It is a common complaint that must be said about London that we spend so much of our time running around, being overwhelmed by the big and bright in the city that we too often forget to look at the ground beneath our feet. While this inevitably comes with the perils of falling over, it also comes with the (slightly less treacherous) danger that we might miss something.
Pavement Poetry, a project which took place on the streets of Notting Hill in 2003 and now honoured with a beautiful photographic book, published by the aptly named Pedestrian Publishing, aimed to tackle exactly this problem – getting Londoners to look down.
Offering a unique look at the concept of public artworks as they appear unannounced and unnoticed on our streets, Pavement Poetry, written and orchestrated by Maria Vlotides, tells the story of the project’s genesis through the correspondence she undertook in making the project from the funding bodies to the poets themselves. Inspired by a simple poem written on a paving stone in San Francisco, Maria began working with the Notting Hill Improvements Group consulting on possible public art schemes to regenerate Notting Hill Gate. The previous attempts using sculptures on the tops of buildings were vastly overlooked, further suggesting that people simply don’t look up, keeping their eyes on the pavement. And here she found her canvas.
The book uses images of the actual letters Maria sent and received in order to achieve her vision of the new face of public art, including the instigating help from The Royal Society of Literature whose enthusiasm for the project was met with a host of potentially interested parties including Michael Holroyd, Sebastian Faulks, Hugh Whitemore and Margaret Drabble.
It is interesting to read the reactions of the various writers Vlotides approached for the project, offering different insights into not only the motives of the projects but also anticipating the reaction of the public to art on their streets. Piers Paul Read raised the valid point that the English simply don’t like writers and so might be irritated to have their words emblazoned on their street but perhaps the ‘cosmopolitan nature of Notting Hill’ would mean people would be a little more entertained by the idea. John Heath-Stubbs expressed his hesitancy, but intrigue, about the project in the poem itself, breaching his 20 word limit to 60 to say ‘What is it here for – only to prove what a cultured place this town of ours is – isn’t it?’
Margaret Drabble, requested her words be placed outside Notting Hill’s Coronet cinema and should include the date of the building so that, should the ever present threat of the cinema’s demolition occur, her words would act as its memorial. It is anecdotes such as this which reiterate the importance of words in our city’s history and in preserving its memory, particularly in such a disposable time.
This enthusiasm from the writers themselves is interestingly – but sadly perhaps not too surprisingly – by a deluge of letters from councils and funding bodies declining involvement in the project, including the Arts Council. Nonetheless seven pothole cover designs were made – including John Heath-Stubbs’ satirical and lengthy free verse now placed on Kensington Park Road and Michael Holroyd’s dedication of his public art to ‘absolute beginners’ in Powis Square.
Featuring a map of Notting Hill and the locations of the seven pothole covers and a selection of some of the more artistically inclined pothole covers throughout the area, Pavement Poetry illuminates this strange, unobtrusive but nonetheless powerful beauty that lies beneath our feet every day.
While I may be experienced in the ways of poetry, I am, to borrow from Michael Holroyd, an absolute beginner in the ways of pothole covers, but what the Pavement Poetry project did – and obviously still does – is remind us that maybe art doesn’t necessarily need to be understood to be enjoyed, we just need to open our eyes and allow it to be seen. As Vlotides notes in her foreword, the book is dedicated to ‘the London historian who never tires of the narrative fabric of the city’ and that is exactly what makes Pavement Poetry so powerful, tying together the penetrative power of words with the permanence of our streets.
Pavement Poetry is published by Pedestrian Publishing and is available for £38.99 RRP at: