Friday, 11 March 2011

Peake's Alice and the Invasion of Fitzrovia

We (that is Mrs W. and I) started a day out in London last weekend with a trip to the British Library, an appropriate destination given that it was World Book Day. The last time I visited this noble institution, it was still nestled at the heart of the British Museum, where you can of course still see the famous reading room (as featured in Night of the Demon, where sinister occultist Dr Karswell slips some cursed runes between the covers of the hero's book) at the heart of the new(ish) Richard Rogers glass-covered atrium. From Kings Cross, we cut through the back end of St Pancras Station into the small side road which separates it from the library. Off in the near distance, on the other side of a stretch of waste ground which will no doubt be filled-in in due course, was a block of white-facaded flats, patterned with a series of slits along some sections of the balconies. This was Levita House, a grade II listed building which has regained some of its faded glory after a recent refurbishment. It was built by the London County Council between 1928 and 1937 as part of a slum clearance programme, but had degraded into the familiar patterns of neglect, underinvestment and resultant physical and social decay. It was recently used as a backdrop for Shane Meadows’ short black and white film Somers Town, where the two young protagonists leaned over the parapets and watched the trains wind in and out of the station.

Taking the route through the station is a good way to get to the library, as is avoids the permanently traffic-choked hell of the Euston Road, and affords a marvellous side-view of the St Pancras Hotel, an obscure and seldom seen angle which has some remarkable features. A huge gothic arched window, steeply rising roofs and a smoking chimney, with the canopy covering the platforms snaking off behind, all add to the hybrid nature of the building: part cathedral, part Teutonic castle and part cast-iron monument to proud Victorian engineering. It really feels as though it should have jagged mountainscapes rearing in the background, and it stands in towering contrast to its shabby surrounds (particularly now that the Victorian terraces of the Culross Buildings in Battle Bridge Road have been demolished and only one of the old black and red cast iron gas-holders remains). On the other side of the street, you pass through a gap to enter the concourse in front of the British Library. It’s use of red brick links it with its distinguished and long-established neighbour, but it contrasts the hotel’s soaring vertical spires and chimneys with a more horizontal form, elongated and with gently ascending, neatly stacked levels (like books lying on top of one another) and the smoothly descending slope of a roof. The eastern side rests on a series of black and red pillars, and the area around the concourse has the look of a Japanese palace. Inside, all is cool and cavernous, with a wide cascade of steps leading you upwards towards a massive central stack of books contained in elegant glass casings which, in any other building, you might assume gave access to the lifts. They rise vertiginously above and below the ground floor levels and seem to act as a symbolic supporting column, the foundation for the surrounding edifice. The reading rooms for different subjects branch discretely off from this civilised central space (complete with the obligatory café), open to registered users only. But there is plentiful exhibition space in which to display the Library’s many treasures.

The PACCAR gallery, below ground, currently houses an exhibition on the evolution of the English language, with awe-inspiring artefacts such as the original Beowulf manuscript (the only one – without the object you see here, this tale would be entirely lost to us), the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, an early illuminated copy of the Canterbury Tales, and Dr Johnson’s dictionary (we were later to pass his house in Gough Square in the City), all enclosed in a reverent hush of crepuscular gloom. Later objects include a 1929 BBC broadcaster’s guide to received pronunciation which would dictate the sound of the airwaves for decades to come, and James Joyce’s handwritten manuscript of Finnegan’s Wake, with adjacent headphones to allow you to follow the author’s own reading of the densely punning text on the open page before you. But, for all the magnificence of these marvels, the words on paper which have been the carriers of our culture (and still will be, despite the proclamations of digital doomsayers) it was in the Treasures of the British Library exhibition in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery that I came across the pages which made me draw a sharp breath and test the tensile strength of the glass which contained them as I leant over to get as close as possible. They were Mervyn Peake’s illustrations to the Alice books.

