While I was in London I walked to Tate Britain, what used simply to be the Tate. I think I’d noticed before that the west face, as it were, in Atterbury Street is pocked with shrapnel scars, but since I was on my way to see an exhibition titled Ruin Lust, I saw them with new eyes.
I wish I’d loved the exhibition more. The curator, Brian Dillon, is clearly a good man, but it seemed he was reduced to rummaging around in the gallery’s basement and digging out what he could find. Of course the Tate has some pretty decent stuff in its basement, and it’s hard to complain about works by Turner, Graham Sutherland, Paul Nash, John Piper, Eduardo Paolozzi, et al.
|John Piper, St Mary le Port, Bristol, 1940|
But am I the only one to be less than fascinated by Jane and Louise Wilson’s photographs of the bunkers of the Atlantic Wall? Especially since (unless I missed it somehow) they fail to acknowledge that Paul Virilio covered this territory rather more fully in his book Bunker Archeology. But, of course, Virilio isn’t British so he doesn’t get any of his stuff into Tate Britain.
Virilio writes of the bunkers, “Why this analogy between the funeral archetype and military architecture? Why this insane situation looking out over the ocean? This waiting before the infinite oceanic expanse? Until this era, fortifications had always been oriented towards a specific staked-out objective: the defense of a passageway, a pass, steps, valleys or ports. Whereas here, walking daily along kilometer after kilometer of beach, I would happen upon these concrete markers at the summit of dunes, cliffs, across beaches, open, transparent, with the sky playing between the embrasure and the entrance, as if each casemate were an empty ark or a little temple minus the cult.” Why indeed? I think this might have been referenced in the Wilsons' work.
Still, who am I to be critical of the Tate when there was a pile of Nicholson’s Walking in Ruins in the bookshop?
I’m sure there’s no end of shrapnel marks on the buildings of London, but the ones I’m most familiar with are on St Paul’s Cathedral, which escaped a direct hit in the Blitz, but was left with some spectacular scarring. (But see the comment below)
I imagine that by no means all the scars on St Paul’s are from from World War Two. There are some carved “graffiti” (below), and I suppose that date must be 1702 (though it's a very badly written 7) since that was right in the middle of the construction of the cathedral, and W. Fox was presumably one of the stone masons.
Below is one of my not all that old author pics (photograph by Steve Kenny) sitting on the steps of Sheffield City Hall – and yes those are indeed shrapnel scars in the lump of masonry I'm sitting on. There was a period of at least six years when I walked past the Sheffield City Hall every day on my way to and from school, and yet I never noticed the scars at the time. New eyes were required.
Also, while I was in England, and definitely inspired by Virilio rather than the Wilson sisters, I went walking on the Naze at Walton, in Essex, looking for bunkers. It’s one of those places I’d vaguely heard of but knew nothing about. Naze derives from the Old English word “næss” meaning ness or promontory, but there is also something nose-like about the land formation.
It was a vital bit of territory during World War Two. There’s now a World War Two Walk to be done there, though I admit I didn’t follow the route very closely, not least because I couldn’t actually find it. (True, I didn’t look all that hard). The Naze Tower, which has been there since 1720, was used as a radar tower during hostilities, and there were bunkers or pillboxes with anti-aircraft machine-guns built along the cliff edge, not “looking out over an oceanic expanse” but across the North Sea to Holland. I found this particularly fine bunker:
And then this one:
Since the bunkers were designed to withstand aerial bombings it’s perhaps not surprising that they're still standing. There are some signs of decay. One of the metal supports on the one above is rusted most of the way through, thanks to the salt air no doubt, and yet the structure itself seems completely sturdy. It feels more like a monument than a genuine ruin.
And in that first bunker there was evidence of human presence, and indeed of exuberant, untutored, over-optimistic (and misspelled) wall art. It would no doubt all have been different if Hitler had won.