Friday, 13 February 2015

The Bishopsgate Institute Archive Tour

The Bishopsgate Institute in London is a rather unusual left-leaning public space   incongruously situated in the financial area close to Liverpool Street Station. It offers occasional tours of its library, including its significant research collection. I tagged along on  a tour given for professional researchers, who were making a week-long survey of London's archives and collections.

As you might imagine, this was a rather quiet group with little chit chat before the tour began.

The tour was given by one of the librarians who first introduced the public reading rooms and explained the history and general purpose of the collection. Something that became quickly clear was that this was not a random collection at all but a distinctly political one. Our guide, Stefan, understood this and believed in the significance of the material being broadly sympathetic to it himself. This gave the tour a much more personal dimension, which of course made it more interesting all round. Having worked in a library myself, the Chinese section of SOAS library to be precise, I know how librarians can be a special breed who sometimes place the classification and preservation of books well above their content. While I understand that this is a solid professional position to adopt, I must say, I prefer a librarian who is deeply involved in what is between the covers of the books too.  

We quickly moved into the reading room where some of the more precious material came out such as the period maps. The most interesting items he mentioned, as far as I was concerned, were the 18th century guidebooks to London.

It was down in the archive that we got to see some of the more eccentric material. Bishopsgate Institute has a specialism in working class histories of the East End of London as well as covering a whole host of other 'leftist' causes such as a gay and lesbian archive, the Stop The War archive and numerous labour movements. In this sense the place is an anomaly as the surrounding area has been swallowed up the the ever expanding financial services industry.

Here, for example, is a mask of Bernie Grant, the late member of parliament for Tottenham. Other highlights were a collection of photo books of British sailors put together with a unashamedly gay eye.

The archives were bulging and we could see that the library faced the all too real problem of deciding what to keep and what to shed, as there will always be more interesting material looking for a home than there is space to store it all. More or less on that note the tour came to an abrupt end in around 45 minutes and the group shuffled destined for their next archive: the Museum of London. Our guide did a good job of making what could have been a tedious tour into an informative and entertaining introduction to the collection. Indeed, I returned later to look at the historical guidebooks and they really are the Fodor's of 1760's London. They tell the business traveller where to stay, where to trade, who the important people are and what the various institutions exactly are. I have taken some out of date audio tours before and have some old guides such as the Baedeker 1937 Great Britain guide, that inspired a series of bombing raids, but this guidebook took this time-lapse to a further extreme again. Reading it I couldn't help but wonder, if there were guidebooks back then, there most probably were also people giving guided tours. When, then, were the first guided tours given? And, more curiously, why was it given and to whom?

Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Talking Walking Interview

I've just given another interview and it is now available online. I took a walk through Shoreditch with Andrew Stuck of Talking Walking and we discussed performances, tours, walking and much else. The conversation is a podcast on the Talking Walking Website.

Talking Walking is well worth taking a look at more generally; there are interviews with quite a number of interesting people from diverse fields that all connect through walking. 

Monday, 9 February 2015

The And While London Burns I Shivered Tour

Last week I attended a talk by Graeme Miller who was speaking about Linked, his audio walk in East London, and much thought was given to how the work had aged and how it might best be preserved, or indeed whether it ought to be allowed to quietly grow obsolete. I will cover Linked another time, but that discussion made me aware there that there was another audio tour, And While London Burns, which had also been around for a while gathering dust and which I had not got round to taking yet. So, one grimly cold afternoon in early February, I downloaded it onto my phone and, following the instructions, looked for a Starbucks next to Bank tube station.

I quickly realised that the Starbucks I was looking for had moved on to pastures greener and more lucrative in city workers in search of over-priced coffee and wifi, and the gloomy underground mini-mall I found myself in had now been colonising by a Weatherspoons pub and a decidedly mediocre looking noodle bar. The ironically named Green Man is most probably a reference to a historical pub that stood on this blighted spot 500 years ago and leant its name to this contemporary outfit offering it a fig leaf of respectability. I pressed play, the tour got going, and the main protagonist talked confessionally about being over-worked and infertile while a narrator gave facts and figures about ecology and banking. So far so good.

