There are low slung grey clouds, a thick grey blanket across most of the blue that lies below. The sun is over there in the blue, the light of the holocene at the horizon level. It seems a great distance away, as if that sky over there is the sky of another planet, one which is yet to be discovered. There are magic cities under that sky. It’s dreamtime, the place we dream in, to dream of. Imagined cities, tantalisingly in the distance.
There are elements I would like to find there. Decorative wrought iron railings, a terracotta paradise, tree lined streets, gardens, window boxes and hanging baskets, a complete absence of motorism, less glass, more red brick, sculpture instead of branded image-object. I would like to be in that city when it rains and the pavements and streets are wet and shiny and cool and fresh. The experience and sensation of urbanism. Curves, tangents, curious spaces; unexpected encounters, movement in all directions, creativity and expression, atmosphere.
I found atmosphere in a morning trip to Canterbury. It was something specific to a sense I have of England. There is a great deal about England and the people that I like. And a great deal which is corrupt, charmless, fraudulent, deceitful, hypocritical, bullying, abusive and oppressive. If these are traits of official politics it should be no surprise that these forces also shape culture, landscapes, streetscapes, the width and height of buildings, what types of buildings and why they are built and where.
There are particular landscapes here, certain streetscapes, histories, types of food and drink, fashions, styles of architecture; the formation of ways of thinking, the emergence of ideas through history and the interactions of people, places and events. London, Berlin, Antwerp, Milan, Vienna are different. It’s a euro-centric view because these are cities I’m familiar with. Once I can be free of toil I shall travel further, to the Middle East, across central Asia, to the border of Russia and China, across the seven seas to South America and then hitch a ride to Africa. But for now there is a limitation. Can we only write of what we know? I think in terms of cities and urbanism and immediate sense perceptions, then the answer for has to be yes. These are not academic writings.
Part of the fascination is the exploration of the differences. If one begins to understand the development of good quality, modern housing in Vienna, then it is possible to learn something in relation to the development of good quality modern housing in London, Berlin and Frankfurt. But it increasingly feels that the differences are being eradicated as capital endlessly expands. Glass, glass, glass, steel, steel, steel, never ending glass boxes, homogenised light, the replication of the same space across the world, Dubai the same as New York, Canary Wharf the same again.
A genuine embrace of modernism would not be the eradication of the past but a development, an integration, perhaps at times a conflict and juxtaposition of past and present with a view to the future. What we have now is the repetitive replication of the same template for all cities, for all town centres, for all urban spaces. This is because all space is increasingly being shaped by money, or rather, it is being shaped by capital. The shape of time is now the shape of capital bought to realisation in image-objects within the dynamic of profit making, competition and the fear of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall. Some fear this more than others but it warps a considerable amount of psychological states.
I sometimes buy books when I go to Canterbury. Surprisingly this often includes novels. I say surprisingly because I rarely read novels anymore. I did so in the past. Novels more than political books were a huge early influence. I can still remember the excitement of discovering and reading George Orwell and Homage to Catalonia, 1984, Sartre’s Roads to Freedom, the anti-war literature of Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Erich Maria Remarque. And then a widening discovery, Muriel Spark and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, The Ballad of Peckham Rye, Angela Carter, The Magic Toyshop and once I moved to London, what I would call the London writings including Sam Selvon The Lonely Londoners, and being encouraged to read Zola, Eliot, Dostoyevsky. That’s just a smattering but so many of those books were either discovered or bought in second hand bookshops.
London once had a great collection of such places and many hours were spent in them. Some of us would have a list of books we were looking for, kept carefully in a pocket. The magical moment when something like Morgan Philips Prices Reminiscences of the Russian Revolution were discovered on a shelf where it might have been for years.
A visit to a second hand bookshop now brings back memories and recollections. Of when and where a particular book was discovered. One might even find clues and remnants of a previous self, an earlier version of one’s own life which had lain forgotten and undisturbed. Coming across a copy of Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Novel acting like a time tunnel into a previous version of one’s own past.
