Archive for the ‘Unrefined Thinking’ Category

One Conclusion

August 27, 2014

Last week I finished (as in ‘I’ve corrected and edited enough that it’s ready to hand in’) the final draft of my thesis. Someone asked me if I felt elated, but I think I responded by suggesting that I was tired. I went for a walk to try and clear my head a little, or at least reconsider what I felt in light of how long I’d spent working on this project. I left the University and walked in straight line for what Google Tracks informed me was three hours (though because of some issue with GPS it was unable to map my route). After the first hour, I came across a square flanked by tall white buildings, each one adorned with long elaborately decorated flags. The square appeared to be deserted at least at first glance, but as my eyes adjusted to the new brightness of my surroundings I could see people flitting in and out of doorways, and tiny heads peeping around window frames. It wasn’t too long before the square was filled with people. Girls with deep blue eyes sang along to tunes played on wooden flutes, confused-looking poets recited incantations to a silent, cross-legged water God and jugglers and trapeze artists performed around a central platform of twirling, angry flamenco dancers. I thought that I recognized the faces of some of performers (I briefly ran an unsuccessful online record label and wondered if there was some connection) but before I had a chance to enquire after them, I was encouraged by two large men¹ to exit the square and be on my way. The celebration was in aid of a sacred relic that had recently been returned to the local museum following its ‘liberation’ at the hands of ‘my people’ during a brief spell of fighting fifty years before my birth. I wouldn’t be welcome, they said, and for my own safety I should continue my walk. I was in no position to disagree with their inverted commas.

After an hour and a half the trail I had continued along became less distinct. The tarmac and road markings had turned to a thin brown powder (which still stains my least-favourite pair of Puma trainers). It was still possible to chart a path of sorts though, as what was left of the track was peppered with cattle tracks and the occasional pile of what I took to be animal bones. I could also smell the city, and hear the sounds of far away trade caravans. After two hours I passed under the low wooden gates that marked the western limit of what had once been titled ‘The Amber Borough’. Rather than streets flanked with the yellow sassafras and sweetbay magnolias of my memory, I saw only knotted thickets of diseased rhododendrons, their flowers either browned or the colour of old blood. In my hurry to ‘walk-off’ the thesis, I’d forgotten that it was autumn, and the riotous pulses of spring colour I was familiar with had been literally replaced by the army of horticulturalists who comprise two-thirds of the city’s population. Gone too were the ornately carved swings which lined the main boulevard, where children dangled on the end of silk ropes during the high season, their mothers and fathers sprawled across the road, wine cups spilled, food ignored and subsequently devoured by whatever sewer-dwelling organism had developed legs that particular year. It was always a city of excess, even when apparently fallow. Despite my increasing thirst, I felt no urge to drop in on one of the out-of-season emporia in search of water (or indeed something stronger); they had originally been named after the delicate white snout moth, but the drab, rust-grey frontages I was witness to on this occasion bore no resemblance to their name sake. The place echoed the feeling I had when I visited Great Yarmouth with Zo (winter 2004 I think) and there was snow on the beach.

I departed the city from the eastern-most gate. Soon after leaving, the track wound through the remnants of a deciduous forest – where the tired boughs and hollow trunks seemed keen to mimic the grand institutional structures of their neighbour – to a series of caves cut not by rainfall, glaciation, or an underground river, but by human hands. I had been walking for two and a half hours, and after my nagging recollections in the city, I thought that getting out of the sunshine might help perk me up. Unfortunately, the cave I slid in to offered no darkness, its slick, ancient ceiling coated with purple crystals that emitted a waxy kind of light; now it comes to me, that unnerving subterranean glow is reminiscent of the council-flat bedroom I grew up in, and shared, with my sister. The cave walls, in an identical fashion to the bedroom from my childhood, were crisscrossed with overlapping murals depicting the absent aristocracy I had expected to find during that earlier hour. Thronging those imagined streets – which had been described to me as ‘loosely based on a celestial map of the Epsilon Eridani system’ – were women in gowns made of feathers and, from the look of it, material not dissimilar to a sheep’s stomach, bounding away from men adorned with hats made of tiles, each one inlaid with the eyes of an insect. Some of the men had dogs with them, but their anatomy was all wrong, their legs the texture of a lizard’s back. In another less well-constructed mural, children were cycling on Victorian bikes, playing a type of polo that I assume was adapted for the horseless (isn’t everyone these days?). My favourite of the cave paintings depicted a gang of hominids, a hunting party. In the foreground were the hunters – ageless and sexless; behind them, an array of big cats – arranged in order of size – who had been saddled for some unexpected purpose; the cats were watched over by birds of prey in tiny jackets and, behind them, almost merging in to the background-world of fossils and stone, mountain donkeys laden with enough provisions to the last the party a fortnight.

It was at this point that I pulled out my phone to add a marker to my map in case I wanted to return to inspect the murals at a later date; I figure I’m allowed a bit of down time…perhaps I want to explore a bit. Like I say, the map didn’t work, but seeing that I’d been walking for three hours I decided it was probably worth heading home and getting the dinner on (I cooked a dish that has been christened ‘Korean Clams’). Good exercise I suppose, but I’m slightly annoyed by the fact that I decided, based purely on longevity, that it was time to stop. As if there is some allotted time for these activities. I think I convinced myself I was tired when actually I was doing okay.

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¹ Subsequently, a small amount of digging around in the archives has revealed that these men had once been slaves, most likely the property of one of the low island kings (at least according to their facial markings and the scar patterns on their shoulders).

Imaginary Landscape

April 7, 2014

Lowndes Square

Lowndes Square was one of several projects designed by George Basevi, the architect son of a London merchant of the same name; he trained under Sir John Soane and his early work includes the St. Thomas’ Church in Stockport as well as Belgrave Square – also in London – which took sixteen years to complete. Basevi was similarly responsible for designing the Founder’s Building at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, but died before it was completed (with Charles Robert Cockerell – who designed the Ashmolean – stepping in to finish the job). Lowndes Square is, so I read, a twist on what was typical of Belgravia. Whilst it features the white stucco grand terraces beloved, then at least, by the likes of Cubbitt and the Hardwick unlike Belgrave Square’s houses – which the aforementioned assisted in designing – Basevi kept tighter control on Lowndes and enforced uniformity by being its only designer (perhaps by pulling planning strings with his cousin Benjamin Disraeli?). Today it is occupied by oligarchs. Roman Abramovich owns a property there worth an estimated £150 million, but I saw that in the Daily Mail so who knows.

Rich Bastards

The Jumeirah Carlton Tower, a 5 star hotel that describes itself as ‘the essence of Knightsbridge’ and ‘a beacon of British style and sophistication’ sits just behind Lowndes Square and is, I think, the site where Susan Maitland is hurled to her death by what might be called a ‘global weather event’, whereby the speed of the wind increases exponentially until much of the Earth – with perhaps the exception of the far extremities, already windswept in their own icy way – is reduced to powdered stone. There is nothing left of the structures that we have built. Donald, her former husband, who had returned back to his apartment in the complex via armoured personnel carrier could do nothing but stare; he ‘saw her for an instant, catapulted through the updraught rising from the street, bounce off the roof of the Embassy building and then spin away like a smashed doll into the maze of rooftops beyond.’

In the strictest sense, which I would imagine to be anathema to Deleuze and Guattari were they still alive, Susan’s death is not a line of flight. I mean it is in a literal sense, in that she flies out of the window and bounces off of the roof of the Pakistan Embassy (or High Commission as it is listed today), but in a looser sense it still qualifies, in the context that ligne de fuite can cover ‘not only the act of fleeing or eluding but also flowing, leaking, and disappearing into the distance’…note the avoidance of the rest of that quote and its disavowal of flying. Susan is obviously disappearing in to the distance, reflecting Donald’s collapsing support network – which he had assumed no longer mattered, hence his planned departure for London Airport at the opening of the book – but she is also fleeing. Her death is an escape from complicity in the destruction that follows.

1 H P

The apartment building Donald steps in to, prior to finding Susan semi-hiding out, is in reality an expensive hotel in Knightsbridge, but whilst reading of the gradual destruction of the Capital all I could picture was One Hyde Park, its empty corridors and expansive, shiny floor space (possessed but uninhabited, private security guards stalked by the ghosts of venture capital and secretly executed hedge-fund managers) a proxy for the abandonment of any semblance of interest in the ever-increasing gulf between owners and owned. It has always been thus; at least it isn’t a future of skies filled with nothing but buildings turned to dust. Oh. Excuse me. Donald’s remaining friends in military intelligence, either before or after Susan’s death (I forget which), have to enter a similar complex by blasting through an underground garage, the only point of entry, a security precaution designed by – I think – a man named Marshall as a way of keeping out undesirables. Later, much later, a similar entrance is required to allow access to a gigantic reinforced concrete pyramid, poorly anchored, eventually destroyed, but again designed solely as an insulated system. No connection between multiplicities, no transformations just exteriorities and people staring out at exteriority.

There are three potential walking routes from my house to the University where I work. Two of them converge at this point, with one initially tracing a line along the Hull Road which heads east out the city before snaking up Greendykes to the main vehicular access point to the campus, and the other following the school route past St.Leonards (via a cut-through I mentioned here) and then a shortcut between hospital buildings at The Retreat, the mental health centre established by William Tuke (his confectionery associate, Joseph Rowntree, is buried on the fringes of the grounds). The former route I use infrequently, and more often as a return route if I am accompanied by colleagues who live off the east road. The route includes the nunnery my house backs on to – soon to be redeveloped as student flats – and a number of new-build flats already partially occupied by students. The buildings have been given suitably-York names to remind people of a rough geography of the North, what we might call landscape-factoring structures; there is Bolton (after the castle), Helmsley (after the market town and castle) and Rievalux (after the abbey). These are names referring to other examples of the built environment, allied to buildings not really faintly similar to their namesakes. No bother. Further up the road, there is another set of student flats called The Boulevard. It has a security gate at the front, private security personnel inside, and an architecture that reaffirms the prevalence of flat pack thoughtlessness in design.

