Sunday, 8 January 2012

The vanishing colours of London

For the last 17 years of his life my grandfather worked at the Engelshoven Distillery, whose derelict shell can still be spotted, coarsely veiled by a half-kilometre of straggly hedgerow, just outside Nijmegen, on the road to Kleve. 

The whiskeys produced here were aged in natural indoor ponds, bedded with oak timbers. Every January, when the old logs were removed and burned, the employees would gather around the bonfires; each man or woman swallowed-up by an inner narrative that was informed partly by the potent fumes and partly by the peculiarly animated flames. 

The workers were encouraged by the distillery management to record for posterity their spontaneously conceived fictions that straddled the boundary between fever dreams and hallucinations. These were transcribed by the secretarial pool and eventually complied into an anthology that captured the imagination of the Dutch public and went on to become a best-seller across northern Europe, with subsequent volumes selling in progressively diminishing quantities.   

The stories that appear in this blog have been reproduced with the kind permission of Engleshoven PLC.

 The vanishing colours of London (By Daniel Bitterlich)

On the morning of Monday the 9th of February, 1998, I read in the back pages of The Telegraph, as a footnote to the main news, a brief paragraph mentioning that the long derelict Waitlings paint factory has been divested of its listed status by Tower Hamlets council. It was with this brazen flourish of bureaucracy that the shell of an historical metropolitan building was demoted in the eyes of the law to a corporeal afterimage on the London skyline, no longer regarded as a structure in its own right, but as extraneous rubble on a brown-field site primed for imminent redevelopment. 

The decision had been sealed by an uncontested vote at an open, yet obscurely advertised and poorly attended meeting, publicised a fortnight in advance by a hand-written white card on the notice board of the Bishops Lane branch library, and by an unobtrusive announcement in a local free newspaper with limited distribution. That, three weeks later, the demolition of the factory has yet to commence* is a mystery and can only be the result of some contractual technicality, or dispute between the site developer and the council. 

As an aside, Tower Hamlets council employed very similar underhand tactics when redeveloping the Victoria junction on Carnarvon Avenue. Prior to its ceremonial unveiling as the new gateway to East London – a bewildering labyrinth of traffic lights, pedestrian crossings and immense expanses of peculiarly-shaped pavement  - the site had been occupied by a large roundabout;  the surviving remnant of a former Royal Park. The grove of seven ancient oaks that occupied this traffic island were cited as the principle reason for its demolition. It was said that the age of the trees made them a falls risk and that that their roots were inflicting damage to the surface of the adjacent road. There was also some anti-youth sentiment stirred up against local teens who had allegedly been using the grove as a late night drinking spot. 

I have been a peripheral member of a largely ineffectual local protest group, with an itinerant membership, that campaigns on a broad range of community issues.  So far our victories have tended to arrive in the form of delays to proposed actions by local government or businesses that we consider to be undesirable. While the course of a battle occasionally swings in our favour, the definitive outcome of these wars turns against us with such unwavering regularity that one might think the little victories we have been granted were a form of appeasement, intended to foster a belief that all due consideration had been given to opposing viewpoints. 

It had been hoped by some in the group (myself included) that Waitlings might be granted a reprieve and thereafter enjoy a renaissance both as a museum of art and as a much-needed community space. In pursuit of that end we had enlisted the support of a number of well-known authors and artists known to reside in East London or have family roots in that part of the city. Unfortunately these tended to be of the sort whose presence in the media is so ubiquitous that they become part of the cultural wallpaper. Consequently their largely lacklustre championing of our cause did very little to broaden awareness. Though it hardly matters anymore I will speak up where they have failed to do so:

Waitlings was founded in 1919 but only rose to cultural significance in 1966 when the ailing business was taken over and extensively modernised by the New York Impressionist painter - Michael Naylor -a proponent of the Colour Field school who had turned his back on the American art scene and relocated to London (recognising the value of an established brand he kept the name).  Naylor, who was a keen interior designer, was known for decorating interior walls with swirls of colour whose visible brushstrokes created a low impact impasto. The overall effect of this method is to lend the impression that the boundaries of a room are still in the process of coalescing into a solid form. I recall being invited to a party at Naylor’s home in Dagenham where the pale blue and white walls of his lounge recalled, in abstract, the formation of low cloud on a spring day.

It is, at this point, that I must confess a personal attachment to Waitlings. I worked in the factory briefly, following the completion of a fine art degree at Goldsmiths, prior to obtaining a more lucrative position as a commercial artist for Porter & Beel.  I was installed in that part of the building in which new tones were developed  – a department whose hiring remit was to employ those who had seen the colours of life. Henceforth, I found myself sharing a crowded workspace with a diverse and argumentative repertoire of slumming aristocrats, former soldiers, criminals (both reformed and practicing), immigrants from far-flung corners of the world, housewives and grandmothers, aspiring writers, budding artists and down on their luck musicians. 

Great emphasis was placed on the inspiration behind  each new tone, which required justification by means of a detailed personal biography describing its origins. When it came to naming a new colour no indication was to be given of its shade. Instead it was to be described to the public in the form of a short sentence that reflected its mood and emotional roots.  

My sole achievement during a seven week tenure at Waitlings was a dusky shade of lilac that I christened “Helena’s dress at twilight” – as a tribute to my girlfriend who I was very much in love with and hoped to marry. A few years after we separated I read in the paper that, while wearing an unsuitable pair of high heels, she had tumbled from the open stairwell of a London bus and fatally cracked her head open on the curb of Shaftsbury Avenue. (I  have been unexpectedly re-acquainted with this tragedy twice since I first read of it: Once when, by some disquieting twist of fate, I stumbled drunkenly into the bedroom of a girl who I had become acquainted with only a few hours earlier, to find the walls decorated in the same colour that I had conceived one evening in the Summer of 1970. The second time, via a grainy, black and white press-cutting depicting a member of the Saint John’s Ambulance brigade cradling Helena’s bloodied curls, while surround by a small crowd of onlookers.)   

The colours developed at Waitlings (or in the parlance of the company – “Visualised”) were exhibited as 6x3 foot rectangles, painted directly onto the whitewashed interior walls of the factory. A broad corridor, lined with filing cabinets, on the third floor archived the precious documentation relating to the inspiration for each new tone. We had hoped that this data might play an instrumental role in the proposed Waitlings Museum of Art. To that end we had begun to copy the paperwork with a view to displaying it next to each paint swatch. It seems that this was a naively optimistic pre-emptive gesture on our parts. The factory will certainly be demolished over the coming weeks. The mural of recurring rectangles, whose obscure and poetic variations on the conventional colour palette stands as an abstract representation of the personal history of the Waitlings’ workforce, will soon be lost forever.

* Surely the point of this hastily conceived and covertly orchestrated action was to grant Mrs Frost and her cronies the element of surprise and allow the bulldozers time to move in before the protesters mobilised.

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