Saturday, 19 March 2011

Wistful about Wisteria

My Faceless Housing Estate is about to become yet even more faceless, with even less character. An enormous industrial / housing estate application, originally thrown out, is currently being rubber-stamped through by an MP as I write this. This development will be, quite literally, in 'my back yard'! With the immanent expansion of my housing estate, subsumed further into the urban sprawl, I have found myself temporarily lost for words. I have already written a long and rambling blog entry only to delete it when I discovered it wasn't exactly fulfilling the original aims of the project, " discover hope and beauty in the mundane and banal".

Worse still, in recent weeks my beloved perambulations about the estate have been completely curtailed due to an ongoing and as yet undiagnosed pain in my foot!

It is in such a depressed state of mind that the blog reader finds its chronicler. Nevertheless, I wanted to put a few things down, some crumbs of hope and beauty. Firstly, it is spring at long last and the blogger can look forward to celebrating the suburban landscape come alive. In particular, I am eagerly observing a Wisteria that clings to a house along my route. This magnificent tree hugs the entire front of the building, curling its craggy branches around windows and under eaves. Bare, woody and stark all winter, each spring it suddenly bursts into an explosion of purple and blue with its heavy flowers dangling everywhere. Bricks and sticks transform into a riot of violet, a transformation of an ugly built environment into a beautiful bucolic one. And if that, at least, is not a reason to be cheerful, I don't know what is.

Saturday, 26 February 2011

Glove is all around me...

The Lost Glove Photographic Project begins...

Sunday, 20 February 2011

Glove Actually

Gloves. I'm sure it's been done before, a thousand times over, but I'm thinking of starting a winter photographic project that involves the taking of pictures of all the single gloves I find discarded out on the street. I see so many on my walks in winter. Gloves and mittens of all colours, designs and sizes, and in various states of decay. A glover's wabi sabi. Ah, look, even a very cursory check of Google uncovers

Anyway, it doesn't matter that it's been done before. Yes, there is something that moves me each time I discover a lost glove. You see, that glove has an owner and a twin. It is a token of their presence at a particular place, on a particular moment, revealed to me.

Of course, this dropped glove is technically litter, I suppose. Should the dropping of a Mars Bar wrapper be any less significant, then? The dropping of a glove, though, is accidental and its significance is therefore its loss to somebody. It is also personal to the owner, the two once going together literally 'hand in glove'. I like to think, therefore, that the sign of a lost glove moves me because (unlike the mass produced chocolate bar wrappers), the glove is a powerful signifier of the presence of an individual. One for whom we can even construct something of a basic biography.

For example, a pink, adult-sized glove probably signifies a woman. A woman who is right now rueing the inconvenient loss of an item of clothing. Her left hand is cold. Probably. I know that much. In fact, I hold the key to resolving her grief as well. If only we two lost souls, like the separated gloves themselves, could actually unite. We might even unknowingly pass each other every day on our routes to work. But I know that the possibility of us actually meeting, identifying each other as mutual glove keepers and then uniting our clothing items, is virtually nil. We'll probably remain to each other just two more random individuals in a faceless housing estate in a characterless city.

Might still do that photo project, though.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Sounds from the Urban Jungle

It makes for a pleasant experience to be walking these same streets in the peace of midweek, mid-morning. There's something almost illicit about being out and about at such a time.

On such a recent morning, I actually stopped halfway across a park to notice a vista that I'd never observed before, despite living in this district for over a decade now. I saw the local church set against misty hills in the distance. Listening, I noticed that in this peaceful scene were two prominent sounds; bird calls and traffic. These are the overwhelmingly dominant sounds of my modern suburbia; birdsong and the ceaseless. distant roar of the M1. The all pervasive far-off din is so constant and yet insidious that I fail to even acknowledge it anymore, like chronic tinnitus.

It was almost with a shock that it occurred to me that living in the Faceless Housing Estate in a Characterless City means living with this endless roar of traffic day and night, 365 days a year! It means living without real peace. Yet, before the claustrophobic thought overwhelmed me, I noticed the more pastoral birdsong too, even here in the urban sprawl in winter. Constant and enduring. I listened more carefully: the rural coo of Wood Pigeon; the chirrup of the common Sparrow; the evocative caw of Crows, somehow perfectly suited to the bleakness of winter; other more unusual calls that this non-ornithologist cannot begin to identify. I listen back again to the traffic, unable to discern the different species; was that a Ford Mondeo or a Renault Megane, I wonder?

Traffic noise and bird song. The ear of the suburban flaneur learns to filter out the former and zero in on the latter whilst knowing that he must ultimately reconcile himself to being condemned to live with both.

