gil scott-heron; redone

I’m New Here is a great one; not just a new one but a riverrunning reconnection with the cool and conscious coming poet. Music stripped back to and built from words, no over-production of the moment [80s reggae sauce] but yet a 110 st 70s flavour. One which vies with all and everything before.

There’s the broken home of 125th and Lenox and ‘B-Movie’ ghetto get outs, a fine version of ‘I’ll Take Care of You’, which Mark Lanegan ‘owns’ as far as I’m concerned, even the title track’s perfectly tempered cover of a Bill Callahan song [if only it were ‘Dress Sexy at My Funeral’ -but heh?].

I don’t know about you, but I had all that right bang mid-horizon… Anyway, this is good but no longer hot news.

Then I noticed this:

A ‘secret’ collection of Angus [Fairhurst]’s very earliest work from the 1970s! I’d never realised it before, nor asked him about it… Peace go with you brother, from now on.

From South Africa to South Carolina here includes ‘Johannesburg’ on it -amongst  a range of gotta move on lovely days. For the first time I actually read the lyrics, heard often in the open-air and in tighter, warmer corners, Clapham Common [was it?!] to Portobello Road, being earnest, not being earnest:

I know that their strugglin’ over there
ain’t gonna free me,
but we all need to be strugglin’
if we’re gonna be free
Don’t you wanna be free?

One long day boycotts are laughed at, rejected, not noticed and seem peculiarly futile, the next day every one is suddenly on their weeping knees, wearing the t-shirt for a TV special.

‘Soft water vanquishes the mighty stone’; cup hands, pour!

mohan rana; more and less

Mohan Rana gave a reading recently as part of the Where Three Dreams Cross ‘season’ at the Whitechapel Gallery, London. He’s been working with The Poetry Translation Centre to render a selection from his several Hindi collections into English, most closely with Lucy Rosenstein and the poet Bernard O’Donoghue.

The latter read the poems in English after Mohan read in Hindi; his soft clear voice offering lilting repetitions and arhythmic developments alluringly. The English versions seemed pretty faithful to those tones; light, concrete, quotidian and yet also exploring loops of time, philosophical and metaphysical notions, specific Indian circularities and continuities as well as things irreducible and universal.

A Standard Shirt

by Mohan Rana

Between midday and nightfall
there comes a time
when the day’s noise and actions
are already done with,

just as now,
all desires quenched,
I am ready to sit down
on any chair.

A boy in a yellow shirt
has just passed by
and made me think
of a shirt of mine
in those old ordinary days.

So it was possible.
Yes, this life was possible.
And here I am, still wearing
a shirt just like that.

From Jagah, Dwelling

I went partly because so little writing is ever translated from the various Indian languages into English that the UK seems stuck in a self-satisfied Slumdog circuit, fantastically incurious about the subcontinent beyond  visible/legible hoardings. It is the British disease; we like people from other places to come and tell us about -‘translate’/dilute- it in our terms and then leave it at that. Convenient, complacent, dumb.

So I walked the walk and was handsomely rewarded, because Mohan is a very fine poet who grew up in Old Delhi but has been a resident of Bath for 20 years. His poems conjure familiar images, times and places to me; habitual dawn and dusk walks through great cities, Delhi and Ahmedabad, old and new, very remote villages in the western extremities of India, riding through heavy monsoon rains beside the Narmada river. The poems are a portal to the interior world of boys with skateboards or green shirts in the gallery, for example, and to more universal places and times, real and imagined, within and beyond memory.

Larger elements shape the everyday in India with thousands of years of rehearsal and concretion. After Mohan’s reading there was a well-meaning question about influences, the answer to which is found throughout a written [spoken and sung] legacy that long predates northern Europe’s. In some puzzlement about where to begin, Mohan mentioned the Upanishads; a repository of songful teachings riddled with poetry and philosophical wisdom dating from some 2750 years ago.

The preceding Vedas are more like hymnals, of course, but I’m peculiarly fond of the Upanishads. I know, I can remember, how dauntingly monumental they seem before you trust yourself enough to read them like you would anything else. I’d recommend two very different versions in English, Juan Mascaro [whose Gita is my favourite version of that part of the Mahabarata, and whose Dhammapada is essential reading] made a peculiar but accessible thing out of them. Penguin UK published them first in 1965, a very slim and very Sixties version that is a perfectly good place to start.

However, Valerie Roebuck’s much fuller and exact translations which were first published by Penguin India in 2000 [2004 edition at 592 pages available here] is a far better, clearer and work-withable volume. Poetry and paradox [wordplay and pun, too, as she says] are elemental to these invaluable verses and I think help make them and subcontinental culture open and more transparent as a result. The verses or aural ‘teachings’ come with clear and authoritative explicatory notes too.

Against the context of AK Mehrotra obtaining a large number of votes in an apparently hopeless race for the Oxford professorship last year [which he ought to have got by default], I look forward to Mohan’s selection of poems being available to us all to buy and read tantalised/ingly on trains, under trees, to each other [in the rain]. Until then, you can visit his website, blog or this page of poems which includes those I’ve borrowed. There is a podcast of the reading here.

After Midnight

by Mohan Rana

I saw the stars far off –

as far as I from them:
in this moment I saw them –
in moments of the twinkling past.
In the boundless depths of darkness,
these hours
hunt the morning through the night.

And I can’t make up my mind:
am I living this life for the first time?
Or repeating it, forgetting as I live
the first moment of breath every time?

Does the fish too drink water?
Does the sun feel the heat?
Does the light see the dark?
Does the rain too get wet?
Do dreams ask questions about sleep as I do?

I walked a long, long way
and when I saw, I saw the stars close by.
Today it rained all day long and the words were washed away
from your face.


susan sontag ‘in america’ 2000; revisited/residue

Susan Sontag‘s brand of earnest enthusiasm is completely redundant, right? The idea that you might live with a body of work [ha!] -especially written work [ha! ha!]- for a long time and then find a way to articulate what it means to you and perhaps us/we too is obviously ridiculous. Isn’t it?

I don’t think these things stand or fall around Sontag and I don’t think that it’s any easier to do the work of exception now; to stand back, up or out enough to be willing and able to celebrate, polemicise, passionately engage, act commitedly, work with words, difficult though they ought to be. No easier, no harder, no more necessary. No less.

Sontag is not the tool or resource I reach for either; she was historicised/historical, boringly everywhere and thus to be avoided as well as out of sync with some of what she was celebrating when I first encountered her ‘great’ essays on the ‘great’. I didn’t start with Sontag, but if you did, my only question was where you went afterwards? -because you did go ‘on’, no?

Then there are all the obvious ways in which she does incarnate American culture’s definitive civilisational moment, which I’m not going to call by any name or term, but which she surfed and was flooded with. Commodity/celebrity. You know, if you endlessly tell everyone every day that you are greatly detained with greatness, difficulty and authority, the wise will only listen awry. If you do it in the literally shiny pages of Vanity Fair, the wise become a little deaf. And yet. Flooded and surfing means that it is not contradictory. It is what it is.

So, I tried to critique Sontag’s In America honestly and for what it’s worth this little review called it right. I don’t mean to be dismissive, though, which is partly why I’m re-archiving it here and now. Nor do I mean to be seen to be right! [agents on the Estate Express don’t make ‘right’ either, nor my critique wrong, obviously.] Sontag’s novel may well be so bad in a way that it exemplifies the badness that is also its subject; American commodity/celebrity, in a perfectly condensed single volume.

Sontag worshipped books as possessions, brains as fetishes, writers and thinkers as gods/goddesses. There are admirable aspirations in there, residue beyond the packaging. All I can now recall about her going to Sarajevo and putting on Waiting for Godot in the late stages of a brutal siege is that she did it. It’s irreducible. While western powers contorted themselves to look the other way for year after year and so-called radicals corrupted themselves to ignore the mass murder of Bosnian Muslims before the world, she was there. She was there, being there, doing being there. I don’t care exactly why, or exactly what measurable impact it made, but I note that she went, stayed, knew what it was like. Just another person, not just another person.

There is something similar about the way her critical writing could work; the breathless intensity of baptismal enthusiasm for a book or a writer felt convincing [or not] while reading, generated an appetite for her object or a sugary rush and desire for more Sontag. It’s true that nothing of hers materially altered or even impacted on [made Sontagian] its object or my lasting understanding of it. Rather it enacted Sontag’s urgent appetite for it [of course], was a convincing herald for the work, took it so seriously that it could butterfly it all over again. The residue is urgency and appetite.

I was caught up by this when reading one of her last pieces; Loving Dostoevsky, in At The Same Time 2007. It recounts her accidental discovery of Leonid Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden and in essence her passionate admiration for the book [as well as “the incomparable” Dostoevsky, a sentiment I claim as my own]. I don’t want to say anything about Tsypkin, his book, or her critique, only to recall how affective her voice was within the first and last line of her piece. It excited me, I panicked about what else I didn’t know, whether I knew the author or not who now sounded so different, relished the sheer thrill of it all -as she presented it- and felt more alive and clarified in all I thought during those minutes of reading.

It’s easy to sneer about Godot resistance in Sarajevo -even if raised to the challenge of Camp Gaza today- easy to sneer about bursts of enthusiasm and gushing celebration of [dead] writers. Is anything much easier than such a sneer? In fact, it’s notably hard to articulate an agility of intellect or thirst in place of being merely academic and especially difficult to keep the words alive, generative.

The problem is legacy, or residue: if I can appreciate Sontag’s championing of under-recognised figures at one cultural moment, their subsequent ubiquity -or just belated recognition- belittles her effort. It’s forgotten/forgettable and, fatally, it’s polemical need to foreshorten makes it less critically robust after its assimilation too.

Did she know or realise this? Did she hope that the passion might out live the historicising correction? I know it isn’t that she didn’t care! Then again, it’s Calvino’s celebration of Fourier that lingers with me more than all the rest. Zizek’s introductory interpretation in English of Badiou too [yes!]. Then de Quincey’s short text on Kant is a tattoo of truth almost as lasting as Joseph Frank’s staggeringly good five volumes on Dostoevsky. Yet again, look at her perspectival acuity with regard to the Twin Towers and Abu Ghraib…

NB; Speaking of Dostoevsky and Frank, I missed the abridged version of his light-footed monument Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time, published by Princeton UP in December 2009. The publisher has a good page here, including contents and a pdf of the first chapter. There is an interview with 91 year old Frank here in which he says of Dostoevsky that “He poses questions in such a way that, whether you agree or not, it makes you think about them.”

