STREET OF DREAMS by Paul Buck Page 2
The history of the street is not extensive as far as I can gather. It is not the old heart of London, the City of London. For many years it was slums, living space for the poor. Wanting to drive other roads through the district to connect one area to another, Charing Cross Road was one that developed and benefited, gradually taking on a mantle of its own, particularly as regards a book culture. Driving through. At the top end, at St. Giles, at the foot of the tower that is Centre Point, where gallows once stood until the fifteenth century – fittingly one could imagine – it was the stopping point on Mondays for a “jug of ale” for those malefactors going west, en route to the Tyburn tree, at the far end of Oxford Street, to be hanged.
I realize these perambulations, this browsing and basking in the ruminations of the road and through its bookshops has been a solo affair. Has it always been so for others? And further, is it mainly a male preoccupation? An exception immediately springs to mind: Jeanette Winterson. She has written notably on her days living and breathing in bookshops. Though all my former partners have been involved in the arts, whether literature, art or music, none has been my partner on these jaunts. Of course we have walked the street, even stopped in the street, but none has lived for hours in and out the shops, all not being browsers. It’s seems as if browsing in bookshops, and record shops too, is a male preserve. Women are not collectors in that same way. They might collect clothes, or other accessories, or crockery, or jewellery, or other adornments, but not books. As I’ve heard it said so many times. And while Catherine might agree to some degree, not so interested in searching out a particularly volume by a writer, or the missing book by another writer to gain the “complete set,” that hasn’t dissuaded her from spending time with me in and out the bookshops. Her appetite to read further, to pursue her interests and to expand them is not necessarily the usual approach. She can happily browse for hours without a query. Indeed, I’m often ready to move on before her. It stems from her upbringing, her formative years in the library in Liège, as well as listening to music with her father, and, I would posit, a better cultural awareness in an European environment than generally occurs here. These days we can go as one, we can live as one in the Charing Cross Road.
The street as a series of Joseph Cornell’s boxes, whether as shop windows themselves or complete building façades. An image that comes to mind as Catherine’s room has a wall of glass cupboards and shelves within which a treasure trove of memories and dream statements have blossomed, a collection of jars, bottles and boxes, cardboard theatres, marionettes, photos and paintings, tarot cards and card games, doll’s house furniture, incense boxes, memories of past-times, though earlier than her own, more Victorian, objects and lures and shells, always shells, that note childhood, and travels she has made to French Polynesia and elsewhere, and dreams of countries not visited, the Far East or South America, garish and lurid colours colliding with an aesthetic appeal, a hotchpotch with style. And moving out from behind the glass, books and shelves lined with other objects, jars and jugs, mementos gathered from anywhere and everywhere. Objects on the fold-out leaf, papers and specially-bound notebooks filling the bureau, dried flower bunches hanging from the curtain rails, angels spinning from the ceiling... It's a way of life, not a concern to make art. A “cabinet of curiosities” that is forever evolving, not fixed and closed like Cornell’s. Always a future, always a growth that keeps her world open to further possibilities, explorations into the real world. This spills into the rest of the house, surfaces and wall spaces filled with objects that tickle the senses as one’s eye catches them, the rooms with their books far from chronological or easily classified, often grouped by associations, juxtapositions of ideas and relationships, a collage of refined directions and redirections.
A different world from some of the dominant trends in contemporary art to produce displays of the detritus of society, a rag bag of jumble, oddments and scraps, trash as art, rooms filled with unselected scoops from raided skips, an “installation art” whose mess is to be justified with its parallels in society, though at times it seems little more than laziness, a reluctance to create any stimulus, solely to hold up the mirror to what we all can and do see in the streets, or on our televisions. Direct social reflection preferred to a reflection of dreams or aspirations, or any other flights of imagination or thought.
When one walks along the Charing Cross Road, refocusing and perceiving the windows as a series of boxes, or a series of compositions, looking into these vitreous fronts, it’s not unusual for the glass surfaces to offer additional mirrored perspective leading to different ideas. The reflection of self or passers-by inserted into the displays. Or a series of distorted reflections in the gleaming metal of shining saxophones. Or, on one occasion, an angled mirror in the display that reflected what was coming along the road behind me and placed it in the context of a reflection of what was coming towards me. A collision of what’s behind with what’s before. The past cut into the future, the present as a conditional. Conflicts. Tenses and tensions.