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Lichen it or Lump It: Concrete Civic Architecture

The Council Offices that I pass by are a classic example of sixties architecture; confusing layers of the building placed at right angles to each other like a gigantic game of Jenga. Everything is square, grey, concrete. The University of East Anglia’s campus, of which I'm familiar through being a student there, was designed by Sir Denys Lasdun, whose other notable works include London’s South Bank complex; all “Brutalist” architecture. The UEA campus reminds me of the council offices that I now pass regularly. The students there provided their own laconic judgement on Lasdun’s design by naming their student newspaper simply, “Concrete”. Lasdun’s design tried to incorporate a ‘plaza’, modelled on the similar Italian plazas; bright, open and clean with citizens lounging about in the sun. Concrete in non-mediterranean climes, however, isn’t bright and clean. In Leicester’s wetter, colder climate it goes a dark grey, mottled with lichen and pollution, looks dirty and grim.

Leicestershire's council was troubled enough about the ‘concrete effect’ to embark on a recent intensive cleaning exercise in order to restore some lighter lustre to the Battleship Grey that had taken hold. It coincided with the arrival of a new sign which has troubled me ever since. It simply says something along the lines of “working in partnership with Chegdu, Sichuan Province, China” or similar. I am by instinct an internationalist, ‘a citizen of the world’ to quote Keats, and encourage communication with other peoples. However, given China’s appalling human rights record, I am troubled that the administration of my elected representatives are 'working in close partnership' with an institution that who denies the same freedoms as we. I wonder if there would have been more of a local furore if a sign had gone up working closely with Saddam Hussein’s regime, or Apartheid South Africa, or Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe? Is twinning eroding barriers or validating oppression, I wonder?

This blog was supposed to be discovering beauty in an apparently drab, urban environment. So, with this in mind, I should add that there is a actually beauty in this 'brutal' building. Its imposing, grand and harsh concrete lines, set incongruously like an alien spacecraft that has landed amongst landscaped grounds, rises out of the mists on an early January morning in a sight that inspires rather than depresses. And in that moment one sees a glimpse of something that may have been in Sir Denys Lasdun’s mind’s eye all those decades ago but has been utterly lost to many ever since.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Subway Subtexts

A quote I found recently seems to reflect nicely the aesthetic of this blog:

"A smile, a face in the subway, the sight of a small flower growing in the crack of a cement pavement, the fall of rich cloth in a shop window, the way the sun lights up flower pots on a window sill. Offer up every joy, be awake at all moments." Sogyal Rinpoche.

Speaking of the 'subway' (by which I mean the pedestrian underpass interpretation), there is a subway that I often pass through on my ramblings. It seems to be a battleground between graffiti artists and the nearby council. Like the ebb and flow of battle lines, the amount of graffiti waxes and wanes as it gets sprayed or removed in an endless tussle. Winter seems to promote more of the sprayed tags, as if the perpretators come down there to shelter from the cold.

As I pass through the myriad of different sprayed-on colours, I note a very limited number of tags, just the same people spraying their presence over and over again. It's as if they have nothing else to say except to endlessly repeat their presence in a kind of repetitiously nihilistic 'cogito'. "I was here". I find it a great shame that they have nothing to announce; no political commentary or slogans, none of the ritualistic symbolism found in the first cave paintings. Graffiti in this instance is not a sign of urban decay, it's a sign of cultural decay.

Perhaps I could start adding my own graffiti to those subway walls? Some extracts from my blogged observations, or a quote from Sogyal Rinpoche, perhaps?

Friday, 31 December 2010

Strange Meeting III: New Year's Eve

Walking the streets at 7.30am on New Year's Eve could as well be walking through the 'faceless housing estate' at midnight on any other day of the year. At such a time in the morning, it's still so dark as to be nighttime. It's so quiet that there is little sign of any rush hour traffic about, vehicular or human. Today, in the eerily deserted streets, streetlamps still resolutely aglow, I passed one fellow traveller en route. I say 'fellow traveller' but in reality she was standing on a street corner, waiting for something or someone presumably (no, this is not a red light district, despite the Christmas lights still on display) . I returned her greeting and noticed her smiling, dark brown eyes were open wide. I picked up on her warm humanity, and that wide-eyed optimism she exuded, and carried it with me all the way in to work.

On the streets, there is always that possibility of human contact, however transitory, and such an experience serves to remind me that in any 'characterless city', it is the conurbation's parts rather than its sum that are important. Cars serve to alienate us, dehumanise us into 'traffic'; housing estates into mere 'residents', capitalism into 'consumers'; and the workplace into 'human resources'. The Flaneur reconnects with what's real and human by walking in the open air and actually greeting another person face to face.

A happy and peaceful 2011 to all other suburban souls!