Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Sidecar Psychology

It has always been the dream of every free-born Englishman to provide everything in the way of comfort, convenience and mobility for his family. Something in this proud father’s expression suggests the dawning realisation that this project may have fatally compromised his amour propre and exposed his loved ones to ridicule. All those hours of concentrated effort cutting cross braces and vertical members and profiling aero-grade plywood were only made bearable by the thought of the advance in status that would follow when he first took to the road in his new sidecar. But already doubts were creeping in with the contemptuous laughter of the village youths. Mr Clarkson’s concern was less for his loyal and unperturbed wife but more for young Jeremy in the back whose confidence and self-esteem was rather fragile at the best of times. Those teacher training lectures in Child Psychology had left Mr Clarkson with an anxious awareness of how easily a child could be damaged by undermining his self-worth. How appalling it would be if sensitive young Jeremy grew up to become a swaggering, self-important bully with a desperate obsession with speed and reckless conduct. Nothing could be worse than that.

Saturday, 27 August 2011


This is the end elevation of the Mosselprom (The Moscow Association of Enterprises Processing Agro-Industrial Products) headquarters in central Moscow. When completed in 1924, to a design by David Kogan, at ten storeys it was one of the tallest buildings in the city. The painted advertisement was the work of Alexander Rodchenko and Vladimir Mayakovsky in the Soviet commercial Constructivist idiom. Mosselprom consumer products featured included cigarettes, beer, mineral water, biscuits, sweets and chocolate. Mayakovsky’s repeated slogan, “Nowhere else but in Mosselprom” rapidly assumed catch-phrase status among the Moscow public. The building is still in existence and the façade was renovated to its 1924 condition in 1997.

The image of Mosselprom was found in what appeared at first sight to be a conventional book, published in 1987, of tourist views of Moscow but closer examination revealed was an eclectic selection of paintings by Soviet artists of Moscow street scenes. Stylistically the paintings make few concessions to Modernism, often favouring a sub-Impressionist approach but despite this there are some fascinating images, a few of which are displayed here. Especially impressive is the painting of the pioneering female motorist taking on the city traffic in her open-top car but equally intriguing are the enigmatic images of a young woman carrying a large pane of glass and a bride and groom stepping forward into married life through the clutter of a city construction site.

Thursday, 25 August 2011

La Petite Ceinture: a Cultural History

On Friday, September 16th. 1870, Edmond de Goncourt recorded in his Journal:
Today, I amused myself by travelling right round Paris on the ring railway. It is an amusing sight, that vision, swift as speed, afforded as one emerges from the darkness of a tunnel, of rows of white tents, of guns rolling along country lanes, of river banks lined with little crenellated paprapets of olden times, of canteens with their tables and glasses set out in the sunshine and their waitresses with braid sewn along the hems of their jackets and skirts – a vision constantly interrupted and blocked by a high embankment, at the end of which there reappears the familiar horizon of the yellow ramparts dotted with the little silhouettes of National Guards.
It was a turbulent time for a pleasure trip. As de Goncourt encircled Paris, Prussian forces were doing the same thing, just a few miles further out. Paris was protected by a continuous line of fortification but by the following Monday (19th.) the city was completely cut off and a four month nightmare had commenced.

More than half a century passed before we hear from our next witness, Mr. J E N Heygate who writes with a brief account of a similar circular trip to the Railway Magazine who published it in the issue dated March 1925. Mr. Heygate’s observations suggest a service in sharp decline – passengers few and far between and an average speed of 15 miles per hour. It would be intriguing to confirm whether Mr. Heygate and Sir John Edward Nourse Heygate, 4th Baronet are one and the same person. The 4th Baronet had a colourful career, among other things, achieving some notoriety as the man who cuckolded Evelyn Waugh in his first marriage to Evelyn Gardner. Heygate (1903-1976) was educated at Balliol College – the combination of the initials and an Oxford address suggest a good match.

I was lead to the Goncourt quotation by Eric Hazan in his superb book, The Invention of Paris. Hazan (of whom more in a future posting) is fascinated by the Petite Ceinture (PC) and tracked down two more literary recollections of travel on the Ceinture from Paul Fargue and Eugène Dabit. The lingering presence of the Ceinture more than 70 years after its demise, particularly in north-east Paris is especially intriguing to Hazan as a chronicler of a version of Paris that is now lost. Today’s postcard shows a clockwise PC train racing through the cutting towards the tunnel on the east of the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont – the next stop will be Belleville – Villette. The spectators on the footbridge are a fraction of a second away from total immersion in a cloud of steam and smoke. Some previous posts on this subject can be reached from here and here.

Wednesday, 24 August 2011

Stranger on a Train

I’ve read many accounts of trans-continental rail travel in the US but I’ve never read one quite so odd as Jenny Diski’s book, Stranger on a Train: Daydreaming and Smoking Around America (2003). The fun starts when the author makes no secret of her discomfort in the company of strangers while voluntarily placing herself in a position where such company is unavoidable. After crossing the Atlantic as a passenger on a freighter she follows up with a series of extended train trips across the Amtrak universe with a gallery of America’s lost souls. The guiding principle seems to be the curiously English expectation that if we cause no distress or disturbance to anyone else, the compliment will be automatically returned. As she soon discovers, nothing provokes a certain type of American extrovert more than a sniff of old world English reserve and self-effacement. Breaking down resistance to uncover the ill-tempered bigot concealed in every English heart is a challenge that can’t be resisted. An addiction to nicotine is her unlikely saviour, bringing her into the segregated company of polite America’s smoking outcasts. Under a dense cloud of blue tobacco smoke the cigarette comrades gather, united in their pariah status, in the comfortless accommodation that Amtrak has grudgingly allocated to them. Social, racial and cultural divisions melt away in the shared experience of exclusion from the bright and shiny world of health awareness and fitness regimes.

