Literature and Luxury in Saint-Germain

Mysterious white car along Saint Germain
Yesterday we were in Saint-Germain, and I realised that I have been blindly going to Saint-Germain for some time but not really connecting the dots of its actual historical significance – until now! Now! Now I have figured it out!

I have been frequenting a cinema near the Rue de Ecoles by taking the Bus 38 from the Gare de l’est down to the Saint Germain area, and using the “ruins” as a landmark to tell myself when to get off the bus. But I finally found out that they aren’t just any random “ruins”, its technically the Abbey of the Saint Germain-des-Pres, from which the area of Saint-Germain actually takes its name. For those easily confused by the geography of Paris, its next to the Latin Quarter (to the east) and very close to the Luxeumbourg gardens and the Eiffel Tower (to the west).

As Valentine (the directrice of our residency programme) explained to us, some areas in Paris are just plain old “fashionable chic”, but this is an area that separates itself by trying to characterise itself as “intellectual chic”.

Saint-Germain is famous for being the home of many publishers and one could probably say the thing that makes the area something special are the prestigious ecoles (universities such as Beaux Art and Science-Po), the libraries (publishers and bookstores), and the cafes which are touted as being the discussion spots of “intellectuals”, writers, thinkers, and politicians.

One such cafe that is famed for its intellectual clientele is Cafe de Flore. If you go there, you apparently have to go to the 1st floor.

Cafe de Flore
Right next to the Cafe Flore is a peculiar salon that I found out was once the site of La Hune, a historic and notable bookstore in the area. This shop is now apparently newly owned by Louis Vuitton, and is currently occupied by a very strange exhibition titled “L’Ecriture est un Voyage” (“Writing is a Journey”), featuring an exhibition of books on traveling, and apparently hosting a series of literary talks and conversations.


If you walked in you would be forgiven for having mistaken it for a bookstore. But it is not a bookstore, you cannot buy the books at the exhibition, but you can buy the books at La Hune, which people will be glad to find has NOT been erased from the map by Louis Vuitton, but has moved a block down to the other side of the abbey, apparently assisted by Louis Vuitton.



It is a truly confusing space at the moment. The text on the wall says:

“Louis Vuitton welcomes you for a passing cultural stopover: “Writing is a Journey”. Right at the heart of Saint Germain, a district whose soul was constantly nourished by the legendary writers who frequented it, “Writing is a journey” invites us on an original sculptural stroll, on a unique and intimate journey to the heart of writing through unusual libraries and iconic works of art…”

Naturally, my first thought on seeing this bizarre LV-hosted literature exhibition was, how could the rest of the bookstores survive and pay the rents in an area full of high-end luxury retailers, teeming with the likes of Christian Dior and Louis Vuitton and all the high-end luxury fashion, furnishings, handbags, chocolatiers, and pastries? How could the mere sales and publication of books make enough money for the booksellers and publishers to stay in this ridiculously expensive area? The image of the writer as a pauper or starving artist is something that I have never in my life seen dispelled as a fantasy (but instead, sadly reaffirmed as the unfortunate state that many writers remain in); I still think of literature as one of the purest forms of expression and I wonder why there isn’t a literary-world equivalent of the luxury fine art auction market that has developed today and in which millions of dollars exchange hands for.

If you replace all the bookstores with high-end retailers who attract a clientele which is only defined by spending power (i.e.: the massive sizes of their disposable income), then the writers and thinkers aren’t necessarily going to be amongst them – and then what would be the point of Saint-Germain trying to be an area that sells itself as an cultural attraction on basis of intellectual and literary significance? If so, then Louis Vuitton’s literary themed exhibition would be read as nothing more than a cultural hijacking; an attempt to soften the blow of LV’s invasion and occupation of the site of the former La Hune and to ride on the coat-tails of its literary legacy.

But surely I cannot be the only one to speculate as such based on the superficial details, especially since I am merely a passer-by in this area. Unfortunately, english language information on the state of affairs in the area is moderately scarce, but an interesting article in Le Parisien does shed a little more light on La Hune, which it says was pushed out by high rent, despite apparently already receiving some form of government assistance to run (I could not find more details on this in English unfortunately). Clearly sentiments run high on the issue; there is a quote from Jean-Pierre Lecoq, the mayor of the 6th arrondissement saying: “Je me serais couché sur le boulevard pour empêcher la fermeture de la Hune!” (I’d be lying on the street to prevent the closure of the Hune!), also echoed by others saying that bookstores should be the winner in this, not the commercial luxury shops. It is not by mere coincidence that a few of the bookstores survived the ravages of commercialism in an area where the rent is naturally sky high.

