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Arts Weeks: Writings

Arts weeks 2021

MISSING LONDON: A MICRO-ARCHIVE

We asked our contributors to think about the London that is missing and to write about a specific place or location. Many of us have been deeply missing the London we know and love, but – at the same time – large parts of London have been, themselves, missing – such as audiences, theatres, galleries. Moreover, London is built on, in and over parts of itself that are, in themselves, missing or buried. To walk our city’s streets is to be aware of buildings, palaces, places, livelihoods and events that have gone before. And some places, even in Bloomsbury, saw extraordinary events whose stories have gone missing.

We asked our contributors to donate an experience of our city suburbs or centre and we collected the places and memories that presented themselves as subjects. Our lead article, on the Africa Centre, is a little longer but we asked most of our authors for just a hundred words. During Arts Weeks 2021 and for a little while after we would love to add to our collection of ideas and fragments.

Do you feel you can contribute to our micro-archive of the missing metropolis? If you have an entry to send us, whether scholarly or personal, please send it in 100 words only to .

View or download the specially produced Missing London booklet.

A is for

  • Africa Centre
    There is an invisible African presence in London’s Covent Garden. At 38 King Street, you will find a nearly nondescript building, currently being redeveloped into a retail space. But this place has a special significance to me and fellow Africans in Britain and in Africa as well as many British people with an interest in Africa and the Global South. Nowadays its quiet appearance belies its hidden history as a vibrant centre of African culture, politics and entertainment and there is little to suggest that until 2012, it housed the Africa Centre. The Africa Centre was opened in 1964 by Kenneth Kaunda, the first President of Zambia, and assumed a symbolic role in Post-colonial and Post-imperial Britain and Africa as a site of the continual celebration of all things African right in the centre of the former colonial metropole. The Africa Centre was a point of cultural exchange, offering the possibility of exploring new, and potentially more equal and deeper, kinds of African-British relations – it initiated exchanges that could go far beyond the colonial  Manicheanism and Anthropological gaze explored by Frantz Fanon (The Wretched of the Earth (Penguin, 2020, orig. 1963)).

    The Centre began as the brainchild of African students in London, and took shape when they were joined by a small group of British people with an interest in Africa, including Margaret Feeney and Antony Allott, a founding member of the SOAS  Law Department. In a crucial development, the building was given to the African community and its Board of Trustees in perpetuity by the Roman Catholic Church in Britain. In 1962 Feeney became its first Director - and I was greatly honoured to serve on the Management Council, and briefly as its chair, from 1998 to 2003.

    An early aim of the centre was to provide a home away from home for the many African students studying in the UK. But it also promoted everything African: music, dance, politics, education. Within its walls, academic debates could be fuelled by African food served from its basement restaurant, The Calabash.  It also had a bookshop dedicated to African books. It was one of the few places in the UK  where refugees, exiles, members of the various liberation movements, High Commissioners as well some visiting Generals and Cabinet Ministers mingled, albeit not always with the greatest ease (see Farai Sevenzo).

    There was something uncanny about the choice of the building for an African Centre. The structure itself turned out to have some previous connections with Africa and the global south generally, having been an auction house for Benin arts in the eighteenth century and subsequently a tomato and banana warehouse. It had been a veritable conduit of colonial exploitation of cultural artefacts as well as part of the network of colonial global capitalism. In its new life, it was remade as a counter-hegemonic space of anti-colonialism, decolonisation and possibly Post-colonial ‘futuring.’ It was a vibrant presence of Post-colonial and Post-imperial Africa in the very spaces where metropolitans had profited from colonialism.

    Leading members of the ANC such as Desmond Tutu and Thabo Mbeki patronised the place. Tutu recalls that:’ I do remember that when you were feeling a little low and homesick and everything seemed so foreign - you'd have this place, [the Africa Centre], it was so heart-warming.’ (Sevenzo). Equally memorable and renowned writers visited. For example, Wole Soyinka, Buchi Emecheta, Ben Okri and Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Michere Mugo each at one time or another spoke at the Centre. Ngugi’s The Trial of Dedan Kimathi was performed there in the 1980s.  Dambudzo Marechera’s ground-breaking novel, The House of Hunger, was celebrated there. Yet another milestone was Michael Walling’s production of Toufann by the Mauritian writer, Dev Virahsawmy, an appropriation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest for the particular cultural and linguistic hybridity of Mauritius. With the intensification of the liberation struggles in Zimbabwe, South African and Namibia in the 1970s, it became a forum for intense and passionate debate about the future of those countries and Africa generally. It also welcomed the birth of new countries, for instance, it joined in the 1991 independence celebrations of Eritrea.

    As a space for discussion, it was naturally also a  space for thinking through new democracies. It hosted the bourgeoning African pro-democracy groups that emerged in the early 1990s. In 1993, as the newly formed Malawi Association UK,  we organised, perhaps, the first public meeting in the UK by groups opposed to the one-party state in Malawi. The main speaker, Bakili Muluzi, would later become the first president of multiparty Malawi. The recently retired president of Malawi, Arthur Peter Mutharika also visited the Centre after his talk at Birkbeck in the late 1990s.

    The Centre had a deep personal meaning for many: when  we were campaigning against its closure, someone told me that, ‘without it, I would not be here – my parents met there.’ It could be that all buildings’  brick and mortar endure across time, but their meanings change with different occupants and functions.   Even so, it can be contended that their meanings, their semiotic and affective significance, still persist in the numerous personal worlds of the former inhabitants as multiple memories of contingent and lived experience. These afterlives continue not so much in the lean terrain of solipsistic Cartesian pure thought, but more in the Kantian mode of existing both inside and outside consciousness simultaneously.  So, it is with the Africa Centre in Covent Garden: it is no longer there, but it still abides in our memories and our affective histories. It is alive in the friendships we formed there and in the joys and sorrows we shared, as well as in the solidarity of the resistance to the decision to sell the building.  It is remade in the public lives of many who have passed through it and who continue to contribute to advocating Africa, its arts, cultural practices, and its intellectual contribution to the world.

