It had been nearly six months of telling my cousin that I would be his wing-woman on a random escapade to either find him a nice girlfriend- or at least open up the possibilities. But London is the desert of dating. So bad, that nearly 30% of new couples meet online. “Save a boyfriend for a rainy day- and another, in case it doesn’t rain,” said Mae West. But are all potential suitors circulating cyber space, asking people out by winking at them through their online avatar?
While researching East London’s The Book Club, for another piece entirely, Last Night A Speed Date Changed My life popped up on their events list. Could this be a more successful matchmaking scheme? I phone my cousin immediately. His hot new girlfriend is just across town, sitting at an empty table with a score card and his name on it. He’s game, and so we book ourselves in. But after the weekend I suddenly slump, unable to muster the appropriate mindset for the opposite of what I really want to do: put on soft clothes, play low music, talk to no-one. Speed dating on a Monday night!? The dread is akin to an approaching job interview when, so unprepared and exhausted, ‘hello’ is a mere squeak that disturbs my equilibrium. I want to bolt. The idea had become an abstract notion, an enabler of my cousin’s romantic life, and I forgot that I had to speed date too.
What is the etiquette of speed dating? And what can someone do when they can’t handle the formalities and etiquette of regular dating? And on a Monday?
My cousin picks me up from work, grumpy, exhausted, and already annoyed because I’m late. So we sink something strong in a pub opposite and enter the warm and welcoming Book Club as if we’re heading into battle.
We’re greeted by the friendly Jolene, who takes us down into a basement cluttered with cute, mismatching tables and chairs. The ceiling is a take on Jeff Wall’s Invisible Man, shrouded by a collage of light bulbs. Across the room, a motley crew of men screen us from the bar, the girls the other side. But then Jolene starts talking, her friendly banter gets everyone relaxed. We write our names on stickers and Jolene explains the rules: the girls find a table, on which a bowl of sweets and a few candles have been placed, and the guys then circulate the room. Each time Jolene plays a chiming sound, the men move to the table on their right. Phew! I find a spot at the back of the room and grab my cousin (reluctantly) to join me- not wanting to sit alone while the men sheepishly find their first date. This was a good plan in match-making Andrew, as he always makes me laugh. For the next three minutes, the cackling coming from my table gets the attention of a hot blonde to my left, who doesn’t know that Andrew and I are related. When the chimes sound Andrew shimmies off to meet her, and suddenly a strange man with grey, square hair shakes my hand, sits down and starts a fire-speed chat about all and nothing. For the next few mini-dates I realise that by locking onto one tiny detail, you can pretty much spin a three minute conversation out of anything. I then learn about tweed, swing dance, Disney and a Catholic boss who wants to be a nun: far less tiring than speed-flirting, which is impossible on a Monday night.
Half-time and Andrew and I go for a cigarette outside. Someone has re-written his name tag, so he is now being known as Andy, which couldn’t be funnier. The man who taught me about tweed joins us with an 18th century tobacco pipe, and tells us a bit more about gilding and the intimidating group of girls sitting on a row of tables next to each other. One of them, Andrew chips in, leant over to accuse him of stealing her friend’s wine. This is not the way to speed date.
Second half; another gin and tonic and three more dates, when I spy a rather older gentleman schmoozing his way from table to table with a bowl of nachos. Andrew comes back into view from behind the pillar, slightly hot in the face, speed-date weary, possibly now drunk. The lap is closing. But that’s not before Stuart (with his nachos) pulls the chair around to my side, and we start our last and most surreal date. Weren’t the age brackets mid-twenties to late thirties? When the chiming starts, he slaps me on the thigh and says he’ll catch me at the bar. Now, only one person can slap me on the thigh like that, but then I’m at a speed-dating night: just another one in the mix, playing the game for the sake of my cousin.
