Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Cheerio, Charing Cross Road

I call it "the churn". London is a framework of buildings that are temporarily occupied by businesses that come and go; and over a longer timescale the buildings themselves are modified and demolished, as if the city itself was a living creature.

So wrote me back in mid-2014. It's bad form to quote yourself, but I am a very good writer, or at least I have moments of brilliance, although I would benefit from an editor, in particular I tend to use too many commas and the sentences go on too long, suffice it to say there are only so many ways I can express the same idea without going all naff, next paragraph.

London sits on land which was once owned by the King, who was given his power by God. That was the theory. In practice tribal leaders from the pre-King period fought their way to local dominance, and then to regional dominance, and eventually one of them fought his way to national dominance. From that point onwards the King's advisors realised that being King was risky business, thus the modern monarchy.

All but two of the images in this post were shot with an Olympus OM-1 using Kodak TMAX 400. I like to use small cameras because buildings scare easily.

Nikon Coolpix 900

Did people really believe that the King was chosen by God? The King was a little boy once, crying for his mum and shitting in a pot; why didn't God make him twelve feet tall, with the power to shoot lasers from his eyes? Yes, I know that lasers didn't exist during Britain's first feudal period, humour me.

Nonetheless, throughout human history entire populations have been coerced into monitoring and executing each other so that a few wealthy men could have a large property portfolio for themselves and their lady wives. From the point of view of the men who owned the land, the people did not have meaning. Their lives did not have meaning. The great mass of people were not significant. Their obituaries did not appear in The Times and they were not related to anybody. And to be fair, a lot of them were very stupid; lots of people are stupid. If more people were smart, the world would be a better place, and it's not.

Europe fought and won a war against God in the nineteenth century, and then spent the twentieth demonstrating that people would fight and die for ideas instead. There was a brief experiment whereby we were supposed to imagine that everybody was significant, and that people's lives did matter, and that everybody was equal. All that is gone now, and society is reverting back to a model where there is a small elite with large property portfolios, and perhaps egalitarianism was just an illusion anyway. I have a sense that the modern masters of the universe no longer feel the need to pretend.

What is property? Property is money plus time. Money given physical form and extruded through the fourth dimension.

As a young man you resist this. Surely there is more than money. But as you grow older it dawns on you that, no, there is not. Money is not the most important thing in our world; it is not the only important thing; it is the only thing. Everything else is a side-effect, or a product, or an obstacle.

Money is not paper, or coins; it is not even precious metal. It is that which has value in the eyes of others; your attractive daughter is money. But what if others murder you and kidnap her, and have their way with her? She is still money, but she is no longer your money. There must be ownership, and ownership is nothing if you cannot enforce this, ultimately with actual physical force, although in the modern world only the authorities are allowed to use force. You must therefore use some of your money to pay the authorities to act on your behalf.

Olympus XA3 / TMAX 400

Property is worth more than people and the land on which it sits is worth more than entire populations. Even if the property collapses, the land is still there. London's land is owned by early adopters, the property is owned by arrivistes, and between them they are London. Everybody else is just a tenant or a caretaker, people who are just passing through.

Charing Cross road is one of the shortest of London's famous streets, or at least it feels that way. The actual road - the A400 - is several miles long, and extends from Charing Cross through Tottenham Court Road, past Mornington Crescent up to Camden, before finishing God-knows-where. Some awful stabsville. You can walk from the start of Charing Cross road all the way up TCR to Camden, although it's a bleak and boring walk. As you approach Mornington Crescent, remember that if you're using standard Livingstone rules Bloomsbury gives you double points, and try not to play Dollis Hill too early; get your onions up and we will throw up the truce flag.

However when people think of Charing Cross road they think of the patch of road that extends down from Centre Point to the side of Leicester Square, and they divide that into two sections; the more modern, chainstore, Soho-y bit with Foyles and the music shops, and the fustier older bit with the used book stores sited just at the outflow of Chinatown.

Where they used to be. The steep rise in property prices over the last twenty years has led to a situation whereby it is barely less cost-effective to have the buildings empty than to rent them out, and so the small number of wealthy men who actually own Charing Cross road have spent the last few years raising rents so as to squeeze a few drops of money out of the used bookshops. Which are on their way out. Tenaciously they cling on, and perhaps I'm being melodramatic. It seems that the bookshops of Charing Cross road have been in decline forever. In this blog post from 2002, just three short years thirteen years ago, the author dates the decline to the 1990s. I'm nostalgic for the Borders-and-synthesisers-and-DJ-equipment Charing Cross road that obliterated his past, his past of left-wing bookshops and... well, actually buying books instead of remembering the names and then looking them up on eBay. The blog post mentions bomb attacks against a bookshop that stocked Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses, which is one of those things that seemed very important a long time ago but is nowadays gone and forgotten.

Simultaneously the new Crossrail extension has smashed up the newer, Soho-y part of Charing Cross Road, and all of a sudden a bunch of shops and takeaways have closed. It's not that they were destroyed, it's that they're next to a building site and slightly harder to reach, and if that meant a few hundred people fewer people visited, that's the difference between treading water and drowning. Furthermore the very same internet that powers this blog dear reader has ripped the heart out of the used musical instrument shops; it killed off the Borders flagship that used to be across the road from Foyles.

Foyles itself has moved up the street a little bit. The new store is, as mentioned in the previous post, a gorgeous but understated palace of books. The old Foyles had a certain charm (it resembled a jumbled second hand bookshop writ large, with decor that was straight out of the modernist 1960s) but the new one is lovely on a sincere, unironic level. I wonder how long it will last. The move must have been costly, and what future is there for a huge physical bookshop in London?

What can you do to stop this, dear reader? Nothing. I don't miss the old Charing Cross road, or the old Soho, or the old anything. Soho and Charing Cross Road displaced something else, remembered only by the dead; they are just the latest occupants of that patch of land, and our nostalgic memories of the past are really just memories of our younger days, when the world was infinite and oh that magic feeling. London was built on the backs of bastards, clambering over each other to win the future.

One day all the people will be dead. The property will remain, occupied by new tenants. Shoe shops, Pound Shops, clothes shops, the few shops that find a way to claw money from the unsympathetic soil. The odd thing is that Soho and its environment are famous for targeting mankind's most primal desires - it has jazz clubs, strip clubs, and prostitutes - but even Soho is in decline. Internet porn? Drinking at home? My theory is that London's conventional consumer economic model is being replaced by a kind of property event horizon, where the only game in town is property, where the city becomes an collection of contracts.

In my vision of London's future there are streets, but they exist purely for maintenance access; there are buildings, but they are hollow, faceless cubes of concrete, erected merely to stake a claim on some land, or as a store of value. Buildings not intended to live in or to house shops, just blocks of concrete built as contractural obligations. The gas pipes and electricity pipes and fibre optics have been ripped out or left to rot, the London Underground no longer runs. There are no people in London's future, just empty streets with the occasional maintenance worker, and flat blank empty buildings, like in a computer game from the early 3D era, just flat untextured polygons. That is what I photograph. Empty streets and empty buildings, the void left behind when the party moved on.