power initially attempted to deflect blame towards foreigners for the country’s economic woes.

Context is everything. The ruling elites and hypocritical media moguls tell us that ‘Johnny Foreigner’ is to blame for problems in society or any strains on infrastructure.

In the context of the last century we can say the left has won the argument. Gone are the slums, diseases, and impoverishment of the working classes; gained are universal education and healthcare, workers’ rights and a standard of living that means we are all living longer than any generation before. But the left has been shouted down by the bullying, contemptible, vested-interests of the rich and privileged.

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AN866F Leicester University Faculty of Engineering, England, 1959 – 1963. Exterior of workshops and office and laboratory tower.

Going back to Finsbury Health Centre, there is a pertinent poster designed by the talented Abram Games in 1942 that features in Powers’ book. The image shows a sleek new health centre being positioned in a grim bombed-out site that has a headstone and the word ‘disease’ scrawled on a wall. Above the building it says ‘Your Britain’ and beside it ‘Fight For It Now’. In the shadows lurks a child suffering from rickets. The poster was withdrawn though, after Winston Churchill deemed it would be bad for public morale during wartime. Context is everything.

Modernist architecture was winning the argument of the last century (on points at least), until it was stiffed by the moneyed classes. As Powers notes, it ‘converges through this 100-year period towards a greater sameness in line with globalisation’.

Years of property speculation, government deference to neo-liberal capitalism, and a dulling of public engagement by the infliction upon us of mass consumption means we no longer look to architecture for the betterment of society. We no longer think of architecture as something for us. Many new buildings have little impact on our communities; do not create spaces for public enjoyment. Instead we have cloistered office blocks, silly garden bridges, or hubristic high rises that offer little but a blot on the skyline, or ostentatious symbols of corporate greed.

Powers remains impartial and admirably restrained throughout his book; it is certainly not polemical. One has no sense that he feels deflated by modernism, or that the movement is defeated, despite being tarnished by all the -isms of the 20th century. There is no inkling that he has a pining for a return to classical forms either.

It is telling that the buildings selected in the last quarter century of the book are mainly cultural centres: galleries, opera houses, museums etc. All worthy ventures of course, but again they are buildings that are usually monetised – enjoyment of them is linked to cash – and it’s unlikely they will draw in people outside of the middle- or upper-classes.

Modernism now means that for every conscientious project such as the Student Centre Building at Cork Institute of Technology or FAT’s New Islington Houses in Manchester, we must suffer a Shard or Cheesegrater (The Leadenhall Building) in London. This is the pay-off. We know which of these types of buildings shouts the loudest. We also know, and must not forget, which buildings give people a say.

100 Years of Architecture by Alan Powers (Laurence King Publishing) is out now

  • Article first appeared in The Times Literary Supplement http://www.the-tls.co.uk/

The local

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General disparagement that anyone concerned with their own patch must be a small-minded xenophobe fuelled the Brexit debate. Such lazy stereotyping of Leave voters by the liberal collective undermines its own self-perception as open-minded.

In the midst of this continuing existential maelstrom, my metaphysical GPS has been happily trekking a terrain of books based on the idea of place and our connection to it. The volumes are very different in style, sensibility, and age. But each one possesses a common thread: a love of the local, be it knowledge; the land; or the language we attach to it.

This convergence of homegrown thought enveloped a strong environmental message too. The books are a perfect rebuke to anyone who vaingloriously carries a lumpen backpack around the globe (with the associated grotesque carbon footprint) in an effort to accumulate knowledge about the world. The writings prompt questions: why do we disdain knowledge of the wild flowers that grow in our own fields, for example; why do we think learning is only impressive when the flowers grow 6000 miles away?

One of the books is by Hubert Butler, who died 25 years ago this year. His relatively littleknown voice is fortunately abloom again in a collection of essays published by Notting Hill Editions called ‘The Eggman and the Fairies’. I am grateful, otherwise I might not have found this tactful and enlightening writer. Butler’s unfussy talent might have been tucked away quietly in his home county of Kilkenny, travelling no further than the libraries of the literati.

