The square mile is a lovely place to stroll around on a Sunday. It's not as dead as it used to be but it's still remarkably empty. Many of the pubs and shops are shut and there's hardly any traffic on the roads so you get a great chance to take in the architecture of the area. Duck behind St Lawrence Jewry (a church that seems to rhyme with the overcast sky) on Gresham Street and you're presented with George Dance's Hindoostani Gothic facade of the Guildhall, the only non-ecclesiastical stone building in the City to have survived through to the present day.
It's surprising how so few Londoners pass this way. This does, however, add a little aptness to the title of the Guildhall Gallery's current Unseen City exhibition. Consisting of photographs taken by Martin Parr of those whose lives are dominated by archaic goings on within the self same square mile.
There's two problems for me already. Firstly, I'm not particularly interested in these people. I don't know any of them and I have no great desire to get to know them. Secondly, I sometimes find Parr's photography to be sneering and contemptuous. Worse still, like early Mike Leigh, most of the sniggering seems to be directed at the working class. The working class with delusions of bettering their selves particularly. Think Abigail's Party.
But it was the first day of spring, I'd just had a nice cup of coffee and a lemon drizzle cake, and I was prepared to check my preconceptions in at the door. Which, with the airport like security employed at he Guildhall, is nearly viable. Checking for weapons or whatnot is fine. What's not is being unnecessarily rude like the man on the counter was. Three fucking times! First of all refusing to serve me, then answering a very simple question bluntly and sarcastically, before, finally, leaving my change right down the other end of the desk so I had to walk round to get it. Hardly a major inconvenience but mildly humiliating all the same. I could feel a strong blogpost coming on!
I entered, initially, an antechamber adorned with unframed photos of enthusiastic crowds waiting for an appearance by the Queen and noticeably less enthusiastic crowds watching The Lord Mayor's Show. The pac a macs of the proles contrasted markedly against the ermines of the elite in some of the adjacent pictures. I took a photo of a photo of some people taking photos.
An image of musketeers at the Ash Wednesday Poulters Procession gives us an idea of how utterly impenetrable this territory is to the layman. I'm not sure what Parr's intention was but if he's trying, as I can only suspect, to convey a sense of boredom dressed up in its finest glad rags he's succeeded. I was as baffled as the people who'd popped into Pret A Manger for a quick bite and saw this....
Next we're introduced to ward beadles attending a pancake race, the dyers' company out swan upping, St.Dunstan's college beating the bounds on Ascension Day and something called the Trial of the Pyx (which it transpires is ensuring that newly minted coins conform to required standards - so at least it's something they'll have a personal interest in). All of these were taken post-crash so as austerity bites harder and harder on the disabled, single mothers, immigrants, and the homeless one thing becomes very apparent. We are absolutely not all in this together.
For some reason I try to reproach myself for feeling such contempt for these liveried loafers, these bankrolled bellends, these moneyed motherfuckers, but, despite the occasional hospital visit and almsgiving very little in the way of humanity or compassion comes through. I feel more empathy with the upped swans.
Whether or not this is a failing or intention of Parr's work is unclear but it's instructive that the gigantic John Singleton Copley painting, The Defeat of the Floating Batteries, Gibraltar, 1782, that adorns an entire wall of the gallery, hardly seems anachronistic in its present company.
You can almost hear the rattle of gold chains, the chink of champagne flutes, and the braying certainties of so much aristocratic hot air as you ponder Parr's portraiture. The only non-white face you see is, of course, performing the menial duties of a drudge at the Worshipful Company of Glover's Annual Banquet. For fuck's sake!
£5 a pop won't break the bank but it's pretty steep for such a small show. The fact we're being asked to pay, again, to view the overprivileged at play sticks in the craw more. Maybe the grumpy git of a doorman was a class warrior repulsed by my willingness to partake in this charade. Maybe not. One way or another, though, he certainly set a worryingly appropriate tone before my immersion in this chamber of chumps.
If you're going to see anything at the Guildhall then come for the impressive Roman amphitheatre and the permanent collection with its glorious Atkinson Grimshaw nocturne. This will hopefully go down as a blip in Parr's career. His portfolio has, prior reservations aside, been mostly impressive but it seems, like so many before him, he's been co-opted into this world and, at times, appears a little spellbound. There's none of the haughty derision that populates his New Brighton dwellers eating lurid ice creams and chips on the beach. Which suggests I may've been right to suspect a sneering attitude all along.
I spare the innocent children in these photographs my wrath but as for the rest of them - fuck 'em.