At the same time, the non-bookstore exhibition of books is also the precise expression of luxury. For them to dedicate the entire retail space to something entirely uncommercial (and probably confusing for most visitors) is daring, and intriguing to me. I did enjoy going through the exhibition and trying to make sense of it. But I wonder, is it anything more than a polite gesture, or opportunism, or how much thought did they really put into it? I do not know. When it goes back to being a retail/fashion shop after the end of the exhibition in December, what will it look like? What will it be replaced by? Will it be horrible? Or will everything simply blend into a big sea of mundanity, with nary more than a murmur of confusion over the shop relocation of La Hune?

I wonder why books and writing aren’t usually marketed as something that sells, that people are dying to read and have, I mean isn’t it inherently interesting? And imagine how much learning and experience a person has to accrue in order to be a great writer! It’s a life’s work! Why don’t we have little shops at which people will help you write your letters or your diary or memoirs, like in the old french movies, where people could go to a shop and have someone write a love letter on their behalf so they could impress somebody? How did those shops die out anyway? I mean, I would pay for that. I would pay for someone to write me stories. Stories only for me. Rephrase the story and rewrite your history. Now that would be a luxury.

The new site of La Hune around the corner


La Hune


One day I hope to read the books on this shelf in the original French.

A Mini Tour-de-Paris for a Pot of Lavender


We were walking around the Ile de France yesterday when we stumbled across a row of plant shops and I decided to buy a lavender plant for 4€. Unfortunately we were nowhere near the end of the day, so I had to carry the pot of lavender everywhere with me.

Here proceeds a photographic tour of the day out with said plant, which I have now dubbed “Georges” (for this is a suitably french name).

Georges walks along the River Seine.


Georges crosses the road.


Georges sits on a bridge that connects the Ile-de-France to the rest of Paris.


Georges looks at a row of bells at the BHV on Rue de Rivoli, a DIY mega-store of epic proportions, which I intend to visit again soon.


Georges sees on the TV a news report that Hurricane Sandy has hit. Everyone went silent for a second to watch the news.


Georges at the pub (a place which is a favorite of mine, which we have been frequenting on the Rue des Coutures Saint-Gervais)


Georges on the Metro.


Georges back home at the Gare de L’est
It could have been more epic but my left arm was getting tired…

FIAC 2012 (Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain)


We were very fortunate to have gotten a VIP pass for this year’s FIAC (Foire Internationale d’Art Contemporain) last week. It being the biggest art fair we could attend on this residency trip, we dutifully found ourselves systematically going through each and every single corridor, floor, gallery, event space, jardin… etc.

I wanted to write a summary of FIAC 2012 and I originally approached our visit with the same fastidiousness of previous gallery visits (taking notes and recording gallerist name/artist/work title). But there were probably around 200 galleries from all around the world, each showing a few dozen works on the walls and in their spaces and in their catalogues. Every wall was covered in works. Sometimes it was not even clear which gallery had filled the excess (and less strategic) walls which were formed around the pillars. Every corner was filled. Even by the most modest reckoning, this would potentially amount to TENS OF THOUSANDS OF ARTWORKS in the Grand Palais. After the first two hours there, we were crawling through its beautifully carpeted hallways, reduced to a kind of art-fatigue-meets-hunger-and-delirium, and all that I could articulate was a thin, strangled gasp of “help… does it… ever… end???”

So here is a photographic survey of this year’s FIAC instead:

GRAND PALAIS – Ground Floor

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GRAND PALAIS – 1st Floor

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So that was FIAC 2012 at the Grand Palais.

We’re fried.
Our toast is burnt.
The cow is cooked.
The end is nigh.


