To the Lighthouse

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They are taking the lighthouse down. It was really just a matter of time. Time and tide, it is said, wait for no man, and the two make for a powerful combination on this rapidly changing shoreline. The Orford lighthouse has stood here on the Suffolk coast since 1792, the 11th to stand on the same spot. All the previous lighthouses, mostly flimsy wooden structures, were lost to the sea; this one built by Lord Braybrooke of Audley End has lasted longer than any before it.

The ongoing demolition is simply a matter of being one step ahead of what will happen naturally as a result of longshore drift. Built as a very necessary warning for shipping and continually in service until its decommission in 2013, in more recent times the lighthouse has served as a bold territorial marker for this curious – and one-time secretive – strip of coastline. What it stands upon is not an island as it may seem but a spit – a long stretch of shingle, marsh and sand that sits between the estuary of the River Alde and the North Sea like a curving finger pointing south. Along with an expanse of pylons and weapon-testing ‘pagodas’, this red-and-white band structure has been an icon for the territory of Orford Ness, a place of Cold War secrets, sea-scraped shingle, wildlife and, in recent years, National Trust day trippers. Because of its dark history and evocative, lonely location, the Ness has also seen service as an unsanctioned psychogeographical theme park, a go-to liminal zone for enraptured lone males and Sebaldian shore-shufflers (myself included).

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While we are all losing a lighthouse, I am losing a gravatar for my blog and twitter feed. I suppose I ought to replace it with something new but I will keep it for a while as a tribute to the lighthouse’s ghosted memory. As for the lighthouse itself, it is hoped that the lantern will be reused to form part of a memorial structure on land across from the Ness on Orford Quay.

Not for the first time have iconic buildings world vanished overnight. The lighthouse’s destruction is, at least, planned and been a long time coming. Other well known places I have visited have met more violent ends – vicious executions rather than gentle euthanasia. I refer to some of these in a post on Palmyra from five years ago. Syria seems like a dream now; something I might have imagined. The reality is that the country I experienced as a welcoming place nearly twenty years ago has since become a land of nightmares.

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Going further back in time, it feels equally strange to recall having once spent several days in a hotel that overlooked the enormous sandstone Buddhas of Bamiyan in central Afghanistan. This was back in the halcyon days when the country was a way-station on the so-called Hippie Trail to India, long before the Taliban decided to blow the Buddhas up as blasphemous objects of idol worship (even then, the statues’ faces had already been disfigured by angry iconoclasts).

To continue a tally of Zelig-like appearances at places associated with doomed futures, I might also mention a visit to the World Trade Centre in New York on my first visit to the city in 1986 – of having once stood in a small room at the very top of the structure, a space that now existed as just a cube of empty sky above a disaster zone. Or a visit to a place that languished in a void between destruction and repair: Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, still a broken city when I visited in 2003, the absence of its beautiful 16th-century Ottoman bridge hanging like a question mark above the rubble-filled turquoise of the River Neretva. The bridge was faithfully rebuilt with foreign investment and reopened in 2004. As beautiful as before but somehow sad and perhaps even futile, the reconstruction was a gesture of hope more than anything else — the Muslim east and Croat west banks of the river would remain as places apart in terms of religion, culture and political allegiance.

Less exotically, I also recall the cooling towers that used to stand next to the M1 in Tinsley, Sheffield – twin behemoths that could be seen from the windows of the school where I did my first teaching practice in the city. The towers, devoid of function since 1980, possessed a grace and heft that seemed to perfectly symbolise Sheffield’s industrial past (as did the abandoned steelworks of the Don Valley, which were eventually cleared to provide the land for the inevitable – a massive shopping complex, Meadowhall). Like the Orford lighthouse, and also the equally iconic cooling towers that stood at Ironbridge until last year, the Sheffield towers were finally expunged from the landscape. It took just seven seconds to reduce the 76 metre towers to rubble. For now, like the Orford lighthouse, they remain as a memory, a ghost of landscape that will fade with time.

Beneath a Concrete Sky – to Gravelly Hill Interchange by canal

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Where’s Birmingham river? Sunk.

Which river was it? Two. More or

Less.

