Friday, January 1, 2016
Somewhere in London
A question of viewpoint
I’m don’t normally do new year’s resolutions, but if I did, they might be contrarian ones: get drunk more, read less, look down when you’re in a city. OK. I’m unlikely to act on the first – and in case you’re wondering that’s not because I spend all my time pickled, but because I hardly get drunk at all, and am happy to stay that way. Read less? Well I do sometimes wonder whether if I read fewer books I might retain more from each of them – but there are so many books that on I go, devouring them and enjoying it and hoping something sticks in the mind.
But looking down… I am always telling people to look up when they’re walking around. Look above the shopfronts, above your head, towards the skyline. You’ll see more – more architecture, more detail, more decoration, more history, more that’s fascinating and surprising – than you will by keeping your eyes fixed on where you’re going. This is undoubtedly good advice and, with practice, one can do it while bumping into people (people who are texting, naturally!) only occasionally. Yet I’m aware that in recommending this viewpoint, I might also be making people miss other things.
I don’t mean (or only partly mean) the joy of coal holes, or the fascination of what’s beyond and beneath the area railings. I mean also, now and then, trying to get up to a higher vantage point to see what this might reveal. Church towers, office blocks, the odd glimpse from the stair window of a department store – all such viewpoints can yield visual treasure. I once spent a fascinating few hours on top of a London Routemaster bus, as part of a group being shown lettering and signs on buildings by the estimable Phil Baines: it set me off on a track I’ve been following ever since. When it’s not signs, my eyes are fixed on cornices, altered windows, all-but-concealed hints of earlier building phases, tile panels, and bits of plasterwork. So get up there, and look down (preferably not when you’re drunk). You never know what you might see.
Happy New Year!
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Photograph: looking down in London on old railway routes, unofficial greening, and controversial slogans. Special kudos and hurrahs to the reader who first correctly identifies where I was standing. Any topophiles or others who know can respond via the comments section. Clicking on the photograph enlarges it.