Sunday, 6 January 2013

The good, the bad and the ugly in London

Elena and I agree on one thing : the Ancient Greeks were cool.

They enjoyed discussion and debate about the big question - how should we live?

They asked this question of the individual, the household and the state, and they realised that there were no easy answers. But Aristotle landed, in our view, on the importance in every sphere of activity of getting to the right balance between the possible extremes - The Golden Mean.

Perhaps people have always known this instinctively. Moderation in all things, though, is not necessarily the right answer. Different problems need different answers, and there is, as old Ecclesiatises knew, a time to laugh and a time to cry.

London carries its contrasts in close proximity, so the successes and failures in the search for the Golden Mean or whether resort is taken to extremes are often encountered.

 In Paddington Green, there is an 18th Century church called St Marys. It is beautiful, a pleasure to behold, it delights the eye of the passer by and the indiginous people are proud to live alongside it. It was designed by a man called John Plaw, who has only three surviving buildings in Britain, all circular and classical in proportion. He emigrated to Canada where he designed and built public buildings but none of them survive, which must be a shame for Canada.

Somehow, John Plaw and the worthy burghers of Paddington Green knew where to strike the balance with this building. Everything is the right size and in the right place. If you moved it to another spot twenty yards away it would probably all be wrong. It fits as exactly as a piece of jigsaw in the puzzle of Paddington Green.

Across the road from this church is a contemporary building, with a completely different function,a college of further education. It is not beautiful, but it is cheerful and inoffensive,doing its job well and being a good neighbour thereby, like a polite security guard on a reception desk, or a cheerful waitress in a Coffee bar. Although only 50 yards apart, St Marys and its neighbour Westminster College rub along just fine.  

Now look at a similar couple, who have fallen out very badly.

Westminster Adult Education Service have built what looks like a prison block about 50 yards away from St Mary Magdalene church at Little Venice, and this pair are about 15 minutes walk away from Paddington Green.

The signage on the education service building struggles to convey the meaning inherent in the words it uses : ‘Welcome’ is flatly contradicted by the square and squat shape of the building to which it is appended. The surrounding black railings are six feet tall and designed to kill anybody climbing over them - and the signage is so ineptly displayed that you might be tempted to conclude that to climb over the fence is the only way to enter the building. ( We walked around it twice before we found the way in. ) The windows are small and covered in security grills. Are they storing nuclear waste in there? or processing nuclear fuel to bomb levels of purity?

Other signage on this assault on the eyes depicts smiling and laughing individuals confident of a secure future now that they attend this institution - but the building itself says no, despair, abandon hope all ye who enter here, you won’t succeed, just sign on and take your benefits.

This building sits in amongst a cluster of other ugly buildings, blocks of flats occupied by the poor of London, the wards of state.

This building is another insult to them  - would they have put such a one in Sloane Street or Hampstead?

There is, however, a beautiful building nearby, a cousin of St Marys at Paddington Green, St Mary Magdalene church, a magnificent example of soaring Victorian Gothic. This heart lifting edifice of the soul is obscured from a number of directions by the soul destroying demon of the education service building.

These two buildings do not co-exist. They are at permanent war with each other, they stare and scowl at each other across the 50 yards that seperate them.

Perhaps these two pairs, seperated in each case by a century or two, reflect a simple and perrenial quality of human action - thoughtfulness, careful thought about the overall impact of the actions we take alongside a willingness to consider the importance of the details. It is difficult for us to know what will be good and what bad, so we must take care with every element of every project - it might as well be the tiny detail as the overall conception which turns out to be crucial for future success or failure. To recognise this is surely to have a kind of humility about oneself that makes one more likely to be the kind of human that the future will be grateful for.

More examples of the importance of careful, detailed thought alongside the big idea came to us from an orgy of theatre, a pleasure it is easy enough to indulge in London.
At the Royal Court, a theatre I love for its commitment to the new and experimental, we had to endure an experiment that failed. I still salute them for their courage in almost indiscriminantly supporting new ideas, because obviously failure and experiment go hand in hand and there is no progress without experiment, but this failure almost hurt.

Martin Crimp is the author of ‘The republic of Happiness’, a play which wears its message on both sleeves and tattoed on every actor’s forehead.
The message is obvious from the title - we live in a consumer society in which personal happiness is up for sale and is the only standard. I am entitled to everything, and everything I think is ok because I thought it. Solipsism rules, ok?
Well, it’s not a new critique, and it was done by Herbert Marcuse in ‘ One Dimensional Man’ back in the 1960’s, so we were entitled to expect some drama alogside the lecture, some characters we could loathe or love.
But Mr Crimp, if he did think about the needs of the audience, dismissed them. He concluded that his message was more important, and that artistry was redundant if this message was repeated often enough,  loud enough, and with enough expletives.

Compare this with the production of ‘Uncle Vanya’ by Checkhov at The Vaudeville Theatre.

Now Checkhov too is a man with a message alright, and pretty much every play delivers the same message - life is not easy, there are sometimes no answers, unhappiness is built into the world, but it can still be amazing, so don’t throw it away, put up with it. 
Not very inspiring, but Checkhov applies profound thought and careful observation of human nature to his message. He adds drama, surprise, characters to love or loathe. The effect is transformative. It is the effect of art, artistry all round and in every detail.

Daniel Kahneman in his brilliant book ‘ Thinking, fast and slow’ demonstrates conclusively that we humans find it very difficult to think at all. So we don’t do it very often and find it painful when we do.

Perhaps here we have the explanation for all our shortcomings.

Perhaps here, wherever we live, Governments can find a new Jerusalem to build and every one of us can find a source of renewal that will keep us going to the end.

Let’s hope so - I’ve forgotten where I left my memory stick.

Unless otherwise stated all photographs by Elena Bruce

No comments:

Post a Comment