    Though invisible and silent to the passers-by and future shoppers, the  Africa Centre is still there at 38 King Street. Perhaps, from a different order of things, in another way of seeing, the building itself remembers. Margaret Feeny eulogy. Mpalive-Hangson Msiska.

  • Artemisia – Attention

    I minded missing Artemisia Gentileschi at the National Gallery. Tickets for November 2020: cancelled; rebooked tickets for January 2021: cancelled. I missed the woman that much of art history has until recently persisted in missing. What effort must go into this kind of missing that refused to see such staggeringly vivid effects of paint on canvas? And what attention Artemisia brings to make her Judith and Holofernes: attention to what it means for muscle, skin, cloth, breath, and gut when a woman severs the head of a man. Carolyn Burdett.

B is for

  • Bus
    I miss the No. 14 bus route from Russell Square to the Victoria & Albert Museum, a journey that, P.C. (pre covid), I used to make often. Sitting on the upper deck, in the window seat at the front, I would open a book but never read. Instead, I would gaze, an indulgent flâneuse, at the ‘West End’: Shaftesbury Avenue; Piccadilly; the Royal Academy; Knightsbridge and, at last, the V&A, always getting off a stop early to walk past the Brompton Oratory. As someone whose childhood was spent in suburban London, this journey always thrills me. I miss it. Lynda Nead.

C is for

  • Christmastime
    I love London at Christmastime. One of our family’s London Christmas traditions that were scuppered by the pandemic was our annual visit to Denis Severs’ House in Spitalfields. In a city full of interesting museums and galleries, Severs’ House is truly unique. After acquiring a Georgian terraced house on Folgate Street in 1979, the artist Severs recreated a series of period rooms, each telling the story of a family of Huguenot weavers who might have lived there between 1725 and 1919. With hearth and candles burning, and objects scattered haphazardly, it’s as if the inhabitants only left the rooms a second ago. Every Christmas season, the rooms are decorated with the sights and smells of Christmases past, making it a particularly special time to visit. Andrew Regan.

D is for

  • Dalston
    Elephants once roamed Dalston. The North London Colosseum, with a capacity of 4,000, opened in Dalston in 1886, starring Professor Collier’s Elephants. But tastes change: in 1898 it was converted into a variety theatre and in 1920 to a cinema. In the 1960s it became one of the first venues for black music in the UK, with Bob Marley, Stevie Wonder and Jimmy Cliff appearing. It transformed again in the 1990’s, becoming Club Labyrinth, home of rave. The building was demolished in 2007, despite much dissent, to make way for Dalston Junction station which regularly disgorges revellers into the night. Sue Jones

  • Docks
    This word names a maze of canals, one-way systems, deep dark waters. First, there was the East India company’s early dock at Blackwall (they needed a wall to keep their produce safe). Produce came in - desirables, some bloodstained, from India, Sumatra, China and then the colonies. Then the war, container ships that were too big, decay, and a famous notice ‘You’re welcome to Millwall’. Dockers, too, are amongst London’s missing. Whole suburbs grew up in service of the docks. Electric light illuminated the docks early – to stop the pilfering. For some boys, education meant learning to swim. Thanks to Ollie Chinyere.

  • Open door

    Lock Down for me erased one of the glories of London ... serendipitous discoveries.

    As a London based guide and author my life is spent walking the streets, dipping in and out of alleyways and courtyards, and visiting small independent galleries. Each day brought new experiences but best of all were the things you found when least expecting them when entering an open door. With London’s doors shut and nobody on the streets the random meetings with artists and the public were gone and visits to the city were poorer without them.

E is for

  • Execution dock
    Execution Dock, the centuries-old site of pirate execution, stood at the low tide point on Wapping foreshore. Following a final ale at the nearby Turks Head, condemned pirates would be hanged at Execution Dock and their bodies left on the gallows until three tides had washed over them. Audiences thronged to witness these events. Pirates continue to exert a fascination today. One Wapping pub has erected a gallows and customers drink their pints in its shadow. But Execution Dock itself is lost in the Thames mud and only the nearby Thames River Police HQ is left to administer watery discipline. Sue Jones.
  • Excuses
    I miss excuses to borrow my favourite children and go to the panto at Hackney Empire. We would sit in cheap seats in a high balcony, in the front row. And when the cast threw sweets into the crowd I would say, ‘now is the time they want us to throw our sweetie papers, one, two, three’, and down would drift the papers onto the stalls. Ha, serve them right. But this year all the parents are home-schoolteachers, and the other grown-ups have masks on and scuffle tactfully to the other side of the pavement. Here’s to knowing the small people again, as humans. Rachel Klosky.

F is for

  • Film
    The first time I went, my friend, Chloe tried to convince me to adopt an axolotl. (I considered it until discovering they eat live fish). She then presented a film she had not seen and was herself introduced by a video of Stanley, the curator, singing her name from the sandstone mountains of Wadi Rum. None of those present knew what the film would be. Liberated Film Club featured, once a month, an incognito film. I miss it and its ardent attendees. That night we saw Passion, by György Fehér, based on the crime novel The Postman Always Rings Twice. Mara Polgovsky Ezcurra.

G is for

  • Gorilla
    In 2016, a silverback gorilla named Kambuka went missing at London Zoo by exiting through an unlocked ‘entrance’. In this ironic twist of events, the patrons and staff at the zoo locked themselves into buildings around the site to counter the danger presented by this unleashed ‘wildness’. These spectators watched through phone screens and the windows of their temporary enclosures as the gorilla strolled freely around the grounds of the zoo. There is a delicate balance central to zoological spectatorship where the rules and expectations of such tangled space are quickly surpassed when the boundaries established by captivity are transgressed. Lee Christian.

