I know I should have rushed out with my new-found freedom to explore the outside world, but, oddly enough, after two weeks of isolation, I found myself inhibited, having forgotten what the outside world looked like, still wearing a mask and feeling like a bank robber as I went to the local cash machine – not that one needs cash anymore. My friendly robot thanked me for the part that I had played in the fight against Coronavirus, but, since the disease is increasing more in Tower Hamlets than in most of the rest of London, I feel more like a statistical blip than a local hero. Anyway, I thank my blog readers for providing my lifeline to the outside world.
No message from my electronic minder today. I suppose they’re worried that if they reminded me that I only have a day to go, I might be tempted to rush out now. Instead, I am principally worried about what to do next. If there is a risk, which there obviously is, that whoever I meet develops Covid, then I am going to have to limit my social encounters as far as possible, partly to avoid the disease itself and partly to avoid another period of compulsory incarceration. So, the future looks unexpectedly similar to the present, whatever my minder tells me tomorrow.
I was afraid that the article I had written for this year’s Frieze Masters magazine about museum and exhibition design might never appear, since the fair itself is only happening online; but I was pleased to be sent a link this morning to the article which is now going to appear in the October issue of Frieze magazine (https://www.frieze.com/article/charles-saumarez-smith-changing-fashions-exhibition-design). I enjoyed writing it, because it gave me an opportunity to reflect on the rapidity of changes in the fashion for museum and exhibition design and how relatively little it is written about, although an excellent book on the subject, Closed on Mondays: Behind the Scenes at the Museum is due to be published by Dinah Casson in November (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Closed-Mondays-Behind-Scenes-Museum/dp/1848224346). I was also keen to document the displays on the first floor at the National Portrait Gallery which felt state-of-the-art twenty three years ago, but have already disappeared pending the National Portrait Gallery’s total renovation. I can hardly complain because these displays were themselves simply replacing the state-of-the-art display of twenty five years earlier, as I remember Richard Ormond commenting ruefully when they first opened. I can only look forward to their next incarnation.
Now that I have finished reading The Alternative Guide to London Boroughs, I have nothing but admiration for the range and quality of its writing, the way it encourages one to explore, if only mentally, the outer London boroughs: from the development of Abbey Wood to the work of Nicholas Taylor, the architectural writer as a Labour councillor in Lewisham; a paean to the Tolworth Tower which I remember admiring out of the back of a Ford Consul in 1964, to the housing policies of 1970s Merton. It makes the outer boroughs psychologically, historically and architecturally interesting, ending up with the tragic photograph of the demolition of the Firestone Factory by Gillian Darley, who was taking photographs for Simon Jenkins’s Companion Guide to Outer London, and Emma Dent Coad writing powerfully about the housing estates of North Kensington. I recommend it doubly.
Bit by bit, new facts are coming to light about the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, as the moment of the Public Inquiry approaches. The latest thing I didn’t know about was that the National Trust itself made efforts to acquire it as a living, working entity in 2014, as indeed was only right and proper, recognising its historic importance as a parallel to Styal Mill in Lancashire – to demonstrate working conditions in the eighteenth century and the importance of small-scale workshop production to the Industrial Revolution. There are two things which are important about this. If the National Trust recognised its historic importance and how important it was to preserve it, why did Historic England not ? There should surely have been some communication between the two or do conservation agencies not talk to one another ? Secondly, why did they fail to take it over ? Did the owners perhaps want to keep its commercial value and not preserve it as a working entity ? Any information on this issue would be gratefully received (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Only two days to go.
Self-isolation certainly gives one plenty of time to contemplate the current state of Covid and its apparent rapid spread, although, as I understand it, not to anything like the same deadly extent as in March, only doubling in the rate of infection every fortnight, not every three days.
The issue which is obvious from the experience of having had contact – that is, lunch – with someone who developed Covid shortly afterwards is that the current system may contain the spread of the disease to some extent, but is very slow: it took 72 hours for the person I had lunch with to get confirmation that she had the disease and a further 72 hours before I was officially required to self-isolate; during that time I had seen and met up with others who luckily have not been infected, but could have been if I had been.
I read yesterday that anyone arriving in Rome airport is required to take a test and await the result which comes within three hours. Speed of diagnosis is surely the only way of ensuring that the disease doesn’t spread.
The message from my friendly robot was late today: only three days to go. My advice to those who are about to embark on Self-isolation, which is likely to include a huge number of people as Covid spikes, is as follows:-
Self-isolation is vastly much worse than lockdown because you are doing it on your own, whereas everyone else is going about their lives more or less as normal. I found it an unexpected hardship not being able to go out to buy a loaf of bread, go to the cash machine, let alone go for a walk or a bicycle ride. And two weeks is a surprisingly long time.
I discovered the best possible antidote yesterday in reading The Alternative Guide to London Boroughs and the new edition of Francis Russell’s Places in Italy: A Private Grand Tour. A day spent travelling in the mind was an incredibly beneficial compensation for physical imprisonment, and I strongly recommend it.
My copy of the book which has been edited by Owen Hatherley, pre-ordered and published by Open House has now arrived. It’s a pleasure: beautifully designed by Studio Christopher Victor, it describes, as its title suggests, an alternative London: the deep suburbs, Metroland and Middlesex, the neo-Georgian architects like W.T. Curtis and C.H. James. There’s a tower block by Colquhoun and Miller in Hornsey, the Heath Robinson Museum in Pinner, St. Patrick’s Church, Barking, looking as if it was designed to withstand attack by Germans, and Rainham Hall, which, of course, is not open, because it’s owned by the National Trust, not one of their top twenty (and I’ve only got half way). The book is a combination of gazetteer, social history and psychogeography, post-Nairn, much of it inspired by his occasionally hectic style of writing and an excellent supplement to it. I strongly recommend it.
I have been watching the BBC film In the Making: Bells, made in 1977 to commemorate the making a bell in the Whitechapel Bell Foundry to celebrate the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. I found it indescribably moving, because it shows so clearly all the different skills which went into the making of church bells, the combination of hand and eye with a little bit of electronics and chemistry, but mostly the inherited expertise which was handed down within the workshop. The star of the film is Douglas Hughes, co-owner, sitting for much of the film in the front office together with his older brother, William, sitting alongside him, as well as William’s son, Alan, who also appears in the film as a young man and who inherited the family business, now sold. Alan’s great-grandfather, Arthur Hughes, had joined the business in 1885 and took it over it 1904.
Douglas Hughes patiently explains the nature of the business and introduces the other people who worked there at the time; Ernest Oliver, who had worked for the foundry for 48 years and looked after the hand bells (his family had worked in the bell foundry for 250 years); Wally Spragett, twenty years; Don Matlis, who joined in 1960 and did the moulding; Ron Brown from Leytonstone; Peter Scott; Roy Marks. They were a team, each with their own specialist skill, proud of their work. It was a community of collective expertise: the mixing of London clay, horse manure, goat’s hair and sand; doing the moulding, setting the cores up and the gauges; the division of the core and cope; the pouring of the hot molten metal, an alloy of 77% copper and 23% tin, into the mould, with everyone watching; and then, last, the addition of an inscription. There was the blacksmith who made the clappers, the fitters and welders, joiners who made the wheels, and the bell-hangers who travelled the world installing them.
I’m not allowed to show the film because, of course, it’s copyright of the BBC. But I hope that I can encourage or persuade them to show it again in advance of the hearing beginning on October 6th. to give the Inspector some idea of what is in danger of being lost.