First published in International Times on Dec 21 2013

Heygate Estate c.1973 p8835

Dear James Lingwood and Mike Morris

Thanks for taking the time and trouble to respond to my open letter, which you did on Dec 20, just before news that the Artangel proposal had been turned down by Southwark Council.

Thanks also for the photo you sent by way of explaining the thinking behind the project’s controversial shape. I quote: “Firstly Mike Nelson’s proposal is to build a ziggurat rather than a pyramid. The ziggurat form makes direct reference to the Jespersen system used to construct the Heygate Estate, as can be seen from the attached photograph taken during construction in 1973, as well as other associations.”

Fascinating as this is, I feel it is disingenuous. For starters, a ziggurat is a pyramid. Secondly, the general public would not have thought of it as a ziggurat but as a pyramid. Finally, your own application to Southwark Council twice referred to the artwork as a ‘pyramid’. At no point in the 8-page document was it referred to as a ‘ziggurat’. I quote: “The physical appearance of the structure will be a pyramid.”

The problem with pyramids is their freemasonic connotations. It is well known that much of our urban architecture and engineering is created by people who also happen to be freemasons and that they reflect freemasonic interests in ‘sacred geometry’. Cleopatra’s Needle, for instance, was erected by freemasons; its obelisk form includes the pyramid shape at the apex. Hawksmoor, architect and mason, used obelisks and pyramid forms. It happens all the time in all major cities. The most glaring modern example is the pyramid at the top of 1 Canada Square in Canary Wharf with its glow-in-the-dark ‘Eye’. The Shard is also thought by some to resemble an elongated obelisk-cum-pyramid form.

The practice seems habitual, and the building trade has always been connected with freemasonry, not to mention its many prototypes throughout history.

Some of this architectural engineering is beautiful, but it also a way of colonising space, of subliminally advertising, and ultimately of sending out messages about power and influence, wealth and ownership. To use the demotic, much of this type of building – such as John Soane’s headquarters of the Freemasons’ Grand Lodge – is simply saying ‘Fuck off’.

That in your Artangel logo, the ‘A’ is substituted by a chevron, suggests that you too are interested in sacred geometry.

Artangel_black CMYK_big

The chevron is also suggested in the Paolozzi statue of William Blake’s ‘Newton’ in the courtyard of the British Library – in the form of a compass – which is also seen as a provocatively Masonic public artwork. In many cases these masonic symbols are erected with public money. The masons are one of the thriftiest organisations of all. Rather than spending their own money on these projects they prefer to siphon off funding from various governmental-cum-charitable sources.


Thank you also for letting me know that Lend Lease were not sponsoring your project. I wonder who was?

Of course, sacred geometry is a wonderful subject, and not the sole intellectual property of any secret society. But Egyptian kitsch is everywhere. and it arouses suspicion whenever a new edifice goes up. It is a modern cultural meme – Sincalir/Ackroyd/Moore etc. – that such architecture has a malignant effect. You did not consider this.

I’m personally relieved to hear the project has been turned down. Southwark Council have clearly chickened out of what would have become a cause celebre for art-activists, and an expensive pain-in-the-arse for local government.

I wonder what your project’s ‘educational and learning’ dimension would have been? You say you have no idea of what I meant by ‘aesthetic airbrushing’. Perhaps aesthetic ‘brushing under the carpet’ would have been a better metaphor. There is one story that matters above all others when it comes to Heygate, and that is the dispossession of its ex-residents. The Artangel project was not designed to tell that story and its net effect would have been to divert public attention away from it and onto something else. That might have been its initial attraction to Southwark Council with whom you have had a prolonged conversation about the Heygate Pyramid; but they could clearly feel the tide was turning and that the game was up on their see-through ruse.

Your reply was arrogant in that it welcomed further discussion only after the pyramid had been erected, but your timing was unfortunate in that the project was cancelled almost as soon as you’d written to me, literally within office hours. The public should have a say in matters of public art, and in this case it did have a say. If Artangel had listened to the protestors and withdrawn the proposal, the organisation would have won plaudits. Ambition overrode sensitivity. Artangel has done great things, but the Heygate Pyramid was a bad idea of Spinal Tap proportions and has been deservedly laughed out of town.


Yours sincerely,

Niall McDevitt

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First published in International Times on Dec 17 2013


Dear Artangel

I’ve read with concern about your proposal for a new work of art on the site of Heygate Estate.

It’s not that there’s anything intrinsically wrong with art exploring local areas that have gone through such a traumatizing experience as mass eviction.