There’s the weird intimacy of a stranger, plonking themselves at eye level, to judge and be judged. There’s also the exhausting pretend-flirting and paranoia that your face is speaking your thoughts. But most importantly, and finally, there is the hot blonde… and her friend, who matched Andrew on their ‘wish list’, to be dated again? Maybe a speed date will change his life…
Ask the Brit comic book artist Alan Moore about his relationship with Hollywood or DC and he’ll slump back to Northamptonshire, grumbling that he’ll never cross the Atlantic again. He has every right perhaps. His labours of love such asV for Vendetta, Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen have been bastardised by film adaptations, resulting in Moore relinquishing all associated with what is still, essentially his writing.
Over the last few years, Hollywood has descended upon the colourful fields of graphic novels and comic books like a plague of locusts, stripping them of their depth and resonance to fly off to the box office ever fatter. Main stream movies, having once been made by men that love film, are now made by men that love money. So, reigning it back in possibly, with another type of collaboration and two fingers up to Hollywood, Alan Moore created a comic book (or graphic novel) that definitely can’t be adapted into 3D and marketed to every age group. Because it’s porn, and unconventional porn at that. Denying the film industry of yet another comic book movie might not have been his intention, but I’m hoping that it crossed his mind. Lost Girls, a graphically erotic exploration into the sexual awakening of three very different, and yet familiar girls, was not made by him alone however.
If the film industry and Alan Moore are a match made in hell, that’s not to say there wasn’t a perfect partner, with one foot in the fantasy realm in which he dwells- for him to find eventually. Melinda Gebbie, a San Franciscan artist- who in the 1970’s was collaborating with the subversive, satirical illustrator Robert Crumb, S. Clay Wilson and Spain Rodriguez, was called to Northampton as Moore’s artist-for-hire when he had the premise for a new story. It began with Peter Pan and the Freudian notion that dreams of flying are linked to sex, but when Melinda Gebbie joined forces the project turned a corner. The couple soon shared a mission to rehabilitate pornography and to take away the associated furtiveness and shame. If sexual imagination cannot be policed, then a graphic novel is possibly a good forum in which it can be explored.
Lost Girls is set in a resort hotel on the Franco-Swiss border, in 1913. The girls in question are the now all-grown-up heroines from popular childhood classics. The silver haired aristocrat with a long list of scandal behind her is Lewis Carroll’s Alice from Into the Looking Glass, Wendy Potter, wife of a staid middle-aged businessman, is Wendy from J.M Barrie’s Peter Pan and Dorothy Gale, the free-spirited young American tourist seeing Europe for the first time, is the heroine from L.Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz. All three come together in an exploration of sexual awakening that progress into pages of more graphic, and at times, relentless pornography.
But the book is rooted firmly in the fantasy world. And what a couple to create it: a man who in 1993 declared that he was a wizard, and a Californian feminist artist. Gebbie’s illustrations- all in a soft pastel pallet- match the sensuality of the material and are far from the brutal images of modern day pornography; and Moore’s narrative (as always) is a multi-faceted commentary- only this time on sex.
Many references are made to a literary tradition that dates back centuries, from the free-wheeling explicit cartoonist Robert Crumb, to Victorian erotica in England: Oscar Wilde and the British illustrator Audrey Beardsley. The book is layered with ideas about ‘childhood’ and the taboo, but also the sexuality of war. By the end of a rambling narrative, where the intimate sexual back-stories of each protagonist is unveiled, and we learn that their awakening has not just been erotic, but restorative and binding, the women escape the hotel as German soldiers storm through and blow everything up. World War one envelopes their journey and the mindless aggression of the soldiers defile the sacred space these women have shared. War, therefore, becomes the ultimate perversion of sex. And the lasting message that Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie wish to promote is to make love and not war- something their collaboration landed on during the process.
The project took sixteen years to complete and by the end of it? Moore and Gebbie were married. “I’d recommend to anybody working on their relationship that they should try embarking on a 16-year elaborate pornography [project] together. I think they’ll find it works wonders.” Moore said in hindsight, on a relationship and product that might last longer than any Hollywood budget.
