London with the Birds
It was four years ago that Billy and Margaret were in London and Billy took photographs and sent a photo a day so I could share a little of the fun he was having while I stayed home and worked and worried about the world. Those photos and the squibs I wrote about them were part of an art exhibit at the Oxford Community Arts Center and later became a little book Billy and I self-published and sold and gave away. We had a lot of fun doing that and thought we’d try again this year since Billy and Margaret were to be in London. I wasn’t working or worrying overmuch this summer, but I was at home and hoping for vicarious experience. This time Billy sent color photographs. Last time they were black and white. It could be that London is best represented in black and white, but a little color can’t hurt, and it’s good to look at the brighter side of things occasionally. Billy was busy having fun and wasn’t able to send photos one at a time the way he did last time so I got them all at once via Dropbox, with a few notes to help me write about them. I obviously mucked things up last time by talking about the girls Billy was photographing while not paying enough attention to the snapshot effects he was going for, the art and that kind of thing, so his notes might have been meant to put me in the right place. Mostly I ignored them.
This is a photograph of some of your classic English pub food, a roast Billy captured with his camera one Sunday at The Castle Pub in Holland Park, where Billy and Margaret stayed for their time in London. Holland Park is an upscale neighborhood, with a park that Wikipedia says is 22 hectares—one hectare equals almost two and a half acres. I like roast beef and I like boiled potatoes so it’s hard not to like this photograph. I like beer, too, though maybe that is ale in the photograph. The other drink could be white wine, but Billy isn’t saying. In fact I don’t know if this was his meal or somebody else’s. Yorkshire pudding floats on top of the beef like a mushroom cloud—it’s sublime. Billy has centered the roast—still life paintings work like this. But Billy’s photos are simpler, as simple as Andy Warhol’s flower Polaroids. Nothing fancy, just the picture, the food ready to eat.
There is hardly a more famous place in London than Trafalgar Square. You always see tourists there. They’ll be grabbing a tour bus or heading into the National Gallery or photographing Nelson’s Column or sitting around the fountain on one of the giant lions. It’s mostly kids who sit on the lions. There’s not a pigeon in sight in this photograph, and since I am used to seeing pigeons in Trafalgar Square I am wondering if they have done something recently to chase them off. There are lots of serious buildings around Trafalgar Square. I always enjoy visiting there and am glad Billy took this picture, though there’s not much of a crowd to see. Billy has taken the photograph from a position that allows him to foreground the “No Entry” sign. The authorities want to keep tourists out of their fountain.
Could this be a Londoner? I mean someone who lives in London, as opposed to a tourist? He’s on a bench in Trafalgar Square looking as if he’s trying to fish something out of the pocket of his windbreaker. If it’s a digital camera, he’s probably a tourist. If it’s a cellphone, he’s probably a local. I suppose it could be a wallet in which case all bets are off. He looks to be intelligent. The white hair helps, and the comfortable shoes. He is in no hurry, or so it appears. You can stay here with him and have a smoke or feed a pigeon if they haven’t run them off. You can sit a bit. There’s so much sunshine!
Another thing you will find if you go to Trafalgar Square is German artist Katharine Fritsch’s blue cock. It is quite a sight, this fiberglass cock, there on its plinth. Supposedly the bird is meant to ask us to reflect upon the masculine character of the world of Trafalgar Square. I get the point about masculinity, but I am wondering why it’s blue, a bloody blue. Is it blue in order to scare pigeons? Does blue scare pigeons? I doubt it. No shitting on the blue bird!
This is Billy’s photograph of a patch of grass under rich and rolling clouds and a perfectly blue sky. This is a real blue rather than the over-the- top blue on the political rooster we were just talking about. The Heath is every bit as famous as Trafalgar Square, with its great view of the city and lots of nature to preserve for everybody to enjoy, weather permitting. They say that Ethelred the Unready gave it to his servant as five hides of land. That was probably a generous thing to do back in 986, back before even the Domesday Book. People don’t much speak of hides of land anymore—a hide was said to be about as much land as it took to support a family, which isn’t much help if we want to know about geography or commerce in the old days. Billy wasn’t worried about any of that when he took this photograph. He was thinking about Lou Reed, who died earlier this year, and his song about a perfect day. That is a heroin song, however. Billy certainly doesn’t do heroin, not even in London!
Billy ran into this man wearing a flat hat who appears to have only a middling interest in being photographed. He holds out the beautiful owl for Billy to take its photo, near the Holland Park tube stop. The man is an animal conservationist. Billy gave him money to take a picture of his bird. The owl looks distinguished, regal, but he’s only an owl on his master’s glove. You can think you’re smart and free and powerful and be dead wrong. Life sucks just like that.
I don’t remember seeing many fresh vegetables on my visits to London, and never in my life have I seen them made into a work of art, which seems to be what is happening here. There’s a sign for London’s famous October Gallery beside the women we see arranging vegetables, the red peppers and yellow squash and cauliflower and broccoli. Another perfect day in London for Billy! But it is shameful to be wasting all that food, if that’s what they are doing. Maybe they are setting up some kind of avant-garde farmer’s market and won’t waste it after all. Sometimes with photographs you can’t be sure that the person who was holding the camera meant to show you what you’re looking at.
“In Flanders Field” is the title of the most famous English poem about the Great War, or the most famous patriotic poem. In the poem poppies on a battlefield blow between crosses. This year is the 100th anniversary of the start of that stupid world war, a nice round number. We are still waiting for it to end. The Great War changed England and everyone else too. The big poppies in Billy’s photograph adorn the Stockwell Tube Station. You can see Van Gogh on the building too. He lived in the area long ago. James Bond lives there still, or he would if he were real. This place was once a bomb shelter. It is real enough.
