About Me

"Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Stendhal Syndrome: the confessions of a chronic sufferer

 "I was in a sort of ecstasy, from the idea of being in Florence, close to the great men whose tombs I had seen. Absorbed in the contemplation of sublime beauty... I reached the point where one encounters celestial sensations... Everything spoke so vividly to my soul. Ah, if I could only forget. I had palpitations of the heart, what in Berlin they call 'nerves.' Life was drained from me. I walked with the fear of falling."
Stendhal, Naples and Florence: A Journey from Milan to Reggio, 1817

So Stendhal was a sufferer from his own syndrome. 

I wonder, as I read it for the fiftieth time, if what Stendhal is really saying is that only truly great men like him are capable of experiencing these 'celestial sensations'….and yet I'm sure I have, a few times, also felt the same.

Once was in Volterra. Another was this ecstatic response to greatness.But this can be related to another psychological condition also described by the great French writer - Limerence - "an involuntary state of mind which results from a romantic attachment to another person combined with an overwhelming, obsessive need to have one's feelings reciprocated."

Stendhal wrote about this in  On Love, and used "crystallisation" as his metaphor for the birth of love - or perhaps, as we say, "falling in love."

There's a current writer who has caught some of that absolutely distinctive sensation Stendhal Syndrome defines - and that's Geoff Dyer.

And some of the things he writes make me think he is the writer I - with about four million per cent more ability and talent and courage - could have been. Especially when he writes this:

"He knew also that as soon as he was told that they did not want him to do this shit any more he would realise how desperately he wanted to keep doing this shit that he did not want to do any more."

Geoff Dyer, Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, 2009

Angry old fool nearly run over on Clapham Old Town's insane new traffic system

Has the re-modelling of Clapham Old Town's traffic flows really improved anything?

As one who tries to get from Wandsworth Road to Clapham Common tube station each day on foot or by bike, I'd say no, the reverse. The new bike lanes are insane and confusing, and moving the pedestrian crossing, which used to be outside the old public library, about 50 yards further north, is infuriating.  In fact, downright dangerous for old fools like me with ingrained walking habits.

Not only has the crossing gone,  the road has also become two-way. Yesterday I strode across, forgetting there might be traffic coming from the left - which there was . I  caused a Ford Focus to brake rather heavily. I survived.

But what about all those people coming out of the training centre or the new "arts" centre (the Omnibus, about which I have nothing to say as I cannot afford their ticket prices)? Most of them want to get up to the tube station asap.

But they have to walk north first, to cross the road.

Once again, cars win over pedestrians.

So what has improved, after so much spending? Not very much - although it must be good that they have at last re-surfaced the Rookery Road/Northside stretch. This used to rattle cars, trucks, buses and especially bikes almost to the point of disintegration.

Tasteful street furniture? You know where they can stick that.

Monday, 27 October 2014

Obelisk vs tower block at St George's Circus - may the better phallus win!

Interesting to see the public protest against mega property developer Barratt's plan to build a 27-storey block of flats in Blackfriar's Road, close to St George's Circus, as reported on the London SE1 blog.

One of the main points made by  opponents to the scheme is that the tower will dwarf the obelisk in centre of the square. This used to help people work out where they were in this incredibly confusing area of radial trunk roads.

I love obelisks and wish this one were ten times as tall.  Unfortunately, this nice but diminutive obelisk is already pretty heavily obscured by nondescript office buildings of the past four decades.

As one who would almost on principle oppose any scheme put forward by this firm - the company responsible for so many  blots on the English landscape, those estates of houses where you're worried if you take  a dump after 9pm cos the kids are sleeping the other side of that bit of plasterboard?
But how much space does an average human need to take a dump in?  OK halve it and build five thousand units…

 Yeah, that lot, or was it Wimpey?

It's  quite boring, really, but see  how often critics now attack Britain's dreadful record on building mass housing, how the profession seems to have turned its back on the ideals it used to have in the day of Goldfinger et al - homes not for heroes but for homes for people who were more than 5ft tall and liked to play music loud occasionally, to hang out the window,  make a fire,  brew some beer, hold a party, dance or just build shelves.

