David Christopher Anderson

assorted interventions

Graveyard Shift

This essay, ‘Graveyards’, was first published in the The Point

On Westminster Bridge Road, a busy street just south of the River Thames, there’s a redbrick façade that stands out from its dour, nondescript neighbors. The sign installed over its shutters—WESTMINSTER BRIDGE HOUSE—is plain enough, but it’s at odds with the anguished gargoyles to each side and the pair of ionic columns that erupt bombastically from the first floor. On second glance, the sign looks as if it’s trying to brush off unwanted attention: if the adjoining structures are merely anonymous, this place looks like it might have been placed under witness protection.

When I lived nearby, this building exuded an obscurely intimidating, noirish presence. It begged investigation. Before long, I discovered it had been constructed as the headquarters of the “London Necropolis Company” (LNC) founded in 1852 to bring businesslike efficiency to Victorian funeral practices amid a soaring urban population. The LNC’s simple idea was to use rail travel to whisk the dead and their mourners out of the heaving city—where burial space was increasingly hard to come by—and into the smiling, spacious countryside. Westminster Bridge House, home to the company from 1902, was the departure point for its ghostly train service. As John M. Clarke, a specialist on the subject, reported in Cabinet, the building housed “funerary workshops, mortuaries, and a private chapel of rest” and was used by the railway funeral service until April 16, 1941, when it “was destroyed in the worst night of the Blitz by a German bomb.” As a result, only the front part of the building is left, but traces of its old role do remain: in satellite imagery, one can just make out faded railway sidings at the rear of the site, merging shortly afterwards with the mainline out of Waterloo.

When the Necropolis Railway was in full swing, platforms were differentiated by religion and tickets came in different classes. But the destination was always the same. Brookwood Cemetery, about thirty miles to the southwest, brought a flavor of Thomas Gray’s emblematic “country churchyard” within reach of the urban everyman. With its pleasing echo of Shakespeare’s “rooky wood,” it sought to be an ideal version of the rural within easy commuting distance from the city—a perfect suburb. And if the suburbs are often thought of as dormitories, then here was one where you could sleep forever, free from the bother of noisy neighbors or new housing developments.… to continue reading this article, click here.

Stuck On Loop

This review of Iain Sinclair’s London Overground was originally published in Review 31.

Iain Sinclair’s London Overground, in crisp orange hardback, is subtitled ‘A Day’s Walk Around the Ginger Line’. That’s 34 miles. In one day. Incredulous readers are many. And those who took the time to peruse an excerpt published in the Guardian weren’t slow to ask questions. Yet suspicions about the book’s logistical likelihood were among the mildest criticisms levelled at the piece. ‘Absurd twaddle’ said one reader, in a symptomatic comment. Sinclair, said another, ‘needs a socially useful day job.’ In one particularly savage put-down, a user named ‘TCRIslington’ declared it to be ‘the most overwritten, pretentious piece I have ever read in the Guardian.’

The man behind it all rose to a certain notoriety in the late ’80s and early ’90s. His first novel, White Chappel, Scarlet Tracings (1987), was fuelled by an earlier career as a second-hand book seller – it wove together a madcap hunt for an elusive first edition of Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet (a self-referential detective motif, if ever there was one), with a miasmic rendition of London’s East End, steeped in the mythic presence of Jack the Ripper. Since then, Sinclair’s focus has spread out from East London at variant trajectories, gradually turning him into a self-styled laureate of the ‘postarchitectural’ English landscape – an ‘aesthete of blight’ devoted to making and recording journeys round the fringes of modern Britain.

He’s a seasoned walker. Starting with 1997’s Lights Out for the Territory, and authoring a slew of similar texts over the following decade, Sinclair has walked and rewalked, written and rewritten the South East of England. Writing and walking are inseparable in these documentary works, where places and objects are constantly conceived of as competing narratives – histories that one excavates, blocks out, submits to, exorcises or just dwells on. In the case of London Overground, the 34-mile jaunt results in a fitfully faithful attempt to ‘beat the bounds’ of the railway’s newly established circuit.… to continue reading this article, click here.

The Effect of the Real

This review of Georges Perec’s Portrait of a Man was originally published in Review 31.