The central philosophy of Butler’s connection with civic consciousness literally jumps off the page – the engraved quote on the cover reads: “I have always believed that local history is more important than national history. Where life is fully and consciously lived in our own neighbourhood, we are cushioned a little from the impact of great far-off events which should be of only marginal concern to us”. His inherent sense of locus is a refutation to the hate-lacquered acronym NIMBYISM and its implied curtain-twitching malevolence. Instead, Butler’s cipher could read: KYOBISM, Know Your Own Backyard: for there you will find a world of wonder to be getting on with.

In his introduction to the book John Banville places Butler alongside Hazlitt, Orwell, and Robert Louis Stevenson in the canon of great essayists. Banville describes him as “the least noisy of writers”, which is delineating as one moves through the pages with Butler, for he seemingly shuffles through places such as the River Nore or Fethard-on-Sea.

His markings are usually near to hand, but his mind is always large, pan-European, in spirit.

The sensibility can remain broad, even if the eyes are restricted. “These essays appear to be about Russia or Greece or Spain or Yugoslavia, (but) they are really about Ireland”, he writes in the preface, before expounding on subjects as diverse as Wolfe Tone or plans to build ‘a new Geneva’ on the River Suir in Waterford. “I go on believing that the strength to live comes from an understanding of ourselves and our neighbours or the diaspora that has replaced them”.

Butler was born in 1900. After an education at Charterhouse in England and St John’s College, Oxford, followed by some travel through Europe, he returned to his birthplace Maidenhall in Kilkenny for the rest of his days. His family was part of the landed gentry, yet he was staunchly Irish, describing himself as part of Ireland’s rich strain of Protestant Republicanism. The essays were written over a period of sixty years for various newspapers and magazines, as he cleaved – to use Banville’s word – steadfastly to the home place. The book is a treasure trove of knowledge, shared with dignity and a deliberate style. The topics are unapologetically indigenous, yet the themes resound universally, in an artful synthesis akin to Orwell’s musing on that quintessential English subject: the per-fect cup of tea.

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Michael Harkin contrasts markedly to Hubert Butler in background, but when it comes to wit they could have been brothers. Born in Carndonagh, Donegal in 1830, he penned a precious jewel of local history while working as a post office master, ‘Inishowen – its History, Traditions, and Antiquities’ under the nom de plume Maghtochair. “Our legends and traditions are dying, the customs and habits of the olden time are nearly extinct, but in order to preserve some of them from total oblivion I thought it well to gather this collection”, he declares. The book is a tidy volume of rural life and community in microcosm: mixing topography, history, songs, anecdotes, and verse. Just like Butler, Harkin drew beauty and depth and anchored a deep-seated affection, in the local. Presented in gazette format, these segments also appeared initially in a newspaper, The Derry Journal(how many local or regional papers carry such columns today?). The stories were inspired by Harkin’s travels around the Donegal peninsula in a rattling little car, stuffed with books of poetry and prose, collating information from the local seanachies all the while. In Maghtochair, the people in the Big Houses are sidelined. Instead we find monks or clergy, and issues such as the fight for better rights for farmers in rural Ireland: “Was it the landlords who made our valleys smile with plenty and teem with fertility?”, Maghtochair asks pointedly. “Certainly not; it was the peasantry”.

A chapter on ‘Illicit Distillation’ is a joy to drink in, combining fact with plenty of fiction in all likelihood. It humorously sends up officialdom’s presumptive interference and folly in trying to reform human nature. He seems to say, “we like things that are bad for us: if you commit to the futility of preventing us from enjoying them, we will only enjoy them even more”. Maghtochair describes “the lynx-eyed constables of the Revenue Board” tilting at windmills with their still-hunting and concludes, not without reason, that the production of contraband Inishowen whiskey “probably will be carried on while light and dark succeed each other”. The imagination flickers at the thought of the Donegal night sky being lit up with torches firing across the landscape as a warning of custom men on the prowl.