There were three of Peake’s original illustrations, all from Through the Looking Glass: The Walrus and the Carpenter, Humpty Dumpty on the wall and Alice crowned as Queen. The Walrus and the Carpenter (the characters from Tweedledee’s poem). Peake draws them as elderly figures, shabby and worn, looking ruminatively off beyond the frame into some unknown distance which they don’t seem to be focussing on anyway. The carpenter’s face, with its sharp edges and squared-off ends, looks like it has been planed and sanded with his own tools. These he carries about on his person, a saw slung over his shoulder like a saw-toothed rifle, hammer and pencils and a broken setsquare peering out of a bulging jacket pocket which sags from a weight for which it was never fashioned. The Walrus leans on a bamboo cane, and grasps the lapel of his coat in the manner of one who once enjoyed the pomp of official office. In a nice little detail, the pointed arms of a starfish are sketched out just below the Walrus’ flippered feet, which peek out beneath the crumpled cuffs of his pin-striped trousers. These two weary creatures lean on each other like old friends accustomed to each other’s company, and the Walrus rather touchingly twines his forefinger around the Carpenter’s pinkie in a tentative expression of intimacy (perhaps Peake’s interpretation of the lines which state that they ‘were walking close at hand’). Peake’s mastery of cross-hatching (and simple hatching), evident throughout his literary illustrations, is used here to convey the paradoxical luminescence of a sun which shines on the sea even thought it is night, with the moon at the same time ‘shining sulkily/Because she thought the sun/Had got no business to be there’. Dark and dense cross-hatching above the ocean horizon gradually expands and lightens, until the upper layers of the sky are airily rendered with undulant broken lines. These suggest the lambent shimmer of moonlight, as well as replicating the swell of the waves below.

Peake’s depicts many of the bizarre inhabitants of the worlds beyond the rabbit hole and through the looking glass as run down, vagrant, with ill-fitting clothes and battered shoes which curl up at the toes, where sole and upper part with a fishy gape. They gaze upwards to one side with mad distraction or look on with empty and blank vacancy. Even his Queen of Hearts has toes which poke through holes in her stockings, and the tense, erect curl of those toes conveys the rage which inhabits every fibre of her being. His aristocratic characters are characterised by exaggerated noses, from the upturned Kenneth Williams flare of the Red Queen to the pug snout beneath black piggish eyes of the Queen of Hearts. He favours the perspective on the Alice books which Jonathan Miller brought to his 1966 TV adaptation, which sees the inverted world of mad anti-logic which they portray as being on the borders of nightmare, a depiction of an overactive mentality thinking its way towards insanity. Such interpretations of necessity go beyond the lightness of the actual books, which largely maintain a light and humorous air, partly through the use of nonsense verse. Peake would have appreciated the odd collisions of incongruent ideas and images, absurd improbabilities and figures of speech taken literally which Carroll’s verse contains. He wrote nonsense poems himself, many of them collected in his Rhymes Without Reason and A Book Of Nonsense, and he produced his own book illustrating Figures of Speech in a humorously literal fashion. He also produced two children’s books which combined fantastic voyages with illustrations – Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor and Letters from a Lost Uncle, the drawings for both of which bear much resemblance to those he made for the Alice stories.