The Dark Side of Camping is just north of Milton Keynes, where the land is still flat and the distant thrum of the M1 can be heard from the bottom of an empty field. In a last minute escape from London I found myself here, in a surreal situation with my flatmate, cousin and a car full of booze. The plan to go camping had been made weeks earlier in the pub, had lost enough momentum that nothing got organised, but not enough that we didn’t go anyway. It was the enactment of “always do sober what you said you’d do drunk”, as we stalled in Friday rush hour, and then drove through England’s more sinister looking towns in search of a patch of grass my cousin had booked online.
A terrifying experience of entering the local pub in search of a loo led us on one mile to a shallow slope of wet grass, cows and cold. The farmer – whose land it was – seemed suspicious, but pleased that we were occupying his spare field for the night. And none of us said anything, but why were we here? Erecting our tents over a carpet of flies? My cousin’s ‘fun-file’ – print outs of local tourist spots – had been made redundant by the drive alone. The future of the weekend was bleak. It was like we were escaping the blitz, with our supplies and ‘nice’ clothes and the lingering freak-out of losing the city to a sheep field. “Even in a time of elephantine vanity and greed, one never has to look far to see the campfires of gentle people,” said the broadcaster Garrison Keillor in 1942. Through a telescope into the future, he may have seen with horror our candle-lit bar, propped up on the plastic case of our cooker, go up in flames. The cows in the next field saw it, with an intimidating, stolid gaze over the fence. And we saw them, through my telescope, as there was nothing else but sulphur singed clouds overhead and a ditch and a hedge…
Great people, “when faced with a decision, take the outrageous one, not knowing where it might lead them, but knowing that the safe decision has danger written all over it,” says Paul Arden. I tell this to my cousin the next morning as the three of us, hungover and jaded, bomb into a roman market town for breakfast.
“Then I think we should go to Skegness,” he says, frazzled yet determined behind the wheel. My flatmate doesn’t understand, so he explains that it’s a flat coastal area that peaked in the 1930’s and has slipped into grimsville ever since. She’s still up for it. But two of my cousin’s friends are arriving at a nearby station in a few hours. “Agnes has come all the way from Switzerland for this.” Andrew had said the night before, sozzled on the wet grass, “to freeze at the bottom of a field with a sack of booze.”
There was no purpose to our trip. No realised destination. So we sat in the charred remains of a graveyard in town, with our coffees, and tried to conjure one. Nothing came to mind. My cousin’s enthusiasm was now a thin veil, unable to mask his disappointment and the regret he felt passing out in the back seat of his car, roof down, music blaring the night before. We had gone on holiday by mistake. The only way out was through a town full of tourists, back to the car. In the direction of The Peak District, with the roof down and my flatmate freezing up in the back seat, we realised that it may not be about the camping but where you camp that is the key. That it may just be essential, when camping for no reason, to do it amongst beauty. So we sped North West, in search of something easier on the eye and for a high wind to clear our heads. The Peak District was our tonic, where the air became cleaner, the people nicer and a little campsite is always waiting to be discovered in the depths of every valley.
Some small walks later, and a glorious drive through The Peaks, we were back in London, with more booze than we had left with. Three days and was that fun? God might have made one damp planet, but I think it went mouldy, and that maybe it’s safer to pretend it’s not there. As Monty so cheerfully puts it in Withnail and I: “Come on lads, let’s go home. The sky’s beginning to bruise, night must fall and we shall be forced to camp.” And no one wants that.
It was a bleak day when I went to visit artist Rab Harling at the Balfron Tower in Poplar (East London). I have always been suspicious of Brutalist architecture and whether it serves as a happy environment for the people that live in the buildings, and staring up at the gargantuan concrete tower block set against a grey sky, I could see why Danny Boyle used it in his post-apocalyptic film 28 Days Later. It scares me. When I tell Rab that it looks somewhere between a large factory and something out of 1984, he disagrees. Firstly it was Battersea Power Station (another example of Brutalist architecture) that was the facade for Victory Mansions in the film of 1984, and secondly, because inside, he says, it’s beautiful. Rab is currently taking up residency on the second floor to create a large photographic installation about the building, its community and the idea of ‘happiness’ that an environment can either inspire or extinguish. Having just read Alan de Botton’s The Architecture of Happiness, I was intrigued to find out more about social housing like Balfron Tower, and those that live there.