A road with recollections of its art involvements, even if I don’t often reflect or catch sight of something to instigate the reflection. The façade to the art school, St Martin’s, for example, is too dull to attract attention. Despite its fame as an art school since the last World War, it’s an establishment that has often disappointed whenever I’ve stepped inside to view the yearly output at its Degree shows. A school that seems to miss being a major engine of contemporary art alongside others such as Goldsmiths or the Royal College, I write one year, only to understand the opposite, as I revise today, is now the current opinion.
Overlooking the front of St Martin’s, on the other side of the street, Derek Jarman had his flat for many years. Among the memories that tumble forth, one particular moment at a photo shoot, a gathering of artists invited to contribute to a festival around Georges Bataille that I co-produced in 1984. That moment when a flurry of egos fought to fill the frame, an early warning missed of the selfishness and clamour for glory of a couple that would maim the event itself and wreck the potential for the spirit of the celebration. The desire prevails to overlay more pleasant repercussions, involvements with John Maybury and Cerith Wyn Evans, both artists who moved through the art schools into film, then back and forth through the different mediums as they explored their territories.
Behind Jarman’s block runs Flitcroft Street, a small road that transforms into an alleyway where Elms Lesters Painting Rooms are to be found. Behind the green wooden doors lies the former world of a painting studio where theatre backdrops can be hung in all their glory through the hole in the floor, allowing various hands to work above and below simultaneously. Its pulling power is its faded romance, a location to film a bygone age runs as time-stops through my head, paint dripping as from a tap, as blood into a tray. Akin to the sawdust tray beneath the wooden operating tables in the first hospitals, one still in existence in a garret near St. Thomas’s not that many miles from the spot, where poets now strut their stuff as surgeons at the text.
With buildings regularly left vacant for years, sometimes while plans for modernization are sought, abandoned, and then sought anew, ever expanding colonies of artists have grown in London since the Sixties who have taken over the sites for extended periods through artist organizations like ACME, set up for just such purposes. An office block becomes a series of studios, sometimes with temporary separations, other times with more solid partition walls. In smaller places an artist might take over the whole space to live and work for a while. Gavin Turk had just such a place on the Charing Cross Road when he was trying to make his mark in the early Nineties. A further part of the strategy that has triggered the current BritArt phenomenon stems from Damien Hirst and friends who side-stepped the traditional gallery system and used empty office, factory or warehouse areas to serve as temporary exhibition spaces. Gavin Turk’s determining move occurred when he did likewise in a building, temporarily vacant, in Denmark Street. What had once been a music publisher became an art gallery for the week during which Gavin exhibited his work on all five floors, often responding to the spaces themselves to make fresh works. Included was the waxwork model of Gavin himself portrayed as punk Sid Vicious in a Presley pose, that Saatchi acquired and which helped to lift Gavin into the echelons of the famed young artists, though these days he doesn’t see himself so closely aligned with his contemporaries.
Today it is not fashionable with the latest batch of artists to be associated with any part of the West End of London, whether the traditional gallery areas, or just the connection with the “West End” tag. Today all the young artists, Gavin included, have moved into the East End of London, gentrifying the homes and workspaces, making themselves an extended Art Centre both for living, working and exhibiting. Earlier dreams to go “up West” fall on deaf ears.
Previous to the current stratum of artists, for many years, starting in the Seventies, one of the famous alternative spaces for studio and exhibition in the centre of London was the AIR building, sited virtually on the corner of Shaftesbury Avenue and Charing Cross Road. There the studios had artists like Susan Hiller and Paul Neagu working upstairs, while down in the former showroom, which was transformed into an exhibition space, another cutting-edge art form, Performance Art, was regularly staged. There I remember performing as part of the London Calling ensemble, one of the few performances I made that I felt succeeded in my terms and in its response from the audience. David Medalla’s warmth and positivity afterwards at our reunion after those Better Books years helped to strengthen the course along which I was feeling through my body. The AIR Gallery too was the place where I saw Brian Catling’s archeological exposition, a form of pyramid burial chamber, but one that encapsulated the whole of history from earliest civilisation right up to that point in 1977, a distillation of the essence of man’s presence, a warp through our urban despair that had a tangible energy intensity on entrance. I always felt that Catling, a close friend of Iain Sinclair, had tapped a spot that was suitable for Sinclair to draw into his famed re-mappings of London.
