The Brutalist Building Beat Happiness Into Me

It is the weekend, so here is an inconsequential post on my reactions to arriving at The Barbican a couple of hours ago. 

When I arrived at Barbican station, I felt that ember of contentment that comes from non-specific nostalgia. It started when I saw one of the tower blocks. It is not somewhere I associate with any grand memories, I haven’t visited the area that often. I tried to piece it together. I like the brutalist architecture, too many brutalist towers and it might be an ugly spread, but this bit of concrete ambition works where so many others don’t, at least to view from the outside. Like many things I look at, I imagine under the skin I project lots of cultural reference points onto it. Maybe it is a luxurious corner of Mega City Four, a building where sexual parasites might slither out of plugholes, or some dystopian gloom from JG Ballard; a top floor flat is a good choice for a drowned world. 

I visited one of the flats once to see someone who would later help me rip down a Sinead O Connor poster glued up on a side street in Farringdon. It stayed in my cupboard for a few years, too heavy to hang or tack due to the gummed layers of previous “brand new album – available from Our Price and all good record shops” posters it had been pasted on top of. 

The Beech Street tunnel leading to the Barbican Centre also has its decade of creation embossed on it, handy for the opening credits of a cop drama or dubious hand over of nefarious documents behind the frame of the Defoe House car park entrance, far enough from the reflected orange light to be an overcoat in shadow. 

On first visit, The Barbican Centre was a place that made you feel grown up, a lie of sophistication. “Hey, I’m coming to the Barbican on a Sunday, I must understand art.” 

Was it an exhibition of Russian propaganda posters that I first saw there? I am pretty sure I saw something of David Bailey’s with a proof sheet of that iconic image of the Kray twins. 

The event of going there is the greater memory than what was on the walls. 

I think the very first exhibition with a sense of adulthood that I visited was the Robert Mapplethorpe retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery. I am not sure who had told me to like him, but walking around it felt like the first attempt at a confident step of appreciation, even if I wouldn’t dare open my mouth in any conversation about his work for fear of revealing my charlatanism. 

A friend from my past was enamoured of the Soho drinking set, those growling, flamboyant furious boozers who hung around The French House and The Colony Rooms. I imagined many of them may now have been better to read about than drink with. I would hear of some of the aged denizens just grumbling about how everything was shit now, before falling asleep and wetting themselves. 

He hung around with Daniel Farson, a man who first came to my attention when I was nine and I bought The Hamlyn Book of Horror. I still have a near pristine copy of this fine book of werewolf myths and vampire tales with its delightful colour plates of hideous beasts, just the right level of lurid for a 9 year old. From what I gathered, the grand Soho boozers would reach a point in the evening where all were loudly pontificating and gesticulating, but in truth, no one knew what anyone was saying, just gravelly gabble, but filled with passion and meaning inside their heads. Daniel Farson was holding court on photography, and after half an hour he took a brief pause to drink more. My friend said, “what do you think of Robert Mapplethorpe?” and an outraged Farson boomed, “that’s who I’ve been fucking talking about for the last hour”.

Kristin Hersh played at the Barbican and was in one of those extravagant moods where she seemed to talk more than sing, but as the stories of snakes and children were so beguiling and odd, everyone was happy. Like seeing John Cooper Clarke when the poems take a backseat to the Skoda jokes and memories of Bernard Manning. His poems are like  the violin of an old music hall act. He keeps promising Mendelsshon, but as the violin approaches his chin, he is reminded of another mithering fool in his family he must tell you about. Though John Cooper Clarke does still get to the poems in the end. 

I also curated a Bad Film Club at the Barbican with Nicko and Joe. The guest curator may choose a bad film that brings you joy. Sadly Stewart Lee had already chosen SAS/Lewis Collins epic Who Dares Wins, so I plumped for The Mutations. Made by the enchanting Jack Cardiff, a truly great icon of the British film industry, it was the story of a deformed Freakshow proprietor played by Tom Baker (in garb very similar to that which would become his timelord outfit). He delivers victims to mad scientist Donald Pleasance, who is attempting to fuse humans with plants so we can photosynthesize and the survive the population explosion. It is one of those rare exploitation flicks that is as much fun as its poster. 

So maybe that’s why I felt the ember of contentment, now beware the cauliflowers.

Next tour dates include Sheffield, Radlett, Bristol, Birmingham, Brighton and East London. Also new show at Hammersmith with Brian Cox. Details HERE

DVDs of Happiness Through Science and Nine Lessons shows HERE

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