The Shard's view is a new joy, but taking the high ground has always elevated the senses

Plus: A four-letter word arrives on Radio 4 and the latest spin on a misused word

Share
Related Topics

Looking down from the Shard the other day, I found myself
wondering about the history of looking down on things. Not
metaphorically, of course – that is presumably as old as hominids –
but literally, as I was doing, enjoying the 800ft gap between
myself and the street below. There was a reminder that this isn't
an exclusively modern pleasure some 600ft beneath me – in the form
of the gilded teazle of flames that tops Sir Christopher Wren's
Monument to the Great Fire of London
. Boswell went up that in 1762,
overcoming a panic attack to get to the top and recording shakily
that it was "horrid to be so monstrous a way up in the air, so far
above London and its spires." But Boswell was relishing an ancient
thrill even then. In a popular 17th century guide book, Justus
Zinzerling tells visitors that "a fine view of the city is beheld
from the lofty tower" of St Paul's (he also warns them to keep an
eye out for the gibbeted thief on the outskirts of Sittingbourne).
And in 1592, Frederick Duke of Wittenberg was taken up to the
highest tower of Windsor Castle, where he carved his name in the
roof lead – evidence that touristic vandalism has a long and
distinguished history, too
. In a lot of cases, one imagines, the
entrance fee placard went up just a couple of minutes after the
last stone was laid.

It's hard not to think that there's some biological imperative at work in our passion for this rentable and temporary supremacy – some ancient advantage to having a panoramic view of the surrounding land which flickers within us as we take the express elevator up to the viewing platform. Elevation has always been a privilege of the powerful and the wealthy, after all. They take the top rungs of the ladder, the upper echelons of the pecking order, and the penthouse suites in the tower block. So when you visit one of these attractions, there's a sense of borrowed grandeur in the perspective you get – which is further enhanced by your grasp of a spectacle that always evades you at ground level. Roland Barthes, in a famous essay on the Eiffel Tower, suggested that it made structuralists of all its visitors (without them ever knowing it) because it gave them a tool to analyse the power relationships in the city in which they lived. But you don't have to go quite as far as he did to agree that what's usually marketed as a sensational pleasure is surreptitiously an intellectual one, too.

Up the Shard, I found myself thinking of something else as well, though. And that was the recent popularity of tilt-shift photography, that technique which takes a scene from the real world and converts it into a model village (you'll have seen it somewhere on television because it's very vogueish at the moment). The satisfaction of tilt-shift isn't entirely unconnected to the thrill we feel up a high building, where the rail networks that so frustrate us in actual use become toys, shuttling to and fro with perfect neatness. Both height and that trick of focal depth bring the world into our grasp in another sense, because they make it look cherishably manipulable. We understand the complexity of systems, can see how they interlock and sense how they might be rearranged, as in a game with scale models. So while it might still be "horrid" in Boswell's more ancient understanding of the term (as something that made the hair on the back of your neck stand up), it's also profoundly gratifying, hinting at an imagined world in which we're the biggest thing around and our thumb can blot out a building. Above about 500ft we're all children again. Did our ancestors feel that, too, before cathedrals or skyscrapers? And did being the king of the castle long predate castles?

A four-letter word arrives on Radio 4

The news that Radio 4 is to broadcast an unexpurgated reading of Tony Harrison's poem V took me back to the furore that greeted its first publication. This newspaper reprinted the whole poem so that our readers could judge for themselves, a decision which, as I recall, took the editor Andreas Whittam Smith about half a second to make. He was just as brisk when someone suggested that the swear words might be hyphenated into semi-decency. I remember how nervous I was, because I dreaded the possibility that a typo had crept into its 3,500 words. And I don't think any of us would have credited that it would one day go out on Radio 4.

The latest spin on a misused word

Back in 1917, when Guillaume Apollinaire used the word to refer to Satie's Parade, "surreal" referred to a dreamlike, irrational conjunction of real objects. These days – as demonstrated by eyewitnesses to the Vauxhall helicopter crash the other day – it means something more like, "Honest... I've never seen anything like it before." I suppose the wreckage of a helicopter on a London street does qualify as an unexpected juxtaposition. But it's hardly as unpredictable as Lautréaumont's famous instance of surrealist conjunction – "the chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table". So unless the fire-engines were covered in fur and the helicopter was shaped like an elephant, I'm just not convinced surreal is the appropriate word.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

History Teacher

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Seconda...

** Female PE Teacher Urgently Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

** Cover Supervisors Urgently Required In Knowsley **

£60 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Seconda...

Java developer - (Intershop Enfinity)

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits: Ampersand Consulting LLP: Java Developer...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp  

Oscar Pistorius sentence: Judge Masipa might have shown mercy, but she has delivered perfect justice

Chris Maume
Oscar Pistorius at the High Court in Pretoria  

Oscar Pistorius has been sentenced to five years in prison - but what then?

Rosie Millard
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album