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'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

Ian Nairn and serendipity 

There must be something to it surely: in the week when I had my essay on the inspirational, non-clubbable writer and broadcaster published in The Irish Times, I had a peruse of a second-hand bookshop only to find, side by side, original copies of Nairn’s London and Nairn’s Paris. 

For the princely sum of £4 (in the inside cover of Paris is another marking for 20p).

I’ve added pictures below, comparing them with my facsimile of London, well thumbed as you can see and with some ale markings, and the new edition of Paris, published with typical elan by Notting Hill Editions. Just look at Nairn’s face on those covers – the child-like, goofy grin is nothing but endearing; he’s like a portly John Turturro.

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I shall run Nairn’s BBC travelogues again this weekend (with some Guinness West Indies Porter, which I’m sure he would slap his lips in satisfaction with) as a small gesture to his ghost, if indeed he was tapping my shoulder to go into that bookshop. ‘Look here mate…’, I hear him saying. 

The Nairn films are infinitely watchable in spite of their low-budget, dated (happily, in this instance), and cobbled together feel. He has a strange, melancholic relationship with the camera; I find him as compelling to watch on screen as, say, Richard Burton or Marlon Brando. At times I imagine he might start riffing towards a Shakespearean soliloquy as he shuffles around Halifax.

Anyway, I shall finish with this, because I have just uncapped another porter: despite his documented drift into darkness in his personal life and an unhealthy relationship with the booze, Nairn makes me laugh hard, and often, in his writing. (Whatever people think about him looking through a glass darkly, my instinct is that he lived his life the way he wanted to, and if that meant living until 53 or 83 years of age, I imagine Nairn would have thought, ‘well, so bloody what’.)
Here he is describing a pub, one of his true passions, The King’s Arms on the Fulham Road:


Below is how they advertise the pub on its website today. Nairn, how prescient you were…

…once again I hear his ghost: ‘And nooooowwww look at it! It makes me burn!’

Fads will come and go. 

Ian Nairn will remain. Raise a glass, chin chin.

Lost England 1870-1930 By Philip Davies

The Lime Street Picture House in Liverpool, pictured in the year of its opening in 1912 (picture courtesy of Historic England archive)



This hefty slab of a book mainly consists of 1200 images from the invaluable Historic England archive, yet it is the details from Philip Davies’s impressive introduction that slap the reader in the face. Reading Davies’s excellent summation of the six decades covered in ‘Lost England 1870-1930’ one encounters some sociological insights that we should be eternally grateful we left behind.
Despite the country being one of the richest in the world thanks to the industrialisation of its cities and large towns, the resulting rapid urbanisation of the same places saw millions living in complete squalor. The lack of decent housing for the drivers of the Industrial Revolution, the working classes, was part of their continued degradation that locked them out from having any stake in the millions of profit being generated. Of course we are well aware nowadays of this exploitation of the labouring masses by the ruling classes, and there were a small number of philanthropic business families. Nevertheless, details outlined by Davies of how wealthy society disregarded their fellow brothers and sisters a centenary or so ago stick in the craw.
For example: cellar houses were commonplace in northern industrial cities; basement dwellings built beneath squalid terraced houses. In the 1860s one fifth of Liverpool’s population lived in cellar houses, eight or nine people in a single unventilated basement, and the city’s Chief Medical Officer of Health noted that ‘fluid matter’ from communal privies on the ground floor oozed into the cellar. It got worse. Thirty years on many cellar houses were closed, but with no provision for replacement housing. This caused such a squeeze for homes across northern cities that many houses in Leeds, Manchester, and seaports created ‘penny hangs’ in their cellars. Anyone staying overnight would drape their bodies over a rope suspended breast high between cellar walls until dawn, when the ends were unfastened and everyone would collapse on to a piss-flooded floor.
This is just a tiny snapshot of the turmoil that was part of extraordinary change experienced by England in the sixty years covered in this book. And if the social record of the country during this time is bleak, then its beauty can be found in the remarkable photographs featured here.’Lost England’ is a follow on from ‘Lost London’, covering the regions of the North West, the Midlands, East England etc and once again the pictures are poignant, elegiac, yet stirring. Look at the mighty civic buildings: the town halls, the libraries, the post offices; see the railways once the envy of the world; why did we ever forgo the elegant and timeless beauty of shopping arcades for banal American-style shopping malls? So much of the Victorian and Edwardian age was beautiful and this book will make you wonder why we let much of it slip through our hands, or tumbled it with the very same hands. As Davies writes, ‘Embrace the past with remembrance, but the future with optimism. Look back, but don’t stare.’

