Joanna Margaret Paul (1945-2003)
A selection of material from brief 32 Joanna Margaret Paul special issue (Winter 2005), edited and introduced by Jack Ross.
A Passionate Pilgrimage in Time
First published in brief 32 (Winter 2005): 6-12.
When the bus passes a certain clump of trees, tall poplars on an island of grass with roads or driveways off to left and right, I look up and am seized by an almost physical spasm of distress and laughter. Something happened – just out of view and off the limits of this essay. But what intrigues is the urge to look up, the trees that break in on my book or daydream; the powerful emotion that breaks through a few seconds later, and lasts a minute or two longer, my mind scarcely glancing at the event.
Similarly I found myself once walking up one of the steep walled streets in Dunedin and weeping as I walked before I realised that this was the street I climbed to have lunch with the writer in Heriot Row who tendered me such constant affection during my Dunedin years as a young painter.
So where is memory? Is memory a pact with place? Do we leave traces of ourselves in places loved or frequented, at sites of feeling unregarded at the time?
This is not an empirical question of course, but it is one of human identity construed through time, moving changing enduring the scenes and relations shifting and the same that complete us.
Old Paris No Longer Exists
Le vieux Paris n’est plus (la forme d’une ville
If I were to look for my girlhood self in the curving crescent of Lambton Quay I would not find her, as the curve may remain but the anatomy of shop windows and brown buildings disintegrates. The changes are too gradual, too familiar to be sensed as personal vertigo; where one doesn’t see them happen one loses even loss.
I suspect that that girl might be found with all her vulnerability in the more permanent XVIllth century stone facades of Well Walk & Flask St, on Hampstead Heath, in Keats House or a certain Norman Church near the Tower of London. Visiting London briefly and recently I did not visit these places because I had no particular wish to find her. I was discovering on foot tracts between the tube stations that had lit up my discontinuous London. I was discovering a personal joy in a less personal past.
– Thank you, but it’s most inconvenient without an ensuite.
The listed building, the end of a terrace in Bloomsbury was described by John Summerson (Georgian London) as ‘Jerry-built Georgian’. But is nevertheless Georgian London, a fine inflected wall or corridor of grey-yellow brick, quarried from outlying suburban fields early in the XIXth Century.
The builders may have put up a great deal of London fast, but they couldn’t go wrong working within determinants fixed since the Great Fire, ‘for better regulation, uniformity and gracefulness’.
1666 The Rebuilding of London Act stipulated terraces not more and not less than ‘four stories high in the principal streets, three stories in streets and lanes of note, and two stories in the by lanes’. A few decades later wooden eaves were replaced by stone parapets, and wooden window frames narrowed and recessed (4 inches) giving a clean incisive look. The conventions governing windows were set by Inigo Jones following Palladio. Elaborated on the ground floor, full length on the piano nobile, with or without balconies, smaller and smallest on the bedroom floors above. This decorum prevailed in terrace after terrace of continuous roof lines and window rhythms over London, and persist thanks to stringent policies on preservation.
Some of the speculative builders of the XVIllth and early XIXth century were noted for their good workmanship, like Thomas Cubitt who founded his own workshop. Jerry-built meant inferior not in appearance but in corner cutting – too many third grade friable bricks!
Left alone, repaired and maintained, but spared redecoration ‘conservation’ or self advertisement these terraces have a thereness, a presence not unlike the clay cliffs they might have come from.
The casualness with which things don’t draw attention to themselves is what struck me most in London. That, and the first arc of unbroken terraces my eye glimpsed on the bus from Heathrow –
Walk through a door from the Strand and one walks through the London of Samuel Johnson of Dickens too into the Xllth century. Standing in a cool church with small windows and pale stone, stems of flecked basalt, one looks down on knights in armour lying in effigy. There is more than a patina of feet on the paving stones of the Temple courtyard – a patina of memories and lives. We lack these layers here or we erase them.
(Driving into Wellington I’m moved afresh to rage and distress by a warehouse crumbling, or the lawcourts being demolished for a bland city courtyard, just where the street wall of the Quay demanded a quoin. Like our podocarp forest these buildings impressed with the classical orders of architecture won’t rise again.)
The Form of a Town Changes More Quickly Alas than the Mortal Heart
Also in London I searched out a set of memories as insistent as my own, from repeated readings of Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage. Her house in ‘Tansy Street’ I searched in a lane off Woburn Place, after checking an index in the Bloomsbury workshop. I found a paved alley and a blue plaque identifying where Yeats had lived, above a latticed shop front. (‘two stories for a lane …’) The sacramental candles in his window could be viewed from hers. But Dorothy lived in an attic story, and thus can’t have lived opposite, over the 2nd hand bookshop. (Later John Summerson added to my appreciation of this precinct referring to uniquely preserved XVIIlth century shops).
Her house must have been on the corner and facing into the yard whence sometimes quarrelling voices would flow up. It could only be that her rooming house was where there was now a hole in the ground, a fenced construction site on a corner between the pretty shops and the 1930’s hotel which faced Woburn Place near Euston Station. All round here were XlXth century houses more or less on Georgian lines, but cruder, with small 5th floor dormer windows, of the kind she had described in Tansy Street. It was a pity that perhaps the most subtly observed and recorded building in literature had gone to ground. (It lives in the novel – the sounds of different doors opening, the sash in the attic being raised, the shines on the rooves opposite.)