So I am no fan of Barratt or any of their ilk - and when I turn to their website I see that they have already  - in oh such a responsible, community-supportive way, agreed to lop 3 whole storeys off the planned tower, and have completely scrapped plans for a second tower.

Here's where I get egged. I'd rather they built a 60 or 80 or 120 storey tower here. Get all those rich bastards into as few of these silly buildings as you can. Provide big sewer pipes to take their copious shit as far away as possible.

The last thing London needs is any more half-cocked compromise non-skyscraping mediocrities. Ugly stumps. Surely the Shard has already cracked that old chestnut - once you get over the prevailing  8-12 storey norm, it doesn't matter. You've already fucked everyone else's view at 14 storeys (see Nine Elms Disease, passim). And, as the stupid Wlkie-Talkie has already demonstrated , width - thickness - is as big a factor as height, especially when you swell out to some  sort of moronic brow.

But then they say, well, one day you'll love the Walkie-Talkie, and die to defend it. Oh really? Well, perhaps. It is ugly enough, it gets noticed.

So, do something people will really hate - and maybe come to love. You have to go really high to impress these days. Erect, impress! Get a decent SE1 cluster going that will shame the Shard and make the City look like legoland. Well, it already does, a bit, doesn't it?

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Deep autumn blues blown away by red-hot sax on Clapham Common

Sax player on Clapham Common helps blow away autumn blues with some great John Coltrane phrasesLife can seem like shit at this time of year in SW4, especially if you are broke and adrift and 61 years of age.

The beautiful sadness of autumn can be thrilling if you have the heart for it, deeply depressing if you haven't. Anyway that's the sort of crap I was pondering on a recent walk around the common, late afternoon, after the school's out crowds but before the commuter rush.

Heading towards the  boating lake, the yearning sounds of  someone practising jazz tenor saxophone resonate across the  plate-glass water. There's a bloke in blue sitting on a bench on the other side of the pond, and he seems to be blowing his heart out with these repeated phrases, which sometimes seem almost to rip the fabric of the air they travel through.

Gradually he builds it up, adding a few notes each time, until it's unmistakably from Coltrane's A Love Supreme.

Another man, perhaps his friend, joins him on the bench and just lies back to enjoy the music and his bottle of whatever. Solitary walkers and a few couples  are watching from other benches. I move closer, stop, listen, move on, walk back across towards the North Side, still hearing those fabulously melancholy yet paradoxically uplifting riffs.

If I hadn't already been a jazz fan this would have ignited my interest. Instead it re-0ignited this dormant  flame. Thanks, anonymous sax player. I wish I knew who you were.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Shell Centre plans take the glass box virus further east

Having been moaning about "Nine Elms disease" for months now as those dreary blocks of half-built flats gradually create a screen-wall along the Battersea to Vauxhall riverside, I was saddened to read the same thing is about to happen right at the heart of south bank - the old Shell Centre by Waterloo.

Ok, so I am a year behind the times on this - but alerted to it by a rather brilliant letter in today's Evening Standard, written by one George Turner, headlined, "These flats are part of the crisis".

As was clear a year ago, Lambeth's approval for this development of eight new towers surrounding the old Shell centre was hugely controversial. All the familiar arguments are made: you almost sympathise with the guy from Westminster who is worried about the impact on the view from St James's Park.

Turner's letter points out that the "luxury" factor in these developments is generally a sham. The flats themselves are not very different from the council blocks of the 1960s. But of course these too are now selling at massive prices.

What's really vile about this and  dozens of other recently-approved riverside housing developments is the utterly dismal, utterly cynical mediocrity of the architecture. I never much liked the Shell Centre but to see the cgi images of the proposed scheme is to see a rather dull city gent of the 1950s in a drab but beautifully crafted Saville Row suit surrounded by a gang of spivvy estate agents wearing Mr Byrite's finest Hugo Boss homage circa 1985.

