How did London become the first metropolis to disappear?

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Go to the City of London on a Sunday afternoon and you will find emptiness. Street after street of emptiness. Nobody comes to the City, London’s financial district, on a Sunday.

The irony of this is that the City IS London. The boundries of the City are the same that marked the Roman settlement of Londinium, established nearly 2000 years ago. The City is where London first started to breathe and grow and develop into the teaming metropolis that it has since become.

Under the modernist, brutalist layers of the Barbican Centre, lie not only Roman foundations, but Tudor foundations too. It was here, in the bustling Barbican of Tudor times, that Shakespeare lived, in Cripplegate, and wrote Hamlet.

The City is where Londoner’s endured the greatest calamities of the metropolis’s history. The Church of St-Giles-without-Cripplegate, which sits, preserved, within the concrete womb of the Barbican, survived not only the Great Fire of London in 1666, but also the Nazi bombs of the 1940’s, which obliterated the rest of the area.

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This church’s canny skill of self-preservation allowed not only Oliver Cromwell to marry at its altar, but also allowed Rick Wakeman to record The Six Wives of Henry VIII, in the church’s nave, a century later.

Today the population of London’s historic heart is just 8,000, out of an overall population of nearly nine million, a number that has stayed static for decades.

It is surprising that anyone still lives there at all, in this cavernous mass of offices and sandwich shops.

There are over forty Eats and Pret a Mangers within the Square Mile and there are probably more on the way. That is one to serve every 200 of the City’s population, which is quite a good ratio of sandwich coverage.

But, civilisation does cling on and people do live there in the penthouses that sit at the top of the ever taller office blocks and in the beautifully appointed apartments of the Barbican.

I once even met someone who lived in a converted flat in the spire of Christ Church Greyfriars, the bombed-out church at the top of Cheapside, which was left partly in ruins as a memorial to those who died in the Blitz.

This is, to say the least, one of the City’s more unusual desirable residences, sitting as it does above the grave of Isabella of France, the so called ‘She-Wolf’ and original femme fatal, who was married to Edward II.

The rise of global finance and the power of the City of London Corporation and Parliament’s reliance on it as the economic engine room of the country, led to the sanitisation of this very crucial slice of London’s history.

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The very centre of wider London, sits not in the City though, but under the statue of Charles I in front of Trafalgar Square. The statue of the beheaded King was torn down in the wake of the Civil War and the Roundheads ordered that it be melted down. The canny merchant who bought it though, buried the statue in his back garden and returned it to Charles II on his restoration in 1660.

It is from this spot that the accession of future Kings and Queens of England will be announced, but the monarch too, just like the workers in the City, is a commuter. For long periods of time Buckingham Palace is empty, turned over to millions of tourists, while the Queen reigns from Windsor or Balmoral or Sandringham.

Go to Chelsea or Kensington, or any of the more well healed inner suburbs of London and you will find emptiness too. Street after street of houses bought up by millionaires and billionaires, who use them once in a blue moon whenever they are in the city.

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Go to County Hall, the imposing building that sits opposite Parliament, the former home of the powerful and independent Greater London Council and you will find only fish. Tank after tank of tropical fish. It was converted by Margaret Thatcher into an aquarium in the 1980s.

Pretty soon you won’t even find Parliament in Parliament. The Commons and Lords are all set to move to allow a multi-billion pound restoration to take place.

The centre of London has been hollowed out and turned into a playground for bankers and tourists, while the real people, the lifeblood of the city, have been pushed further and further out into the endless outer suburbs.

The pulse of the city can now be found in its extremities rather than at its heart.

As Patrick Keiller, in his excellent 1994 documentary film, ‘London’ writes, ‘for Londoners, the City is obscured. Too thinly spread, too private for anyone to know. Its social life invisible, its government abolished, its institutions  at the discretion of either monarchy or state or the City, where at the historic centre there is nothing but a civic void, which fills and empties daily with armies of clerks and dealers, mostly citizens of other towns.

The true identity of London is in its absence. As a city it no longer exists. In this alone it is truly modern. London was the first metropolis to disappear.’

Listen to Marylebone!

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I recently moved from the near suburbs to the city centre and the change has been louder than I expected. I used to think the idea that the city never slept was a cliché. That if you went to Piccadilly Circus at 4am on a Monday morning then you would find something approaching emptiness.

After two months living in a top floor flat at the upper end of Wimpole Street in Marylebone, I can confirm that the city does indeed never sleep and for a while, until I got used to it, neither did I.

Perhaps the most surprising noises come from the sports cars and motorbikes that seemingly peep their noses out of subterranean garages at midnight and fly down the street at ferocious speeds, seemingly for no other reason that it is easier to get away with that kind of thing late at night.

Then there are the sirens from the ambulances making their way to University College Hospital or even to the mysterious London Clinic at the end of my road, England’s biggest private hospital, where hooded figures limp out of limousines and Range Rovers and into waiting wheelchairs.

There are helicopters, drunks, parties, delivery wagons, late-night road works and a reverberating dial tone from some unknown telephone that projects into the street and echoes down it when someone tries to make a call.

