The Broader Picture: The iron under city soles

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The Independent Culture
THE MANHOLE is usually a comic device; it's something people suddenly fall down when they're walking along. It probably doesn't happen that much in life, but it happens a good deal in films and cartoons. Think of the Pink Panther: his variation is to peel the hole off the road, as if it were a circular black mat, and lay it down elsewhere; again the Inspector plummets. The manhole represents unexpected disaster - or alternatively, a secret escape hatch. Harry Lime slips down them into the Vienna sewers. When his pursuers arrive, he seems to have vanished into the air. (Bugs Bunny goes down the same way, pokes his head up with the manhole cover on it like a hat, sees them coming, ducks again.)

Either way, the point about film manholes is the same: they're something that you're slow to notice. And that's true in life, as well as fantasy. When Richard Glover was taking these photographs, he set up his camera (it's a big one) and pointed it at the road. 'People would ask me what I was looking at, people who walk over them everyday.'

All these manhole covers are in inner London, most date from the latter half of the nineteenth century: good old English ironwork. Glover came to London from Australia two years ago. 'I was struck by the strong but simple and obvious design of these utilitarian objects,' he says. Thus the project began.

Why are manhole covers usually round? So that, whichever way you turn them - unlike square or rectangular ones - you can't drop them back down the manhole. Some of them cover drains. Some are the lids of coalholes (and advertise the name of the delivery company). All were made to last - in many cases longer than their actively functional lives. Now they only have an ornamental status. But then they had that all along.

Glover sees the project as partly historical, partly visual. On the one hand, he wants to get on record these survivors from an earlier age of design, when manufacturers lavished an attention to detail and to decoration even on the manhole cover. And they are gradually disappearing, as roads are modernised and old ones are replaced with plastic models. Two from this lot have gone already.

Some people do appreciate them and even take rubbings from them, as they would church brasses, recording the chequer-board, the wheel, the lattice, the rings. Glover met a woman who did rubbings of coalholes with coal. It's a strictly relative thing, though. They're only more beautiful than you'd expect manhole covers to be.

Photographed, manhole covers are a different matter. The lowly object is transfigured, the camera acts as Cinderella's fairy godmother. And it's not just the camera that can bring new grandeur to the cover. When Boris Pasternak was asked where he'd got the name Zhivago from, he said he'd found the word on a manhole cover in Leningrad. Perhaps a close look at the covers of London could prove comparably inspiring. Dr Manhole Cover . . . It's got a ring to it.

(Photographs omitted)

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