Lost England 1870-1930 by Philip Davies (Atlantic Publishing) £45

* Article first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement 

The World-Ending Fire by Wendell Berry: Environmental philosophy

American poet Wendell Berry is a ‘farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts’

Wendell Berry did not sit on my shelves before; nor yours probably. This collection sees the American published on these islands for the first time, and now he has finally stepped ashore, it’s worth getting to know him. He describes himself as “a farmer of sorts and an artist of sorts” and it shows. In these pieces, which span five decades, Berry overturns plenty of thoughtful topsoil on environmental issues with a precise pen, and clears any thicket of cosy consensus with a clear eye and cutting hand. Bound to the land, Berry speaks with a considered and credible voice. Part nature writing, part philosophy, part polemic, he examines humanity’s impact on the world – is the land unfit for use, or are we unfit to use it, he asks. Although he keeps his plough mainly on the furrows of nature and farming, there are digressions: Mark Twain, feminism, and computers among them. Berry believes there is a music to nature, so instead of drowning it out, we had better start listening. This book is a good starting point.

The World-Ending Fire – The Essential Wendell Berry. (£20; 354 pp Allen Lane)

  • Article first appeared in The Irish Times

Muhammad Ali’s idea of heaven

Reviews: Muhammad Ali: Fighter’s Heaven 1974; Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band 1975 and Jazz Festival: Jim Marshall

 

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Muhammad Ali captured at his training camp by Peter Angelo Simon.

Since Muhammad Ali’s passing in June, the image that springs to my mind when thinking about him is no longer the iconic Neil Leifer shot from 1965 of Ali towering over a vanquished Sonny Liston on the canvas, admonishing the recumbent fighter “Git up sucka; git up and fight!” Nor is it the photo generally considered the greatest in sports photography, again taken by Leifer, a year later. The picture is from above the ring, and shows Cleveland Williams (who was still carrying a bullet in his body going into the fight after a police shooting the year before) floored in the third, flat on his back on the square canvas. Ali is walking back to his corner, his arms raised in a victory many aficionados say was perfection personified (he sent Williams to the canvas four times). The perfect shot for the perfect fight. But it’s not that one, nor is it Flip Schulke’s famous underwater photograph of Ali eternally poised with his dukes ready for launch.

Instead, my mind’s eye conjures an image taken by Peter Angelo Simon in 1974. It shows Ali from behind, in black and white, doing his early-morning roadwork; pounding the Pennsylvania gravel in a grey tracksuit and heavy black boots. We see his breath cutting through the stillness of the new morning air, while a shaft of sunlight cuts across the middle of the frame. It’s a photograph that will never run out of road for me anyhow.

Now Ali is no longer of this earth, I can only think of this picture in a cosmological context, where he is being called back to where he started from; a cosmic ray bouncing back to that great ball of energy at the centre of our universe. Indulging the celestial metaphor once more, I always feel that if you had labelled Ali a meteorite, he would have slapped you down saying a meteorite was too small-time – he was the asteroid! Either way, aren’t we fortunate he shot through our universe?

But Ali was just a man (even if the distinction of super- is unconditionally prefixed to him). Just like the rest of us, he would bleed, hurt, cry, laugh and eventually die. We get a welcome new glimpse of his human side in Muhammad Ali Fighter’s Heaven 1974 (Reel Art Press), the cover of which is Simon’s astral image. The book is the fruits of two days shooting for Simon at Ali’s remote training camp, as the artist formerly known as Cassius Clay prepared to take on George Foreman in Zaire in a month’s time. Simon recalls that he and Ali had an unspoken agreement: “he’d do his thing and I’d do mine”.

