Urban Exploration

I was interested to hear of an open day at Battersea Power Station this weekend and accordingly found myself walking from Vauxhall station through an industrial maze of walls in an largely forgotten part of London. The open day proves to be organised by a group proposing a redevelopment of the site. The plans entail building a largely glass ecodome next to the power station, surmounted by a chimney tower that acts as a flue for the heated air from the dome, thereby obviating the need for heating systems. Looking at the enormous glass structure dwarfing the power station, I find myself unkindly reminded of Speer’s plans for the new Berlin, whereby the Great Hall dwarfed the nearby Reichstag (another derelict at the time). The plans seem very laudable, with proposals for water recycling, green roofs, sustainable power generation, although given the current economic and political climate I’m inclined to be cynical as to their prospects. Looking at the CGI realisations of the power station, it all seems rather kitsch with a glass roof covering the inner courtyards; the same rather bizarre postmodern quality Gilbert Scott’s other power station at Bankside now has.

I have, of course, come for the ruin rather than the plans though. Here again, I’m reminded of Speer and his theory of ruin value. Gilbert Scott’s buildings do have a certain streamlined elegance to them but are still hardly especially enthralling. Nonetheless, their scale does mean they are well suited to becoming a ruin; place them in another context and they become an exercise in kitsch (even as power stations they must have been a little bizarre). I find myself thinking of the recent observation from Jonathan Meades that the English prefer prettiness to the sublime, raw and dramatic. Given that the sublime was a quasi-religious concept that sought to awe and crush the individual ego (a tactic well employed in the construction of cathedrals), it’s difficult to see a secular role for the sublime, but in ruins it can certainly still have such a purpose. Perhaps modernism, with its futurist aspirations, was always especially predisposed to ruin value. With all this in mind, I walk across a large wasteland overgrown with weeds to the site. With one of the towers partially sheathed in scaffolding, its broken windows, the skeletal walls with their holes and breakages, it does look like some image of a ruined cathedral. The interior is green and pleasant with birds flying past the still tiled walls. Metal girders still stand, but rusted and increasingly seeming more part of nature than a work of construction. Some of the station machinery still remains, such as two rusted cranes standing motionless nearby. In many respects, it seems a terrible pity to ‘regenerate’ this.

I walk back along the river to Battersea Park and across the Albert Bridge to the Chelsea Embankment with its redbrick and terracotta buildings. I wanted to see the Royal Chelsea Hospital and walk past an obelisk in the front lawn, past the golden statue of Charles the Second, through its colonnades and into its dining hall. From there, I journey onwards to the city and spend some time visiting some of Wren’s churches; St Benet, St James Garlickhythe, St Michael Paternoster and the ruined St Mary Somerset.

The evening is occupied with a visit to the Globe theatre, where Timon of Athens is being performed. I had never visited the Globe as a ‘groundling’ before and accordingly decide to do so on this occasion, ending up with a space immediately before the stage. This does have the advantage of better enabling you to experience the play as something happening around you rather than a passive experience watched from afar (the conventional theatre layout is after all essentially the precursor to the television screen). Characters enter and exit from the front of the stage, walking through the audience. In this production, a net has been draped over the roof space, enabling some rather acrobatic actors to leap down and retreat back up their ropes to the ceiling again. Dressed in black as crows with the sound of drums in the background, the production acquires something of an Aeschylean quality, with the Furies ever overhead. The play itself does a great deal to reinforce my conviction that one of Shakespeare’s central facets is the destruction of moral and metaphysical certainties in the reformation. In many respects, the play is quite carnivalesque, dealing with the world turned upside down and scatological humour, but carnival’s inversions are temporary and ultimately reinforce the status quo, whereas there is little that is regenerative here; the world remains upside down. Tragedy in the customary Shakespearian sense is a requital for some form of sin, with the downfall serving as a form of atonement; again there is none of that here. Timon could be viewed as a voluptuary whose downfall is linked to his excesses (something played up in the presentation of the banquet as a debauched orgy here), but it’s more probable that his sin would be excessive generosity (while the callousness of the Athenians is left unpunished when Alcibiades spares them). In other plays, the malcontent is linked to the figure of the overreacher, but here it is linked to the figure of the hermit. In several respects, the Timon of the second half is pursuing the conventional course of the christian saint in his renunciation of the world and rejection of Apemantus and his rather more practical calls for moderation. The play dresses Timon solely in a loin cloth at this point, effectively comparing him to christ. In other words, it amounts to a critique of aspects of christian (and perhaps specifically Catholic) morality.

Reading Hugo’s Les Miserables, it occurs to me that this is a good illustation of the novel not so much as a bourgeois epic (though that might be the case) as a liberal epic. Much of the protracted exposition serves to allow Hugo to navigate between positions of different extremes, much of the odd juxtapositions in the plot allowing him to reconcile contradictory positions (as with the eventual reconcilation of Marius and his father or of Javert not arresting Valjean). His attitude towards religion is a good example, with the early sections establishing the bishop as a model of morality and piety, only to introduce the episode of unction being administered to a dying jacobin who resolutely clings to principles of fighting for rights and opposing tyranny and has no interest in the last rites; "the Bishop went home deeply absorbed in thought.. threw him into a strange reverie." Conversely, the Bishop had previously decried the Voltairean ideas of another character. As the text notes, Valjean is saved by two houses of god at two critical points in his life. Later, we find Hugo proclaiming that Voltaire would have defended christ and that "the religious idea is undergoing a crisis. We are unlearning certain things, and we do well, provided that while we unlearn one thing we are learning another." Later, Voltaire’s work is "sacred" with Hugo blaming misinterpreation; introducing, as he often does a mid-position. The same applies to politics, where Hugo complains that communism starves the means of production, but denounces the inability to distribute wealth effectively or to bring light to the lower orders. On the one hand, the gamin is essentially a form of noble savage, on the other many of the denizens of the underworld, like Thenardier, appear simply as intrinsically evil (in this, Hugo bears a marked resemblance to Dickens). In one instance, Hugo is a utopian and treats such characters as venerable heroes, on the other he decries the destructive effects of their violent heroism, with the French revolution characterised as an act of god. Later, this heroism has become the heroism of monsters.

Reading Egil’s Saga it’s interesting to note the divergences between the christian guilt culture (Egil often appears bellicose and underhanded) and the pagan shame culture (he is lauded as a great warrior), perhaps explaining something of his status as an anomaly in the text; poet, warrior, sorcerer, healer. I also find myself wondering if Iceland was not to medieval Scandinavia what Australia and America later were to Europe; a place of exile cum penal colony.