Tower Hill: Opium of the Masses

Sometimes things reach a certain level of popularity which triggers an avalanche. I’m not sure how or why, but we can all recognise it. There comes a point when the writer of a catchy pop song, or creator of a Photoshopped Ian McKellen image, has to relinquish their authorship and watch their creation take on a life of its own, spreading out far beyond one person’s control (no-one seems to ever mention, or even know, the poppy artist’s name). It gets to Number One, then into minus figures, though nobody can understand why. Does this reinforce the clout and potency of the artefact in question? Or, detached and floating free from its original artistic intention, does its omnipresence render it meaningless?

In London, the ceramic poppies filling the Tower of London’s moat have captured the imagination of (most of) the nation. There aren’t any hipsters around, most visitors being befleeced couples in their 50s; if you travel into the counties you will meet 100,000 such people for every adherent to Normcore. I can see why some people hate the remembrance poppy; in certain fields of public life (TV, politics) it has become compulsory and anyone who declines to comply, irrespective of motive, is a bad egg. Before you can be considered for a job nowadays, you must pledge allegiance to the cult of Diversity; to be considered for a job 2,000 years ago you no doubt had to assert your undying belief in the divinity of whichever nutcase was Roman Emperor at the time. If the gesture is compulsory, it is utterly hollow.

I wear a poppy myself and imagine there as many motives for doing so as people wearing them. I cannot speak for others, but for me it is neither jingoistic nor a gesture that glorifies or legitimises war. I do it out of respect to all those poor bastards who died horrific deaths, the ones who came back with PTSD or half their faces missing, the scores of Belfast family lines that were extinguished, and perhaps out of a little sadness at the world that was lost with World War I (British as I am, you’d be very hard pushed to find a bigger fanboy for the Austro-Hungarian Empire than me, and that vast multi-lingual enterprise collapsed when all of the officers who ran the show had been killed by 1916). It’s about the dead, not us, and the growing fashion for hand-knitted poppies, giant poppies, poppies in diamante or crystal I find tasteless and straight from the “some pigs are more equal than others” doctrine.

The Tower of London is attracting people in such density that the poppy installation is playing second fiddle to this great gathering of people. I’m reminded of my brief flirtation with music festivals as a student. The crowd is the event and the mood around The Tower is not dictated by the sobriety of Remembrance Sunday, but the sheer irrepressibility of humanity at play; it’s an impromptu carnival. When our train to work is as congested as this, we seethe with rage. Here everyone is patient, happy, considerate of those around them and making pleasantries. I wonder: can it really be just me who sees the monstrosity? Or does monstrosity, contemplated from a position of total safety, give a frisson of pleasure? Avatars of the dead are churned out of a tower window, cover a circuit of the moat and are then sent rushing over the top, condemned to be mowed down by gunfire again and again for all eternity.

There is one poppy for each British soldier killed, and the 900,000 dwarf the visiting crowds. As a piece of art it hails from the Ai Weiwei school of “you are a unique individual, just like everyone else”. It may look pretty but when you start trying to take in the sheer scale of slaughter, horror engulfs any tea-cosy twee. The moat is filled with blood. One Guardian columnist stuck his head over the parapet and dismissed the entire spectacle as nasty, sentimental rubbish (today he’s reviewing the British Museum’s Germany show & arguing that “history can have a happy ending”; the news that history ended in 1990 will come as a shock to future generations), suggesting the moat should instead be filled with “blood and bones”. Danny Baker’s recent memoirs compare the subtlety of Steely Dan taking their name from a gigantic dildo in Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, with the facile literalism of the Sex Pistols; diff’rent strokes for different folks.

I’ve never gone into the Tower of London, which is more of a castle complex; it’s hard to imagine a time when the building seemed sufficiently tall to earn the name ‘Tower’. Today I could have done so, but when it came to handing over £22 for access to this national monument I realised that I would have more fun seeing the National Gallery for nothing and buying a bottle of cognac on the way home (regular readers may detect a theme developing). Nairn calls the Tower “London’s one big hostage to the unreality of organised sightseeing”. He has his likes and dislikes amongst the interior chapels, but is scornful of what we see on the perimeter. “The chance of a memorable place to look at was lost with the preposterous mock-medieval outer walls of the 1840s… every bit as silly as Windsor and far less fun: all subsequent repairs have accentuated the stage-set comic opera character”.

Having eventually done a circuit of the Tower, it’s a relief to decide I’ve seen enough and can peel away from the crowds. As people queue for the Tower, they pass the imposing former Port Authority, now a swanky hotel. It may be a result of my having just written about Paris, but its baroque classicism looks quite of a piece with Pont Alexandre III. Atop the facade, a slightly camp Neptune tucks his trident under one arm and points, Travolta-like, to the East and the provenance of all his booty.