The trees in Ensleigh Gardens came along gently waving their budding branches in bright sunshine. The colour of the gardens was so intense that the sun must just be going to set behind Euston Station. The large houses moved steadily behind the gardens, in blocks, bright white, with large quiet streets opening their vistas in between the blocks, leading to green freshness and then safely on down into Soho. The long square came to an end. The shrub trimmed base of St Pancras Church came heavily nearer and stopped. As Miriam got out of the bus ….
If one thinks of the city as a body, gaps and breaks and tawdry intrusions in the sequence of stone are like missing fingers – scar tissue, a foreign valve.
But in London memorials and gardens soften the transitions, (On my first visit to London I used to pass, where a bomb had dropped, a small garden ‘in memory of Charlotte Mary and Dorothy’.) Walking round London again I stopped at every memorial and read, as if stopped by someone demanding a coin, or by the over-laden apple tree of the fairy tale.
Remembered … warriors, earls and pacifists, a nurse, the founders of Sunday schools and sewerage systems, a young man died diving to rescue his captain, and, most beautiful of all, the globe on the XVIIIth century plinth also at Greenwich, remembering James Cook. At dusk in a garden in Queens Square, I rubbed a tarnished plaque in the grass with cologne and found that ‘in this square a bomb exploded that killed nobody ...’
‘I’m not talking about nostalgia’
This was Rosalie Gascoigne in conversation at a big Auckland Art Gallery McCahon event (she was exactly his age). She might have been referring to a work I saw one time in Wellington, fragments of flower patterned old lino set on little low plinths and arranged in a swirling pattern. Not nostalgia. No this was evocation, reminder and allusion, invocation. It appealed to piecemeal memory by offering shards that swam together to form another whole. I loved Rosalie’s piece in the same way I had loved an old house long abandoned, once glimpsed on Banks Peninsula. It had large flowers on the lino and printed on the hessian dado that bisected the wall. The upper walls and ceiling were covered with flowered paper.
The charm through dust though half obliterated was the direct speech of the past. Rosalie Gascoigne was letting the past speak directly, in that beautifully, simply edited way she had learned from Japan.
I too dislike the restored house, the Katherine Mansfield House, the contemporary version, the conversation with the past denied.
In the same vein: Paul ––, an architect in Wellington, said once at a conference, or party .... the only possible relation to the past is one of nostalgia.
I too dislike it. Nostalgia with its overtones of false indulgent calculated sentiment and self pity. Almost kitsch ... ‘the second tear’. Paul W. is younger than me ... but I also grew up in an ethos of modernism. How does one know what one knows?
That buildings are also ensouled bodies … that the rhythms of columns is the diastole of the heart. That something changed when windows ceased to be apertures and became walls. The claustrophobia of the windowless building; the ennui of glass. That the classical orders of architecture are as limited, as endangered as the podocarp forest .... That what we daily look at becomes cosmos, carries memory .... when its edifice remembers organic materials and the human scale.
How can they be alive to voices of the past if never in a position to hear them? If our particular classical humanist past in Aotearoa is continually bulldozed into oblivion, or ‘done up’ in our own image of the past or made over to the convenience of the present. Or denied by being stifled in tarmac, or false paving, or built out by caryards or dressed up with ‘Victorian’ street furniture, not authentic, not useful, sign posts that address the past with nostalgia and prevent our casual apprehension of our world.
If we can’t just let it alone, how can anyone ever stand vis a vis the difference of the past?
I try and think of better words than nostalgia. Continuity ... use ... passion … dialogue ... respect ... discriminate knowledge.
Paul Walker dismissed all commerce with the past as ‘nostalgia’. Rosalie Gascoigne fought free of her apprehension of the past being portrayed as ‘nostalgia’. I would also like to think of this meditation on the past and its present necessity (we dream about old houses) as something other than nostalgia. This essay in memory is a boustrophedon rather than a picture where parallel lines converge towards a single viewpoint.
A Practical Coda
I believe they’ve seen some light in London about the buildings near St Paul’s. St Paul’s in the 1960’s was crowded in by the crudest modern office blocks. They’ve begun to be dismantled so that Wren’s High Renaissance Church can breathe. One grotesque still remained stuck on in glass and aluminium to an elaborate Wren or Gibbs Tower, like a piece of monstrous genetic engineering. One doesn’t deny the beauties of the modern but only its capacity to salute the past. Beyond modernism it seems we should collectively look back and discern the virtue in all architectural phases. Do we?
Or is late modernism here and now still the enemy of the past and architecture of architecture. A contempt betrayed in the indiscriminate phrase: a heritage building, used by another architectural lecturer.
A recent national competition for extension to the familiarly beautiful Sarjeant Gallery won 60 serious entries. The plans were exhibited within the gallery.
Again and again the modern box stuck on with no more regard for the Sarjeant’s neo-classic temple symmetry than the office block for Wren’s steeple. Sometimes the new version gouged out the inside spaces of the gallery. Sometimes the extension was as they say sensitive in form or material. But only one said ‘this is… an icon and no intervention is called for.’
This one opened up unseen possibilities within the gallery by running a light gangway from an upstairs blind door, high up through two screens of palm and oak, to where this small architectural organism could be perceived and companioned unmolested –
A vulnerable past –
© Joanna Paul