Scraping and shaping of language is local too and can be carved in the land, as John R Stilgoe argues in ‘What is Landscape?’. Landscape is a noun, he tells us, stripped of ornament and necessity. Stilgoe is Orchard Professor in the History of Landscape at Harvard University and his love of language and the land sees him ploughing through outdated and specialist dictionaries for our benefit, in this illuminating and entertaining book (apparently Chambers Dictionary still champions Scottish perspectives unlike the Anglocentric Oxford English Dictionary (OED), he tells us). Reading this will have you thinking anew about words, as it breaks down both the language and the land that it may originate from or be attached to. Some words have been simply lost through time, fallen through sinkholes in our syntax. “Swashbuckler”, for example. Does it have any relevance in modern terms? Swash as a verb or noun can relate to water; but usually we take it to mean flamboyantly to swagger about, or to wield a sword (the word’s origin is to “make a noise like swords clashing or beating on shields” according to the OED; combined then with “buckler”, a small round shield worn on the forearm). We use the word rarely now, describing a film or a sportsperson’s style say, but swash still has everyday usage for local fisherman: to them it usually means a stretch of low-tide water snaking through sandbars.

Stilgoe’s book flows with sparkling streams of enlightenment; how language with the land can give it different meaning, and he unearths such diamond words as ensamhet, unique to Sweden, meaning “the restorative, relaxing effect of being solitary and thoughtful, but not lonely”. Along the way he notes plenty of quirks too: how experienced beach-goers know how to sit on sand; the idea of classrooms in the sky momentarily posed by the advent of aviation; how the mariner measures land with his fist. All robust and succulent.

‘What is Landscape?’ is a great read to dip into (another phrase I’m sure Stilgoe could give many new shades). Reading part of its preface again, it could apply to any of the three books mentioned: “neither dictionary nor field guide, it is only an invitation to walk, to notice, to ask, sometimes to look up and around, sometimes to look up in a dictionary…”. A nudge, to look around.

The Eggman and the Fairies – Irish Essays By Hubert Butler
(Notting Hill Editions)

What is Landscape? By John R Stilgoe
(The MIT Press)

Inishowen – its History, Traditions, and Antiquities by Maghtochair (Three Candles Printers, Dublin)

  • Article first appeared in The Irish Times & Village magazine

Mansion among the people

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Mansion House Dublin (all photos courtesy of Dublin City Council)

Pomp and ceremony does little for me usually, but if I’m ever trudging through the Dublin streets on a crisp cold or ragged wet night then I always find warmth passing the Mansion House on Dawson Street which, until the Luas line developments, was always the prettiest street in the city.

Set back from the road, with two-storeys of seven bay windows, the elegant illuminated facade of the Mansion House has a curative quality to lift any cursing part of your soul, even as you walk into the teeth of a howling gale. It looks best at Christmas time, when snow is falling: its understated tree stood out front, while the shadows loll in the iridescence of the stemmed lanterns running along the lower face of the house, distinguished by its Georgian porch (by Simon Vierpyl) and Victorian wrought iron portico (by Daniel Freeman). The building takes on a magical quality in these moments: like some lustrous smile peering out at you from the depths of winter’s darkness. It always makes me think of the ghosts that may be fleeting ethereally through Dawson Street; past St Ann’s Church, built in 1719 , and the Mansion House, its older neighbour by nine years.

It’s a little more than 300 years since Mansion House came into the ownership of Dublin Corporation, having been purchased on 18 May 1715 from the property developer Joshua Dawson for the princely sum of £3,500 sterling, a yearly rent of forty shillings to Dawson, and the rather bizarre condition of a loaf of double-refined sugar weighing six pounds to be handed over each Christmas (unsurprisingly this was never paid, nor sought out).

Dawson was originally from Dawson’s Bridge, Co Derry but moved to Dublin to further his career, where he became a high-ranking civil servant based in Dublin Castle and MP for Wicklow borough (apparently while living in the city he kept his evenings full too by managing a network of spies working to undermine Catholic priests; well before they started doing it for themselves).

In Dublin Dawson built the Mansion House as his private residence in the Queen Anne style. It was quite an unusual move in a quintessentially Georgian city. But such was the Tory from Derry’s love for the ruling monarch he went ahead with a design type that artist Osbert Lancaster said ‘would be more rational and more just to call Wren… few monarchs have displayed less interest in architecture than that monarch’.

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Stain glass window

Dawson bought a tract of land to the east of St Stephen’s Green in 1705 and drained the marshy ground and laid out a straight road running parallel to Grafton Street, unabashedly naming it after himself; Duke Street and Anne Street soon followed as part of his urban plan. After the development flurry Dawson was called back to take over the family estate in his home county, and he promptly offered the house to Dublin City Assembly on the proviso he would build an extra room that could be used for civic receptions – the now famous Oak room. It’s fitting the man originally from the county of oaks would depart on such a note.

