It had been on my agenda for some time to come to Notting Hill, just to take this image, after I had written a list of places to photograph that were of personal value. In doing so I had deviated from the method that had served me well, to wander and photograph anything that I find interesting but think twice before pressing the shutter, a method which contributed and allowed the London Archive to be a poetic, visual, survey of the city. I was going to take a photograph which couldn’t be understood or read from what was depicted in it.
I stood there for a while trying to decide how to compose it. These kinds of photographs are usually taken so that the principal object is in the middle but after some consideration I chose another angle. I pressed the shutter and took a photograph of a dead end, a quintessentially English entrance of a terrace house, autumnal leaves on the grey pavement and invisible, tangling webs of thought that reach far beyond the frame.
I read ‘The Napoleon of Notting Hill’ about ten years ago and have counted it as one of my favourite books ever since. It is a multi-layered, brilliant satire and political fantasy in which Chesterton seems to drop his best lines here and there, without the burden of trying to be a serious, intellectual writer.
It would, however, be fair to say that Chesterton glorifies war in his infatuation with medieval warfare. One of lines in the book which struck me was when one character exclaimed in the midst of the battle that (this is the gist of it as far as my memory serves me well) here, now, life happened to him, instead of him making his life happen. I remember quoting this line quite wistfully to an Art School friend a few years ago. I didn’t want to end up in similar circumstances and I didn’t wish for a war but understood the sentiment. I wished that life would happen to me, like it ‘happened’ to protagonists in the books that I escaped to. Now I am wiser, the world appears very different and I don’t know what to think.
The book was first published in 1904, in the years La Belle Epoque, of Edwardian comfort and confidence. It was also the time of competition between nations, political manoeuvrings and arms race which escalated to the Great War, as they then called it because they didn’t see the second one coming. And thus, ten years after the publication of this book, ‘life happened’: life was disrupted and taken away from millions of people.
Finland, against all odds, came out of the WW2, aka the Winter War and the Continuation War, as an independent nation. Despite this the war is remembered sorely and solemnly. My family is mostly silent about it but if the war is alluded to, it is done with subdued guilt. I have therefore been surprised when a few Brits have, with the kind of excitement I have never encountered in connection with the World Wars, told me that the way Finland beat the Soviet Union (or kicked Soviets asses, as one person phrased it) is their favourite story of the WW2. Although I have been puzzled by this, I have joined in in the admiration towards the Finnish war veterans because it is thanks to them that I am privileged in so many ways.
Growing up in Finland I learned to be afraid of men. I wasn’t ever physically abused by them but I was still acutely aware and afraid of their tendency towards violence and other forms of irrational and volatile aggressiveness. Although I learned to think this as something inherent in men, I also learned that it was linked to the scars of those wars passed on from one generation to another. It was only when I had lived in London for a while and had met men from other backgrounds, I came to realise that another kind of manliness was possible.
The consequences of warfare are not widely acknowledged. What does it do to a human being to have to rip other human beings apart with bullets and bombs, to see one’s friends being butchered, sacrificed and to endure violence oneself? What are the consequences when these human beings, heralded as heroes because they survived, -because what else could they be- return to their home countries and attempt to rebuild and live a peaceful life?
It is then obvious why I am pro-European Union. It takes a few generations for a society to change (and, in good and bad, to forget). I belong to a generation that is two generations removed from the war, which is unique. There hasn’t been a war in Europe for 75 years which is its longest period of peace since God knows when. This has been contributed to the EU which has its faults but as a peace project it has allowed European nations to rebuild and to progress. The prosperity and peace have allowed for a space for these scars of war to heal and for us to work towards a better society.
I am about to read this book again but from a different viewpoint - and not only because of the malaise highlighted by Brexit in Britain and my pacifist convictions. I first came to read works by GK Chesterton via C.S. Lewis, the writer of Narnia books and an esteemed Christian thinker who referred to him in his autobiography ‘Surprised by Joy’. GK Chesterton was foremost a journalist and participated in the debates of the time. I read the essays and stories by both of them, GK Chesterton and C.S. Lewis, for comfort and amusement in the midst of a world that I experienced to be hostile to my faith. I have since distanced myself from the Christian church as well as been gravely disappointed in the many writers that I had looked up to, including Chesterton. For example, before the wars, he was on the dangerous side about ‘the Jewish question’ for a while. Women’s suffrage movement was in full swing and his views on women, despite him loving his wife very much, are simply misogynistic. Perhaps less controversially though, he supported the Irish independence movement as well as wrote about the phenomena concerning modernity. The reason why his thoughts are still insightful is that they concern themes, for example patriotism and the dogma of imperialism in capitalist economies, which continue to agitate.