This idea struck home for, on the upper floors, Susan Hiller was steadily working away in her studio at her own archaeological and anthropological structurings and classifications, like her work Fragments, which analysed the sherds of painted Pueblo pots and became the linchpin to establishing her position within contemporary art.
From her studio one day Susan took me on a tour of the local automatic photomat machines, particularly the series of booths along the Charing Cross Road, down in the Leicester Square tube foyer, a favourite spot of hers, where we tested out the various machines, collecting strips of four that she later made into one of her Photomat Portrait series.
That day the machines were well behaved, didn’t have temperamental fits to miscolour or distort the portraits, or offer a different range of abilities in their performance. A long-time friend, Susan captured my wilder look of the period, today a mask that seems to conceal my real portrait, the one of subversive artist who has worked away steadily despite the inherent controlling procedures of the system and its agencies.
At the top of the road towering over every building in sight is Centre Point, a building that has never been occupied fully since it was built. In the Sixties it was more profitable to keep it empty than to have it occupied, with local tax concessions manipulated to the full. Today there is partial residence. Various stories abound of its history, one being that to fill it with workers and office equipment would collapse the land beneath, as it was badly located over part of the Underground system. Empty or full it is a landmark that central London has not been proud of for almost half a century, though once it must have been someone’s idea of a dream. Today it seems to have placed a blight on the street from an architectural point of view. Unlike other streets where some inspired modernisation or new buildings have been constructed, Charing Cross Road has little to recommend it in its current strategies. Though casting one’s eyes high, there are ornamentations and details from former eras that catch the eye, giving fleeting pangs of romanticism, frilled edgings to one’s dreams.
Lower down the road, a decade ago, I was looking up the façade of one building, checking to see if I had the right number, as I had to deliver a package to a friend of a friend who would take it across to Germany, when I recalled that I had visited that block of apartments many years before, a block which I must have passed time and again and entirely forgotten. Not that the young woman in question had slipped my mind, or the events of our relationship, often extremely humorous. I still do not think I have seen such an enormous bed, one that unfurled from an equally enormous sofa. It gave a new meaning to the words: bedroom gymnastics. Unfortunately it wasn’t her own apartment, but one she was looking after for a few weeks while the wealthy owners were abroad.
The thought recurred re- cently when I read a note that T.S.Eliot used to have a flat there, or the use of one, as a secret retreat when he wanted to escape from his wife. Or perhaps it was not there, but nearby. Do I check it out exactly? I wonder whether his memories were as pleasant as mine.
Do I pursue the “attack” of a note, check the detail and all its implications for a trip down a road in my memory? Or do I leave it to “decay.” Decay is a major factor in the thinking and composing of Morton Feldman. “Decay, departing landscape, this expresses where the sound exists in our hearing – leaving us rather than coming towards us.” Decay as an aspect of memory, as a key to forgetting is my interest. Do we always wish to have our memories refreshed? The nuisance of photographs is that they create revivals of our memories, not always just single notes, sometimes complex chord impositions, opening out vast arrays that perhaps we never really wanted to revisit. The photograph of my grandma in Trafalgar Square, of me with her in Trafalgar Square as a child has always been an early remembrance. At that time family photographs were a rarity, thus we all still cling to those we have in our possession. There is a photo of my mother in Trafalgar Square too, feeding the pigeons, taken at the same outing, that my sister has framed on display in her home. These days I try to re-impose that image in preference to the one of my grandma that has been lodged in my head for far too long, particularly since I discovered a few years ago, after my mother’s death, of the abominable way in which my grandma treated my mother, starting from the very day of her arrival in this country to join her husband, ignoring the telegram and leaving her stranded on the doorstep until my father returned from work. I cannot forgive my grandma, already teetering on the edge of the abyss in my esteem, countless excuses offered to justify her persistent disagreeable behaviour, a thorn in the side to every branch of the family tree. It seems so unfair that the reward for her approach to life should be longevity, and that she should not only see her husband into an early grave, but should outlive her son, my father, too.