When the First Citizen of the city duly took residence in the house he was given an annuity of £500 sterling each year for entertainment purposes, along with 10,000 oysters from the civic oyster beds. It’s a pity the Mayor could not get hold of Thackeray in order to lubricate his quill with claret-soused kindness and salt his tongue with Dublin Bay’s finest. The great English writer was not impressed by the Mansion House when his eyes fell upon it. In his essay ‘A Summer Day in Dublin’ from ‘The Irish Sketch Book’ (published in1843) he noted:

I had just passed his lordship’s mansion in Dawson Street, – a queer old dirty brick-house, with dumpy urns at each extremity, and looking as if a storey of it had been cut off – a rassée-house. Close at hand, and peering over a paling, is a statue of our blessed sovereign George II. How absurd these pompous images look, of defunct majesties, for whom no breathing soul cares a halfpenny!” 

He certainly was right on the second point. From reading his travelogues, the ‘Vanity Fair’ scribbler could be dyspeptic at the best of times, and the Queen Anne style had fallen thumpingly out of fashion by that stage of the 19thcentury – Victorian buildings were vogue – and nothing fell harder from Thackery’s pen than that which was not in fashion.

Many original features of the Mansion House remain, the two main staircases for example; quite a feat for a house now in the foothills of its fourth century (it’s worth noting the city of London did not build a mansion house until thirty years after Dublin). Naturally there has been changes to the likes of the Supper Room, the Oak Room, the Lord Mayor’s Garden, and the surrounding area of the house. For indepth details of changes made (and the many mooted) throughout its history it is worth consulting the impressive ‘The Mansion House Dublin – 300 years of history and hospitality’ by Dublin City Council for a rich account and meticulous itinerary of this Dublin landmark. Some of the more significant additions or alterations to the house have played a part in Ireland’s storied past. The Round Room stands out for one. It was built beside the Mansion House, on part of the former bowling green, in just six weeks for the visit of King George VI in 1821 (the roof atop the Round Room was a temporary one, such was the builder’s haste; a permanent one was put in place three years later).

This same room would go on to hold the meeting of the first Dáil on 21 January 1919, which is so memorably captured in Tom Ryan’s painting which now hangs above the entrance to the Dáil chamber. What goes around comes around in the Round Room it seems, which John Croker Wilson described as: ‘the circular court of a Moorish palace open to the sky: the battlements were a gallery walled with ladies, music and a company of halberdiers in Spanish dresses of light blue silk, as a guard of honour to the king.’

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Drawing Room

The Round Room was also scene to many a Lord Mayor’s Ball down the years, and the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1861 had ‘The Irish Times’ praising the House Steward Mr McCleaverty whose arrangements were ‘so perfect that although there were over 100 persons present, no inconvenience resulted to the guests’. Things must have become somewhat boisterous however, and maybe even out of hand (although these details were sadly not reported) as the same newspaper carried a number of advertisements looking for valuable property lost at the ball. One offered a reward ‘if found by a poor person’. If such a poor beggar had chanced upon an expensive bracelet or a purse stuffed with coins, I can’t imagine they would have handed them in. Not for all the oysters in Dublin Bay.

  • The Mansion House Dublin – 300 years of history and hospitality is published by Dublin City Council, Dublin City Library and Archive
  • Article first appeared in Architecture Ireland http://architectureireland.ie/

The future, unfinished

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Railway Station

 

This year sees the centenary of the death of Antonio Sant’Elia, who is considered one of the finest draftsmen in the history of architecture.

Yet few of his plans were ever built, which is quite an anomaly considering the influence and quality of the drawings made by the Italian. A similar comparison would be if the songs of George Gershwin or Cole Porter had never been performed; Sant’Elia’s sketchbook is like the Great American Songbook, unsung.

Born in Como and a builder by trade, Sant’Elia became an integral part of the Futurist movement in Italy.

Italian writer and poet Filippo Marinetti was the ideological founder of Futurism, publishing his manifesto for the movement in Paris newspaper Le Figaro in 1909: “For too long has Italy been a dealer in second-hand clothes. We mean to free her from the numberless museums that cover her like so many graveyards”. The artistic movement rejected traditional forms and embraced the revolutionary possibility that technology could bring to culture, cities, and modern living.