‘By the time I came to England at the age of sixteen I’d seen a great variety of landscapes. I think the English landscape was the only landscape I’d come across which didn’t mean anything, particularly the urban landscape. England seemed to be very dull, because I’d been brought up at a much lower latitude — the same latitude as the places which are my real spiritual home as I sometimes think: Los Angeles and Casablanca. I’m sure this is something one perceives — I mean the angle of light, density of light. I’m always much happier in the south — Spain, Greece — than I am anywhere else. The English one, oddly enough, didn’t mean anything. I didn’t like it, it seemed odd. England was a place that was totally exhausted.’

The point where the two routes meet – linked to earlier on Googlemaps – is a small road that has no real access for vehicles except as a drop off point. Until recently Googlemaps had this road listed as the main route in to the University. I attempt to highlight the mistake, owing to my cartographical OCD, but Google offered no feature whereby mistakes could be reported. Seemed odd, or potentially demonstrated Google’s control over the ways in which we interpret territory, or our understanding of the spaces we move through. Perhaps not as extreme as the case last year where Costa Rica was invaded by Nicaragua based on Googlemap inaccuracies over borders. Google’s spokesperson suggested that ‘by no means should they [the maps] be used as a reference to decide military actions between two countries’. Good to know. On the new Googlemaps, which appears to remove the old left hand info bar in favour of presenting a full page map with the old information embedded in the image itself, even the unofficial footpath through the trees to the back of the Biology block is included. There is something about this that makes me feel slightly grubby, the idea that this shortcut carved out by dog walkers, occasional student walkers and cyclists, is now codified by Google. Here, the creation of the path, what Lefebvre might term the representational space of walkers, is captured and made representative space, the preserve of the planners, and no longer lived in the same way. A reterritorialization on behalf of quasi-accuracy.

The third route to/from work heads from my house towards the school but diverges at this point. This is one of several entrances to Walmgate Stray, an area that is also known as Low Moor and is, as far as I’m aware, common land. Last year cattle were a frequent sight on the Stray, and made negotiating a route home slightly trickier. As with the east road route, I am more likely to take this route on my way back from work, rather than on the way there, with the exception of last week when low fog in the morning made the route an obvious choice based exclusively on ‘eerie atmosphere’. The route from work involves crossing the Stray partially on a paved path (where a colleague nearly ran me over on their bike several years ago as we headed to the Fulford Arms pub; again, this was in thick fog) before heading north under the usually heavy arms of trees, the mental hospital playing fields on the right behind a high wall, and the currently fallow allotments on the left, behind a low fence. The route between these two zones climbs gently to a peak which seems to be the highest point for 30 miles. From the top of the hill you can see the White Horse at Kilburn.

Roulston Scar

Last Easter, with snow still on the ground, I walked out to the White Horse along Roulston Scar (accompanied by my wife, and Stokes and Vicky who were visiting; they had brought homemade crème eggs which were the stickiest thing I have ever eaten). The snow was peppered by dog shit, which detracted somewhat from the view across the Vale. Eyes down, not up. You had to pass the gliding club to get out to The Horse. From the viewpoint around about the horses head it was possible to see the Minster through ‘powerful binoculars’. The scar was appropriately windswept, largely barren, but well walked as evidenced by the number of families in the tea room back at the car park. It was also, I learnt afterwards, one of the key sites in the Scottish War for Independence; the location of the Battle of Old Byland, where Edward II was defeated in 1322. The horse itself was carved on to the hill at the request of Thomas Taylor, a local who had seen the Uffington Horse in 1857 and wanted something similar for his village (or so writes Morris Marples in the 40s). None of that Neolithic symbolism for them.

Lamel Hill

The hill I walk across on my way home has something much older underneath it. The University, around July last year, set up a series of walks and talks around the area and fixed info points to walls from which I learnt about some of this. The walks/talks themselves were cancelled due to inclement weather (rain rather than fog). There is a hint of older structures and uses near the high wall, with a series of undulations and mounds that are clearly man made, but then I’m no archaeologist (or, for that matter, much of anything else). More information here I believe.

The hill was used during the Civil War. As the highest point in the area, cannons were positioned to fire in to the walls at Walmgate Bar, which still bears the marks of prolonged attack during the Siege of York. The gun platform was set up in 1644. Prior to that there was a windmill there. Before that, according to excavations done at the site, it was an Anglian cemetery, the 38 inhumations found there facing East-West. My route off the hill takes me back along the path of the birds at midnight. The spectaculars of history – by which I mean that all of history, by codifying its events and its ‘important people’, becomes spectacular regardless of representational accuracy – and the mundane nature of my walk, beneath the flight of a cannonball, interlink. I am, temporally-speaking, unable to escape the territory.

‘In the centre of Times Square a giant saguaro cactus raised its thirty-foot arms into the overheated air, an imposing sentinel guarding the entrance to a desert nature reserve. Clumps of sagebrush hung from the rusting neon signs, as if the whole of Manhattan had been transformed into a set for the ultimate western. Prickly pear flourished in the second-floor windows of banks and finance houses, yucca and mesquite shaded the doorways of airline offices and travel agents.’

Drowned

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Works consulted, in no particular order, include:

Lefebvre, H. 1991. The Production of Space. Wiley-Blackwell.
Marples, M. 1949. White Horses and Other Hill Figures. Sutton Publishing.
Deleuze, G and Guatarri, F.1980. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia Vol. 2. Trans. Brian Massumi. Continuum Press.
Ballard, J.G. 1962. The Wind From Nowhere. Penguin Books
Ballard, J.G. 1962. The Drowned World. Berkley Books
Ballard, J.G. 1975. Interview with James Goddard. Available here

Undecimber

December 18, 2013

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A clearing in a wood surrounded by dead trees; the skeletons of birds and small mammals litter the floor. A sunken pond in a field. A man has cycled out to it and he lays asleep on the grass, his feet just touching the water. A morning so cold crows appear to have frozen in the air.

On the news, there is footage of Pakistani villages that have been destroyed by drone strikes. The drones are controlled from a room in Virginia. A few years ago there was that Army advert designed for young people – 18 or 19 perhaps – using Xbox controllers to pilot spy cameras attached to craft that look similar to drones. I think the advert was banned.

…a long sensitive pause is held till almost unbearable; then he looses…his tremulous hollow song. It echoes down the brook, breaking the frozen surface of the air. I look out at the west’s complexity of light. A heron, black against the yellow sky, kinked neck and dagger bill incised, sweeps silently down into the brook’s dark gulf. The sky infuses with the afterglow…

Animal trafficking discussed in seminars a few weeks ago. Belem do Para on the news as well. A tough port where there is a price for everything. Animal trafficking is the 3rd most lucrative business after drugs and gun running; 20 billion dollars a year. The man is speaking Portuguese, but I cannot read the subtitles without my glasses. Get in the suitcase.

…east of my home, the long ridge lies across the skyline like the low hull of a submarine. Above it, the eastern sky is bright with reflections of distant water, and there is a feeling of sails beyond land. Hill trees mass together in a dark-spired forest, but when I move towards them they slowly fan apart, the sky descends between, and they are solitary oaks and elms, each with its own wide territory of winter shadow. The calmness, the solitude of horizons lures me towards them, through them, and on to others. They layer the memory like strata….who are we at war with this week? Earlier, a man asked me for money. Carlos is yelling in to the trees, trying to attract monkeys. He’s wearing a relatively smart shirt. Perhaps I can use this discussion? A bald parrot looks like half a Christmas bird. The animals are terrified of human beings.

On the way to work in the morning, the new tar on the road has created a ludicrous amount of run-off, so it’s difficult to cross the road; the whole thing is more like a river now. Someone’s dog has shat all about the place. The three toed sloth is very easy to catch. One thousand dollars. Carlos is trying to tempt monkeys with a half-eaten banana. Sensibly they are ignoring him. He is described as ‘Brazil’s worst hunter’. He gets thirty dollars for a sloth.

The office is freezing. Strip lighting is painfully bright, and the lamp is too dim to read from properly. I’ve had communications from a number of people, a variety of messages, some of which I misread and respond to with information that is perhaps less than helpful, and later correct myself with apologies. ‘Hotdog Johnny’s is a great place!’ ‘My mother was born 1912 and she’d vote for him’. A reach which other people do not have. Find a compromise.

The first week, my dreams are confused. I am told my trousers are all wrong for the role. What am I expected to do? During the day – the real day – other nocturnal statements plague me, and it takes me a while to recall the separation between the real and the imagined. The man has lost a lot of weight as a result of gastric band surgery. There are explosions outside the window, but my legs ache too much to move over and see if any of them are any good.

…near the brook a heron lay in frozen stubble. Its wings were stuck to the ground by frost, and the mandibles of its bill were frozen together. Its eyes were open and living, the rest of it was dead. All was dead but the fear of man. As I approached I could see its whole body craving into flight. But it could not fly…

Energy drinks keep me awake. I’ve been ill a number of times. First some sort of flu, now an internal infection which hopefully won’t require anything more than time to fix: this is what I’ve been told. The old people flats have crumpled cans and empty bottles in the hedges. What is the matter with these people?