  • Green Park
    Green Park is a central London park missing lakes, buildings or playgrounds. Can it be a park with all those gone? It may not have buildings of its own, but it is hedged by shopping paradises and palaces (see T is for Townhouse) as well as, apparently, RAF Bomber Command Memorial (which sounds like something your grandad would require you see on a trip to London). Also, was it really a burial ground for sufferers from leprosy? Thanks to Ollie Chinyere.

H is for have we got horses – or even horse-scents?

  • Horses
    It’s very rare that you see or smell a horse in London these days; police horses, ceremonial uses, the occasional brewers’ dray kept for show. It’s a bit of a thrill to hear the clop of hooves. But horses occupied the London streets alongside humans for most of the city’s history. For many centuries, the horse was the only means of powered transport, apart from the river, for goods and people within and beyond the metropolis. Horse-related activities proliferated: the Saddlers are one of the earliest documented city companies, while the horse market at Smithfield is mentioned in the 1170s. Carts and packhorses thronged London’s streets from the middle ages, and coaches and private vehicles from the 16th century. Even a century ago, in 1919, though the motor was already dominant in passenger transport in London, three-quarters of trade vehicles were still horse-drawn. Visitors commented on how London smelt of horses, and the 3-4 tons of dung each one produced in a year made no small contribution to the capital’s problems of cleanliness and congestion. Vanessa Harding.

I is for

  • Ice
    In his twelfth-century account of the city of London, William Fitzstephen, hagiographer of Thomas Becket, described skating on the frozen marsh at Moorfields on skates fashioned from cattle bone. Just such a pair is held by the Museum of London, a type of skate in use since prehistory. A fragment of Old English riddle may allude to this collocation of ice and bone: wundor wearð on wege; wæter wearð to bane (a wonder happened on the way; water turned to bone). Ice, brittle and pale as bone, without doubt, but perhaps also the inter-objective pas de deux of ice and bone, dancing together? Mike Bintley.

J is hiding, with K.

L is for

  • London Bridge
    Old London Bridge looms spectacular in the imagination. Containing on its span houses and businesses, water mills, fortified gates, heads on spikes, it was pre-modern London in microcosm.  It hindered the flow of the mighty Thames, causing rapids between the bridge’s piers. To steer a boat through was ‘shooting the bridge’, a hazardous and often fatal endeavour. In 1831 the bridge was replaced by a more orderly structure, traces of the original effaced. The stones of Old London Bridge now languish, hidden, lining the West Reservoir in Hackney. I swim over them and – sometimes – glimpse ghosts of heads on spikes. Sue Jones.

M is for

  • Missing (obviously)
    In 1827, when John Simpson’s painting Head of a Man (?Ira Frederick Aldridge) was first exhibited at the British Institution on Pall Mall, it was called Head of a Black. Owned by the National Gallery since 1847, it remained mostly in storage. Transferred to Tate in 1919, it has only been on permanent display since 2013. Within Tate’s collection of British art, the painting is significant as one of very few historical portraits of Black sitters. Yet it is revealing – and troubling – that even today researchers have not been able to establish with certainty this man’s identity. The title hints at an unconfirmed link with the famous Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge. Our knowledge of the Black presence in nineteenth-century London remains seriously under-researched, and difficult to access because most archives did not record a person’s ethnicity, or the colour of their skin. Scholars now try hard to recuperate the identities of sitters such as the one in Simpson’s painting. This is difficult and painstaking work, but it is urgent business: we need to know more about these ‘missing’ people that inhabit many of the galleries and historic collections in London. Their contributions to the city’s history must be more widely known and understood. Sarah Thomas.

N is for

  • Neighbourhood
    Was St Buttolphe’s Without Aldgate London’s first multi-cultural community? When Shakespeare wrote Othello he didn’t have to use his imagination to conjure up ‘the Moor of Venice’. Michael Wood’s research in the Guildhall archives has revealed that a small parish outside the city gates at Aldgate was home to around twenty-five ‘moors’ at the end of the sixteenth century, including Isabell Peeters ‘a Black-more lodgeing in Blew Anchor Alley’, Symon Valencia, ‘a black moore servaunt to Stephen Drifyeld a nedellmaker’, and Christopher Cappavert ‘a black moore’ who probably hailed from the Cape Verde Islands. The district was also inhabited by French and Dutch immigrants, a Persian, and several people from the Indian sub-continent. Life was hard for these denizens, however, and John Stow’s Survey of London (1598) describes the parish as full of ‘filthy Cotages, and ... other preposterous like inclosures ... which is no small blemish to so famous a citie.’ Stephen Clucas.

O is for

  • Obscene Publications Act
    If you walk down Kingsway to the Aldwych and stand midway between St Clement Danes and St Mary-le-Strand, you are standing on a slice of missing London. This was the site of Holywell Street, a narrow Elizabethan lane, which The Times called ‘the most vile street in the civilised world’. Holywell Street sold indecent books and prints and in 1857 became the focus of a moral panic about obscenity that led to the passing of the first Obscene Publications Act. It was dirty and seditious and stood in the way of London’s modernisation. RIP Holywell Street. Lynda Nead.
  • Our designer
    Now mysteriously missing, our designer, O, is gone! OC has now exited the Missing London vault, slammed the big door; crossed the Threshold; passed the Plane trees and is undoubtedly Missing to be met only serendipitously or in Series Three The Return a Castle Own production coming soon in the smoking ruin of british higher education- maybe as our defence lawyer? Gordon Cole.

P is for

  • Plane trees
    I’m not missing London. I’m not missing my commute, expensive take-out cups of tea on Kings Cross station because my train’s delayed. I’m not missing my ancient work PC. I’m not even missing the books I’ve left in my office. I’m not missing the clouds of choking seed heads that come off the plane trees and drift on the steps of our building, making eyes itch and throats close. But actually, I am missing those plane trees. Their sheer audacity: to be so huge, their crunchy, then slippery, leaves on pavements, roots undermining buildings, insisting they belong in the city. Rosie Cox.