 Birmingham River Roy Fisher

The idea was to follow the Birmingham canal system north to Spaghetti Junction. I had already traversed the city by means of the Grand Union Canal a couple of years earlier, following the canal path west to arrive at the meeting of the waters at Gas Street Basin. That time I had turned left at Aston Junction but I knew that returning to that same point it would be possible to follow the Birmingham & Fazeley Canal north to reach Salford Junction directly beneath the Gravelly Hill Interchange.

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Accompanying me on this venture was my friend Nigel Roberts, a fellow Bradt author devoted to Belarus and Blues (Birmingham City FC) in equal measure, who gamely agreed to come along despite our planned route veering close enough to Aston Villa’s turf to risk bringing him out in hives.

We rendezvoused in the gleaming concourse of New Street Station before making our way to Gas Street Basin by way of Victoria Square with its Queen Vic and Iron:Man  statues. A notice on the ever-present temporary fencing that characterises Paradise Circus gave notice that Antony Gormley’s  Iron:Man was soon to be moved to a new home. How, I wondered, might this effect the city’s sacred geometry, its unchartered leys that converged at Victoria Square? But Birmingham (motto: ‘Forward’) was always a city that messed with its past, forever rearranging the deckchairs, refurbishing the urban fabric, reinventing the wheel and then re-forging it by means of a Brummagem hammer. It always seemed a place where time not so much stood still as had a frequent lie-down, a place that lump-hammered the past into something that never quite made it to the future.

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After a swift half-pint and perusal of the map at the Malt House pub opposite the geographically incongruous Sealife Centre we set off along the Birmingham & Fazeley branch towards Aston Junction. The day is atypically glorious, warm, blue-skied – peak May, the time of year you might happily be time-locked in were it at all possible. Cow parsley froths alongside the canal path, complimenting the blossoming hawthorn. Oxlips, red campion and broom compete for attention with the lurid graffiti that seems to embellish almost any available wall space. Above a lock, daubed high on a factory wall, eponymous Roof Top Vandals have left their mark in neat, bold lettering – a noteworthy combination of art and athleticism. Passing beneath the bridge that feeds railway lines into Snow Hill Station, the shimmering reflected light from the water dances like an electrocardiograph on the concrete above.

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Approaching Aston, we pass the red and blue holders of the Saltley Gas Works, scene of the Battle of Saltley Gate some 46 years earlier when the fuel storage depot was mass picketed during a national miners’ strike.

A little further on, we become aware of a familiar figure atop a building – Britannia, complete with trident, excised from the back of a fifty pence piece, supersized and raised to roof level. It seems churlish not to investigate. We detour from the canal to seek out the building and head for the Lichfield Road in the wake of two teenage girls who swig beer from cans and swap yarns in rich Brummo-Caribbean argot. It is, as we thought, a pub; no longer operating as The Britannia but as The Aston Cafe. We are now perilously close to Villa Park, or Vile Park as my companion prefers to call it. It does not bother me either way – I am agnostic in such matters – but Nigel has started to sense that he is well behind enemy lines.

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Returning to the canal to press on north, the Gravelly Hill Interchange aka Spaghetti Junction is already clearly visible ahead. The last house before the tangle of overlapping roadways takes over has iron railings decked in Union Jack flags – patriotism doing battle with traffic pollution. Just beyond, a defiant stand of purple lupins, garden escapes gone feral, announces our arrival at Salford Junction. Here we detour left for a short distance along the Tame Valley Canal, the curving multi-carriageway of the M6 immediately above us, articulated lorries flashing by half-seen above the barriers as they career along in compulsive centripetal motion. Above, spanning the roadways, blue signs point the way to London (M1) and The North (M6), while beside the water a navigational signpost for boats shows the various routes out of here – west to Tipton in the Black Country, north to Tamworth in north Warwickshire, back to the City Centre and Gas Street Basin (3½ miles) from whence we have come. But there are no boats today: the troubled pea-green waters beneath the Gravelly Hill Interchange fail to match most people’s criteria of what constitutes an ideal boating holiday.

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Huge concrete pillars support the roads overhead – 559 in total if you were foolhardy enough to count them. The pillars bring to mind Pharaonic temples in Upper Egypt – Luxor, Karnak – although hieroglyphs and carved lotus capitals are noticeably absent. But this whole chaotic enclave of concrete, water and channelled momentum is an unintentional temple of sorts – a nexus of late capitalism; a dinosaur footprint of transport and industry, an entropic sump. The water beneath, largely deprived of direct sunlight, is an opaque soup that looks incapable of supporting anything other than menace and monsters but here and there the light sneaks in to highlight graffiti, reflect on the water and cast shapes on the wall that mutate with the sun’s arc: accidental light sculpture, the oeuvre of James Turrell; found land art.

