Sometimes one buys a book instinctively. There will be one sentence, a headline, a particular type face, an image. Perhaps just the title of the book itself. Or maybe it’s the particular quality of the book. Such was the purchase of:
50 YEARS OR RECUPERATION of the Situationist International
by McKenzie Wark
When the book was opened, it read:
This book is copublished by
The Temple Hoyne Buell Centre
for the Study of American Architecture
1172 Amsterdam Avenue
New York, New York 10027
Princeton Architectural Press
37 East Seventh Street
New York, New York 10003
This in itself raises many questions and possibilities. The study of American Architecture, New York, 57 East Seventh Street.
One of the illustrations is a map of Paris in which groups of streets have been circled by what looks a biro pen. The caption reads, ‘Guy Debord Map of Paris before 1957′ with the date 1957.
The immediate value of the book is this one idea. That of taking a small number of streets and circling them with a pen and then encircling them over and over again by both foot and the reading as much as possible about them. Memoirs, newspaper articles, references in wider histories, architectural guides, business directories, casual words in the street with passers by.
The streets can be walked alone, with different companions, each with their own perspectives. Parts of the walking won’t even be an active critique of the streetscape, but diversions into several unrelated conversations. The light changes as the clouds move a few hundred feet. The buildings are seen differently in grey shade, bright sunlight bouncing off a window, illuminated by neon night time light. The presence or absence of people and motorism changes the streets from a state of movement to stillness. The types and character of the people changes the atmosphere. Without warning all the noise seems to disappear, as if it is has been sucked away by a whirlpool that suddenly appears beneath the street itself.
I’m standing outside the Edition Hotel in Berners Street talking to the doorman. An American couple come out. They start talking. I walk away discreetly. ‘I’m Alan’, ‘And I’m Rita’, the woman says. They are asking about places to get a coffee. The doorman has cornrow hair. He stands with his feet apart. They leave. We start talking again. A car on the opposite side of the road is started up and creates huge clouds of smoke. The doorman goes over and taps on the window to alert the driver. He switches the engine off. A taxi driver opens his window and says to us both, ‘another failed mission at the Edition’ and drives off.
The streets change as one goes in and out of buildings, sometimes just to look, but there might be someone who can tell a story which changes the interaction with the street itself. In the Champion pub a man is leaning on the bar. I assume he’s the landlord. He suggests I visit the Wheatsheaf where Dylan Thomas used to drink – and George Orwell – he adds.
‘Good tip’, I say, ‘you always need local knowledge’,
‘No matter how much the world turns’, he says, ‘local knowledge is the key and asking people on the ground’.
St Margaret’s Church in Margaret Street is always worth a visit.
‘It’s Butterfield, finished in 1852 but due to all sorts of theological disagreements not consecrated until 1857’.
The man finishes the brief history and looks at me. I should have asked what those disagreements were about. I like the church a great deal.
‘It’s like a bridge’ I say, ‘from Pugin to Arts and Crafts’.
‘Well Pugin definitely. It takes Pugin further’. The man shows me how the motifs have been carved into the stone.
‘But not Arts and Crafts’, he adds,
We start talking about Pugin’s church in Cheadle. I visited a few years ago and sat in the corner quietly. Eventually a conversation started between myself and the only other person in there. He told me that he had nearly died of illness a few years ago but had survived and came to the church to think and pray and give thanks. He works in the local JCB factory and had been there for nearly forty years. He explained how much he loved just sitting in the church. While we were talking someone else came in and opened a door at the back of the church and more light streamed in. A white light, it might have been divine. He laughed and told me that in all the years he had been coming to the church that door had never been opened.
The southern part of Charlotte Street is now lined with restaurants, a hotel and bars. In 1871 it was an area of poor housing and it was here and in the surrounding streets that refugees from the Paris Commune arrived. The Communard Louise Michel lived here in the 1890s. She was chided by her comrades for giving her coat to a woman in the street who was wet and cold.
‘But you need a coat too Louise’.
‘That woman needed the coat more than I ever will’, she replied.
1n 1884 these streets were filled with socialists and trade unions and banners and bands. They were meeting to march to Highgate Cemetery to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Karl Marx. Nearby in Cypress Place (formerly Little Howland Street), Sylvia Pankhurst’s newspaper The Woman’s Dreadnought was printed. In 1914 it came out with an anti-war position and maintained that position through the imperialist slaughter.
From 1916 onwards there were increasing numbers of anti-war demonstrations across Europe. These grew in size and strength and in February 1917 the anti-war movement was part of the catalyst for the Russian Revolution. In London and other cities in Britain street corner meetings calling for an end to the war could attract audiences of 500 people or more. Sylvia Pankhurst records in her book The Home Front how these crowds often included soldiers in uniform who nodded in agreement and silenced the jingoistic louts and riff raff. In the same book she describes how working class women received an allowance while their husband or brother or son (s) were at the front. But as soon as they were killed the allowance stopped. The loss of life was accompanied by a loss of income leading to desperate poverty.
Goodge Street underground station always suggests an earlier time in London which no-one now can quite understand. I’m not sure any one has ever properly considered or understood this space. It is almost a site of anti-capitalism. The building is out of all proportion with itself as if built at different times by architects with conflicting views. It is oddly on its own which is unusual for this part of London. A small camp of street stalls surrounds it which give a sense of accumulating capital at such a slow rate that they alone will bring the rate of profit crashing down.
During the Falklands War in 1982 I sold Socialist Worker here every Friday evening with the slogan Scrap the navy and pay the nurses . They were in dispute with the government at the time. It generally went down well. Several nurses in uniform bought the paper.
A man wearing a sheepskin jacket often turned up. He placed a suitcase on top of a litter bin and produced leaflets promoting his role as an insurance salesmen. He told me he was Michael Kidron’s brother. Anyone could make that claim. But he would then go on to explain that the problem with the International Socialists, and later the Socialists Worker’s Party, was that Tony Cliff had never properly understood Hegel. This was a much harder thing to spoof. I still remember these discussions. I knew I was hopelessly out of my depth but I was intrigued as to his thesis. Each Friday evening the debate continued in between;
‘Scrap the navy, pay the nurses’ and
‘Want to buy some insurance?’
‘You see, the point about Hegel….’
This had a further complexity in that Kate Garner, at the time a member of the band Haysi Fantayzee, used to buy the paper each week. I was always on the point of asking her out for a drink which never quite happened.
In the streets, a flow of people and a constant generation and regeneration of memories.
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