I was in London for one reason or another. There had been a plan to go for a walk with Iain Sinclair but that fell through because, as he put it, “I did some damage a while back, jumping out of the way of a sudden-turning taxi. All was well. But after coming back from the Hebrides, some of the calf problems returned on London pavements. I need to take a break - and, if possible, see a wonder worker.” No arguing with that.
And of course I walked anyway, sometimes on my own, sometimes with one or two others, and I looked around, took pictures, and at times observed my fellow pedestrians, most of them just walking as part of their everyday lives and business, others perhaps on some kind of drift or specialized walking project – you can’t always tell with these things, although I did see one or two groups of tourists who were being herded around on organized walking tours – they tended to look simply bemused.
I had the sense in central London of walking around a giant building site, that will become a post-Brexit, giant architectural theme park. There are cranes and scaffolding everywhere. And this is in one sense exciting – new forms and new possibilities are coming into being. There’s an optimism, a confidence, a belief that the city does have some kind of future, even if an uncertain and contested one.
On the other hand, most of us will only ever walk past these glossy new architectural constructions. They really don’t involve or embrace the “average” Londoner, whatever that is. We are certainly never likely to live in any of the new super luxury flats. And I suppose you could argue that this has always been the way of things , as true of Centre Point as of Buckingham Palace: you walk past, you see the exterior, you know in broad terms what you’re looking at, but you don’t get invited inside. Nobody’s building any people’s palaces.
Where there’s change there’s also decay. There was a short period of my life when I worked as a gallery attendant at the Hayward Gallery on the South Bank, and every day I’d walk out of Waterloo station and go into a kind of pedestrian tunnel/bridge that ran through the Shell Centre.
The building is still there, and a little research reveals that it’s still owned by Shell, though I couldn’t see any external sign to that effect.
But whereas it once looked like a smart, if slightly old-fashioned, 1950s office block, it now looks in significant decline. Of course some of us enjoy a good bit of significant decline.
And I suppose street art flourishes in these times of transition. When buildings are being built or demolished, when there are hoardings around them, people don’t get too upset about works of art painted on boards or abandoned walls, although presumably once the sparkling new architectural masterpieces are finished the artists are going to be way less welcome.
And it may just be me, but I got the feeling there was something a bit last millennium about London’s street art. I mean Banksy is obviously a good guy, but does his art really need to be protected by large sheets of Perspex? Isn’t street art meant to be transient and at the mercy of the elements, human and otherwise? And do I really need to be able to buy a Banksy in an art gallery in the spruced up Shipping Container House? Well no, I do not and I wouldn’t be able to afford one even if I did.
On the other hand, it’s hard to walk down Goodge Street and not be somehow moved and uplifted by this depiction of Theresa May, not by Banksy as far as I know, and not under Perspex either.