What’s striking in most photographs of Muhammad Ali where he is surrounded by all sorts of people is that they are always smiling, even if he is not. It’s as if Ali swallowed life whole and transmitted only its joy through himself to anyone within his orbit.

“If there’s a secret to my fights,” Ali once said, “it’s how I prepare.” This collection of photographs gives us a privileged window into both the brutality and humanity that this preparation entailed.

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Jim Marshall’s portrait of Miles Davis and Steve McQueen at the Monterey Jazz Festival.

If boxing is taking something of a standing count from mainstream consciousness nowadays, then jazz has showered and shaved, checked out of the hotel, and slunk off into defeated obscurity. It might be hard to fathom, but there was a time when jazz was the absolute symbol of hep, as we can see in Jazz Festival, which is based on Jim Marshall’s photography at Monterey and Newport in the 1960s. The greats are here: Coltrane, Miles, Satch, Nina and some unexpected figures too: Kim Novak, Steve McQueen, Joan Baez. This large book is an eye-catching testament to an age of effortless cool – sharp suits, smoked edges, sounds rising to the stratosphere – and features a foreword from famous sax player (and sometime president of the United States) Bill Clinton. The historian Nat Hentoff places jazz of that era in its proper cultural context – an integrated scene that maintained its dignity in the maelstrom of the civil rights struggle.

Hentoff references Cambridge University’s Tim Blanning who laid out in his book The Triumph of Music the idea that black musicians readied America for the civil rights movement. He’s right: straight-no-chaser. Just like Muhammad Ali, jazz changed white American attitudes and America changed for the better, eventually.

Someone we think of as the embodiment of American values is Bruce Springsteen and – unlike jazz and boxing – it feels like he has never had anything but praise and approbation during his career. However, Bruce Springsteen and The E Street Band 1975 (also by Reel Art Press) documents a time when “The Boss” was struggling to break into the mainstream of American culture; at one point back then it seemed touch and go. Following two critically acclaimed albums, a lo-fi Boss is captured in these gritty portraits trying to piece together what would become his breakout album Born To Run.

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Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band photographed by Barbara Pyle in 1975.

With his trusted band in tow, we see a stripped-back Bruce: unadorned, living out of a bag, and from meal to meal probably. It’s also touching to see “The Big Man”, the late Clarence Clemons so full of life in these early photos, as well as a very lithe Steven Van Zandt, who is as well known for his role in The Sopranos these days as for cutting licks with Springsteen. The book is a snapshot in time of Bruce and his band living the life that he so painstakingly crafted into his music, and we are lucky to have this perspective. One suspects that “The Boss” has carried these pictures around in his head in the 40 years since they were taken; it’s probably why he’s “Mr Integrity” for so many of us.

  • Article first appeared in The Irish Times

 

Muhammad Ali: Fighter’s Heaven 1974 (Reel Art Press, £29.95)

Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band 1975 (Reel Art Press, £40)

Jazz Festival: Jim Marshall (Reel Art Press, £45)

Building books – a best of 2016

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Construction of Manchester Ship Canal 1889 (From Lost England)

James Joyce once famously declared of ‘Ulysses’: I want to give a picture of Dublin so complete that if the city one day suddenly disappeared from the face of the earth it could be reconstructed out of my book’. It’s unlikely Ellen Rowley had the same lofty aspirations when editing More than concrete blocks: Dublin City’s 20th century buildings and their stories 1900-1940 (Four Courts Press/Dublin City Council). But she has done a fine job with the subject at hand all the same, in this first book of a three volume series. It’s aimed at the general reader and hits the target with its clean, brisk style; you will find no leaden prose loaded with architectural jargon here, thankfully. Rowley and her team have mined the archives astutely and there is rich new photography from Paul Tierney on Dublin’s landmark buildings. Accessible can be a grubby word when used in any field of the arts, but this is a book for both the academic and architecture aficionado. The essays and case studies within present an erudite and enlightening path on the development of Dublin City in the years leading up to the establishment of the Free State and beyond. An ideal gift for the Dublin flâneur.

