Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Beauty, serenity and all that

I remember my mother’s friend commenting once that she’d seen me from a distance, walking along the street in the town where I grew up, and that I gave off an aura of serenity. At the time I was pleased if a little confused. Perhaps it was my purposeless teenage gait, or the slightly flaky, distant look in my eyes.

Now, in London, serenity can seem hard to come by. It takes an effort of will to remind myself that it’s a state of mind, not the state of the world around me, and that therefore it can be chosen to some extent. There’s no point in waiting for the world to deliver it to me.

When I first moved here I had the same concerns about beauty. I was leaving many things I found beautiful: my open fire, my walls painted a melodramatic purple named ‘Russian velvet,’ the views of misted green that appeared like pastoral visions at the end of so many Bristolian hill streets. I doubted the capacity of London streets to deliver up these little gems to me.

Sure enough, Walthamstow’s pavements have more than their fair share of gnawed chicken bones, spittle deposits and mangled pigeons. I had to learn to find the beauty in order to feel as though I would survive the urban onslaught. Luckily I did, with a little help from my friends. I spent my first year here marvelling from the tops of buses at the secret sights to be had.

The colour of an autumn tree lit by the blue TV light of the window behind; a small glove dropped just at the intersection of paving slabs, like a sign pointing nowhere; the creeper that has edged across the concrete floor of an empty shop; the rhythm of a pumping air vent, as if from a secret rave under the pavement.

For a while it became overwhelming. There were beautiful things to look at everywhere and I regretted whizzing past them. I became fanatical about the tops of bus stops, where accidental and deliberate arrangements of objects might be seen only by those staring from the upper deck.

For a long time there was a whole salad of fruit on top of a shelter at Kings Cross, complete with pineapple, while suitcases and travellers wheeled past below in their thousands, oblivious. On the 56 bus route through Hackney you could see, atop every shelter going North, a ball of plasticine stuck with wooden skewers. Each one was slightly different, and it became a game to see how long the secret art route could remain intact.

At some point I forgot to keep looking like this, not just at bus shelters but at the million moments of beauty that are everywhere in London. I was so grateful to be jolted back into it, and seeing these things and smiling brings not just beauty, but a bit of free serenity. With enough practice, maybe being serene doesn’t have to be an effort.


  1. Frank Auerbach was fascinated by the street he walked along each day to his studio - he painted the view over and over. (I happen to think not very beautifully, but that is not the point).

    I like streets after dark, lit by the phosphorescence (needed spell check there) of street lamps and softened by the drizzle of winter rain.

  2. Zoe,

    There is something quite compelling about this post, especially the bit about the million moments of beauty that are everywhere in London...

    Everyone should be as fortunate as you seem to be in enjoying their surroundings...That really is a choice. Wishing you a wonderful weekend.

  3. Dear Zoé,

    It's a lovely post. Although it feels to me that beauty should not just be restricted to sight's experience. To me, beauty would come from an ensemble of feelings creating harmony. I've tried to write about it once and it was interesting to see I would describe beauty through sound, sight, smell and touch.