Which reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s acute, urgently honest and revealing review of Frank’s Dostoevsky [orig. Feodor’s Guide VV 1996] in which the big questions asked by Dostoevsky of his world and of writing clearly formed a big brick in the wall that DFW must have hit at about that time*, finding himself perhaps on the wrong side of the only question/line that matters. Which reminds me, in contrast, of William Gaddis…

*It’s not online now, so I quote: “… we have abandoned the field … who is to blame for the philosophical passionlessness of our own Dostoevskys? The culture, the laughers? But they wouldn’t–could not–laugh if a piece of passionately serious ideological contemporary fiction was also ingenious and radiantly transcendent fiction. But how to do that–how even, for a writer, even a very talented writer, to get up the guts to even try?”


Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.30.56

Famous for 35 years

In America by Susan Sontag (Jonathan Cape, £16.99, 387pp)

Saturday, 27 May 2000

As a literary brand the name, Sontag is a synonym for serious. So the phrase “Susan Sontag’s new book” is a promise of significance. The writer has long grown accustomed to a state of “perma-profile” involving, on the one hand, recent battles with her good conscience in Sarejevo and against traumatic injury, as well as a second brush with the cancer she famously defeated in the 1970s. On the other is the dubious realm of critical sanctification and the Vanity Fair puff.

Sontag, born in 1933, earned a reputation in her thirties with the essay collections Against Interpretation and Styles of Radical Will. Her writing influenced what we think about camp, photography and illness, and helped make icons of European men such as Barthes, Canetti, Artaud, and the saturnine Walter Benjamin. She has long been “the most intelligent woman in America”, and countless column inches have been spent on the miles of book-shelves that line her Manhattan apartment.

She returned to fiction in 1992 with a well-received historical romance, The Volcano Lover: a novel invested with the matured intellectual vigour that fuelled her reputation. It was a gamble, and it revealed a problem: not the predictable cynicism of the intellectual, but the way that Sontag’s profile precedes, envelopes and smothers her work. It does so in the sense not just that In America is “Susan Sontag’s new book”, but also by her presence, which is felt on almost every page – sometimes deliberately, but rarely appropriately.

In America is the story of an actress and her successes in her native Poland and adopted America. In between, Maryna Zalewska, with an entourage that includes her husband the Count and another close admirer, gives up acting to found a utopian community in California – a brief experience of failure. The novel is set during the 1870s and is “inspired by” a historical figure. The actual actress’s exhaustingly researched biography has spurred on Sontag’s fascination with artistic celebrity, which she treats as an American story.

Marina’s stage genius is unrivalled in America, and Sontag writes at devoted length about her Shakespearean cameos, her fizzing fame and its endorsements – from fans and of products. At the end of her previous novel, the volcano lover himself, Sir William Hamilton, was judged against Sontag’s criteria of originality, discipline, invention and zeal. Hamilton was found wanting, but these are Marina’s possessions. Sontag celebrates them with this novel about one woman’s specialness.

In America is a bold attempt to inhabit the experience of success. The problem is that Sontag is rarely able to animate the past or, in particular, her characters. Sontag is essentially a collector, the figure she has so often written about, and her novels are the product of fascinations. The result here is inventive non-fiction awkwardly parading as a novel. Sontag’s appetites, perspectives and exactitudes would sparkle in almost any other form.

In The Volcano Lover, Sontag produced a vivid portrait of late-18th-century Naples. Her fascination with Neapolitan society in the age of Nelson and Napoleon was so effective that it compensated for the absence of a pumping heart in her story of Nelson and Emma Hamilton’s love affair. For In America, the equivalent object of fascination is the actress’s mobile world of veils, feints and flaming egotism. When the book is over, this leaves almost no residue. Further, Sontag has attempted to re-jig the 19th-century novel, which must teem with life, but cannot sustain the required imaginative autonomy.

Marina wonders whether “she had used up the allotted number of impossible feats her will could make possible”. Sontag writes often and well of American “willing”, the knowledge “that I can triumph by sheer stubbornness, by applying myself harder than anyone else”. Which is laudable – until the rigid fruit of such stubborn labouring is before you.

So few writers will risk their intellectual ambitions in the form of a story now that it’s tempting to minimise the failings of this attempt. But Sontag, aiming for absolute achievements, deserves more than tempered praise. The way that In America re-stages the American dream speaks urgently to the present; combined with Sontag’s abilities, it could be a triumph. Yet it fails because of her limitations as a fictionaliser, as she proves unable to free her narrative voices from authorial echo and prod – and, dare I suggest, a blinding self-regard.

Copyright 2009 Independent News and Media Limited

nasreen mohamedi; to basel 7 feb – 5 april

Nasreen’s Notes – Reflections on Indian Modernism [Pt 1] has now settled at the Kunsthalle Basel until the 5th of April.

More on the show is here. More on Nasreen Mohamedi is in an earlier post here and the current issue of Bidoun. Catch her work live if you possibly can.

The Estate of Nasreen Mohamedi is represented by Talwar Gallery NY here.

Where next? What next!

This image is one of several in the show, in which she has reframed high contrast photographs of the street, backyard and classroom furniture at Baroda where she taught. No direct link to her drawing, plenty of indirection…

subcon survey two/ whitechapel’s where three dreams cross & dayanita singh

The Whitechapel Gallery’s Where Three Dreams Cross [more info/artist list here] is another attempt to make up for long neglect. It’s sweepingly broad, with photographs from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh ranging across 150 years and grouped thematically; Family, Portrait, Body Politic, etc. These bundle together anonymous studio portraits, family snaps, publicity cards and photojournalism; images historic and incidental, urban and rural, plus work from artists born in 1870 through to the 1970s -including Bani Abidi for example.

I have as many curatorial queries if not criticisms as there are images and they thematise around the question of who this is aimed at? But Where Three Dreams Cross is essential viewing. It’s a pay show, but admission is free for under 18s and all on Sunday mornings from 11-1 a.m. You’ll need hours or more than one visit and can’t rely on the catalogue which has useful texts but is a frustratingly incomplete record.

Quartet & Doppleganger [Two Amritas] fromRe-Take of Amrita 2001 Vivan Sundaram

Amongst the multitudes are famous people and princes, rare images of poets and musicians, familiar ones by the A.S.I., Lala Deen Dayal, Raghubir Singh and Ragu Rai, for example. What makes it work are the glimpsed treasures; a set of hand-tinted [or miniaturised, popular-style, peacocks and all] family portraits staged before temples, another of Sufi Pir Baba by Tapu Zaveri, selections from Jyoti Bhatt, Gauri Gill [see Bidoun’s Noise] and Aasim Akhtar, as well as the brilliant Unknown and Anonymous.

Then there are the peculiarly subcontinental linkages/lineages; Umrao Singh Sher-Gil’s mesmerising self-portraits downstairs, as well as Vivan Sundaram‘s photo-montages of Umrao and his daughter Amrita Sher-Gil [aunt of VS, who is married to art critic Geeta Kapur who supplies a catalogue essay] upstairs. Then there are Nony Singh’s photographs of her family, including ‘Nixi’s’ young life up until she leaves for college in Ahmedabad, Gujarat…

Dayanita Singh: Nixi on Foot at the Dream Villa

Dream Villa 16 2007-08 Dayanita Singh

‘Nixi’ is Dayanita Singh, represented here by recent Dream Villa photographs in colour and her project of 7 fold-out booklets, Sent a Letter, which include Nony’s photographs with her own of Allahabad, Calcutta, Varanasi, etc. I’m torn between choosing one of DS’s poems -as she calls them- from Dream Villa and one of her mother’s family snaps.

Nony took photographs of her family obsessively, some of the evidence is on the wall, more of it is on Nixi’s face here. In the exhibition this image comes with vital additional notes; “Nixi on her way to study at the National Institute of Design. I just knew she was talented as an artist and fought with my protective husband to let her go. It was expensive. I had no idea what she would become one day”.

I was admiring too but a bit sceptical of what DS did in her early [intimate, ambivalent] tableaux of variously located privilege and desolate or evacuated grandeur. However, in parallel with her brilliant Myself Mona Ahmed [Scalo 2001] project -published with emails from subject to publisher- they promised much and have arrived at something very special. A few pages of MMA and Privacy [Steidl 2004] occupy a vitrine here.

Dream Villa‘s images of nocturnal street lights exemplify this specialness for me [see current Delhi show]; the familiarly angled, bolted-onto-anything lights of urban back streets and the edges of connected-up villages. I loved them when she showed them first in London [2008], recognising their airs -the times and spaces they illuminate- but wondered momentarily if that recognition was necessary for them to ‘work’. In fact, Dream Villa represents a clarified art that needs no referent -even if they can be found. It is what it is.

Nony’s image of Nixi about to set foot free is quietly exquisite. It reminds me of a letter of Emily Dickinson’s which asks; “How is your little Byron? Hope he gains his foot without losing his genius. Have heard it ably argued that the poet’s genius lay in his foot -as the bee’s prong and song are concomitant.” Nony’s image is of her own Byron gaining her foot, impatiently patient in shades of possessive release.