Travelling across the Irish Sea to our neighbours in Lost England 1870-1930 (Atlantic Publishing),this hefty slab of a book mainly consists of 1200 images from the invaluable Historic England archive, with an accompanying text written by Phillip Davies providing plenty of sociological insight. Striking photographs show the extraordinary change experienced by England in such a short period of time, covering the regions of the North West, the Midlands, East England etc. It takes in the huge Irish influence on the country’s demographic too – in the first five months of 1849, more than 300,000 Irish arrived in Liverpool, then a town of 250,000 people; parts of London and Manchester were known as ‘Little Ireland’ or ‘Little Dublin’. Many of the buildings of the Victorian and Edwardian age were beautiful and perusing this tome will make you question why we let so much of it slip through our hands; or indeed tumbled it with the very same hands. A worthy follow on to ‘Lost London’, this book is a poignant and elegiac publication that will have you wondering if we have learnt any lessons of such philistinism in terms of what we build and bulldoze nowadays.

If you like to holiday in Italy as much as possible, but also enjoy getting off the well-beaten tourist track, then picking up Italo Modern 1 and 2: Architecture in Northern Italy 1946-1976 (Park Books) would be a wise investment. Detailing many hidden jewels of post-war Italian Modernism, the books are beautifully designed in presenting the explorations of the Feiersinger brothers, Martin and Werner (one an architect, the other a sculptor) through contemporary photographs and plans and text on all kinds of buildings sprinkled across Italian cities and countryside. Volume 2 is the more comprehensive of the two books and both are considerately marked for individual architects and well mapped, from Milano to the tip of Trieste, where (that man again) Joyce of course spent a large part of his life.

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From Italo Modern

Moving further east is Hidden Urbanism: Architecture and Design of the Moscow Metro (DOM publishers). Muscovites are justifiably proud of their Metro network and this coffee table book compiled by Soviet architecture experts Philipp Meuser and Philipp Meuser gives an understanding of its social history and radical heritage. Photographs by Alexander Popov shows the Metro’s unforgettable beauty, and the book includes a rich seam of design plans, typography, and maps. The text could offer more on contentious issues surrounding the Metro’s history, such as the forced labour used to build it or the shameless religiosity of the Stalin-era architecture. However, a useful companion volume on these issues can be found in Landscapes of Communism – A History Through Buildings (Penguin) which has been published in paperback this year. Owen Hatherley has been writing with verve and knowledge of Soviet and Balkan built environments long before these subjects became fetishized by a flock of whimsical Instagrammers and tweeters. Here he takes on a weighty subject, a selective history of 20th century Communist Europe told through its buildings and designs, and despite limited finances tramps widely: Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Czech Republic, and what was once Yugoslavia and East Germany to list some of the destinations. It is a strangely compelling book, and oddly relaxing to read due to Hatherley’s unfaltering approach – it’s as though you can hear the sound of your lonely footsteps echoing through the corridors of history. As the author says himself, ‘this is history read through buildings’ – unlike some other books, it is much more than a cursory snapshot of a fascinating era in the 20th century and Landscapes of Communism will delight anyone with an interest in this complex part of the world.

  • Article first appeared in The Irish Times

 

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Mosaic panel depicting Vladimir Lenin at Komsomolskaya Station on the Koltsevaya line. Image: © Alexander Popov

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An airbrush with history – Abram Games

Abram Games with his controversial ATS poster, which was later withdrawn.

Abram Games

On one occasion when Abram Games returned to collect his portfolio from an agents’ studio in London, he was told that his work was ‘ten years ahead of the public’. At the time, the 1930s, Games was still trying to establish a foothold as a freelance artist, so he somewhat caustically replied: ‘I can’t wait ten years.’ It’s now twenty years since Games‘ death and in many senses he still seems ahead of the curve, such is the striking vitality and originality of his designs, ensuring his place as one of the greatest and most influential graphic designers of the 20th century.