Marinetti’s words were bricks for a modernism that he wished others would build and the ideas quickly took hold in his homeland, with painters, sculptors, musicians and architects such as Mario Chiattone and Sant’ Elia soon adapting them into their work.

(Futurist ideas travelled as far as Russia, influencing Mayakovsky and Malevich, among others. But through time the movement lost all credibility when Marinetti began to couple Fascism with the movement. He became a vocal supporter of Mussolini, and continued to glorify the idea of war, releasing a collection of poems in 1915 called ‘War the Only Hygiene of the World’.)

Sant’Elia opened a design office with Chiattone in Milan in 1912, where he created his bold and vivid sketches that would have a profound influence on Modernism. In the heart of a bustling metropolis that was undergoing major industrial and population growth, Sant’Elia worked on his grand design for a futurist city, Citta Nuova (New City), made up of monolithic and monumental skyscrapers with bridges and walkways that cut across the sky. He wanted the modern city to be a living, functioning organism; built with dynamism, speed, straight lines, and with the man and machine at its heart. His urban vision was pure cinematic projection. Although people do not feature in his drawings to give a sense of scale or society (“Futurist architecture . . . is not an arid combination of practicality and utility, but remains art, that is, synthesis and expression”, he wrote), many of the designs give a feeling of activity and existence. We can imagine the commotion among the calm construction.

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Stepped House

In fact when one looks closely at the drawings, they appear almost too beautiful, (itals) too perfect. And if they are too perfect for the eye to behold, then what do the designs mean to the engineer, who has to move the imagination of the page towards the reality of the physical rule? Nevertheless, the modern world has come close, or at least tried to, in replicating Sant’Elia’s ideas – see Helmut Jahn’s James R. Thompson Centre in Chicago and the Marriott Marquis hotel by John Portman (both built in the 1980s), for example.

In 1914 a manifesto titled Futurist Architecture was published and attributed to Sant’Elia – it detailed an architecture of fantastic possibilities. The short credo has its share of abstract, jargonistic writing, but for its time it was an important document outlining a new world of architecture, where the city is dynamic, modern and, consequently, huge. Streets and squares were to be done away with; our space was to be lifted skywards instead.

To get a flavour of its radicalism, it is worth quoting some of the declarations in full.

‘We must invent and rebuild our Futurist city like an immense and tumultuous shipyard, active, mobile, and everywhere dynamic, and the Futurist house like a gigantic machine.’

‘We feel that we are no longer the men of the cathedrals and ancient moot halls, but men of the Grand Hotels, railroad stations, giant roads, colossal harbors, covered markets, glittering arcades, reconstruction areas, and salutary slum clearances’.

In this context, it is easy to understand how Sant’Elia’s drawings, penned on small surfaces but with layers of detail, influenced the future cinematic worlds of Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; both directors dreamed of future cities in the sky too.

Hundreds of Sant’Elia’s drawings survive and many can be viewed at Pinacoteca, Como’s art gallery. In historical terms, he was the legitimate father of Futurism, however he did not live long enough to see the movement become bastardised in its sordid relationship with Fascism. With a strong sense of patriotism (fighting for one’s coutry was still viewed with naive romanticism in Sant’Elia’s day), he joined the army as Italy entered the First World War in 1915, and was killed in battle in October the following year.

A hundred years on since his death, our buildings have yet to catch up with him.

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Antonio Sant’Elia

  • Article originally appeared in The Irish Times

Great London Pubs: One Princess worth fawning over

 

An impressive lady, the Princess Louise. She discretely catches your eye as you pass on a relatively drab stretch of High Holborn, where you will find that her beauty lies within, rather than without.

The exterior is a paint-by-numbers pub, but inside is where all the magic and charm happens. Here we have the remnants of Victorian craftsmanship at its finest: beautifully cut and gilded mirrors (Richard Morris of Kennington); default atmosphere, whatever the time of day, from the gentle gloaming of tulip and snowdrop-shaped lights. Add in some tasteful abstract tile work, detailed and decorated borders, and the Princess Louise may as well whisper in your ear to stop a while.

