Notebook (south London diary)

February 15, 2012 § Leave a comment

He’s been returning to Baudelaire. Earlier, he found a quote in Benjamin’s ‘The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire’: “from the littérateur to the professional conspirator, everyone who belonged to the bohéme could recognise a bit of himself in the ragpicker. Each person was in a more or less blunted state of revolt against society and faced a more or less precarious future. At the proper time, he was able to sympathise with those who were shaking the foundations of this society.” Even for Benjamin, the close cobbled Paris of the ragpickers, drunks, craftsmen & early factory workers – the whole inconsolable prehistory out of which the delirious dream-state bubble of the arcades grew – was already long past. In east Greenwich (described in the 1960s as “still largely working-class”), w/ the vast industrial reservations of the peninsula – the gasworks, Blackwall power station, chemical works, steel & bronze mills, cement works, linoleum works, asbestos manufacture, armaments (though less concentrated than at Woolwich further down the river) – have been given over to the picturesque emptiness of a sky above the Dome, looking across to the crenellations & inlets of the docks on the eastern Isle of Dogs. The huddled terraces & scrapegrace pubs of the roads east towards Charlton & Woolwich are designated ‘local colour’, ready to be swallowed by the patches of waste ground & the railway cuttings. Closeness, the texture of what neoliberalism thinks of as its own modernity, lies across the river, in the tourist bottlenecks of Tottenham Court Road & Kings Cross (arranged as carefully as any landscape in a Claude glass). But destitution, a homelessness of the affections, the loyalties – he knows all about that. Outside the central boroughs, the nightwalkers: a man in his late 50s, grey fleece, shabby beard, Stella in hand; heavy black nurses returning from graveyard shifts with a head-down waddle; teenage girls forgetting to wear skirts over black tights & uggs; a family of drawn faces, the father bald & furrow-browed, skin dun & wrecked, the ones who didn’t make it out to Essex. (And the dignity of old black men in Peckham, burgundy-suited, watch-chain & pocket handkerchief.) Perhaps he himself, who spent so much time walking through the interzones of small towns in the ‘difficult years’, when a life never to be formed seemed, contemplating its destruction, hardly a waste. Education, which he pursued w/ a choking desperation for years, was meant to lead him elsewhere, to the point of having a ‘stake’ in society, where that society’s overthrow at the hands of those who would be ruined for their labour power (“corpses, stacked like sodden wood,/Lie barred or galled with blood”) in pursuit of its continuation, didn’t seem like the only reasonable option. The purpose, as always, becomes palpable at the moment of its vanishing.


He wonders what he was doing this time last year. Feeling terrible, no doubt (the habit never really shakes off). It’s a function, in part, of the weather: no matter how much he admires the clarity of dry & cold days, no matter how many layers he wears the cold seems to get into his bones. He had other reasons then, he has them now.

Occasionally he catches himself thinking how much such-&-such a place (the suburbs of the western end of Camberwell for instance) resemble Coventry or the area of semi-detacheds he grew up among in Bournemouth. Not to say that all suburbs are alike (although there is some of that too): the resemblance is genuinely uncanny, an unwilled repetition, with all the coldness & strangeness of those places locked inside it. Walking home one night, the observatory cuts the air with the meridian, a green laser that hovers over the estate & between the towers of the former power station.


He’s been thinking, as always, of Pissarro’s Fox Hill, Upper Norwood. Part of the fascination, it seems, is the looseness of the brushwork, its visual haziness, vagueness (he thinks also of Gerhard Richter’s blurred Arrests) giving it the texture of a memory. A specific memory in fact – of Earlsdon on a cold February afternoon, seen through a suburban window, the memory of snow on the wind.  But it is too the apparition of one of those afternoons – when the light dawning late & disappearing soon turns, in the aftermath of snowfall, to a cold clarity – that seemed already, in the odd sharpening & softening of their angles & qualities of light, to be a scene from memory. There is, then, something about nature here – the possibility of getting back to an experience of the phenomenal world in the rawness of its first sighting, when the distinction between nature & second nature was non-existent; when nature’s visible wreckage didn’t register as distance from the origin, the opening up of loss. But natural beauty, writes Adorno, can only exist in conjunction with the signs of its own historicity, in the historical particularity of landscape (hence the kitsch of ‘untouched’ nature – “those views of the Königssee painted for hotel lobbies”). Hence the raw earth road, the cottages, the chimney smoke that drifts into the clouds, mirroring the arc of the tree’s branches, that intrudes as paint into a nature itself dominated, objectivated into pigment, the material mesh of the painting. “What radiates wordlessly from artworks is that it is, thrown into relief by it – the unlocatable grammatical subject – is not; it cannot be referred demonstratively to anything in the world that has previously existed…. Aesthetic semblance seeks to salvage what the active spirit – which produced the artifactual bearers of semblance – eliminated from what it reduced to its material, to what is for-an-other. In the process, however, what is to be salvaged itself becomes something dominated…. Semblance is not the characteristica formalis of artworks but rather materialis, the trace of the damage artworks want to revoke.”


Benjamin on Baudelaire: “From the outset it seems more promising to investigate his machinations where he undoubtedly is at home – in the enemy camp [that of the bourgeoisie]… Baudelaire was a secret agent – an agent of the secret discontent of his class with its own rule.”

T.J. Clark on Benjamin on Baudelaire: “Does it need to be said that in contemplating Baudelaire, Benjamin is contemplating (allegorising, idealising) himself? At times the reflections on Baudelaire’s loneliness and impotence hardly pretend to be verdicts on somebody else.”

He knows, he ruefully acknowledges, a bit about allegory himself.


It’s ‘South London Boroughs‘ for a reason. Not only because the whole infrastructure of the old skool – the pirate stations, labels, rave clubnights – had a particular purchase south of the river, but because the dream of modernity, autonomous of its control by the powers of the imperial centre, was so much stronger here, its defeat so much more palpable. Crystal Palace, Heygate, Alexander Fleming House, the Arnold Estate in Bermondsey w/ its dreamy resemblance to Shoreditch’s Boundary Estate, the first housing development of the LCC, built in 1897. Will Montgomery writes about the acoustics of the Elephant shopping centre: “In the late 1990s I began to admire its peculiarly roomy, dreamy acoustic. I made some recordings then and I’ve made many more over the past year or so. In the shopping centre you get, of course, voices speaking many languages – the second level, for example, has many Latin American businesses. But more important is the combination of overlapping human voices with piped pop songs. Often you catch some ancient love tune – the Commodores, the Bee Gees, Roberta Flack – floating by. Perhaps some of the more worn-down users of the shopping centre went for those songs once.” Voices escape, wind whistles through the cracks of a window.


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