No matter how fulsomely Scarlett Johansson gave fleshy form to Griet, the serving-girl at Johannes Vermeer’s house in Delft, the Girl with a Pearl Earring was never a real girl. As the little text-box hanging next to Vermeer’s canvas, in the Mauritshuis, explains:

It is not a real portrait, but a ‘tronie’: a fantasy-head. Tronies picture a certain type of character – in this case, a girl in exotic clothing, with an oriental turban and an improbably large pearl in the ear.

‘A fantasy-head.’ With this bombshell of Dutch bathos, the soft rug of narrative is brutally withdrawn, along with all of Scarlett/Griet’s milky reality. A whole tapestry of pregnant moments, socially transgressive frissons and, most worryingly of all, the very existence of Cillian Murphy as the blue-eyed local butcher’s boy, goes up in a puff of celluloid-blue smoke. ‘Griet’ reverts to a faceless extra in art history; the Girl depicted stops even having a ‘herself’ to speak of – she’s a fake, an impostor, merely a ‘certain type of character’.

Dutch painting has a curious tradition of fakery. During the Second World War, the art dealer Hugo van Meegeren raised a scandal by flogging a clutch of masterpieces – Vermeers among them – to highbrow Nazis during the German occupation of his country. Promptly arrested and brought to trial after the war, van Meegeren threw his prosecutors an outlandish curve-ball by claiming that he had systematically forged each one of his blackmarket frames. To prove it, he painted a new ‘Vermeer’ while being scrutinised through the half-moon glasses of assembled art-experts, and finally escaped without charge.

David Bellos mentions this incident in his foreword to Portrait of a Man, the first complete novel written by Georges Perec, newly published in Bellos’s own translation. The book is known under the title Le Condottière in French, after Antonello da Messina’s renaissance masterpiece, which emblazons the dust jacket… to continue reading this article, click here.

The Gothic Imagination

This exhibition review originally appeared in Prospect magazine.

It might seem curious that a celebration of “the Gothic imagination” should take place in the modernist-orientalist terracotta fortress of the British Library. After all, just next door looms the St Pancras Hotel, complete with enough pointed arches and foliated window-frames to keep even the most jaded Gothic revivalist happy. And not far up the road is the churchyard where Thomas Hardy did work-experience shifting gravestones to make way for the railway, and a young Mary Shelley whiled away the hours reading, propped up against her mother’s tombstone. Still, the curators of “Terror and Wonder,” the British Library’s new exhibition of all things Gothic, have succeeded in pouring some of these local atmospherics into the Library’s Paccar galleries, transforming them into a penumbral dungeon of the warped, the perverse and the compulsively page-turning. The timing’s good too. The latest cinema adaptation of Dracula, Dracula Untold, opened on the same day as this exhibition. Not that this was a deliberate tie-in: such is the Gothic’s popularity that coincidences of this kind are almost inevitable.

“Gothic” itself is a slippery term—even to call it a “genre” might be to set foot on unsteady ground. The term suffers from its implicit pluralism: are we talking about novels, horror films, flying buttresses, Alice Cooper, black-painted fingernails or a specific period in North-European history?

…find out here.

I Don’t Know What You Did Last Summer

This review of Alain Robbe-Grillet’s films appeared in Prospect magazine.

An agronomist who specialised in diseases affecting tropical fruit, Alain Robbe-Grillet might once have seemed an unlikely candidate for the esteemed heights of the Académie francaise. It wasn’t until his late twenties that he began writing seriously. Yet in the 1950s he published a series of books—The Erasers,The Voyeur and Jealousy—that made him the figurehead and chief spokesman of the nouveau roman, or “new novel.” Conventional story-telling, Robbe-Grillet argued, was hopelessly old-fashioned, merely a sedative against the opacity and chaos of modern life. The nouveau roman sought to capture that chaos and render it in a fresh, authentic language: clinical, dense and oblique. Mainstream writers were weekend water-colourists; here was modern art.

It may be true that Robbe-Grillet’s work is the preserve of doctoral theses rather than book groups, but the nouveau roman was a capacious thing. It was, above all, a rallying cry for renewed modernism: for formal experimentation and deliberate difficulty; for an assault on the “obsolete notions” of character, plot and narrative coherence. Robbe-Grillet strove for a literature where Ulysses, The Sound and the Fury and The Castle were considered as revolutions rather than aberrations. For him, those who rejected his project were effectively saying that the world had not changed since the 19th century, when the “realist” novels of Honoré de Balzac and Émile Zola were the dominant form.