I want to write about the Prix Duchamp nominations too and there was also the works in the Jardins. etc…….. BUT THIS IS INFORMATION OVERLOAD ALREADY. TO BE CONTINUED LATER………

F0001 – A Game: Finding Chair F0001 at the Jardin de Tuileries




There are three different types of chairs in the Jardin de Tulleries – Type B (upright with arms), Type C (upright without arms) and Type F (tilted inclined). These chairs seem to move in the night. You can see their sneaky little track marks in the ground. They are all over the place, behind bushes, next to the fountain, on slopes, under trees, next to the jeu de paume – they are everywhere in the gardens where you least expect them! They are also surprisingly well-loved and well-kept. Very few have graffiti marks or damage to them, which is a remarkable thing in Paris. Because the chairs are constantly moving, or being moved by people, it makes it a challenge to find the exact same chair on another visit to the gardens. Hence we propose this game:



This is a game for any number of players of any ages.


Assemble at the Jardin de Tulleries at the start of the day.

All chairs in the gardens have a unique number cut into them.

The first person to find the chair F 0001 wins!


We tried our best but we only found F 0002.
Do you know where is chair F 0001?

***BONUS ROUND!!!***

Find chairs with abnormalities. Such as upside down numbers.


The Grande Arches at La Défense

La Défense

Grande Arches at La Défense

After accidentally seeing a Sash! video a few years ago, I have always wanted to visit La Défense because it encapsulated the ultimate image of slick, polished, generic central business district façades (albeit in Europe) to me. Is it bad of me to say that my mental picture of “home” is culturally blank? Strangely enough, I am ever-so-slightly attracted to this “international central business district” look because it reminds me of Singapore.


The Steps to the Grande Arches

So, some weeks ago we went to visit La Défense, and I took a picture of the Grande Arches. When I went home, I oddly discovered that back in 2009, the pic I posted on my old blog was framed almost exactly the same as the first picture I had just taken. A mere coincidence, but I am amazed to have produced almost the same picture by chance. It just fit the mental image in my mind, which was mostly abetted by having seen the Sash! video one too many times.


The Sash! video itself feels very dated today and of course it is not quite so blue as it was in the video. Instead, La Défense is really kind of gray and airy. Its a big empty plaza of nothingness, yet on a Sunday it was full of families and couples and young people visiting the blindingly boring malls that lined its neverending concrete promenades.


Glass Walls

The lyrics of a Sash! song were probably not written for any serious analysis but I have to say that I have always thought far too much about the “walls” mentioned in the lyrics and subsequently associated it with the architectures in the video. Because the thing that makes it really interesting for me is that while La Trec sings “tear down these walls”, the actors are interweaving between glass walls and separated by glass boxes; glass walls being transparent, reflective, and seemingly fragile all at the same time… And let’s just say that after watching the video one too many times in the past, I feverishly began to imagine the song as some paean to an “architectural experience”. A human response, to architecture! And fittingly, the song even began with “I had a dream last night”, and don’t most cities begin with a dream?


Japan Bridge

We also spent a few hours searching for the bridge that La Trec stands and sings on, a search hampered by my mistaken notion that the bridge would be mostly blue with red edges (due to photographs and videos I had seen of it… dating from ten years ago). Naturally, it turned out to be neither of the above. Oh the perplexing looks we got as as we went around asking “DO YOU KNOW WHERE THE BIG BLUE GLASS BRIDGE IS? IT IS ALSO SLIGHTLY RED? NO? NEVER HEARD OF IT? BUT ITS REALLY FAMOUS? BY A JAPANESE ARCHITECT?”

Eventually we found out it was called the Japan Bridge (WHAT??), and if you come out of the metro facing the arches, its a long way off to the left from there, not the right where we walked for a long while searching for it.

Here are a whole lot of other images of the area which is strikingly empty in many parts. I think I have always loved it when I go to a part of a city that is usually busy during the weekdays, or basically used for some functional purpose, and to explore it when it is empty on the offdays. I find it strange that huge areas of cities are not used for the better part of the day and have such segregated spheres of use. Sometimes, after thinking about it too long, the notion of work in the sense that it has been structured today (physically and timewise) is even strange. Why do people go to “work” like this? Why are places like La Defense built on the end of the metro line to create a whole dedicated “working” zone where nothing but “work” and business occurs?







La Défense




I’m amazed at how crisp and almost unreal my photos turned out.

And for the curious and the masochists… here is that old Sash! video set against the backdrop of La Défense:

Geologising on Lyme Regis


Last weekend was the most beautiful weekend ever. I finally went to see Lyme Regis and the Cobb. The skies were beautiful and so very kind and blue, and a smashing good time was had, in more than one sense of the word.