Where Three Dreams Cross is full of little moments of this kind. Little moments of layered resonance. Here Nixi in the eyes of Nony echoes the work of Vivan with his aunt and grandfather -minus self-consciousness and compelling perversity. Moments that insist upon further exploratory exhibitions of  depth, substance, context and celebration beyond this prefatory survey.

mc is … [michael clark sadlers wells 2001]

Michael Clark Before and After: The Fall

Sadlers Wells 2001

‘mc is …’ was a specially commissioned publication sold in place of a programme during the performances at Sadlers Wells. It included the text that follows, a ‘poster’ of images/stills by Tom Gidley and was designed by hyperkit.

mc is …

by Guy Mannes-Abbott


mc is.

mc is not.

mc is contrary.

mc has “the quirk that makes him innovate,” as Mark E. Smith once said.

mc is alive!

mc is a soft and muscular, polite and prankish, economical but very present presence in person. He’s calm, still, focused, good humoured and yet at the mercy of temperamental appetites.

mc is an utterly mesmerising dancer with a unique physical presence on stage. For two decades, dancing solo or leading his various companies, he’s done things like no one else and like no-one else can. Surrounded by the exceptional dancers of his own companies -boy friends and good friends- he’s all on his own: a singular and therefore solitary figure.

mc is consistent/inconsistent.

mc is a dancer whose earliest choreography famously mixed elements from his schooling in classical and contemporary ballet with traditional Scottish dancing, as well as the pogo -punk’s incarnation. I see untrained gestures like the sashay and other camp elements in his work from the mid 1980s. I see traces of voguing and break dancing in his work from the late 1980s and early 1990s. All the work bears an enabling influence from visual art, both in terms of the languages of installation and performance art as well as in terms of licence. But there is spirit in his dance and it’s something more, something other than all these things.

mc is a choreographer.

mc can be astonishing.

mc sits close to Jean Cocteau in my mind. I was reading Francis Steegmuller’s biography of the director of Orphee and Blood of the Poet in the summer of 1986. It tells a story of the precocious but unformed Cocteau and his pursuit of Diaghilev, the charismatic impresario behind the Russian Ballet, in 1912. Diaghilev repelled Cocteau in a Parisian street with two politely chosen words: “Astound me!”

mc performed No Fire Escape in Hell at Sadlers Wells in September 1986, dancing to music by The Fall and with Laibach performing on stage. It was a stunning performance that met the command to “astound me” head on and is one of the most remarkable artistic events I have witnessed. It was a privilege to be there then.

mc is sashaying.

mc is perfectly poised, turning dance inside-out with immaculate precision.

mc is getting away with it.

mc can be disappointing. In 1986, he also performed in Mark E. Smith’s drama, Hey Luciani, along with Leigh Bowery and friends. Here mc explored the other end of the same spectrum as brilliance: getting away with it.

mc was pushing into, creating, new territory and discovering how much he could achieve and how little he needed to wing it. One is the obverse of the other; they are the twin-products of creative necessity at its most ambitious. It’s about creating space that becomes uniquely yours to maneuver in with complete freedom.

mc was a peculiarly pretty young man.

mc is a peculiarly pretty middle aged man, whose face retains a kind of angelic innocence even though age has leveled back its striking features, in particular that kissed-ripe mouth.

mc possesses a miraculous smile. It cracks open his pretty head with a dash of ear to ear bliss. It seems to express an ecstatic beatitude. It is a remarkable thing: if it also conferred love it would melt you on the spot.

mc is no angel but he retains a complex and necessary innocence that generates and protects the faith in him required to do what he must.

mc is a Sex Pistol.

mc is no longer wearing the big nappy pin in the top of his right ear that he wore through the 1990s, his 4th decade. Good with journalists, he told one that it was a reminder of his punk roots. This is obviously not simply true nor simply a joke but a sassy remark that ricochets off the truth, giving it angles. This is why, at an age when some people start wearing leather trousers, he could get away with it.

mc is a Sex Pistol. Bored but quick-witted he’s responding to a question posed, safety-pin-in-cheek, by The Face. It’s the summer of 1992 and Michael Clark’s Modern Masterpiece [Mmm], including a dance choreographed around ‘Submission’, hits London. Asked which Sex Pistol he would want to be, he said “Myself. I am a Sex Pistol.” It’s a more telling response than it appears. Rather than accepting a likeness, he’s insistent on taking the place of the original.

mc looks like a punk ballerina in Charles Atlas’ film, Hail the New Puritans [1985]. In a sweetly funny scene, his friends Leigh Bowery and Trojan are dressing to go out with fantastic flare and mc appears in his bleeched mohican, Destroy t-shirt and leather jacket, kilt and big DMs and says “I feel under-dressed”. Amidst friendly flurries of angular, multi-dimensional bitching Trojan says in a voice oozing camp: “Punk’s dead Mi-chael!”

mc is routinely described in boxing’s tabloid terms. So, he’s not The Dark Destroyer or The Louisville Lip but endlessly and forever The Punk Ballerina, etcetera, ad nauseum. It’s a one-dimensional, laughably reductive approach.

mc is not a Sex Pistol.

mc is an original.

mc is a choreographer.

mc’s originality is visible in his movements, his rhythms, his use of space as well as time. It’s there in the coming together and his taking apart, the explosive vitality and negative moves, shapes and forms he conjures.

mc’s originality is embodied in the elegant awkwardness, the creative undoing, that is his dance. It’s in the anti-gestures and movements and the way they amass to form something affirmative of life lived dangerously. It’s there in the attitude it projects though not in the way that critics identify with such knowing certainty: loving it, hating it. To the extent to which there is attitude in his dance, it’s an attitude that refuses distinctions between dance and life, ugly and beautiful, etc. A strategic, side-stepping attitude that rejects the obvious and so should make you suspicious of signals, especially anything overt.

mc is, for example, a wanker.

mc is a wanker. Penises, phalluses: painted onto costumes, held tauntingly in the hand or taking the form of glittering Leigh Bowery costume teapots [in Because We Must 1987], abound in his work. In New Puritan from 1984, which forms the first part of Before and After: The Fall, and in the new work for which Sarah Lucas has made a huge cast of mc’s fisted hand, there is -to be precise- choreographed masturbation. This is the kind of thing that people describe as attitude, but that expresses a certain blindness. These in-your-face signals are meant as distractions, but rather than diverting from a lack of seriousness, they achieve the opposite and allow mc to indulge his serious commitment to making art. The diversion is really a psychological sleight of hand. So, the badges of attitude do signal a kind of insecurity but not in the way that is commonly presumed.

mc has got unusually strong, extending feet. They are the enablers and foundations of his athleticism, grace and control. They give him singular elegance and height on stage. Without them, off stage, he is much smaller.

mc is brilliantly reptilian as a gobbing Caliban in Peter Greenaway’s deadening pratfall of a film, Prospero’s Books [1991].

mc moves in time and space like no one else -even confined to a fake rock in a movie.

mc is, you see, a choreographer.

mc says: “Stop there, you should stop there before you move on … You have to go down, you have to go up, you have to go down … I’m not convinced you’ve got the rhythm … Look! Did you see that? I want you to do more there … There ought to be someone else with you there to get the rhythm right, ba dum … ba dum … ba dum.”

mc says these things warmly, sharing hearty laughter and staccato giggles with his dancers.

mc says these things very precisely, totally committed to solving flaws in movements -in terms of the body and the stage- and rhythm in particular. It’s a matter of finding a way to do something that has not been done before and to do it perfectly.

mc says these things about choreography that is exceptionally difficult and which has been danced with impeccable sublimity before. You wouldn’t want to fail him.

mc’s voice is soft and yet it’s the sound of him stripping everything to the bone of something particular which it is seeking. Something irreducible. So, it’s soft and hard. It’s also just there, it doesn’t project or thrust itself over distances. It’s a voice used to intimacy, shaped for close quarters and indulged by listeners. In that way it’s quite indistinct. It does contain notable emphases but they’re softening ones: o’s are elongated into black holes, words like “doin’” are marshmallowed. The accent is mostly urbanised, apart from a gentle Scottish burr on the r’s and very occasional intrusions of non-urban sound-slips.

mc is and always was a choreographer.

mc is anxious.

mc is probably, possibly, evidently, certainly entitled to be, anxious. For the first time the Michael Clark Dance Company is going to perform without him on stage. For a temperamental risk-taker this is a supremely risky, up-for-auction, moment of truth. Previously mc has pushed the bounds knowing that his own dancing is so startling that it can rescue a performance, if necessary.

mc is not dancing.

mc is no longer dancing. Now we will all see if there is an imprint left after his own feet have been removed from the performance.

mc will not be dancing. For Before and After the 5 female dancers that make up his new company are performing the Before work from New Puritan. New Puritan uses music by The Fall from the early 1980s from Dragnet, through Slates to Hip Priest and Kamerads. At the time, mc and company performed for the band on The Old Grey Whistle Test, and these dances are the centrepiece of Hail the New Puritans.

mc explodes with startling energy in these dances. Aged 22 and with his newly founded company mc has everything to play for, nothing to lose, complete faith in what he’s doing and good fortune is his ally. There are loopy sets designed by his intimate friend Trojan, also the inspiration behind faces painted with misplaced noses and mouths. There are Taboo-era costumes by Leigh Bowery. mc is all glitter boots, green vinyl hat, proto-Madonna tits, and assless trousers. He’s surrounded by wigs and lipstick, y-fronts and Sue Barker tennis knickers, mohicans and more bare-assed cheek.

mc says about The Fall and his choreography: “I enjoy the simplicity of the actual music of The Fall, because it gives me a broader canvas as it were, to make whatever I want to on.”

mc dances butt-naked -to be precise- before fried egg tree-plants, half a lemon and huge hanging y-fronts.

mc is unarsed, not arsed.

mc displays his ambition before us and we see all the stretch marks of making. These dances captured an extraordinary promise.

mc doesn’t care and cares very much. Mark E. Smith squeaks “unclean! unclean!” ‘Spectre vs Rector’ is a circus display of nerve and confidence; graceful set pieces are cut against mc and partner dancing wildly together, the entire company wear gorgeously excessive costumes. Scratching his own arse, licking and biting his dance partner’s, mc sashays in catwalk, dance floor style.

mc is bare-arsed, pirouetting slowly just so’s you know. So’s you know what?

mc is signaling something beyond the critic-blinding arse to other dimensions. And the signal is the thing that is absent, the critical hole in the trousers, where everything beyond dance is. It tells us that there is more to dance than mere dance itself. Sometimes it takes brazen nakedness and club-couture to do it. This is a performance-event that contains dance as well as something else, and the something else is extremely important. It is life -with things beyond the sealed world of dance, elements that exceed the strict execution of technique- that is being staged here. Those improper, contingently intrusive elements circle out and around, returning to reinvigorate the dance itself.

mc is, in a complex and convoluted sense, “tarrying with the negative” as Slavoj Zizek describes it.

mc is dancing along the pavement which becomes a beachy stage. I’ve seen it myself.

mc is dancing the street onto a staged beach. Seen that too.

mc dances solo, bare-arsed again in a short wide frilly apron, blond wig and make-up. It’s ‘Prole Art Threat’ and movements are fast, frantic, with backward jerks and characteristic reversals. It starts to look like tape played backwards, and in the film of it, it is. It’s ‘Gramme Friday’ and movements are stiff, twirling, sober and finally resolved in symmetrical formations. They’re interrupted by mc doing The Candid Camera, with a bowl of goldfish carrots, plucked, wiggled and swallowed, with a shimmying wink.

