Tuesday, 30 March 2010


Nicholas Hawksmoor is not as famous as his teacher and mentor, Christopher Wren, but his existence permeates more thoroughly. Wren’s grandest testimony is St Paul’s Cathedral, that great domed monolith of beauty that I lost many hours gazing out at from the seventh floor window of Ludgate House. Hours I should have spent working, but its monstrous size dominated the horizon and threatened to eat up the adjacent buildings. It captivated me even more so than the regular snaking of the trains and in out of Blackfriar’s Station directly underneath. Wren’s triumph is unmissable, but if he placed all his eggs in one moment of architectural genius, then Hawksmoor’s legacy is not only more subtle, but more widely flung.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Hawksmoor was not from a background of privilege. He got on in life through hard work and being fortunate enough to assist other great architects. Whilst many studiers of the built environment (as it had yet to become known) went on grand continental tours, absorbing the classical influences of Athens and Rome, Hawksmoor stayed in Britain and worked. As such, his style is dominated by what was already built and his imagination; an understanding of architecture gained through the cracked mirror of graphite illustrations in a scant few books.

He helped design country houses, including Blenheim House for the first Duke of Marlborough, and eventually he arrived in Oxford in 1715. There he reshaped All Souls College, right in the centre of the old city, infusing its already three centuries of academic life with an idiosyncratic gothic verve all of his own. Alongside this Hawksmoor also designed the Clarendon Building, the pantheon-like original home of the University’s press, the mammothly ostentatious frontage to Queen’s College and was consulted on the plans for Worcester College. Hawksmoor, old Nick, took Oxford between his hands and remoulded it like putty into his vision of the future and past as one forever.

And perhaps, when he was supervising the initial foundations being laid, he glanced out over a paddock of lush grass to see a small herd of deer frolicking, for his time there coincides with the first accounts of Magdalen College’s cross between a petting zoo and gamey symbol of wealth.

This is, of course, pure conjecture on my part. But Oxford is funny like that. It is at once inherently beautiful and yet trapped within the shadows of its own identity and past.

George Osborne went to Magdalen College and there is something like the unreality of a drunken Oxford afternoon that hangs about the shadow chancellor. He seems determined to portray himself as closer to Hawksmoor than Wren, as though he came from a less than privileged background. Yet the implicit message behind stories he tells are completely at odds with the words coming out of his mouth.

Georgie claims that his Father worked up his multi-million pound decorating business from the back of a silver mini. Which is probably partially true, but neglects to mention that his father, Sir Peter Osborn, is also the Baronet Osborne of Ballintaylor, a family seat that’s been held since 1629 and whilst I’m sure that nobility doesn’t also bring with it an interior furnishings business it does gives less credence to the hand to mouth existence Georgie implies for his childhood. Indeed, little Georgie is so much a royal blue he out toffs pretty much every other thinly sculpted, upturned nose on the shadow cabinet’s front bench.

Most disturbingly is that he doesn’t appear to truly believe, or understand, what he is in relation to everyone else. He describes his School, St Paul’s, as being extremely liberal. “Your mother could be the head of a giant corporation or a solicitor in Kew.” Previously, when questioned over his lack of real-world experience – Georgie was more-or-less gifted a job at Conservative central office by an old chum after being knocked back by the Times for his first job application upon graduation – his defence has been: “I have plenty of friends who work in law, in the City, in government agencies.” Which is fine. I don’t actually expect potential Chancellors of the Exchequers, wanna-be leaders of the country, to be besht mates with bin men and train drivers and primary school teachers in schools where your mother could work in Lidl or be stuck on benefits because the tipping scale of what she could earn is insufficient no matter how incredibly boring and frustrating not working makes life, but she needs to do the best for her kids. That’s not to say that they shouldn’t be friends with these people, just that I’m not naïve enough to believe that they would ever be so for more time than it takes for the photograph to be taken.

But perhaps an understanding that these people exist and that a significant number of us live in a world that interacts more closely with them than with the world of fishing trips in the highlands with Eric Clapton or sun soaked cocktails on the yacht of Russian zillionaires, the worlds where it’s perfectly acceptable to flip your mortgage payments through the parliamentary expenses system or have a chauffeur drive you down from your Cheshire constituency to London. Say Georgie, why aren’t you out on your ear or in the dock like all the others? Is it because your pal Dave thinks you look too little like a walrus to be derided as old blue?

And perhaps this misunderstanding of how the world works is a little bit your upbringing’s fault, a little bit Hawksmoor’s fault, a little bit Oxford’s fault.

When I was there at the weekend, lurking around Christchurch College – not a Hawksmoor one, unfortunately for the lack of symmetry in the writing – taking in sessions at the literary festival I sat in an oak panelled room with a bristling ancient fireplace, stained glass windows and faded portraits of sternly bearded gentlemen. There I listened to, amongst other pieces, an extract from an Oxford novel. A novel about University life in the city, a story about the challenges of leaving school feeling immensely intelligent and arriving in the hub of brain boxes and feeling woefully inadequate. My initial feeling was that surely we didn’t need another Oxford novel, that surely this particular skit had been done to death. But no, if you’re on the inside it would seem that Oxford never changes, that undergraduates still arrive in their first week with a teddy bear tucked under their arm playing at being Sebastian from Brideshead Revisted until the almighty hangover after they’ve vomited their stomach lining up all around the quad persuades them otherwise. Oxford continues to insulate, to replicate, to regurgitate, to eat itself.

