Monday, 29 June 2009

Gare d’Orsay, a Secret History

These are some things that I know about the Gare d’Orsay. It was built on a large scale in the Grand Manner and opened for business just in time for the Universal Exhibition of 1900. It was used by exclusively electrically powered trains. The station closed in 1935 and in 1962 Orson Welles filmed much of The Trial in the deserted building. Something I didn’t know, until I read Paris After the Liberation: 1944-1949 (Antony Beevor & Artemis Cooper), was that the Gare d’Orsay was employed in 1945 as a reception centre for processing les déportés, French citizens repatriated from Nazi Germany’s work camps, detention centres, prisons and concentration camps. Parisians were stunned by the utter wretchedness of les déportés whose suffering was written so unambiguously across their faces, putting the privations of life under the Occupation into perspective.

There are eye-witness accounts that describe the dark and cavernous interior of the former station within which circulated the naked and emaciated déportés, liberally dusted with de-lousing powder and sprayed with DDT, a hideous spectacle in which further humiliation was visited upon those whose nightmare seemed never to end. Like a Sebald moment, an image is created in the mind that will haunt this space for ever. Since 1985 the Gare d’Orsay has been home to France’s greatest art treasures of the Nineteenth Century among which is Courbet’s vast and crepuscular masterpiece, Un enterrement à Ornans, a painting that directly confronts death and extinction and cuts directly to the darkness at the heart of human consciousness. Courbet’s painting would be my candidate for an artistic companion piece to the demonic vision of bleached déportés, condemned forever in a vortex of disinfectant.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Postcard of the Day No. 29, L’ascenseur Marseille

This is a singular method of transport that history has not been kind to. Commonplace a century ago, most have ceased to exist. This example in Marseille conveyed passengers to the cathedral and remained in operation until the 1960s. The terminal buildings were monumental in scale and the track infrastructure was equally massive. The postcard below offers a detailed image of the lower terminal. The pavilion with its Corinthian capitals, pillars and pediments has been designed to give an impression of seriousness of purpose. The message is that this is no casual enterprise. An interesting cast of mostly over-dressed characters pose for the camera. There’s no obvious explanation for the presence of the figure on the parapet but his nonchalance suggests he felt he had every right to be there.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Water Power

Sir George Newnes was a late Victorian press baron whose fortune was based on the mass-circulation magazine, Tit-Bits. He built himself a mansion on the North Devon coast at Lynmouth with the proceeds and lavished his cash around the neighbourhood on a variety of civic projects. One such project was this water-powered Cliff Railway that connects the town of Lynton with the harbour and pier at Lynmouth, 500 feet below. It opened for business in 1890 and is still prospering in daily operation. The technical ingenuity is admirable, the water and gravity that power the system are available free of charge and although as a spectacle it’s little more than two garden sheds exchanging positions, as a ride, it’s excitingly vertiginous.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

Further Adventures in Metroland

My sister got married in the late 1960s and her new father-in-law was the eminent poet, critic and Professor of English, William Empson. The union between Suburbia and Bohemia was celebrated with a reception in the lovingly manicured garden at my parents’ house on the Cedars Estate, built by the Metropolitan Railway alongside the tracks between Rickmansworth and Chorleywood. William and his wife, Hetta, had guided their elderly Alvis (Hetta at the wheel) all the way from Hampstead via the badlands of Harrow and Pinner to arrive in a place that could hardly be further from their comfort zone. I was quite impressed that the author of Seven Types of Ambiguity (a book that formed part of the English syllabus at school) and a close acquaintance of George Orwell was taking a turn, drink in hand, around our garden. It must be conceded that the flow of conversation between the two tribes was far from unstoppable and in an unusual move for him, William filled an awkward silence by observing, in a clipped but genial tone, “Well, here we are in Metroland!”

Again, I was impressed. I hadn’t been aware that the untidy and tediously familiar ribbon of ancient small towns and overgrown villages tied together and developed by the Metropolitan Railway was in any way deserving of a collective noun. At the same time I realised that the journey of William and Hetta from the sophistication of NW3 to the social conformity of Outer Suburbia may have been short in miles but in cultural terms it was positively inter-galactic. There are two directions in which this could proceed. One would take us deeper into the adventures of William and Hetta in Suburbia, the second would take us further into an exploration of Metroland.

On balance, I favour the second option. The concept of Metroland was an inspired invention of the Metropolitan Railway Company, a marketing device to persuade the nation’s captains of industry to settle in the Metropolitan corridor and patronise the commuter trains that would transport them to the City of London with the minimum of fuss. The picture painted in the publicity was intensely pastoral in tone, replete with purple prose descriptions of the rustic delights in store for the newly arrived citizen of Metroland. If the thought of living alongside village smithies, dairymaids and shepherds had lured our captain of industry, he would have a strong case for being the victim of a false prospectus. The winding country lanes, lined with rampant hawthorn hedgerows and the patchwork of pastures smothered beneath carpets of wild flowers existed more in the imagination of the advertising copywriter than in reality.

Nevertheless the neat lines of semi-detached dwellings on tree lined roads, the half timbered parades of shops and the larger detached homes, hidden in their own grounds carried more than an echo of the Arts & Crafts tradition of domestic architecture. Incomes increased with the distance travelled from Baker Street and a migratory pattern emerged as Metrolanders relocated from Wembley to Pinner and all points north-west as they climbed the corporate ladder. The lucky few would make it as far as Wendover or Great Missenden before retirement. This version of Metroland is the one that John Betjeman mythologized in his 1973 television documentary. With distance lending enchantment, Betjeman’s Arcadian vision of an agreeable mixture of innocent English eccentricity and anachronistic architecture became fixed in the public consciousness. This was the high point in the reputation of Metroland, in another 10 years the M25 would be complete and create a new vector that would bisect Arcadia and open up new opportunities for travel along its north-south axis.

The last few decades have seen a massive increase in population and vehicle traffic. Planners have had to consent to a wave of destruction of substantial homes to free up space for multi-dwelling developments. Owners of green-field sites have fought tooth and nail for residential approval. Agricultural land has given way to stables, kennels and catteries, garden centres and hobby farms. All the lethally contaminated water retrieved from the site of the Buncefield oil terminal explosion and fire at Hemel Hempstead is in storage in Rickmansworth waiting for science to come up with a viable detoxification process. Despite all this, the outlines of the original Metroland dream are still there to be seen, a fading memorial to an ingenious marketing experiment. And there remains a small band of enthusiasts who keep the dream alive.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Thomas Paine

The idle commentator likes nothing better than placing his or her ill-thought opinions and prejudices in the mouths of those no longer living. What Would Jesus Say? is one of the more simplistic examples, others seen recently include, What would Kipling/ Orwell/ Churchill/ Marx/ Chesterton/ Buddy Holly et al say? So, what would Thomas Paine have said about the Private Finance Initiative, that masterpiece of accounting wizardry which has so successfully transferred vast amounts of property and cash from the public to the private sector? His disapproval would have been profound and expressed with great power and conviction. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture Paine contemplating the present political landscape with disgust. And some amazement at the quality of intellect deemed suitable for high political office; names such as Hoon, Blears and Smith depressingly come to mind. He might wonder that liberty is in such peril when its enemies are politicians of such modest abilities.

There has been a flurry of media attention directed toward Thomas Paine in the last week or so to mark the two hundredth anniversary of his death on June 8, 1809. It reminds us briefly of the existence of an Englishman of international reputation whose political philosophy rests very uneasily with many of the cherished ideals of what constitutes the essence of Englishness. At a time when those of his compatriots who had risen above the condition of agricultural labourer or factory hand were mostly preoccupied with exerting every possible advantage over their fellow men, Paine was taking the broader view and considering how to reconcile the interests of the individual and the interests of the wider community. The free-born Englishman fought to defend his right to travel the known world and extract maximum value from colonial exploitation while Paine concerned himself with defining and promoting the universal Rights of Man. Paine’s lifelong radicalism and refusal to submit to authority explains why he has never been admitted to the English Pantheon of Heroes.