Only subject matter, such as the Second World War, dates Games‘ legacy. Other designs like the first animated ident of BBC Television (1953) looks like an early prototype for a Star Wars’ TIE Fighter. Games‘ artistic sensibilities were influenced by the Bauhaus (see the 1963 cover of Swiss magazine ‘Graphis’) and constructivism (reference his designs for Post Office lines of communication or the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents). His work possessed a surreal streak too: none more so than the Financial Times’ Christmas cards (1951-55) where the ‘Manewspaper’ is carrying home presents, or dashing from the office to catch his train.

The best-known work remains that associated with wartime or in the period of optimism following it: commissions for Transport for London, Guinness, The Times newspaper, the Festival of Britain, and the War Office itself were created through the genius of Games. He was 25 when he joined the British Army as an infantry private in 1940 but his talent was soon in demand for a recruitment poster, which was to become a design classic. Ten thousand copies were printed for the Auxiliary Territorial Service, but the design for ‘Join the ATS’ was banned soon after, following debates in parliament declaring the poster girl ‘too glamorous’; for the rest of his life Games was never fully reconciled with his ‘Blonde Bombshell’ design despite its stunning originality for 1941.

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Controversy did not stem the flow of work for Games –  he created posters guarding against careless talk; medical and dental hygiene; safety; education; anti-pilfering or waste, and his creative thinking was put to good use as well, with wartime shortages of ink and paper. This artistic flourishing wasn’t always guaranteed. Born in 1914 to the sound of the Bow Bells (Games always considered himself a true cockney despite emigré parents) at school he was told that his drawing skills were weak. This did not deter his ambitions to be an artist though; he wryly noted he just ‘had a larger waste-paper basket’.

‘I am a graphic thinker,’ he said later in life, ‘I am bad at drawing… I decided right at the beginning that even if I couldn’t draw, I could think and see. If you can see, you can observe, you can comment.’ And comment he did, although he disliked using words on his designs (ideally he would have had none whatsoever). It was part of his aesthetic principles that led him to his overriding philosophy of graphic design: Maximum Meaning, Minimum Means. In fact, when meeting a client Games would submit just one design, on the thinking that if he himself was unsure, how can the client be expected to make a decision?

As times changed and the medium of the message developed, television in its nascent state would soon come to rule advertising, and although it failed to press any buttons for Games artistically, he must have realised it was the future. He was an egalitarian and would surely have acknowledged how TV (eventually) got the message to the masses, for better or worse. For someone with strong socialist principles, Games must have struggled with the fact that his ideas were, in the main, used to grease the wheels of capitalism: Shell Oil, Air Travel companies, ‘G is for Guinness’ being just a few of his clients. (No doubt he would have felt conflicted like director Andrei Tarkovsky was about cinema; the Russian called it a ‘bad art’ due its dependency on money.)

In a brief spell working in the advertising world after his studies at St Martin’s School of Art, Games was stupefied and felt smothered by its artifices (he was eventually sacked for an office prank; grateful, no doubt). His antipathy to commercialism drove his output in other ways during the war and afterwards. When he set up a studio in his North London home, he committed himself to works of public service: designs for Spain’s Civil War Relief, London Underground, the ‘Your Britain, Fight For it Now’ campaign; the latter involving the infamous Finsbury Health Centre poster, which was banned by Winston Churchill for featuring a boy with rickets as it would have been bad for wartime morale. Games also volunteered with the Jewish Committee for Relief Abroad, designing many items for no payment.

Today his work remains vivid in its airbrushed boldness and the effectiveness of the designs meant they could work on a one-inch surface – he created many stamps – or on a hoarding. He was also known as an inspiring teacher and an inventor (see YouTube footage of his 1950 Cona coffee brewer), but it’s his graphic designs that will fire future imaginations. Before he died in 1996, he said ‘I don’t know if I have influenced design, but I have had a few compliments, and some people have cribbed my work, so, from that point of view, people are influenced.’