The journey down from London was generally supposed to be straightforward – we took the train from Waterloo to Weymouth (£19), was delayed for two hours with a clinically depressed train driver who murmured his way through the delays and finally, unceremoniously deposited everyone in Bournemouth while they went to fix some signal problems on the tracks, and a few hours later, we finally got to Weymouth, spent the night there in a strange house, and from there FINALLY we got the Jurassic Coast bus (X53) (£7.50 Day ticket) to Lyme Regis!

I had read a guidebook to Lyme Regis (Thanks to Rich!) and it advised us we had to acquire the following before getting to the bay:

a geological hammer
some form of wrapping material
some glue for on the spot repairs
a notebook and pen
a stout bag in which to put the collecting kit and fossil finds

And so we did! The shop on the corner of Lyme Regis gladly sold us a “geological hammer”. Although after that helpful instruction of telling us to get a geological hammer, the book didn’t say exactly what we had to do with the hammer. This was proving to be a complete mystery to us city folks. What type of rocks were we supposed to look out for? How should we hold the hammer? And how should we hit the rocks to split them? Why was no one else walking around with a big hammer in hand on the beach? Where were all the other fossilers?


In the picture above, we festooned it with decorative seaweed to celebrate the arrival of the new Geological Hammer at one of Lyme Regis’ many beaches and bays.


We approached the Cobb. No, we did not try to take the Cobb apart. But I did see what I presumed had to be one of the stairs that Louisa Musgrove fell off. Which was very exciting to see. Need I tell you of the historical, wait I mean, literary significance of all this? I have been talking about this for years. If you had spoken to me in the last few weeks while I was getting excited about going to the Cobb, you probably would have heard nothing but this from me: STAIRS! COBB! MUSGROVE! FOWLES! BOOK! ROCKS! FOSSILS! ENGLAND! SEA! SAND! FRANCE! LYME REGIS! COBB! COBB! COBB!

A Stair on the Cobb
The other day I looked in my purchase history on book and I noticed that in the last one year alone I have bought copies of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman four times already and given all four copies away to different people. Yes, I am that obsessed. And there I was about to buy another copy again… I often wonder, why does this novel fascinate me so?

The Cobb
I know, on instinct that my fascination with this book must have something to do with the idea of unknowing, or never knowing. Like Bataille’s L’impossible. It encapsulates the idea of never fully knowing. I’ve given it to the people whom I have been close to or to the people whom I’ve loved because I wanted to explain this idea but of course there was no way to explain it adequately sometime. Except in this way. Which then, unfortunately and fortunately also opens it up to other readings. So will I ever express it adequately by giving someone the book then?

Another stairs, this one more barebones, harder to ascend…
When planning this trip to Lyme Bay, I also thought about the location of England with France since I was coming in from Paris and thinking very very hard about Paris as a city in the last few weeks. In the book, Sarah sits on the Cobb, seemingly waiting for the French Lieutenant whom she is rumoured to have had an affair with and who had returned to France. But is she really waiting for him? She’s not, is she? But why does she sit there? But why is she inventing the mystery? And where is France? What is France? France is still strange to me, I guess I need to step up the french studying a bit so that it will begin to make more sense to me.

The ocean was fantastic and deep blue…


On top of the cobb


The author of this blog, on the Cobb
After sitting and experiencing the Cobb, we wandered to the utterly gorgeous Monmouth Beach, where we decided we would try our hand at “fossiling”.

Unfortunately we still did not know if we were doing it right. However, it was pretty cathartic. There was no one else on the beach smashing up stones so perhaps our technique or choice of location was not quite correct. The thing about this trip and acquiring a geological hammer was that, prior to this point, it felt like all this while I had been nurturing and protecting stones (cradling them, wrapping them in soft cloths, and treating them like pet animals and speaking to them) and this new fossiling activity was very much so different, so violent. It was almost like perpetuating violence against all these little stones whom I had just met, which I had never thought of doing before. I was afraid and almost apologetic to these lovely rocks! Yet there was such a thrill in smashing them. I mean these were the rocks I had always wanted to see! Yet here I was smashing them up into tiny pieces! But I mean, I could have just walked on the coast and left them all alone and the rocks would never bear my mark despite my great interest in them. But now, taking a hammer to them…


Alright, so in the end we didn’t find any fossils, but we did get to see the insides of many nice rocks.