To properly qualify for hero status an English radical must live long enough to recant his principles and ensure that his twilight years are a reactionary refrain. Persistent and dedicated challengers of the status quo are simply not welcome. Paine never modified his loathing of privilege and offered no concessions to his opponents. He was entirely free of endearing qualities and resisted all co-option into the folk-narrative of English eccentricity. Yet he was a significant participant in the two revolutions that shaped the history of the following centuries. Paine’s pamphlet, Common Sense (1776), played a major role in preparing the American colonists to declare their independence from Britain and in 1792 he turned up in Paris, serving on the Committee of Nine, drafting a new constitution for post-Revolutionary France. In addition he was a stay-maker, excise officer, school teacher, tobacconist and designer of bridges. The fantasy commemorative stamp places the sovereign and republican in uncomfortable proximity, obliging the sovereign to overlook her sworn enemy while maintaining an advantage in terms of height.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Port Sunlight

The typical English town often displays very little evidence of planning. Growth and development is frequently random and haphazard and driven by the landowners’ need to extract every last penny by way of commercial exploitation. Planned communities are rare and exotic creatures in a country where the priority has historically been to make life as comfortable as possible for the developer by imposing the very minimum in the way of regulation. Port Sunlight, on the Wirral peninsula is one of largest and most distinctive planned communities in Britain and owes its existence to a best-selling brand of household soap.

Ubiquitous advertising ensured that Sunlight Soap was one of the best known consumer products of Victorian England. It was the foundation of a mighty commercial empire that became known as Lever Brothers. The Garden Village built by the company was the product of the convergence of two powerful but distinct impulses in Victorian social policy. The development of an English domestic architectural style in planned communities such as Bedford Park was coupled with the socially progressive notion of providing the workforce with a healthy environment with modern sanitation in which to live. The Victorian factory was a labour-intensive operation and a fit and stable supply of labour living on the doorstep was a distinct advantage.

The plans for the village included a generous provision of open space with formal and less formal gardens. A theatre, art gallery, library, church, gymnasium and swimming pool catered to the needs of residents. The housing was mostly laid out in terraces and in architectural terms, homogeneity was favoured over uniformity. Somehow this was achieved despite the presence of virtually every single stylistic cliché of the period. There’s half-timbering, stone mullions, hanging tiles, pepper-pot chimneys, Flemish gables, pebble infill, and pargetting to be enjoyed. It’s a place I would much like to visit but the opportunity has not yet arisen so, for now, I’ll have to make do with a postcard trip and browse the Guide to the Lady Lever Art Gallery to share the visual pleasures on display for the collective enlightenment of soap-makers. And there’s always Google Earth.

Monday, 8 June 2009

Le Marchand du Sel

Marcel Duchamp was famously cool about exchanging his artworks for hard cash. But he was quite relaxed about selling the work of other artists such as Brancusi to make ends meet. Here we see how, inspired by the example of Norman Rockwell, he went about the business of marketing his expertise to aspiring novices. I sent off for my free prospectus a very long time ago and I’m still awaiting a response.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Laboratory of Dreams

The road keeps leading back to the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, Louis Aragon’s Laboratory of Dreams. In the centre of the disused quarry in which the park was formed, stood a towering rocky outcrop that had evaded the attentions of the quarrymen. In the Romantic vision that inspired the creation of the park this was transformed into a dramatic succession of pinnacles that might have come directly from the imagination of Caspar David Friedrich. Two bridges spanned the surrounding horseshoe shaped lake and connected this artificial island to the enclosing slopes of parkland. The shorter of these bridges is known as the Pont de Brique and is the setting for this sensational illustration from the pages of Le Petit Journal.

