In 1798 Joseph Gandy started as assistant to the architect John Soane. Subsequently Soane commissioned him to produce splendid drawings of the architect’s projects. But as an architect himself Gandy built little – his projects were described as “imaginative but impossible” and as time went on he became obsessed with imaginary plans for the reconstruction of London as a new Rome. Refusing to adapt to his clients’ wishes he never made much money; Soane supported him and after Soane’s death he was put in asylum in Devon where he died in a ‘damp, windowless cell.’
I was in the Bank of England on one occasion. I was teaching in East London and was out visiting girls on ‘work experience’. I very nearly didn’t get in at all – earlier, in the lunch hour, I’d bought a radio as a present for someone and Security was deeply suspicious. ‘Did you know sir that bombs are often concealed in radios.’ They let me in in the end and as I recall the place seemed strangely empty, a deserted temple. I found my fifteen year old student all alone in an office, looking bored – no one had found her anything much to do.
But the idea of a future ruin is a resonant one and it's one I’ve used in the poem ‘Untold Wealth’ which is in the pamphlet of that name just produced by Peter Hughes’ Oystercatcher Press (see link). I’ve reproduced the poem below.
The poem is also preoccupied with the materiality of traditional coinage contrasted with the financial transactions taking place inside the City of London. These transactions have an altogether insubstantial quality, figures flickering over a screen which, somewhere at the end of a very long chain, are translated into the harsh realities of people’s actual lives. The ‘money’ involved is as insubstantial as a reflection, the weight and substance of coinage no longer present. According to Herodotus ‘the Lydians were the first people we know to have struck and used coinage of silver and gold.’ Their coins were made of electrum, a natural alloy of silver and gold found there in the bed of a river. Herodotus states that the first coins were those of Croesus King of Lydia.
And there are always the odd personal connections as well. When we moved to our first house here in Hackney in 1973 the Astra Cinema, at the end of our street, showed nothing but old Kung Fu films. Not long after in became a mosque – thanks to the ‘orientalist’ tradition of interwar cinema architecture it already had a couple of domes. Now it is a Turkish food shop. Meanwhile an enormous mosque has been built further down the Kingsland Road. This stands on the site of a soft drinks factory which belonged to my wife’s family – they sold out in the 1950’s. What is more they sold, just after the war, a bomb site in the City, part of what is now the Broadgate development next to Liverpool Street station, for a few hundred pounds. It would be worth millions now – it had belonged to another forbear who kept a pub near there in the Victorian period. Well, there is a not unpleasing randomness to all of this . . .
And ‘Palladiums are where it rightly lives’ – this line is from a poem by Allen Fuchs.
At night we found a deserted city
Water ran under the streets
The houses dry and full of herbs
Imagined scattering coins
In a city of future ruins
Enough of it’s to fall here’s scarcely a sound
There’s a god sitting in the air
These fragments hustled away
Fall of a leaf. Shallow wealth
Screen-flicker translates into riches
Hidden carefully behind trees.
And here’s a coin spun in the air brief shine
Its lyric gleam
But being entirely without substance
The trick of it’s keeping the thing in the air
Like the scribble of smoke from a sacrifice
Finding its way to the sky
Here flights of capital - pigeons
They’re turning turning on a depthless sky
The new city borderless
Its city gates become a set of shadows
It’s an empire built out of signs
A place of odd meaningless arenas
‘Palladiums are where it rightly lives’
Its empty lyric performance
Electrum gleam in river sand
King with a mouth of gold
A ritual to open the statue’s mouth
Put back the tongue and a sturdy measure -
To circle the metal’s rough substance?
Dead legend. Missing it now –
Although I was bathed in its light
And a stadium whispered its crowds
I who went out walking
As if I had scarcely begun