Trying to understand the city: small writings of move to London

If my blogpage hit some kind of Timequake (to borrow the title of a Kurt Vonnegut novel) and this post was read by myself from any ‘blogging’ year other than 2012 I would be perplexed as to how I ended up in Britain’s only mega-city, London. As much as I have always been drawn to cities due their informing of my expressive output, this fascination is if anything one laden with scrutiny, thereby generally morbid; now and again the intensity of the city could prove to be too much. And this wasn’t just cities the size of London, but cities like Manchester and Leeds.As well as this, the last five years since I graduated from my art degree have been spent between a somewhat softened and elongated experience of seeing no clear future for myself – ‘being between a rock and a hard place’ – with the production of art/writing (and, in the past, music) serving as the only kind of guidance, which in turn was massively informed by the circumstances which were making me feel so dead end, around people who (appeared to) had their whole future’s mapped out; circumstances (such as the threat of climate breakdown, obsessive disorders, and the inability to find enjoyment in all around that was offered to me as the ‘goodness of life’) that would eventually make me want to return to study something that would allow me to understand what makes the capitalist society that I so struggle to accept.Usually the idea of returning to ‘school’ hasn’t appealed to me at all. But my position between this so-called ‘rock and a hard place’ was getting more dreary and stale by the month, whereas I used to be able to say “pushed into a corner, my creative output is my only method of retaliation” (taken from my ‘artist statement’) with confidence and energy to keep on doing so. The whole predicament was beginning to smother the only endeavours that have given me a purpose to segregate the alcohol endeavours; I found I was barely able to think creatively any more. Thus I have found myself able to do a little bit of manoeuvring around this ‘grey mist’ I see for a future, and just about manage to land myself one of the best places in the world to observe the intense flows of capitalism, whilst studying this: London; still one of the world’s financial capitals, and capital of the world’s first industrially capitalist nation, and possibly the largest human settlement until Moscow to the east and New York to the west. I don’t expect a ‘career’ out of this expedition, but I do feel it is essential I gain a more sound understanding of my critical interests, and circumstances may not keep on granting me this, in this age of certain uncertainties. I am beginning to learn that life is just one series of shimmies away from the pits/total dead ends, and I think this describes what I am doing here (although the intensification of uncertainty under global capitalism requires more shimmying of us). I don’t see opportunity, I see slight openings appearing in dead ends.

So here are the thoughts of one who is not yet accustomed with mega-city dwelling, as much as I still believe modern communications technology makes us all (virtual) urban dwellers. –
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Updates promised/Delays expected