For someone who was always reticent to use words in his work, we should finish by referring to an unpublished poster Games designed for the Financial Times. The pink ‘un is suspended and opened against a black background, with lower sections cut away from the newspaper to spell the letters ‘FT’. Beside this large abstract symbol, in small lower-case letters are just two words, also in pink: no comment.

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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.

After the Fire – the Great Fire of London

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This painting shows the enormous scale of The Great Fire. Unknown artist, c.1700. (Credit London Fire Brigade)

There must have been some sense of irony in London from the fact that the replacement churches for many of those destroyed in the Great Fire were funded by a Coal Tax. Frying pans and fires bring Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s change in circumstances to mind these days. As calamitous as he was as Lord Mayor of the city, he could not top one of his predecessors Thomas Bludworth. When roused to deal with the Great Fire, which started on 2 September 1666, Bludworth dismissed it with a response not quite befitting public office: ‘a woman might piss it out’ he said, before returning to bed. No doubt he was far from gruntled, to use PG Wodehouse’s word, when he awoke.

In slight mitigation, small fires were a common occurrence at the time. But if Bludworth had been more of a jobsworth, then history might not have recorded the devastating outbreak that spread quickly and raged for four days. The catastrophe almost destroyed the entire city: at least 13,000 houses were lost, 87 parish churches were destroyed, including St Paul’s Cathedral, although the death toll was remarkably low. Fewer than 10 people were known to have died, but the figure was probably higher as many bodies would have been cremated in the intense heat; poor Londoners’ deaths would have gone unrecorded most likely.

In ‘After The Fire’, Angelo Hornak leaves the bodies (or lack of them) aside and focuses on the Baroque. Hornak details the huge rebuilding job of the London churches in the sixty years that followed the fire. It’s a lavish book filled with his impressive photography, which is accompanied by readable and unfussy architectural text. The publication is a hefty slab though, so it is unlikely to be used as a mobile reference for ambling from church to church (perhaps the publisher will include a digital download with future purchases?).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London will no doubt see a flurry of publications attached to it. The story of how Christopher Wren and his colleagues Robert Hooke, Nicholas Hawksmoor, and James Gibbs, seized the opportunity of turning a city’s devastation into a triumph by making it more beautiful is worth retelling in the context of the homogenisation of present-day architecture. The skills of these men, and the many others involved in the buildings, meant London was presented with one of the most idiosyncratic skylines in the world, thanks to joined-up government, openness to influences from European neighbours in Rome, Paris, and the Netherlands, and a desire to build for spiritual enrichment, as much as economic necessity. An engraving by Johannes Kip from 1724 called ‘A Prospect of the City of London’ captures the scene perfectly, with the many steeples of the rebuilt churches scattered like wayward children around St Paul’s newly realised beauty: its father-figure dome.

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Things could have been very different. When Wren was handed overall charge of the church-building programme (St James’s, Piccadilly is the only one he claimed to have solely designed incidentally), his master plan proposed replacing medieval London with a new geometric grid, with grand avenues converging on the piazza at St Paul’s. Thankfully, the only elements of the plan stamped were the building of new quays along the Thames and the Fleet. Speed was of the essence: the city had to be rebuilt quickly to maintain its dominance as a centre of commerce. Yet Hornak’s book shows how God, if He didn’t quite trump Mammon in making London the attraction it is today, played a supporting role in the city’s magnetism through this rich array churches. Pull up a pew and savour it.

After the Fire – London Churches in the Age of Wren, Hooke, Hawksmoor and Gibbs by Angelo Hornak (Pimpernel Press)

  • Article first appeared in The Irish Times

 

Marcel Breuer – the last modernist

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St. John’s Abbey and University, Collegeville, Minnesota, 1953-68; bell- banner and church. Picture credit: Peter Sieger

There is an arresting photograph of Marcel Breuer sitting in the upper-floor of the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. It is 1967, a year after his building has opened and Breuer, dressed in a smart suit, and in an armchair with his back to one of the museum’s signature trapezoid windows, looks as if he is explaining something – perhaps trying to justify something.