Heygate, after it had been almost fully emptied, was turned into an imaginative playground by a group called Urban Forest. Where ‘regeneration’ is often a word used by developers as a euphemism for ‘social cleansing’, Urban Forest offered a genuine vista of regeneration by planting trees on the estate and growing food. At one of their many in situ events, I read a poem based on the depopulation of the mansions and the artist Richard Wentworth gave an inspirational talk. Many other artists and intellectuals have been drawn to Heygate. It has become a symbol of the social cleansing that is happening everywhere, a symbol of social injustice.

To object to a work of art must be a carefully considered act, as otherwise one may be allying oneself with a long line of philistines, ignoramuses and spoilsports.

However, to create a work of art – especially a public work of art that is to be associated in the public mind with such an important issue as Heygate – one really has to know what’s at stake.

My objection is twofold: 1) the idea of turning one of the emptied mansion blocks into a pyramid is surely ill-conceived. Not only is the pyramid a symbol of hierarchy, it is also a symbol associated with freemasonry, a secret activity which is widespread among local councils and in many areas of the construction trade. What happened between the poor residents of the Heygate Estate and Southwark Council/Lend Lease was nothing less than a battle. It was a battle decisively won by the council and the developers. Listen to the voice of a former resident whose parents lived in the very block that is to be shape-changed from rectangle to pyramid:

“We were the first people in, at the start of 1974,” John Colfer said. “My father made the home a home, fitted new floors, everything. My parents never planned to leave the estate. So when you’re talking about using those same materials to make a pyramid, you just think: what is there to show that this was a well-loved home? These are our memories being turned into an artwork.”

2) that the proposal might be sponsored by the developer in question, Lend Lease, is also very worrying. Artangel has met objections to the scheme by claiming that it does not wish to take sides, that the work of art will be neutral. The thing is: if the work of art is sponsored by the winning side of the battle – the wealthy powerful side – it cannot be neutral. A Lend Lease sponsored pyramid on the site of Heygate will be a monument not to the former residents of Heygate but to the people who evicted them. Aesthetic airbrushing at best, crass triumphalism at worst. As it happens, the Southwark/Lend Lease deal has been discredited by a leaked council report as one of the most corrupt land deals in living memory:

By a sheer co-incidence, my own imaginatively flighty poem on Heygate from 2012 includes the line: “Did you know the anti-pyramidal city had been built by gypsies riding on Indian elephants?”

I wish to make clear that I have no vendetta against a prestigious arts organization such as Artangel or an outstanding artist such as Mike Nelson. It is the idea that is objectionable. I appeal to the artists and angels behind the proposal to withdraw it.

No one doubts that the project will be artistic, but it is highly unlikely to be angelic. Artangel has not, in this case, given enough thought to the suffering of the victims of social cleansing or to the symbolism of the pyramid.

Yours sincerely,

Niall McDevitt

Photo: Max Reeves

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Originally posted on POETOPOGRAPHY:



Scotland you belong to your painted people, a people that paints itself, a people
that paints its own fates. The pictures on the skin of the ancient arms and torso
of Scotland are pictures of a naked unimaginable wildness coming before
and standing before an unimaginative bureaucracy in a suit.

They picture your interglacial landings and Ice Age axes, your boats of wood and bone, your drystone roundhouses and wheelhouses, your chambered cairns for the dead.

They picture your blue-coloured warriors overspilling the giant walls of Antoninus
and Hadrian – a two-hurdle sprint – to take on Empire.

They picture your Alexanders, Constantines, Duncans, kings that fought against
a succession of overlords who sought to tax, burn, rape and kill you into submission,
an abjectivity without end.

Always from below there have been onslaughts and outrages, incursions and invasions; always from below there have been subterfuges…

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Thomas Chatterton Brooke St 2014-08-04

Chatterton died on August 24 1770 on Brooke Street, Holborn,  and was buried in a paupers graveyard in nearby Shoe Lane. The graveyard and his grave are lost.

Photo: Valli Rao


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THE BRAVEHEART YES CABARET is a commemorative gathering on the site of William Wallace’s execution on August 23, 1305, to allow Londoners to show their support for Scottish Independence with a month to go before the vote.

It is an outdoor event and open forum, but there is no platform for nay-sayers. This will be a magical antidote to all the south-of-the-border unionism we’ve been over-exposed to in recent times.

Poetry, music, oratory, history etc. Scottish artists are especially welcome.

The William Wallace Monument, Bartholomews Hospital, West Smithfield, EC1 (Farringdon tube). Free.