  • From the window of the landing I used to be able to see the hospital where I was born, now I can see Canary Wharf, one of the epicentres of the flows of forces that have probably had more control over my life than I have. I have spent the best part of a decade situating such all-powerful skyscrapers in art work that was trying to visual the world as it is: now I can see the little flashing lights on their roof with my own eyes.
  • From the window in my new room I can see the top of the new tallest building in Europe: ‘the Shard’. It is a spike-shaped building (to describe it to anybody who hasn’t been exposed to the Londonification of the media in preparation for the 2012 Olympics) or like a piece of flint sticking upwards, and monolithic to match that description. A city seemingly destined to be overlooked by such archaic blocks, begun with ‘the Gerkin’, if only to be symbolic of the archaic shift to a city of kings (in ‘Shardish’ penthouses) and lowly serfs. I expressed surprise at being able to see it from my window, but the surprise was short-lived due to learning that nearly everybody else in the city can see it from their windows too. Yes, this building almost appears to be intentionally conspicuous: a utopia in the sky for the very rich, when life is becoming more dystopian for those below by the month. Once utopia was planned for the people down the road in social housing, who are now slowly being turfed out as the area becomes gentrified (being a newcomer, such thoughts have been informed, on and off, by blogs such as The Elephant’s Backside and Random Blowe), now they are told be ‘realistic’ and that there is no other option but that of being pushed further into the mire. The Shard is symbolic of the unfairness of the system, which is now being shamelessly laid bare for all to see. Quite in contrast to the architectural gestures of the previous Blair government, who tried to hide the unfairness and exclusivity behind a smokescreen of inclusivity. At least it’s easier to see we’re being conned now. The Shard intentionally pierces the sky, yet (maybe because it hasn’t been fully completed yet) appears to open up at the tip, as if it letting the heavens in, yet whilst being symbolic of the trampling on dreams.
  • Still finding strange and slightly unnerving the tannoy announcement on the London underground that tells you how well the services are running at that time. The announcement is delivered in a calm, everyday manner, yet this is what makes it so strange and slightly unnerving to hear: its normalising of the underground part of London life, a setting still so unreal(subreal) to anyone not acclimatized to it (a scene of  hundreds and thousands of bodies walking and running toward each other like particles in a collider), that it almost has the resonance of a hourly forecast given to inhabitants of a city caught between a massive war, or a forecast given in an age where, what is thus far, unimaginable weather extremes have become the norm. Such a setting is only 100 years old, it is still a relatively new experience. Those not accustomed to the city who find these experiences new and frightening shouldn’t be dismissed; they may well be able to express sensations that most have become numb to.
  • Sat on a hill overlooking the city. Every five minutes a plane passes overhead, as if on a production line. Occasionally glance up, with instinctual surprise at being able to see the landscape of a massive city. The buildings are giants, and giants of giants, spread amongst a landscape. They are the rulers of that landscape; communicating the language of that which they rule by. Whereas the ancient forest or ancient mountain-range would have a huge impact, and gain the utmost respect from the human inhabitants of their landscape – with each giant tree/mountain being attributed anthropomorphic characteristics –  becoming representatives of the power of Earth/God, the giants, and giants of giants, of this landscape are the representatives to the power of money. Like how every church was built so that it was visible to another, and so forth, these buildings appear to be speaking to each other; the taller buildings having the most important place in the conversation; like the churches in the age when they were built, they are speaking the language of dominance. This is why one big skyscraper alone in a much smaller town seems to speak to nothing in its physical locality, and seems to communicate with far off buildings in the globally scattered financial epicentres. Like the king’s barons, allocated a patch of conquered land, the buildings bring the new world order to a conquered town. Yet, in the larger city, one sees a landscape of kings/rulers. Such a presence, like the cathedrals before them, has a huge impact on the citizens that scurry around below them. We owe so much to the nearby hills, as they allow us to get some perspective on the extent of the impact on ourselves down in the place where we scurry around.
  • From being an early riser from sleep in my home town, I now seriously struggle to get out of bed in the morning. I am convinced that having what seems like the whole world outside my window is what is causing this morning-malaise. Before, the world was still out there, but there was space and room for somebody in the fragile state of awaking from sleep to gather themselves before they went out to face the world. This even made it all seem more attractive, and made it seem like some kind of meaningfulness was outside, over there somewhere. Now everything feels like it is already being done; the planes are been flown, the trains are being driven, crimes are being committed; life is already fully alive, exerting all the energy it has got before you have even got out of bed. As everything is already going on, swirling around right above the bed, getting out of ones cocoon can seem incredibly daunting. At that time in the morning, what (to somebody used to hearing only a distance drone of a motorway and the odd dog bark) from his open bedroom window seems like the whole world outside their window and it seems too much to take on. Every muscle in your body convinces you to lie there, in silence.
  • On Embankment, waiting for a friend. I’m not sure whether it’s bemusement or sadness I have when I see public sculpture in the heart of a city, which was created and situated in its current location in an historically-seen-as more benevolent and socially progressive period. These are sculptures by the likes of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore (very famous 20th century sculptors). As well as taking into consideration the effect of having to work in a gallery with works from such sculptors for 5 years, my inability to gain feeling from them, for me, suggests more than anything that any potentialities they may have had have been smothered by the direction in which society has gone since then. When these sculptures were placed in the heart of the large cities up and down the country, these cities were undergoing mass redevelopment, large social projects and mass slum clearing, which, although these developments left a lot to be desired to say the least, were still plugged in to the notion of improving the lot of the society on a whole. There was more of an idea of a contract, and that things were generally going to improve. Now, I’m sure these sculptors would have had thoughts that once one world takes another’s place as time rolls on, their sculptures would become static lumps watching it all pass. Yet, as with the statues in every town in the country built to remember those who died in wars which are now grounded in another time/world where the very crimes of warfare are being shamelessly replayed on other battlefields, these sculptures look like a setting in concrete of a promise to build a better world for all, that has now been cheated out of existence, left to stand there as fossilised remnants of something now extinct. In a city where the source of so much of the illness of our age can be traced to certain locations of transactions, the sculptors look almost pathetic, like the burnt out tanks that remain of an army that was trounced by the victor. The emotional landscape of the postwar period, with all the good intentions and high hopes that a better world could be built after the wars (no matter how flawed and laden with hypocrisy) could not be more opposite to the world these sculptures now find themselves in, when society is fed a bitter pill, and it knows it is bitter, but is told that it must swallow it anyway, because, no matter how terrible it all is, “there is no other way”.

will add more soon

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About John Ledger

A visual Artist, eternal meanderer and obsessive self-reflector by nature, who can’t help but try to interpret everything from within the tide of society. His works predominantly take the form of large scale ballpoint pen landscape drawings and map-making as social/psychological note-making. They are slowly-accumulating responses to crises inflicted upon the self in the perplexing, fearful, empty, and often personality-erasing human world.

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