mc is dancing to The Fall, of all the music ever produced in the world. Their trademark is jerky, jagged, awkward, refusing, deliberately discomforting, belligerent, pissed-off music. Music by the man whose head expanded, who is sticking to a gang of one, will cut a hole in the rain for you and likes people who live in kitchens and halls.

mc develops these qualities into movements that are jagged and broken, sudden and quotidian, as well as very difficult to do. He choreographs dance listening to the rhythms in his own head. He does it because he can: one of the many subtexts is that if you can dance to this you can dance to anything. And you can!

mc is alive!

mc is dancing to life, expressing an appetite for living it dangerously.

mc is dancing to live, to feel alive and because it’s what being alive is for him.

mc approaches life with dance, it’s all he has to say about it, to it, of it.

mc is a choreographer. When he danced these pieces there was a perfect naturalness to his movements, an amazing poise amidst the perversity. In the more complex dances, for ‘Ludd Gang’ and ‘Copped It’ in which the whole company dances, your eye begins and ends on mc. Other dancers are exceptional, other dancers can perform these awkward moves, other dancers can do attitude. But there is and was something else about mc’s performance.

mc has unique presence on stage.

mc is a choreographer and the ‘something else’ is partly in the dance, the natural awkward brilliance of it is embedded in the choreography. If you subtract mc from his choreography you lose his unique physical presence but you’re left with his thinking, his rhythms, his approach to space and appetite for newness.

mc is in rehearsal with dancers who are about the age he was when he formed his first company in 1982. They’re serious, committed, ambitious and eager to prove it but they’re about to dance mc’s role and seminal early work. They’re all in this together, huddled around a video playback monitor, laughing and joshing. It’s an endearing sight.

mc has swum oceans of publicity.

mc often talks football to journalists. Talking about Mmm and the pivoting of much of the dance on the pelvis he compares the severe angles and speed achieved to the footwork of Maradonna. He’s often talked of dancing at Ibrox stadium at half-time.

mc can be candid about his self abusing usage of drugs, in particular. He says; “I don’t know how much choice there was involved,” during his years of addiction. “I mean; it was beyond my control.” Candid too, about falling through the floor after Leigh Bowery’s death in 1994. About the years living incognito with his mother back home in Scotland. About losing people and things. About being broke. About surviving.

mc reminds me of a Will Oldham song, ‘I am a cinematographer’, performed by Palace Brothers on Days in the Wake from 1994. Will sings “I was a big old bear once … I walked away from everything that shone … only to find that everything had gone. Now I am a cinematographer.”

mc talks often about Bessie Clark, their closeness, her spunky solidity. He’s proud of the central importance of their relationship. She’s there in the films, and on one occasion -in Mmm– he literally pulled her into his work.

mc often talks of self destructiveness: that of his alcoholic father and of artists compelled to explore new horizons in their work. Everything is at stake in that compulsion to innovate.

mc’s own words contain elemental truths and consistent claims for his work. No-one else’s words get very close to conjuring what he does, what is witnessed in his dance, what it is.

mc says quite often that he wants to remind himself why he needed to dance in the first place. Every new piece is built from this recovered need.

mc says that he and Bowery would egg-on each other to over extend themselves in various ways. This odd English construction: ‘egging-on’, is a key note in his work and was bound up with the great friendship which ended at the time of Mmm.

mc believes dance involves a language that can’t be reduced to black and white. Hence the difficulty in finding words for his dance’s awkward shapes, turned-inwards back-to-front movements and promiscuousness. He talks of the challenge this poses and of wanting to recover the first human impulses to dance.

mc believes in the necessity of dance.

mc believes it’s the artist’s job to report back from those dangerous regions of life: the outer limits.

mc lives his dance fully, adventurously, recklessly.

mc is an artist. This is the highest compliment I could pay him as a dancer and I’ve thought hard and long about it.

mc admires Nijinsky and in particular the way he rejected what he knew as a dancer to choreograph Stravinsky’s The Rite Of Spring in 1913.

mc takes risks and a typically bold one was his remodeling of Nijinsky in Mmm. In particular, he remade the ‘dance to the death’, the choreography for which drew critical praise for the show. For mc this was a dance of life, of change, seasonal and otherwise. Cocteau was obsessed with Nijinsky who was the star of Diaghilev’s company, and it was on hearing Stravinsky’s original music for The Rite of Spring that he said he understood the “state of surprise” that Diaghilev must have meant when he instructed him to “Astound me!”

mc generated that same state of surprise in me when I saw Mmm at the Kings Cross Depot in 1992. It thrilled me with its possibilities, potency and sheer vigour as well as the difficult precision of the dance. It was a gorgeous event. There are other criteria for excellence of course, but this was again astounding, exciting, exhilarating to witness and to feed from.

mc is a choreographer. His choreography has become cleaner, more concentrated, stripped back and more to do with the body itself. This was particularly evident in current/SEE [1999] in which he performed to the music of Big Bottom, a 5-piece band of bass guitarists. In much of that work it seemed that the dance had come home to mc’s body, and he had come home to his most elemental appetite for dancing.

mc’s work is about being alive.

mc’s work is the work of an artist. However, of course, dance work has its own very particular rigours and disciplines. To work hard at dance is to mean something very specific. It’s almost unique in its combination of ancient disciplines -mountains that have to be climbed- and a chronologically early cut off point that is more the domain of the pop singer or the model. An old dancer is no longer a dancer. They are, if they’re lucky or brilliant, a choreographer.

mc is a choreographer.

mc is choreographing new work.

mc is in uncharted territory: choreographing work that he will not dance. It may prove a liberation. Now that complex accumulated style, rhythmic intelligence and innovating appetite can focus on the thing in front of it, as opposed to things around it. It can shape the material it has before it, force it to do the highly particular thing that it wants. Find solutions for difficult movements, rhythms and sequences.

mc is choreographing new work around old musical favourites.

mc is making work which has expanded away from the body again while still evincing new concentrations and clarities.

mc is cheating probability with this new work. He still feels the necessity to make dance. He’s facing forwards and has things to prove, challenges to meet, solutions to find in the form of other people’s perfectly-tuned bodies.

mc is a choreographer.

mc is not dancing.

mc is alive in the imprint of his feet that have left the stage.

mc lives in the shapes, the rhythms before you. They are many things, including unmistakable. This is mc’s leap into the future. This is his new horizon, to be approached with sashaying, awkward, difficult, funny brilliance.

mc is not.

mc is.

mc was.

mc is.

© The Author. 2000.

subcon survey one/ saatchi’s the empire strikes back & yamini nayar

I don’t like survey shows -especially of the squeeze a culture or a continent into one building in London type- but The Empire Strikes Back at the Saatchi Gallery is a must-see. It’s an elegantly curated glimpse of subcontinental art weighted, of course, towards Big Statement and Painting -most of the latter of which could date from any of the last five decades.

Of the bigger names here -Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Jitish Kallat, Rashid Rana- I’m happiest to see Atul Dodiya’s scandalously neglected work in London and now hope for a dedicated exhibition of it. The ‘blame’ for such seasoned indifference and the real limitations on this particular show are contextual; British incuriosity about the actuality of India [and beyond] despite its renewed global status.

Admission to Saatchi’s ’empire’ is free; no complaints, no excuses!

Yamini Nayar: What is Essential

I’d not come across Yamini Nayar or her work before. Born in Detroit, resident in New York, claimed by art criticism as one of the upcoming stars of new Indian art, her work  explores ambiguities of exactly this kind. Saatchi is showing 4 photographs dating from 2006-08; table-top constructions of mostly interior spaces, assembled from scraps/found objects before being photographed and discarded. Her own website [which includes her Studies; potential buildings rendered in lines drawn on photos of derelict sites] is here, and her gallery is here.

What is Essential 2006 51 x 61 cm Yamini Nayar

One way of entering this image is through David Lynch and the uncanny, but why use the back door? These highly ambiguous spaces are more potent with now: the world as it is and might be. What is Essential is surprisingly but appropriately small in actuality. It’s also one of the most close-up and two-dimensional of her constructions and thereby unrepresentative, but it contains all that intrigues me in her work.

At first glance What is Essential is a room, oddly but recognisably decorated. It could be anywhere but then again it must have been approached via the subcontinent; the simultaneity of four textures, the unlikeliness of those bird sculptures, the glittering objects on floor, table and wall. At the same time it’s an image about the u-topic quality of space in 2010; everywhere and nowhere, spontaneously generated as place, a kind of archival utopian vision.

But it is the coppery ‘gold’ button with its ambitious thread that engages me, granting the possibility that the parachutist might be on his way up rather than falling, captured in flight like the birds. This element is more typical of her other work too; the use of objects with ambiguous scale, or of objects as synonym or metaphor, stand ins for other things which are also approximate. The catalogue describes these objects as ready mades, which is reasonable, but then their readymadeness requires specific referents or context. What is their context?

In this model of a suggestively real interior, the button -if that’s what it ‘is’- is an open signifier. Nayar’s art is located here; the other photographs in the show and beyond build from this and this is why they are so potently suggestive. Suggestive of architectural, cinematic, religious, domestic, crime scene, student bedroom, sufi retreat, miniature painting, spooky/site-specific art installation as well as many equally improvised rooms that I’ve stood in in big cities, mountainsides or on desert fringes in the subcontinent itself.

I want to insist that these are not stills or single frames but movies, dense poems, potent visions, proper ‘utopias’ for our age; broken down but also cobbled together, existing, even if only in this moment now. The task is to extend the moment and build in it…

‘forting’ london: rebel city 2001

AA Files Issue 42 Spring 2001 Architectural Association School of Architecture London

[‘Forting’ was published with a number of critically important images, maps and illustrations, some of which I’ve added to the text as it appears/ed in my now archived site. It’s part of the published residue of research and lectures given at the AA- work which is ongoing, never-ending, in fact central to two upcoming ‘projects’.]


by Guy Mannes-Abbott

hyper mobile mud//

… authentic politics is… the art of the impossible – it changes the very parameters of what is considered ‘possible’ in the existing constellation.

Slavoj Zizek, The Ticklish Subject

We have grown very poor in threshold experiences… The threshold must be carefully distinguished from the boundary. A Schwelle [threshold] is a zone. Transformation, passage, wave action are in the word schwellen, swell…

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

I find something which consoles me a bit for having walked… this road of the impossible… I find something as immaterial, yet earthly, terrestrial, in the shape of a circle… a meridian.