The elongated, circular dark-oak bar cleverly runs the punters’ energy around both sides of the house, creating a smart circuit of comfort. As a result, the staff are like buses when you are looking for a refill – you always knows one should be along shortly.

The Princess Louise does another smart thing: it divides and conquers. The front and back of the pub are opened up, allowing for larger groups to gather and sup, while a series of snugs feature on both sides of the bar. One always feels connected to the place, wherever you may be sitting, yet the snugs allow enough detachment so that you will never blow a fuse when it gets very busy (which can always be the case at knocking-off time for nearby workers).

 

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The great writer (and legendary imbiber) Ian Nairn said that any long bar implies serious drinking and the Princess Louise has lots of leg. But this is a sturdy, meaty leg, not some dainty Victorian ‘church-bell’ flashing glimpses of garter. This is a pub that pumps its legs all day, every day, and is always sensitive and alive to performance, which makes it most pleasing on the eye. My favourite feature is the tall clock-tower in the middle of the bar, where time literally stands still. Here, it is always noon. High noon in High Holborn, with high praise attached.

  • The Princess Louise is a short skip from John Soane’s house/museum, so why not pop in there first for a tour to clarify the eye, before calling at the pub to lubricate the gullet.

On the violence of necessity

Image from the Terence Malick film ‘The Tree of Life’ [2011]

Violence is both unavoidable and unjustifiable – Albert Camus

Violence is to man, what dust is to decay; it is a by-product of what makes us who we are. It’s in our blood to spill blood. Camus got it right on both counts: we cannot, and should not, ever look to justify violence, but we cannot deny its permanence either, or its deep-seated part of our nature. Violence shapes us just as much as music or education, so we should not flinch from looking at its ugly countenance, or attempt to peer past it towards some idyllic notion, ensconced in a sleepy valley of denial.

Asking the question if we can get beyond violence, or live in a world without its presence, is akin to asking if goodness can exist without evil? No, is the short answer: our actions will always cause reactions. The idea of ‘a world without violence’ cannot stand empirically: violence is an axiomatic part of our human condition just as much as greed, envy or lust are, and it applies to our nature as inherently as the basic laws of physics.

As Camus said, violence is inescapable; it’s part of the absurdity of life. The violence of necessity is something else, however – contra Camus, it is both justifiable and, because of its existential threat, allows us to avoid and neutralise many more potentially violent scenarios. A violence of necessity keeps a check on our baser instincts; it provides a natural order to things and has allowed humanity survive this far.

There is what we can call ‘macro-violence’, relating to Thomas Hobbes’s basic insight, that without a state, and state force, life is likely to be ‘nasty, brutish and short’. A state monopoly on the legitimate use of force reduces violence and makes everyone living under that monopoly better off than they would otherwise have been.

We can also consider ‘micro-violence’, which George Orwell understood when he wrote, ‘People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.’ Part of the reason we find so much stock in Orwell’s writing is that his voice never quivered – and when it came to the possibility of the humanitarian need for violence, which sounds oxymoronic, he never shirked then either. Orwell was a democrat, and at heart a pacifist, but he understood the necessity of violence, its function.

He foresaw how violence was being used in the corrosion of communism and socialism and how Stalin exercised power by homicidal brutality. Orwell understood how Nazism utilised violence to further its sickening cause; he was one of the few to wake up early (Winston Churchill being another) to the understanding that this type of violence needed to be faced with the violence of necessity – imperative for halting Hitler’s fanaticism, and Stalin’s demagogic brand of thuggery if the time came to do so. (History shows that Joe was a much cannier operator than Adolf though; Stalin knew when to sit down at the table or when to kick it over.)

Orwell’s experience fighting in the Spanish Civil War and witnessing the ugly face of Franco’s future autocracy helped him understand that the only way to stare down a menace such as fascism and totalitarianism was by taking up arms; in order to ‘Kick up the fire, and let the flames break loose, to drive the shadows back’, to use Philip Larkin’s phrasing.