This is not autobiography. These are just moments used as threads to hold together the fabrics that form my image of the road. There is no continuity as such, which is necessary for autobiography. Walter Benjamin noted: “Reminiscences, even extensive ones, do not always amount to an autobiography. (…) For autobiography has to do with time, with sequence and what makes up the continuous flow of life.” The shards of memory that arise in the process of narration are the tappings (and trappings) brought to mind as I work to evoke the place, and which I discover I would like to bury or transform. At least as far as one particular memory that has become an unwelcome visitor on this excursion.
Feldman’s closest friend, the artist Philip Guston, posed a teaser when he wrote: “Painting is a clock that sees each end of the street as the edge of the world.” A statement rich for use with regard to Charing Cross Road, with its northern end blunted by its high point of twentieth century capitalism, Centre Point, and its southern tip a mark of the former days of glory and wealth, among other issues, with the National Gallery and its treasures. There to ponder the splendours of Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage, Holbein’s Ambassadors, Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, and Vermeer’s Young Woman Standing at a Virginal, to name just four that come to mind, these works offering thoughts to do with perspectives I note as soon as I see them written down on paper.
The back of the National, effectively the starting point to the Charing Cross Road, is home to the National Portrait Gallery, another regular place to roam. A space that last welcomed me with Paula Rego’s portrait of Germaine Greer, Germaine taking an unusual pose, but then she has always done that, right from an earlier provocation in Suck magazine, a pornographic shot to shock. Paula normally works with Verdi as musical accompaniment in her studio, but for these sittings she noted that Greer brought Wagner’s Ring with her to set the mood as they worked.
While this road cuts through and is part of the West End as regards theatre, and musical theatre, its pivot, the Palace, in its middle at Cambridge Circus, today with Les Misérables, represents the type of popular theatre that has never been part of my life. Any theatre that has attracted me has always been on the fringes, elsewhere, away from the pressure of commercial dictates.
Until a few years back there was only a trace of cinema in the street, with the Jacey chain having one of its sleazy outlets. I can barely remember occupying a seat, except to sit and watch Yoko Ono’s Bottoms film, which had a short season, its billboard viewable from Better Books. I went to see if I could recognize the characteristics of my own posterior on the big screen, wobbling along, shot one night in the early hours after a session at UFO, taken back to the studio in a Mayfair flat. Today there are only the passing faces of those in the film trade, their editing rooms and offices in the area. Walking along this road two decades ago with an Italian director who was thinking of employing the street as a location, more for the faces of the people than any architectural lure or sense of setting, he seemed more intent on determining the occupations of the women who stepped, or perhaps swayed or sashayed are better words, from Soho, coming out of Old Compton Street. Always intriguing to note how films can change the location when they adapt a novel to give more pictorial splendour than the setting in the book. Watching Russia House recently in connection with Lisbon, its panoramic shots across the Alfama offering a sunnier and more acceptable disposition than the more subdued, but piquant, setting of the original novel. Charing Cross Road would serve well for its characters, though too low-key for anything the Hollywood types would want to extract for glamorous ends.
Off the top of the street there’s the plethora of hifi shops along Tottenham Court Road, a thoroughfare that has never grabbed me despite the facility for walking it often enough when going through to Bloomsbury, the British Museum and other locations to the right, or into Fitzrovia to the left. Both areas are rife with strong connections to literary and artistic history, whether of Virginia Woolf and her friends from the Bloomsbury Group, or the contrasting bunch of George Orwell and his companions like Dylan Thomas, Rayner Heppenstall, Augustus John and Gerald Wilde.
Young BritArt, like music and other parts of today’s popular culture, appears to be geared around fame. Perhaps this is more prevalent as celebritiness is part of the fabric of contemporary art itself. Does one aim to be famous, or wealthy? Or does one do what one has to do as an artist? Or indeed as a writer? Does one have to be part of the pack to survive? What part does fame itself play in art for these people to become famous, to become celebrities? And is one jealous because they have gained it rather than oneself? Did they have something extra, or was their goal to be famous? Did I sidetrack it, shoot myself in the foot, or have bad luck, being in the wrong place at the wrong time as we used to say?