The buildings just look cheap and nasty - as do so many of the apartments being sold "off plan" in the property pages these days, often before the first sod of inner-city soil is ripped out of the cold London ground. Just look at this unsurprising but miserable story from Loughborough Junction, a little further south.

The buildings, as with the stuff that has already ruined the south bank of the Thames from Battersea Bridge most of the way to Putney, are a sort of collective smirk, a vile grin on the faces of the types who can afford to buy a big property with a river view, their curving balconies jutting out from the towers like so many fat city-boys' beef-bellies after a particularly bloated champagne supper.

Actually, as this letter points out, the people who buy these flats probably never have to set eyes on them; they just pocket the inflated rents or the profit when they sell them on.

Also very recently,  another very much more distinguished voice (than mine, that is) has spoken out against the south bank blight of glass and steel: Peter Rees, architect and former chief  planner for the City of London.

Speaking at the RSA, he said these high-rise developments were not necessary, inefficient and did not provide the true high-density housing London needs.

"The idea of dotting them (skyscrapers) all along the river from Bermondsey to Battersea is absolutely awful and it's ruining London."

He refers to "skyscrapers" and this is where I differ - if any of these lumps could be truly called a skyscraper I might just about excuse them, at least there might be some excitement. But the only one anywhere near that is the St George's Tower and that is the dreariest tall building We've ever suffered in this country. It's tall but it is so boring, so ugly, that you don't care - no wonder an unfortunate helicopter hit the thing last year.

Then again, Peter Rees is also the guy who must have rubber-stamped the walkie-talkie. Good story on his speech here at the London SE1 Community Website.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

An appropriate Banksy

Having removed a real and really quite good if ever so slightly too subtly ironic Banksy work from the wall of one its gents' toilets, Tendring District Council at Clacton-on-Sea in Essex has suggested it would be only too happy if the artist were to come back and give them a more appropriate work.

The offending piece was removed - (presumably scrubbed off  the wall, rather than peeled off  or carefully painted over, in light of a potential sale later?) - after complaint that it was racist graffiti.

Not surprising, really, given how sensitive the public authorities must be in the town that recently lost its Tory MP, Duncan Carswell, to  UKIP, with a by-election coming up next week.

If as seems likely the Banksy is destroyed, you must feel a bit sorry for the poor fellow from Tendring District Council who ordered its removal. That was, of course, before an "official" Banksy statement claimed the piece as genuine.

The whole thing is almost a work of art in itself. The work was a straightforward enough dig at the little Englander attitudes of UKIP and co  re immigration. It was actually quite crude in that sense - the immigrant bird was an exotic parakeet-type, the native dull grey and black pigeons.

More interesting is how the whole event reflects on the knee-jerk world of politically correct reflex actions - one knee-jerk here that has lost the local council about half a million, or much more in lost tourist revenues if the artwork had been protected.

And of course, andy this is surely the real Banksy agenda, its very sharp implied comment on the whole sick business of the art market.

BBC News version of this story here. And see some great photos of the mural and some of Banksy's other recent work on the artist's website, http://www.banksy.co.uk

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Reading group : five winners in a row

I didn't mean to make this a reading diary, but I just have to record the four excellent books I have just read.

It is unusual to have such a lucky run - I so often start books and run out of  energy to carry on after about 60 pages. This time, though, the run seems to have been sparked by visiting the classics section of the new Clapham Library.

A Penguin Modern Classic that real is a modern classic - In praise of Older Women by Stephen VizinczeyBack in July I picked out a copy of Stephen Vizinczey's In Praise of Older Women - a book which I remember being in my father's small bedroom bookshelf, alongside the Karma Sutra, Breakfast At Tiffany's, a book about the liberation of the concentration camps, and a Pears Medical dictionary. Two of these were of irresistible interest to my 11-year-old self.