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Locked between the various roadways, the trees and bushes of a green island rise defiantly within its looping concrete confines. It is home, no doubt, to all manner of wildlife – birds, pioneering cats… foxes. A Ballardian realm of preposterous nightmares and Sci-fi imaginings, there are probably parts of the Amazon rainforest that are better explored than this singular non-place.

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Satiated with the chiaroscuro experience of this interchange underworld, we return to Salford Junction and take the Grand Union Canal south through Nechells to return to the centre via a route best described as elliptical. We pass the vast entertainment complex of Star City, another latter-day temple to mammon; then an enormous recycling plant that has a conveyor belt receiving the load from a Sisyphean procession of tipper trucks, each crushed metal parcel crashing onto the hill-high mound with a shrill clatter. In uncanny juxtaposition to this unholy clamour, set back from the water is a small pond with reeds, yellow iris, water violet and water lilies – a Monet garden awaiting its artist. But for the deafening backdrop, this might be a scene in leafy Warwickshire. Indeed this whole stretch of canal, just a few minutes’ walk from Spaghetti Junction, has a disconcertingly rural feel to it. What is more, it seems almost completely deserted of people.

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Reaching Garrison Lane in Bordesley we make another brief detour so that Nigel can show me the location of The Garrison, the pub whose fictional 1920s counterpart is centrepiece to the Peaky Blinders television series. There’s not a peaked cap or Shelby brother to be seen but it offers an opportunity for Nigel to fill his lungs with the right sort of air – St Andrews, Birmingham City’s home ground is only a little way up the hill.

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Approaching Digbeth, we finally come upon the elusive River Rea – a shallow, sluggish channel beneath the canal viaduct. One of Birmingham’s two rivers, the other being the River Tame that it merges with close to Gravelly Hill Interchange, the Rea (pronounced ‘Ray’) spends much of its course through the city below ground out of sight. As the poet Roy Fisher claims in Birmingham River, the Rea does little to draw attention to itself: a ‘petty river’ without memory seems about right.

a slow, petty river with no memory

of an ancient

 name;  a river called Rea, meaning

river,               

and misspelt at that.

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The Tyranny of the Horizon by Laurence Mitchell

For this post I am reblogging something I recently wrote for The Arsonist, the webzine of Burning House Press.

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“A frontier region… the resort of brigands and bandits”
– Sir Clifford Darby, from The Medieval Fenland

Two summers ago I walked coast to coast across England and Wales, from Great Yarmouth in Norfolk to Aberystwyth on the Welsh coast. The idea was to etch a furrow in the map along a route that traced familiar haunts and places of personal significance. My aim was to rekindle the memory of places I once knew in East Anglia and the Midlands; join up the dots, to connect all the places along the way with a line made by walking – a pagan pilgrimage, if you like, a personal songline.

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Space is the Place – Shakespeare and Sun Ra

