March 19, 2018

The view from my hotel window:

10.30 am: I’d been eager to revisit the Tower of London. The journey took me passed HMS Belfast (a ship I really would like to explore), which was oddly camouflaged against the grey patterned blocks of the cityscape:

My mother took me to the Tower of London in the late 1970s and, with my father, in 1968. Only the Crown Jewels were memorable on those occasions. Today, I wanted to look more closely (and knowingly) at the White Tower (built in the 1080s) and the Church of St Peter ad Vincula (built c. 1520). The former contains the Romanesque chapel of St John. It’s a world within a world; a military fortress with a religious heart:

I’ve no particular interest in this period of history, which is one reason for engaging it. The downside of academic specialisation is a consequent narrowing of the field of vision. Thus I make an effort to consciously look to my left and right, and at what’s behind me, just in case I miss something of interest and worthwhile.

St Peter’s is the resting place of Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard, and Lady Jane Grey. Many, many others are buried, invisibly, in the interior’s north wall. It’s, for all intents and purposes, a vertical cemetery. I recalled Walter de la Maria’s Vertical Earth Kilometre (1977) – a brass rod that extends that distance into the earth. Only a 5 cm diameter circle is visible on the surface. The rest has to be imagined. Other than brass memorial plaques identifying some of the remains, the wall’s grissly cladding is, likewise, a conceptual reality.

In cells, there were the poignant ‘remains’ of inmates who carved their hopes, despair, and names on the walls as a witness to the future:

Much of the Tower and its fittings have been either added to, overlaid, removed, or reconfigured in the thousand and more years since it was built. Therefore, what one’s sees is all times and no time in particular or isolation: a version of reality that’s the end product of a long, cumulative, evolutionary, mutable, and adaptive process.

5.30 pm: I met my elder son on Frith Street. We patronised the Dog and Duck before sitting down for dinner at Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. He and I had visited the venue almost a year to the day to hear John McLaughlin and the 4th Dimension. Tonight, the Lee Konitz Quartet was on the stage:

Konitz had, most notably, played alto saxophone on Miles Davis’ landmark album Birth of the Cool (1957). He’s now 90 years old. That’s remarkable enough. But his playing, while constrained by the limits of his stamina, remained controlled, imaginative, superbly articulated, and from the heart. (The eternal soul of the artist ever remains young.) How wonderful to be still be doing what you’re most passionate about in your nineth decade.

Many of the other players in the quartet and supporting act were in their 30s and 40s, performing music that’d been written as many years before they’d been born. Yet, clearly, it was still relevant to them, and sufficiently vital and flexible to receive new spirits and ideas into its framework. One does not need to be boundary breaker or innovator in an art form. Pushing from within the bounds of established modes and traditions has its merits too. The older languages of jazz are by no means played out. And that, in part, is what makes them great.

We’ve young painting students at the School who’r engaging with types of abstract painting that were prevalent in the 1950s and 60s. They’re not being either anachronistic or backward looking. (One must always go back in order to go forward, in any case.) On the contrary, these nascent artists are learning to ‘speak’ a historical visual language in order say something about themselves and their own times. Like the Tower, in their hands abstract painting will be be added to, subtracted from, and adapted a contemporary context. Like 50s jazz played today, it’s the same but different.

 

 

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