Along Oxford Street, in the first months of 2001, Michael Landy destroyed (or deconstructed, his term) all his worldly possessions in an abandoned department store that he had taken over for the event. It was a comment on possessions, material wealth, reducing all in a grinder, like bones in a crematorium before being presented to the surviving relatives. Though, in this case, the artist has not destroyed himself but only his possessions. Or perhaps that is himself, as an artist? I hesitate to say “his work” as a matter of course. For the work is the very act itself. And, interestingly, the deconstruction includes the destruction of the work of others, most given to him in good faith by his fellow artists, others who as part of the BritArt movement have acquired fame. Some are concerned about the concepts behind the destruction of their work, which has its own monetary and artistic values. Some seem less than pleased. Tracy Emin visits him on site, accompanied by her pal Vivienne Westwood, and asks for her work to be returned. Too late. Forewarned of her critical attitude, Landy lists her piece high on his priority list to destroy in order to prevent any attempt to reclaim it, and the possibility of not achieving 100% satisfaction in his aims. But who is to know whether Tracy, in particular, or indeed some others, are there in protest at the concept or because their appearance will gain more publicity for themselves? Gary Hume arrives and asks for his piece ear-marked for destruction to be replaced by another, a better piece. An echo here undoubtedly, from half a century ago, of Willem de Kooning who, when asked by Rauschenberg if he could have a piece to destroy (the ethical question of asking permission to destroy the work, unlike above), was confronted by a de Kooning who didn’t give him a reject or lesser piece, but who went in search of a good work, one that would take some effort to erase. In fact, though a small work it comprised charcoal, oil paint, pencil and crayon, and took Rauschenberg a good month’s worth of hard rubbing in 1953. It’s now known as the Erased de Kooning Drawing. Rauschenberg’s intention, though initially seen, or confused, as an act of vandalism, an attack on Abstract Expressionism, and indeed its master, was in fact trying to figure out a way “to bring drawing into the all-whites” as he says, (a reference to his period of white paintings), and after singularly failing to satisfy his intentions by erasing his own drawings thought that he would need to start from an acknowledged work of art. Thus he approached de Kooning, the artist whose drawings he most admired, de Kooning, who, in his turn, became a willing accomplice in the young turk’s research.
How to erase that image of my grandma, that image of me with my grandma feeding pigeons in Trafalgar Square? I seek the photo. It isn’t here, I must have already taken that decision some years ago to exclude it from my collection. Perhaps my sister has it among the family collections. Forget it. Don’t enquire. But I can’t erase it from my memory. Or exorcize it. How I would have wished, in the same way as Rauchenberg, to wipe that photo from my memory. But memory erasure is not so straightforward, or necessarily possible. Not that Rauschenberg exactly erased the de Kooning in its entirety, original markings are still in evidence, and its very existence as a piece, and in its title, bears witness as a momento. Neither can I pretend the photo doesn’t exist. Not to write on it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, just that I refuse to face it. I should accept the fact that life is not only the pleasant images. Each street, each part that we peruse, has aspects that might be unsavoury, or creates unsavoury memories. That I wish to exclude my grandma from my memory, for all her nastiness, not only to myself, but to the rest of my family, and particularly towards my mother, and indeed towards her son, my father, from way back has become paramount. It has crept up on me without warning. It fills my head like a bulging burden. And so, instead of writing about a street in only the pleasant terms, touching on the happy memories, the hopes and aspirations, I find that lingering aftertaste of my grandma traced on the screen, canvas, page… ground. And despite my efforts to grind her into the ground, I find her memory becoming more dominant. It seems to be growing beneath my feet, as if a dehydrated image that has been watered, swelling up out of all proportion. To become a monster. I even discuss her, not the photos, with my sister as we drive to the supermarket on one of our regular shopping trips. A street of dreams becoming a nest of vipers. Don’t exaggerate. One viper.
The more I think on that image and its repercussions, the harder it is for the image to decay, to fade. That comes as no surprise.
When I was a teenager I was taught a method to accomplish feats of memory, to recall numbers, objects and names in order, having been presented with them in a jumble. Though it was directed at me as a way to improve memory, I was eventually called upon to treat it as a party piece once I’d acquired the art, or should I say “knack.” I think the book my father offered me was called The Art of Memory. No, I don’t think so. I think it was something more salacious, something like How to Improve your Memory, or words to that effect, with a garish yellow cover. My father probably acquired it from an advert, I seem to remember seeing it in the newspapers for years. Not that I think I had a bad memory. In fact I think it’s good, just unfortunate as regards the case I’m pinpointing.