IMG_6581Still reeling from the solar onslaught of the Sun Ra Arkestra the previous night we travelled yesterday to Great Yarmouth to see The Tempest at the town’s Hippodrome Theatre. The Sun Ra Arkestra fronted by nonagenarian alto-sax maestro Marshall Allen had done what they always did: channel the Saturnian spirit of their erstwhile and now-deceased leader Sun Ra and perform their joyful big band space-jazz to an appreciative audience for nigh on two hours. As the song goes, Space IS the place, and the place in this instance had been Norwich’s Open, a venue fashioned from the  brick and mortar of late capitalism – originally a  Georgian building that had started life as  a wine merchants before its vaults were re-purposed for the storage of bullion by the Gurney family. Merging with Barclays Bank in 1896 and soon outgrowing its original premises, a new building was constructed in 1926 with a large hall, extensive vaults and what was reputed to be the longest banking counter in the country. Later in life it went on to become the regional headquarters of Barclays Bank but now the clink of wine bottles and kerching of cash registers were nothing more than silent ghosts that observed on the sidelines as the Arkestra’s music swirled unfettered to the ceiling in this neoclassical void. A quotidian space formerly dedicated to the exchange of capital now given over to brave sonic venturing seemed like the best of outcomes, and the Sun Ra Arkestra quickly made it their own, filling the cavernous space with a joyful stellar noise and a powerful, if playful, presence. IMG_6568The Tempest took place in another very singular space: the wonderful Hippodrome on Great Yarmouth’s seafront, the only surviving purpose-built circus venue in the country. Built in 1903 by the great circus showman George Gilbert the building once faced directly onto the seafront across a square but now huddles behind the garish pink bulk of the Flamingo amusement arcade, a gaudy slice of Las Vegas tat transported to the Norfolk coast. Slip into the narrow street behind though and the gorgeous facade of the Hippodrome can be seen in its full glory, with Art Deco lettering and charming panels around the door, its towers peeping above the pink nonsense of the Flamingo to peak at the beach and the North Sea beyond.  This  was, and still is, a grand and stylish place: a theatre of dreams, a venue fit for the likes of Houdini and Chaplin who both performed here in the Hippodrome’s heyday. IMG_6589If the exterior seems full of promise, the interior is even more beguiling: all dark velvet and chocolate brown, and a warm, well-used ambience that has left a rich patina on the fabric of the place. The seating is snug and steeply tiered; its darkly lit corridors lined with old posters and portraits of clowns and past performers, most notably Houdini (where better than Great Yarmouth to demonstrate the art of escapology?). There is even a poster of Houdini in the gents and, while a male toilet in Great Yarmouth is probably not normally the wisest place to take out a camera, my fellow micturators seemed to understand my photographic purpose. IMG_6602Theatre in the round; theatre in the wet: the Hippodrome might have been made for The Tempest; or, given a bit of temporal elasticity that could anticipate three hundred years into the future, The Tempest for the Hippodrome. The production, directed by William Galinsky, Artistic Director of the Norfolk & Norwich Festival, is a hugely inventive, almost psychedelic, affair that makes full use of the circus’s horizontal and vertical space and central water pool. For two hours we were mentally transported to Shakespeare’s island zone by means of brilliant storytelling, excellent acting and inspired direction, and, in keeping with this circus venue,  the acrobatic shenanigans of the Lost in Translation Circus. IMG_6591Shakespeare is reliably universal of course, but did I detect a whiff of Tarkovsky (Solaris, Stalker) in there? A hint too of Samuel Beckett?  Of course, we each bring our own cultural references to bear. Today, yesterday’s performance seems almost dreamlike – a short-lived transportation from reality in which both the drama and the unique properties of the venue itself had an equal part to play. As Prospero remarks:

We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

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At Covehithe

IMG_1981The day before the autumn equinox: the setting, the beach at Covehithe. We have gathered here at the north Suffolk coast to walk and talk. A literary walk to celebrate W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, no less, organised as part of the Waveney & Blyth Arts festival. The weather – hazy grey skies, mist, light drizzle – is suitably Sebaldian.

Proceedings begin at Covehithe’s St Andrew’s Church – itself a curiosity, a church within a church –the large medieval shell of the original church sheltering the tiny 17th-century thatched-roofed replacement that was built when the former became too expensive for villagers to maintain. The fine 15th-century tower abuts the later build, dwarfing almost mockingly its dinky proportions. Before taking a pew to hear an introduction by UEA lecturers Jo Catling and Barbara Marshall, who both knew and worked with W. G. ‘Max’ Sebald, some of us examine the font, recycled from the earlier church, which has stylised lions and hairy human-like figures that have had their heads chiselled off. Headless or not, these strange decapitated figures are recognisable as representations of the woodwose (wild man), a creature that belongs to the same fabulist stable as the Green Man, the crude anti-masonry no doubt the handiwork of William Dowsing’s men as it was these same arch-puritans who did for the stained glass windows that used to illuminate the original church.

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We drift down to the beach by way of Covehithe Broad – the direct road from Covehithe is closed and fenced-off these days thanks to the coastal erosion that constantly depletes this shoreline. The broad’s brackish water is alive with Canada geese that honk plaintively, their voices coming through the mist even before we can see them. The geese take off sporadically in small groups to circuit and survey the parish before returning to the watery comfort of the broad. At the shore, the tide is out and the beach is deserted but for the presence of a distant dog-walker and our own gaggle of muse-seeking Sebaldians. To the north, the curve of the coast at Benacre Ness near Kessingland can just about be discerned. Southwold lies to the south: a distinctive profile that stretches from sea to land – first pier, then low town roofs and blinking lighthouse before a water tower marks the point where the town ends and the Sandlings and marshes begin.