My first impression was that this audio tour had very high production values; this was not the work of one man and his dictaphone, this was like the BBC on a good day. The other thing that became quickly clear was I needed to keep up. This was an immersive audio tour which demanded I walk with it: when the narrator said "walk forwards" I had to walk forwards for the tour to make sense. My movements were being choreographed and I only had as long to look at a scene as had been allotted me in the recording. The pace was upbeat and did not allow for dawdling or reflection. I also quickly noticed that the directions that were  being given were neither obvious nor clear. For example, I was told to go up an escalator opposite an opticians. I headed for an escalator opposite a Boots, which turned out to be a Boots chemist with an opticians inside. Anyone trying to speak plainly and give directions in the UK would say take the escalator opposite the Boots (a popular store in the Britain) but this tour avoided saying their name and offering their brand 'the oxygen of publicity'. This set the tour off an a conspicuously anti-capitalist footing. All the while I was thinking about this and following the instructions, I was peering at the dirty hand marks on the pillar and wondering how and why they had come about.

I then got settled into the tour which combined the story of a city worker whose girlfriend had left him to live off-grid, with an explanation of the relationship of finance to ecology in The City of London with operatic voices, instructions of where to walk, a music score and sound effects thrown in for good measure. It was a dense sonic package. With so many elements it could have easily descended into a chaotic soup but, for the most part, it was scored sparingly and logically so it was easy enough to follow. The main actor's delivery was a little over-wrought for my liking, which is a way of saying I didn't quite see why he was talking so candidly to me. What's more, I came over time to view him as being there mainly in order to serve the purposes of the audio tour, that's to say in order to give it a human point of entry and avoid it becoming too much facts, figures and politics.

Most of the directions were given by a cooler-headed female narrator who told me to cross the road. Probably because the traffic island that I was meant to cross at no longer existed, I was too focussed on where I was meant to walk and didn't notice the approaching cars until the last moment and had to scramble to the other side of the road to avoid being flattened. I then went in search of the Roman excavation The Temple of Mithras but found instead a Bloomberg construction site where this ancient temple once sat. 

The City of London can have an elemental beauty to it and this came out when being led around Bank underground station. A driving musical crescendo accompanied by intonations on global warming and the rising sea level transformed the glum corridors into something far more than themselves and concluded with a scene that could have been choreographed: a businessman raised up on a platform in front of me, standing in profile, talking animatedly into his phone, flanked on either side by a silver dragon. A captain of industry if ever there was one. 

As I was listening to the voices telling me to walk, turn, stop and push the button on the traffic lights, it struck me that in the eight years since And While London Burns was produced, there has been a more thorough penetration of navigational software into cars. Robotic Jill was already around back then telling you to turn right in 100 meters, but these Tom Tom style devices have since become the norm in the car when travelling unfamiliar routes. They are not infallible and I've seen some people treat them more as suggestions than instructions but, one way or another, they have worked their way into the car and by extension, the imagination. As something of a non-driver and someone who enjoys getting pleasantly lost now and then, I realised my first instinct on hearing these directions wasn't to simply follow then but rather, it was to think about them, to visualise them and decide whether I should go along with them or not.

The Nat West Tower swung into view and the story moved onto natural resources. I remember there was quite a lot of information about oil and banking which amounted to 'they're in it together'. It was the stuff of George Monbiot articles and as such, not unfamiliar. The result was I became a little too over-aware of the intentions of the piece. I felt it had been conceived to educate me and change my behaviour. It desperately wanted me to see the light, go green and save the planet. When this unambiguous message was combined with voices telling me to turn left, walk forwards, stop at the traffic lights and look up at the sky, I felt an opposite push from inside of me reasserting the integrity of my own experience and reflections. I guess I just cannot bear propaganda, even when it is for a cause I am sympathetic towards.

