I have been neglecting London and my ostensible Nairn project, so it’s back on the Victoria Line with my battered first edition.
This particular stretch of Nairn is intended as a follow-up to Westminster Abbey, so off down Victoria St I head. Beside the Abbey is a venerable row of gothic fronts, all spindly decorations, its occupants reading like a veritable Who’s Who of the lizard people.
I follow crowds through an arch that looks like it might lead to Westminster School, and find myself in Dean’s Court, of whose existence I was not previously aware.
I know that I will have to shell out the £20 for Westminster Abbey at some point if I continue this blog, but I’m trying to hold onto that £20 as long as I can and this large green gives superb, side-on views of the Abbey’s flying buttresses that make me feel I’ve strolled into the National Gallery and onto the canvas of one of those Dutch miniatures.
The rest of the court is diverting too, a variety of shapes, styles and purposes looking onto a quadrangle.
Between gardeners, janitors and brickies going about their various duties, and ecclesiastical office workers stepping out into the court to conspire together, there is enough activity to make the court feel as much of a self-contained world as the Cambridge colleges it so resembles.
Exiting at the other end leads to Great College St, which opens onto a triptych of Nairn streets; Barton, Cowley and Lord North. “MPs’ deepest Westminster, secluded, near the division bell… a narrow dog-leg with all the views closed, a cosy Georgian coverlet to roll up around you”.
They do feel quite tucked-in. Each street is at a right angle from its predecessor and the attractive, tall terracing makes a lot of L-shapes.
Clearly, Hamas are not the only ones who have constructed a network of burrows to make themselves harder to get at. Of its 1722 vintage Nairn notes that it is “early enough to have some chunkiness… the C20th has added so discreetly that I would not like to swear to the date of any particular stretch of brick.” There is enough diversity to give the houses an air of eccentricity.
As is the way in these places, you are simultaneously charmed and made aware that all of this is a very different world from the one inhabited by us oiks.
Lord North St does at least pay lip service to a time when we were all in it together, although it’s unclear whether the signs date back to the blitz or Secret Cinema charging £30 for a teacup of gin and a screening of Colonel Blimp.
Providing a full stop after the third street is Smith Square, built around St John’s Church. This was still awaiting post-blitz reconstruction in when Nairn wrote in 1966. Today, it appears to operate solely as a concert hall and has likely been deconsecrated. The crypt is a box office, the locked church is marked “ticket holders only”. There is evidence of rough sleeping in the main porch, I’m not sure how often the concerts happen.
The abundant tall trees stop me from getting a good look at the four round sets of huddled columns on top. Nairn’s praise for the place is qualified; “Violence and vehemence without conviction. The inner poetry of Hawksmoor… is missing. But anyway, a wonderful object to have lying around in the townscape.”
Elsewhere in Smith Square, the ways and networks in these corridors of power are so mysterious and remote to me that I would not be surprised to learn that this is Nigel Farage’s house.
Next stop of Nairn’s itinerary is the Tate Britain, so I leave these sidestreets for a stroll along Millbank and ponder its quango-housing superstructures. OFGEM have made their nest in a pompous, Neptune-themed house of empire, which rings fairly hollow when one sees the gas giants running rings around them (and us).
The Thames could hardly look less inviting as it passes under Lambeth Bridge, although we are offered handsome enough views of the other side (is it where the Archbishop of Canterbury lives? I suppose so). The sleek new building at the end of the bridge, incidentally, was where Woody Allen’s anti-hero lived in his dodgy Match Point; we’d all like to live in Woody’s world, where a shop assistant can afford her own high-ceiling period mansion flat in Chelsea.
This worrying monolith of Speerish monumentalism is called Thames House, and I haven’t the foggiest what goes on inside.
Obligingly, Googlemaps tells me it is the MI5 headquarters. I immediately begin to construct Paul Auster fantasies in which MI5 have hunkered down here in order to spy on those dangerous subversives in MI6, whereas MI6 have placed themselves on the South Bank in order to…
Next up is Millbank tower. A friend used to work here, and found herself stuck inside the building when Conservative Central Office was laid siege to in the 2011 riots (not that she worked at CCO, she’s as Scouse as they come). We often met for dinner at the Pizza Express downstairs, although I never saw any famous politicans striking a “deal” on my visits. These days, you probably have to eat dinner in Stoke Newington for that.
“Poor Tate!”, exclaims Nairn. “It seems to get the rough end of every stick: first of all the pompous, confused building, then in the unlikely combination of subject (British art of any date plus all modern art), and finally in the fact that the masterpieces of both are apt to disappear to the National Gallery.” I find the building slightly modest, if not meek, in its obediently middlebrow classicism. It doesn’t seem to be overdoing it; at least, not when considered next to its riverside neighbours.
The last time I spent a Bank Holiday in here, the whole place was in the process of being done up. I can’t remember what is new as I stick my head inside. The foyer has been painted a celestial white, familiar from the British Museum et al. Art will save your soul.
Enticed as I am by the notion of a Kenneth Clark exhibition, I’d rather be out and about today and endeavour to limit myself to a quick look around. The first rooms I see are fairly rum abstract things, bolstered by the occasional big hitter from Francis Bacon and Henry Moore. I’ll let Nairn describe the post-1960 stuff. “The cranky, talented, humanist course of British art… now seems to have stopped utterly. Beyond that there is abstraction, experiment, and artists enjoying private jokes.” I find myself delving further without really meaning to, as I am lured in by the Turner rooms.
When I think of Turner, it’s the nautical paintings in the National Gallery I see, pallid sunlight filtering through cloudy skies. This collection has bountiful views of Italy from the Grand Tour, for which I will always be a sucker. The painting below is dear old Orvieto, the one following inspired by Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and I can feel a digression about our attitudes to the long-suffering Italians coming on.
The text beside the Childe Harold tells us how entranced Grand Tourists were by a country that had once given us the Roman Empire, the Papacy, banking, bookkeeping and Western art but had now sunken into the doldrums of poverty and subsistence farming, that sleepily declined the opportunity to join those thrusting, world-exploring, empire-building nations on the make of which Britain was at the forefront. Today we walk around those ancient cities and savour the bittersweet sensation of walking through a vanished world. The Grand Tourists must have experienced this thousandfold, before the Risorgimento pulled Italy up by its bootstraps. We Brits, our sun yet to sink behind the horizon, must have been highly titillated by using this case study of decline to ponder and toy with the thing we most feared/desired; our own annihilation. I think it was Goethe who asked a Roman local what the aqueduct was for, and received the straight answer that it used to carry olive oil up from Naples. Being crowned capital of the new Italy modernised Rome, and I’m sure it did a lot of good for city and country (just don’t mention the wedding cake), but my inner romantic regrets that I’ll never see the Rome where there was wilderness within the city walls and livestock freely grazed on the forum.
Having got that out of my system, now to find the way out of the gallery. In the other rooms, I notice that someone’s been having the time of their life with the Farrow & Ball.
The improvements in the Tate are not altogether finished. Surprisingly, we are allowed to drift through the works-in-progress. Seeing a household name sitting around, waiting to be hung is like spotting a Hollywood superstar making a cuppa in a dressing gown with no make-up.
There wasn’t a great deal more to the walk, but that’ll do for now. Expect a short post in the week to finish it off.