Peake’s Humpty Dumpty (click this link and then scroll down to find the picture amongst the row beneath the Mad Hatter), perched pompously atop his wall, is set against a darkly lowering cross-hatched sky, which evokes the wintry setting of the story (the obverse of Alice in Wonderland’s dream of a summer’s day). This darkness also serves to give a clear outline to the ovoid curve of Humpty’s indivisible head and body. One face of his round form is cast into penumbral shadow, a hint at the rather threatening side of his character. He is a stern looking creature, with a rigidity conveyed by the tight-pressed line of his mouth and downward curve of his protruding lip, and the hard and unresponsive glaze of his stare. His eyebrows rise in angry arches and the outward fold of his pointed ear somehow manages to convey an alert sense of arrogant superiority. His hands rest on his knees, and Peake depicts the relaxed bend of a stubby forefinger, ready to be brought into action to point out any errors or inexactitude. His feet are like dainty pig trotters, crossed neatly over each other as if he is engaged in zen meditation (and paradoxical nonsense is a good way of achieving the zen goal of breaking free from established patterns of thought). These inhuman feet counter his otherwise anthropomorphic features (although anthropomorphised from what? An egg?), suggesting a bestial nature which his pedantic and intellectually overdemonstrative manner seems an attempt to overcome. As a further indication of a dual nature, these trotters also somewhat resemble the nibs of ink pens. Humpty even has what looks like a light fuzz of hair atop its head (a feathery down?) which adds to its thuggish mien, and also echoes the moss which fringes the ledge upon which he primly perches. Perhaps he has sat there for so long, and with such stillness, that he too has grown his own crop. Around the corner, a tree or vine has thrust upwards through the brickwork, leaving a ragged hole around its branch. This gives the idea that the wall is not as stable as once it was, and presages the egghead’s disastrous and shattering fall.

The picture of Alice shows her proudly displaying the Queen’s crown which she wins in the latter stages of the chess game which provides the carefully worked out framework for her progress (and that of the other characters) in Through the Looking Glass. Carroll gives a key to the moves in the game at the start of the book, and further clarifications are offered by Martin Gardner in his fascinatingly discursive The Annotated Alice. Alice’s crown, as depicted by Peake, is a tall, three tiered affair, its separate layers fanning out around a central column like a baroque fountain. A symbolic object of power, it looks like it would take a constant effort of careful balancing to keep it from toppling from the head. Peake’s Alice looks a lot less prim and well-groomed than the more familiar figure depicted by John Tenniel. Her hair is a wild tumble, with an untamed fringe struggling out from beneath the crown’s metallic brim. Peake has given her wide, bright eyes and a look of innocent delight, very different from the self-contained and rather sulky hauteur of the Tenniel Alice. She’s also a lot more lithe and loose-limbed than Tenniel’s squat, big-headed figure. She appears filled with dreamy wonder, and you can quite believe that this world has sprung from her wayward imagination. She’s like a girl approaching the dawning horizon of adolescence. In some senses, she’s like a slightly younger version of Fuschia from the Gormenghast books. Peake’s depiction is a good counterbalance to the sometimes rather prissy manner in which the Alice books can come across, particularly when read aloud in a particular kind of voice. He brings back the sense of a wild imagination, slightly out of control and verging on the sinister. It’s a perfect marriage of artist and story.

The divergence between Peake and Tenniel’s view of the world of the Alice books can also be seen in their representation of animals, and cats in particular. The black kitten with which Alice plays a the beginning and end of Through the Looking Glass is a cutesy fluffball with a bow around its neck in Tenniel’s illustration. In the picture with which Peake ends the book, its paws droop in pugilistic readiness, and it casts a sideways look of undisguised malevolence at Alice, whose grasping hand is all that we see. Similarly, Tenniel’s Cheshire Cat in Alice In Wonderland is a fat, grinning goofball. Peake recasts it as a round. disembodied head hanging in the sky, slab-toothed and sharp-eared, its eyes glaring down with wicked intensity, radiating sick waves of fear like an evil sun. It’s the Gnostic demi-god of this contrariwise sub-world, as envisaged by Peake’s burning imagination. This can be seen in action in the rough sketch which lies alongside the three completed illustrations. Thick scribbles of heavy pencil approximate to automatic drawing, directly conducted from the visions flashing across the mind. These are overlaid with the more controlled lines of ink pen, which begin to give form to the raw material of the imagination. You can almost feel the process of creation as you stare down at this piece of paper. It’s very exciting to know that there is so much more material now in the possession of the Library, available for study and hopefully for future exhibitions and publications.