Poppies by Richard Diebenkorn [Oil on Canvas 1963]

The nature of violence and the intrinsic role it plays in our lives has always had an inner working on my idea of self. For example, all my life I wondered if I could take a punch. And as chance would have it, three came along at once to answer my ruminations. After thirty or so years of conjecture, I found out I could take a biff to the old cranium and solar plexus. I took three punches from two men to be exact (to take a punch; it sounds fine when one says it, but looks strange when written down, with the verb turned on its head), two from the initial agitator and one from his rather large friend, his blow being the decisive one. I had replied in kind beforehand, with two strikes upon the provoker. I connected with my right, and a surprisingly good left, so much so that it hurt my hand. But the final punch I suffered landed right on a sweet spot: my left eye, and settled any dust kicked up in the dispute. It was the strike that cut the lights.

Of course all of this is in my mind’s eye. But I imagine the punch was thrown with a technique that would have had me applauding if I’d been sitting ringside watching a prizefight. Instead, I was busy getting on with the unfortunate business of becoming acquainted with the ground. In my case, Saturday night was not all right for fighting.

(Those that sing about fighting don’t tend to do much, really – the old Blues men apart of course, some of whom lived their lives as an eternal scuffle.)

The fellow I encountered had either boxed a little in his time, or was ‘handy’, in the street-fighting man sense of the word: the type used to knocking down selves, not putting up shelves. The boxing supposition might have saved my grounded self, however, as I lay face down in a neighbourhood that becomes filled with testosterone-soaked air at the weekend. For the shot that drops you does just that – it brings any debate to a close. There is an Irish phrase that encapsulates the perfect punch: ‘he softened his cough for him’. This type of manoeuvre is usually reserved for use upon lairy loudmouths or uncouth slabbers, and I’d like to assure you, dear reader, with a degree in modesty, that I am neither.

The left eye sees: a flicker of movement, a slant in the light, brilliant white followed by pitch-darkness and then something I don’t see much of nowadays – the gradual sight of tarmac forming right before my eyes.

Yes, I took the shot. I took the shot. Then my legs buckled, causing me to fall on my left side, meaning not only did I have a large shiner and closed-over eye the next day, but, to complement it, also a nasty weal above what remained of my eyebrow.

Needless to say it could always have been worse. But I think the aesthetic of that last blow was so right somehow – I’m surmising outside of myself here – that nothing else could have been done to improve upon it, except perhaps the fellow raising a triumphant right hand and walking back to his corner. Both sides had come to agreement;   the two of them walked off and I stayed put. And after a few moments, I dragged myself to my feet, bloodied and sore. On a blustery spring morning, I had as much control over my movements as I did over the weather. But I moved on defiantly, to continue my walk home. And all the while, I was thinking, so this is what it feels like; this is what it feels like.

Illustration by Stephen Doyle

 

Many commentators write about the underlying causes of violence, which are usually listed as poverty, inequality, and abuse of alcohol or drugs and so on. But we are made aware of violence from an early age: parents and elders often tell children ‘don’t let anyone else fight your battles for you’. As the psychologist Steven Pinker says, we really ‘are creatures of a violent world, biologically speaking – watching violence and learning about it is one of our cognitive drives.’

One such place we watch and learn about it is in the schoolyard, with its war zone state of mind. Children can be the most violent of us all, and when they are, there lies the beginning of a journey of self-discovery.

Scenarios are quickly forced in our faces where one has to stand one’s ground, or risk being exposed as a pushover or weak for the rest of one’s days; there are exceptional occasions when one needs to resort to violence to hold the line that’s been drawn.

In the feral surroundings of an all-boys Catholic school, I saw the existence of violence almost on a daily basis. Sometimes casual, other times brutally calculating. Here, I saw the purpose of violence, its role; used many times for bad reasons, some times for good, such as when the picked-on puny boy finally cracks and strikes back at the bully, who is shocked into stasis. At times likes these, I fondly recall how the herd of boys would fall in behind the upstart, cheering him on, while their scorn would rain down on the vanquished. Even young boys understand the value of the underdog’s victory, for somehow we know it is a status that will befall us all at some time in life.

One example sticks in my mind. We milled around the schoolyard during our break as usual, several hundred boys aged from eleven to sixteen. One of the regular ruffians started in on a new boy, only to discover to his dismay that this pocket-rocket knew something of what AJ Liebling called ‘The Sweet Science’ i.e. boxing.

