Finding An Image Of Happiness In Farringdon

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Fernando Sdrigotti explores Farringdon and ponders the subjectivity and elusiveness of an image of happiness.

In the opening moments of Sans Soleil French filmmaker Chris Marker meditates upon what he calls “an image of happiness”: three blond children staring at the camera while walking away from it, in a path in a rural part of Iceland, in 1965. These seconds of grainy footage are among the most evocative in this “documentary” stitched together with the memories that fictional cameraman Sandor Krasna (a stand-in for Marker) has compiled over decades during his trips around the world. The beauty of these brief moments is nevertheless threatened by the irruption of a black screen, introduced as a concession to the difficulty of linking such a strong and subjective image to others: “One day I’ll have to put it all alone at the beginning of a film with a long piece of black leader; if they don’t see happiness in the picture, at least they’ll see the black,” Krasna/Marker claims through the narrator. The trope of the Icelandic kids comes back later in the film, when we learn that their village has been destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1973.

Writing about Sans Soleil is of course beyond the scope of a piece about London, a place that, for better or worse, does not feature in Marker’s 1983 film. I could justify this digression by claiming that my whole literary career has been the history of someone writing about Sans Soleil while pretending to write about something else – so strong has been the impression this film has left on me since the first time I chanced upon it. Nevertheless, I would like to think I am writing about this film with a good reason. For here I want to summon an image of happiness, one of a completely different kind from – yet as elusive as – that of the Icelandic kids on that desolate road 51 years ago.

Devoid of all history, of all consequences, of all morality, with no past and no future. Cup of Tea’s happiness: a slice of the world, a brief moment in time isolated from everything else.

Back in October 2010 I spent a few hours taking pictures with an old rangefinder down Farringdon, an area of London at that time under intense renovation due to the works being carried out to revamp the local tube station. There was a lot going on in Farringdon: cranes; broken signs (mementos to a disappearing city); local workers unaware of my camera; more cranes; the now gone entrance to the old tube station; passersby, men and women on their way to work or on their way to nowhere; cranes, more cranes, cranes everywhere.

The light was particularly beautiful that cold morning. An uncommon light in London that invited me to go on in the hope I would get more than a handful of good shots. After walking around Farringdon for an hour or so I ended up in Smithfield, the site of a Victorian-era meat market. The market, which has provided mostly to local butchers, restaurants and the occasionally meat-craving insomniac since the 1860s, was already closed – it opens at 2 a.m. and goes until mid-morning. Instead of shooting the empty central market, a stunning building I had already photographed many times before, I ended up in a corner known as West Poultry Avenue, using my final three shots not on feathered animals but on shadows and walls. And soon I started to make my way home, back then just a mile or so north in Clerkenwell.

Upon reaching the Barclays at the corner of Cowcross and St. John streets, I noticed one of the local junkies moving in my direction. The guy – lanky and with a shaven head – was known as “Cup of Tea” in the Clerkenwell and Farringdon areas, thanks to his preferred begging line. As I was getting closer to him (and getting ready for the verbal exchange that would follow) I noticed a flashing light and something poking out from the cash point Cup of Tea was then walking past. He noticed it as well, the wad of notes hanging indecently from the cash dispenser, forgotten by some unheeding mind and duly ignored by all the other unheeding minds passing by. But not by Cup of Tea, who lounged into the money smiling from ear to ear and pocketed it in a single agile movement, then walked quickly round the corner, laughing aloud and looking back in disbelief before disappearing towards Moorgate.

I do not know exactly how much money there was on the wad (it looked like a good couple of hundred pounds) or whether the money meant a radical change of life for him or more of the same tea abuse. But for these brief moments, there was pure happiness there. Devoid of all history, of all consequences, of all morality, with no past and no future. Cup of Tea’s happiness: a slice of the world, a brief moment in time isolated from everything else. Unrecorded. Unseen but for me and the bank’s CCTV cameras.

Perhaps these words are a failed but hopeful attempt to link this image with the other images in my roll, to make this vanished moment come to presence through the written word. Or perhaps these words are my version of Marker’s black screen, my own despondent way of conceding that an image of happiness is always by necessity subjective, elusive and, like all images, whether recorded or not, an image of loss.

Smithfield Market, 225, Central Markets, London EC1A 9LH

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