Back on Lyme Bay


Team Fire on Lyme Bay, with Geological Hammer
Lyme Gold

After we had spent the afternoon making some abortive attempts at geologising, it seemed only proper to taste some Lyme Gold, on Lyme Bay.

Actually, I wrote the previous sentence just so that I could use the word “geologising”. It is one of my favourite words (in theory), except maybe not to pronounce it.

The ocean that faces France, as seen from Lyme Bay.

Rainbow on Lyme Bay

And to top it off, a rainbow on Lyme Bay!
I know I am often very hyperbolic so it is hard for people to know when I am REALLY SERIOUSLY EXCITED about something, but, this, this, I can’t describe how this was truly the BEST WEEKEND I’ve had in a very very long time.

Can we have more adventures like this, please?

Hayward Gallery – Art of Change


Last week I was up in London and I managed to catch Art of Change, an exhibition of Chinese art, at the Hayward Gallery on the south bank.

Now the reason that I had come to see it was because a friend had told me about an interesting work about rock castings at this show, but one thing that amused me when I first stepped in was the number of Chinese visitors coming to see this. When I made a visit to the Hayward, I would say that at least 75% of the people walking through its galleries were young chinese people. Was the intention to make this body of Chinese art accessible to english audiences, or had they also anticipated the interest of sufficient numbers of Chinese artists/art students dwelling in London who would visit this show?

If one were to make a superficial judgement from the appearance of their relative youthfulness, one would have to assume that they were still studying at school (probably art school). Many seemed and behaved like shy (but hipster-hairdoed) undergraduates in London. I imagined that their educations might not be complete, and in fact might just only be starting; and then i thought about how funny it was that it seemed as if they had to be sent all the way to England to be given a lesson on Chinese art rather than encountering it at home.

Eventually, I also realised, that I myself was also small and Chinese and easily mistaken for a Chinese undergraduate. The lady at the door had given me a student discount on seeing me, despite my not having a student card. But of course, I didn’t have a student card because I haven’t been a student for years now and technically I was teaching staff now. Neither was I really “Chinese Chinese”, because Singapore Chinese people have little in common with China Chinese people, plus I’m an obsessive english-speaking-only anglophile……..

But, with my presence gracing this lovely show, it seems I had just perpetuated the illusion of “all these young chinese artists coming to the West to study about Chinese Art”…


But on with the show.

The show is accompanied by a great archive of Chinese art (available at a few terminals scattered around the exhibition spaces), with essays and suggested links between articles, grouped by themes and issues. I spent a good half hour sitting there reading through the archive, which was useful because I started to see certain links between the Beijing East Village and Artist Village in Singapore. The show is truly ripe territory for anyone who is interested in chinese contemporary art, avant gardism, performance art, shock art or art about the body as it has developed since the 90s in China. Many of the artists are very mobile and make works that involve a great deal of human participation.

Revolution Castings

The first work that greets you is a set of plaster castings of rocks that were supposedly from revolutions. A “social activity” produced by the “MadeIn” Company, visitors were also invited to contribute “stones that represent their cause”, and casts would be made of these rocks.


Xu Zhen, Untitled (2007), Gym machine, remote control

Xu Zhen – Untitled (2007) (Gym machine, remote control)

The artist formerly known as Xu Zhen, is now MadeIn Company. This is a simple piece that is a prelude to Xu Zhen’s other far more (conceptually) impressive works (including the “cover image” of the work that presents you with the image of the person about to fall). I liked this but not the museum staff hawking over nervously to make sure you didn’t completely spazz out on the controls and overwork the remote controlled exercise machine.


Duan Yingmei – Happy Yingmei

Next, there were a few works by Duan Yingmei, including a small room with a small door in the wall of the gallery (“Happy Yingmei”). In that room, Yingmei sits in the room filled with small tree branches, singing a little song, and when you enter she gives you a small piece of paper containing a wish for you to carry out. If you want to find out what it is, you’ll have to go inside and see it for yourself.

