Sunday, July 1, 2007

London Pride

The image hangs on Malcolm's wall. It is a scaled-down reproduction of a 1946 GWR poster.

It is the iconic view of the Palace of Westminster, seen from across the river. The river is populated by a tugs, barges, wherries with tan sails (obsolete by 1946, surely), and white launches.

The perspective and strong rising diagonals invite us to read the painting from left to right. A steel-grey sky, above the dome of the Methodist Central Hall and the Abbey, symbolically clears to blue sky and the puffy clouds, borrowed perhaps from John Constable.

In the background, beyond the 1862 replacement for Wordsworth's Westminster Bridge:
This City now doth like a garment wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky.
The view is, of course, impressionistic. It would only be possible in reality by hovering above the roundabout before Lambeth Palace (there in the bottom right), where the A3203 Lambeth Road crosses Lambeth Bridge. Today this would not be a quiet spot, away from the traffic.

The artist was Frank [Henry] Mason...

... not to be confused with
Frank [Herbert] Mason, the New York artist.

Mason was born at Seaton Carew, the small resort at the mouth of the River Tees. He was educated for the sea at HMS Conw
ay, on the Mersey, and served in the RNVR in the First World War. He earned his crust as an engineer, but was adept at knocking out watercolours for posters, especially of Yorkshire, and frequently of seascapes. These parallel careers came together in the Second World War, when he designed naval camouflage. The only useful guide to Mason and his work was published a decade ago by the Hartlepool Art Gallery.

In Malcolm's opinion, Mason's London Pride is a remarkable achievement.

The painting has many points of reference: not just Constable, and Wordsworth: Canaletto, too, had been there before. More significant is the way Mason captures the mood of the moment that was 1946, the first post-War English summer.

The gleaming white City that occupies the far right distance of Mason's image was, in large part, an imaginative leap into fallacy. White Portland Stone did not glow in the light: the prevalent colour and texture were sooty, unchanged since Dickens described it, and would remain so until the Clean Air Act allowed a decent scrub.

Yes, that was still the London where the tallest structure was St Paul's, but it was a city where the Luftwaffe had been the most radical town-planner since 1666.

Noel Coward used the nick-name ...

... of the saxifrage hybrid for his 1941 song. He claimed to have sat on a bombed platform, waiting for a train, and conceived the outline for London Pride:
Grey city! Stubbornly implanted,
Taken so for granted for a thousand years.
Stay, city! Smokily enchanted,
Cradle of our memories and hopes and fears.

Every Blitz your resistance toughening,
From the Ritz to the Anchor and Crown,
Nothing ever could override
The pride of London Town
He certainly nicked the tune (with implicit acknowledgement, however) from a folk-tune and street-cry: Won't you buy my sweet blooming lavender? Ironically, it was an act of rescue, as Michael Nyman and others point out: Josef Haydn appropriated it in 1797. Then Haydn's hymn to Austro-Hungarian imperial grandeur acquired other lyrics with Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben's 1841 Das Lied der Deutschen, better known for the first lines:
Deutschland, Deutschland über alles,
Über alles in der Welt!
Malcolm's Dad (who had been a Met Policeman through the 1941 Blitz) grew the plant in his herbaceous border, until it took over completely. It was common on the bombsites, but not so much as epilobium, the omnipresent Fireweed or rosebay willowherb.

And, let it be recorded, London Pride is a good strong bitter, brewed by Fuller's of Chiswick: 4.1% draught; 4.7% in a bottle.
It's not as strong as the same brewer's ESB (a.k.a. "lunatic broth") which runs at 5.9%. Since Young's Special is now brewed in Bedford, Pride is Malcolm's London drink of choice.

Where does all this leave us, Malcolm?

Well, what provoked this entry was a strong distaste for the recent reports in many U.S. websites (of which Drudge was a typical sensational example). Nor were the home media entirely innocent. Malcolm's objection was to the repetitive use of the word "fear". That's not the mood, and is not likely to be so.

More to the point was Gordon Brown's appearances. In later years, the cartoonists tirelessly recycled the cliché of "poodle Blair". If Brown is to be doggified, caninized, something more suitable would be the mastiff:
a gentle giant ... self-confident, watchful and patient ... Intelligent and dignified ... in its nature to defend its territory ... can be aloof with strangers.
Nick Assinder, the BBC Political correspondent, tries to encapsulate this as:

Gordon Brown is different, and that difference has been striking in his reaction to the latest attacks and the way he has tried to speak for, and to, the nation.

There have been none of the smooth sound bites we have got used to.

In their place has been the sort of solidity and weight, some will say dourness, that have always been the mark of Gordon Brown.

Brown's statement for television last evening was just four sentences:
The first duty of the government is the security and safety of all the British people. So it is right to raise the levels at airports and other crowded places in light of the threat.

I want all people to be vigilant and support police in light of the difficult decisions they have to make. I know the British people will stand together, united, resolute and strong.

Enough to the point of terseness, but confident and reassuring. That's nearer the prevailing mood: in London and Glasgow, alike. Consider the way the would-be travellers at Glasgow Airport were queuing, literally round the block, to secure their departures this morning. And the symbolism of the Pride London parade passing over the very location of the first car-bomb.


The BBC News 24 programme tamely describes this popular mood as "extraordinary stoicism".

But that's what Frank Mason was suggesting, sixty years back.

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1 comment:

yourcousin said...

glad to hear no one was hurt in these senseless attacks. Keep the flag flying.

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