Q is for

  • Quadrangle
    Having never once attended Somerset House’s annual ice-skating rink in the Before Times, it was a bit weird to find myself missing it in 2020. In my mind: arctic light, the scraping of skates, the warmth of people in the cold air. Maybe it was just the people I was missing. To me, that iconic Georgian quadrangle means picking my way across it to meet my family members in its café, a hazy recollection of my nephew running through its summer fountains, Erykah Badu in concert there 15 years ago. Much more recently, my niece dancing alongside hundreds of other women: bodies congregating in a courtyard choreography, others gathering to delightedly watch. Louise Owen.

R is for

  • Route
    Tottenham Court Road, gritty and polluted, I don’t miss but turning into Store Street and seeing ahead, looming, almost surreal, the monolith of Senate House. I miss my walk past the Building Centre with its architectural models and the enticing diversion into the fug of Store Street Espresso.  Then on I walk, drinking my coffee, across Gower Street and Malet Street, towards Senate House, stepping down and through its travertine entrance space and up and out the other side, heading toward the plane trees of Russell Square, vivid green against the massy terracotta of the (sometime) Russell Hotel behind. Catharine Edwards.

S is for

  • Songs
    Early English poetry drips with twisted gold but makes little mention of money. Battlefields are plentiful, but markets are missing, being perhaps too mundane a subject in comparison with the sunlit groves of The Phoenix, the fen-lairs of Beowulf, or the shining city of Judith. Yet London’s earliest incarnation in the Middle Ages was exactly this: a mercantile and artisanal settlement stretching from Trafalgar Square to Aldwych (the old wic, or market), and following the slope of Covent Garden down to the strand – Old English for ‘shore’. Lundenwic is alive in place names, but its songs have not survived. Mike Bintley.

T is for

  • Thresholds
    Walking from Euston station to Gordon Square, the morning sun shining in my eyes, the plane trees waving me hello. Arriving at the entrance to number 43, imagining the past steps of people who have worked in that building over the last 200 years. Remembering the times I’ve stood with co-workers in all weathers trying to encourage others not to cross the picket line. This site of solidarity is an emotional threshold where I get to know more about the people I work with and my workplace than I often get the chance to once I’m back inside, feet under my desk. Sophie Hope.

  • Town houses ... Kate Retford takes a tour:
    Devonshire House, Piccadilly

    Chatsworth House, that great baroque pile in the Derbyshire Dales, has been hailed as one of the UK’s greatest national treasures. Yet visitors in the eighteenth century found it decidedly disappointing. One Thomas Martyn commented in 1767: ‘Chatsworth has very little in it that can attract the eye of the Connoisseur’. That was because, during this period, all the good stuff was in the Cavendish family’s London town house, which stood more or less opposite the current premises of the Ritz on Piccadilly. However, those prized possessions were sent up to Derbyshire ahead of the sale of Devonshire House in 1920. The building was then demolished in 1925, and all that’s left are the gates from the forecourt, topped by sphinxes, which now stand on the opposite side of the street, opening into Green Park. Look on these and think of Siegfried Sassoon’s wry poetical tribute: ‘not one nook survived to screen a mouse/ In what was Devonshire (God rest it) House’.

    Norfolk House, No. 31 St James’s Square
    Parties seem a thing of the dim and distant past. They had a particularly good one at Norfolk House in St James’s Square early in 1756, to mark the completion of this lavish new building. One guest, Captain William Farington, sat down on 18th February to describe the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk’s soirée for the benefit of his sisters. His breathy account of ‘the finest assembly ever known in this Kingdom’ describes each room in turn, innovatively ‘furnished with a different colour’. The Music Room, which survives intact at the V&A, was white: ‘wainscotted in a whimsical taste, the panels filled with extreme fine carvings, the arts and sciences, all gilt, as well as the ceiling … here the Dutchess sat, the whole night that she might speak to everyone as they came in.’ Demolished in 1938, you’ll find a rather underwhelming office block in place of this party house today.

    No. 100 Pall Mall
    My last lost town house stood roughly on the current site of the Reform Club on Pall Mall. Designed by Charles Barry (1837-41), based on the Palazzo Farnese in Rome, the Club is a good sight more impressive than the standard, three-storey terrace house which John Julius Angerstein inhabited in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Here, he built up the art collection that became the nucleus of the National Gallery. After Angerstein’s death in 1823, Lord Liverpool’s government bought 38 pictures from his collection as well as the lease on the building, where the work continued to be displayed until its move to Trafalgar Square the following decade. A watercolour made by Frederick Mackenzie shortly after the purchase shows students diligently copying paintings, including the most valuable from Angerstein’s collection: Sebastiano del Piombo’s Raising of Lazarus (1517-19). Catalogued as ‘NG1’, it retains this accession number to this day.

U is for

  • Underground (see also wrestling)
    The Underground is our quotidian catabasis, or descent to hell. Those who work there know most of its mysterious passages and dual tracks. They know too much of us, also, and have codes for what we leave behind. Sometimes, above ground, abandoned stations appear like places where the world used to be thin but has scarred. These tiley buildings are all called Mornington Crescent. The underground. Will we go down and if we do will we come up?

V is for

  • Vindication of the Rights of Women
    The tomb of Mary Wollstonecraft, William Godwin and Mary Jane Godwin, St Pancras Old Church Gardens is a monument to missing. Mary Wollstonecraft died in 1797 after giving birth to her daughter, the writer Mary Shelley, who learned her alphabet by tracing the letters on her lost mother’s tombstone. These commemorate the ‘Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman’, Wollstonecraft’s feminist manifesto on behalf of the women missing from the Rights of Man debates. Wollstonecraft herself has been missing from her grave since 1851 when, after Mary Shelley’s death, her parents’ remains were moved to the Shelley family tomb in Bournemouth. Away from London during Covid, I miss my proximity to this dedicated place of missing. Hilary Fraser.

W is for

  • Wresting
    An estimated 500,000 mice live in London's underground. Once I saw one wrestle an abandoned burger onto the tracks at Euston Square. Another time, beneath Tottenham Court Road, one charged with a plastic fork in its mouth, like a pole-vaulter in training. These days, when I’m stuck inside, or rifling through more takeaway, I find myself wondering what they are up to with so few of us around – how they are coping without our snacks, our threatening patter; do they miss us and wish we’d come home? Maybe hunger is a fair price for extra freedom, a little longing the cost of keeping safe. Fintan Walsh,

X is for

  • Xtreme violence
    The current Eagle Tavern on Shepherdess Walk, Hoxton, is a mere fraction of its former size and glory. Once it was Hoxton’s favourite pub, and with its Grecian Theatre could hold 10,000. In 1882 the Salvation Army acquired it for their meetings and a temperance bar: and thousands of residents of this working-class area turned out to object. A series of riots saw Salvationists brutally battered and savagely used, and forced off the streets. The theatre and pub were demolished in the 1890s, and the violence of 1882/3 is now all but forgotten. Remember it as you pass by. Ed Lyon.

Z is for

  • Zoo
    Barthes on alphabetic order:
    an idea per fragment, a fragment per idea, and as for the succession of these atoms…
    If alphabetical letters are the smallest unit signalling matter then fragments correspond to zoological display.

    Marx:
    The name of a thing is entirely external to its nature. I know nothing…if I merely know his name is Jacob
    In an unobserved enclosure, dazzling pelt and jutting jaw intersect behind boundary-architecture. Carnassial teeth shear in diagonals, slicing like a butcher’s knife, our diurnal sequence.

    Under Zoonotic time, the living monuments of the zoo recede further backwards as we slump forwards.
    Lee Christian.

Arts weeks 2020

A week in the life of

Scott Rodgers (Week 5)

  • Rules
    This week was to include my first visit to policy institute 
    Chatham House. My imagined scenario: a perfectly sunny day; Victoria Line to Green Park, arriving early and perambulating through the actual Green Park; then ambling towards St James Square, envisioning myself to be a seasoned specialist of international affairs. But you know where this is going: the visit was cancelled. And you know how it was replaced: inadequately by a Zoom call. Online, the Chatham House Rule still applied. Though this doesn’t prevent me from detailing the reason for ‘visiting’, reaching 100 words for this diary entry does.

    Newsround 
    Watching CBBC’s Newsround has become a daily ritual. I’ve been struck by how, through such (digital) television programmes, younger people connect fleetingly with a public world. Roger Silverstone once observed that televisual public connection creates ambiguous relationships between awareness and responsibility. This week Newsround reports about the murder of George Floyd, and the protests in the US and elsewhere. My older son has more questions than I can answer. For him, it’s a largely-unknown world of systemic racism and unequal treatment by police of which – I try to explain – some of his teachers and classmates will have first-hand experience. 

    Newts

    I’m learning lots about newts, at least the plenitude thriving in one marshy pond near my home in Walthamstow, East London. Crested and smooth, with and without frill, male and female, large and small, spots and orange bellies. This learning isn’t particularly hands-on. I’m reclined barefoot on the grass, watching two children, my children, on the newt hunt. They draw much attention from passersby. Not just in producing abundant specimens for their publics - it’s also that their whole getup is pleasantly absurd. Both in child-sized waders (yes, these are available), nets aloft, one inexplicably wearing his cycling helmet. 


    Plots

    A book chapter I’m writing on social media images and the city is egregiously late. It comes out of a mixed-method, 
    collaborative project on how such platforms help mediate experiences of urban change. I’m not late just because of the lockdown, but also because of my slowness in learning ImagePlot, an open-access ImageJ-based tool through which one can create large-scale image visualizations. Learning this has definitely been helpful analytically, but I’m also just struck by aesthetic beauty of these visualisations, plotted onto an X-Y axis, along cartesian or polar coordinates. Akin to waterfallscrystalline formations or impact debris fields

    Loops
    I’ve long dabbled in sample-based music production. It’s not something I talk much about around College. And somehow, someway, I’ve squeezed in just a little more time for this during lockdown. For years, I’ve been mildly obsessed with chopping and playing samples using newly-low-cost tools modelled on the classic 
    Akai MPC, famously ‘humanised’ by J Dilla and others. But in recent weeks, I’ve settled in rather comfortably with the vitality of the simple loop. As Joseph Schloss observed in his ethnography Making Beats, looped samples recast music anew, establishing repeated juxtapositions of beginning and end. Wonderfully hypnotic, inexorable compositions. 

Akane Kawakami (Week 4)

  • Sunday.
    Today’s lesson: never use canned chickpeas to make falafels.


    Despite following 
    Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe religiously – except for the canned chickpeas – our efforts came to nothing: literally, as we watched our little falafel patties dissolve into a small, foamy mess in the hot oil. Cooked chickpeas clearly lack resilience. We grilled the remaining ones, which were nice enough but tasted too healthy… oh for ‘Falafel Feast’ down the road!  

    Monday. 

    Back to work for all of us: online learning for my son, online lecturing and admin for my husband, and for me, endless emailing and admin, crisis management, attempting to maintain a semblance of normality… it’s a challenging time to be head of a department!

    Tuesday. 

    Cooking provides an essential respite from the screen time that is now so all-encompassing. Rachel Roddy's Roman recipes remind me of the city where I spent my teens, learned to make real tiramisù (it does not involve cream), dress with style and swear in Roman dialect. (I’ve given all that up now, except for the tiramisù.) Her ‘exploding tomatoes’ pasta sauce induces both nostalgia and heartburn. 

    Wednesday.  