At the foot of Great Tower Street sits All Hallows by-the-Tower, and we can tell that it’s a properly old church by the patchwork construction of bits and pieces from different eras. The steeple is C17th, some of the wall is C7th, and after much of the church had been destroyed by the Luftwaffe, the inner arches are 1950s with bits and bobs donated from other churches.

In the glum glass structures that fill the city and surround the church, there are many groovy reflections of the sharp steeple arising from its pretty base, its copper long since oxidised into Fortnum & Mason turquoise. Nairn approves of “a fine swashbuckling one, more Amsterdam than Wren”.

The interior certainly is a mixed bag and has the same feel as a great ancient barnhouse, newly converted with all mod cons. The outer walls are as old as the hills and incorporate a treasury which for all I know may contain the Holy Grail, whilst the (sympathetically designed) arches have electric lighting discreetly hidden under “mock galleries, carved in mock C17th style”, to Nairn’s evident delight.

There is much to look at but two of the features Nairn points out are the antique pulpit, nestled under a shell-shaped sounding board (“This way of designing is usually a disaster… what carries it through here is childlike audacity”) and, sealed off in a room of its own, the baptismal font with a very ornate carved cover, on which frowning putti are trying to get at a perched bird (“a lovely Restoration piece… it seems to float of its own accord”).

Carrying on into the City, my eye is drawn down Mark Lane by a jagged, Dali-meets-Escher building and the gay, heurigen-like decorations of a diminutive pub.

Although it doesn’t make the cut in Nairn’s London I pop into St Olave Hart Street, resting place of Pepys and Mother Goose (apparently a real person, once), and one of the few churches to survive the Great Fire (not so the Blitz). Wikipedia teaches us that prior to canonisation, Olave was King of Norway and fought alongside Ethelred the Unready against the Danes on this spot. Norwegian flags and a stone laid by a C20th Norwegian King signpost the connection.

Once more, plenty to look at, a boxed shape split by gothic arches running to the altar. There are colourful carved figures of posh folk at their devotions which feel very Hispanic.

There are more spooked-looking Restoration cherubs on a Grinling Gibbons pulpit, and some oddly strident stained glass which must be post-war. As well as Christ attended by angels with exotic, demonic red wings, we get a side chapel with our Virgin Queen watched over by the likes of Florence Nightingale and Edith Cavell.

This street soon turns into Crutched Friars (names like this are one of the City’s biggest pleasures), and Nairn directs us to No. 42, now Lloyds Club Brasserie, and in Nairn’s time and ours “one of the best C18th houses left in the City, with a swaggering steak-and-oysters doorway”. The archway next door leads to French Ordinary Court. Invoking Marvell and Voltaire, Nairn promises “a fine and private place” that is “neither French nor ordinary”.

Not knowing what to expect, I am taken quite unawares by a wide passageway of unadorned brick with a furtive, subterranean feel. Motorbike couriers zipping around at Neapolitan speeds use it to u-turn, city workers skulk aroun in corners fidgeting with their phones, and the odd person is making a shortcut from A to B. I am transported back to Perugia, where the public elevators are hidden within a burrow of long-forgotten streets that Pope Paul III used as the foundations for his fortress. In this instance, however, the vaulted ceiling holds up the railway tracks into Fenchurch St.

In 1966, Nairn detects “mysterious and seductive smells (spices? scent?) from warehouses” and refers us to a sign reading “Commit no nuisance”. In 2014, we must make do with the comforting aroma of a Pizza Express kitchen, and the admonition “Private Property- no unauthorised parking”. The passage leads to St Katherine’s Row, where places to eat and drink sit across from Lloyds Register of Shipping with those trademark Pompidou lifts.

Around the corner, I encounter the facade of that jagged pink building. It’s called Minster Court, dates from 1991 and was built in a “postmodern gothic” style, whatever that means. If gothic is a little sinister, it succeeds on that score; with the pink stone, supporting metalwork, and prancing horses a blasphemous nod to San Marco in Venice (an establishment equally big on cutthroat mercantilism), it’s a cross between cathedral, shopping mall and football stadium.

Some of the older city churches do have elements in common with the cathedral I saw in Londonderry, and Plantation Place is a reminder of the very unlikely historical bond between two starkly different places. The pavement here is decorated with a timeline of middle-ages London, a record of which Vikings/Goths were sacking the city that year.

Walking around the City is fascinating because it’s somewhere a Londoner never spends time, unless they have a job moving money around in convoluted ways or making sandwiches for the money-movers. Every building looks like it would have a tale to tell. This is our centro storico, but the capitalist skullduggery makes it a city-state apart from where we live. It shouldn’t be like this; as Londoners, most of our heritage is here. In Paris I really admired how the financial sector and it’s thrusting glass skyscrapers were kept out in La Defense, leaving the heart of the city relatively unspoilt.