I was led down the exact same obscure passageway that I myself use in my London Tour of All Tours. This got me wondering whether there was an aesthetic dimension to this use of space, namely that artists are attracted to this passageway as it is disorienting and offers a fresh eye on The City. Knowing that this tour passes this way I shall, I suppose, have to weave it into my Tour of All Tours and find a space for it in my narrative immediately after the Occupy Tour and Critical Mass tour. I have a dilemma however, as most the tours I mention in this area are already of an anti-capitalist variety and I could really do with a pro-business tour in order to balance my treatment of The City, instead of ladling out more of this stuff.    

I was then led directly below the old Nat West Tower or, as it is prosaically known today, Tower 42. One of the voices said, 'it is windy' and it certainly was. By this time I was starting to feel the cold biting; a chill wind was sweeping around the tall buildings making this lonely walkway seem all the more desolate. The tour's theme of global warming could not have felt more distant at this moment; I was more concerned about how much longer this walk would take and where I would go to warm up afterwards. This was not climate change denial, it was the simple tendency to concentrate on what's immediate: while London was burning I was shivering.

While I had already had my doubts that I was walking in the right direction, there came a point a little later when it became patently clear things were not going according to plan. I was meant to be circling a building that I could not locate and, choosing this block instead, I came  to an impasse. I had been warned that this would happen by a friend and lecturer Theron Schmidt, who had produced an up to date annotated map indicating the correct route which detailed some of the changes in the buildings' usage. I didn't come armed with it, however, as I felt the way The City might have other plans for me is just as much a part of the tour as following the instructions to the letter. I therefore wandered back and forth looking for the restaurant that the anguished protagonist was talking about and listened to him and his girlfriend talking about getting out of The City. 

There was a moment when I was asked to stand next to a tree and to look up at its branches towards the sky. It was far too cold to relax into a hippie moment like that: I looked, I saw, I waited a moment, I moved on.

Spinning away from The Gherkin I must have got the directions confused and took a wrong route down to The Thames. Whether that was my fault for not listening closely enough, the recording's fault for not being clear or nobody's fault and simply the result of the architecture and street layout having changed, I couldn't say. However it happened, I was now walking down one street and listening to the description of another. The tour didn't really suffer as a result of this, if anything it gave it an added layer of interest as I imagined myself walking a few hundred metres along a parallel lane. This gave me the opportunity to observe that whilst the street directions were specific such as cross over the road at the Costa, the content was far less wedded to it and for the most part could work anywhere in The City.

I was instructed to enter The Monument, which I spied in the distance, so I trotted over to it in haste to make up for lost time. I was then told I'd have to pay the two pound entry ticket. In the eight years since And While London Burns was made the entry price of The Monument has doubled to four pounds. Now call me stingy if you will, but I was already having decidedly mixed feelings about the audio tour and to then support this London tourist attraction's hyper-inflation by paying four pounds to walk up the insides of this tower was more than I really cared to do. OK so I missed out on the panoramic view but I was quite able to imagine it and besides, I was curious about life on street level.

I instead stood at the foot of The Monument to the fire of London and here the reasoning behind the name And While London Burns became very clear. The Monument was a confident mark of rebuilding the city after the devastation of the fire and we, faced with our contemporary crisis of climate change, could take bold action, tackle the problem and shape a new future too. As I imagined myself ascending the steps to the top of The Monument the narration stopped and gave way to a Philip Glass style musical crescendo. This was where the work was really meant to pack its punch and finish leaving the listener exhilarated on high. I instead watched the construction workers from the building site next door taking a break, one of their number feeding the pigeons. This simple act, unexpected from a man in a bright orange suit, had a beauty of its own. I enjoyed watching it because it was intimate, caring and ever so slightly ridiculous. In contrast to the voices from the tour, who seemed like puppets for the cause, this was a completely unscripted, unnecessary action, the sort of thing real people do. The two layers of the experience, the audio recording and the city, need not necessarily stand in opposition but in my experience they were often at tangents as, And While London Burns felt like it had an ideal experience in mind, deviations from which were just that: deviations. Whilst I feel I should have liked this audio-tour more because it was well intentioned and well made, it felt more than a little claustrophobic and, returning to my starting point of The Green Man to warm up over a pint, I was relieved to back amongst chaotic, pluralistic life once again.