Perhaps what is really niggling away inside me is that particular photo of my grandma, not all photos of her. Not all seem as offensive as this one. Why this one? Because the set of two photos are taken from the same outing, only a few years after my mother had arrived from Italy. It is obviously taken by a street photographer. It looks very professional. Very glamorous. My mother is dressed up for a day out, as they did in those days, just after the War. My mother is feeding the pigeons in the same way as my grandma in her shot, except my grandma has me with her. I have seen various other photos taken through the years of my grandma, but in this one I am with my grandma, not my mother. She might have rejected my mother, but she had not rejected me. She was probably paying for the day out and she wanted me alone to be her possession in her photo. That is obviously what is upsetting. A rare “proper” photo, as they say, rather than the usual informal family snaps. A posed image that would undoubtedly survive the years because it looked crisp and professional unlike the regular amateurish ones the family processed through Boots, and I have to be fixed in a smile with my grandma. That’s the sore point, the real issue to come to terms with.
Why do the visual arts regularly weave themselves into my thinking, into the way I view the street. At various times during my writing life I’ve seen steps to move forward into the film world, to draw together my interests across various art forms into that one form called film-making, but always the vagaries of financial controls have tempered my involvements. Unlike film-making, writing and the visual arts can be aside from outside control, at least in the creative process. Writing at root requires little more than a pen and paper to physically accomplish the act. Likewise, the joy of being an artist can come down to the use of a marking implement, pen, pencil, paintbrush and paint, and a surface on which to make the mark, paper, canvas etc. These are the basic ingredients. And yet I have rarely trod that path, my painting and drawing efforts mainly private, mainly discarded. Yet still I see the street in continual references to the visual arts.
Lurking somewhere is that dream to be a painter, undoubtedly. I watch Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse. I write about the film, more than once. It revolves around the making of a painting, but it is also about the notions of artistic creation itself.
Likewise that fascination with Francis Bacon whom I regularly saw around the Charing Cross Road, mainly because he spent a considerable time in a nearby drinking club, the Colony Room Club in Dean Street. I shouldn’t suggest any denigration in that idea, for Bacon was a prime influence, his Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion at the Tate resonating within me at a time when I was at that crucial point of switching my supposed course, a career in geology, for a life in the Arts, where my gut feelings and intuitions were directing me.
I wonder if my interest in stationery, an array of pencils, pens and other writing implements on my desk, a pile of paper and notebooks, from stylish handmade paper delights through to supermarket cahiers in my cupboard, is more reminiscent of the painter with his pot of brushes and resources. Indeed the artists’ materials shop at the bottom of Charing Cross Road, as with others dotted around the streets either way, always catches my attention and draws me in periodically, sometimes to browse, other times to purchase. Yet today most writing is done either on the typewriter, or the computer, little more than a glorified typewriter that makes corrections and re-printing so much easier. And still I sidetrack into shops with stationery, whether the lure of bargains, or expensive displays. And still I draft write with pencils, rarely pens, a whole pot of thirty or more maintained on my desk, regularly added to when I come across a pencil I take a fancy to.
One time in Susan Hiller’s studio she drew the aura around my right hand, as seen through a blue-tinted sheet of glass, its intensity located between my first finger and thumb, the sign of someone who channels his creative energies through holding an implement, the pencil of the writer, or indeed the paintbrush of the artist.
I also venture along that alleyway where I had my hair trimmed to oblivion to touch the fringes of Chinatown and pop downstairs into a shop to bask in, if not always buy, Chinese paper, for it is too thin to write upon, and any intentions to paint on remain mainly as dreams. Tottenham Court Road also carries the burden of another seduction, for not so long ago Paperchase opened a major branch there, with its fine handmade papers, creating a regular haunt for us, me to dream, Catherine to purchase in order to make cards and unusual personal stationery to send to her friends.
Not that my activities in the “poetry reading” world didn’t overlap with Performance Art. Just like Kathy Acker, another who traversed writing and art, who was as much a part and product of the New York art scene, whose readings were performances and whose writing techniques were as much inspired by the visual arts as by literature. Though we met in Amsterdam in the late Seventies, then Paris a few weeks later, before pursuing a correspondence for a time before she moved to London, it was rare to see her around town once here, our paths diverging more than crossing. The last time we met was in the Charing Cross Road. We were both on our way to other appointments, and promised to make contact again to have an extended conversation. It never happened, her illness and death intervened. Kathy was a writer who painted with words. Also to remember that Beckett said it was the shape of the sentence that was more important than the meaning. The visual aspect of writing, whether sentence or paragraph – aside from typographical considerations – has often been part of writing, and more so now that computers allow instant lay out and manipulations.