On the main road of Eastcheap, Nairn instructs us to look for a building which is “demoniac” and all “wildness”. This seems unlikely, until I spot Nos. 33-35.  Someone has had fun with this building. Six white gothic arches are embossed in front of the windows like thick frowning eyebrows. They provide the facade with a string of exclamation marks. A lion sits watching in the reeds. Nairn calls this “the scream you wake on at the end of a nightmare. Like Poe, and unlike Walpole or a modern detective novel, the horror is no game… the wall shrinks back in half a dozen varieties of terrified chamfer”. If a house can look like Hitler, this house is Shelley Duvall in The Shining.

Nairn frets that “demolition is in the air; it must be preserved, not as an oddity but as a basic part of human nature, and one not often translated into architecture”. It isn’t cock of the walk today but the lower floors still show twitches of life, being home to a non-chain sandwich bar and a shop selling goods for construction workers. What I like best is that modernity plays a retaliatory prank on the trick-or-treater; the building becomes an unwitting panto act, with the notorious “walkie-talkie” skyscraper looming behind like the shadow of Max Schreck and apparently about to gobble it up.

Turn off at Lovat Lane and you will find a Wren, St Mary-at-Hill. Nairn calls it “one of Wren’s most interesting plans” but decides that “the architecture is nothing… the fittings are everything”. We are promised “a magnificent pulpit”, “magnificent iron sword-rests”, and a “lion and unicorn guarding the altar”. We’re in for a shock.

All these fittings have gone and we’re left in the vacant space of a domed white space and four pillars making a box-within-a-box. Being Wren, it is of course celestial, but one wonders what’s happened to the church. No pews; there’s an organ, piano and harpsichord, and a makeshift altar suggesting the place still fulfils ecclesiastical functions. All the fittings Nairn waxes about have vanished.

What haven’t been taken are the numerous C17th memorial slabs on the walls, some of which go on and on to the point of parody (the one I’m thinking of is even flanked by two sobbing cherubs).

The side exit to the churchyard has some interesting features, such as a stone carving taking the Last Judgment as its theme (very rare in England). Leave the church by the front door and you’ll see a dismally dry, 1990s-looking pastiche of 6 Rue du Lac in Brussels.

Another Wren church can be found on Lower Thames St and Nairn lists the triptych of “St Magnus Martyr, Adelaide House and the clock”. Adelaide House faces onto London Bridge and its rear is right up against the church, like an old-fashioned centre forward using his fat arse to knock a defender out of a defensive wall. The church is blocked out but “one of Wren’s most feminine steeples” might just be visiblevisible if you stand sufficiently far back. Nairn: “So far, this is just a lucky accidental contrast… what makes it special is the clock: a great face on a great scrolly bracket, dated 1709. It converts the huge cleft of air into inhabited space, the oddest kind of sympathetic frame. It could not be more effective if it appeared in the most picture-postcard view of olde London”. The clockface looks like it’s wearing a jolly Napoleonic bicorne.

Nairn’s commentary ends there, but as the church is open I take a look. What I find is an atmospheric and dimly-lit junk shop, with everything from incense holders to little scale models of London Bridge in the days when it looked more like Ponte Vecchio in Florence. Men are pottering around in long, fancy robes. There appears to have been a tussle over the soul of this church.

The altar is like Hawksmoor’s at St Mary Woolnoth; black, white, red and gold. Biblical passages take the place of icons on a dark oak altar, and the black-and-white tiles heighten the forbidding intensity. So far, so Protestant. But some of the other features are quite jarring. There’s a rum painting of St George which must have had a long journey to get here; it looks Byzantine, if not African.

There’s a big statue of St Magnus himself, dressed up in a horned viking helmet, with suggested text for a prayer to the saint (hang on a minute, I think to myself). Continue along the right-hand-aisle and it gets even more Roman, with statues of the veiled Virgin holding a bloodied JC. We are in the realms of the ‘Anglo-Catholic’, which I always think is trying to have one’s cake and eat it. If you’re that into Catholicism, fair enough, but why wouldn’t you just be Roman Catholic? I suppose they know what they’re doing, but I can’t say I do particularly.

One last thought on the poppies; the Guardian chap’s most venomous slur was that the whole thing was “UKIP”. He’s right in the sense that the poppies and UKIP, however much I might think UKIP’s policies would probably fuck over most of their supporters, are the only two things that have captured the imagination of the country lately. And by ‘the country’, I mean the overwhelming majority who do not tweet, tumblr or take designer ecstasy. They’re out there, and they can be mobilised if you know how.

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