notes_33 On Moyra Davey, a confessional index. My TT essay on Index Cards & i confess

This is why her films feel so casually alert; they resemble in content and their form how we live and make now; the promiscuous solutions of our common workworlds. This is true of her apparently bookish essays too, rewilded by serial fragmentation… It is work I feel fierce kinship with, but it is also kinship-at-work in the unfenced present.

Guy Mannes-Abbott – Third Text – September 2021


Moyra Davey’s ‘Index Cards’

Fitzcarraldo Editions, London, 2020

264pp, ISBN978-1913097264

‘I Confess’

Dancing Foxes Press, 2020

168pp, ISBN978-0888849960


Guy Mannes-Abbott

1/ Index Cards collects fifteen of the essays Moyra Davey has published since 2003 into a single volume for the first time. Two began as talks; most of the others generated the self-narrated voice-overs of her films, of which i confess is the tenth since Hell Notes in 1990. Usually, Davey’s texts appear in busily illustrated volumes with modest print-runs to accompany the films, which have become annual productions. The latest example of that is I Confess, which marked her new film and retrospective exhibition at the National Gallery of Canada in 2020. Index Cards, however, is a definite departure with its twenty-seven small black and white images cleverly punctuating 264 pages.

2/ Davey is primarily a visual artist and ‘a maker not a thinker’, she says, but her outputs dissolve such distinctions. Born in Toronto in 1958, she enrolled in the Whitney Programme in 1989 when it was at its most theoretically proscriptive. Critical discourses around the politics of representation constrained her relationship to the body in image-making for many years. This is a frequent reference, even central thread, of her writings and films in their anxious, whittling and iterative way. For a decade or so her photographic images have taken the form of aerograms; printed, folded, taped and posted C-prints (35 x 45 cm), opened-out and assembled on gallery walls where they own a frugal worldliness.

3/ Davey returns obsessively to quotidian elements; the ‘general squalor of the domestic scene’ [1] as she says; dust and disrepair, heaped possessions and papers, as well as text; images of highlighted quotes, books in whole or part; The Private Diaries of Stendhal being relieved of lavic dust; words and names inked by the artist’s hand, blown up from receipts or the correspondence of Alice B Toklas, ornate letters from the first Greek edition of the Iliad set in moveable type. These intersperse with cyclical images of herself, her sisters, undergrad-age son and friends, and dogs and horses – all naked by degrees.

Moyra Davey, Nine Photographs from Paris (Group 1) (mailers), 2009, inkjet print on Fuji Film Crystal Archive Paper with ink, tape and postage stamps, 30 × 45 cm, courtesy of the artist

Continue reading “notes_33 On Moyra Davey, a confessional index. My TT essay on Index Cards & i confess”

notes_27 A global economy all at sea; its sinuous embrace of the Arabian peninsula with Laleh Khalili | TT

“Powerful and unconstrained conceptual and poetic tools establish the shorelines of Khalili’s sea, then, and it is here that global capitalism takes its tightly woven place. Sinews narrows its focus to the northerly Indian Ocean world, the Arabian and Red Seas, as well as the Persian Gulf itself … a stimulating read and a surefooted introduction to the subject, with deep pockets of research.”

Guy Mannes-Abbott – Third Text – August 2020


Laleh Khalili, ‘Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula’

Verso Books, New York and London, 2020
368pp, ISBN978-1786634818


Guy Mannes-Abbott

Laleh Khalili announces the raison d’être of her new book, as well as its primary call on our attention, in the second sentence; ‘Ninety per cent of the world’s goods travel by ship’. [1]  Within this overwhelming figure, 70 per cent of global cargo by value is carried by container ships, and 60 per cent of oil trade travels by sea. The resulting system of marine transportation is not, she continues, ‘an enabling adjunct of trade but is central to the very fabric of global capitalism’ (p 3). Sinews of War and Trade traces the histories of a fast-developing present, now centred on China as the ‘factory of the world’ and the Arabian peninsula as the infrastructural heart of flows through post-Independence era ports, with ‘Dubai’s Jabal Ali foremost among them’ (p 2).

Continue reading “notes_27 A global economy all at sea; its sinuous embrace of the Arabian peninsula with Laleh Khalili | TT”

notes_24 “Aieeee-shaaaa”, a Potential History. Or, unlearning imperialism with Ariella Aisha Azoulay | TT

Azoulay has produced a unique handbook for the 2020s that details how, why, when and where to say no in the affirmative. Her greatest achievement is that, against the foreshortened horizons of a despoiling barbarism, she makes all our tomorrows thinkable.