    Worked on my article about French writer and photographer Hervé Guibert, alas now hopelessly overdue. Guibert’s photographic self-portraits are often ‘indirect’ representations, showing him veiled in shadow or reflected in mirrors and windows. Images of a man who knew he was dying (of AIDS; he died in 1991). But they’re always elegant, with a wink for his audience; autofictional, exactly like his writing. 

    Thursday.  

    Today, a PhD chapter on depictions of South Asia in Japanese anime. A footnote to Endo Shusaku’s Deep River (1993) gives me the slimmest of excuses to turn to the novel. It’s a late work from this Japanese Catholic novelist, which ends abruptly yet nonchalantly, abandoning its protagonists in their hotel in Varanasi. The novel’s Japanese stereotypes of India are fascinating, and some are uncomfortably familiar. Will I ever visit India, now? 

    Friday.  

    We will put up the ping pong table today. It arrived about a week ago in a completely un-constructed state; as my son says, the instructions start, more or less, by telling you which forest to go to for the wood. I am sure it didn’t say ‘self-assembly’ on the website.

    We start after the working day: three hours later, we have only got to page three, we are cold, we need a spanner of a size we don’t have, and I never want to see a screwdriver again.  

    Saturday.

    Another four hours of high-octane DIY, and the table is ready! It’s a glorious day: gentle sunshine, no wind, perfect ping pong weather. I call my mother in Tokyo. The death rate in Japan is ridiculously low compared to ours here. Or perhaps ours is ridiculously high? She cannot believe the news I give her about Johnson’s government, and I annoy her by saying the Japanese PM is much to be preferred. Sounds of ping pong waft in from the garden.  

Keith Jarrett (Week 3)

  • For the purposes of this narrative, ‘week’ signifies an arbitrary construct, divisible into seven-ish distinct time units, with increasing elasticity (distinguishing between days as an academic and freelancer with an unpredictable routine was tricky enough pre-pandemic!) This particular ‘week’ has been punctuated by redundant calendar notifications – see Caribbean trip below – and a couple of arrivals, reorienting me somewhat.
    *
    In her latest travel podcast series, Colombian historian Diana Uribe states (loosely translated): ‘While movement may be physically restricted, we still have our imaginations to explore the world.’ This sentiment is comforting, even though I was supposed to have left for Jamaica this week, then Cuba, for a writing research project. I’ve explored Mali, Ireland and Japan through the ears, enjoying Uribe’s international perspective. I’ve also redeemed my Imagination Airways ticket via Google Maps, traversing random avenues in cities I may or may not visit someday.

    Writing prompt using Street View as stimulus: Drop the little yellow man onto the grid and watch the neighbourhood come into focus. All the poorly-pixelated people crossing roads. The couple holding hands – are they still together? Who lives behind that door?
    *

    When wishing to get inside the buildings, virtual museum tours are plentiful. I’ve enjoyed revisiting Barcelona’s
    Casa Battló – and its impressive 360˚ experience – this time without having to navigate other tourists taking pictures on their phone. Museum Bums is another lighter-hearted way to interrogate sculpture and paintings.
    *

    The final
    Polari First Book Prize entries thudded onto my doorstep last weekend – I’m one of this year’s judges – and I’ve relished the prospect of escapism, plus I’d already read/hoped to read many of the forty submissions. Now the deadline looms, simultaneously shifting from poetry to fiction via graphic memoir has proved intense, so I’ve emptied my calendar to make room. I’m particularly mindful of how these first-time authors are facing an increasingly-uncertain climate, and so I’ve read each sentence with their hopes in mind, taking copious notes. I think of my own debut novel, and how I must also cast it out into a future beyond my control – if it ever sees the light of day. My feelings are not one of despair but of determination.

    Despite feeling I’ve missed out on so much, I’ve caught the aftermath of some cultural moments: live DJ battles; film screenings; Zoom poetry festivals; but most has been lost to the world of social media ephemera. Art abounds and we cannot contain it. 


    This week’s other arrival was
    The Book of Queer Prophets, twenty-four new essays on sexuality and religion (I’m one of the essayists, as is Phyll Opoku-Gyimah, Jeanette Winterson and more…) I’ve just seen a moving live online chat with Ruth Hunt and Dustin Lance Black, also a contributor.
    *

    Other social media conversation highlights include Raymond Antrobus and Malika Booker discussing poems last night on Instagram Live. I also, finally, caught up on the Erykah Badu vs. Jill Scott back catalogue battle, now up on YouTube (even Michelle Obama was watching it at the time!) It’s a Neo-soul nostalgia fest.
    *

    On to film, and it’s difficult to explain the experimental Chilean Ema It’s infuriating in some places, boundary-pushing in others, but the payoff is worth it.
    *
    Tying some of these threads (music, virtual travel, Colombia, Spanish-language content…), Lido Pimienta soundtracked my morning. Palenques and maroon towns are another topic for another day, warranting much more detail than I can afford here.  

    Finally, I’ve made good on my Jamaican trip by following
    Rebel Women Lit, a Caribbean feminist book club. To feel part of a community across time zones feels precious, urgent right now. Though my movements are necessarily restricted, I have an unlimited worldscape. 

Marina Warner (Week 2)

  • Sei Shonagon was a Japanese writer in the tenth to eleventh centuries who served in the entourage of the empress in Kyoto. Her Pillow Bookis a diary, a commonplace book – a blog if you like - filled with her likes and dislikes, gossip, pleasures (her favourite outfits, quips, meals) - and her disappointments. She was encouraged to write after she was given a sheaf of very precious paper to use – the aesthetic faculty was extraordinarily prized in Heian Japan. She may have kept it by her bed to jot down her thoughts before she went to sleep or when she woke during the night. Hence the name, Pillow Book. She liked making lists – some of them very sharp and worldly. Life at court was luxurious but circumscribed and regulated, like a large household in quarantine, and they amused themselves with anecdotes and exchanges of knowledge. Here, in a salute to Sei Shonagon, is a list of things that came to mind this week.
  • A family pet  
    I am talking more to friends and they’re telling me things I never heard before: during a Zoom coffee morning one Sunday, a neighbour reveals that he keeps a pet python in his basement. It was acquired as a pet and called Monty because the family thought it was male. It’s now known as Montikins. She spends the day sleeping but wakes at night and sometimes eats a rat, which my friend provides from his freezer. Montikins is two metres long and has been living there over thirty years, has a ‘very pretty face’, my neighbour says, adding he is very fond of her.

