Before one can start any sort of study there must be a great obstacle course of diversions to navigate through. And so the real study of the Gothic met a temporary set back today by hitting the submerged rocks of Art Deco. My little ship contains a notebook, a pen, some pencils, a sketch book and a camera with a spare battery. It didn’t capsize but it was forced to sharply change direction. I think we may be ok tomorrow when this storm has passed. I can see Gothic on the horizon and the lights of cathedrals and castles on the shore. But a ship’s log must be accurate for what happened on the day itself.
I’m on the top floor of a lovely late nineteenth century building overlooking one of the town’s squares. It’s quite high up – five or six stories and it’s a good spot to watch the goings on below. There’s a bar called ‘Le Pub’ with tables and chairs under big red awnings and umbrellas and always busy with lots of people eating and drinking. I notice on one of the letter boxes in the hall downstairs that someone has placed a post-it note which says, ‘Stop le pub’. I have been looking carefully at this pub wondering what it’s doing that might be annoying the neighbours. It is only later when I see ‘Stop le Pub’ on a letter box miles away that I conclude this is something about not wanting junk-mail. Or is it? Perhaps ‘Stop le Pub’ is a town-wide campaign.
It’s lovely to be in the middle of a lively town. I realise that I am enjoying just walking around the shops, looking in the windows and observing city life. It’s enjoyable because the town is coherent and so much of it blends together. Call it harmony, call it beauty based on mathematics, whatever is the cause, it’s creates real pleasure. I accept that it’s a facade; that there is a dirty underbelly, that the workers who produce the commodities in the windows are supra-exploited, working long hours in poor conditions. But this is not how we engage with our day to day life. We buy a smartphone and enjoy its look and feel, its functions and design. We buy new clothes and feel smart and important, secretly admiring our new look as we pass our reflection in shop windows. It’s one of the contradictions we live within it. It’s one of the reasons why we can’t really find peace of mind and contentment within capitalist society. There’s always a thorn in our side where justice, peace and equality should be.
The devil of distraction whispers in my ear. Perhaps the Gothic would be better understood through comparison. For example, why not go and look at that fascinating department store? I am walking through the double glass doors before I can provide a verbal answer. A new quandary now develops. Should I openly take photographs? Should I surreptitiously take photographs? Should I ask if I can take photographs? The latter risks all. If I’m refused I can hardly lurk in the shadows pretending to be adjusting something on the camera. I don’t like a sense of being sneaking. I go and ask.
The two woman at the counter turn to reply to my initial question as to whether they can speak English, which they can. One does the talking. The other leans her arm on the counter and cups her chin in her hand. She smiles at me, half laughing, through a mass of black hair, fashionable glasses and red lipstick. That split second or two is like a photograph in its intensity. The other woman flicks through her phone and tells me the building was constructed in 1927. Or was that the ceiling? She says its fine to take photographs and then abruptly says, ‘Goodbye’. If that’s a hint I take it. But I now have the authority, and as we’ve learned with train tickets, this is important. I have been given permission to take photographs and there is a witness.
There is so much to see in this 100 square metres or so. It should have been left to Sunday morning when the streets are empty of people and cars. I wait for ages opposite a building called the Palace.
A gawky girl with a shaved head is standing on the steps talking to someone on her mobile phone. Will this phone call ever end? An elderly woman is drinking coffee at a table on the pavement. She looks at me, she looks at the girl on the steps. Which of us will give up? Eventually the girl walks off down the street. I am just about to take the photo that I want when a man appears from nowhere. Literally nowhere. Has he been hiding behind a car or something? He leans against the wall of The Palace taking his time to smoke a cigarette.
I decide to go and look at something else. And then notice the Telegraph Post and Telephone building which is right beside me. This is why standing still for long-ish periods of time is the only way to properly explore and even partially understand an urban area. Or any sort of area. I have been in the proximity of this building for 20 minutes and until a few seconds ago had not even noticed it.
These two buildings, and snippets of a few others have taken up a considerable part of the afternoon. I’m not in a hurry. I went out earlier and found a supermarket and procured supplies of chocolate, crisps, beer and biscuits. Sat outside a funny cafe with a cup of coffee and two pain au chocolat. It was a working class sort of place and therefore friendly with a surreal edge. The woman who served me spoke mainly in French with the occasional English word thrown in. I did the same.