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We walk north along the beach in small amorphous groups exchanging thoughts on Sebald’s gloomy oeuvre. The cliffs of Covehithe feature in The Rings of Saturn, albeit briefly, which is of course why this was chosen as a suitable territory for the walk. It was here that the author stood on the cliffs and gazed out on the leaden-coloured water of what he describes as the German Ocean (a rather archaic term for the North Sea that went out of fashion at the end of the 19th century but chosen by Sebald for his own, anything but nationalistic, reasons). As he lowered his gaze to the beach below he inadvertently spied a couple making love and noted that “it seemed that the man’s feet twitched like those of one just hanged”. Overcome with panic at the sight of this “many-limbed, two-headed monster that had drifted in from far out at sea, the last of a prodigious species” he left to walk to Southwold.

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Thankfully, no such sexual shenanigans affronted us on Saturday. In fact, the only other living thing on the beach other than a desultory parliament of herring gulls was a lone figure scrutinising the foreshore for Paleolithic flint hand tools that we were assured sometimes turn up here. The walk’s turning point was probably somewhere in the shadow of Covehithe church, although we could not see its landmark tower from our position on the sand beneath the cliff. Having examined some of the evocative bleached tree stumps that decorate the beach here like Arts Council sculptures, looked at the ever-receding cliffs with their abandoned sand martin burrows and observed a solitary craft out to sea just as Sebald had done, we turned to face south. With Southwold’s low skyline now silhouetted on the brightening horizon we placed the North Sea/German Ocean to our left as we ruminated and slowly ambled our way back to Covehithe’s church within a church. In half a century or so, this may well be gone, a victim of the ferocious erosion that defines this coastline. Covehithe and its church will have vanished forever, living on only in memory and books – a place of legend.

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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Pleasure of Ruins

IMG_9714Abandoned Soviet-era hotel, Kazbegi, Georgia

“You don’t know why ruins give so much pleasure. I will tell you. . . Everything dissolves, everything perishes, everything passes, only time goes on. . . How old the world is. I walk between two eternities. . . What is my existence in comparison with this crumbling stone?”   Denis Diderot

IMG_9700Mount Kazbek and valley seen from abandoned hotel, Kazbegi

Entropy has its own beauty: the serendipitous artfulness of decay – the romantic ruin aesthetic. The crumbling stone mentioned above, quoted in Rose Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins, refers to the classical world but the principal is the same. Like the effect of medieval cathedrals on awestruck, little-travelled peasants, ruins put the viewer in direct contact with the inevitability of time, with their own mortality and decay. Like mould growing in the Petri dish of mankind’s hubris, they illustrate the way in which the delicate interface of man and nature can perceptibly change in a relatively short period.

IMG_4567Abandoned Soviet-era restaurant, near Mestia, Svaneti, Georgia

Sometimes, there are darker violent forces at play, the guilty, flinching schadenfreude of gazing at post-conflict landscapes. More usually though, architectural ruins simply result from financial or political bankruptcy, of a national or regional ideological refit. Abandoned to nature, they stand quietly rotting before consignment to the architectural skip of failed (or rejected) narratives.

IMG_4560IMG_4561Abandoned restaurant near Mestia, Georgia

These days such sights tend to be more common in the countries of the post-Soviet world than they are in Western Europe. Nevertheless, even these are vanishing fast and I have no idea whether the Georgian buildings shown in these images from 2010 are still nobly rotting away or have been bulldozed to make way for new development. Georgia is, after all, a country that in recent years has distanced itself as much as possible from its neighbours across the Caucasus and, in defiance of its recent history, done its utmost to buddy-up with the neoliberal West. I like to imagine how these places might have looked 30 years ago: the Kazbegi hotel filled with holidaying Soviet workers; the Mestia restaurant, with Moscow apparatchiks slurping borscht and slugging vodka. Surely they must have enjoyed the view?