A red-throated diver, sodden and obscene with oil, able to move only its head, will push itself out from the sea-wall with its bill if you reach down to it as it floats like a log in the tide. A poisoned crow, gaping and helplessly floundering in the grass, bright yellow foam bubbling from its throat, will dash itself up again and again on to the descending wall of air, if you try to catch it. A rabbit, inflated and foul with myxomatosis, just a twitching pulse bleating in a bladder of bones and fur, will feel the vibration of your footstep and will look for you with bulging, sightless eyes. Then it will drag itself away into a bush, trembling with fear.

She says 90% of illegal immigrants enter the country and go on benefits. This is clearly bullshit. She strongly disagrees with things she knows nothing about. There are a number of maps on the wall. I can see pretend areas of London. No. Real areas, the areas people create or imagine or move through. Billy is looking down on me, with that withering stare. His eyes are sunken, his hand curled in to a half-fist. His complexion is thin, but you know that he is furious inside. At twelve thousand feet two planes collide. The wind is ferocious and there is fire in the sky for a moment.

We’re at the Jeep, and she bundles me inside. The animals are waking up at this time of day, as the sun sinks a little and the heat drifts off to some other shifting continent, except they all ran away didn’t they? My heart is pumping fast. My pupils are dilated. But I will be OK.

Old, Indifferent Gods

August 12, 2013

27th of July 1974

The House of Representative Judiciary Committee votes 27 to 11 to recommend the first article of impeachment against President Richard Nixon

At Ascot for a friend’s stag-do. We arrived via minibus, the driver having accidentally taken us in to central London for no apparent reason, and went to a pub down the road from the race course. The place was packed, five or six deep at the bar, and it was suggested we use the bar outside to get our drinks. We make our way outside, and as we approach the bar the barmaid collapses on the ground, possibly as the result of heat stroke. Random drinker – but no-one from our party – rush to her assistance. I stand for a moment, taking in the scene, and making very little of the actions of the people around me. Eventually we go back inside where it takes a very long time to be served. A different barmaid apparently overhears a conversation that some of our party are having about the size of her chest, and departs for the kitchen, returning with a jumper on. I wonder if she will get heat stroke as a result.

We miss the first two races, the party splits up, we sit on a hillside as horses occasionally bob past at what seems a slow pace. In the distance a number of helicopters arrive and depart, no doubt ferrying the well-to-do about the place. None of the people I am with loses a vast amount of money, and the atmosphere is relatively jovial, despite the heat and the unacknowledged weirdness of being in an environment that is foreign to most of us.

Later, at a curry house in Luton, the man at the end of our table reminisces about his time at school, and how the friends he made then, he still has now. He explains that ‘I’d die for my mates’, and tears up a little. None of us is sure what to do, so we drink our terrible Indian lagers in silence. Someone mentions flaming sambuccas. Outside it is raining. My brother picks me up from the bus stop by St. Mary’s church

28th of July 1943

Operation Gomorrah sees the British bomb Hamburg, causing a firestorm that kills forty two thousand German civilians.

29th of July 2005

Astronomers announce the discovery of the dwarf planet Eris.

30th of July 1965

U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Social Security Act 1965 into law, establishing Medicare and Medicaid.

I meet up with a friend I haven’t seen since my wedding two years ago. We drink in a pub in Clerkenwell, then move on to another near Barbican where we are joined by another friend who has just finished work, both for the day and forever, in the sense that he has handed in his notice. We talk about being at University (we met on a Master’s degree course), and I mention some of the changes (I am still at the same University), including the death of one of our lecturers. This comes as a shock, so we raise a toast to him.

The real purpose of the mini-reunion is to attend the stand-up routine of one of my drinking companions. We go first to collect his comedy organiser, who is a good stand-up in her own right (at just 19), from Waterloo station and have a drink in an underground bar. I only have a half, but the barman insists on printing me a receipt. I am tempted to leave it on the bar, to soak up the beer I spill picking up my glass, but think better of it.

The comedy venue is a peculiar bar in Canary Wharf. We disembark the train, ascend the stairs, and feel dwarfed by the absurdity of the buildings. Crossing the old wharfs, tatty looking terrace houses are juxtaposed with huge office complexes. I wonder if anyone lives in the houses, and, if so, what sort of people would want to. I reason they are probably super rich, or maybe where various ancillary staff live temporarily whilst cleaning the office Mon-Fri. The venue is an out-of-the-way bar that looks out across the Thames to towards the Millennium Dome (as I know it, pre-branding). We are joined by older friends. The comedy venue is relatively empty, aside from other acts and a man dressed like Tommy Lee Jones in Under Siege. We eat burgers outside, and comment on the setting. Above the venue is a strip club. As we go in to lend our support to the comedy, some of the strippers file in to work. Both comedy sets are greeted with applause and laughter which is deserved, even if my friend is dressed as a sheep. He makes a joke about Justin Welby and Wonga, which is funny largely because of the outfit, and the notion that a sheep might have a view on something like short term loans. I go to the toilet after they finish on stage. It is like Peter Stringfellow’s underwear; entirely leopard print. What I should have said is ‘it is like what I imagine Peter Stringfellow’s underwear might look like’.

31st of July 1588

The Spanish Armada is spotted off the coast of England.

1st of August 1801

The American schooner, USS Enterprise, captures the Tripolitan polacca Tripoli in a single ship action of the coast of modern-day Libya.

My wife has a barbecue for her birthday. After a misunderstanding in which neither of us watches food burn, the barbeque itself catches fire. I sit watching the flames. Other people try to put the fire out. I reason that I do nothing because I am in a funny mood. The day is the hottest of the year and abhorrent as a result. My poor behaviour mimics this. We eat. I cook a zebra burger, in a pointless attempt to reinforce my position as ‘weird’. I do this despite knowing the majority of the guests for some twenty years. As I do readily when drunk, I reveal a number of secrets to the dwindling circle of friends still sitting around the table. I also heckle anyone going to the toilet, as they are visible from my seat in the garden (unintentionally). The following morning, when sober, I regret most of these actions.

2nd of August 1922

A typhoon hits Shantou in the Republic of China, killing more than fifty thousand people.

On the train home, I regret some of the actions of the previous day, but reason that one of the secrets was actually public knowledge, as it had been made at a gathering and heard by many people. I spend a while looking out of the window of the train, thinking about the separation between private troubles and public discourse.

The Lion-man of Hollow Rock

May 2, 2013

St Waleric
At some stage, around 529AD, San Benedetto da Norcia established a monastery on a prominent hill top eighty or so miles south of Rome; this was to be one of many such monastic communities (he had already established a dozen at the time of founding Monte Cassino) that operated under the Regula Benedicti, a guide that expounded on all elements of daily communal living, everything from a taxonomy of monks to the order of service in the kitchen. Alongside this, the rule of the master (or abbot) was paramount. Benedict wrote the Regula in Monte Cassino, supposedly entertained the king of the Ostrogoths, and finally died there. Before all of that, Gregory the Great suggests that a temple of Apollo (the Greek and/or Roman God of light/sun/healing/music etc.) existed on the hill top, and Benedict’s first act in founding his monastery was to smash the temple.

B17

Nearly fifteen hundred years later, Benedict’s monastery was itself destroyed, part of the five month battle between the Allies and the Axis. Monte Cassino formed part of the Gustav line, a series of German fortifications built by the Todt Organisation, that ran from just north of the Garigliano River to the mouth of the Sangro River.Major-General Francis Tuker, at that time head of the 4th Indian Division, saw the monastery as either a stronghold for German forces, or as having the potential to serve as such in the future. The actual ordering of the bombing came from Brigadier Harry Dimoline, on February 11th 1944, under the auspices of Tuker who was in bed with tropical fever in a hospital in Caserta. According to Hapgood and Richardson (2002), every subsequent investigation in to the bombing found that all the casualties and fatalities from the attack where Italian civilians seeking refuge from the fighting on the hill top. The estimate of those killed is somewhere around two hundred and forty. Ironically, the ruins of the monastery were subsequently used by Axis forces as a stronghold.

I should probably use this opportunity to intercede; as with the majority of my long winded and rambling posts (clearly this is going to be one), a series of coincidences and themes have coalesced and this is the result.

I have just finished reading A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller. Canticle was the only book published in Miller’s life time, and it garnered praise from both science fiction (in its broadest sense) fans and literary critics alike; it won the 1961 Hugo Award, and is viewed by some as the ancestor of Cormac McCarthy’s grim post-apocalyptic father-son road-trip novel The Road. The book is split in to three sections, each separated by six hundred or so years, and begins after The Flame Deluge, an apocalyptic event of roundabout-now that not only destroyed cities and people, but also knowledge. The book kicks off with a novice (or perhaps ‘anchorite’ in Benedict’s schema) called Brother Francis Gerard of Utah – a member of the as-yet-uncanonized order of Blessed Leibowitz – finding a number of relics from pre-Deluge times (a shopping list, a schematic of some electrical circuitry, the skeleton of a woman) in the cellar of a destroyed building out in what is now the desert of North America. After much detailed scholarship, in which the artefacts are sent to New Rome following a heated debate about provenance, the monastery is eventually able to confirm the connection between these artefacts and Leibowitz, the skeleton being his wife’s, the documents being written in his hand. That initial discovery, and the way in which Brother Francis attempts to understand what he has found before it is taken away from him, echoed my own faltering attempt at comprehending what I saw whilst at the British Museum a fortnight ago (more to come later); the intentionality behind certain gestures and ideas. For Brother Francis it is the meaning behind words, such as ‘pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels’, and their wider, Higher, significance, that meaning obfuscated by time in such a way that the prosaic becomes the exalted. In my case it was attempting to understand the art and culture of a civilization that existed during the last glacial period. This comparison, between Francis’ confusion and my own, popped in to my head whilst I looked around the incredibly tacky museum gift shop, trying my hardest to blot out the juxtaposition between the His-and-Hers Cave-man rubber duck and the exhibition I had just stared in awe at.

