the tower behind the tree

I’ve become slightly obsessed with the view from my bathroom window. It’s a glimpse of a tower block that sits behind a tree and is beyond the roofline of Norlington School for Boys that dominates the vista. The window itself is not a grand affair, it’s the small one at the top of the frame, but it’s head high and everytime I go into the bathroom my eyes become drawn to this horizon then lock onto the tower. It started off as merely an intriguing sight, but has since gained a greater hold over me. Now I feel that it is trying to communicate with me, calling out, transmitting a signal that so far I can’t unscramble. When I had to get up in the middle of the night to comfort one of the children it appeared there as a strip of light, the illuminated stairwell, suddenly I didn’t mind so much being woken at 3am.

I have so far resisted the temptation to visit it up close for fear of disappointment. I would like it to remain as a slightly unfixed, unreal location, a floating tower, a bit like the ships that I used to watch sail across the horizon at night from my bedroom in Collaroy, Sydney. There is every chance, that up close, I wouldn’t recognise it that it would continue to appear as a point in the distance.

It is only recently that I realised that this tower could be a manifestation of the one in John Smith’s classic film ‘The Black Tower’. That film had infiltrated my consciousness years before I moved out here, half a mile from Smith’s house and the location of the film. Maybe it drew me east from Islington. Called me over from the high ground of Penton Mound to a similarly elevated part of London. Maybe I should make a film as Smith did in order to understand my relationship with this mystical object. Although I think I’ll just keep gazing at it from the bathroom window for now.

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Finisterre

I eventually caught St. Etienne’s psychogeographical film about London ‘Finisterre’ at the ICA the other week. The band and directors Paul Kelly and Kieran Evans openly acknowledge that their project was a response to Patrick Keiller’s classic, ‘London’. In the year that Patrick Keiller was shooting his seminal film ‘London’, Saint Etienne recorded their second album ‘So Strong’. Both film and album captured a raw slice of the capital in 1992. Keiller’s film set against the backdrop of John Major’s election triumph, IRA bombs and Black Wednesday, just as St Etienne’s album was an audio tour of Greasy Spoon cafes and cold Kentish Town pavements.

Keiller’s influence is immediately apparent in the opening sequences of Finisterre. We see static establishing shots that are ‘London’s’ signature and hear the voice of an unseen, un-named narrator as with Paul Schofield’s perfect dry delivery of his account of excursions taken with his former lover Robinson. In Finisterre it is never obvious who the ‘flaneurs’ of the piece are, we merely see a train arriving from Croydon at 06:01. Suburban boys out to explore the capital. It is implicit that this is the story of the band’s journey through London.

The other key inspiration is the James Mason fronted film of Geoffrey Fletcher’s book ‘The London Nobody Knows’ with it’s celebration of the forgotten and neglected city of the sixties; Chapel Market, Percy Circus, Gin Palaces, public loos. We see Bob Stanley in a café flicking through its pages.

As the film unfolds these influences recede as other characters are introduced delivering their meditations on London. Artist Julian Opie, who designed one of St Etienne’s album covers, the guy at the record pressing plant where their first single was committed to vinyl, Vic Godard punk hero and postman.

The London we see is invariably the one inhabited by the band their collaborators, Hackney, Islington, Highgate, Soho. In this sense it represents more of personal topography than a ‘state of the city’ film essay that Keiller achieved. The references here are more towards the films of John Smith, particularly ‘Girl Chewing Gum’ and ‘Black Tower’.

The personal element to the film becomes its most compelling aspect rather than its stylistic homage to Keiller. The voice-over delivering lists of observations and associations reminiscent of the hypnotic prose of Hackney writer Iain Sinclair’s dérive reports from the unseen city. Fused with the visuals it constructs a palimpsest of the capital in 2003 much as Keiller’s film captured ’92.

Islington gets good coverage in the film: Percy Circus, the old dairy on Amwell Street, the world’s most uninviting dentist’s on Copenhagen Street (with a hand-painted sign in shaky letters), Packington Estate, Barbican, the Water Rats on Grays Inn Road, and Lubetkin’s Bevin Court with its famous stairwell.

The new St. Etienne album is named after a block of flats on the City Road, Turnpike House, and their follow-up film to ‘Finisterre’, ‘Caff’ featured the Golden Fish Bar on Farringdon Road, the recently deceased Alfredo’s on Essex Road (now S&M), and the Rheidol Rooms in Rheidhol Street.

I showed Bob, Pete, and Paul (another Wycombe boy and onetime member of Heavenly Records band East Village) my battered copy of Maxwell’s ‘The Fringe of London’ which they hadn’t seen and earned me a copy of the DVD (which is on sale now) – well worth its place next to my copies of ‘London’, ‘Galivant’, and ‘London Orbital’.

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