In this human city

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The latest videohaiku stars the neighborhood ash tree and a flock of starlings, shot from the patio while I was drinking coffee. The text is a bit wordier than usual for me, shaped in part by the need to fit into a pseudo-concrete poem.

London after Blake

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My latest videohaiku is an homage to William Blake. The major Blake exhibition currently at Tate Britain features only indirectly, via a billboard above the escalators in Waterloo Station. Just to the southwest of that station, under the multiple railroad tracks, is another, permanent exhibition that Rachel and I took in on Sunday, before walking over to the Tate: the London School of Mosaic’s project Blake’s Lambeth (2005-2015):

Blake’s Lambeth is a collection of 70 mosaics installed in the tunnels alongside Archbishops Park, close to Waterloo Station. The project was part of a 10 year collaboration of Southbank Mosaics (our former company) with Future’s Theatre and Southbank Sinfonia supported by Heritage Lottery.

William Blake lived for ten of his most productive years in North Lambeth at 13 Hercules Buildings. The old house has been knocked down, but there is a plaque where it once stood on Hercules Road. This mosaic project pays homage to his genius and some of his greatest work. Our artists worked with 300 volunteers over a period of 7 years to research, design, plan, create and install 70 mosaics based on the words and paintings of William Blake into the railway tunnels of Waterloo Station, turning them from dark unwelcoming places into street galleries bright with opulent and durable works of art.

There’s also an extensive photo gallery at the blog Spitalfields Life, which is how I found out about the installation, having Googled “William Blake Lambeth”, hoping for an historical marker or something.

I messed around with the text of the haiku quite a lot while working on the video, and it wasn’t until I decided to take it in a Blakean, satirical direction that it felt right. So it’s “after Blake” in two senses. (Here’s the text of his poem “London” if you need a refresher.) Each of the three lines is divided in two, using a similar font to the one in the Tate poster.

Here’s the (longer and much more slickly produced) official video for the project:


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Wet sidewalk

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A haiku video shot near the Angel, Islington, which is apparently the third cheapest property in the British version of Monopoly. These days it’s one of the trendier, more gentrified neighborhoods of north London. In the video I decided not to reference any of this in connection with fallen leaves, since “fallen angels” is such a cliche. But videopoetry fans will doubtless roll their eyes at my use of one of the most hackneyed visual tropes in the genre, a shot of walking feet. In my defense, we were moving quickly (the video is at half speed) and I didn’t have time to frame the shot in such a way that it didn’t include my feet. The results were pretty enough to make me decide to embrace the suck.

Skyline

A videohaiku shot on Primrose Hill, London. The area where people are congregating includes a quote from William Blake incised into the curb/kerb: “I have conversed with the spiritual sun on Primrose Hill.” Here’s the background on that. Unfortunately, too many people were sitting or standing on the quote, posing for selfies or admiring the view — I wasn’t able to video it. I like the shot I used, but it took me several days to come up with a fitting textual accompaniment. One draft I particularly liked…

skyline
the moving domes
of umbrellas

…until I looked at my footage again and realized there weren’t many umbrellas in it.

Where the dead

The latest videohaiku uses footage shot in Kensal Green Cemetery, the oldest of London’s “Magnificent Seven” Victorian garden cemeteries, which is just a half mile from my wife’s house. The footage reminded me initially somehow of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 (“That time of year thou mayst in me behold…”) — time and timelessness being hard not to think about in a cemetery in any season.

Sleep was of course the dominant metaphor for death in the Victorian era, a fact that was brought home in a lecture we attended at another of the Magnificent Seven last week, Brompton Cemetery, about the once-popular custom of posing the recently deceased for photographs. Hopefully the faceless figure in the video suggests something of my feelings about our fondness for euphemisms around death. I also gave the video misty edges as a general nod to Arcadian sentimentality.

I can’t help thinking though that this would be greatly improved by the addition of a black metal soundtrack…

Pepys pilgrimage

Samuel Pepys bust at Seething Lane

On Wednesday, Rachel and I made our way over to the Museum of London to gawk at the silver plate recently identified as having belonged to Samuel Pepys.

The silver trencher plate is one of three in existence known to have belonged to Pepys — although it was only recently recognised as such — and is the only one on display in the UK.

It bears Pepys’ coat of arms and was made in a workshop in Foster Lane, near St Paul’s Cathedral and the museum where it now resides, in 1681/2. Cutlery scratch marks are visible in its surface, suggesting it was one of the pieces Pepys was referring to in his diary when he boasted that he served his guests on silver plates rather than pewter.

Well, if it was made in 1681 or 2, it couldn’t have featured in the diary, though there’s no doubt he was very proud of his silver. At any rate, it was such an impressive object I walked right past it and had to ask Rachel where the hell it was. My photo is, um, not good:

Pepys plate at Museum of London

I thought this ceramic plate on display nearby captured the spirit of the age much better:

plate in Museum of London

Coolest of all, perhaps, was this copy of astrologer William Lilly’s 1651 book Monarchy or No Monarchy, which was said to predict the Great Fire:

astrologist William Lilly's 1651 book predicting the Great Fire

Pepys’ diary accounts of the actual conflagration were extensively drawn upon for the museum’s looped six-minute film. I sometimes wonder whether his diary would be nearly as famous had he not had the (mis)fortune to live through the great plague in 1665 and the fire the next year.

We decided sort of on the spur of the moment to go back to Seething Lane and see whether the gardens on the site of Pepys’ office were accessible. On our previous attempt at a Pepys pilgrimage three years ago, the site had been all torn up and walled off for some sort of construction, and we feared the worse.