The main focus, the secret of this image is the black iron wrought door, left of the entrance to the terrace house. It is what allegedly remains of the opening to Pump Street, the ‘heart of Notting Hill’ and the scene of strategic battles in ‘Napoleon of Notting Hill’. When I first tried to locate Pump Street, one source said that after some redevelopment of the area it had withered into a garden path behind the buildings of Pembridge Square. My recent search however claimed that the street would have been entirely invented by GK Chesterton. Should I not have to guard my time so carefully between a job that brings home the bacon and a labour of love that doesn’t, I would have searched the archives of London street maps to establish whether Pump Street ever existed or not. Perhaps by the time I am able to, officially, publish the London Archive to a wider audience, I will know.
© Carita Silander
I write awfully lot about myself when I attempt to write about London. There is an assumption that this kind of self-omission is all too often self-indulgent. My few readers are better judge of that than I am. However, writing from my own perspective is a conscious choice because I find the alternatives, repeating some educated generalities or social criticism, disagreeable and uninteresting; I think it is complacent to not be aware of oneself and to state one’s experiences and observations as facts.
Recently, on one of these London Archive wandering trips in West London, I took the southbound 328 bus from Notting Hill. I used to take this bus almost daily when I lived in a tiny bed bug-infested bedsit in Earl’s Court and worked on Westbourne Grove. I have had many lives in London and the time I lived by a busy road going through Earl’s Court, one of the small veins of London, belongs to the third. My first era is marked, despite moving five times, by the bus route 52 which I took to Notting Hill from Kensal Rise. I now hopped on bus 328, of the third era, from the same bus stop I got off from the bus route of my first era, route 52.
For all the glamour that Notting Hill evokes, the immediate surroundings of Notting Hill Gate underground station are an eye-sore. So I thought in the months I commuted through it and so I thought again now, as a visitor. The bus went on, stopped at traffic lights and at bus stops. I looked around, observed what had changed and what hadn’t, and remembered, without thinking, my life around there with muted feelings.
The destination of the 328 bus was The World’s End. I went there once, in the days before being able to find out about the history or the look of a place on my mobile. I can’t remember if I went there on purpose (I was intrigued by the name already then) or by mistake but I do remember being unimpressed and perplexed when I got there. I know more now and am more appreciative of historical remnants, even only present in a name.
Many years later I read Anita Brookner’s first novel ‘A start in life’ in which the heroine lives at the World’s End. I remembered the first lines of the novel, ‘Dr Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature’, as the bus went along. Somewhere on the left I spotted, I think, the road on which G.K. Chesterton, another literary hero of mine, lived. We found the blue plaque with my sister on one of our expeditions.
The London that seeps through Brookner’s novels is rather dull, perhaps because her characters seem settled in it in a way that is enviable. It is not the cosmopolitan, vibrant city that I have been told of and it is not the unattainable dream of a life that I and many others know it to be. Brookner’s London, in my mind’s eye, reminds me of the slightly flat, painterly quality of TV series and films made in the 90’s, comforting, like the cup of tea with milk seems to be to its everyday drinkers.
'A start in life’ was the second book I read by Brookner. The first was ‘Hotel du Lac’ which I picked it up on a whim, as purchases of this kind tend to happen, at the Waterstones in Greenwich and took it with me on my holiday in the South of France. It is a short novel but I read it slowly. I had to. Her writing was a revelation in its poignancy and simplicity. In her all white, all middleclass milieu Brookner writes about overbearing friendships, childish parents and other strong characters that I too have met sometime in my life. In her novels I found a narrator that I felt would understand the understated tragedies of my own life. I identified with her heroines with a feeling of relief, even triumph. After reading a few other novels by her that feeling however changed to a sad recognition. Her heroines tend to be intelligent women who are quietly disappointed in life and unfortunate in love. Her novels don’t end in redemption but in a way that is terrifyingly realistic.
I decided that Brookner’s London was best to be left ambiguous and instead of going to the World’s End, I got off just after Earl’s Court station and walked to the Old Brompton Cemetery. I found only one photograph in there despite its symmetrical layout and started to make my way back to Notting Hill, for lunch at the Churchill Arms.
Which one comes first, the awareness of the architecture of the society or the enjoyment of my surroundings in which I am merely a visitor? When does the sadness about the current political and socio-economic situation appear or does that curious kind of daydreaming, present when I wander about London, merely bring an escape from that state of frustration? And at what point do I remember my own place in the hierarchy of the British society and the high moral position I am expected, as an educated liberal socialist, to take?
I wonder and continue to wander.
© Carita Silander
Preamble to the London Archive Essays
I asked a few friends and members of family to choose a photograph from the London Archive they would like to know more about. As this premise is my own devising, I have taken the artistic liberties necessary in answering this question. Bar a few exceptions, the result is a series of short essays combining a brief outline of historical information, consideration of photography as a medium as well as an account on how I ended up taking each particular photograph.