Friday, January 14, 2011

Paddington, London

Far Away Is Close At Hand In Images Of Elsewhere

During the 1970s, when Oxford University was trying to educate me, I would occasionally get on the train and leave the spires behind to go to London for plays, exhibitions, and other diversions. As my train pulled into Paddington, I used to look out for a graffito on a wall that formed for me another landmark of the kind I wrote about in the previous post. In white capital letters a couple of feet high, the graffito read: ‘FAR AWAY IS CLOSE AT HAND IN IMAGES OF ELSEWHERE’.

I had no idea who had written this on the wall, or why, or even what the words were supposed to mean. I imagined some poet, proud of a memorable line and reluctant to consign it to a poem in some ‘little magazine’ that was read only by the people who contributed to it, climbing up at Christmas when the area around the station was quiet, and getting to work with the emulsion paint. But however it got there, it was a landmark I looked out for each time I made the journey, until the wall was demolished in the early 1980s.

Around about 1984 I read a book called Notes From Overground, by ‘Tiresias’. This unlikely but enchanting volume is ‘a commuter’s notebook’, a record of the things the author (actually the poet Roger Green) saw on his daily journey from Oxford to London and back. If that sounds like an unlikely idea for an interesting book, Notes From Overground is actually full of haunting descriptions, literary allusions, and sharp aperçus. In it, lists of truck names turn into prose poems, overheard conversations hint at complex dramas, and unregarded trackside notices, factories, and the like get their few minutes in the sun. I learned from this book that the first six words of the line actually come from a poem, ‘Song of Contrariety’, by Robert Graves, but for years found out nothing more about the subject.

Then a while back I remembered the line again and Googled it. My search led me to the website of Ruth Padel, coincidentally another poet with Oxford connections, who told the rest of the story. Padel, as a Classics graduate student, had published in 1974 a scholarly article about Euripides and this article was called ‘Imagery of Elsewhere: Two Choral Odes of Euripides’. She had given a copy of the article to a classicist friend, Dave, and Dave and his brother Geoff had gone to Paddington on Christmas Eve 1974 and (without telling Ruth Padel anything about it) painted on the wall their mashing together of the words of Graves and Padel. And so the lines were seen by millions of travellers over the years, getting absorbed into Roger Green’s commuter’s notebook, into a song by Catatonia (in an adapted form: ‘Paradise is close at hand in images of elsewhere’), and into my consciousness.

‘FAR AWAY IS CLOSE AT HAND IN IMAGES OF ELSEWHERE’ is a cobbled-together line that became a London landmark – or trackmark – for a few years and can mean different things to different people. But I can’t help thinking that it expresses something about the aspirations of this blog and of writing about place generally. I hope my images of elsewhere occasionally make the distant seem close at hand to my readers, wherever they may be.

15 comments:

bazza said...

It's clear now Philip -(sorry but for some stupid reason I addressed you as 'John' in my previous comment; you wisely and kindly ignored it)- that 2011 is going to be a year of wistfulness for you.
Intrigued by this post, I Googled the line and found a photograph on Ruth Padel's website plus lots of other mentions. Fascinating.

ChrisP said...

This was the great work of the Master of Paddington, of course. As Peter Simple wrote in the Daily Telegraph in 1978:
‘Dr Anita Maclean-Gropius’s monumental catalogue raisonné, “The Master of Paddington” (Viper and Bugloss, £65), published last year, dealt in detail with all the works confidently or tentatively attributed to the Master and his School. It was, of course, savaged in a long review by Dr J.S. Hate, Keeper of Graffiti at the Victoria and Albert Museum, in the British Journal of Graffitology.’

Philip Wilkinson said...

Bazza: I'm getting all the wistfulness out of my system - back to normal soon! And no problem about the 'John', as the American plumber said.

Chris: Yes, wonderful stuff. There's something inspired about the name Anita Maclean-Gropius. Now of course there are plenty of books about graffiti; maybe there's even a journal of graffitology...

worm said...

what a fantastic post Philip! Have you heard about the graffito under the bridge at Peckham station? Someone had written 'Ireland for the Irish!' Underneath which some wag put '..And Peckham for the Peckish!'

Philip Wilkinson said...

No, I'd not heard of the Peckham example. I once nearly bought a house round the corner from that bridge, but just in time realised that Peckham was for more urban souls than me.

ChrisP said...

Time for that famous grafitto on the railway poster "Harwich for the Continent". Below, someone scribbled: "Frinton for the incontinent!"

Neil said...

If only all graffiti were random lines of poetry...

Philip Wilkinson said...

Neil: Indeed. Some graffiti is visually sophisticated (not that I condone it, of course...) but where's the verbal sophistication?

Peter Ashley said...

This is brilliant. A forgotten and now disappeared London Peculiar that will now still live on records of The Writing On The Wall. 'Marples Must Go' only recently eradicated from an M1 bridge in Bedfordshire.

Philip Wilkinson said...

Peter: So Marples finally went. Thank you updating me.

Bucks Retronaut said...

For no reason at all , I liked "Kick the Pope" seen on a wall in Ealing about 30 years ago.

HeavyLight said...

As a kid in the mid-Sixties, I was inspired by the inscription (paraphrasing Plato) on the beach-facing wall of Chalkwell station: "When the mode of the music changes the walls of the city shake."
The lettering was maybe 6ft tall and over 100 yards long so must have taken considerable effort.

Paddington hotels said...

Worm: Someone had written 'Ireland for the Irish!' Underneath which some wag put '..And Peckham for the Peckish!'

This sounds so funny! :)) That made my day! Great post!

David Coxell said...

Great to hear about the background to the graffito. I will also seek out the book you mention.

It seems the words have lived on, long after the wall was demolished. Such is their power.

http://davidcoxell.blogspot.co.uk/search?updated-max=2014-08-14T10:08:00-07:00&max-results=7

Philip Wilkinson said...

David: Thanks for your comment. You are clearly making the words of the line come true with your drawings.