I've left London for a few days, with the hope of being able to write about London. The totality of the city overwhelms me. Although of late I cannot think of anything that wouldn't.
I begin with one avenue of thought -that typical colour of concrete grey that is everywhere in London for example- and for a moment, for the duration of the first metaphorical step, all is clear. By the second step I am already clouded in, unable to see or think anything else except the clichés; all the millions of people who've lived here, their stories, their horizons; what was here and there before. I am not the only one who repeats these lines and other phrases such as 'the ever changing city'. Such an annoying phrase and a true one. London is being built and rebuilt constantly. I was once on the 6th floor cafe at the Tate Modern and counted all the cranes I could see on the other side of the Thames. Seventeen! Apparently they get removed from the official photographs during the editing phase.
On a corner of a street near where I live in Greenwich there is a house with 'THE EARL GREY' written high on its wall with big letters. Every time I have walked past this house I have given a half a thought to its story and half a thought to the unlikelihood that I would ever come to know it.
The other day however I borrowed a book from the library called 'Panoramas of lost London: work, wealth, poverty and change 1870-1945'(author: Davies, Philip). I am not a research-based artist but as I am photographing London now, in 2019, and building an archive of it, I wanted to have a look at those images simply out of curiosity. Besides, I look at the 18th, 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries with embarrassing nostalgia. I love the objects that were made then, especially, and unsurprisingly, the cameras.
It is a heavy, large book full of black and white photographs mostly from the Strand, Aldwych, Aldgate but also from elsewhere. There is a photograph of the Tower Bridge being built and street views from Homerton and Deptford. I think I have even taken a photo of the same street in Bermondsey. Those films are the lab being processed and as soon as I get them back I will compare my shot to the one in the book. Then in the section called 'Change' comes the surprise: a photograph of that house on the street corner in Greenwich! The outer walls of the house is covered in boards advertising various drinks. The caption identifies it as The Earl Grey pub, although the letters I can see today aren't there yet, and says that before it was a pub it was a merchant's house.
'London is a museum and London is a machine' said a cafe owner to me once in Covent Garden. I hadn't spoken much to people I didn't know until that day. The previous few days had been shocking and in the midst of it all, unrelated to those events, I realised that I, fundamentally and for understandable reasons, didn't trust people. While I was in that coffeeshop drinking a cappuchino I decided that I wouldn't stay that way but try to change. Later I would have to withdraw myself again, perhaps more tightly and painfully than before but I still remember that day and that decicion. I remember that conversation with that café owner and those sore feelings of fear and hope. This cafe owner too didn't believe London was what it pretended to be. He too was an immigrant, from somewhere like Greece or Turkey. I didn't realise it then that his coffeeshop belonged to another, disappearing era, and was soon to be overrun by the import concept of another group of immigrants - the Antipodeans. Some months after this conversation I climbed on a back counter of a coffeeshop due to open the next day and put in a few shelves. I was severely hangover and struggled to hide it. It was the beginning of the 'Third Wave', as they call it, in coffee culture and it was to provide me employment until this day.
So much has changed since. That café is no longer there in Covent Garden and I have stopped drinking coffee with milk. I have become one of those perplexed witnesses of the mutations of this Third Wave which once heralded that coffeeshop of which back counter I stood as one of London's best. Where we are now I can't say but those shelves are still there and they get dusted every other year.
I once called London ' a monster'. I have since taken that insult back as it was unjust. I had really meant to call life by that name, or rather the immense indifference of it. Nevertheless I continuously feel the pressure to have something definitive to say about London but for all the wandering and photographing I have nothing assertive to say. I have felt, too, I should to write a few lines about monuments because I have photographed a few and my art education demands me to defend such a slip towards generic imagery. All I can say that I photograph iconic buildings and scenes with hesitation because they are charged with meaning. When I have photographed them, it has usually been because of the light, there and then.
One of my first experiences of being in London is that of being a stranger. Not only an immigrant with odd food cravings and an incomprehensible mother tongue but a stranger in the world. For years I was troubled and haunted by it without being able to put into words. Later I discovered that this feeling of homelessness -which I was also ashamed to admit to being troubled by, in the face of real homelessness in London- was something that had been recorded before in philosophy. This discovery eventually helped me to accept my lot in life, of being the odd one in any given crowd, as well as to accept that the underlying uncertainty that comes with my choices and not feeling like I belong anywhere. I haven't been able to call myself a Londoner, for example, despite having lived here for over fifteen years and despite definitely walking with the speed of one.
I wrote on my journal years ago that 'London is a residence for millions but a home for only a few.' And I still think this is true.
© Carita Silander