Miller committed suicide in 1996, following the death of his wife. He had been a recluse for many years, but in that time had sketched out a sequel to Canticle that was eventually completed by Terry Bisson. Joe Haldeman, author of The Forever War which also won the Hugo award, stated that Miller suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome ’30 years before it had a name’; in one sense, it could be argued that Canticle acted as a coping strategy for Miller, a way of understanding the things he had seen and been a part of during the Second World War, including his bombing raid over the Italian countryside in February 1944.

Canticle

I was reading Canticle on the train as I travelled to visit my parents a few weeks back. Whilst back, I went to the British Museum for the Ice Age exhibition, which I found to be profound in what it contained, though not necessarily in its dual focus, which attempted to connect ice age art with contemporary art; there is undoubtedly a relationship, espoused by modern artists themselves, but the presentation of art inspired by the neolithic paled in comparison to the genuinely awesome pieces on display. There was something very strange but also very moving about connecting with places and artefacts from the distant past, even if it is in the confines of a curated exhibition (as if there is any other way with this sort of material). On a sensory level, the shapes, lines and curves of ancient objects are eerily familiar, echoed in the work of the contemporary art so poorly displayed in the exhibition – the ice age sculptures of distended human figures, or the abstract form of a reindeer say are present in the work of Mondrian, the sculptures of Moore and Giacommeti – but I found that the unease I felt came from the confluence of the uncertainty fostered by the chronological distance between the creation of the art and my own afternoon sojourn around the museum, and the thematic similarities between Ice Age man, and broader contemporary concerns; the role of women in society¹, what seemed like the search for stability and certainty in a deeply dangerous environment (evidenced in a variety of decorative talismans), and the apparent need to create maps. This last point is perhaps an odd one, but I was struck by how crucial representing space appeared to be, understanding the environment they passed through, or paused in. What are now considered abstract maps were carved in to wood, or bone. Space, or rather the traversing of space, was represented through artistic representations of animals; horses and reindeer caught mid-stride, flat fish etched on to rock in a cave a thousand miles from the sea, demonstrating a territory far more expansive than anything I expected. This is made all the more curious when juxtaposed with the lives of people just five hundred years ago, who would live and die in the same village without ever having left its boundaries (though this says more about the shift to agrarianism than anything).

A series of attempts at constructing a cartographic representation of the lives they were living. Not that it would have seemed like that necessarily, but the act of placing all these items next to each other in a series of barely-lit rooms produces that effect, even if many of the items are in fact tens of thousands of years apart. In a small and pathetic way, I feel like that is what I am trying to do by writing things down still; charting the partial connections between objects, ideas, places, spaces from my own tiny and largely uninteresting existence. I think this is why, on a number of occasions whilst walking around the exhibition, I was genuinely astounded by what I was seeing, to the extent that I had to sit down and think whilst mostly elderly people milled about me. That incomprehensible gap between then and now, that experience and knowledge lost in underground rivers and tectonic shifts, the miniature cogs turning in my head trying to process all the elements, and failing, as Brother Francis Gerard of Utah had done when trying to understand a civilization build on notions of rationality and scientific progress whilst simultaneously standing in their ashes.

Lion Man

One of the most amazing, and frightening, pieces on display was the Lion Man of Hohle Fels. ‘Man’ is perhaps wrong here; the one thing the exhibition really solidified was the importance of women in the lives of Ice Age man. The sculptures on display were almost entirely women or animals, the former cast as obese and in possession of gigantic breasts, symbols of virility, power, potency². Recent work on the site has posited that the Lion Man is actually a Lion Woman, owing to the lack of mane; from my very limited grasp of what I have seen, a woman would be more understandable and in keeping with other artefacts found around the same time and area. There’s some pop-archaeology for you. What did the Lion Wo/Man represent? A deity, a talisman, a warning, an offering. Opinion is divided from what I have read subsequently. What I found startling about it was the return of that peculiar feeling of familiarity. The eyes, the mouth of the lion; it looked as if it had been recently made, but was in fact forty thousand years old, carved from the ivory of a mammoth tusk. The sort of deep time that is impossible to full comprehend. The split between understanding and bafflement.

The video accompanying the figure showed a craftsman who had been commissioned to recreate the Lion Man for the exhibition, using approximated tools and techniques. He took four hundred hours to create his Lion Man, and this was without the constant threat of death, hunger, exposure etc. This also made me wonder about the home lives of these people, the spaces in which they found time to dedicate themselves to creating things like the Lion Man. Except home was obviously movement, constant procession, a sort of ad hoc stability in forever motion. The maps they made were maps of their homes, the paths they had walked, the old ways they had created.

Flute

There were a number of musical instruments on display in the exhibition too, dated at around thirty thousand years old. They had been made from antlers, and other hollowed-out pieces of bone, in much the same way that the Lion Man had been constructed (only taking less time I presume). The blurb that accompanied the instruments again highlighted how little was known about the intentionality of music in the ice age world.

At the same time as reading Canticle (not literally ‘at the same time’, but ‘around’) I was listening to Noise: A Human History on Radio 4, presented by David Hendy from the University of Sussex (the whole thing is archived for well over a year if you want to catch up). The series opens with the recreated noise of bison in French caves once occupied by Neolithic man, and how the noises of animals were recreated in caves perhaps as a way of understanding the horror of the environment or as a way of connecting to spirits within the rocks themselves, rocks that would later bear the mark of artist’s makeshift-brush strokes. Later episodes chart the importance of sound throughout the course of our problematic development, including pieces on the voices of angels…well…how that impression can be given at Wells cathedral (if memory serves) by singing down a tube, and the torture of bombardment in World War One. The second episode, which I had listened to the week before going to the British Museum, featured the talking drum³. Victoria Ozohu explains that

In ancient times, the talking drum was used for a variety of purposes from being a musical instrument during celebrations, to a sort of telegram for relaying messages during times of war or to announce the arrival of a visitor. It was invented in Oyo by Alaafin Ajiboye as a means of communication before the invention of writing and it was assembled for the Alaafin, as his musical outfit whenever he goes to war, to motivate his army.

Listening to the sound of the drum, communicating messages between communities separated by dense forest, I was again struck by how little I understood of these methods of comprehending space, circumstance, meaning. The beating, or not-beating, of the drum is not as simple as Morse code, in terms of individual letters, but rather it represents groups of words – the discussion in the programme involves ways of describing sunsets – an entire language completely inaccessible to those outside of Yoruba culture. Looking at the instruments in the display cases at the British Museum, I could imagine what they sounded like, but not what those sounds were conveying. What I think this demonstrated was that what we are left with is our own distinct collection of things, and the language they represent to us through their associations and partial connections; from this we attempt to chart the vague often intangible links to other abstract forms, looking for meaning, consciously or otherwise.

Guile Point

Autumn, 2010. I am in Northumberland with Zo and my parents. We have been out on the promontory/island at Lindisfarne, a monastery founded by Saint Aidan well over a thousand years ago to restore Christianity to the pagans of  Northumberland. Windswept faces, the line of tourists – rather than pilgrims – snaking along the causeway, boats stranded by low tide on the sand banks. In the distance, the navigation beacons of Guile Point, guiding ships through Burrows Hole, around Long Ridge and in to the harbour. They look like obelisks left by some unknown civilization, a warning of the heathen terror that lies in-land perhaps, or the site of some ritualistic celebration (except they were built two hundred years ago). In the distance, a storm rolls in off the sea.

Cross

Later, we are wandering around Alnmouth, the car parked alongside an empty golf course that seems to circle the town. The shops and pubs are open, but the people are seemingly absent. We walk down on to the beach, and I stare across the river mouth to Church Hill and take a picture. An Anglo-Saxon cross rises up at the summit. The chapel of St. Waleric apparently sat here, the location of the synod which, according to Bede, saw St.Cuthbert named Bishop of Lindisfarne around 684; following the Christmas Day storm of 1806, where the river was forced to the north, Church Hill was cut off, and part of the village was washed out to sea. I turn, and take a different, colour photograph. My Mum is looking out over the river mouth to the island; the people are gone because, unlike our little party, they can see the gathering storm approaching from the south.

Storm

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¹  A discussion of the notion of the female gaze in ice age art is explored in this video that was made for the exhibition; this depiction of ice age women (albeit non-human) is less informative.

²   The power and terror of ice age life, embodied in these figurines, was neatly encapsulated for the contemporary viewer by a series of smashed fragments of similar female sculptures, found in the graves of women who had died in childbirth.

³   This is a different kind of talking drum.

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Hapgood, D. and Richardson, D., (2002). Monte Cassino: The Story of the Most Controversial Battle of World War II. Cambridge Mass., Da Capo Press.

The Holy Trinity

April 9, 2013

Roof View

A bit late for Easter this, but there we go. Last week, shortly after it opened, I went to Trinity Leeds, the insert-hyperbole-about-regenerating-The-North-exclusively-via-retail-experiences shopping centre which opened to much fanfare around the 20th of March. By ‘much fanfare’ I mean that the local news decided it warranted an entire half-hour programme dedicated to it, broadcast from the Fosteresque glass roof¹. So this is my discussion about my own experience of the place, and by discussion I mean ramble.