Guy Mannes-Abbott – Third Text – April 2020

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, ‘Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism’

Verso Books, New York and London, 2019
656pp, ISBN 978-1788735711

Guy Mannes-Abbott

Ariella Aïsha Azoulay’s Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism is almost double the size of my copy of Edward Said’s Orientalism and about half the size, in turn, of Karl Marx’s first volume of Capital. There are many nuanced differences across such a crudely mapped zone but the quality that all three share is a burning desire to change, to radically redistribute the world as it is, or appears to be. Azoulay’s six-hundred-page-long Potential History offers a liveable commonworld through exacting reparations and ends with a very short but insistent affirmation: ‘The potential is there’. [1]

Continue reading “notes_24 “Aieeee-shaaaa”, a Potential History. Or, unlearning imperialism with Ariella Aisha Azoulay | TT”

on paul noble, font of … etc. – more on nobson at gagosian to dec 17


Returning for a longer look at Paul Noble’s current exhibition, I realise that Nobson is more prominent in the show than I’d understood. Also, that my sense that deserts had bloomed is probably more revealing of my baseline bounce into every morning as a blind optimist than the actuality! That is; yes there are trees, plants and they emerge from the desert but that doesn’t quite conjugate the verb ‘to bloom’. Plus, my eyes lied to me in identifying clusters of rocks -which I know peculiarly well, given their relationship to images in In Ramallah, Running– as bushes, trees, verdancy! Continue reading “on paul noble, font of … etc. – more on nobson at gagosian to dec 17”

on mamma courage and the brecht house, 1. lövstigen, lidingö

Brecht House 1 Lövstigen, Lidingö, Stockholm 1939-40 Ph GMA

In a wintery Stockholm [exquisitely lit but otherwise painful] a week ago, I managed finally to take self and camera to what turns out to be the site of the house that Brecht stayed in during 1939-40 -and where he wrote Mother Courage and Her Children- until Sweden lost its nerve before an apparently irresistible Hitler, and Brecht -the persecuted and fugitive leftist- had to move on… Continue reading “on mamma courage and the brecht house, 1. lövstigen, lidingö”

robert walser and the microtexts; coming soon

The Microscripts by Robert Walser May 2010

“Robert Walser wrote many of his manuscripts in a highly enigmatic, shrunken-down form. These narrow strips of paper (many of them written during his hospitalization in the Waldau sanatorium) covered with tiny ant-like markings only a millimeter or two high, came to light only after the author’s death in 1956. At first considered a secret code, the microscripts were eventually discovered to be a radically miniaturized form of a German script: a whole story could fit on the back of a business card. Selected from the six-volume German transcriptions from the original microscripts, these 25 short pieces are gathered in this gorgeously illustrated co-publication with the Christine Burgin Gallery. each microscript is reproduced in full color in its original form: the detached cover of a trashy crime novel, a disappointing letter, a receipt of payment.”

Taken from the very great New Directions’ site here.

One microtext, The Prodigal Son, is online here.

These texts have been translated by Susan Bernofsky, who is also still working on her Life of RW…

Otherwise, with so much now available of Walser’s it might be easy to have overlooked Speaking to the Rose Writings 1912-32, published by Bison Books [here]. Most of these 50 ‘microtexts’ were previously unpublished and have been translated by Christopher Middleton.

Here is JM Coetzee on two of Walser’s novels in the NYRB 2000.

Here is Benjamin Kunkel’s recent New Yorker profile 2007.

Here is a very dedicated and newsy site.

More, later, hopefully…

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

‘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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11.09. two. from brecht to benjamin and back

Erdmut Wizisla is Director of both the Brecht and Benjamin archives in Berlin and the authority on their relationship. His book began as post-graduate work in the GDR and emerged finally in a brilliant English translation with an account of the controversy of Adorno’s role in editing the works of WB in German removed. For that story see here [Dead link 2020; scroll to NEWS 10 dec 08].

I reviewed Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht; the Story of a Friendship [Libris 2009] for The Independent and include the short text below. It mentions the National Theatre’s staging of Mother Courage and Her Children, which utilised all the technologies of our time within a confidently theatrical experience. It’s dependence upon theatrical effect was surely closer to Brechtian intention than the still-impressive if neutered, straight-to-movie Enron.

I hadn’t read Brecht for years and discovered here [and/or in Ronald Hayman’s biography from 1983, OUP] that he began writing Mother Courage on Lidingö island, Sweden in 1939-40 after fleeing Denmark. Lidingö is linked by road and rail bridge to Stockholm and provided Brecht with a refuge for about a year. I know it and the archipelago well; 1039s seconds is set there essentially, and revisited the quiet now suburban lane where Brecht holed up when I was there in chilly October.

Benjamin’s work has long been everywhere and yet somehow nowhere, or anyway partial, not fully present; often more badge than book. Reproductions of some of his extensive archive were published by Verso as Walter Benjamin’s Archive, which I also reviewed in The Independent here. His entire archive is being published across 40 volumes in German, edited in part by Wizisla, here.