Paul Celan, Collected Prose

Preserved on a very small piece of paper is an image, yet another image – the latest in an endless stream – of one of the world’s greatest cities: London. But this one – like striking beauty glimpsed and repeatedly conjured up – is memorable, vivid, indelible. It is a fresh London face – with all the ethical force that that implies – drawn by George Vertue1 and entitled ‘An Explanation of the Several Forts on the Line of Communication’ which were built around London during the English Civil War of 1642-3.

Vertue’s make-over of the capital first appeared in Maitland’s huge History of London (1738)2 and it remains the best – and almost only – map of the fortifications that so impressively protected the city. The forts were a system of colossal defences, dug from London earth which was formed into mounds, walls, ditches and trenches to defend the city from attack. The attackers were King Charles I and his royalist army, determined to regroup and recover London, the city of Parliamentary revolt. The enclosing ring, or ‘Lines of Communication’, was the connecting tissue between forts – sightline, defence, message route and an early stab at a network for the disparate capital.

As with Paris, there are countless unrealized plans for the formalizing, restructuring and organizing of the growing metropolis of London. Unlike Paris, smashed into classical shape by Baron Haussmann, London – ‘its only identity a lack of a clear identity’3 – never received the imprint of the large-scale urban planner (not, at least, after its Roman inception). Not Wren’s post-Great Fire plans, not Queen Anne’s Fifty Churches Act, not various GLC plans, not Richard Rogers’ riverizing plans (all of which were partial in any case). London developed piecemeal, not ad hoc so much as ‘in hock’ – to the private estates and enterprising interests of the court, the church and the aristocracy. Burnt, bombed, unclassical, unwritten London is the greatest example of an unruly bursting-forth – a hand-made mess of a world city.

So Vertue’s image is an image of the only achieved formalization of a city that remains the epitome of unreadably chaotic expansion. This image, this piece of paper, these century-late estimations of the locations of thousands of tonnes of soil and wood, is all that remains of London’s greatest stab at form. It’s an image of London’s largest-scale construction, a defining monument to the city. A city and its spirit of hope.

This is mid-seventeenth-century London, a time and place of intense political, cultural and social activity, a people in the process of constructing an international identity as an Imperial power, with all that flows from that – not least literally, along the Thames, that pre-industrial conveyor belt of Empire-to-come.

This is the London of the old Old London Bridge, the thundering north-south route through Southwark and the City, rain-forested by churches and encrusted with the palaces of the court and the church. It is London before the Great Plague and Fire, of Old St. Paul’s, Westminster and Lambeth Palaces. A London of horses, river-boat crossings and tanneries, open sewers and spas, duels and archery, windmills and toll-gates, Marvell and Milton, of Dissenters and Levellers. It is a London on the cusp: the rigidities of feudalism melting into the more participatory democracy of constitutional monarchy and mercantilism.

This is the densely signifying heart of London shorn of the later suburban sprawls of Islington, Hackney, Clapham, Bloomsbury, Chelsea or Kensington. A London without docks and associated industries, with marshland in Lambeth and Wapping, reservoirs in Chelsea, pesthouses for early plague victims out on a limb in the fields of Victoria and Clerkenwell, with open brooks cutting to the river banks north and south. This map contains the magnetic, hypnotic, addictive locus of all that we mean by the fabulously rich word ‘London’. Above all else, this is an image of Utopian enclosure, a city barricaded all around in support of a revolutionary new form of government, a circle of defiance, lines of commitment that forced life-and-death decision-making on its populace. It is an image of revolution and sudden change, with London as its home and closer than ever before to its people.

It is also a map of something actual but no longer traceable, and this absence of physical trace rehearses the properly Utopian element of such an enclosure which is, strictly speaking, a non-place or un-place. And it is made mobile – mobilized – as a result. Today this en route Utopianism chimes perfectly with our contemporary experience of nonphysical – but, contra Paul Virilio,4 no less actual – virtuality. Just as we understand consciousness differently – no longer locked away in internal or inner space, but encoded and fluid (out there) – so too is reality infested with virtuality and vice versa.

This enables us to conceive of new, mobile, dirty Utopian enclosures whereby limits are drawn and theorized within in ways that are physically traceless (but no less potently actual for that). This is a Utopianism written in time (time in space rather than space in time). It is a Utopianism, therefore, of dynamic form – as opposed to prescriptive schema. A Utopianism that is broken-down, miniaturized, cobbled together, as light and mobile as digital space, an insistent and necessary hope against hope. It is a dirty Utopianism that can take something elemental (like time) and transform it.

In Wong Kar-Wai’s film Days of Being Wild5 the lead character eventually persuades a woman who is resolutely refusing his advances to spend a random minute with him in silence. After huddling together watching the seconds pass, he declares that from 16 April 1960 ‘we’ve been friends for one minute. This is a fact you can’t deny. It’s happened’ – he will always remember it. This act of memorializing forms the film’s narrative dynamic and it does prove unforgettable in peculiar ways. But it is also an act that exceeds its context; the political instability in Hong Kong at this time, and the totally dissolute, incoherent, listlessly ‘in-between’ lives that characterize the film and the period in which it was made – the 1990s (so brilliantly staged in Kar-Wai’s classic pair, Chungking Express and Fallen Angels).

This is an ‘act proper’ in the Zizekian sense – a hysterical, decontextualizing act that precipitates qualitative change. This is so in terms of the film itself but also in terms of Kar-Wai’s reworking of the experience of the millennial city and its globalized cultural spaces. It is a Utopian act in a form and of a material available to us all. It is a bursting forth, highly mobile, unanchored Utopianism, technologically and spatially contemporary: a generative, radical act. It also invokes a notion of threshold in which such an act involves the destruction of what is (in this instance, the shiny static junkyard of postmodernity). It is modest but potent, elemental not sophisticated, individual yet incorporative. It is dirty Utopianism.

Vertue’s image is one in which a revolutionary Utopia is identical with the city itself. It is an enclosure, a London with a very clear – and notably widely shared – image of itself as something formally new, something worth fighting for. It is a battleground, a potential tabula rasa – since the city was threatened with an obliterative ‘sacking’ – as well as an example of how to think through the notion of London as a whole in the present, because what it involves is a mobility of mind, a proper grasp of the potential spaces of historical mud and contemporary virtuality.

Fort-building or forting is synonymous with fighting: the construction of a shared identity worth fighting for. No one in seventeenth-century London was in any doubt as to the stakes involved in forting – this leap into the muddy dark – and no one knew where the first insurrectionary step would lead. We can and should understand future-talk as exactly this, a fuel of change, a strategic necessary projection and a formal dynamism that is enabling and generative. Today, George Vertue’s representation of London will enable me to construct the city as a threshold zone – a site where everything is at stake and everything becomes possible again. Through an uncanny relationship with other forms of Utopian enclosure and the communal investment of actual change, we will arrive at the present, equipped with technologies that are defined by their mobility in the realms – or threshold zone – of the potential/actual; a threshold zone that is multi-directional, constructive and destructive, unlimited, virtual, non-physical and ferociously effective against the world that we actually experience.

the threshold zone//

His equipment was meagre: the shovel, the pick, the wagon, the trowel, the wheelbarrow – the simple tools of every race … before the mechanical age. His achievement was truly admirable.

Le Corbusier, on Haussmann, Urbanisme

In place of grand narrative it [Thomas Carlyle’s Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell, 1845] …offered a politics of the personal, in which spiritual economy – or what Carlyle… called ‘soul-effort’ or ‘soul-striving’ – replaced constitutional progress as the measure of worth.

Raphael Samuel, Island Stories: Unravelling Britain

I approached to make the tour around about and descending to the lower end of Wapping there I beganne my circuit… close by the houses and the River Thames’ [10] Lithgow encountered a ‘seven angled fort… erected of turffe and watles and earthenworke [as are all the rest] having nine portholes, and as many cannon; and near the top, round about pallosaded with sharpe wooden stakes, fixt in the bulwarkes, right out, and a foot distant from another, which are defensive for sudden scalets, and single ditched below, with a court du guard within.

This is unofficial history, where sources are anecdotal, contingent and unstable. There is no trace of the forts built around the city of London to defend the parliamentary revolution from the King, because Parliament itself ordered their removal before Charles I was executed in 1649 (their erasure was completed by the Restoration of Charles II’s monarchy in 1660, which saw the disinterring and decapitating of Cromwell’s body, and produced the constitutional settlement that we inhabit today). So, while there are Acts of Parliament that protect sites of vital cultural heritage – such as the numerous remains of royal palaces – there is none that marks the system of defences built to protect that very same Parliamentary will. In trying to pin-point the historical matter we enter a philosophical loop in which we go back to a beginning only to find it is not there.

To be precise: I have the word of one man prone to exaggeration – William Lithgow (successfully prosecuted for lying about his experience of the Spanish Inquisition); [6] an extremely loosely drawn map by William Stukeley (whose recovery of stone patterns at Stonehenge and Avebury for a Druid culture has long been controversial) [7] published in 1720; a series of fake drawings of the forts by a captain in Cromwell’s army; [8] glimpses by the reliable Daniel Defoe [9] of extant earthworks half a century later; and then street names, anecdotes and deduction based on what these clues tell combined with the certainty that the forts did exist, and that locations can be estimated from contemporary maps and records.

This matters. As soon as you recognize the London in Vertue’s map you want to superimpose it on London today, but quickly you find that the sites and lines are contested. They exist in a domain of radical interpretation. It matters because this event and story is so fundamental to the story of the English and Britain, an identity that is up for grabs, on the cusp again.

In the mid-seventeenth century the constitution was literally being fought over, the House of Lords vanquished, relations with Europe molten; in the early twenty-first century we see the dismantling of the English Empire in the UK, the beginnings of the end of the Lords and relations within Europe molten once more. Then and now, new national and pan-national identities emerge. Then and now new ways to think about identity in cultural, political and social terms develop. Notions of self, of citizenship, the relationship to a collectivity (today uniquely mobile but nevertheless still there), of what the emergent crowd is exactly, demand rearticulation. How such things are embodied in political terms (and so in terms of collective rights and responsibilities which are reinvested in projects such as social housing) becomes urgently significant as a result.

insurrectionary matter//

The constructions of history are comparable to military orders that discipline the true life and confine it to barracks. On the other hand: the street insurgence of the anecdote. The anecdote brings things near to us spatially, lets them enter our life.

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

I found the grasse growing deep in the royall Court of the King’s House.