The bells of the St Marylebone Church, two streets away, toll the hour, as well as every half and quarter. They also toll to mark the start of the Sunday service.

There are 63 sets of bells in Westminster, including those in the Royal Courts of Justice, the eighteen bells at Fortnum and Mason and the Swiss glockenspiel in Leicester Square.

In fact, it is nearly impossible to live anywhere in Westminster without hearing bells, especially when Big Ben can be heard all the way to Pimlico.

Imagine living across from a large Swiss glockenspiel that bursts into song every fifteen minutes though. The one in Leicester Square is wirelessly controlled from Derby too, so going at it with a pair of wire cutters isn’t going to get you anywhere fast.

The strange thing is, that after a rocky start, I think all the Marylebone noise is helping me to sleep better. Once all the noises are settled in your mind, they become a kind of scored symphony, a familiar tune, that is able to lull you into sleep.

If a note is missing then the melody is broken and London certainly has many notes to play, with its ‘pulse like a cannon’ as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote. London is certainly a city that never goes to sleep.

The Desert Song – The Barjeel Art Foundation Collection at the Whitechapel Gallery

Efatt Nagy's The High Dam
Efatt Nagy’s The High Dam

The construction of the Aswan Dam in the 1960s was, like seemingly everything in that era, a Cold War altercation between East and West. America and Britain refused to pay for the building of Aswan, which fans out into the blue Nile like the Art Deco proscenium arch of the Hollywood Bowl, its desert shades matching its parched surroundings. Nikita Khrushchev was willing to aide Egypt with the building costs though and the Soviet premier, performing some first rate Cold War posturing, appeared with President Nasser, cutting the red ribbon to open the first stage of construction with ceremonial aplomb.

Effat Nagy’s The High Dam is a depiction of the construction of Aswan and is featured in the first part of a showing of the Barjeel Art Foundation’s collection at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. The painting has a slight Soviet overtone, the scaffolding, which covers a steely industrial backdrop, bringing to mind the spiky edges of Kazimir Malevich. The initial impression is one of great might and muscle being employed in the name of an impressive undertaking, a symbol of the construction of a new Egypt, but look a little closer and the scaffolding appears frail, suggesting that this solidly built future may turn out to be flimsy.

Nagy and her husband Saad al-Khadem, were both pioneers of folk art in Egypt and she was invited by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture to visit the gargantuan construction site at Aswan. The poor labour conditions and the forced relocation of entire villages played on her mind and the minds of others who painted the scene. The poor conditions are echoed in Ragheb Ayad’s Aswan, which depicts skeleton figures doubled over in toil, working in a seemingly endless chasm.

Ervand Demirdjian's Nubian Girl
Ervand Demirdjian’s Nubian Girl

The Barjeel Art Foundation is a United Arab Emirates-based initiative established to manage, preserve and exhibit the personal art collection of Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi. Thirty eight pieces of art will ultimately feature in the four part Whitechapel show, which will run in instalments into next year, charting the development of Middle Eastern art from Modern to Contemporary.

The seed that gives birth to this freewheeling collection is the Armenian artist Ervand Demirdjian’s Nubian Girl. Painted between 1900 and 1910, the canvas is beautiful and traditional, with the evident influence of Modern western and, in particular, Dutch and French portraiture. The painting bears a passing resemblance to Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring and is, perhaps, more mystical, her enchanting eyes seemingly outshining her jewels to become the brightest thing on the canvas.

Traditionalism is swept away when the exhibition considers art from another, more contemporary cause célèbre of western interference in the Middle East, Iraq. Kadhim Hayder uses the country’s rich library of myth and symbolism to critique more recent events, such as the toppling of the monarchy by what would become Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party.

Kadhim Hayder's Fatigued Ten Horses Converse with Nothing
Kadhim Hayder’s Fatigued Ten Horses Converse with Nothing

The Hayder painting featured in this exhibition is Fatigued Ten Horses Converse with Nothing (The Martyrs Epic) a ghostly image of several white desert horses howling at a fiery sun. Though painted in 1965, the image is still searingly modern. The horses are in fact weeping, perhaps the first of millions of tears to fall on Iraq’s bloodstained sand, for Al Husayn, an important Islamic figure who was killed at the Battle of Karbala. He is still mourned on the Day of Ashura by Shia society, when it is said that a tear only as little as the wing of a fly will have the power to put out the fire of hell.

Hamed Ewais's Le Gardien de la Vie
Hamed Ewais’s Le Gardien de la Vie

Hamed Ewais is another Egyptian artist present in the Whitechapel show. Le Gardien de la Vie (The Protector of Life) depicts a machine gun-toting fighter as almost a fatherly figure, protecting civilian lives by force of arms. It is again a modern image belying its fifty years and could easily be passed off as a 21st century example of propaganda. But the work instead elucidates the desire of a nation to look after and nurture its own citizenry, free of the interference of foreign colonialism. It depicts another desire too, a hope given voice by this entire collection, the artistic desire for unfettered self expression.

Barjeel Art Foundation Collection: Imperfect Chronology – Debating Modernism I runs until November 6th 2015. Images courtesy of the Whitechapel Gallery.