The best short introduction in English is Esther Leslie’s here but the four volumes of Selected Writings here are essential, as is The Arcades Project here, which I reviewed too here (UPDATED Feb2010).Momme Brodersen wrote an honorable, well illustrated first-shot biography of WB here, which I wrote about in the New Statesman in 1996.

Harvard UP’s SWs accumulate a useful book-length chronological account of WB and his work, written by Michael Jennings and Howard Eiland. They are still at work on a full life; The Author as producer: A Critical Biography of WB [for HUP] which will be essential reading when it finally appears.

Screenshot 2018-03-12 10.30.56

Walter Benjamin and Bertolt Brecht, By Erdmut Wizisla trans Christine Shuttleworth

LIBRIS £30 (242pp)

Twin illuminations in dark times

Reviewed by Guy Mannes-Abbott

Friday, 27 November 2009

Bertolt Brecht is back at the National Theatre this season and Enron, Lucy Prebble’s hit, has been lauded as Brechtian epic theatre. Enron restages high capitalist folly in a compelling performance which merges YouTube, art installation and musical theatre. If “epic” in intention, its sheer spectacle proves inconsequential as political theatre.

But political consequence was crucial to the work of Walter Benjamin and Brecht, as Erdmut Wizisla’s extraordinarily potent “story of a friendship” underscores. Benjamin the “pure man of genius” as critic and philosopher, and the younger “unwashed” Brecht, were a controversial enough pairing to generate sneers about sexual submissiveness from their Berlin contemporaries. At last, here is an authoritative account of their “astonishing closeness”.

Wizisla oversees both the Benjamin and Brecht archives in Berlin and is editing the former’s Complete Works. His story began in scholarly research and emerged in German in 2004. It exists in dialogue with Gershom Scholem’s own “story of a friendship” with Benjamin, written from his own archives and published in 1975. The renowned scholar of mystical Judaism was horrified by the New Left’s embrace of Benjamin’s work on its appearance in English. Scholem responded by asserting Benjamin’s “true” religiosity. Wizisla recreates this crucial relationship with forensic precision, printing vital scraps for the first time, typically supplying three diverse examples to support conclusions. He traces a prehistory to the friendship before its explosive intimacy developed between 1929 and Benjamin’s death in 1940. Starting in 1930, Benjamin made eleven attempts to articulate the radicalism in Brecht’s work. Even after 1933, with Benjamin exiled to Paris and Brecht in Denmark, Wizisla calculates they spent almost a year working in close proximity.

Central to Wizisla’s story is the collaboration on an abortive journal called Krise und Kritik during 1930-1. Its aim was to be “active”, “interventionist” and “consequential” in the cultural and political arenas. Wizisla examines what was meant by these terms, cross-referencing manuscripts, unpublished minutes and complete texts. For Brecht, “criticism is to be understood in the sense that politics is its continuation by other means.” In “The Author as Producer”, Benjamin argued that “the politically correct tendency includes a literary tendency”; a continuation of politics by other means. For both, “high artistic standards” were identical with “politically advanced ones”.

Benjamin admired Brecht’s timeliness; his was a theatre for the “scientific age”, an “apparatus” to effect change. Wizisla quotes Benjamin’s benchmark: “A total absence of illusion about the age and… an unlimited commitment to it.” Benjamin perceived Brecht as the poet “most at home in this century” according to Hannah Arendt. Benjamin’s remark contains potent ambiguity, as does our recognition of him as a key 20th-century figure.

While Benjamin’s celebration of Brecht is well known, Wizisla excavates for us Brecht’s admiration for Benjamin. Brecht promoted Benjamin’s work, commissioning it directly, begging for critical feedback. His writing bears Benjamin’s influence to the point of direct appropriation. Wizisla dismantles the legend of Brechtian “terror”, concluding that the pair were “like-minded people” whose intellectual sparring was “based on closeness, intimacy and accord”. Much of the exaggeration of conflict originated in Scholem. Repulsed by Marxism, he implied that Brecht was a knowing Stalinist, and Benjamin’s work in the 1930s was prostitution. Wizisla reprints Benjamin’s letter to Gretel Karplus which criticises Scholem, long settled in Palestine, for his “wretched” reaction to Brecht.*

Wizisla, like Stanley Mitchell before him, is drawn to Benjamin’s radically optimistic analysis of Brecht’s poetry, in particular a poem about enforced exile published in 1939 which Benjamin recited in French internment camps. The message of Brecht’s Lao-tzu poem is that the “soft water” of friendly unity “vanquishes in time the mighty stone”; “what is hard must yield.” Wizisla’s story of artistic and political radicalism in the darkest of times is a landmark publication. These two friends “inhabited” their times supremely well; their traces ought to inspire us in ours.

* He kindly leaves out Benjamin’s description of his Zionist friend as “cloaked in self-importance and secrecy.” [Correspondence 1930-1940 Gretel Adorno and Walter Benjamin, Polity Press 2008]