    Dreams of escape  
    Dreams have become much more colourful, say several friends. It’s true in my case too. I am keeping much more regular hours, though I have bouts of insomnia. Maybe isolation helps incubate dreams. Though in my conscious day-to-day life I don’t think about travelling again, at night I roam the world, sometimes piloting my own plane, which is made of matchboxes and very small but as difficult to manoeuvre as if it were a Boeing 747. Another night I took a taxi to the Heathrow Express but the driver refused to put my suitcase in the boot and insisted it follow us on a Deliveroo moped. At a traffic light, I rebelled and opened his boot myself, and found a corpse in it with signs of plague from the olden times. 

    What do you miss most? asks another friend. I didn’t answer her and realised that I have shut my mind to thinking about life before lockdown so as not to become desperate. Now and then the pain cuts into me, of not seeing my family for such a long time.

    Historical precursors #1: Joseph down the well et al. 
    Isolation is a terrible punishment, we all know. Circumstances when people have been hidden away include, at the extreme end, the horror of being dropped down a well, like Joseph by his brothers, and left to die. In The Arabian Nights, the wicked wizard, Aladdin’s uncle, lowers the boy into a deep cave to fetch the magic lamp and, then abandons him – but Aladdin manages to free himself, and freeing yourself by ingenuity and patience is a heroic possibility in such stories. But not in real life. Isolation is enclosure and enclosure often implies darkness. The tales of the Nights are tunnelled with underground passages and chambers, and at the end of them, someone has been holed up: the incestuous brother and sister, or the prince of the black islands, who has been turned half to stone by the enchantress he married. In lockdown, I watched the National Theatre’s daring Twelfth Night, the production by Simon Godwin in which Tamsin Grieg played Malvolio as Malvolia - with deadpan severity. The comedy was wicked and light-footed until the scene when Sir Toby et al trick Malvolia and she’s thrown into prison for being mad and her piteous cries from inside this dark hole rise up from under the stage. So many isolated care home patients, now, as well as prisoners of all ages, are kept in all day because of staff shortages and the dangers of contagion, and have no such hopes or chances of escape. 

    Historical Precursors #2: Hermits & anchorites 
    At the other extreme, holy hermits choose to self-isolate: in Syria in the 5th century, Simeon Stylites climbed to the top of a pillar, with no room to lie down, and stayed there for 37 years. He set a new craze in enforcing social distance, and cutting all ties to beds or baths, but he couldn’t get away from people who flocked to consult him. At one time, there were several more hermits standing on pillars in the surrounding area.

    Some centuries later, medieval anchorites – mostly women – would wall themselves up near a church, in a cell so narrow they too could not lie down to sleep and depended on the charity of others for survival. Like the stylites or column-dwellers, these self-isolators also attracted crowds. Some visitors began by scoffing and taunting but were miraculously persuaded and converted to repentance. 
    Julian of Norwich is the most celebrated anchorite, partly because T. S. Eliot in his Four Quartets was inspired by her Revelations of Divine Love and quoted her lines, ‘all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’. She isn’t a fully recognised – canonised – saint, but her expression of steadfast hope and consolation under duress characterises one role for saints across time, to show defiance and hold out promise.

    Saviours  
    Several other saints are directly linked to plagues, because praying to them delivered a city, a country, a people from the ravages of an epidemic. At the time of my writing this text, there is some debate concerning the re-opening of churches. Pastors put the emphasis on the need for quiet prayer, not the efficacy of divine beings to end the horrors. But in Palermo, another hermit, Santa Rosalia – who is the palladium of the city and a symbol for the citizens as well as the Catholic faithful – was processed through the streets earlier this year, because her intercession brought an end to the plague of 1624-5Anthony van Dyck was there when that struck, and in lockdown painted glorious images of Rosalia at her healing work. It made me smile when I heard the Palermitani are still putting such faith in their patron saint. But the way belief works for believers shouldn’t be just smiled at or condescended to. 

    There are scores, no perhaps hundreds, of local Madonnas all over Europe and the Americas who are tied to the memory of a particular scourge, as healers and saviours. The shrines and statues set up in cathedrals, churches and street tabernacles keep the record of what happened though the memories fade with the bunches of flowers, the burned down candles and the photographs of the ones who survived - or the ones who didn’t. At the same time, psychologically, these cults are expressions of belief that the powers above are kind but need to be told what’s needed. They’re not Greek gods sending arrows of pestilence in retaliation for crimes against themselves - usually for not showing them proper respect. When Oedipus arrives in Thebes and the city’s stricken with the plague, it’s assumed by everyone that this is a divine punishment,  and the cause – the carrier of the pollution – must be found. I’m not saying, God forbid, we should revive mythological terror of divine fury, but that saints’ stories often provide grounds for hope. The question now is who or what can offer this in our present, intractable predicament.

    The patron saint of plague victims is St Roch, or Roc or Rocco – he’s always identifiable because he lifts his tunic to show the suppurating sore on his thigh and he has a dog with him. Legends differ, but it seems he was born in Montpellier in the 14th century, with a birthmark on his chest in the shape of a cross. Travelling to Italy and finding the plague raging, he nursed the sick and cured many sufferers. When he caught it himself, he hid himself away in the woods. There the dog found him and licked his buboes and alerted his owner to Roch’s hiding place.

