Greenwich: the sun never sets upon Irony

On the day when Scotland’s few “don’t knows” flinched from delivering the death knell to Britain, I found myself at one of the sites which is pivotal to the story Britain tells about its collective self, and about the days when we were good at something. I don’t place all the blame chez Salmond and his snake oil; there’s a convincing argument that after deindustrialisation and deregulation, it was London & the South East which cut the moorings and drifted off from the rest of the UK. Nonetheless, for obvious reasons the demise of the UK will make an Ulsterman’s sense of self wobble a bit, and strolling around the historical icons of Greenwich -even if most of these slightly predate the Act of Union- the pathos was palpable.

History makes Greenwich (Grean-wheech to the Italian tourists, Grin-idge to natives) a big draw, and in contrast to some of the places I’ve been lately it’s kept in immaculate condition. I wonder if it’s because much more is spent on it, or the visitors bring more money into the area, or whether less sainted places suffer from the Broken Window theory. In any case it’s a fun place to visit, to bring visiting relatives. When a newcomer in London I used to enjoy coming on the odd Sunday, but it was so far from the clubs, venues and clothes shops of my misspent youth that I would never have considered it as a place to live. Now, it goes without saying that I could never afford to live here, but even then there was a faint toytown whiff about the compactness of the town centre. It was perhaps compounded by all this olde stuff being reached on the driverless DLR trains whose route glides through the fantastical skyscapes of Canary Wharf.

Nairn’s survey starts with Greenwich Market; “not colours on a map or interesting items in the townscape but a living unit, the heart of Greenwich”. Spatially it still is, but whereas in 1966 residents probably came here for fruit, veg and a piece of fish, the market stall has had to search for a new role in the age of the supermarket. They are a leisure option, and an attraction to visit. They are the light infantry of the vintage industry. You might find a bargain, but these days you’re more likely to find something boutique, something Banksy, that for a few quid more will place you in a different tribe from the off-the-pegs who dress themselves in H&M and their homes in Ikea. Markets sell signifiers. Their relevance to me has diminished as I have grown older, and stopped caring about whether my appearance makes a statement to the outside world.

Kindred spirits like Spitalfields and the South Bank have long since been cannibalised by chain restaurants; Greenwich Market is in rude health by comparison. Fashion dictates what we wear and what we eat. It may be that once something is on your mind you start noticing it everywhere, but going by this place the Fashion is post-imperial nostalgia, masquerading as irreverent kitsch whilst fighting back a few tears. A “blitz” stall sells old war medals, its neighbour offers lemonade bottles, biscuit and tobacco tins old enough to be your great granny. Union Jacks and mod targets decorate the rafters. One stall appears a hipster approximation of an Irish tinker’s yard.

Charles & Diana are there, smiling up from plates and mugs, giving away nothing of the (figurative and literal) car-crashes to follow. Lady Di is the Archduke Franz Ferdinand of our decrepit Empire but her attendant cult makes her something more. If nationalism is your faith, a Charles & Di plate is like a crucifix or icon of the Virgin. Should Sir require a fix of stronger stuff, he can buy Edward VIII’s abdication speech, framed and mounted with a portrait. The teacup-and-red-phonebox variety of knick-knack is of course for tourists to bring home, but the image we sell to the world and its wishful thinking still seem pertinent. Someone I know coined the phrase “Downton Fascism” for this stuff. You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.

Elsewhere it’s sweet shops, tea rooms, pie & mash, taxidermy, the smugly ubiquitous designer clothes for babies, and laughing buddhas towards the back where patriotism has yet to snuff out vestiges of the Camden hippy. The food stalls offer any kind of cuisine, as long as it’s from a far-flung country whose cuisine we haven’t tired of yet (Chile, Vietnam). Nairn approves of the Coach & Horses pub in the rear corner of the market (there are now two pubs) but today it looks like “the pub” in a museum recreation of a 1930s high street.

Back in the swinging sixties, Nairn has thought more about the structure than its contents and fulminates against its then-recent makeover in “slick and sickly” lime green paint, “as phoney as a hair-rinse, when all it needed was solid cream stucco… smooth frontages as good as Nash and better built”. He delights, however, in the stern biblical inscription above the archway. All is peaches and cream now, and it’s that recognisable London look of well-fed pillars. I can’t conceive of an age when it seemed a good idea to paint this frontage like Scooby Doo’s Mystery Machine, but it sounds like a fun time to have been around.

Facing towards the river we find the Cutty Sark, Rocky Balboa of the tea trade, her positioning making it look like she longs to jump back in and escape the maritime retirement home.