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Botanising the asphalt

The German philosopher and literary critic Walter Benjamin referred to the unwitting psychogeographical practices of the urban flâneur as that of ‘botanising the asphalt’: a way of experiencing the city as a repository of collective memory by means of a dérive. For Benjamin, the landscape in question was the Paris of his Arcades Project but what if we took this expression a little more literally and paid closer intention to both botany and tarmac? Do the weeds themselves have no tale to tell? After all, a country road with grass growing in the middle is a common rural trope that speaks of lonely byways and car-shunned back roads. Do the plants that find a foothold in the neglected marginalia of city streets not have as much to tell us as a cacophony of road signs or the ciphers of graffiti?

In UK cities, hollyhocks, buddleia, sycamores and ink cap mushrooms all manage to find footholds in the unlikeliest of places, in the latter case even breaking through the asphalt like a Sci-fi horror, as if tarmac and gravel were its life blood. Some weeds – often alien interlopers – flourish best in the improbable niches of foot-worn pavements and industrial brickwork. They remind us with nose-thumbing disdain that we are disposable as a species and in the event of a hastily pressed nuclear button, a manmade climate crisis or inevitable decline brought about by unflinching hubris, it is they that will thrive and not us.

The photos above were taken in Norwich and London, UK and Abisko, Sweden.

Orford Ness

Walking, whether rambling or hiking in the countryside, or the unplanned urban exploration of a would-be flâneur’s dérive – call it what you will – seems to be the hippest new literary genre. Often found cosily in tandem with what can only be described as ‘the new nature writing’, the genre undoubtedly has its stars. High in that firmament is Robert Macfarlane.

Almost everywhere you look in the literate media these days, Macfarlane’s name seems to crop up. As well it might, as his new book The Old Ways has instantly and deservedly become a best seller. Having already been lauded in features in the Guardian and suchlike, The Big Issue has this week also seized the opportunity to echo the zeitgeist and published a feature on Macfarlane taking a walk in the company of fellow writer and bipedalism enthusiast, the sardonic (and sesquipedalian) pavement-plodder Will Self.  The desired result: an interesting combination of styles and focii in which rural meets urban, wild nature confronts man-tamed landscape, and literary topography melds with psychogeography.  Given such a brief, it seems almost odd that the Psychogeographer General, Iain Sinclair, landscape ombudsman extraordinaire, wasn’t invited along for the stroll. There again, three is a crowd, and Sinclair was no doubt already busy enough with the Sisyphean task of hurling word-bombs of withering allusive prose at the perimeter fence of the Stratford 2012 Olympics site.

The Big Issue walk – delightfully, if almost predictably – took place along the crumbling Suffolk coast, the mysterious region between Bawdsey and Orford Ness, a coastline rich with legend and secret histories: a luminous landscape of shingle, rare birds and nuclear power stations where the mud itself murmurs of UFO sightings, secret weapons testing, silted estuaries, lost ports and sea-claimed monasteries – the most distinctly ‘Here be Dragons’ patch on the East Anglian map. Pleasingly, the Will and Rob walk also took in some of the territory I have described in my own humble walking guide to the Suffolk coast: Suffolk Coast and Heaths: Three Long-distance Walks in the AONB, available from all good book shops and even a few bad ones.

The Macfarlane-Self walk concluded at the lighthouse on Orford Ness, the mysterious island-like shingle spit that stretches south from Aldeburgh. Orford Ness is bypassed by the Suffolk Coast Path but it does feature in Slow Norfolk and Suffolk, another book of mine that hurrahs the Suffolk coastline. Here’s a brief extract:

If you are not at Orford Quay for sailing, your eyes will no doubt be drawn across the water to Orford Ness, which exudes an air of mystery typical of places associated with forbidden territory. From 1913 to the mid 1980s, the spit was firmly closed to the public, a top secret, no-go area dedicated to military testing and radar research. The links with its secret past are part of its appeal; otherwise, it’s undeniable that Orford Ness is quite a remarkable bit of geography.

Though hardly pretty, this long shingle spit is undoubtedly evocative. Signs warn about unexploded ordinance, and everywhere you’ll see tangles of tortured metal and wire netting among the teasels in the shingle. Overall, it’s a rather melancholy landscape and you might begin to wonder if Orford Ness should actually be ‘orfordness’, a state of mind, rather than the name of a wayward landform.

