Summa: diary (February 9-11, 2024)
February 9 (Friday). London. 9.29 am: The beginning of a journey from Aberystwyth to the Capital that was remarkable for its uneventfulness. (Neither cancellations, nor delays due to floods, fallen trees, landslides, someone threatening to throw themselves off an overhead bridge, replacement drivers who’re still in bed, failed doors or breaks, or a train down the line catching fire just outside Rugby.) An earlier than expected arrival at Euston. It doesn’t get any better.
2.40 pm: I took a slow walk around Soho. In my twenties and thirties, this was an area of the city that young men of a religious inclination were advised not to frequent. Of course, that prohibition tweaked my curiosity; so I went … wide-eyed, innocent, and very apprehensive. Today, the area is being gentrified. The XXX cinemas, video stores, and brazen ‘Girlie’ bars have now vanished. The Raymond Revuebar — a renowned theatre and strip club — closed twenty years ago. I always imagined Raymond to be a portly east Londoner with a fake French accent and tan, thin moustache, toupee, and penchant for tweed and Oxford college ties. ‘Private Shops’ are more discrete. You have to know that they’re there to find them, I’m told. I was once propositioned in the street by a young woman who asked: ‘Looking for a girl, sir?’ I replied: ‘No, I haven’t lost one.’ She passed me by briskly, never looking back, realising that she’d had a lucky escape.
I went on pilgrimage to my two favourite jazz clubs: Ronnie Scott’s, on Frith Street, and the PizzaExpress Live, on Dean Street. My family and I have enjoyed some truly remarkable performances there. St Anne’s, Soho is also on Dean Street. The church has a new entrance that, at first glance, looks the window of a galleria-type boutique. Very unecclesiastical. Which is refreshing. Passers-by are invited to enter and find sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of street life.
3.00 pm: On, then, to see new work by the German painter Gerhard Richter at the David Zwirner gallery, on Grafton Street. Intriguingly, the exhibition was without explanatory boards and the pictures lacked labels. There was no indication of their intent, titles, medium, or process. The spectator’s encounter was with the work on the wall, and only that. Clearly, Richter (now 92 years of age) remains open to reinvention and extension at a time in life when most other artists are either dead; or unable and unwilling to practice; or basking in past glories; or endlessly recapitulating signature motifs and techniques, and becoming a paler and paler echo of their past selves.
5.45 am: On entering Waterstone’s on Garrick Street I (nearly) bumped into the former Chancellor Kwasi Kwantang coming the other way at speed. He said ‘sorry’. I should’ve responded: For what … tanking the economy or getting in my way?’
6.15 pm: Sustenance:
February 10 (Chinese New Year). A Putney morning.
Recently, someone asked me why I’d pursued a career as an academic rather than as full-time artist. There are several convergent reasons. First, my heart wasn’t persuaded by the romantic model of the struggling, garret-bound artist with an eye to exhibiting in London galleries, principally (which my art school had presented to me as the best and only course of action). Secondly, I was attracted to the outlook of artists, such as Josef Albers and Hans Hoffman, who couldn’t envisage being an artist outside an institutional context. Thirdly, in order to have any chance of succeeding as a full-time artist (so my tutors told me) I would need to be single-minded. However, my mind was already divided between a commitment to the praxis and the history of art. In British art schools at the time, which practiced a form of institutionalised apartheid, artists and art historians were distinct and segregated communities. ‘Intermarriage’ was exceedingly rare. Those who attempted to combine both disciplines were branded dilettantes. By contrast, in music conservatoires at the same no one batted an eyelid if a student expressed the ambition to be a composer, an instrumentalist, and a musicologist.
11.45 am: A train ride to Erith (pronounced: Ee-rith) in south-east London on the banks of the Thames. (The name is derived from the Saxon for a ‘safe haven’). I was there see to see the longest pier in London (440 ft). My father-in-law was responsible for its design and construction in the 1950s. It was his first job as a qualified civil engineer. The pier is rather magnificent in an unassuming way. The town, however, is forlorn and tired — a far cry from its reputation, during the nineteenth century, as an attractive river resort.
On returning to central London, I sought out Lower Robert Street (named after the architect Robert Adam), which is situated off the Strand close to the Savoy Hotel. In essence, it’s a short narrow road that winds through a dark tunnel under the Victoria Embankment. Few people other than taxi drivers known about the cut. The street, it’s claimed, is the site of a troubling auditory apparition. The story goes: In the nineteenth century a sex worker called ‘Poor Jenny’ — who lived in the tunnel — was brutally murdered by one of her clients. Jenny’s cries and the sound of her feet banging against the ground, in a futile bid to extricate herself from the assailant, have been heard often.
6.00 pm: Sustenance:
February 11 (Sunday). 10.00 am: A journey to Green Park and St James’s Church, Piccadilly. I’ve ‘attended’ the church on YouTube ever since the first lockdown. Being there was the like visiting the set of a much loved TV series. Some of the principle actors looked older and others, smaller. At the close of the service last year’s palm crosses were burned in the courtyard outside in readiness for Ash Wednesday, as passers-by on Piccadilly stared through the railings looking perplexed.
On, then, to Chinatown via Rupert Court’s narrow alley, wherein I was confronted by a dancing dragon and a loud percussion ensemble heading towards me, unstoppably. I was hoping to find the dragon today, but it had found me first. While my rational mind knew that the creature was only made of paper and cloth and puppeteered by three men, my irrational heart was still intimidated. The dragon possessed a ‘spirit’ that constrained to me to offer respect. (This is the essence of magic: transformation) It entered shops that had paid for a visit, to bestow good luck and fortune for the year ahead.
After lunch, I chanced upon St. Anne’s Court and a blue plaque dedicated to David Bowie. It was on the wall of the former Trident Studios. So many progressive rock and pop groups from the 1970s represented in my vinyl collection had recorded there. I was on ‘sacred’ ground.
2.45 pm: At the Wellcome Institute, on Euston Road, I saw The Cult of Beauty exhibition. A bust of Queen Nefertiti graced the entrance. She looked as though trapped within a three-dimensional version of a Francis Bacon painting. The curators explored and debunked the ideal of a universal beauty. Their ideas were relevant to our times and culture, and articulated clearly and at a level that would’ve been comprehensible to a broad audience. The section on ‘selfies’, selfitis (an obsessive compulsive desire to take photographs of oneself), and dysmorphia (an obsessive preoccupation and dissatisfaction with one’s body appearance) was particularly illuminating.
There is developing (far more slowly) an acoustic manifestation of dysmorphia. There are, now, a good many AI apps that enable those who a dislike the timbre and implied gender of their voice to alter it significantly. You can sound like someone else entirely. Few people I know are comfortable hearing themselves on recordings. I’m one of them.
6.00 pm: Sustenance and a combined family birthday and Chinese New Year celebration meal:
My fortune cookie motto for the evening. (If only I’d known earlier on in life.):
See also: Intersections (archive); Diary (September 15, 2018 – June 30, 2021); Diary (July 16, 2014 – September 4, 2018); John Harvey (main site); John Harvey: Sound; Facebook: The Noises of Art; X; Instagram.