The Plaça de Sant Felip Neri is a small, shaded square in the Barri Gòtic or Gothic Quarter of Barcelona. The Baroque church from which it takes its name stands at one end, the walls deeply pockmarked.
Tour guides tell the story of how, during the Spanish Civil War, General Franco laid siege to the city of Barcelona. Children from the church school and refugees from Madrid had been sheltering in the church, which was functioning as a makeshift orphanage. On 30 January 1938, the Italian air force - fighting in support of the Nationalist faction in the civil war - dropped two bombs on the square, killing 42 people, most of them children, in the city’s second worst bombing raid of the war.
Subsequently the Franco regime spread a myth that the pockmarks in the stone were from the bullets of an anarchist firing squad who had supposedly executed Catholic priests in the church square. Spain took a long time to reckon with its Fascist past, and even in the late 1990s, this was the story visitors might get told. Only in 2007, Barcelona City Council installed a bronze plaque with a simple inscription, putting the story to rights.
That isn’t the only fabrication in this square, however. The entire concept of the Barri Gòtic is a fiction too, first proposed by mayor Ramon Rucabado and architect Jeroni Martorell in 1911, but based on earlier ideas of “medievalizing enhancements to the Barcelona cityscape” by Lluís Domènech i Montaner in 1879. There was a desire to “give identity” to that part of the city: the 1929 International Exhibition was coming, and they wanted to transform this neighbourhood into a tourist attraction.
As such, “some of what tourists see in the Barri Gòtic is very old - but some of what visitors encounter only looks old, or is a composite of new and old parts," writes Michael A. Palgrave in Constructing Catalan Identity (2018) Dozens of major buildings in this neighbourhood were altered or rebuilt, in a process that continued as late as 1970. Much of the Plaça de Sant Felip Neri, too, is a composite of other gothic buildings, moved from elsewhere in the city to make way for new developments.
These walls you see here are a hologram, the octagonal fountain in the centre of the square only fifty years old.
I know it’s been declared gauche this year to count the books you read, but I see no reason to stop. My uncle has recorded every book he’s read since age 15 (he’s now about 75), and estimated back his childhood consumption for a pretty good guess at totality: perhaps 5,000 volumes, a million pages; full knowledge of the library that makes him him. He has kept much of it, and inherited more - I believe he and my aunt hold a chunk of my grandfather’s library, passed from one man of letters (a doctorate in Latin poetry) to another (a professor of law). Given time I will presumably inherit some part of this archive myself, to join the hundred-odd twentieth century classics I purloined from my parents (really, my father) around the time I left home, fifteen years ago, which I have still not read - and the many hundred more I’ve bought.
Celebrity things-fetishist Marie Kondo recently caused a media tremor by suggesting that one might not keep every volume: “Will these books be beneficial to your life moving forward?” she asked. There was outcry — so, being contrarian by orientation, of course I happen to agree. What is unread in it matters as much as what has been consumed: the library is a continual work in progress, a projection forwards as much as a means of looking back. Or rather, it is an archive of past projections forward, hope inseparable from memory. I own many volumes older than I am and will only come to own more. But still: nothing stays unless I believe I shall want to come back to it - a presentiment of a future return.
This one is new - book no.1 of 2019, James Salter’s first novel ‘The Hunters’ (1956) - but it’s also one that’s going to stay.
I’ll file it between the Saint-Exuperys and Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring (2015), and West With The Night by pioneering aviatrix Beryl Markham (1942/84). It’s about a pilot flying in the Korean War.
Books about flying share a core of feeling so achingly crystalline that not even other stories of near-death in the sublime (the Arctic, the desert, the mountains) quite touch. There is a sharp poignancy their writers know, that of cold air and low oxygen at altitude, and watching the sun rise and fall over the curvature of the earth. And there is one they do not, one that comes from the way these stories are about to become marooned in time, relic of a long twentieth century of kerosene and the jet engine, in which the planet seemed for a time a place where humankind might soar, and perilous though the risk we had not yet come crashing down. There will be solar sails, I suppose, but they will not be helmed by men.
Salter was recommended to me by Rishi Dastidar as a writer exceptional at the sentence level and worthy of study. I’m not sure I saw this: his prose is plainer than that led me to expect, though as spare and lean as these books usually are, with only the tiniest, carefully judged flights of lyricism. Instead I loved this book for the opposite reason: the narrative, and its ambivalence. Nothing happens, and nothing happens, and nothing - and then it does, and of course by that time the narrator doesn’t want it anyway. But perhaps all books about war are like this, or all the good ones. I don’t know: I haven’t read so many of them. Yet.
Location: Carnaby Street, London
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Soho has lost a lot of its neon fantasy lately - but some lives on in spectacular form. I started off thinking: I’m sure I’m meant to criticise this. But after some reflection: nah. I’ve got time for it, weaponised Instagram-bait as it is. Here’s why.