Seen from Orford Quay, Orford Ness has the appearance of being an island, and the ferry trip across the River Ore simply adds to this impression, but it’s not – it’s actually a long sand spit that begins just south of Aldeburgh and gradually widens as it follows the coast south. It is the largest shingle spit in England (nearly ten miles long) and it is only when you disembark at the jetty that you can really appreciate the scale of the place. The National Trust has a number of recommended way-marked routes to follow but the reality is that you won’t see much unless you are prepared to walk some distance. Concrete roads lead around the spit and you have to trudge along these some way before you get to see anything of much interest. Bicycles are not permitted.

 

And yes, that is the Orford lighthouse on the East of Elveden gravatar

North-South divide?

Back in 2007, Danny Dorling of the University of Sheffield wrote a piece on the nature and geographical extent of the so-called North-South divide in Britain. This was nothing new: as most of us already knew, the north-south socio-economic divide was not simply a matter of drawing a horizontal line through Watford, nor was it a case of delineating the southern boundaries of Yorkshire, Lancashire and Cheshire. Rather, it was more complex – a meandering line between the River Severn to the southwest and the Humber to the northeast.

According to Professor Dorling, the transition from north to south is not as gradual as one might expect, and shows little sign of that psychogeographic favourite, a borderline ‘zone of liminality’. The imagined divide is, in fact, a fractal line sharply defined by all manner of factors – voting patterns, house prices, wealth, health (average life expectancy is a year less north of the line), life chances, Oxbridge university access, language – particularly vowel sounds – and even preferences for flat or sparkled beer. Of course, the line roughly follows distinct features of physical geography too – the division between upland and lowland Britain, and pastoral and arable farming – features that have stongly influenced British history and culture. The divide also delineates the territory colonised by Saxon invaders and follows uncannily close to the route traced by the Roman Fosse Way.

I was reminded of this theoretical divide twice this week. First, by an article in the Big Issue written by Professor Dorling to accompany a feature on George Orwell and then by a BBC Radio 4 programme, the second part of a documentary called North and South: Across the Great Divide presented by Ian Marchant, in which the writer travelled to various places either side of this imaginary line to investigate what local people thought of the notion.

What was pleasing was that Marchant looked closely at some of my own old stomping grounds. I was born in Stourbridge in the West Midlands and grew up in Redditch, a small town just north of the divide that became a new (and suddenly much larger) town just before I left (and which earned the dubious honour of once being dubbed ‘the most boring place in the known universe’). Marchant interviewed people in Henley-in-Arden, a posh, leafy Tudor-beamed town that lies just south of Redditch across the north-south frontier in Warwickshire. The view of the Henleyites was that people from Redditch tended to be more common, while that of the Redditchers was that they would love to live in Henley given half the chance but they simply could not afford to. Hardly groundbreaking stuff but, certainly, growing up in workaday Redditch, places like Henley – and Stratford upon Avon and Warwick – did seem to belong to another, altogether more glamorous world despite their relative proximity. But then, so did Worcester (which actually lies north of the line) and even some parts of Birmingham.

If this north-south orientation is correct then, having journeyed east and slightly north in adult life to move to Norwich from the West Midlands, I have actually crossed the divide – the Tudor line, as Dorling sometimes calls it – southwards. A geographical paradox perhaps – West Midlands to East Anglia, sort of north to kind of south. I still say bath not ‘barth’ but, there again, I do prefer my ale unsparkled.

Marchant ended the program in Gloucestershire’s Forest of Dean, a small but very distinct enclave, squeezed between the Severn and Wye, which stands at the most southerly ‘northern’ point of this cultural divide. I used to know this area quite well and was always impressed by its strong sense of place, wilful isolationism and warm-hearted yet tough natives. To me it always seemed somehow closer to the spirit of South Wales than to the rest of Gloucestershire. Despite having the same latitude as Watford, with working-class forestry and mining traditions, and hardly a trace of tweeness in its villages, there are plenty of stereotypical ‘northern’ characteristics on display here. The ‘Forest’, as natives always call it,  really does seem a very different place compared to the opulent sandstone villages of the Gloucestershire Cotswolds just across the River Severn.

In essence, the BBC4 programme is as much about social class as it is about geography but it raises some interesting points. You can listen again here. For a very different point of view, you can read what Simon Jenkins makes of Dorling’s analysis here. The fact that he scathingly dismisses the Sheffield professor as ‘geographer royal by appointment to the left’ might give you some idea as to what to expect.