William Lithgow. The Present Surveigh Of London and England’s State

The resolution of the parliamentary Common Council provided for a bulwark and a half, with a battery at the north end of Gravel (now Wapping) Lane – close to the site of Hawksmoor’s church St George-in-the-East, completed in 1726 – Fort No. 1 on Vertue’s map. Lithgow proceeded northwards along the trench dyke ‘for all the Trenches are deep ditched about’, on through the fields towards the road leading to Essex via ‘Myle’ End Green (where he saw two other small defences), at Whitechapel. Here was a ‘nine angled fort only pallosaded and single ditched and planted with seven pieces of brazen ordinance, and a court du guard composed of timber and thatched with tyle stone as all the rest are’ – Fort No. 2.

Turf, wattle, thatch, earthworks, timber stakes and ditches – the stuff of insurrection. Wapping Fort is the perfect example of insurrectionary mud. Elsewhere on London’s westside were the more urban chains and guarded road-blocks that are associated with the later rebellions in Paris. In the French capital it was more a case of insurrectionary cobble: in the 1830 revolution, over 4,000 barricades were built from 8,125,000 paving stones.[11] Indeed this form of rebellion was one of the things that Haussmann aimed to end by the construction of wide, strategically connective boulevards throughout the city of Empire. In Paris, cobbles and furniture were missiles of protest on one side, while, on the other, organized spades and picks were agents of structural change. In London these came together to revolutionary effect centuries before Paris.

Wapping, whose development had just begun, certainly had plenty of mud on its low-lying flooded river banks. The fort’s exact location is disputable, but one vital clue is a note, handwritten by Cromwell Mortimer, on a copy of Vertue’s map held in the King’s Topographical Collection at the British Library.[12] Mortimer’s 1746 notes describe several forts (including White Chapel Fort) either still in existence or with visible remains, and advertise a distinction between dry and wet ditches according to variously coloured inks. While colours fade and, unlike ageless botanical specimens, cannot be revived, it is clear from this print that Vertue has shaded some sections of the lines that connect to the Thames in the same way as he shaded the river.

An archaeological report by the Museum of London,[13] confirms evidence of ‘wet’ ditches – 5.5 m wide and 1.4 m deep – at Newark Street where it meets New Road, part of the line of communications along the modern Cannon Street Road from Wapping Fort to White Chapel Fort (or Mount) immediately to the west of the Royal Hospital, at Mount Terrace.

The wet ditches, which used the defence capabilities of re-routed Thames water, appear to have extended from halfway up Cannon Street Road to the river, then all the way along the South Bank’s notoriously marshy stretch, before heading northwards again to Tothill Fields (halfway up Vauxhall Bridge Road and to the east of Chelsea’s reservoirs). Since the purpose of the forts was to defend an expected attack, their sightlines were vital. The topography of the city was therefore a factor in their location and although it is not possible to recover completely the sense of seventeenth-century landscape, a number of the fort sites do reveal their virtues in this respect.

Wapping Fort (which, like Tothill Fort, would have been as close to the river as was practicable) was probably located on the ridge (once known as the Rad/Redcliffe Highway) that the Highway cuts along today. The natural topography would have given the fort a commanding view over miles of the surrounding fields. It would also have had access to the river water while avoiding the mudflats.

In talking about the Utopian enclosure of London, we are talking about the most basic things: the blood, sweat and fears of attack. Earth, turfs to bind, spades to move it, hands to hold, steady and push, anecdotal memory to sustain the fear, the conviction and our knowledge today. Put yourself in the collapsing footwear of one of the thousands of city porters who were seen digging the trenches by witnesses including the Venetian ambassador in May 1643. [14] Put yourself in their heart and feel the thrilling pull of change, feel the drama of possibility, of something better than what is, and push, encourage, fight on.

Let’s scroll northwards, along the lines as they dry out towards White Chapel Mount (or Fort), at the meeting place of Whitechapel Road, New Road, and Vallance Road. We are back at Mount Terrace, the little green inclines to its north on the main road west of the Royal Hospital. Today, the corner of the hospital is a helipad, which services the NHS air ambulance and offers astonishing views of the east face of the City. From here the topography and sense of landscape of the seventeenth century is, in a sense, recovered.

Directly to the south is St George-in-the-East alongside the towers of St George’s Estate set around Swedenborg Gardens. In between looms the Southbank, with the final fort site, off Jamaica Road, visible to the west of modern Rotherhithe, and stretching towards South London’s distant hills. Looking north-west along the communication lines, the eye follows the spikes of Hawksmoor’s Christchurch and the Truman Brewery chimney on Brick Lane itself, to St Leonard’s Church at Shoreditch just above the red roofs of the Boundary Street Estate – alongside the site of Shoreditch Fort. Immediately to the east is Sivill House, designed by the great Utopian architect and planner of London’s mid-century, Berthold Lubetkin. From Whitechapel’s helipad the top flanks of Sivill House reach skywards from Lubetkin’s Dorset Estate, with its two propeller-plan towers connected by a circular public library.

What did Lithgow see here? Well, he didn’t see the hospital that was founded by voluntary subscriptions in the middle of the eighteenth century. He didn’t see William Beller’s 1752 visualization of it, set in open fields, nor Chatelain’s wider-angled etching (based on Beller’s painting) a year later. The etching’s south-easterly view of the Mount, from the corner of modern Vallance Road, shows it looming over the hospital, its flat top crowned with mature trees and a folly. The folly’s views south – of St George-in-the-East and perhaps the river itself – were from almost exactly the same angle and height as views from the helipad today.

So, what Lithgow could have seen from the top of the White Chapel Fort, a century after it was built, is uncannily related to what is visible today. Below were open fields on both sides of the main road, a ducking pond to the north and another pond to the south, but, as yet, no St George-in-the-East or St Anne’s – despite their statuesque presence in the etching. Neither would he have seen Sir Christopher Wren’s plans to develop Lady Wentworth’s land east of the Hospital site in 1673, which also show the defensive mount. [15] Indeed, the fort itself was smaller than the mount we have images of, which was used to dump materials from the Great Fire of 1666, and was referred to as ‘The Dunghill’ on a parish map of 1715. [16]

Lithgow would have seen something similar to what John Rocque saw a century later, when preparing his London map of 1746, which shows a number of likely Civil War earthworks. He would have seen a field east of White Chapel Fort, an earthwork built in all probability on a rocky outcrop like that running along The Highway to Tower Hill with ‘the ground thrown up in digging the trenches used to enlarge it’. [17] The mount’s size became an issue when the City decided to develop it in the mid-nineteenth century. The hospital fought off plans to build on top of it, and forced the City to remove it before building Mount Street, of which Mount Terrace – with its City badges – is the remnant.

White Chapel Fort, one of a planned system of defences and communication networks, is linked to another site where Utopianism, war, defence, mud and a notion of collective consciousness cohere; another site loaded with a consciousness of London as a whole. I am referring to Finsbury Fields and work that sprang from the 1930s Finsbury Plan – so fully embraced by Lubetkin and his Tecton colleagues. [18] Although these are extraordinarily rich interlocking histories, I will focus on just one aspect: the plans for a system of defences against the Blitz. This link is triggered by the location of the strongest section of the seventeenth-century fortifications, built in expectation of a Royalist attack from the north. Waterfield Fort was at the top of St John’s Street, exactly where Spa Green Estate stands today, linked eastwards by trenches running along Sebastian Street to a huge fort at Mount Mills off the Goswell Road. Westwards, the lines cut to New River Head’s circular reservoir and on to Mount Pleasant, east of Black Mary’s Hole and another city dump. In between, a covered walkway was cut up the hill that is now Amwell Street, to Islington Pond, which would soon became the extant reservoir in Claremont Square.

The forts mark an area known for its spas and radical reformers and which, in the seventeenth century, Wenceslaus Hollar represented in a series of etchings showing extensive earthworks. They protected an area that would become the site of the largest and most ambitious plan ever for the social regeneration of London and which remains a paragon of what could be achieved with social housing. Spa Green, Bevin Court and Priory Green just north of Finsbury are all positive manifestations of a politically committed and revolutionarily ambitious approach to collective works, but – conscious of what there was to fight for – Tecton also produced a plan for an elaborate system of defences and network of communications with uncanny echoes of the Civil War forts.

Faced with the threat of aerial bombardment as a prelude to invasion by the Nazis, Tecton devised a plan to protect the Finsbury ‘crowd’ that was as radically ambitious as its housing plans. No expense would be spared to protect the people for whom the war was being fought, whose relatives were fighting the war, who produced the supplies and morale to defeat Fascism. It therefore involved the same principles and soul-striving that created the need for, and actuality of, the Civil War defences. Tecton’s scheme is extraordinary, [19] putting every citizen within easy reach of deep shelters housing up to 7,600 people. These inverted forts were little circular Utopias in themselves, as Tecton’s visuals suggest. They were also part of an elaborate system of interconnected circles and lines – a complex analysis of the utilities and future uses of the area that was taken into consideration in the planning.

Lubetkin, let us not forget, was a revolutionary, whose exasperation with the persistent vandalism of his publicly funded Lenin memorial led to its investment in the foundations of Bevin – originally Lenin – Court. As a result, the organizer of the Russian Revolution is now only commemorated by a plaque that marks his visits as a refugee to neighbouring Percy Circus. Tecton’s revolutionary scheme caused an outcry – press attention and governmental panic, which ended with them being branded subversives who were threatening to bankrupt the war effort with such ambitious schemes. The plan was spurned, the people evacuated and these defences joined their Civil War ancestors as traceless, virtual Utopias.

a revolutionary circuit//

I descend at once to… the vilest. I can descend no lower.

Jeremy Bentham, September 1796

If a place could exist in no neighbourhood, that place would be Tothill Fields.

Jeremy Bentham, 1798

It should not surprise us that a zest for a brightening Utopia is necessarily bound to the muddiest mud, the zeros of death, devastation and obliterating war. It should not surprise us that Parliamentarians built a Utopian enclosure out of mud, that Jeremy Bentham planned to build his quasi-Utopian Panopticon – the over-theorized icon of all-seeing circularity – in the ‘no neighbourhood’, no-place of Tothill’s swampy fields. It should not surprise us that the most Utopian and politically vigorous social-housing enclosures were built on the rot or rubble of nineteenth-century dereliction and Nazi bomb sites.

What of this Utopian circle? What of this figure that links underground particle accelerators in Swiss mountains with the formations at Stonehenge and Avebury (reinvested with Celtic significance by William Stukeley)? Let us draw together the research and trace out our revolutionary circuit up to 1999.