The little chap unleashed such a flurry of punches that it sent a surge of electricity through the hundreds of other boys, who wanted to view this assured act of pugilistic justice taking place; we were drawn to it. A rush of bodies swarmed like angry bees around the fight, forcing it to progress towards the high-wire fencing enclosing the yard. The wave of bodies ebbed and flowed. As the fight came to a crashing end, when the small chap landed a plum right-hook, the weight of the crowd caused a crush that flopped upon the fence, flattening it like a pancake. The bars and wires were bent outwards so that they touched the ground – the fence looked like a half-completed wicker basket – causing the collective to let out a mighty roar, as they collapsed in a scrum. But the energy, the energy! Some boys were super-charged; they scrambled across the mesh and broke for freedom before any teachers could arrive on the scene.

Alas, the rest of us dusted ourselves down and went back to class with the sound of the bell ringing with what seemed more of a rage than usual. One person was glad to hear the bell: the bully, dazed and confused, and in the unusual position of nursing a bloody nose. I also caught a glimpse of the practitioner of Boxiana, smiling, unmarked, and being patted on his back with hearty congratulations. He looked like a fun-sized Gary Cooper.

As I walked back, I thought at the time, this is probably the most important lesson I will learn today, or most days for that matter. We dragged our heels back to the classroom, but as the asphalt settled again over the schoolyard in the morning sunshine, I had wondered how something could come so quickly, and disappear just as fast. I also appreciated that this thing, call it violence of whatever you wish, never goes away.

So wrote Ernst Junger: ‘Man is born violent but is kept in check by the people around him. If he nevertheless manages to throw off his fetters, he can count on applause, for everyone recognizes himself in him. Deeply ingrained, nay, buried dreams come true.’

Coombe Wood by John Constable [1812]

 

It is time we reached the fork in the road up ahead, signposted ‘Passivity and Diplomacy’ on one side and ‘Violence of Necessity’ on the other. I wish to state unequivocally that I would always choose to travel left, given the option, to use discussion to solve any dispute in life. This choice did not work for me recently (sadly) but it did allow me a deeper understanding of the human condition, and it is this: the right turn, marking violent action, will never be bypassed completely, whichever side you are on, and we should acknowledge this fact. Yes, this road will take us on journeys that are wrong from the outset, and which will end at dark, destructive destinations, but it will always be there; the road less taken or otherwise. Bob Dylan’s lyrics should still ring true in our ears: ‘Democracy don’t rule the world/ You’d better get that in your head/ This world is ruled by violence/ But I guess that’s better left unsaid’.

Violence has taken on a new identity on the global stage of the 21st century. Countries no longer officially declare war, but instead violence takes place on sliding scales of aggression. Diplomacy is reduced to nothing more than window dressing as a consequence, and is of little use to citizens who shake in the shadows cast at noon. If we in the west wish to maintain the values that we hold dear, then the violence of necessity will always have to walk hand-in hand with diplomacy. We need to speak softly and carry a big stick, as Theodore Roosevelt put it.

On a metaphysical level I wish that the world was less violent, but we cannot deny that it is part of the balance that keeps order on the nature of things. ‘It seems disingenuous to ask a writer why she, or he, is writing about a violent subject when the world and history are filled with violence,’ wrote Joyce Carol Oates, which I will use as part of my defence against criticism in writing this essay. For there will always come a time when men will choose to go to war, for a justified reason (‘When bad men combine, the good must associate’ noted Edmund Burke) or not. There will always be a time when a man will strike another, for no reason or otherwise. A world without violence is like a world without sin – an unreachable aspiration because of our animalistic natures and instincts. It is the fundamental existence of violence and its inherent threat that is key to maintaining order in our lives, and we should accept that a surety of force keeps us in check; what Steven Pinker calls the ‘pacification process’.

The point has been made before that you never need an argument against the use of violence, but you need one for it. Well, this, to an extent, is mine. Most of us may not be for violence, but we know what violence is for; it will always be with us, so we need to get over our guilt if we must call upon it. For society to endure, we need a violence of necessity that correlates. The German thinker Walter Benjamin was being realistic when he stated: ‘there is no document of civilization that is not at the same time a document of barbarism’. In the final analysis, violence of necessity can be used to stem the tide of mania, stop injustice, defend those who cannot defend themselves, or to stir change in a stinking pot of misery and misfortune. We, mankind that is, will always be the spoon of disorder, but the onus is on us to take a firm grip of it.

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