Aside: interestingly, I note that when Trinity was a ‘quarter’ rather than a ‘trinity’, the architect attached to the project was Enric Miralles of Scottish Parliament/Palafolls Library/Torre Mare Nostrum fame rather than Chapman Taylor of Heathrow Terminal 5 and Drake Circus fame (another shopping centre awkwardly obscured by a church). If this original project had gone through, perhaps there would have been more chance of the glass roof being made of wool. That’s a reference to Miralles designing buildings that look a bit like things vaguely related to the cities they reside in.

Construction

Anyway, I was slightly annoyed by a shopping centre warranting that level of coverage. Relatively little time was given over to the employment side of things (something like 3000 jobs created, in a sector which increasingly epitomises uncertain and temporary labour) in favour of marvelling at the shiny-shiny on display; one particular highlight was Harry Gration demonstrating how an interactive ‘gesture wall’ works, but more on this later (worth mentioning that I found it shit, because the number of people passing by made all gestures appear on screen as near-identical beams of light…this probably indicates something about the nature of activity in the corridor where the wall is situated). I was already planning on going to Leeds before this shopping centre opened, ostensibly because two new beer bars had opened and this is much more of a priority for me², but the streams of people entering and exiting were too much to tip-toe around the fringes of; black-hole like, I gravitated towards the event horizon.

Except it was more of a confusion between absolute and apparent horizons; I was annoyed by the actual experience of being in Trinity (except you’re never quite in it; it’s more of a roof over some streets with added walkways thrown in for good measure), by trying to move through Trinity, by which I mean the entirety of being in the shopping centre; the architecture, the ways in which the movements of people are controlled, the layout, the facilities. All the elements are there, but thrown together in a haphazard way, seemingly at odds with the ‘ideal shopping experience’. Is this a good thing? Not really. More uncomfortable, irritating. Not what is expected, but not exciting as a result of this. Peculiar zones rubbing against each other, symmetry gone awry, people unable to fathom how to use the spaces created for them.

Cathedral

You’d think, from the look of it, Trinity Leeds conforms to George Ritzer’s notion of ‘cathedrals of consumption’, that is consumption centres which

‘are structured, often successfully, to have an enchanted, sometimes even sacred, religious character. To attract ever-larger numbers of consumers [they] need to offer increasingly magical, fantastic, and enchanting settings in which to consume’

Trinity is a locus for the purchasing of commodities, and appears to offer the fantastical, not in terms of the shops themselves which are identical to most shopping centres, but in terms of the facilities that it has which others do not; and Land Securities should know all about that³. Some of Trinity’s features – according to the website at least – include concierges, mobile charging stations (coming soon), shop and drop facilities (your bags, not you as ‘the shopper’) and, and I realise this might be considered little more than miniature gilding, seats for people to use whilst waiting for other people to use the toilet. And what toilets they are: as badly designed as the layout of the tiny food court where pedestrian overpasses end in abrupt corners and people bottleneck around ‘awkward’ wheelchair users desperate to find an elusive lift to the exit. To return to the toilets – assuming we can find a way back – to use the cubicles for a shit you have to walk through two rows of back to back urinals, down the middle, as if you are inspecting the troops. This is all very odd. The other features I mentioned are contained within a service lounge type area, conspicuously empty when I walked past, devoid of both shoppers and staff, unlike the 30 or 40-strong queues outside all restaurants in the aforementioned food zone on the top floor (“I’m not waiting three fucking hours for a shitty T.G.I Friday’s” was probably the favourite, and most accurate, observation I overheard). Perhaps things will pick up. There were only 130,000 people through the doors on opening day after all.

ASIDE – Interesting as well that Ritzer has recently moved away from this idea, to ‘new cathedrals of consumption’, the virtual near-infinite expanse of Amazon.com for example. No need for an expensive all-singing, all-dancing locale, when the spectacle can shift to endless commodities; the only limit is what you can imagine yourself owning. Ritzer’s move is prompted, he suggests on his blog, by the noticeable decline and closure of such sites, making Trinity a peculiar proposition, particularly considered the current consumer market and the forever-shit economy we appear to be stuck with as a result of successive short-sighted governments and the systemic detach-collapse-rebuild cycle of our beloved capitalism.

It is also worth dwelling on the religious connection in the name and location. Foremost, we can see that there is a curious juxtaposition between the purpose of a cathedral, religious experience and the actual physical arrangement of space in Trinity: we have the glass ceiling, allowing a view of the Heavens except this is where any attempt at a connection drifts off. The ceiling doesn’t quite work. As interesting a feature as the glass roof is supposed to be, the layout of Trinity actually funnels people in through a central atrium to increasingly dark corridors lined with shops, more a catacomb of consumption. The ‘fantastic’ element is the preserve of one very small section of the building, before shoppers wind through the dingy, half-lit tunnels to emerge back out in Albion Street, which now separates ‘Trinity East’ and its glass dome, from ‘Trinity West’, the rebranded Leeds Shopping Plaza which is still covered in MDF hoardings advertising a new food court and whatever else is going to populate the redesign when it is eventually finished. I find it odd when a space designed to enchant and, ultimately, make people shop, does such a decent job of using walkways and passageways to force them through the building as quickly as possible. Where is the space to stop, to marvel, to dwell on the glory of purchasing on credit.

Church

Trinity is, of course, the name of the church at one entrance to the shopping centre (there are many, many entrances, a panoply of mini-Batu’s with stairs leading to Topshop or Next rather than Lord Murugan’s shrine). Well, The Holy Trinity is what it is called. It is sandwiched between one of the Boar Lane entrances and a several-storey McDonald’s. There is a weird gap around the church, presumably the result of planning conditions, where a number of benches are set out for sitting, but these are squeezed in between the cold walls of the church and the featureless walls of the shopping centre, so unless ‘prison’ is the relaxing vibe they were going for, this seems like a tacked-on attempt at usable space. I walked past this area – well, was dragged past by a sea of shoppers heading for the McD queue – and a girl dressed entirely in black stood in the middle of this unused space, offering hand gestures and a fixed smile as if she was the host at a Shanghai club in the late 1920s. I tried to watch her for a bit, but was pulled inexorably onward. It was incongruous with everything else around me and brilliant for it, space instantly subverted from its supposed use. It reminded me of this photograph of Lee that I took at 4am on the morning Liam was hospitalized in York during my stag do.

Ambulance

The first stones of the Holy Trinity Church were laid in 1722. According to Linstrum, William Etty, the York born artists famous for his nude scenes taken from mythology, was paid nineteen guineas for the design of Holy Trinity Church. The cost of construction for Trinity Leeds is estimated at £378 million (I can only speculate as to the architect’s fee).The church has operated as a gig venue and community arts hub for quite a while, and appears to be working on ways to integrate itself within the development which bears its name. Let’s hope not too many people simply walk past it on the way in to the shops, or to the reclaimed meat-in-a-bun shop which it adjoins; though how many people walked past it before? Probably the same amount.

I’m not suggesting that Trinity is somehow opposed to the idea of consideration and reasoned thought (as Ritzer suggests, these spaces are supposed to be rational), that by boxing in spaces where this is possible (such as the church) and using architectural features to force people to keep moving it prevents anything but passing-through. This would fly in the face of evidence to the contrary; a quiet room for ‘contemplation, prayer and reflection’ will be opening Autumn 2013. What it does instead is demean and degrade public space, or areas where the control, use and appropriation (if deemed appropriate) lies in the hands of the people who use it. They define what happens, rather than owners who mould the space to extract as much money as possible.

Burton Arcade

Originally, the Trinity Quarter project looked at replacing a number of the tatty arcades that fanned out from the main shopping street, Briggate. There was The Empire, The Burton, Market Street and Trinity arcade itself, as far as I can see (ignoring the Victorian Quarter obviously, with its debt to Burlington, as it has relatively little similarity to the run-down local businesses which occupied these sites in the past). The regenerated approach to Trinity East from the Corn Exchange – which I assume was the site of the old Market Street arcade – is now a series of glass fronted retail units on two levels, the eye-line shops suspiciously vacant except for cardboard cut-out signs advertising the shops on the upper level, already a jumble of ethnic hairdressers and salons, financially ghettoed above the seething masses, where rents are lower, and customers fewer; this is Trinity paying lip-service to local business, providing an adjunct space that in no way matches the bombast of the Dome a hop-skip-jump across Briggate. Redoing this area has enabled an increase in rental costs and the misguided impression that there would be some sort of osmotic relationship between Big Brother (in every sense of the word) next door and an already-sickly sibling. In this case, some effort is no effort at all on the part of the developers. When I walked through, bored staff from the upstairs units were leaning over the railings, watching potential customers stream through on their way to…where else. Regardless of how down-at-heel the old arcades were, they were not simply there for transit, for endless passing-through; they were repositories of old ideas, and plans, and the dregs of the industries on which Leeds made its money, before ‘money’ was how it made its money. I think a similar argument is being made in relation to the Castle Mall in Sheffield.