I bought three books as I had a five pound note and a pound coin in my pocket. That seemed to make sense as they were £1.99 each. Frost in May, Beyond the Glass and The Sugar House all by Antonia White. I must admit to knowing nothing about the author. But that’s not the point. These are for browsing. For sitting on the bookshelf possibly for years to come without being opened. And then one day the time will be right and they will be read. I have a lot of novels like that. I buy them sometimes because I like them as art-image-objects. Because they are early Penguins in their orange, grey, black or green covers or the designs are attractive or because there is something – even just a sentence or two – which catches the mind and eye when browsing in the shop. There is a magic-sensory experience of being caught like that, deep in the shelves of a good second hand bookshop. A zen of browsing when one can experience an intensity of reading. The shop, the noise, this time dissolves and another space and time is entered. These are the openings of the doors of perception. Second hand bookshop dreaming.
Just in time I remembered that the purpose of going to Canterbury, if we must have such things, was to go to the market. This time there was a shopping list in my pocket and instructions on what to buy and what acceptable substitutes might be.
The butcher was chopping up beef and arranging it on a tray. This would make the basis of a good stew but not today.
‘Could I have two steaks please?’
‘I’ve only got rump’, he replied looking up. He has an amusing line in asides which he delivers quickly out of the side of his mouth when he is serving several customers at once. It’s always clear which comment is for which customer. We once had an entertaining discussion about the power of medieval guilds as he served out sausages, Barnsley chops, chickens and lamb cutlets to a queue of people who were sorting out their Christmas orders.
‘That will be fine. I don’t want it too thick but around six hundred grams in weight’.
He takes the knife and taps the side of his head with the forefinger of his right hand. I stop talking. He’s concentrating.
‘Got to think it out’, he says.
Once he has his mark he begins to slowly slice.
‘I always do steaks on a really hot frying pan’, I say, ‘as hot as I dare’,
‘Same’ he says, ‘I wait until it starts smoking’.
‘That sears it on the outside and leaves it tender in the middle’,
‘Exactly’, he replies, ‘about 30 seconds on one side and then flip it on the other side for 30 seconds’.
‘That’s right’, I say, ‘and I do the onions in a separate pan’
‘With a little bit of butter?’ he enquiries.
‘It has to be’
‘It gives it a nice glaze’, he says, and nods sagely.
When I thought about it later it reminded me of some conversation in Emeric and Pressburger’s film A Canterbury Tale. The American sergeant Bob Johnson (played by John Sweet) is talking to some workers in the Kent countryside (form memory it may be at a blacksmiths or wheelwrights – I will check later). They are working with wood.
Yes. And chestnut.
– Do you get much sweating in your elm planks?
– Oh, average.
At home we build two at a time. For steadiness. Side by side.
Well, so do us. To tie them longer strips together
Sawn last winter – Is that how you do it in America?
It’s how we do it in my part of America.But we take off the strips when we put the planks away in stock.
Well, so do us.
How long do you allow for seasoning timber?
– A year for every inch of thickness.
– Same here.
You can’t hurry an elm.
– No. But some folks try to, all the same.
– Yeah. Capitalists. Can’t stand to see their money lie idle a piece.
The first time I saw the film I had to check that the word capitalists had been used. In a film made in 1944 during the Second World War? Ever time I hear this it still sounds gloriously subversive.
It really is a fantastic film. John Sweet who played Bob Johnson really was a sergeant in the US Army and donated all of his acting fee to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Sometimes in the summer I catch the bus to Barnham Down or Chilham and then walk to Canterbury. The cathedral is often the first part of the city to be seen across the downs. And after a long summer’s day walking and hopefully a beer or two in a village pub a bus or train will be found for the journey home. And that’s the perfect time to watch the film again.
Where did all this come from?! Ah yes, buying books. The ability of a good second hand bookshop to spark up the imagination should, of course, never be underestimated.