Like Vertue, we shall start at Wapping Fort [1 on his map] and follow the Lithgow line in an anti-clockwise direction to finish at Redriff Fort, opposite Wapping, on the Southbank. Wapping Fort is well placed at the top of Wapping Lane, adjacent to St George-in-the-East. From there, lines are well documented going north along Cannon Street Road to the second fort, at Whitechapel[2]. This was still visible until its removal in 1830, and its sheer size reminds us that these earth mounds cover a large area on a modern map.

From here, things become less settled. There are claims for a fortification halfway up Brick Lane – located by scaling Vertue’s map to a modern A-Z and putting a pin in the heart of Kray Brothers’ [21] territory. In the absence of accumulated evidence we shall scroll to the well-documented site at the very top of Brick Lane. Most records place this fort [3] just to the north of Shoreditch Church (which antedated it), close to Hackney and Kingsland Roads (the latter of which was a major northward route for the King’s mail and was probably fortified [4]). Other clues here are the former Mount Street – now Montclare Road – on the eastern perimeter of the Boundary Street Estate, up to Virginia Road, previously known as Castle Street. Castle and Mount Streets met north-east of the Boundary Estate and Shoreditch Church, immediately south of Hackney Road. There is a marked incline in Montclare Road here, which is where I would place Shoreditch/Brick Lane Fort [3], immediately beside one of London’s finest experiments in Victorian social housing, the protective enclosure of Arnold Circus.

Haze regathers here, with no definitive lines connecting these forts as they passed north of Moorfields, up until the next well-documented fort at Mount Mills. Archaeologists have reported possible seventeenth-century ditchworks along the southern rim of Hoxton Square, [22] which was developed from fields after the Restoration in 1660. This is consistent with the overall line and a suggestive nexus of clues that place the fort described at Hoxton close to where City and New Roads split, north of Old Street roundabout. This was open land in the seventeenth century and Rocque’s eighteenth-century map reveals the notably angular lines of ducking ponds and a Pesthouse Lane – both common features of fort sites. Then there are the associative names: Castle Street, Mount Row and Oliver’s Yard that have congregated here too. So, Hoxton Fort [5] could well have been here – near Ebenezer Street – protective of the City and its northwards flank.

Next is Mount Mills [6], apparently a large fort and the first to be built – between Goswell Road and Central Street, north of Seward Street. A century after the fort’s construction, both Thomas Pink [23] and Mortimer mention a very large mound at Mount Mills. [24] The site was also a burial pit, windmill, plague pit and a public laystall – like Mount Pleasant. Today, Mount Mills is a slip road behind the Pheasant and Firkin pub on Goswell Road and opposite the Triangle Estate – a most fort-like example of social housing.

From Mount Mills, evidence points to lines running along Sebastian Street towards St John’s Fort [7]. Lithgow described ‘footing along the trench dyke (which is three yards thick and on the ditch side twice as high)… [at] the lower end of Islington where there was a ‘strong and large strength called Waterfield Fort,’ with the largest ‘court du guard’ that he had as yet seen, ‘larger than two ordinary churches’. I believe this to be the site of Lubetkin’s Spa Green Estate. This claim has not been made before, and is based on three pieces of evidence: a combination of old local maps; the name of the Fort being Waterfield; and, most crucially, the discovery of an engraving of the new Toll Road and Gate linking St John’s Street with Rosebery Avenue. [25] That print shows a mound exactly where Spa Green is, a location once known as Waterfield, and the estate bears a plaque commemorating the toll-gate itself.

Finsbury’s Forts are well documented. From St John’s Fort the lines went to New River Head, a circular reservoir at the end of the New River that Sir Thomas Myddleton built linking it to Amwell in Hertfordshire. In 1739, Maitland himself records visual evidence of lines across these fields, linking the fort at Black Mary’s Hole, or Mount Pleasant, with Merlin’s Cave just west of New River Head. A covered Line, he wrote, went up to the Upper Pond. This is now Amwell Street, which follows an old pathway, and the Upper Pond is Claremont Square. ‘A little farther on’ (‘about ten pare buts’ from St John’s Fort) Lithgow came to Strawes Fort [9], or Fort Royal, on Islington Hill. This was a very elaborate fort with ‘eight angles and a spacious interlacing distance between each of the covered bulwarks’. It was a specially high ground, ‘marvellous perspicuous and prospective both for the City and country, commanding all the other inferior fortifications near and about that part of the enclosing ground’. [26] The natural topography here, rising to the plateau of Islington, makes the importance of this fort obvious, and concludes this part of the defences.

Mount Pleasant Fort, sited underneath the modern Post Office sorting office, was also known as Wakefield or Pindar’s Fort. This is a frequently described location, and the Mount itself was an ironic name given to a notorious dung hill. Soldiers were known to camp immediately north of here in fields typically used for archery and duels. From Islington, Lithgow descended to Holborn Fields where he came to Pindar of Wakefield’s Fort [10], evidently on the right of Gray’s Inn Lane, and the one styled by Vertue ‘a Battery and Breastwork on the hill east of Black Mary’s Hole’. It is a natural site for a garrison and defensive position.

From here we go west through the old Conduit Fields, more or less along Great Ormond Street, land owned by Rugby School, to a clearly documented fort [11] at Southampton House. Several maps show a fortification in the rear gardens of Southampton House – which opened on to fields – for at least a century. The site is now beneath enclosed gardens south of Russell Square, which remain part of the Bedford Estate. The fourth Earl was a fierce Royalist, which makes what is the reliable siting of this fort ironic and pleasing. Bloomsbury Square was developed by the Earl as the first such square in London (and the world), as well as the origin of the now notoriously feudal – but extant – law of leasehold (established as a means of developing land around the square).

From Southampton Fort, the lines went below the modern British Museum, to St Giles’ Fort [12], variously located along Tottenham Court Road, north of Centrepoint – the site of the Pound – and east of the high street at Bayley Street (where Rocque shows earthworks). It is unclear how many forts guarded this vital northwards route. The Common Council ordered two defences here, and records put a ‘Crabtree Fort’ in the fields opposite modern Bayley Street. From here, various forts are described in locations that range from the north end of Wardour Street to ‘Maribone Fields’. I would place Wardour Fort [14] at Market Place, which has Castle Street impaling it on an east-west axis and inclines to suggest an ideal defensive position in this vicinity – near Crabtree Fields en route to Maribone Fields.

From Wardour Fort the lines are again unclear but head to Mayfair and the next reasonably well documented fort. Mount Street Fort [15], or Oliver’s Mount is best sited at Mount Street itself. It was probably where Carpenter Street meets Mount Row as it rises from the south to a plateau in the Grosvenor Estate – then just fields. The subsequent history of names – Mount Street (or Row), Oliver’s Mount pub and the Mount Coffee House – bolsters this (and links the site to England’s poet of Romantic dissent, P. B. Shelley). [27] Today, the only public memorial to London’s forts [28] takes the form of a couple of sentences recounting the story of Oliver’s Mount on a notice-board in Mount Street Gardens, a notably pleasant enclosed space between Farm and Mount streets, east of South Audley Street’s chapel.

From here, part of the lines have been established as they venture towards, and then across, modern Park Lane to Hyde Park Fort [16], which cannot be conclusively located. It was probably in the south-east corner of the park, in an area between the circular fountain opposite the Grosvenor Hotel and the west end of South Street – a link traced today by Lovers’ Lane. Lithgow wrote of ‘departing thence shortly encroached upon Head [sic] Park Corner fort, which is a main great strength having one fort above and within another; another third fort closing the roadway standeth breasting the other two’. More recent research [29] describes a very considerable fort, matching Stukeley, Lithgow and others, as well as making much of extant earthworks mapped by Rocque in 1746. This is the only fort site that has retained its essential topographical relationship to the city from the seventeenth century, opening up to the whole western flank of London as it dips away and protecting the two main roads westwards to Oxford and Reading in this perfect defensive position.

There was also a Fort at Constitution Hill [17], at the top of the route that leads from Buckingham Palace, now the site of Hyde Park roundabout where the Wellington Arch, originally designed as part of a grand entrance to London itself, pairs the arched entrance to Hyde Park to the north. The arch’s history [30] is full of architects, including Soane, disappointed in the quest to create a new face for London, opposite Wellington’s home, No. 1 London. It arrived at its present site in the 1880s, in yet another re-jig of this crucial junction, and is now being restored for use as an information centre, which will offer a view down Constitution Hill towards St James’s Park, Westminster and the Millennium Wheel. The arch presently houses a ventilation shaft for the underpass in the space of old prison cells, a residue of its use as a police station for many years. The high symbolic loading of this site is further increased by its use as a route for the changing of the guards housed at Basil Spence’s nearby Knightsbridge Barracks and it will be the pivot in a figure-of-eight memorial walkway for Diana, Princess of Wales.

Constitution Fort was linked, via small defences on the Chelsea road (now the greenery of Grosvenor Gardens), to another large Fort [19] in Tothill Fields. (Tothill or Toot Hill means ‘the highest ground in an area which could be used as an observation post for the erection of a beacon’.) [31] Here was a large, open field with pesthouses, ducking ponds and, later, a maze, the no-place of Jeremy Bentham, an excellent vantage point that reached as far as modern Tachbrook Street. Lillington Gardens Estate now occupies the likely site of the fort. Bentham never did build his reforming panopticon prison, but a crude and notoriously grim version was built nearby: the Millbank Penitentiary. On the map its starred circular form resembles Arnold Circus and, after it was torn down, a part of the site became social housing modelled on the Boundary Estate – with blocks named after artists including Hogarth – the remainder was dedicated to the Tate Gallery.

The lines continued south, to the river and beyond, linking, on the Southbank, to the large Vauxhall Fort [20], very close to where the pleasure balloon rises and falls today. Defoe, as well as several other reporters and map makers, placed the fort within Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, a popular Restoration haunt. The Elephant and Castle pub is now thought to be a site marker – the seventeenth-century spelling of the exotic ‘Oliphant’ linked to the Protector’s ‘Oliver’ [32] – and is part of the messy agglomeration that is Vauxhall Junction. The site today offers views across the gentle incline of the Vauxhall Gardens Estate (looking east across Lambeth) beneath the all-seeing home of the secret service, MI6, on the river nearby.

Lines linked Vauxhall to what Lithgow describes as the ‘Fort Royal’ in St George’s Fields – at the Dog and Duck pub, and Bedlam Hospital (now the Imperial War Museum) – a slightly raised section of the old marshes. The defences on the southside of London were added in mid-1643, during a second wave of fortifications, enclosing land owned by the City – the Bridge House Estates owned much of St George’s Fields for example – and including large garrisons. Lithgow described a massive fort here, with 24 canon royals on this site alone – almost certainly a gross exaggeration (the canon royal was very difficult to cast, extremely expensive and weighed about 8 tonnes – in 1677 there was only one of them in serviceable condition according to the inventories of the Tower of London). [33] However, the presence of a large Dog and Duck Fort [21] is well documented, at a site that was a popular spa, pub and ducking pond. The fort remained visible for at least a century and one archaeologist reported visible evidence of earthworks in the park (now home to a circular Tibetan Peace Garden) as late as 1974. [34]

The lines continue to the Elephant and Castle, just north of the modern roundabout, at approximately Gaunt Street, where the huge Ministry of Sound nightclub is now ensconced. Lithgow described a large but unfinished fort [22] here and Vertue claims that only Hyde Park Fort matched it for scale. Lines then linked to the east, along the new section of the Kent road, past the Heygate Estate’s barrier block, to the flyover which joins it to the old Roman road to Kent. Here, just west of the Carpenter’s Arms roundabout – with its fort-like subway system – was Kent Street Fort [23]. It was located close to a turnpike, the Lock Hospital and a bridge over the Neckinger River, and now – amidst waves of social housing (Guinness, LCC to GLC) all around – close to the only Lubetkin building on the Southbank. [35]

North-east of here the lines connect again through modern Bermondsey and its old tanneries to Grange Road Fort, at the junction with Spa Road – exactly where Bermondsey Spa was – and once marked by nearby Fort Road, Fort Place and the Fort pub. Finally, the lines headed riverwards along Spa Road towards Rotherhithe, stopping near the river and joining Redriff Fort, which is mentioned by Lithgow. This fort has little site evidence, but was probably in the north-west corner of the modern Southwark Park, where Prospect Street runs northwards towards the river on a line that would link to Wapping Fort on the northbank, at Wapping Old Stairs. The Angel pub, founded by monks from the Bermondsey Abbey, marks the line on the Southbank. Alongside is a recently excavated royal palace site that has extensive information boards that include the phrase ‘protected by an Act of Parliament’. That collective will was established by the building of civil war fortifications nearby, about as close to the river as it was possible to get, but no archaeological work has ever been done to prove it. In the seventeenth century the view east would have extended over farmers’ fields flanking the Thames for miles, and over the river and mudflats the next fort in the circuit would have been clearly visible, just beyond what is now a circular bandstand.

So, here is our Utopian band of mud in all its glory.

scaffold condition//

‘It’s his first time to London. I wanted him to see something unbelievable.’

Homeless drunks, soberly marvelling at the view of Spa Fields from the top of Michael Clifford House, Finsbury Estate. May 2000.

It was not unusual on passing the Lubetkins’ farm [during the World War II] to observe a Hippopotamus pulling a harrow, or a chimpanzee driving a tractor.

John Allan, Lubetkin

The building of barricades appears in Fourier as an example of ‘nonsalaried but impassioned work.

Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project

Cabinet-makers, marble masons, market porters, upholsterers, matchbox-makers and cat’s-meat sellers lived in the notorious 15 acres of Victorian slum that pre-existed the Boundary Street Estate in Shoreditch. [36] On the 9 May 1643, some 20,000 Londoners – men, women and children – were out digging trenches. Through May and June felt-makers, cappers, porters, shoe-makers and tailors (as well as members of many City guilds) continued forting for the Revolution. These are the people that make up the numerous anonymity of the crowd, and it is in the name of the crowd, in the name of an abstract collectivity or politicized body, that vigorous social change is engendered and ethical acts are possible. The Utopianism of the English Civil War resurfaces in the social housing of nineteenth-century industrialism, as well as mid-twentieth-century tower blocks, designed to provide better lives.

The English Civil War forced and concretized symbolic change on the country via the beheading of Charles I on a platform outside the Banqueting Hall in 1649. The Boundary Street Estate was the most ambitious example of social housing yet built after the Housing of the Working Classes Act 1890 (it included a laundry, for example). Indeed, it was so remarkable that a reform-minded Prince of Wales chose to open it and plans were laid for the construction of a platform for him during the opening ceremony. From this vantage position, the Prince was able to recognize the previous slums as a ‘disgrace to our civilisation’ [37] – an event that is reminiscent of Lord Curzon’s viewing platform by the walls of the Hindu Lingaraj Temple in Orissa, which enabled him to look inside the enclosed walls of a distant, other world. Three different platforms and three different places, but all conditioned by scaffolding, all literal versions of a symbolic relationship and so all stagings of a certain potent ambiguity. This is the defining motif of, and relationship to, so much of the city’s social housing – the fort-like enclosures that isolate and block out the world, forcing attention inwards rather than being porous, inclusive, and in rhythm with our millennial experience of life.

The high blocks around Arnold Circus appear to exemplify this kind of fortress-like enclosure, but once inside the estate, standing in its raised centrepiece gardens, this perception is inverted, and it becomes a haven into which the sun shines and from which you can look out. It is a reminder of the high hopes for the estate, designed so that ‘every habitable room in the area is provided with a 45-degree angle of light, horizontally and vertically. The buildings are so arranged that nearly every room commands a pleasant outlook’ [38] on to 60-foot-wide circulatory avenues. This replaced 209 streets, the widest being 28 feet, with an average density of two people per room and 107 rooms sheltering at least five. The shower of light brought down on these same people was certainly a visionary one.

The forting circuit has an uncanny number of significant estates along it, and they tell the story of housing for the London crowd, from Arnold Circus, Spa Green and Lillington Gardens to the Heygate, St George’s and the Triangle. Lubetkin’s Utopian commitment provided facilities and a degree of quality that rivalled private housing in the mid-century. Today, when most local authority housing comes cheap, flats in Spa Green are worth more than the average house price in London and it resembles a private estate.

Even the most compromised of Lubetkin’s projects were aimed at improving the quality of life – spaces, light, facilities, design itself, trees, gardens, openness of aspect, non-regimented space, non-enclosure and even the provision of astonishing views from Bevin Court’s unique stairwell, or the walkways of the Dorset Estate, where hugely expensive slabs of the city are on offer. These qualities are usually prohibitively expensive and the very idea of such standards applied to government housing today appears amazingly ambitious. Most social housing resembles the massive Heygate Estate near the Elephant and Castle Fort site, with its massive single block approach, regimented accommodation, high density/false economy and lack of communal facilities. Lillington Gardens Estate was also built in the 1970s, and although it achieves high density it remains resolutely low-rise, incorporating an old people’s home, library, pubs and a school. Lillington Gardens is also more ambiguous in that it has many of the features of a private housing estate, open green spaces, mixed usage and accommodation, and the feel and appearance of higher quality housing.

The Triangle Estate on Goswell Road, completed in 1970, exemplifies many of the worst features of social housing, being brutally fort-like in appearance and feel. It is designed around a barren inner triangle from which the walkways look down and which is typically empty. Separate blocks are joined by walkways which have blocked any views, making the place feel exceptionally oppressive and symbolizing the failings of much council housing. Since the estates were built with collective will, they ought to be part of the city that has built them, open, continuous with the city’s flows, most particularly in the twenty-first century with its technologies that mirror these attitudes. Governments have successively built enclosures like forts or prisons, containers for the poor, who are prevented from flooding out into the city – non-contaminating blocks of exclusion. The Triangle, which is adjacent to Mount Mills, inverts the principles for which the fort was built, a reversal of the notion of an empowered collectivity: the crowd. Here is the crowd’s burial site, its neglected cemetery.

From the vantage points of these estates the seventeenth-century topography of a city in revolt is recoverable. Each of these city beacons is now visible from one another, but their connective, communicative power is disabled, unutilized and unarticulated. It becomes our urgent task to re-thread these spaces, places and times, to articulate a new crowd consciousness, and it is for this that our revolutionary circuit is designed.

It allows us to do two things. Firstly, to recover a particular innocent ambitiousness about how we should live. We are reminded that all periods of significant change were preceded by conservative stases with their own ends of history and bloated pragmatism. Today, in newly globalized times, we are uniquely conscious of the grotesque and barbaric inequalities that characterize our planet, which force and guarantee radical change to come. There are opposing continuities or historico-cultural strands. The forting circuit and Lubetkin’s committed architecture are linked in their quest for something better – concrete embodiments of extravagant Utopian demands for answers to a question about how we should live.

Our muddy Utopia also allows us to invoke the other use of the term scaffolding – associated with rebuilding, dismantling and beginning. The scaffolding condition is one of permanently mobile change. Once recognized, the question becomes one of passivity versus activity. Are we the passive material upon which change is worked, or the active shapers of it? Since we can and must be the latter, then we must also articulate that necessity. So, instead of being globalized, we need to begin to think through how to embody a positive global body, one of civility infused with Utopian vigor, resistant and actively opposed to the merely economic logic of globalization.

The forting circuit is an example, a reference, an articulation; a small step. But it taps this kind of potency – these communicative possibilities and Utopian energies – by offering a new way of thinking about the city, the whole of the city, its embodied collectivity: a new way to construct an enclosure within which to speculate, theorize and dream. This is the impassioning work of dirty Utopianism.

Historical Note

The English Civil War began in 1642, when, following bitter disputes over ‘the liberties and privileges of parliament’, ‘innovations in matters of religion’ and grievances over property rights and taxation, Charles I abandoned London for safer Royalist enclaves in the north. Parliament, in alliance with the City (which, when neither King Charles nor Parliament had an army, possessed a proficient militia) had revolted against his autocratic rule. The king’s failure to retake the capital (having reached its outskirts and ‘sacked’ Brentford only to be repelled at Turnham Green) sealed the outcome of the war. Charles surrendered in 1646 and was returned to London by Oliver Cromwell’s parliamentary force, the New Model Army, in 1647. Against a backdrop of Royalist uprisings across the country, the unrepentant king was executed in London, before Banqueting House, in 1649. Cromwell became Lord Protector of the united Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1653, which marked the end of the period of radicalism in London; he died in 1658. London had lost its unity of purpose. The restoration of the monarchy, in the person of Charles II, occurred in 1660 and that settlement was guarded by constitutional reforms.


First published in AA Files 42 © The Author © Architectural Association. 2001.

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