Image: Andy Hillhouse courtesy of The William Wallace Society

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sun hits the wall
sun hits the wall at the eleventh hour
you’ve been here 
but once before

not the prettiest walls
but they’ve protected the real
for a hundred years, red-brown
as blood and earth

the voice of the Asian
Down’s Syndrome boy
pure as a horn

you’re in the east now, my brother,
the west has seen its final sunset,
the city is baked
from frozen


Poetry: Niall McDevitt


Photography: Max Reeves


(N.B. This poem was posted on August 12, William Blake’s death day)


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Hughes Larkin

I found a poetopographical monument I’d not seen before as I passed through Queen Square Gardens yesterday. This one made me wince, and think. Queen Square is the famous former address of Faber and Faber, formerly poetry-edited by T.S. Eliot at Russell Square, now based at Bloomsbury House, Great Russell Street.

The ‘memorial planter’ was erected to celebrate the Silver Jubilee in 1977, and because it was in the proximity of the publisher, someone had the mawkish idea of including lyrical tributes from the two outstanding Faber poets of the era, Philip Larkin and Ted Hughes. The Larkin is semi-visible in the above photograph. It is attributed to ‘Larkin’. The full quatrain reads:

In times when nothing stood
But worsened or grew strange
There was one constant good:
She did not change

The Hughes quatrain is also attributed merely to ‘Hughes’ and reads as follows:

A soul is a wheel
A nation’s a soul
With a crown for a hub
To keep it whole

It seems as if the verses were specially commissioned. If they are quoted from other works, I’m glad to say I haven’t read them. The sentiments are unpalatable. The Larkin is something you regularly hear from monarchists i.e. that through the bloody chaos of modern English history, Elizabeth II is the fixed star, a reassuring portent, a symbol of constancy. The Hughes is more cod-mystical, more redolent of the vomitarium. Hard to believe ‘The Incredible Hulk’ could have come up with it.

The discovery of this embarrassing, overweening plot confirmed my suspicion – is indeed public evidence – that Faber and Faber is a monarchist press, one which serves to uphold the ‘courtly tradition’ of English poetry, a brilliant tradition which includes poets as diverse as Chaucer, Skelton, Shakespeare, Rochester, not to mention the ‘individual talent’ of the arch-royalist T.S. Eliot, prodigal son of the New Englanders returned home.

True, Faber has published Northern Irish poets that would count themselves Republicans, but its choice of English poets seems calculated as to how they might respond to a royal invitation. Even the young faux-communist Auden was more than happy to shake hands with King George V. The very teleology of being a Faber poet presupposes sumptuous occasions and studied protocols. Funeral orations at Westminster Abbey…

In 1977, the be-knighted royalist John Betjemen was presiding Poet Laureate, but he was published by John Murray, not Faber, which is presumably why he was disregarded for the Queen Square job. Strange, though, as you’d think that providing monarchical ditties on demand was the whole point of being Poet Laureate. Why should he have to suffer rivals? Strange also that the two poets featured here were both offered the post when Betjemen died in 1984. Were they also rivals for the laureateship as they certainly were for laurels? Tellingly, when Larkin sent his royal quatrain to Charles Monteith at Faber, he also included a parody of Ted Hughes’, joking that he was sure Ted would do better:

The sky split apart in malice
Stars rattled like pans on a shelf
Crow shat on Buckingham Palace
God pissed himself…

Larkin turned the laureateship down, not because he was a Republican but because he only had a year to live and was not given to public appearances. Hughes was second choice. He accepted it. Fishing in the Queen’s private grounds, he probably felt safe from a latter-day Orphic dismemberment by feminist hordes. His various pronouncements on royalism and monarchy, as well as his awful occasional poems, are the worst of Hughes, but this outlook imbues his oeuvre. He’d always been ripe for royal co-option.

21st century poets writing in England need to become more aware of this division, not so much between mainstream and avant-garde but poets of the courtly tradition and those who reject it. We need to undermine a culture in which people just ‘go along with it’. Tony Harrison is a mainstream poet but a firm Republican and deserves to be properly understood as such. Check out his witty poem ‘Untitled’ which he wrote as a reprimand to his friend, the director Richard Eyre, who had accepted a knighthood. It takes attitude to come out as a Republican, and many poets are still in the closet. Of the 300 poets that attended Buckingham Palace late last year, quite a few claimed to be Republicans, but they were still willing to make obeisance to the Windsors.

The courtly tradition needs to be semtexed into a very red-faced and distant past, and this is the century that can manage it.’re-selling-postcards-of-the-handshake/

Niall McDevitt

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