Duan Yingmei - Sleeping (2004/2012)

Duan Yingmei – Sleeping (2004/2012)

In the other room, there is a sleeping person. I saw a volunteer being led in by staff, and being helped up into the blue sleeping bag. After she was all wrapped up she turned to face outside. I looked at her. She blinked.


Xu Zhen – Untitled (2008/2011)

This work is of a kind of white wet paint that covers the wall of the gallery and it does not dry. The wall text suggested that a non-drying pigment was selected because if one touched it to see what it was, then one would leave a mark on the wet wall. I wanted to touch it but there was a “DO NOT TOUCH” sign, and I also recalled the last time I saw a big artwork in Palais de Tokyo of a big block of lipstick and… (oops! I better not say too much about that time?) But anyway, I think it would be great if there was no “DO NOT TOUCH” signs. It would be ambiguous like the block of lipstick that would end up being touched and gently palpated by the fingers of curious people.



Xu Zhen – In Just A Blink Of An Eye (2007)


(Archive) Xu Zhen – 8848-1.86

Xu Zhen also allegedly scaled Mount Everest in August 2005, sawed off 1.86 metros (Xu Zhen’s height) and then brought it back and exhibited the icy peak in a customized fridge along with photographic materials from the trip. In September 2005, the People’s Republic of China sent another team with the latest technology to re-evaluate the height of Everest and revised it downwards to 8844m.




Liang Shaoji – Various works with silk and silkworms – Whirl (Stones and silk), Windows (Cocoons and windows), Chains: The Unbearable Lightness of Being (Iron chains and silk)

Born 1945, Liang Shaoji has worked for decades on works with silkworms, living and working in isolation in a village in the Tiantai Mountains – the silkworms being a symbol of generosity and the thread also representing human life and history.


The silkworms are alive in this room on the work with the windows, and in the next room behind, you can hear the live sounds of silkworms eating crunchy leaves and audibly growing and moulting and turning into silkworm moths that flap their wings. It is most fantastic but one must be gentle with them.



Sun Yuan and Peng Yu – Civilisation Pillar

This is a pillar of human fat retrieved from liposuction clinics, made by the infamous duo who have been making extreme works incorporating human body parts, corpses, animal carcasses in order to confront a world that they perceive to be desensitized by images of violence through commercialism. In the background they also show two animals, a rhinosaurus and a Triceratops, as part of another work “I Didn’t Notice What I Was Doing”.






Various oddities abound in this upstairs gallery, but no wall text though or explanation though. So I just wandered through.

Wang Jianwei - Surplus Value (2010)

Wang Jianwei - Surplus Value (2010)

Wang Jianwei – Surplus Value

In a strangely darkened room there was Wang Jianwei’s modified pingpong table which results in most balls ending up in the same well on this perilous pingpong table.


Gu Dexin – 1997-6-16 – 1998-6-13

Gu Dexin is apparently famous for working with materials that are unusual in that they are usually perishable. This is a work in which he squeezes water out of pieces of raw pork every day and then keeps them like archaeological remains.



Chen Zhen – Purification Room

Chen Zhen covers a normal room with mud which cracks and changes color over the course of time. The red clay mud is supposed to “purify and disinfect the materialist culture of objects” and by being covered in mud, give the objects a new future destiny.


Chen Zhen – Un-interrupted Voice

Part of a larger installation that Chen Zhen had created for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv, where peace talks are at a crucial or difficult stage, as it were, these are animal skins stretched over chairs to make drums which exhibition visitors are welcome to hit. The artist explains: “Instead of striking people, one beats the drums, drumming an awakening into the mind”

Here ends the Chinese Art adventure. A very good show indeed. But my parting comment would be that I wish the archive was made available online and not just on the computers at the gallery itself. I could have read it for hours…


Shipping Forecasts, Subtopias, Bohemias, and other Architectural ramblings


UK Shipping Forecast Zones (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

There is a brilliant, beautiful new show on BBC iplayer – Attention All Shipping: A Journey Around the Shipping Forecast – they are reading parts from Charlie Connely’s “Attention All Shipping”, and it looks set to be a poetic journey on those most mysterious of radio words, those mysterious place names “Cromarty ForthTyneDogger” and the gales, read almost rhythmically after one hears “Sailing By”.

