Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Please watch your step

Thames Water Authority have been spending the last few months digging up our roads and pavements and replacing the decrepit Victorian water mains that provide our drinking water with nice, new, blue plastic pipes. We know they are blue because we can see them stacked up ready for use everywhere we go. As the engineers finish one section of road they move onto another, or they might start again on the same section of road they just completed. This work is likely to continue for months to come so every time we leave the house we have to watch where we step since the surface we're walking on might have changed overnight!

Last weekend we had a guest to stay who was keen to visit Tate Modern and we were happy to oblige. This entailed skirting the red metal fencing surrounding the various excavations in the roads and walking on heavy plastic covers laid over holes in the pavements to get to the bus stop for the 388 bus. I always find this bus route an interesting ride because it takes you through Hackney to Bethnal Green and then through the City of London and on to St Paul's Cathedral which is where we got off.

Tate Modern is on the opposite side of the Thames to St Paul's and the quickest and most scenic route to cross is to go via the Millennium footbridge. This is an elegant, steel suspension bridge described as a 'blade of light' and is the first bridge to be built across the Thames since Tower Bridge in 1894. However it's got the nickname of the 'Wobbly Bridge' because of an unexpected swaying as a result of the numbers of people walking across it in the first two days it was opened. Consequently the bridge had to be closed to the public in June 2000 and modified to eliminate the wobble and reopened in February 2002. So now it is safe to cross and you can enjoy the view while you walk. It only takes a couple of minutes to make the crossing and you'll notice to the left hand side of the Tate the Globe Theatre which is a reconstruction of the theatre where Shakespeare's plays were performed during his lifetime. Since the theatre is open to the elements, having no roof, it has a short season which ends in the autumn.

As we approached the Tate we could clearly see Louise Bourgeois' sculpture of an enormous spider. I have seen this piece on display inside the gallery where it seemed dwarfed by the size of the Turbine Hall but outside it seemed to have more impact because it is clearly larger than anything else near it and made the humans walking around it look a lot like ants milling around.

So finally we had reached our goal which was the installation in the Turbine Hall that has been causing so many comments in the last few weeks. It has become known as the 'crack in the floor' and several visitors managed to fall into it in the first few days it was open to the public, so presumably they weren't looking where they were going! It is the work of a Colombian artist called Doris Salcedo and is called 'Shibboleth'. A shibboleth, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is 'a word used as a test for detecting people from another district or country by their pronunciation, a word or sound very difficult for foreigners to pronounce correctly.' It is, therefore, a way of separating one people from another. I've been quoting from the text written by Martin Herbert published in the accompanying leaflet and he continues: 'For Salcedo, the crack reveals a 'colonial and imperial history [that] has been disregarded, marginalised or simply obliterated...'

I was obviously too shallow to understand any of this while I traced the length of the crack from one end of the hall to the other. I didn't get at all the 'untold dark side of the history of racism' while I examined the crack. I happily crossed from one side of the crack to the other in my short journey. I admired the skill it must have taken to create it and wondered how she managed to embed the chain-link fence into the crack that is clearly visible, but I didn't feel I was being encouraged to 'confront discomforting truths about our world and about ourselves'. However I did think it was time for lunch once our visit was over.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Off to Avebury

So yesterday, Sunday, saw us travelling to Avebury. We were spending the weekend with friends of ours in Swindon and this trip was our Sunday outing. Avebury is in Wiltshire, nearer to Marlborough than Swindon but still only a short drive away through rolling countryside. I enjoyed being a passenger in the back of the car having the leisure to look at the leaves on the trees, which are turning to red and gold, in the clear, autumn light while our friend drove and navigated diversions on the road.

Avebury is a World Heritage Site and is one of Europe's largest stone circles and some of the stones are impressively colossal. Unlike Stonehenge which is two miles west of Amesbury (also in Wiltshire) and is on a small, contained site, Avebury extends in a large straggling sort of way across a number of fields. It accommodates a pretty little village and some roads run round some of the larger stones. Apparently the stone circles were constructed 4000 years ago and originally comprised more than 180 stones. Where the stones are missing pointed stone markers have been put in their place so you can see the shape the circles would have made.

I have to confess that I'm not that interested in speculating what the original purpose of the Avebury stones might have been since the circles were created so long ago, but I do find the maps of earth energies you can buy in the village shop that some people have taken the trouble to dowse, and map, entertaining. What I do enjoy about the place is the atmosphere of tranquility and peace inspite of the numbers of people, and grazing sheep, you meet along the way traversing the various paths. At one point I was passed by a large party, who may have been one family, complete with young and older people and at least one dog. They were so close to me that as they walked I could clearly hear their conversation. Within a few minutes I saw them in the distance walking in a line from right to left, up and down a small hill and they suddenly looked more like pilgrims en route to a destination known only to them and their conversation was completely private. We finished our stroll to the site with a visit to a stand of old, knarled beech trees that have roots that extend so far from the base of the trunks that they have formed an interlacing pattern. It was like standing under a tent and every so often some people would leave the protection of the trees and others would join them.

It seemed natural at this point to visit the Red Lion pub and I quote "it is the only Inn the world positioned within an ancient stone circle and is said to be one of the top ten most haunted locations in the world". They apparently have a resident ghost called Florrie who "is said to have had her throat slit by her husband after he caught her with another man and threw her down the well with a boulder thrown on top of her". The said well is in the bar and is safely covered with a glass lid. Frankly it looked to be a tight fit for any but the slimmest adulteress to end her days in but no-one seemed to care one way or the other since eating lunch was the chief activity going on.