From the picture one gets a sense that this was something he had been used to throughout his long career; even here, in his most popular (eventually) and best-known building.

If Breuer was spelling something out, then he didn’t look troubled by it: his body language has vim, even with him slouching slightly to the right in the chair, which was probably to soften his imposing frame. What would have exasperated Breuer though, and is not easily explained away, is that in the 35 years since his death, he is primarily remembered for his furniture designs, while his architectural works have been largely overshadowed. But an impressive and weighty new monograph by Robert McCarter (published by Phaidon Press) should realign Breuer’s position in the canon of modern masters, however.

When he died, Breuer was hailed as “the last modernist”. McCarter bumps him up the VIP list in a club that includes Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, and Mies van der Rohe (a place that always had something of a rarefied air).

McCarter calls Breuer “the last of the first moderns and the first of the last moderns” thanks to a career spanning 50 years that saw him criss-crossing many bridges of the so-called International Style, before embarking on his own artistic course in a combination of iconic private houses and public buildings in Europe and the United States.

Breuer was among the first students in the Bauhaus at the birth of modernism and, towards the latter part of his career, he readily swam against the flood of steel and glass that was defining modernism’s dull death.

Once Breuer discovered the malleability of reinforced concrete, a beautiful relationship was formed, with béton brut (raw concrete) being used to memorable effect in the building of the Unesco headquarters in Paris (1952-58), with the collaboration of Pier Luigi Nervi and Bernard Zehrfuss.

Phaidon’s tome covers 100 buildings and 24 furniture designs, and is a joy to spend time over, with its beautiful array of photographs, and McCarter’s exhaustive – but never exhausting – text on the designs (for a useful measuring stick on the depth of detail, here is McCarter on Flainé, a ski resort by Breuer built in the 1960s: “the wood is doussié, similar to teak, imported from Cameroon in French West Africa”).

Breuer’s ideas on architecture were made manifest in his practice, not in polemics, so the written documentation McCarter has to work on by his subject is limited. The author does a satisfying excavation job nonetheless, and we learn a little more about what made Breuer tick: he was sceptical of dogma; he was to have been a much-loved teacher; and he managed to both build his commissions and run a successful practice at the same time – a rare feat. (He also employed an unusual number of women in those old-fashioned days).

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UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, France, 1952-8; lobby and promenade of Secretariat. Picture credit: Fonds Zehrfuss.

Before writing this book McCarter was already an admirer of Breuer (as was I), and I’m happily in agreement with him on what he regards as Breuer’s greatest architectural work: St John’s Abbey and University in Minnesota (1953-68). That said, the tone is objective and the author does not spare the critical rod when it is warranted: many of Breuer’s houses went over budget, while some of the large public buildings had serious overheating problems inside, for example.

But, all things considered, it is time to rightfully rank Breuer alongside Mies, Wright and Le Corbusier, and this publication should aid that cause. Many believe his position of architectural greatness would have already been secured but for the remoteness of his best work (that fact that it is sited on the rolling plains of Minnesota means few people get to see St John’s). Breuer’s reticence to pronounce from upon high, or put forward jargonistic soundbites – unlike some others – did not help his case for future recognition either.

If Breuer were alive he would likely have been diffident at the thought of any fuss being made over his legacy. But that would only be true to form. Those who worked with him or knew him well said he was always both self-deprecating and self-effacing. As he once stated in a letter to a friend: “All my life I have been wondering how somebody can be a genius from morning to evening.”

Breuer by Robert McCarter is published by Phaidon Press.

  • Article first appeared in the Times Literary Supplement

 

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Resort Town of Flaine, Haute-Savoie, France, 1960-9; view from below of Grand Hotel (Le Flaine). Picture credit: Yves Guillernaut

Books which set the standards 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

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