Oh right, I was going to mention the gesture wall and forgot. Just that it reminded me of a passage from Benjamin (appropriate considering the location):

‘The innermost glowing cells of the city of light, the old dioramas, nested in the arcades, one of which today still bears the name Passage des Panoramas. It was, in the first moment, as though you had entered an aquarium. Along the wall of the great darkened hall, broken at intervals by narrow joints, it stretched like a ribbon of illuminated water behind glass. The play of colors among deep-sea fauna cannot be more fiery’

In the case of Trinity, the wall is simply another bauble that people pass by, on their way to somewhere better, except no-one has quite worked out where that is yet. Amongst the throng, the most common thing I heard from people was ‘how do I get out’. An interior that is architecture as pantomime, a farce of floors that are near impossible to escape from (in the atrium, I was forced to leave through Next because I couldn’t find an escalator that went ‘down’, foolishly assuming it would be on the same side as the ‘up’). If it is designed around flows, and peaks, and history, and indexes, and behaviour patterns, and the needs of local businesses, and consumers themselves then I for one am utterly fucking baffled by the place.

Benjamin Paris

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¹ Although it does look a fair amount like the atrium inside the British Museum, there are also parallels with the Sage Gateshead. This is perhaps more apt as the Sage looks like a bug pupa, and the opening photo of this post looks like that bug hatched, and is now slithering its way towards consuming the church

² BrewDogs Leeds, which is tucked away behind the Corn Exchange and was pretty busy on a Good Friday afternoon but had some excellent Cocoa Psycho on, and Friends of Ham on Station Road which was very busy on a Good Friday afternoon and had an excellent Mikkeller Coffee Stout on.

³ Land Securities, the owners of the centre, have numerous other such sites dotted about the UK including The Galleria and Lakeside in the South and, you would think in direct competition to Trinity, the White Rose Centre on the outskirts of Leeds. Cornering the market I think that is known as.

Entering The Desert

November 15, 2012

Stone Tape
I tend to instinctively turn towards some kind of ghost story at this time of year. A number of factors compel me to do this; darkness, childhood memories of BBC programming, the recent revival of festive spirits in the shape of M R James remakes, or pastiches by Mark Gatiss. The usual sort of stuff that is cited as hauntological influence. I’m still turning towards these things as Christmas approaches again (inexorably, indefinitely) It’s a different kind of ghost that interests me at the end of this year though, namely my own. This ghost has emerged, as with most things that end up on here, at the confluence of a number of threads – or ‘partial connections’ as Margaret Strathern would term it – so I felt it appropriate to try and work through some of these knots, and see what comes out of it. This is spurred on, in no small way, by the increasing unease I’ve been experiencing in the last few months, which I think is mentioned in some sort of sense at the conclusion of this entry. So rather than trees, and rocks, and the other things I tend to talk about (when I might be talking about something else instead), this is sort of about my PhD, which is entering a final phase it would seem. An opening caveat – as with Ballard’s Atrocity Exhibition, this can be read in a randomised order. It is a brief attempt of mine at an exegesis of whatever it is I am doing .

So there is a ghost. This ghost might be uncertainty; it is the first explanation to come to mind. When I finish my PhD, which will be September of next year – it will have taken four years in total, so this might be the ‘end game’ – I am perhaps leaving the environment I am used to, potentially the friends and colleagues I have spend a large amount of time working with. I finish a few months before the end of the REF and this makes my job prospects somewhat hazy. The REF is, in a badly defined nutshell, a ‘process of expert review’, whereby Universities are assessed to see whether or not they are competent or not and whether they deserve research funding. To this end, new employees moving in to work in HE are sort of vetted to see how much use or damage they will do in terms of the REF outcome. It is a strange process – one which I clearly know very little about so please don’t take anything I say at face value – and one that seems to lead to some crappier Universities employing academics with good ‘REFability’ over others. To some extent, exciting new potential is out the window (not that I represent this). I am not an internationally recognized academic. No-one cites my work. I do not have several publications out to enable people to do this. The outcome of this is that I am unlikely to be able to find work when I finish in 2013, even if I do get published, and will have to wait until jobs come up in 2014. This is not ideal, but it also doesn’t really fill me with dread. What it has made me do is look at alternatives to academia in terms of employment. I’m not doing this with any real vigour, but as a sort of time passing exercise. Temporal considerations, as ever, are crucial here: the event, my finishing, is still far away despite my assessment of ‘end game’. I am judging this in terms of how long it will take me to write my thesis in to a viable shape. It has a form, but I need to get the insides in a fit shape. I am looking forward to doing this, which doesn’t fit the ‘uncertainty bill’ to well. In distancing myself from the end point (aside from terming it as such – without ever really engaging with that) I am presenting myself with a binary between solidity and fluidity. The tangible world of where I am, and the horror of the real world where anything I’ve learnt could be of no demonstrable value. This is terrifying and exciting. My ghost doesn’t know what to do.

Stalker
I offered up a talk at the Music and Meaning Symposium last week, built around a journal article I wrote over the summer which looked at the notion of archives in relation to hauntological musicians, explored via a number of Deleuzian theoretical constructs. I used, in the article, some ‘classic’ examples including Belbury Poly (in terms of ‘radioactive fossils’), Burial (in terms of ‘deterritorialization’) and The Caretaker (in terms of ’empty-time’). The talk, which built on one I delivered at a conference in April, used different examples so as to a) avoid me repeating material and b) allow me to focus on one particular aspect of Deleuze, namely ‘sheets of past’ – adapted from Bergson in Cinema II: The Time-Image. My central argument in this case is that Deleuze’s interpretation of film and image can also be applied to sound, particularly the process of artefact construction in hauntological music. Any way, for the Symposium talk I used The Advisory Circle and William Basinski as examples. Basinski’s process involves mining his own archive for source material, and then stacking sheets of past, though the artist does not specifically acknowledge this (his own archive – his memory of the original work – the process of transferring it (and it collapsing in the case of Disintegration) – creating new work from the old – presenting that work to others, at which point it leaves the author’s control and becomes the audience’s artefact, the object of interpretation).

My thesis, now it is starting to come together, is effectively mirroring this process. I am working with my own archive of materials, which often seems new and unfamiliar contrary to what I expected. It offers a peculiar series of juxtapositions, between things I have worked on for a long time, things I do not remember working on, and new ideas, all coming together to form a conglomeration of loose ties, half-held explanations, tacit understanding, dazzling stupidity. In doing this I am increasingly making myself central to my own work. It is a process of unknowing, pulling apart my old approaches in which I assumed a correct way of doing things. This, I now know, was the wrong way of doing things (C Wright Mills taught us that the blind adherence to specific methods often is), but the new processes still create a sense of unease. Perhaps the ghost is this specific feeling, the sizeable contradiction of making a move that has actually made me more engaged in my material while simultaneously destabilising everything. It could be characterised as a crisis, but I think this too is wrong, which is why I turned to ‘the ghost’. There is nothing inherently threatening about it. It is just there, alerting me to its presence, characterised by periods of ridiculous action, but also conversely a dearth of action. I move through fragments of the last few years, returning to bits and pieces, destroying others, trying to see where things emerge from the gloom: ‘An invitation to recollect’ I think Deleuze calls it.

Nostalghia
From the bedroom window, the other morning, I watched the tabby cat that sits on our wall catch a squirrel. There was a terrible energy to it, even with the window closed, even though this is the most natural thing for an animal (not this specific case, but the constant struggle, the proximity to death in everyday existence). The squirrel pretty much sat there, underneath the cat, presumably petrified, while the cat looked about in a kind of fuzz about what it had done, what it was going to do next. The squirrel managed to break free though, and threw itself from the top of our shed in to next door’s wall. It disappeared from sight; both mine and the cat’s. It was somewhere down there, making an unholy shrieking noise, scattering birds from adjoining gardens, the ones that hadn’t seen the cat in the first place that is. After a minute, it re-emerged, having seemingly ‘checked its exits’, and proceeded to bound across the wall to the nunnery screaming all the way. The cat, now disinterested, had relocated to a plant pot on the neighbours wall, and drank the stagnant water out of it. Later in the day I raked up the leaves that had fallen from the two maples in my garden; this revealed a number of worms, which the dunnocks spent the afternoon attempting to pull apart.

Luton
I have been married for just over a year. Next year I am thirty years old. All the stages of life are scratched in to some temporal fabric, marking us like the insides of a tree. As an anniversary gift, a friend gave us three maps in a frame. One map showed the place where I met my wife, another where we got engaged, another where we were married. Our relationship became spatially signified, geographically fixing temporal activity, the sheets of our past cartographically represented. This obviously speaks to my love of maps, but also to what Deleuze describes part way through Cinema II; the unravelling of Charles Foster Kane’s life through the time-images of his personal archivist, the objects he has collected, the bombast and spectacle of his political career such as it was. I hung the maps on the bedroom wall. The back of the frame had two hooks, so the frame could be arranged portrait or landscape; I opted for the former. In doing so, I noticed that the maps were forced to be displayed in a variety of ‘incorrect’ tessellations. None of them had north at the top, or indeed related to each other in orientation. I wondered for a moment about taking the backing off and rearranging them, but realised instead that each time I look at the maps, I am forced to reconsider the space. Although I am familiar with the events and the setting, the representation pushes me to re-place the icons in my head, to question – albeit briefly – how I recall moving through the spaces, how my memories have created these spaces (to use space here in the way De Certeau suggests in the first volume of Everyday Life ). The actual geography represented in the image is nothing, it is an empty place, a way of looking at an arrangement of objects rather than the distinct arenas we create by peopling spaces.