There was something mysterious and slightly dangerous about this bookshelf, but Vizinczey's novel did not have quite the appeal of the others, at the time. Reading it now I was amazed at how good it was - how beautifully written, how devastatingly sad in so many unexpected ways, some good, some less so.

I made a mental note to read more of his work - The Rules of Chaos or An Innocent Millionaire, perhaps - but have not yet come across copies of any.

So I picked out another Penguin Modern Classic, one I had not heard of before  - Beautiful Antonio by Vitaliano Brancati.

This was also about a young man trying to grow up - but in this case , the beautiful Antonio of the title , while he is even more popular with women than Vizinczey's Tomas, the poor fellow has severe psychosexual problems that render him more or less impotent, except with very patient prostitutes.

Beautiful Antonio by Vitaliano Brancati
It's another great read though - the background of upper-midle class Sicilian society of the 1930s, where Mussolini's fascists are viewed with a mix of contempt, ridicule and very real fear - is fascinating in itself. The translator makes great use of that strange young English slang of the flapper era, and it seems exactly right.

I move onto another unknown, again a Penguin Modern Classic: Beauty and Sadness by Yasunari Kawabata. You can see the links, right? Here the beauty is mainly female, and the sadness so poignant and piercing and yet so taken as normal by the characters - so Japanese in fact.  Ageing successful novelist, Oki, is driven to revisit the lover of his youth, Otoko, one he abandoned after an abortion and a failed suicide attempt, one who is now a successful artist living in Kyoto with a mysterious and equally beautiful 18-year-old apprentice.

This young acolyte decides to take revenge on her teacher's behalf, and does so by bedding both Oti and his son. As in the previous two novels, the atmosphere is both highly erotic and the sex, when it occurs, quite explicit,  yet completely and utterly non-prurient, neither sensational nor self-consciously liberated, nor smutty, in a way that no novel written by and Anglo-Saxon author ever could be , or so it seems.

So to the final, very different novel - a book which reads much more like a piece of high quality journalism. Tahar Ben Jelloun's This Blinding Absence of Light (as Maureen Freely's review in the Guardian from 2004 explains) recounts the experience of a young Moroccan army conscript who was thrown into military prison after being forced to take part in a failed coup against  King Hassan II back in 1971.

It's a tough read. Thirteen years in a hole in the ground, no light, constant terror, starvation, torture, mental and physical: the descriptions of what became of all civilised notions of life in these almost unthinkable circumstances become all too thinkable in this excellent translation.

I almost had to stop reading when it got to the scorpions. A must-read, though, for obvious reasons in 2014, when more and more people are suffering similar loss of everything and anything anyone has ever considered a human right.

This Blinding Absence of Light 
by Tahar Ben Jelloun, translated by Linda Coverdale 
195pp, New Press, £14.99

And as a coda - the fifth book, picked up again on the basis of its title and cover photo (OK, it is another Penguin modern Classic) is also a winner - Daniele Varé's The Maker of Heavenly Trousers.

It's another oddball, I guess; a quiet enough book, with delightful accounts of life in early 20th century Peking, described through the wide-open, unprejudiced eyes of a an anglo-Italian diplomat, presumably Varé himself. The Russian elements of the plot might drag the whole book perilously close to historical fantasy and magical unrealism, and yet - there's a childlike wonder in this book that is simply adorable.

So what is it about these five? Why did I find them so refreshing, so thrillingly enjoyable, and so different from all the heavy stuff I'd got into the habit of reading - you know, the Cloud Atlas, Life-of-Pi, Capital, Booker-prize nominated stuff.

The obvious - none of these was written by a native English speaker, and most are translations. If they share anything it's that "continental" sensibility - a rather old-fashioned idea, I know, as we like to feel we are all very European these days. But we're not. For a start, Anglo-Saxon writers just can't do sex, or eroticicism. Three of these five books are deeply erotic - not in the steamy sex scene way (that, in fact, is anti-erotic to my   mind) but in their unspoken understanding that there is an almost unbearable pleasure awaiting us all if only we know where to find it and how to approach it.