I always harboured an irrational hatred for this ship, to the point that I was quite pleased when it burnt down a few years ago, but even immolation has not delivered us from her. When people go sailing I’m the one whose extreme seasickness requires them to turn the boat around and curtail everyone’s fun, so I remain a landlubber whenever I can manage it. As I check out the features of the ship I realise that most of my knowledge of sailing in fact comes from Asterix; anchor, check, figurehead, check, but no crow’s nest. The bare-breasted figurehead has a scowl that would keep the Somalis away and is holding what looks like a scalp.

I wonder if the landed ship was a novelty in Nairn’s time; he reckons it “has leapt like a dolphin” onto dry land. What excites him most is neither mast, sails nor figurehead but the hull of the boat; the engineering, not the decoration. “The part that nobody ever saw billows out in a proud copper sheath… the thing that Victorian architecture missed and modern architecture has missed also: sheer need, pared of anything inessential… the rightness is worth more than any artificial tension. You can try for it all your life and miss, like George Bernard Shaw”. It’s the gratuitousness that makes this little swipe so delicious, and nor have I ever liked Shaw myself.

Most of the hull is today covered up by an imaginary sea of curved glass. The ship that was built to prowl the oceans is sat in a paddling pool and it’s not even real water. Inside the glass structure is the visitor centre, and that’ll be £15 please. From the outside we can’t see much (probably because there’s not much to see) but the reflections make for some groovy visual effects quite different from the impressionistic ripples made by water.

I find myself getting more interested in the turn-of-last-century foot tunnel under the Thames, and its twin domed entrances that Nairn calls “weird pillboxes”.

The Isle of Dogs end has a lift, the Greenwich end is a spiral staircase very much like those you take when you can’t bear the crowds for the lifts at Piccadilly Line stations, a false economy which you never fail to regret taking.

Someday soon, the foot tunnel will probably be decorated with pretty painted tilework starring Lord Nelson or Pippa Middleton’s arse. For the moment it’s blank, grubby, harshly lit, showing off only the bare bones of the engineering work. As a contrast to the Cutty Sark et al, I like this very much. It gets you from A to B, with a few minutes’ silence to clear the head in between, which is all you want it to do and no more. There is no gift shop, no cupcake stall, no loud advertising, no “customer experience”.

At the other side is the “melancholy” Island Gardens, a place I missed on my survey of the Isle of Dogs, which Nairn suggests is “the best place to see the axis as a whole” of the Old Royal Naval College by Wren & co., and from which “it seems a myth of affluence sent to spur on the working classes”. These days it feels that such things are only made visible to taunt us, but Wren’s classicism isn’t like that; the structure opens up from the wings, inviting the eye inwards. The old power station makes an interesting counterpart.

These buildings may speak of affluence but they were built as a hospital for sailors. There was a time when noblesse used to oblige. The view from across the river is a perfect appetiser for the complex, so let’s go in.  Entering by the Cutty Sark, the first edifice we meet is the Visitor Centre, whose busts and statues speak proudly of Pax Brittanica. Raleigh, Cook and the rest of the constellation peer down at us through laurel wreaths.

If anything, the buildings look even better at close range. The sounds of an opera rehearsal spill out of the windows, it’s the last hot afternoon of the year and I feel privileged to be in this glorious place.

Between the two Wren domes is the classic view, which I’ll let Nairn describe. “A perfect example of what the English can do with formal design when they feel like it. The axis is one of the best in Europe… it depends on Wren’s observatory, with its almost Jacobean outline, rising off-centre on the hill behind. So nature has the last word after all.”

He sees Wren’s domes and colonnades as a go-between for the Queen’s House behind the hospital and the riverside blocks, who take up Inigo Jones’ English palladianism and intensify it. The Wrens are “the biggest part of the composition, yet always allows precedence to the older and fiercer parts”. Taken in isolation they “may seem unexciting and limp. But as the lubricating oil which makes the whole engine go, they are incomparable”. Nairn may well disapprove of their having been scrubbed clean, as the soot coating the Portland stone “emphasises the rustications and undercut pride”.

Greenwich University are holding their freshers’ week while I visit and the grounds are occupied by students, playing frisbee and handing out “Boycott Israel” flyers. I think of the medieval Romans herding their goats in the ruins of the Forum, and telling each other the arches and temples were built by demons.

The two domes house the Chapel and the Painted Hall. Nairn is allowed inside “on sufferance”, today the public can wander about free of charge and I’m surprised their contents are not better known. I enter the chapel first, whose interior is later (1779, after a fire), via the stairs of its foyer, solemn as a family tomb.

Its decoration is sumptuous, not quite rococo but of that period. We’re so used to cruciform cathedrals with side chapels that the shoebox shape always feels very enclosed and intensified to me (and quite Protestant), everyone will be looking in towards the same spot.

The chapel doesn’t do it for Nairn, who admits the skill of “an impassive main design combined with a frenzy of pretty ornament”, with the carvings for the organ a definite highlight. He doesn’t feel “that almost mystical excellence which makes the visitor feel that he has walked into another dimension altogether”, instead an “impersonal and chilling sense of power that does not feel English at all, it might be more at home in Leningrad”.

