by David Lillington
The following three pieces are ostensibly about Britain and America, and each has a single point to make. Whether they have anything to do with art, or whether art has anything to do with life, I don't know.
1. The Ten Bells, formerly the Jack the Ripper, a bar in Whitechapel. E1, the area next to the original London, the London the Romans founded, although it was already there and run by the Celts, and before them the Ancient Britons, most obscure and lost of all lost peoples of Britain. Below my feet as I write, thousands of years of history. It's like Jericho. Slice through this place and you get archaeology like cake, like tree rings sideways.
I don't think about it much, and although my street is in history books, I can't be bothered to find out why. I'd probably rather read about native Americans. Or Jack Kerouac, or Walt Whitman. I like Walt Whitman. Everyone likes Walt Whitman. Anyway. If I cross the river on my bike, over Tower Bridge, which looks like this,
No I can't do it . . . and go to the area around Clink Street, there's a clutch of streets that's like something under the floorboards, complicated and dank and old. Nothing much happens there, and it's where Americans should come and look, but they go instead to the Ten Bells, because that's where the English tourist business, which is clever, engineers to send them.
To the point. I'm here in a pub. It isn't actually that great but it's also beautiful, with authentic picture tiles and stuff. I'm with a friend, we're drinking. Wave after wave of Americans comes in, four waves, each with its Jack the Ripper tour guide, who tells them about the original serial killer, though doubtless he wasn't, and what about Caligula? They all buy a drink and maybe some Ripper memorabilia--a lighter, a book, a T-shirt--though most of them are sensible enough not to. Then they go and look at the streets where Jack, who was never caught, killed people. I think he only killed five, which always strikes me as insignificant when you think five people are probably cut up by cars every single day within a ten mile radius of here. Anyway, what they've really come to see is an Old English Pub.
Now, and this is the point at last, when they leave, we all breathe a sigh of relief, relax, and laugh at our American cousins. And the landlord puts the Brit pop back on and the atmosphere returns, returns tangibly, and the place becomes a pub again, where we talk and drink and feel like you feel in a pub, and you can almost hear the past and the present coming back together, with an audible smack, because there is something here, in fact, which the Americans came to see but at the same time ousted by their presence, like there really was a ghost but they stared him out--not that it was them, they were all OK, if a bit dumpily dressed--but it was the fact that they were looking. And it strikes me that it's exactly like Heisenberg's Principle, which I think says that the observer affects the result of the experiment, or that if you know where an electron is you don't know how fast it's going, and if you know how fast it's going, you don't know where it is.
2. Radio 4 is pretty crap really but it's vaguely sane and occasionally interesting. They review Blur's new album. Blur are big news here, this home-grown bit of Englishness, but I don't care about that much.
They say Blur's new album is American, meaning: they've used a crap microphone, mushed the sound up, and--very important--almost just gone into the studio and played, left it, and put it out. Of course, they haven't really, but more so than usual. And they make the point that British bands really mix: use all 48 tracks and put everything together meticulously, note by note, for five weeks, one by one. But American bands go into the studio and play. Now of course it isn't really like that, but there may be a tiny bit of truth in it. And yes, Blur's new album does sound different. It's rougher. I prefer it. And the singer, Damon, says they've been listening to Sonic Youth and Pavement and the Beastie Boys and someone else (although I saw the Youth once and they seemed to be trying to play exactly as they sound on record, which missed the point, but never mind. And they didn't seem to realize that that wasn't what was expected of them, especially being American. And they weren't loud enough. It was a bad day I think. A bad tour.). Anyway, and this is the point, these studio methods are like in art, because Brits are obsessed with materials (maybe less now but, nonetheless) but Americans aren't. They prefer stories, I think. And they teach philosophy in art college. I don't know what that's got to do with it. But the first point anyway. That's it.
3. Henry Fuseli wasn't really British, he was Swiss, but he painted here, and taught Constable as well as some other painters, and was a Royal Academician, which seems a shame. He was before Blake, who loved him. Fuseli is as tight as hell, tight as Piero della Francesca, or Mondrian, well not really but you get the idea, perfect composition, in this case with muscle tone and an electric charge; fluid, tense and spiky like strange fish, like panthers, orchids. I don't know if this is European, but I've never thought so. It might be. Sure, what he does is kind of stupid, he's a ridiculous romantic painter, unrepentant. He painted the sexiest painting ever, with a demon sitting on a woman's stomach. And he painted titania and bottom. Its weirdness is that it's riotous, but also somehow underwater with that gloom and slowness. It's deeply wild. The figures who spin around Titania, who looks like she's just stripped, are as much like manta rays as people or fairies or whatever they are. Voyeuristic partygoers, I think. Which I guess is what they are in Shakespeare, but when you go and see A Midsummer Night's Dream in the theatre, Titania doesn't strip and dance drunkenly. But here she's completely out of her head, while all this gothic stuff happens around her. Fuseli took Midsummer Night out of the woods and put it in a basement.
Radio 1. Cracker's "Low." Indie rock with psychedelic lyrics. Something like this.
Sometimes I wanna take you down Some time I wanna get you low I brush the hair back from your eyes Take you down Let the river flow Sometimes I'm gonna walk the streets Behind a green sheet of glass A million miles below their feet A million miles a million miles I'll be with you girl Like being low Hey hey hey like being stoned x2 A million poppies gonna make me sleep There's just one rose that knows your name The fruit is rusting on the vine The fruit is calling from the trees Hey don't you wanna go down? Like some junkie cosmonaut A million miles below their feet A million etc. I'll be etc. x2 Blue blue is the sun Brown brown is the sky Green green are your eyes A million etc. Hey don't you? etc. . . . Disgraced cosmonaut I'll be x2
So there you are. I assume Cracker are American, though nothing's certain in these things. They sound pretty mid-Atlantic, all things considered. I've only ever heard them twice, on the radio, and the first time I was taping so I managed to bottle that particular moonbeam, i.e. "Low." Maybe I even spelled their name wrong.
Anyway, what is my point? I don't know. I don't have one. That was it, all that.