Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh!

IMG_6854I don’t quite know what it is that has made me think of Vietnam recently. Maybe it was a casual mention in a conversation that made me realise that I don’t have a very vivid memory of the short time I spent in that country a couple of years ago. It was, after all, just a fleeting glimpse of the fat bottom end of a long thin country – a day in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) and a few days up the Mekong River.IMG_6933I wandered Ho Chi Minh City in a jet-lagged daze, stupefied by a body clock that badly needed winding and oppressive tropical heat that clung like a blanket. What did I do? I gaped at a few of the tourist sites I was told to look at. I dodged road-wide flanks of manic motorbikes (just wait until they get cars!), ate fishy, chilli-spiked noodles and bought, of all things, a copy of David Copperfield in a savagely air-conned bookshop (an unconscious hankering for the fictionalised Yarmouth coast perhaps?). The rest is a sleep-deprived blur, although I do remember Christmas lights – it was early January – incongruous as a Santa suit in steamy Indochina. The city, as I remember it, seemed an awful long way from the imagined sinful metropolis of Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter.IMG_6811I am also struck by the visa in my passport that reads: Socialist Republic of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon – despite the reinvented name and the occasional remnant image of a wispy-bearded Uncle Ho, it was hard to imagine anywhere more unashamedly capitalist. The new moniker foisted on the city in 1976 seemed an ironic rebranding for a city that was firmly in the US camp throughout the war (The American War, the Vietnamese call it). One can only imagine the victors’ delight in defiantly renaming this southern capitalist city after their erstwhile northern communist leader. But a name is just a name – the USA may have lost the war but it was the West that inevitably won in the end. IMG_6844

IMG_6919As for the Mekong, what stays with me most is its murkyy lifelessness. It took a day or two along the river before it dawned on me: despite fisherman eking a living from the river’s grey waters and insects aplenty, I slowly realised that there were almost no birds to be seen. No dipping kingfishers, no fish-spearing herons, no skeins of geese overhead; just an occasional swallow flitting nervously above the water. The first egrets I saw were dead: a sorry pair on display in a food market, a meagre meal for a poor family. Uncontrolled hunting and trapping, along with severe habitat depletion, appear to be the main reasons for this sad depletion of what, in a previous life, would have surely been a tropical paradise. IMG_7043A river without birds is a like a song without a melody. Things improved slightly as we approached the Cambodian border but really not that much – for the most part, the river remained the ideal film setting for a tropical version of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.IMG_7187IMG_7149IMG_7255

Edgeland

IMG_4934Edgelands are everywhere, orbiting our towns and cities like unbeautiful rings of Saturn: non-places, junkspace, transitory transition zones that lie between that which is unequivocally urban or rural. Transitory because they are spaces in flux, with fluid geography that today may be brownfield site or landfill but tomorrow could be new housing, an out-of-town shopping emporium or a bypass. I hesitate to use the term ‘liminal’ here, that overused adjective beloved of psychogeographers, but … oh go on, I will. Edgelands are, if you’ll excuse the trope, zones of liminality, thresholds of the urban world. They might also be defined as those places that people pass through but do not usually stop at. They represent the view from the car  on the daily commute, that untidy marginal landscape glimpsed flashing by through the grimy window of the morning train.

IMG_4921Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts in Edgelands, their definitive book on the subject, quote a long list of names associated with waste landscapes of this type in the United States, a lexicon that starts with ‘boomberg’ and ends with ‘world city’. My favourite though is ‘stimdross’, which sounds like some sort of propriety brand of exfoliant cream.

IMG_4944Like anywhere, Norwich, the city where I live, has its own edgelands. These take on a different character depending on which side of the city you look. To the north, the city sprawls for miles through ‘30s council estates, Tudorbethan suburbs and rural fringe new-build with leadlight windows and double garages. Heading in this direction from the centre, it is only after the airport is passed that the city finally gives way to the arable farmland that continues all the way to the Norfolk coast.

IMG_4946Heading south, the transition comes much sooner. A little way beyond the ring road the landscape changes abruptly as it crosses a railway line and the River Yare. Here, where the traffic of the southern bypass creates an ever-present thrum, is an edgeland par excellence: a territory that has elements of both urban and rural but belongs to neither camp. The rough grassland here is too poor for arable crops but supports both grazing horses and a vast imposing electricity substation. Lofty pylons march across the landscape, dwarfing the horses. The scene is a strange juxtaposition that shouts of marginalisation but the horses do not seem to mind. Who owns them? Travellers probably, or is it wrong to make such an assumption?

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The OS map of the territory reveals a henge in the field here, right next to where the electricity substation and horses are. The Arminghall Woodhenge, which was discovered in 1929 thanks to crop marks on an aerial photograph, was excavated in 1935 and discovered to be a Neolithic monument orientated on the mid-winter sunset. All that remains now is a vague bump and dip in the ground but once this was a place of power, a place of knowledge, ritual and observation. Now that power is reduced to a ghost of landscape, forgotten, returned to the earth – a palimpsest overlaid with electrical distribution hardware and grazing horses. Most of the motorists speeding by on the southern bypass avert their eyes from the unsightly pylons and transformers and do not give these fields a second glance. How can they ever know of the henge if they do not even notice the horses?

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