Amazon is hollowing out our high streets and replacing human-facing shop jobs with warehouse drudgery that leaves workers mere servants to a machine. It is hollowing out our material culture into price-arbitraged Alibaba drop-shipped disposable trash. And the media that might object to this turns instead to affiliate links and “service journalism” to stay afloat. An entire section of New York magazine is just an Amazon catalogue now. High street shops shutter and people stay away and the decline accelerates.
Meanwhile, Tinder and Deliveroo and Netflix (and high alcohol taxation and stagnating incomes and NIMBY-ist anti-nightlife zoning) mean our generation have… turned inwards. Culture shifts from the public to the domestic and digital, & away from the press of bodies in a crowded room to the tap of thumbs on a Twitch stream. This is bad for love, joy, solidarity and resistance. Bodily presence and shared experience are irreplaceable. People do better participating in the world. Hikikomori aren’t #goals.
This Christmas Visa did a full on feels-ad with local shopkeepers singing “All I want for Christmas is you.” And this neon spectacular is the same: it’s another big 'Fuck you Amazon', and the fact it’s retailers & a multi-millionaire rock band reminding us of this doesn’t mean they’re wrong. You will not remember the brown cardboard box of your 32nd Prime delivery next year, but you might remember this.
Sure, it’s designed to transmute into a spectacular digital image & circulate accordingly. But note how everyone takes their own photo, whatever the quality of their phone cam, rather than posting professional promo shots. This says: it matters that this was my experience. And in that, a germ of hope.
Work to be done yet on sustainable retail & imagining the city centre beyond consumption & bringing about the end of capitalism, sure. But the city I want looks more like this than it does an Amazon warehouse.
Location: Lobby of the Langham, London
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Placeholder for a desire to think more about hotels.
Perhaps it comes from participating in Precarious Gossips last month at Hotel Zoo, Berlin - or seeing that Helen Hester has been writing about them lately too (on rather more defensible, labour relations grounds). Or perhaps it’s because I’m reading ‘Tender Is The Night’ by F. Scott Fitzgerald, about a caste defined by the fact they live out of them, anywhere and nowhere.
The department store of the 1880s was instrumental in the production of modern subjectivity: it was “conceived as a technology of self-invention” through consumer choice, says Joanne Finkelstein (2007). Pace Lukacs she notes how “the inner self has been hollowed out and made into a subjectivity that becomes an object - to be groomed and improved.” Felix Guattari writes of the court of Versailles that subjectivity itself is understood to be a commodity. It’s all a performance of sensibility and taste; the flâneuse, rather more than the flâneur, “the real model for the modern consumer subject” – Kevin Hetherington, 2011.
The hotel, though… It seems as though it should be the same sort of space as the department store, a cosmopolitan public - and perhaps its bars and restaurants are, but the hotel really is not. It is something the opposite, a place of escape and avoidance.
But it’s nonetheless also productive of a subjectivity too. So of what sort?
Location: York Minster, northern England
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Over dinner, my uncle asked me how I felt about the future. “Personally optimistic, globally pessimistic,” I replied. Climate change, of course - and more so the political & human horror that will accompany it. If the ice sheets were to melt into the oceans without taking democracy and human rights with them, I might take that deal.
We talked about what it takes to feel invested in the future beyond your lifespan. To my aunt it was inherent, it just made sense. “Children,” said my uncle. He didn’t think he was so invested, if he were honest (we’re all three child-free.) “Money,” I said. Perhaps it’s a luxury to be able to care about the future. Many are one paycheck from disaster and have more pressing concerns.
I talked about how crisis-averting change is possible (ecologically, economically) and impossible (politically, perhaps psychologically). We in the West do not live in a system that can act beyond the financial quarter or the electoral cycle. Time discounting is a cognitive norm.
But, I said. There are also systems that take a longer view. The Native American principle of thinking for seven generations. Japanese thousand-year corporations. And a cathedral a hundred yards away that on just three panels lists its archbishops back to 314.
This deep thread of continuity in place is something close to the heart of my personal sense of Englishness. It’s one of the things that makes Europe (and Japan, and China) different to America.
Continuity does not mean ethno-nationalism, though. Just look at these names. The ruptures within them.
From the Romans Eborius and Paulinus to the Celtic name Chad, to the Angles of the Kingdom of Northumbria: Wilfrid, Egbert, Aethelbert. The capture of York in 867. Wulfstan I, who played off the Vikings vs the Wessex kings. The Danes Oscytel and Oswald. 1066, conquest. 1071, a new Norman dynasty of names: Thomas. Bastard offspring of royalty (Fitzherbert). Kin of kings (Plantagenet). In 1514 the common son of a butcher, Thomas Wolsey.
This list of archbishops ends (for the moment) with John Sentamu, 2005—, who was born in Uganda.
In order to have a future, we need a new conception of time, which has been present all along