Nostalghia again
Perhaps the ghost is certainty. My environment has been largely identical for the last three/four years and while I am happy in the lack of change in terms of my home life (which is filled with things and people I love), my presence in my working environment feels increasingly fraught though I am unable to pinpoint what the change is necessarily. Perhaps my concern comes from an increasing awareness of my inability to maintain a tangible persona in company. Regardless of if this is true objectively, my own interpretation and experience is that the actual person I am is someone who enjoys their own company, whose interests in books and music and writing do not necessarily involve other people (with the exception of one, obviously). This is a relatively massive personal failing, and one which is not ideal considering I am potentially entering a profession where presentability is increasingly important (not necessarily at York, where ideas and thinking are, for the most part, the most vibrant and vital aspect of the discipline). So perhaps the ghost is more about who I am and what I project. But then it would be difficult to differentiate between which version is the ghost and which is reality, and that would be a whole kind of existential nightmare to sort out. Plus I think that over many years I have come to terms with the idea that, as everyone has to, I need to fulfil numerous contextualized roles. Is this the certainty issue, that the maintenance of distinct (or not) personae is such a constant that I need to codify the actual elements of my personality? The fact I have written any of this says otherwise.

Derrida, in Ken McMullen’s Ghost Dance suggests that:

‘to be haunted by a ghost is to remember something that you’ve never lived through. For memory is the past that has never taken the form of the present.’

The ghost is certainty and uncertainty. The questions I have posed are not something I can answer, and certainly not something I can work through in public. Ha. There are expectations for how we present ourselves, what we discuss, where we go. I think it is important however to live all these contradictions, to create new and subjective hypocrisies if only to demonstrate how complex things are, how things hang together for a second, and then drift away in to the evening.

Idols of Wood and Stone

May 15, 2012

Water Old
Friar’s Crag, or the first thing we did
Unexpectedly, it wasn’t raining; at the end of the week, an old man in The Dog and Gun complained about the weather and the barman had to explain that without it the place would be a desert. The crag is along a level path, through some pine wood land, not far outside the centre. The town was having its annual international jazz festival that weekend, so we walked past the theatre on the way, and the ad hoc tent erected over the road; all very trad – I’d have been the youngest person there by some stretch if I’d have been attending¹. Past the boatyard and the piers the path goes from tarmac to track and ends at a bench. There, the water was still, devoid of boats, reflecting a sky criss-crossed with vapour trails and half formed clouds. Either side of us, stretching down the valley, were fingers of rock and beyond them, at the apex, the highest mountains in England, which we weren’t even imagining we were going to climb (and didn’t).

Rigg
Castlerigg, or the second thing we did
When I was a child, or perhaps a little older, I remember going to Castlerigg; there are a number of things that stuck in my head. Prosaically, I remember my Dad trying to free a sheep from a fence where it had managed to get its head stuck in a wire square. As we approached, in my case tentatively (back when I was inherently untrusting of nature), the sheep thrashed about on the low cut grass, more terrified of my Dad than being stuck, its hooves scrabbling for purchase on a surface it had itself nibbled to almost nothing. In the end, the panic and the constant horrified twisting enabled the sheep to free itself, and it ran off. More importantly, Castlerigg is held in my memory because of its location, flanked in every direction by mountains. The circle is thought to be 5000 years old, so older than the Henge, but its use is assumed at best; some sort of astral clock (it’s still used by druids in celestial celebrations at solstices), a site of worship? English Heritage is still yet to publish their findings on the place. It was rediscovered in the early 18th century by William Stukeley who made a far reaching survey of Neolithic sites in Great Britain, this particular case being missed by Aubrey and Camden years earlier. If you stand in its centre and turn slowly you can see peaks rising on all sides, as if they are pointing towards the site, or directly at you. I remember the first time I visited I felt like something should happen when I touched the stones, or that I shouldn’t sit on them because they were more than just stones. This time, when I touched the stones, aside from thinking about why they were there and how they had been transported in the first place, I thought about my childhood concerns, about the power of the stones.

As we left to walk back to the town, an Indian family arrived in two BMWs. They proceeded to shout at each other, to the annoyance of the other groups at the circle, and take pictures of themselves striking odd poses in their inappropriate outfits (fur coats, both men and women). This is presumably the converse of how Spanish resort owners feel when idiotic Brits turn up yelling and asking for egg and chips. I think the indignation I felt was in fact more to do with the hours walk to the circle, and how this was at odds with their driving to it; physical exhaustion bested by technology.

Dalt
Castle Crag, or the third thing we did
Castle Crag is strange, and not very high though the final climb is steep and over poor terrain (effectively a slate slag heap from the old quarry). We’d set off from Grange, cut through Hollows Farm, and detoured to Dalt Quarry to see the reflecting pool and the unusual colours in the carved-out stone. The ascent took us briefly along the Derwent, up and out through the trees on to a boulder-strewn mountainside replete with caved in crofters cottage or similar. We’d seen some kids clamber up a grassy hill to reach the base of the Crag, but they’d done it on their hands and knees and were clearly more agile, so we took the path up past the powdered down shale and on to the slate heap. Half way up the zigzag to the top, I turned to trace the path we had followed, and saw a red squirrel bolt along the floor and up in to a tree.

At the top, before the last little climb to the summit, the old quarry workings are surrounded by miniature monoliths. You get the feeling you are intruding on someone else’s space, even though the place has been disused for a number of years (unless you count Millican Dalton who lived in the cave on the eastern side of the crag). The crag is quiet, unnerving. I read somewhere that the standing stones are cleared away semi-regularly by the NT who own the land (and 25% of TLD in general), but someone returns to re-erect them. At the very top, a more formalised war memorial is fixed to the cairn, which gives representation to the standing stones lower down; it feels somewhat like walking through an ancient graveyard and in low cloud I imagine it is much stranger. The view back along the valley to the lake is impressive, as is the feeling of the mountains looming either side of you. We ate something, drank something, and I put a stone on the cairn, but didn’t climb it as it felt odd to scale a war memorial.
Crags
We descended the way we had arrived, but crossed the fellside to head down towards the villages that, from the top of the Crag, seemed haphazardly scattered on the valley floor. After talking to a rambling club who had mistaken us for professional fellwalkers (I’m fat ergo not a regular), we made our way in to Seatoller looking for The Yew Tree, the only place that wasn’t someone’s house, and a drink of some variety. Parked outside were the same family from Castlerigg. They asked me for directions to the mine at the top of the pass. I intimated towards the sign they had parked in front of. It said ‘Honister Pass and Mine 1.5 miles’. Later, waiting for a bus, a cuckoo called from a tree nearby. I’ve never heard a cuckoo before.

Descent
Honister, or the fourth thing we did
We’d climbed in to the cloud to get to the mine, past Seatoller again. The rain was thin, the sort that gets everywhere, like a film of water coating anything it comes in to contact with. The water streamed off the fellside higher up at Fleetwith Pike, cascading down one side to eventually become the Cocker and the other to join Sour Milk Gill lower down and form the Derwent. Having already seen the drop down to Buttermere in better weather, the effect of cloud wrapped about the mountain was to heighten the drop – even though it was obscured in  rain, it was there, made more treacherous by remaining hidden. The drive up from the workshops to the mine itself didn’t help; six of us in a knackered Land Rover, rocks tumbling to the right and down a thousand feet to the valley below. We traced the cart tracks in to the main cavern, dominated by a giant slab of slate, hooks and chains hanging from its surface. We were told not to think of The Descent.

Pass
I’d seen the slab before, years earlier, but I didn’t recall this until I’d seen again. I knew I had been to mines in the area, but almost every family holiday involved going in to the ground so it was sometimes hard to tell them apart. I wasn’t curious enough to differentiate by mineral. Having said that, I was trying to remember the name of an iron ore mine I’d been to as a kid, but couldn’t. I recalled the walls being wet, and putting my hand up to them and flipping it over to look at my palm and seeing how the red of the ore had bled on to me, and climbing the cart tunnel out to find everyone else covered head to toe in the same pinkish-red. I had to throw away my socks because the colour wouldn’t come out.

The guide at Honister, a man named Rowland who expressed a lot of frustration on behalf of his ancestors at the way they had been treated by the Egremont family, discussed various aspects of mining as we wandered through the different chambers. As we entered the final giant chamber, a sort of natural amphitheatre, I remembered it was called the Florence Mine. I mentioned this to Rowland. ‘It’s shut now,’ he said. It appears to have turned in to an arts centre. I think that, without realising it, I ended up turning most experiences in to a process of remembrance or comparison to the faulty memories I had of childhood holidays.

Interior Mine
Mark Wier had bought Honister and opened it as a tourist attraction and functional slate mine (the only one in the UK, the rest are quarries) 17 years ago. It would have been a few years after this that I visited for the first time. On this more recent occasion the mine was deeper, in that more had been blasted out in preparation for what turned out to be a failed project to make an underground studio for various site-specific film crews – Coronation Street apparently pay handsomely for filming access. Rowland, who was from a Cumbrian mining family that moved to South Africa to mine before World War 1 and the eventual collapse of the Empire changed everything, spoke about Mark in a slightly odd way throughout; we’d seen Mark on a DVD explaining the safety issues of going underground (massively out of date from the look of it) and his various projects were discussed in a revered way at frequent junctures. He was described as a genius, in the sense of what he had achieved bearing in mind he bought a mine having never mined in his life. It was only half way through what was a very informal chat (our group was tiny, so we sort of walked and talked) that we’d understood that Mark was dead. Rowland explained that it had happened last year, and that everyone was still emotionally destroyed by it all, especially the family who were now running the mine without him, but also Rowland himself who had known Mark his entire adult life.