There were several people in the back of the shop. Two appeared to be making sandwiches for lunchtime customers and the other two I think might have been the bakers. One of them was a small wiry man wearing a white shirt and white trousers. He looked at me in a non-committal sort of way, opening his mouth and chucking bits of bread in. Then he would talk to the sandwich makers. Then pause and throw another bit of bread into his mouth. It was a bit like being inside someone’s house and seeing them as they are when no-one else is there. No matter with that; we shouldn’t be shy or fearful of our quiet, inner lives and what we do when no one watches. But it was a odd experience in a patisserie.
I sat outside and thoroughly enjoyed that breakfast. On the street corner a small rotund man playing an accordion. The carrying case was in front of him with some coins. I placed some there too. The only word of his reply I caught was ‘senior’. But it was said in a certain style. French troubadour street talk. I would like to be able to speak the language properly to find out what that’s really like. But in those few words, the way he said them and his accent he conjured up in that street Jean Genet and Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus and many others. He seemed to say;
‘See and hear these people they write and talk about; well I live that. This is what I was, and am part of. I am in all their writings. I am of the street’.
I like having a plan and then not taking any notice of it. The truth is I only ever had a vague plan for this trip. There are three things I want to go and see. I will write about them if I do. But the great thing about arriving in a place that one is not familiar with is just to be and to walk without plan. To let the city pull the psyche and the spirit and the mind and body. Who can tell what forces exist in these streets? The mystery is part of the experience; that it feels impossible to know why we walk up this street, into this shop, down this alleyway, past this particular building, in this specific direction. I find it an experience that I don’t want to analyse; but rather just experience, what may be described as a flow through the topography and landscape.
I cross the river and into an older and shabbier part of the city. It’s hugely enjoyable and interesting. I’m not sure how to describe the people. They are different from the Bretons, and certainly from those who live in the Calais region. Those are port-industrial and with the experience of war devastation and of being frontier, border land, with border force interference. I like them too with their North Sea accents and faces and complexions which have been seasoned with salt air and sea breezes.
Regional identities are still a strong force, certainly in England, and from my limited knowledge of Germany and France and the Netherlands. But surely also in Spain and Italy and …well, perhaps everywhere. Capitalism works to flatten us all out and one response is to hang on to things which might suggest some individuality within general forces of capital accumulation and the homogenisation that creates.
This is now all going to sound like codswallop because I don’t really know any one here and I have had such limited interactions. But here goes anyway. I find the people gentle and with kind natures. There seems to be a rather lovely understated urbanity, humour constantly flickering at the edges. And there seems to be a seriousness too, something thoughtful and philosophical, questioning and curious. There, a few lines of great assumptions and possibly well wide of the mark. But one thing I did think today is that I wished I had written every day from a long time ago. It’s not about being right or being an expert or saying such clever things. Writing is a way in which we record how we change. I would very much have liked to have a fuller written record of a younger self. And especially a record that managed to at least strive to an honesty of what I thought and believed through the moments of time.
Each town and city needs an inventory of the history of its buildings. Not just the cathedrals and castles – although that’s complex enough – but the vernacular, the housing estates, the door way that used to open into a patisserie in the 1930s, the shed that was once a workshop and a cranky man worked there but he would fix things if you had the wits to charm him out of the boorish basket in which he lived.
An inventory which wrote not just the history of the buildings but the history of the people there too. It could involve us all. But we need the time to do it. Firstly we must overthrow this miserly ruling class with their bile-filled hate and stupid ideas. Then break up their machinery of violent money-power governance. Then automate as much of the boring and tedious toil as possible. And then humanity can get on with the series and interesting and intriguing stuff about being, spirit, mind, creativity, food, sex, aesthetics.
And if you want, exploring cities all over the world and writing notes about the buildings and taking photographs and talking to people and thinking. Just thinking. Not worries and anxieties about bills and gas prices and all that crap. But thinking through and around the good stuff. Is this so impossible?
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