The craving for nicotine is only equalled by a craving for solitude that multiplies in proportion to the sudden surrender of personal space that a train journey entails. Our weary traveller carries a lot of baggage including a personal history of substance abuse and periods of psychiatric treatment. Under stress some of this baggage spills out, giving rise to painful reflections and additional anxieties. More disappointment follows when the train is left behind and the author gets to stay with friends in the endless tracts of suburbia. She quickly becomes uncomfortable with the prevailing political culture where a shared acceptance of primitive right-wing opinions is taken for granted. Compelled to disclose her liberal sentiments to her hosts, she becomes the recipient of some edgy banter – “the English lady Commie writer”. One can speculate as to which of these four descriptors gave the greatest offence. The culture clash reaches a farcical conclusion when she cannot rid herself of the ridiculous but plausible notion that her host plans to kidnap her for the purpose of injecting some moral certainties into her wobbly sensibility.

The views through the window struggle to compete with the interior landscapes although there are some fine descriptive passages, usually inspired by the majestic desolation on display. The romance of the railroad is in very short supply, which is no bad thing. The Great American Songbook is stuffed with anthems in praise of railroad romance for those who have need of it. I enjoyed the cool and measured tone of the authorial voice in this book but what I really admired was the absolute refusal to win favour with the reader. In an era when ingratiation and flattery of the reader are the keys to success it’s refreshing to find such indifference to the reader’s estimation. The accompanying images come from the last days of railroad supremacy when air travel was becoming increasingly competitive. The Santa Fe was one of the great trans-continental carriers and energetically promoted itself via magazine advertising. The focus of the offer shifts between the on-board comforts and the romance of travel. In a supreme irony, the flagship service, The Super Chief, was named to evoke the same Native Americans whose territories could not have been seized without the existence of the railroad. The final indignity was to co-opt their images to add glamour and distinction to the product.

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Postcard of the Day No. 50, Paris rue Saint-Lazare

A horse-drawn omnibus has stopped in Place Gabriel Péri on the corner of rue Saint-Lazare. Passengers tumble off and set a course for the great railway terminal across the road. The upper deck appears to be almost fully occupied – the prospective passengers, adults and small children in summer finery, await a female straggler making a slow descent of the winding staircase. Pedestrians amble casually through the busy traffic, some with heads bowed, trusting to providence. The bus has travelled south from Batignolles down rue de Rome and will continue towards the Grands Boulevards. Thanks to Google Streetview (below) we can see that many of the buildings remain broadly unchanged and this location remains in use as a bus terminal although a century has passed since the card was posted in 1908. Finally we have a card that shows the view the bus passengers would have seen as they approached the station in the form in which it was rebuilt in the 1880s.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Urban Pastoral

This illustration is taken from a 1950s book for children designed to excite their interest in the wonders of the new post-war world. There’s a didactic tone – take note, idle child, of the complexity of our modern environment. Despite being a picture of a busy urban scene the deep-frozen presentation evokes an almost rustic calm. It’s the work of Cecil Bacon and despite a certain charm, the artist’s limitations in respect of the human figure are rather cruelly exposed. There’s a game to be played imagining how this scene might look today. The labourers would be wearing hard hats and Hi-Vis workwear and ‘improving the image of construction’, in the service of Serco or May Gurney instead of the local authority. The hole in the road would be protected by safety barriers and traffic signals with vehicles compelled to travel in convoy behind a quad bike. The passing constable will today be word processing reports in a back office – his place taken by another yellow jacket, a Police and Community Support Officer. Refuse disposal has become waste management and the dustbin has been succeeded by the wheelie-bin - the contractor will be Viridor or Veolia. The gent on the left (with a passing resemblance to Marcel Duchamp) would now require an ‘enhanced disclosure’ from the CRB before accompanying the small child on an expedition to the post-box. The Royal Mail clings to existence as a state-owned company but its days are numbered and private sector vultures are preparing to feast on the corpse. The K6 telephone box is highly unlikely to have survived into the mobile phone era. The corporation bus will have long since disappeared, services now operated by the likes of Stagecoach or Worst Bus. The orgy of outsourcing has probably had more impact on the scene than new architecture. Many buildings of this type and age are still in use but almost every activity on view has been transformed by the destruction of the public sector.

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Cabaret du Néant

The sight of this lugubrious group of Parisian thrill-seekers seriously threatens the reputation the French have for a reckless pursuit of pleasure. They pose grimly for the camera, surrounded by the paraphernalia of death, adjusting their eyes to the nocturnal gloom and preparing for the serious business of inebriation. Parisian nightlife catered handsomely to the fin-de-siècle passion for morbidity with cabarets celebrating the criminal underworld and heaven and hell. The most extreme example of this trend was the Cabaret du Néant (Nothingness) where the clientele was served by staff dressed as funeral directors at tables made from coffins – the decor was all shrouds and skulls, bones and skeletons and the entertainment was a succession of tableaux satirising the world of the occult. For a blasé and chronically jaded public it offered a welcome escape from the endless parades of dancing girls exposing their under-garments for the gratification of sex-starved visitors from the prudish Anglo-Saxon regions. The visual clichés of death and extinction have lost none of their power to both shock and amuse and continue to thrive in the iconography of tattoos and body decoration, in video games and comic books, in thrash, death and heavy metal music and in Gothic fashion styles.