Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Art and Espionage: An Addendum

I know the Casino Royale piece is long as blog posts go, but I can't resist doing a little historical addendum, one which speaks in a unique way to the intersection of art and public life, which is one of the main themes of this blog. In the summer of 1989 I spent a couple of weeks cycling around England. One day in London I asked directions to get somewhere (must have been at least five blocks away, I guess) rather than attempt to carve a path with my A to Z (that's Zed, in case you thought "Z" rhymed with "bee"...) There is nothing a Londoner likes better than being asked how to get somewhere in London, unless perhaps it is how to properly enunciate the word "garage" (rhymes with "carriage"). Having secured the desired information I set off on my bike through streets whose names I am far from being able to recall (I wrote in my diary only that it was "south of Soho"). But before I had gone very far I saw something that at that moment, for me, was akin to stumbling on an unknown Mayan temple: a perfect little dead end sidestreet, hardly traveled, but nevertheless sporting a perfect little pub, and a few outdoor tables. Nothing could have appealed to me more at that moment than sitting at one of those tables, sipping a pint of ale, munching on some pub food (a bit of black bread, a hunk of cheese, some pickled vegetables and such), and reading a little of Berkeley's Principles of Human Knowledge, which I carried with me at the time. (It was the summer before I began graduate studies in philosophy, and having had nothing but a single introductory course in contemporary philosophy as an undergraduate I was on a crash program to learn some history of the subject, in the hope of avoiding gross embarrassment later). So that is exactly what I did. I leaned my bike against a barrel outside (that's how quiet the street was, I was not even concerned about losing it) and emerged a few minutes later with beverage and victuals.

There was an elderly woman sitting across the street behind an easel, and once I was done with my meal I asked her if I could take some pictures of her. Being a visual artist herself she was quite forthcoming, so we began to engage in conversation. Reconstructing how it went will take a little imagination, since for some reason I recorded nothing about it in my diary, though I have thought about it dozens of times since then. It must have begun innocently enough with my asking her about her subject, which was of course the tiny dead end block on which we were located. But it soon led to something like the following:

Me: It is a very lovely and quaint block, I can see why you would have chosen it as a subject.
She: Is it? I think it is a very peculiar block.
Me: Really? Why?
She: I've been sitting here for three days, and seen the people that come and go. There's something odd about them.
Me: What? I've only seen one person pass, a man in an ordinary business suit.
She: They're not quite right, you know. A bit too determined, perhaps. They don't look about. And they always go directly to the same building.
Me: What building?
She (almost whispering): Can you see down the block without turning your head? That building at the end, that's what I mean. See if you can get a photo of it without turning around or staring at it.
Me (getting a little nervous, but also wondering if she wasn't a strange duck, or perhaps indulging in some of that hermetic British humor): Okay, I see it. I'll try to click without looking through the camera. But why?
She: Don't you notice anything peculiar about it?
Me (trying to look sideways without staring): Um, no...

To me, it looked quite ordinary; a fairly new but in no way unusual piece of architecture that fit in reasonably well with the houses on either side, all of them three stories tall, with more or less flat facades and perhaps a minimal amount of decorative stonework. If there were fire escapes they must have been behind the building, for the front had nothing of the kind. Of the many interesting buildings I had seen in London, this hardly stood out. Pretty bad for an aspiring photographer, who should have as much of an eye for detail as a painter!

She: Do you see the bars in the windows?
Me: Yes, I do see some bars.
She: Not some. All. All the windows have bars.
Me: I see, they do. But what of it?
She: They are not the kinds of bars that people use to keep out burglars. They are there for a reason. Why would you have bars on a window three stories above the ground!? And not one curtain has opened on those windows in three days!
Me: Hmmm... I think you're right. This is very odd. Maybe we shouldn't be here.
She: I am just a dotty old artist to them, not of much concern I suppose. However, a young man with a camera, I'm not so sure. From what I've seen I would probably advise you not to stay here too long. There's much more than this to see in London, anyway.

And so I said goodbye and made a quick, quiet exit, half expecting a short, sharp shock as I rounded the corner. I have never forgotten that moment, as she spoke and I scanned the windows floor by floor, until it suddenly dawned on me that there was absolutely no normal explanation for thick metal security bars on the second or third floor windows of an inconspicuous little building on a dead end street. There I was, having seen On Her Majesty's Secret Service and many other Bond films, and read almost all the novels too (the torture scenes in Casino Royale and Thunderball being firmly planted in my mind), sitting there with camera and panniers and Berkeley tract, and staring at what I took to be a British Secret Service detention center, or something of the kind. At that moment, art and reality coincided: my companion's painting and the scene down the street, the Fleming novels and films and the threatening presence of a force that had license to detain, and, most likely, kill. So I did what anyone loyal to art would do, to preserve that oh so important separation, that aesthetic distance that provides an opening for the imagination: I left. And now I leave these memories to the imagination of others.

1 comment:

Pacze Moj said...

I have to ask: have you been back, to the mysterious building with the unexplainably bolted third story windows?