Sense of Place

Above: Peter Silverton by Rankin

It was a scene in Braquo, the French TV cop show, that got me thinking about Primrose Hill; or to be both less specific and more accurate, about the meaning of place… emotional topography. A brief but significant moment, about three quarters of the way through the series, the scene involved an interchange between the main character and a helpmeet. It was over almost before you realised what was happening, or where. It was the ‘where’ that got me thinking. The location was Le Pont de l’Europe; the road bridge which spans the tracks leading in and out of the Gare Saint-Lazare (one of the six large terminus stations in Paris). It’s the city’s link to the south, the sun and France’s Mediterranean neighbours.

The bridge, though, that’s the thing; that’s the place of my memory. It’s an extraordinary bridge; a crossroads in the air; its cast-iron beams and support almost floridly industrial. When it was built, in the mid-19th century, it was one of the great wonders of the modern age. It’s of the time when, while London was still stuck in its Victorian gloom, Paris ‒ even as it stumbled blindly into war with Prussia ‒ was inventing itself as the City of Light, of photography, of Impressionism. And that is where my memories of the bridge lay dozing. I know it best, not in its ferrous reality, but from its representations. Caillebotte, who lived round the corner when it was being built, painted it at least three times; clearly seeing it as a place where the future had arrived.

Monet also painted it, in 1877, as blur; already receding into the past as the cannon began to be loaded across the continent. And in 1932, Cartier-Bresson photographed it, with that eternal, sprightly optimism of his. So when I see a stubbly-bearded, middle-aged cop – an outsider, of course, with a broken personal life and conflicts with his superiors; the only kind of cop hero there is, if TV and film are to be believed – doing his thing on Le Pont de l’Europe, I think about why the show’s makers might have chosen that location.

Were Caillebotte and Cartier-Bresson in the thoughts – conscious or unconscious – of the lighting cameraman or production designer? Were they playing knowingly with shared associations? Did it possess the same meaning for them as it did for me? Not that I can fully articulate those meanings and associations, of course. If I could, they would have already made the journey from abstraction into language and – like any worthwhile image – their power depends on that irresolution. Image making, to paraphrase Freud, is the royal road to the unconscious. Well, one of the roads, anyway. Which takes us to Primrose Hill; to be specific, to the conjunction of two things in that sentence: ‘us’ and ‘Primrose Hill’.

I live in Primrose Hill and have done for many years. I walk my dog on the hill itself most mornings. I know its lines and folds as well as those of a lover’s body. It’s an object of deep familiarity; its meanings ever open to new possibilities; its changes palpable to seemingly infinite degrees. That’s its reality. Okay, ‘reality’. But I also have another Primrose Hill; a visual object that is constituted through other visual objects, just as that Paris bridge is for me. Images such as Gered Mankowitz’s photograph for the cover of the Rolling Stones’ Between the Buttons; catching them on a chilly morning after a night in the studio at the very moment of pre-hippie London. Or Bill Brandt’s 1963 photograph of Francis Bacon, looking up the hill in the glooming, with an old-fashioned street lamp in the background. The spot still looks more or less the same, so I know that Brandt had to climb up a reasonably-sized ladder to take it.

I also know that I knew the picture before I lived in the area, and that it was probably one of the things that attracted me to that part of London; its sepulchral tones echo, for me, an older, less successful version of the city. It’s a few giant steps from a location in the original TV version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; a murk-blurred moment quite out of step with today’s Primrose Hill. Which brings me back to ‘us’. To ‘us’, Primrose Hill is romance; or perhaps ‘romance’. It’s the view over the city below.

It’s Bridget Jones running into the arms of Mark Darcy in a replay of the opening to The Sound of Music. It’s 101 Dalmatians (the opening air shot of the Disney cartoon is still a more-than-fair representation of the reality) and the Darlings’ meeting via their dogs. It’s Hugh Laurie and Joely Richardson in Maybe Baby. It’s Jude Law walking across it in the opening of Breaking and Entering; a playful take on the audience’s knowing that the actor once lived there. It’s a cavalcade of romcoms, ads and TV dramas; of makeups and breakups; first kisses and last embraces; of love and loss. Many, if not most, of these emotional moments and encounters take place on that bench; or, rather, the bench filmmakers fetch in and put in a more photogenic spot than the ‘real’ one. Again and again I’ve seen the hill in others’ representation of it; the emotion of the scene played out against the view over the city: physical perspective and depth of field standing as a metaphorical placing of the characters’ differentness, specialness, isolation; love and its many opposites.

So my Primrose Hill – not the physical one, but the real one; the one in my own internal underworld – is invaded by a collective version of it. Every time I walk the dog, I’m secretly shadowed by the steps of Bridget Jones. Like it or not – and the fact is, that I kind of like it – the ‘I’ of me becomes enriched and deepened by the ‘we’ of us. Which is how imagemaking works. It’s a meeting of our minds and, like it or not, that includes, for all of us, Bridget Jones, just as much as Bill Brandt.

© Peter Silverton 2012

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