I wrote about the Shipping Forecast on this blog sometime ago; after years of curiosity I went so far as to dig up a map, but in this, Connelly actually goes to visit the places themselves! What a beautiful idea. It is nice to hear it read out on the radio as well, because the radio is the format in which one first heard the Shipping Forecast; and it bears the same hypnotic, lyrical quality of the recitations of maritime weather conditions that has etched the Shipping Forecast into the minds of even those who know so little of the sea.

North Utsire
South Utsire
German Bight
Irish Sea
Fair Isle
Southeast Iceland

Ian Nairn

In a similar vein, I have been digging up some old videos of writers, topographers, and radio presenters who spoke a lot about architectures and cities. It begun from a half-remembered reference to an “outraged” english architectural critic named Nairn who had written passionately on the blank, boring anonymity of english towns that also seemed to be encroaching with its disease of sameness all across england, and that was the focus of his book “Outrage”. Unfortunately this same passion for what he acutely perceived as the destruction of the landscape also seems to have destroyed his spirit, and he had drunk himself to death, dying of cirrhosis of the liver even before I was even born, and it seemed that all his books (he had written two other books – “Nairn’s London” and “Nairn’s Paris”) were completely out of print today. A mystery, almost unreachable, how would one conceivably find out about him? But I googled around for his name and discovered that he had actually made a number of television shows, and a few have survived and found their way to youtube. This is introduced by Jonathan Meades (also a legend in his own right), and in this show, Nairn certainly cuts a strange figure, coming across as slightly worn-out, and I have to admit, that perhaps he is best and wittiest on the page…

The Guardian also retraced his steps in a series, “Outrage Revisited”:
Outrage Revisited: Milton Keynes
Outrage revisited: From Northampton to Daventry
Outrage revisited: From Newport Pagnell to Ely
Outrage revisited: Save Hadleigh from Tesco

From The Guardian: Ian Nairn’s voice of outrage:

He made his instant mark with “Outrage”, a fearless and revelatory attack on what was fast becoming the unbridled banality of Britain’s landscape and “townscape”, as the AR labelled the art of the way we should be making our towns and cities. For Nairn and the AR, a journey, by Morris Minor, from Southampton to Carlisle said it all. He forged a word for what he saw: Subtopia – “its symptom will be that the end of Southampton will look like the beginning of Carlisle; the parts in between will look like the end of Carlisle or the beginning of Southampton.”

And the outrage? “The Outrage is that the whole land surface is becoming covered by the creeping mildew that already circumscribes all of our towns … Subtopia is the annihilation of the site, the steamrollering of all individuality of place to one uniform and mediocre pattern…”

Jonathan Meades

Here is a great programme with the equally brilliant deadpan Jonathan Meades talking about how the exotic begins at home. In some ways, I feel as if Nairn’s love of buildings and cities had been passed on in Meades. This show is perhaps even more relevant, as his programme marries the topics of art and architecture (how artist studios affected architectures) and also delightfully explores many fascinating toponymical gems.

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He begins by describing a painting which he describes most lavishly and richly, in rather high regard – which he finally, and hilariously reveals, was actually some incomplete painting abandoned in his parents’ garden shed by an apparently artistic “bohemian” with an affinity for the drink, and who had convalesced in his parents’ house while recovering from a broken leg sustained after falling off a stair while being drunk on the eve of leaving for the navy.

“That would figure, for Lucas was a Bohemian, and drinking clubs were big in Bohemia…”

And on that punchline, he goes on the search for the so-called artistic “Bohemia” in the UK (there are apparently 4 Bohemias in the UK – “Bohemia” in North Yorkshire, “Bohemia” in East Sussex, “Bohemia” in Wiltshire, and “Bohemia” in Isle of Wight). He goes on his own journey trying to discover how the country of “Bohemia” has come to exert such a “toponymical hold” over England in relation to the architectures inhabited by its artists, and how it has come to be related to the sense of “artistic abandon”…

Jonathan Meades – In Search of Bohemia

And… I reckon that’s quite enough of my anglophilia for one day, I must really go back to studying French now. But I suppose, thinking about all this, the reason why I am drawn to Architecture is the same reason I am drawn to words. Architectures have the ability to inspire the most sumptuously written poetry, or the most scathing vitrol; in a way the architectures do not have to change in order for one to change’s one’s perspective on a building simply by having read a rousing text on the very same building – and instantly, with a single word – it is altered forever. For me the text and the architecture must go together.