We need something sweet after all that talk about war. We need a reason to live, a reason for vacation! It’s not only the French who make pastries.
Here is Billy right-side up and upside down at the same time. Billy’s head is elongated, but right-side up or upside down it’s the same head, only stretched by the birth canal of the tube train window. Look at this long enough and you will discover that Billy resembles a bird.
I can practically see Mrs. Dalloway in this picture, walking along laughing and delightful. This is Regent Street buffed up for commerce in the West End. Billy has caught it dressed in baby blue banners. The banners cover the street like Mother Robin covers her eggs, promising summertime and a pedestrian mall one day a week among buildings of historical and commercial interest. They call buildings of historical interest “listed” buildings in England. All the buildings on this street are listed at least Grade II. Good eggs, all of them. The older guy in the hat in the foreground is my favorite. Everybody else is in a hurry, boxed in, but under his broad-brimmed hat the old guy is fine with the idea of taking his time to cross the street.
Billy’s London pictures four years ago were taken during the World Cup, which comes around every four years. The English side was terrible then, and they were terrible again this year. Change comes very slowly in England. Here you can see that they have given up and are using the early English exit from the World Cup as an excuse for sassy advertising. With no Cup the English want to Fork.
Billy likes to go to plays when he’s in London, as many do. Having once worked in the theater business he takes a particular interest. This beautiful purple and blue theater is the Apollo, I think, where they were putting on a version of a Swedish drama about a bullied boy and a vampire, Let the Right One In. Blood, sex, and gore is popular; the show was applauded by reviewers. It doesn’t look to be crowded—Billy was going around London at hours that helped him avoid crowds. The theater is dark but if you look carefully you can see that there’s somebody trying to take a photograph. They don’t make theaters like this in the United States, though there are a few restored Art Deco theaters in places like Louisville, Kentucky and Akron, Ohio that are worth seeing.
This is Regent Street at night. There’s not much to see for being such a busy street in the daytime—just a set of headlights ominously coming towards us and other lights in the distance. And of course trash cans—bins they call them. The text for BUS STOP is upside down. London goes to bed early, or rather the pubs close early. You need to know where the party is after that or it’s back to the hotel or flat.
You already knew before you saw the photograph of Billy’s head in the tube train window that mirrors lie, turning everything around and framing it in a certain way. Even the best mirrors do that, just like words. It really is a wonder we can know ourselves at all. I guess we have to try to see ourselves as others see us for that to be possible, which it isn’t. That won’t stop Billy from trying. Here he is not far from the famous St. Paul’s Cathedral photographing himself photographing a mirror ball. I can’t see but I think he’s put on that fedora I like.
The dome of St. Paul’s is in the center of this picture, dominating the skyline of the financial district of London, the City of London as it’s called, with one of the bridges across the River Thames in the foreground. There’s an empty barge that seems to be anchored. Nothing is happening on the barge. Billy must have snuck out early while people were still asleep.
Flame Proof Moth is not asleep. He is busking on the banks of the river, stretched out with his Fender guitar and microphone, singing to the ducks and geese. Flame Proof Moth is a clever lyricist. If you go to his website (he has a website) you will find a video where he is singing about the way shops in London sell everything he desires. His songs drip with irony. In one video he is playing his guitar while standing in the river with water up to his knees, maybe dripping a little. All those pebbles and no shirt—he is way too pale, like most of the English, to allow himself to be sitting half naked near the river in the sunshine. I don’t care how rare that weather is in England. You have to watch out for skin cancer.
Joe Strummer died too young. It was Joe and others in the Punk movement that made music like the music Flame Proof Moth makes possible. I honor him as a personal hero for “London Calling” and all of his great songs. I answered. So did Billy. This mural is at the Portobello Market, which is a cool market to visit for all the stuff on sale there and the food from many nations and the hipsters and weirdos. It is very colorful, like the mural. Who says the English are bland? “Without people you’re nothing,” the mural’s text, is true enough. You do need an audience at the very least. It’s why I gave up poetry.
This photograph shows a man writing. He looks to be in a train station or market. I’m not sure exactly where he is. I wonder a little about what he’s writing. He’s not me, I can tell you that much. He is way too serious.
I’m not sure what building this is. It’s one of those newer buildings that show up in the skyline in London these days. It’s great that there is a skyline in London finally, though I suppose some will say that America is to blame for that. Cities without a skyline—they don’t seem important to Americans. I thought about that again the last time I was in Nashville. Nashville has a skyline, some skyline anyway, but it’s new, not more than twenty or thirty years old I think. That leads me to wonder if the title of Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline record was meant to be a joke, since it must have been recorded before they put up the new tall buildings. I’m sorry—I’ve lost my train of thought. My mind wanders like a cloud.
There are two blue cocks in London, Ms. Fritsch.
These are the steps of St. Paul’s Cathedral. People gather on the steps to rest or talk or have an ice cream. It’s better than church. When it’s sunny the heat wears you down and sitting is good. I think the young man in front is eating a dish of pineapple.
I was really happy when I saw this photograph, since I had begun to fear that Billy had given up on photographing women in London. But she is too far away! And a redhead!
So friendly, the Londoners can be. They are famous for their courtesy. This is a very ugly building, but as Americans we are always grateful for their hospitality.
All I can say about this photograph is that it’s true. It is all really true. I hope the construction workers aren’t there to take it down.
That is no Matisse.
Feed the birds—I remember Mary Poppins singing on the steps. No steps here but plenty of pigeons. Funny the way things work out sometimes.
This is Billy’s last picture. That means it’s time for me to go too. I feel a little like the blue heron in Holland Park, waiting for what’s next. I continue to like London. I’d never say that London is for the birds, though I like to see it with birds. Thanks Billy for the photographs on the fly.