So while I maintain the line of writer, is it the dream to be the artist that has always remained for me, that perhaps still resides, or has it deflected enough to enable me to take aspects of its activity into my writing and my approach to writing?
When I did paint in my late teens, the smell was not welcomed in the house, the smell of oils. Perhaps I should have been more circumspect, not created such a discernible olfactory attraction. But then perhaps any art form pursued would have been vilified. I remember the manner in which I had to divorce myself from family and start afresh in a new world to make any strides. Perhaps it is the suburbs. Hanif Kureishi, who comes from the neighbouring suburban town of Bromley, notes: “Culture is rather sneered upon in the suburbs. You’re considered to be getting above yourself or it’s seen as pretentious or financially not viable.” Only later when you have established yourself, not necessarily in the arts world, but within yourself, once you know what you are about, is it viable to live again in the suburbs, where you can work in peace, making pleasurable sorties to the centre… and to the Charing Cross Road.
My memory is incorrect. Studio 51 was not a haunt of Patrice Chaplin, as I appreciate when I browse the book again. Other Central London clubs and coffee bars are noted, but not that particular one that I felt sure was included. But does it matter in this case? Other memories have surfaced and played a role in shaping this walk along the road.
Can one only truly do one art form? Although I might want to paint above all else, I know that it is not possible to do it without full commitment, otherwise it would become a dabbling, which is ultimately unsatisfactory, leads to an emptiness, a hole that would widen, would become an abyss that would become despair. The choice is to keep writing, to pursue what I’ve been trying to pursue, because at least one is walking on the edge, there is still that chance to find something more. Having said that, if I wanted to paint it would not be to start again, because the mental side, the being side is already there. Only the technique of the art, the abilities to handle paint, brush, canvas etc, and perhaps, to some degree, the use of the eye is not there. By the time I would start to reach a point of technical accomplishment, it might be too late. Does that mean one has to live with that sense of failure, that sense of what could have been?
As Feldman points out in his writings, others probably see one more clearly than oneself. One only understands oneself after much of the work is done “and reminiscence begins to saturate your life.” He cites examples with Proust and Flaubert.
Maple syrup. Out of the blue I think: maple syrup. Perhaps Proust’s madeleines triggered it. When we went to Lyons Corner House it wasn’t to have afternoon tea, or cakes or scones, but to have waffles with maple syrup, something I never had anywhere else but there until I was much older, away from home. That was our childhood treat there. No wonder I’ve lost the taste for waffles over the years.
I could have perhaps chosen other locations to explore as a course, but each would have had a different emphasis, each would have turned up different reminiscences, even if each would not have been at the heart of the matter like the Charing Cross Road. Others, if asked, might not have chosen such a central road or place, not such a glamorous environment in which to explore their thoughts. But at least I chose to make my archeological dig in a place that I enjoyed, “to say this is a good site to dig”, a quote that I find in my notebook, but which I cannot trace to its source – wondering if it is Benjamin as I seem to think.
When I began along this road a few weeks ago I had Peggy Lee’s Street of Dreams in mind, a song I had not heard for some while, words I only vaguely remembered. I’ve resisted relistening to them until now, to see if the sentiments matched up to the proposal I pursued. Like all memories, nothing overlays reality precisely. And though the road might well be similar to the dreams of others, or, as she sings, “and you’ll be met there / by others like you / brothers as blue / smiling, on the street of dreams,” the quoting is a misquoting, an alignment chosen for my own ends. Only her song’s conclusion can be turned to match: “no one is poor, long as love is sure on the street of dreams.” While my course in life has been driven by this street, as I’ve shown, today the dream is found in love, which makes me perhaps luckier that many others, for in my companion, Catherine, I’ve found all that I have ever wanted in a companion, and that is like a dream come true.
May 2001. Revised in October 2007
A substantial extract, suitably adapted, was published in Iain Sinclair’s London: City of Disappearances (Hamish Hamilton, 2006; Penguin, 2007)