Aragon described this bridge as “the veritable Mecca of suicide”. It was said that the impulse to surrender life to the forces of gravity was so strong that it could overwhelm even those who had first set foot on the bridge with absolutely no thought of suicide in their heads. The additional barriers, designed to discourage this activity can be seen in the illustration. The team of rescuers are attempting to recover a man who has become trapped on a ledge, halfway down the rock-face. It looks like an unsuccessful suicide attempt but it might have been an accident or the result of an assault, leaving the audience in a condition of uncertainty as to whether the victim should be the object of sympathy or condemnation. A final thought, in the concluding section of Le Paysan de Paris, Aragon employs the metaphor of a dangling rope on the end of which our most powerful ideas may be found.

Saturday, 6 June 2009

Great British Walks

It’s an infrequent but very welcome pleasure to see a great illustrator rewarded with a major commission. Today’s Guardian launches a new series on Great British Walks with a full size colour illustration on the cover page by Christopher Wormell. Wormell’s special talent for transcribing the English pastoral vision into a robust pictorial framework with a complete absence of whimsy or sentimentality is ideally suited to the task. There are six more illustrations to follow over the next week. A tribute to Christopher Wormell featured in this blog in October 2007 and can be seen by following this link.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Tornado, a locomotive reborn

Darlington is a well-to-do market town in County Durham that has more in common with other north country islands of prosperity such as Beverley or Ilkley than it has with the nearby coastal former mining and ship-building communities. But as well as being a regional centre for professional services it has a long history as a railway town. For over a century, from 1863 to 1966, the workingmen of Darlington combined their craft and technical skills to produce legions of steam locomotives for the North Eastern Railway and its successors. Darlington Locomotive Works (known as North Road Shops) constructed many of the last express passenger steam locomotives designed for the London & North Eastern Railway (LNER) between 1948 and 1950. Forty-nine examples were built to the A1 design at Darlington and Doncaster in only 16 months; it would take 18 years, beginning in 1990, to build one more. Every single example was scrapped in the frenzied rush to move from steam to diesel power that took place in the 1960s. The new-build A1 locomotive was assembled and completed last year, appropriately, in the town of Darlington.

The story of how this was achieved can be read by following this link. The finished article is a triumph of persistence and engineering excellence and has been on a visit to the West Somerset Railway where these photos were taken. It’s not easy to explain to a sceptical audience how these machines continue to exert a grip on the imagination that lasts more than half a century. The sense of connection to a distant past forms part of the explanation and there’s also a link to a lost era of precision craft skills where direct human intervention was a key element in the manufacturing process and the workforce was rewarded with tangible evidence of their efforts. A steam locomotive may be a complex machine but the principles that power it are relatively simple to comprehend. The process that drives the machine forward is visible for all to see in the movement of cylinders and connecting rods responding to injections of pressurised steam. The machine itself begins to acquire some of the characteristics of a living creature and it’s a short step for some of the more susceptible among us to develop the sort of relationship with an inanimate object that others might form with an actual living creature.

As the years advance, childhood memories don’t simply lose definition, they mutate and combine together to create new fictions until a point is reached where there is precious little documentary content remaining. Perhaps events like this that bring us face to face with something last seen more than four decades ago provide us with the illusion of refocusing those diffuse recollections still lodged in remote chambers of the cortex. It felt a bit like that to me, and illusion or not, it also felt immensely satisfying. Which leaves us, in effect, swimming in a warm bath of nostalgia, desperately seeking to dignify the proceedings with some intellectual vertebrae. It can’t really be done but it’s fun to try. One thing I do recall with pleasure from the past that I shall almost certainly never see again is the sight of these locomotives hard at work, labouring under a generous layer of grime and filth, their polished and painted surfaces scarred by leaks of corrosive fluid complete with smokebox doors scorched by over-heating. In case this sounds churlish, I should make it clear that the pristine condition and perfect presentation of this locomotive is an absolute wonder to behold and something that those of us who take an interest in these things, never expected to see again.