I liked the chapel but felt I’d seen that sort of thing before. Not so with Thornhill’s decoration for the Painted Hall.

Around the entrance is a fascinating painted tally, flanked by angels and gesticulating boys, of how much each wealthy party stumped up for the hall, in similar style to the credits on an Old Hollywood picture. It seems nakedly mercantile and indiscreet in an otherwise delectable place, but that’s the C18th for you.

The chocolate brown and gold combination in the main hall makes it feel all the more amplified when things burst into light and colour for the lucky ones sitting at High Table, in the painted box at the end. As a piece of stagecraft it’s majestic and I felt as much wonder here as I did at Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico.

The paintings are joyful baroque. There are plenty of royals looking wise, venerable and surrounded by a coterie of bearded gods and voluptuous graces, but time and again it’s the putti who steal the show.

Nairn’s applause for design and effect is unrestrained. “It is exactly like the classic theatre: a contract, nobly observed, to suspend everyday standards. But every piece of paintwork enchances rather than disguises the architectural shape… one of London’s high points, and compared with it the run of painted decoration (e.g. Verrio at Hampton Court) is laughable”.

All this is England at its most glorious, and with the referendum in mind it gets me thinking. People worry that a side-effect of Scottish nationalism will be resurgent English nationalism, and on Friday morning so it proved. But if England gave us this and St Paul’s, and Shakespeare’s tragedies and Hitchcock and Wodehouse, does Englishness have to be malign? As a half-outsider, I rather think the English are frightened of their own shadow. In the run-up to the vote an Englishman told me that his country was “far-right” and the Scots “far more cosmopolitan”, a theory I’d like to test by copy-&-pasting London’s most extremist mosques into the middle of Govan or Leith. In fact I can’t think of any other countries where display of the national flag or football shirt would be met automatically with vitriolic accusations of fascism. Such thinking leads to scandals like Rotherham. As one who loves England I don’t think the field should be abandoned to Britain First and the EDL.

Next on the Nairn itinerary is a riverside walk from Blackwall Tunnel to Greenwich, which I think I’ll pass. Exiting the campus, I turn behind for the Maritime Museum and Queen’s House, which kick-started England’s love affair with the Palladian. Regrettably the latter closes at 3:30 on the day of my visit, although Nairn’s descriptions of the interior have me intending to go back. “The building with which Inigo Jones burst into the astonished C17th, after 300 years of imitation it is still astonishing… exactly the feeling of the best Renaissance designers in Italy, and as good as that”. What do you expect with that nasty Papist Henrietta Maria getting the run of the place?

A tour of the exterior does make me feel that I could be visiting a palazzo off the Brenta, and I half expect Joseph Losey’s Don Giovanni to step onto the balcony and break into song. A colonnade either side of the house links it to the Maritime Museum.

As well as a charismatic spot in its own right, it gives impressive views in both directions. Greenwich Park and observatory look inviting, and the view back towards the Naval College wryly demonstrates who’s in charge of Britain these days.

The final Nairn tip sends me around Greenwich Park and up the steep Maze Hill, an area I have never been but with a striking diversity of houses old and new, with names like “Gothic House” and florid memorial plaques.

At the summit of the hill is Vanbrugh Castle, one of the nefarious Nairn entries in square brackets (denoting his disapproval of a building nonetheless too famous to leave out). Built in the 1720s, it was the forerunner for Victorian recreations of the medieval castle. “Here, for the very first time, medieval grimness was produced as a romantic fancy rather than sheer need.” At first glance, the turreted wall does indeed remind me of the Scaligeri fortress in Verona.

As I look closer, hard as it is with the surrounding foliage, there’s something not right; either the bricks or the general blockiness of the shape. After the sublime things I’ve seen at the foot of the hill, the parts don’t seem to flow into one another. Nairn tells us that “Vanbrugh’s fancy, unlike Hawksmoor’s, could not change gear; and what is superbly expressive in a classic style here turns into a limp brick envelope with a few machicolations: an over-large Christmas parcel that you know is going to be a disappointment. But for all that, it ought to be seen.”

Out through Greenwich Park and its cute gatekeeper’s house, to the exposed cold of Blackheath and a bus home, where I drink Scotch whisky and gloomily await the electoral tidings. Perhaps the break-up of Britain could in time help us to accept our irrelevance, and admission that England has lost Premier League status will prevent every manner of self-expression being perceived as a bellicose call to arms. The feebler our country gets, the more cringeworthy it is to see Prime Ministers attempt to stride across the world stage. The next century belongs to the BRICs and if we leave Europe we really will be a non-entity. After a glittering career England can join other imperial grande dames like Austria and Portugal in the retirement home, and leave the big boys to get on with the human race’s business of self-immolation.

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