I had set out that morning with a thin desire to go past Gounod’s house. ‘Go past’ is incorrect. I have been past it many times, this morning I intended to notice it for the first time. It is a Georgian villa tucked away in a suburb southeast of the heath. I run through the area quite frequently. It sits between the A2 and the South Circular and once you are there, you would never know that either road existed, or even that you were in the twenty-first century, barring a runes-throw of cars and streetlights. You can run in the centre of the road where there is no camber, do a mile and a half, snaking one’s way up to the heath and you will be disturbed by perhaps only one car. It will be so polite and quiet that you probably won’t need to move aside to let it pass. It is the interloper here, not you, for we are no longer in the twenty-first century.
|Prince's Dock - Hull|
There are greater parallels between Atkinson-Grimshaw and eastern Blackheath than you might imagine. Re-read the last couple of hundred words and they describe, with surprisingly few adjustments, what it is like to walk or run through this area at dusk. There are so many striking houses, windows so large they would not fit on any fascia of my flat. All that glass and no one to look out of it. No one ever tends a garden, washes their car, chats to a neighbour, hunches up their drive with a brace of Sainsbury’s bags. I have seen security that guard the entrances and exits to the road from undesired traffic, but never who or what it is that they are securing. I have run these streets probably over a hundred times, and never have I seen someone looking out of these windows. I wonder how different these houses are to the bourgeois fortresses in Victorian sensation fiction, places of confinement, where, like Laura Fairlie in The Woman in White, or Madame Bovary, one might find themselves suddenly and quietly buried alive.
In his day, Atkinson Grimshaw was criticised for endlessly recycling the same image, sometimes to order. Exercises in light and colour, his painting thrummed always in the same minor key. But for me it seems that his work represents something else altogether about bourgeois communities. In the paintings, the houses are always walled off from their onlookers. They seem to fight so fiercely for isolation and disconnection; to make-believe that they are not where they are, in central London, but elsewhere. Today we have alarms and fences keep the world out so that their owners can deny their place in the earth, so that they can pretend that their roots reach into some different ground?
As Carlyle said, "Courage, dear reader, I see Land!"
One of the major attacks on the sensation fiction of the nineteenth century, the ones that use the Atkinson-Grimshaw images as covers, was that they were too far-fetched. In the Weldon Affair, via The Woman in White, art had become life.
Blackheath at last – where a man scowled at me for looking at his kite.
I had another 5 or so miles to do of the run so headed across the heath to the park. Making my way down towards Greenwich I was struck by another view, and the first thought that sprung to my mind was 'How nice to be here and not there, today.'
|From the exact point in the Park|
It is not from the future, though - if only it was. Instead, it hails from the 80s; it is firm, robust, solid, shiny. If architecture could be haute-couture this would be its shoulder-pads. True to its toughened pretensions, it thinks rather highly of itself. The tower's point has a blinking searchlight, either keeping an eye on us mere mortals who dare to look upon it, or ensuring that it can announce its mediocre height in the dark, too. It is not the tallest building in the world, it is not the tallest building in Europe, it is not the tallest building in the UK, it is not even the tallest building in London. Yet it still had the temerity to evacuate on September 11th, like this steely Whart could see itself as a target in the same league as the Pentagon and the Twin Towers. Such a move committed a grave and self-aggrandizing disservice to the memory of hundreds that died that day. The evacuation of the building shuffled for elbowroom that it did not deserve on that day’s overcrowded newsreels.
My run was nearly done. I was in the final mile (of 9, I think it was). By the duck pond in Manor Park (shhh... it's a secret) there is a sturdy iron fence, with a small gate, about shoulder high. As I approached children, fathers, mothers, and their fathers and mothers, all simultaneously appeared, like traffic in The Truman Show, from both sides wanting in- and egress. They were pigeons having eyed a discarded bread roll. I had come too far; I wasn't going to stop and patiently wait my turn. Without breaking pace, and well out of the way, I leapt and levered myself over the railings, barely touching them. A kid said 'cool!' Was that pride I felt, just briefly, to be told 'cool' by such a little stranger as I ran off.
I wonder if it was at that moment, landing too hard on my ankle, that I gave myself the minor sprain which I have been tending to ever since.
(Sorry, Maupassant’s Lard Ball will have to wait for another time.)