‘Of course I romanticise Oxford in my head,’ my friend said later outside the pub, ‘it’s impossible not to.’ And she’s right. Even I’m starting to do it. It’s a very easy place to fall in love with: Extremely idyllic, the beer’s marvellous, the characters - like the bear of a man I keep running into in pubs, the one in the expensive coat with the goblet of red wine to his lips - leap of the page and into the real world. The air is calm and quiet, you can stand in the centre and throw a ball hard enough and it’ll land in countryside and even the punting, whilst always vaguely ridiculous, has a lazy summer’s afternoon’s charm to it. And the architecture – the architecture transports you, it swallows you up into the myth that you’re timeless.

Returning to London after redesigning most of Oxford, Hawksmoor was involved in the building of new churches for the provision of the city’s soul. Six churches were designed with the Hawksmoor mix gothic towers and intense classical detail and are still distinct within the city’s myriad architecture today. Hawkesmoor churches are unique, from Greenwich to Wapping, from Spitalfields to Bloomsbury, from the City to Limehouse they are all to the east of the centre and as cockney as eel pie‘n’mash and pearly queens.

It is, if you feel so inclined, possible to not only visit the churches, to step inside and enjoy their hushed marvels of stone arches and glittering windows, but to conduct a walking tour between them. Provided you’ve got all day and are of the particular disposition where hiking around London for hours is interesting. It’s worth it. Trust me. The rhythm of walking the city in such a way gives it a feeling of myth, of empowerment, as though your footsteps are rewriting history.

And this is where Hawksmoor’s second world, his second life takes over and he really suppresses Wren. Sir Christopher has the one, frankly implausible, legend attached to this work – that he deliberately started the Great Fire solely to have the opportunity to rebuild the city in his fashion – whilst Hawksmoor has been fictionalised to the point where it is unclear when the real man begins. With so little known about him, plenty of writers have taken the opportunity to fill in the blank canvass from the corners.

Peter Carey made old Nick a Satanist who buried the bones and blood of an innocent under the foundations of Spitalfields Square. Iain Sinclair took the same theme and stretched it out to all the churches so that the mark of the devil etched itself into the East End. Alan Moore pushed it further, expanding the symbolism to damn the whole of London, so as Jack the Ripper took Hawksmoor and a hundred dozen other Londonium legends and through ritual magical murder gave birth to the twentieth century. And in the autumn of 2006 I traced the same route watching and feeling my own relationship with the city collapse in on itself, through the eye of Horus, so as every moment existed in a single point of time when I sat on the steps of a church watching the city pass on by.

It’s all made up of course, but that doesn’t really matter because in many ways it feels true.

Perhaps also, in George Osborne’s head, there are two realities, both overlain with each other.

Except, perhaps with Georgie it isn’t quite clear what the one that’s distinct from the Bullingdon club and champers and caviar is. Beyond the bluster he too seems a bit of blank canvas. This is a man who wants to be the second most influential political leader in the country, but also refuses to do politics in the evenings or weekends. Here’s a chilling thought: Brown called an election in 2007 after all and lost. Dave and Georgie swung into Downing Street and last autumn when the banking system was collapsing and – when in reality Darling worked through the weekend nights to get a deal in place where they could be refinanced so as the country wouldn’t implode on Monday morning – in this alternative Georgie had gone out shooting grouse.

This is a man who, when put on television, should have been the most strikingly engaging. After all, he was up against a man who looks (although doesn’t sound like) a slightly sinister Victorian accountant in Vince Cable and a man who’s stolen a badger and attached it to his own face for decoration in Alistair Darling, yet still little Georgie failed to step up to the plate. His “policies” were still – still, six weeks out from a probable election – vague and contradictory. Case in point, the week before he lambasted the budget as fanciful and full of imagined figures and then proceeded to base his plans for national insurance reduction on those same numbers. Consistency, Georgie, please. It makes it easier for us to
know what we’re arguing against.

His face when kindly Foggy Cable got it a jibe at his expense, was priceless. He looked like he was about to throw a temper tantrum, tear all his clothes off screeching that it wasn’t fair and sit crossed legged on the studio floor tears streaming down his prematurely jowly cheeks playing with himself.

But what was most striking was his continual reference to “the Conservatives, under the leadership of David Cameron,” driving home with each sycophantic reference quite how little the Tories have other than that their number one is younger, smarmier and better looking (if you like that slightly greasy over manicured style) than the other number ones.

God helps us all. Especially, Jesus, if Dave and Georgie have some kind of the Blair-Brown blood brother to the death with their hands around each other’s throats pact. Then we all are really fucked.

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