Across from the Alice display is an array of manuscripts which trace the development of the novel. These culminate in the work of two writers whose archives have also recently been acquired by the Library. Angela Carter’s handwritten manuscript for Nights at the Circus was a particular thrill for me to see, as she is one of my favourite writers. I’ve also just finished reading this book (it was my choice for a book club which I participate in) so the words were still fresh in my mind. Seeing it in this unedited state made you wonder about variances from the text as finally printed. I’d need to have had the book with me, but I don’t believe the phrase about the Helen of Hackney (if I remember that aright) made it to the opening pages. Carter may have decided on the soubriquet ‘Helen of the high wires’ as a preferable replacement. Additional sentences angle in from the margins, accreted afterthoughts and curlicues of florid detail flowing from her profligate imagination, spinning off here and there. You sense that she could have continued coming up with such baroque additions, but the line had to be drawn somewhere.

A page from JG Ballard’s manuscript of Crash is on display, words fired out and impressed onto paper with the violent, rapid fire keys of an old manual typewriter. The resultant type is crossed through and scribbled out at regular intervals, and innumerable corrections made, with corrections to the corrections in some instances. The whole thing looks a mess. But indicates the care with which he searched for exactly the right word. Crash was an extension of the style and thematic concerns of his ‘condensed novels’ of the mid to late 60s, which were essentially a form of prose poetry. The need for precision of expression was all important, as was the modulation between styles. The novel is essentially a collision of language from lab reports, ad copy, pornography, tabloid newsprint and pop art. The style, in a sense, is the content and creates the novel psychopathology which is a the novel’s core. Here, you get a glimpse at how Ballard arrived at it, and how much work it required.

Communications Tower, Barcelona - the PO Tower's Spanish cousin
After leaving the Library, we went for a wander across the city, meandering through Regents Park from Camden and following an arc of Nash terraces to thread our way through the narrow streets of Fitzrovia, soon arriving at Fitzroy Square, which has been home to the likes of the mid-nineteenth century Prime Minister Lord John Russell, George Bernard Shaw and Virginia Woolf, with Whistler, Rossetti and Sickert as near neighbours. Its neat terraces of Georgian houses and central garden penned in by wrought iron railings is overshadowed by that priapic icon of 60s technological optimism and concrete modernism, the Post Office Tower (never mind about its subsequent privatised rechristening). The feeling of architectural schizophrenia engendered by standing in a perfectly formed 18th century residential square and looking up at London’s quintessential piece of 60s space age futurism is also embodied in the house which used to be the residence of Robert Adam, who had begun the construction of the square. This is now occupied by the Ove Arup and Partners architectural firm. Ove Arup, from whom they take their name, was a Danish engineer who emigrated to England in the 20s. He was a consultant to the Tecton team and worked in close association with Berthold Lubetkin on the construction of Highpoint in Highgate, which was indeed the high-point of 30s white-walled modernism in London. Arup advised Lubetkin as to the viability of allowing the outer walls to carry the weight of the building, the whole being balanced on a series of columns or piloti. It was the realisation of some of le Corbusier’s ideas, with the ‘eggshell’ exterior allowing for greater internal space. Arup later worked extensively on the engineering design of the Sydney Opera House, another instantly recognisable beacon of modern architecture. He died in 1988, but the firm he set up continues his work. They are responsible for the Broadgate Centre in the City, an arena which has a theatrical feel, and forms a kind of circular ‘square’ in the midst of the crowded and faceless glass monoliths which dominate the area. With poetic appropriateness, they also engineered the construction of Norman Foster’s design for a communications tower which rises on the hills above Barcelona like the Skylon reborn. Perhaps it even receives signals sent out from the Post Office Tower, and sends back a few of its own.