Our route took us past the Guildhall, and I couldn’t resist another selfie with the Pepys bust there. This is Sam at the peak of his power and influence — not the young man on the make of the diary period.

selfie with Pepys bust  at London Guildhall

As we rounded the corner from Hart Street to Seething Lane, Rachel noticed that St. Olave’s — Pepys’ church — was actually open. We hadn’t gotten into that last time either. So we were finally able to see the sculptor John Bushnell’s bust of Elizabeth Pepys that the grieving Sam had paid for after her early death in 1669, high on the wall to the left of the altar.

St. Olave's on Hart Street interior - Elizabeth Pepys memorial close-up

A more modern memorial to Sam himself, paid for by public subscription at the instigation of his Victorian-era editor Wheatley — the diary edition I’m erasing — isn’t nearly as impressive:

St. Olave's on Hart Street - Sam Pepys memorial

But the church has plenty of other fascinating details, such as this window from the Clothworkers’ guild, which evidently had teasel as its emblem:

St. Olave's on Hart Street window

And it was great to see that it was still very much a functioning Anglican church, not merely a tourist attraction. See my album on Flickr for more photos.

The churchyard was also charming, and included an herb garden in tribute to another famous parishioner, William Turner (1510-1568), the father of English botany. There was also a labyrinth, and Rachel didn’t object to my filming her feet as she walked it. Naturally, I had to turn it into another videohaiku:

The site of the Naval Board offices was right across the narrow Seething Lane, and Pepys had arranged for a covered walkway connecting them so the great men could walk to their gallery in church without getting rained on. Such is the enduring interest in Pepys that even the location of that former entrance is memorialized…

Pepys entrance to St. Olave's

…as is, of course, the site of the navy office, which survived the Great Fire only to be destroyed in another fire seven years later.

site of Naval Board offices

The reason the Seething Lane gardens had to be destroyed and replaced was to build an underground parking garage for the adjacent building, formerly the headquarters of the Port of London Authority, but now London’s second Four Seasons Hotel,

Seething Lane Gardens Pepys bust and Four Seasons back door

this one owned and operated by a Chinese corporation…

Seething Lane Gardens dedication

…which has done a decent job with it. To quote the wonderful London travel blog IanVisits:

The word ‘Seething’ may originate from a medieval word ‘sifethen’ meaning ‘full of chaff’, so-called after a nearby Corn Market.

Seething Lane Gardens have a curious history, but suffice to say it was once the topic of a planning dispute, and, with a slight gap, the fine of one red rose has been paid annually to the Lord Mayor. That’s since 1381, and the Knollys Rose ceremony still takes place each year.

In addition to the roses though, it’s famous for its association with the diarist Samuel Pepys, who lived in the same street and said he buried his exceptionally expensive Parmesan cheeses in his own back garden to protect them from the Great Fire of London.

Imagine our delight to look down and see Pepys’ buried cheese memorialized in a flagstone:

Seething Lane Gardens paving stone

This was just one in a whole series of flagstone engravings relating to Pepys, the Naval Board, the fire and the plague. Check out, for example, this excellent flea:

Seething Lane Gardens paving stone

And here’s a depiction of Pepys’ shorthand original of the diary:

Seething Lane Gardens paving stone

There’s no key to the paving stones anywhere, so if you’re not a Pepys fan, some are likely to be mystifying. This for example clearly depicts the removal of his bladder stone, which diary readers will know was a very big deal to him — he marked the anniversary of the operation every year with a party:

Seething Lane Gardens paving stone

I have photos of most of the engraved slabs on Flickr. As for the garden, Ian nails it:

Although I would have to say the current garden is rather pleasing, it’s of a style that’s increasingly generic – of raised beds with lots of paving, and hence not that interesting.

What does make this one stand out a bit is the paving […]

Sadly, the Knollys Rose has not been immortalized in stone, but some of the plants looked distinctly rose-like, so the ceremony should resume this year.

The garden was designed by the landscape architects, Capita Symonds.

The cost of the landscaping works came in at £1.25 million, paid for by the hotel development.

Pepys bust in Seething Lane Gardens

Walking to the Bank tube station at rush hour, we were impressed by the crowds of business-suited young and middle-aged City men, some scurrying, a few sauntering, many smoking (an unusual sight elsewhere these days). Palimpsest as London may be, some things don’t seem to change very much over the centuries.

200 years

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A brief videohaiku tribute to the 200th anniversary of John Keats composing “To Autumn” in September 1819. I’d thought about going to the Keats house next to Hampstead Heath to shoot video, but instead I was charmed by this tiny square of wildflowers that someone had protected in the middle of the sidewalk on a busy street (Kilburn Lane) closer to home. It speaks to me of how greatly wild spaces have diminished in the last two centuries, and much British people still love nature despite having so little of it left.

In wild

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The latest videohaiku. The London Borough of Brent put in “wildflower” beds in several of its parks this spring, part of an effort to stave off population crashes of wild bees and other insects in the UK, where the farming lobby is out of control. Unfortunately, the seed mix they used seems to be weighted more toward showy flowers than to UK natives, but it’s a start.

Building site

Still from "Building site" showing a digger in the middle distance surrounded by huge mounds of dirt.

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Where does all this soil end up, I wonder? It’s being removed to make room for the un-earth of a mass transit hub which, it seems, nobody really wants except for the investors.

Not the most brilliant footage, but I’m kind of pleased with the haiku.