Early fame came not through the bestseller lists, but with a helping hand from the critic Roland Barthes, who enthusiastically hailed what he called the radical “objectivity” of Robbe-Grillet’s first two novels—a perplexing observation, since Robbe-Grillet himself described his style as one of “pure subjectivity.” Yet the two ideas weren’t as different as it might seem, for the French word objectif can also mean “lens.” Robbe-Grillet’s writing was so oddly compelling because it replaced the conventions of novelistic “depth” with a kind of photographic flatness, the cool indifference of the camera-eye. His characters are not rounded individuals but flat abstractions, emptied of personality; the conventional omniscient narrator is nowhere to be found. In this way the writing is both objective (surgical, precise) and utterly subjective (leaving no room for ambiguity).

For a writer who was so concerned with the visual surface of things, it’s not surprising that Robbe-Grillet soon turned to cinema. His first film was Last Year at Marienbad, a 1961 collaboration with Alain Resnais, who had just made his name with Hiroshima Mon Amour (scripted by another practitioner of thenouveau roman, Marguerite Duras). Asked by Resnais to sketch out a screenplay, Robbe-Grillet came back with an entire shooting-script, organised down to the tiniest details of camera angle and shot construction. Here was a precocious auteur, straining for the same level of control over film that an author might exercise over his novels. (Robbe-Grillet once complained about the French legal convention which—for the sake of distributing profits—determines a film to have five authors: for the treatment, the screenplay, the shooting script, the direction and the music. “I would very much like to be a complete author—that is, to make all five parts—like Wagner”.)

…continue reading here.

Looking Through The Window

This review of Patrick Keiller’s The View From The Train was originally published in Review 31.

A train is an extraordinary bundle of relations because it is something through which one goes, it is also something by means of which one can go from one point to another, and then it is also something that goes by.

Michel Foucault’s 1967 sketch of the ‘heterotopia’ identified one of rail travel’s peculiar qualities: that mixture of attachment and detachment with the world outside the window. It’s not dissimilar from what Michel de Certeau had to say in The Practice of Everyday Life, seven years later, about the ‘incarceration-vacation’ from the quotidian – ‘the train generalizes Dürer’s Melancholia, a speculative experience of the world.’

In the introduction to his collected essays, Patrick Keiller telescopes his film-making career into two particular train-views: one which precipitated his first film; another that became central to the most recent. But the balance between speculative and actual engagement with the world is, for him, finally caught better on two wheels. In the volume’s most recent essay, ‘Imaging’, he writes:

the slightly detached condition of cycling can encourage lengthy associations and recollections. Walking, driving and looking out of the windows of trains, buses, aeroplanes, and so on, offer similar possibilities, but there seems to be something about the experience of riding a bicycle, the way in which one is both connected to and moving above the ground, that promotes a particular state of mind.

The image is a useful one to begin with, suggesting his work’s unusual poise between experience and exploration of the environment… to continue reading this article, click here.

Flaubert On An Aircraft Carrier

This review of Geoff Dyer’s Another Great Day at Sea was originally published in Prospect magazine.

Boats, in literature, have tended to be disaster-zones. Infectious disease, mutiny, shipwreck; a locked-room drama on the high seas. They don’t fare much better in the movies. Robert Redford struggled to elude disaster recently in All Is Lost, his little brig colliding with an errant shipping container that might have fallen from Tom Hanks’s Maersk Alabama, hijacked by Somali pirates in another recent hit, Captain Phillips. Somehow Hanks’s film was more frightening, for container ships like his, distant facilitators of everyday life, have become a kind of “logistical unconscious”. A single one can carry enough bananas for everyone in Europe, yet this rarely crosses our minds when chopping one up over our Weetabix.

Military aircraft-carriers might be altogether less benign—certainly less vulnerable to hijacking—but they encapsulate a parallel blend of enormousness and invisibility. Huge and vital, they remain mysterious and unthought-of. The USS George H.W. Bush is a great example: one of ten active carriers in the US fleet, it cost over $6 billion to build, weighs 100,000 tonnes, and it’s out there, somewhere. And for two weeks in 2011 it hosted writer Geoff Dyer, dispatched to the Arabian Gulf by Alain de Botton’s new “Writers in Residence” scheme… to continue reading this article, click here.