War Machine loose in Fitzrovia
The William Hartnell Doctor Who story The War Machines is set around this area, with the Post Office Tower as its central focus. It makes good use of surrounding locations, as well as those in nearby Bedford Square (just beside the British Museum) and Covent Garden, then still a working fruit, veg and flower market (as it was when Hitchcock came to make Frenzy there in 1972. The War Machines was made just as the Tower was first opening to the public in 1965, and offered a corrective blast of technological paranoia to set against all the white heat excitement in the air at the time. The top tier is home to a new supercomputer called Wotan, its one blinking and dilating eye presumably reminding its makers of the Wagnerian god. Indeed, it’s a computer of such magnitude that it pretty much takes up the entire level by itself. Soon after it’s turned on, it decides it can do a far more efficient job of running the world, ushering in a new era of technological domination. It plans to form an international network, a kind of web spanning the world (if only there were a simple name for this) with its computer brethren and produce armoured machines which will be activated on cue and eliminate any resistance. Soon they are let loose in the streets of Fitzrovia, gratuitously knock down stacks of empty fruit boxes around Covent Garden and grind to a confused halt at the end of Cornwall Gardens in Chelsea. Apparently, viewers at the time found the whole idea of computers coming to dominate our lives preposterous, one commenting that ‘I like science fiction, but this was ridiculous’.

Newman's Passage framed
A little further south, and with a little direction from Kim Newman’s Movies, Murder and the Macabre contribution to the Time Out Book of London Walks, we came across (appropriately enough) Newman Passage. The corner of Rathbone Street which you take to arrive at its entrance also seemed very familiar, possibly from two Soho in the fifties films I’ve recently seen: The Small World of Sammy Lee and Expresso Bongo (ignore Cliff, it’s a really interesting picture). The dark and clammy stretch of Newman Passage is the setting for the murder of a prostitute which opens Michael Powell’s study in the voyeurism inherent in cinema, Peeping Tom. Kim Newman quotes Powell’s description of it as ‘a narrow, arched passageway that gives you goose-pimples just to look at it’. It remains essentially as it was in the film, although the gas lamp has gone, alas, as have the brightly painted facades of the surrounding shops. If anything, it is now even more dark and forbidding. Peeping Tom is now widely regarded as the film which marked the end of Michael Powell’s career, although it has to be said that it hadn’t really been in great shape for some time previously. Reviews were viciously vituperative, and there was a faint sense of scores being settled. Derek Hill’s comments in The Tribune are often quoted. He wrote ‘the only satisfactory way to dispose of Peeping Tom would be to shovel it up and flush it swiftly down the nearest sewer. Even then the stench would remain’. He does then go on to heap scorn on previous Powell (and Pressburger) films, accusing such works as A Canterbury Tale, A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes and Tales of Hoffmann of vulgarity, and of displaying ‘bizarre tendencies’. All of which suggests that some critics felt that Powell, with his extravagant romantic imagination, had it coming. As is often the case with works initially vilified by all and sundry, Peeping Tom has now come to be considered a classic.

The Cittie of Yorke
Finally, we came to rest at The Cittie of York, a wonderful grade II listed pub opposite Chancery Lane Tube Station (although, as usual, you get a better view if you travel on the top deck of a bus). A place of considerable antiquity, its back room has a vaulting wooden ceiling, with huge barrels suspended over the bar area. Intriguingly, there is a suspended iron walkway which runs alongside them. Much coveted enclosed wooden booths, somewhat akin to confessionals, line the wall opposite the bar, and we swiftly nabbed one as another party left. This is one of a trail of pubs featured in William Heaney’s (aka Graham Joyce) Memoirs of a Master Forger. His protagonist describes it as being 'one of London's oldest inn sites', although at this point in the story he's not in a fit state to provide his usual psychogeographical anecdotes as he makes his way 'through the gloom of the great hall bar' to make a rendezvous 'at teh back where there are intimate drinking booths'. According to the Good Pub Guide, there's been an inn on this site since 1430, with a coffee house (known as the Gray's Inn Coffee House) built behind a garden in 1695, and a Victorian reconstruction using 17th materials making up much of the modern site. The cellar bar (closed whilst we were there) is the cellar of the old coffee house. It’s a Samuel Smith pub, which meant that we got a couple of pints (and in the centre of London, too) and still had change from a fiver! You can’t say fairer than that.

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