    His devotees multiplied ever since his reputed life span and grew even in the 19th century. Many churches all over the world are specially dedicated to him – in Glasgow he turns into St Rollox (I am tempted to cry, Rolloxs to Covid). In Venice, a city stricken again and again by plagues, the paintings 
    Tintoretto created for the Scuola di San Rocco are some of the most magnificent of the Italian high baroque. Probably the most glorious monument ever built to give thanks for the end of a plague is the church of S. Maria della Salute in Venice – which dominates the vista across the Grand Canal from San Marco and is also filled with sumptuous works by Titian and Tintoretto. When the composer Gustav von Aschenbach wanders semi-crazed through the pestilential alleys of the city in Visconti’s film, Death in Venice, his path takes him past these memorials raised to heavenly powers to stop such horrors returning. All these expressions of faith were, at one time, new contemporary works of art, fearlessly ambitious for beauty as a weapon against loss, despair and emptiness after plague. 

    Experts 
    The Fourteen Holy Helpers were like medics today – they each had their special expertise. Sore throats, eyes, epilepsy, diseases of the tongue, family discord. They were scrapped in the Reformation and the Catholic church rather sheepishly followed suit. But my favourite healing saint of all is Guinefort, who wasn’t a hermit or even a person, but a greyhound who was wrongly killed by his master after he’d left him to babysit and come back to find the dog with bloody jaws. Too late, he discovered the baby safe and sound and a dead viper by the cot, bitten in two by the brave hound. Thereafter, parents brought sick babies to Guinefort’s grave and there were centuries of miracles. 

    But who or what can we turn to now and escape? 
    In The Plague Albert Camus asked a good question: how to be a saint in a world without God? I hear on the news that sniffer dogs are being trained to detect Covid19 – from a trace that’s the equivalent of a spoonful of sugar in an Olympic swimming pool. They should have a shrine, like Guinefort. But whose story would work now to stave off despair during this prolonged seclusion? Anne Frank didn’t survive, but she is still an inspiration. My proposal would be Emily Dickinson. She secluded herself and wrote, lines such as ‘I dwell in Possibility...’ 

    A friend – Sophie Herxheimer, who is an artist and a poet currently locked down on a residency in in Berkeley California – sent me the activity-cum-recipe book: 
    60 Lovers to Make & Do (Henningham Family Press, London), which she published last year. It’s a prophetic book about filling solitude, and her inventiveness and high spirits made me laugh and the air around grew less stifling. Escapism is a strong remedy and writers and artists open up escape routes. That doesn’t mean being cosy and heart-warming and consolatory. I’ve been plunged in watching the truly astonishing sequence of films Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger managed to create during and immediately after World War II – in spite of shortages of all kinds. These works are filled with wild, bizarre imagination, but they also make you think, hard and critically, about many things that still apply all too vividly to our Brexit-embroiled, virus-crushed country. They show us how daring imagination leads us somewhere else – at least mentally. If here and now we could now make works that invent and reflect with the same breadth of feeling, that would be something to face down anxiety and defy the future gloom. The wartime creations of artist-storymakers like Powell and Pressburger present such overwhelming evidence of the role of culture in survival, it’s infuriating that literature and the other arts are being laid waste. As I am writing this text, the government has at last taken a step towards their recovery. Ideas needed – keep them flowing.  

Joanne Leal (Week 1)

  • My week has had something of a focus on the German Democratic Republic. This is largely because I’ve been preparing and recording a lecture on Gerhard Klein’s 1957 film Berlin, Schönhauser Corner. Perhaps it’s inevitable in these strange times that we look in unlikely places for ways to understand our current experiences and I was tempted to reflect on our own lockdown in the light of the film’s depiction of a locked-down state, however different these may be. The GDR’s lockdown was in fact only partial in the mid-50s, as the border in Berlin was still open. This anomaly is harnessed in the film to make the case that the state must foster a commitment to itself that is elective, rather than coerced, and that this can be achieved only by creating communities of belonging that serve the needs of the many and not the few. While in the final instance this idea is reduced to a surprisingly conservative revitalization of the nuclear family and traditional gender roles, the film fascinates still, not least for its images of movement back and forth the across the East/West border on the part of young protagonists lured by the West’s consumer culture.

    East Berlin also features as a setting in my latest reading, Deborah Levy’s The Man who Saw Everything. Her protagonist visits the depressing end-state of the 1980s which has more in common with the repressive, hyper-surveilled GDR of Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s The Lives of Others(2006) than with the still hopeful 1950s take on the socialist state. Here too I found an odd (and somewhat trivial!) link to my contemporary lockdown experience in the form of missing baking ingredients. After five weeks without, I finally managed to source some flour and have celebrated by baking quiches, pies, cakes and biscuits. Baking, along with sewing and knitting have been my go-to activities for rest and relaxation for years – my mum, a Home Economics teacher passed on all her skills – but the sometimes slower pace of my lockdown life (no commuting!) means I have a bit more time for them. It’s easy to be inspired at the moment too by The Great British Sewing Bee, of course, but I’ve also been catching up (on my mum’s recommendation) with Secrets of the Museum, a behind-the-scenes look at the Victoria and Albert Museum that affords an intimate glimpse of its incredible costume collection. Also recommended to me this week was A Gripping Yarn, a podcast on the history, the pathologies and the politics of knitting which you can listen to while stitching.

    A different, more meditative reflection on the meanings of the objects we craft also formed part of my latest audiobook listening, Kit de Waal’s The Trick to Time (beautifully read by Fiona Shaw) whose central character dresses dolls as a response to trauma and loss. Although very differently realized, both this novel and The Man who Saw Everything share a focus on the losses we experience and the lives we can or can’t live in the shadows they cast. Their characters move in sometimes disorienting ways across time and space and they are in this sense anything but lockdown novels. Nevertheless, both ask us to reflect on what we do to make meaningful the time we have available to us and both have inspired me to do so at what sometimes seems like an out-of-time moment in my life.