Its sister building is the 31- floor Trellick Tower in Kensington, and both were designed by Erno Goldfinger in an attempt to solve the huge shortage of housing in the country following World War II. Goldfinger was known as a humourless man who would fire his assistants for being too ‘jocular’. When he heard that Ian Fleming had made him into the villain of one of his James Bond books, he contested it so much that Fleming nearly changed the character to ‘Goldprick’. Looking at the tower, I can’t help but think it is a mere extension of the architect’s character, which has been – and will be — inflicted upon many a generation. At 27 floors high, it houses hundreds of people — about half of whom are Bangladeshi (says Rab) and all of whom (including him) will be moving out as they refurbish it, not knowing if they can return.
Where we live and the buildings around us make up the foundations of our community and can have a strong hold on our sense of happiness in life. Oscar Wilde claimed that: “The wrong kind of wallpaper could upset him more than a death in the family.” As an extreme aesthete, I doubt he would have liked Brutalist architecture. The Balfron tower was built with socialist ideals of economy and community, but due to urban decay after the war and the stark alien presence of such blocks compared with the rest of the city’s architecture, Brutalism became quickly un-popular and synonymous with un-happy residents.
“I want to make a piece that sheds a positive light on the often negative associations people bring to social housing and celebrate the diversity of the community within,” Rab says as we reach his place, on the second floor. It’s the size of a small house with steps leading down into a large living room with big windows. It’s peaceful, quiet and light. A balcony spans the room and the kitchen next door and over-looks another estate, a children’s ‘playground’ (fit with strange concrete walls and a concrete slide), and in the distance, the grand glass HSBC towers, one of the richest areas in London. “This area,” Rab says, “is one of the poorest in Europe – but this building” — he thumps his fist against the living room wall — “is solid, well made so that you have privacy.” Rab’s work is a series of photos taken in the apartments looking out. To show the building from the other perspective, he’ll set them on a light-box and in essence turn the Balfron Tower inside out. By getting to know as many of the residents as possible and through their word of mouth, he is building up his own network and relationship with his fellow residents in the form of “a family tree”.
“Beauty is the promise of happiness,” quotes Alain De Botton in The Architecture of Happiness, but in Brutalist design there is no room for the indulgence of beauty, only that of economy. Form must follow function, which through the 70’s and 80’s was simply ‘low budget’. John Ruskin said: “Buildings should shelter us, speak to us of all the things that are important, and remind us of them on a daily basis.” Domesticity, comfort and protection are but a few of the feelings that I think a house must communicate and even though Balfron looks like a severe dystopian factory from the outside, inside, I agree with Rab that it’s beautiful. When he takes me to the 27th floor the view is mesmerising and inspiring. “But the residents are treated really badly. They’re in the process of erecting scaffolding over the entire block — to work on the building for six months — it’s cheaper to do this when the building is occupied rather than wait and do it when it gets refurbished. No one was told. The direct disruption of noise and blocking up the windows has caused major unhappiness.”
Social housing can often say more about the ideal of the architect or a council’s budget, which in turn can have a negative impact on those that live there. A community can turn sour and break apart, not just because it is a poor one, but because of the way it is regarded, the relationship it has with neighbouring boroughs, the police and each other within it. I’m writing this as vans of police shoot past my window and my neighbours board up their shops. The place, East London (right now) is the target of hatred. Instead of gangs fighting gangs, they’re fighting the buildings, the communities, and last night broke down walls on terraced streets in Tottenham and used the bricks to smash and loot local businesses and banks, and it started from the same Brutalist inspired estate that gave birth to major riots in the 1980’s.
This speaks of social problems that run deeper than whether a house is pretty or not, but what de Botton and Rab Harling are both promoting is that we pay more attention to the psychological consequences of design in architecture as it can have the ability to further alienate communities, and will always affect us all.