For Rowland, the mine was a  remembrance of everything Mark represented and all he wanted to achieve, in the same way that Mark had made the jump of buying the mine because granddad used to work there. Honister is haunted both by the personal associations of the people who now work there, but also by the ghost of industry in the area. Mark’s granddad, in flying over the mine with Mark before he made the then ridiculous decision to buy it (an offer mining giant McAlpine accepted in less than forty five minutes the first time Mark met them to suggest the idea) asked why it was shut – Mark had no idea. This, he suggested on video, was the impetus to make the purchase. Last year, after an evening of blasting underground (which he apparently did himself to save money), Mark failed to return home to Cockermouth. A police search in the early hours of the morning found the wreckage of his helicopter on Honister Crag. He had been killed in the crash. An excerpt from the local paper that was left in the visitor centre, a laminated obituary amongst a few others discussing the via ferrata and zip line routes that were being developed as new visitor attractions, reported that he was posthumously fined £30,000 by the local authority for damaging the crag.

Crag 2
The last thing we did, was the first thing we did
Because of the rain, the field we had walked across earlier in the week, where Zo had pictured some lambs gambolling in front of a disinterested sheep they weren’t directly related to (the natural expression of sheep is ambivalence), was flooded and our pebbled lakeside route back was also underwater. The crag was empty of people, so we stood and looked down the valley to the Jaws. Little was visible. The cloud was low, and dark where the mountains rose up inside the blanket of mist. It was eerie and brooding and magnificent. We walked back along the formalised path, past other pastures where sheep huddled from the rain. In the fading light, above us but beneath the reach of the trees, we spotted four or five bats catching insects in the twilight.

There were, of course, things before and after
We went to an animal park in the middle of nowhere, where I spent perhaps half an hour in total watching birds of prey do very little². They were perched on stands and tethered. A note on the fence surrounding them explained why (essentially, they’d kill other animals in the park), and also detailed the fact that a) keeping them tethered enabled them to live longer than in the wild and b) when the birds were flown, as they were daily, they always returned – if they didn’t want to, they didn’t have to; birds of prey know when they are on to a sweet deal, obviously. Whilst walking around, I watched a caracara tearing up a rabbit (a number of which, rabbits that is, also hid in the bird of prey arena beneath a bush, presumably on the basis that the tethered birds couldn’t reach them and any external threat was scared shitless of massive eagles hanging about). I learnt that in the wild caracaras eats penguins. A kid and his grandma came past, and Zo nudged me in anticipation of the kid spotting what the caracara was doing and asking the awkward life/death question. Needless to say, the kid asked the grandma what the bird was doing. Completely deadpan she said ‘It appears to be eating a dead rabbit.’

_________________________________________

¹    We were buying food in the supermarket, and a man with a gigantic beard and multi-coloured trousers asked a shelf stacker for ‘flash candles and schnapps’. The SS was confused, and asked for clarification. The guy repeated himself. The SS wandered off and found the schnapps and said he couldn’t find the candles. The man was unimpressed with the schnapps. He pulled over his nearby friend and complained in what I believe was German. They walked off. The SS started talking to a colleague about the incident, specifically what ‘flash candles’ could be. I’d been standing close by during the whole exchange, looking for beer, and as the SS walked by me he turned and said ‘bloody jazzers’. I am aware that SS is perhaps not the best way of shortening ‘shelf stacker’, considering the people involved in this exchange.

²     Regular readers of this blog will have spotted the apparent obsession I have with birds

2011 – The Review

January 5, 2012

Random Selection of Things Done on Certain Days:

Friday April 8th 2011

1500 words of LNT
Recutting 4 audio files for thesis advisory panel
Clearing out the chimney
30 mins in the garden reading Iain Sinclair’s ‘Lights Out’
Paid council tax and water bill

Tuesday May 3rd 2011

Taught 3 classes on contemporary social theory revision
Edited thesis advisory panel submission
Discussed the dumb ass nature of exam invigilation
Agreed to a new office partner (subsequently fell through)
Flicked through The Dictionary of Visual Discourse
Cooked smoked salmon tagliatelle, having abandoned crab linguine due to lack of crab and lack of linguine

Wednesday June 8th 2011

Went food shopping
Watched an Adam Curtis documentary
Added new music to my mobile phone
Did some work on an intro for a Working Papers collection
Invigilated an evening exam
Watched The Apprentice

Monday July 25th

Walked around York City Centre with Tom and Jeannie
Ate a pastrami, soft cheese and dill pickle sandwich
Went to Leeds on the train
Had a drink or two in Mr Foley’s
Went to see Godspeed You! Black Emperor at Leeds Met
Waited for a bus outside York station whilst a couple had a huge row

Tuesday October 4th

Accidentally deleted my entire PhD and spend most of the morning attempting to recover it
Said hello to someone I hadn’t spoken to in 2+ years
Read Chekov’s account of a Russian prison camp in Siberia
Listened to Stuart Busby’s ‘Drift’
Bought a desk lamp
Made a complicated sandwich
Composed the music that Zoe would walk down the aisle to
Shopped at Tesco for the first time in 5 years. It was still dire.

Albums of the Year, in Reverse Order

20.        *AR – Wolf Notes
19.        Advisory Circle – As The Crow Flies
18.        Bellows – Handcut
17.        Wolves In The Throne Room – Celestial Lineage
16.        Rene Hell – The Terminal Symphony
15.        Jasper TX – The Black Sun Transmissions
14.        David Thomas Freeman – The Beauty of Doubting Yourself
13.        Dalglish – Benacah Drann Deachd
12.        Gang Gang Dance – Eye Contact
11.        Kuedo – Severant
10.        Tim Hecker – Ravedeath 1972
9.          PJ Harvey – Let England Shake
8.          Natural Snow Buildings – Waves of the Random Sea
7.          The Weekend – House of Balloons
6.          Roly Porter – After Time
5.          The Caretaker – An Empty Bliss Beyond This World
4.          Valerion Tricoli and Thomas Ankersmit – Forma II
3.          Ben Frost & Daniel Bjarnason – Solaris
2.          The Haxan Cloak – Self Titled
1.          Sean McCann – The Capital

EPs of the Year in Reverse Order

5.          Tomutonttu – Elävänä Planeetalla
4.          Warm Ghost – Uncut Diamond
3.          Holy Other – With U
2.          Burial – Street Halo
1.          Fennesz – Seven Stars

Compilation of the Year:

John Fahey – Your Past Comes Back To Haunt You

Best Track:

Araabmuzik – AT2
M83 – Midnight City

Worst Track:

Bibio – Take Off Your Shirt

Surprising Musical Appearance of The Year:

Lou Reed and Metallica on Later with Jools Holland. Narrowly followed by Mastodon on Later with Jools Holland.

Books Read, as of Dec 14th

China Mievelle – Kracken
J G Ballard – High Rise
Italo Calvino – Invisible Cities
Iain Banks – Transition
Stephen Fry – The Fry Chronicles
Max Collins – Road to Perdition
Basho – Collected Hokku Works
Lu Xun – Silent China
Bryan Lee O’Malley – Scott Pilgrim Vol 1-2
Eiji Otsuka – The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service Vol 1-4
Paul Auster/Karasik/David Mazzuccheli – City of Glass
T.H.White – The Goshawk
Walter Moseley – Devil In A Blue Dress
John Ajvide Lindqvist – Handling the Undead
Naguib Mahfouz – Karnak Cafe
Junichiro Tanizaki – Seven Japanese Tales
Orhan Pamuk – The New Life
Jorge Luis Borges – Selected Poems 1923 to 1967
Kazuo Ishiguro – Nocturnes
Apostolos Das – Logicomix
Tim Powers – On Stranger Tides
Richard Matheson – The Shrinking Man
Keith Roberts – Pavane
Richard Morgan – The Steel Remains
Kim Newman – Anno Dracula
V.S.Naipal – An Area of Darkness
Alan Lomax – The Land Where The Blues Began
Neal Stephenson – Snow Crash
J.G.Ballard – Complete Short Stories
Robert Macfarlane – Mountains of the Mind
David Mitchell – The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet
Mark Fisher – Capitalist Realism
Ivor Southwood – Non Stop Inertia
Alfred Bester – Tiger! Tiger!
Anton Chekov – A Journey To The End of the Russian Empire
David Toop – Sinister Resonance
Lynne Truss – Eats, Shoots and Leaves
Iain Banks – The Song of Stone
John Connolly – Nocturnes
Haruki Murakami – Underground
Tim Powers – The Anubis Gates
Walter Isaacson – Einstein
Alan Moore – Complete Future Shocks
Simon Reynolds – Retromania
Leo Tolstoy – War and Peace (ending on a tough one)

(Less than last year, but I think some of them are longer and I have had considerably less time to read outside of ‘work’)

Pints Consumed:

249

Overall cost, at an average of £3:

£747

Pints consumed per day:

0.68219178082

Beers of the year

Seeing as a fair amount of my time is done drinking, and writing down what I’ve had to drink, this year I’ve added a top ten beers category. In reverse order…

10.   Buxton – Tsar
9.     Blackwater Brewery – Kangaroo Court
8.     Brewdog – Nelson Sauvin
7.     York – Citra
6.     Cairngorm – Black Gold
5.     Thornbridge – Versa
4.     White Dog – Boot Hill
3.     Brewdog – Riptide
2.     Magic Rock – Cannonball
1.     Dark Star – Over The Moon

Top News Stories – March

These stories really do typify what last year was like.

1st        Gender equalisation in the insurance market
2nd       Afghan campaign needs rethink
3rd       BSkyB takeover gets the green light
4th       Clegg defiant despite poll slump
5th       Mortars and airstrikes used in Western Libya
6th       SAS members ‘captured in Libya’
7th       Police pay review wants perks cut
8th       SAS members released from Libya
9th       Tobacco displays face shop ban
10th      Public pension shake up announced
11th      8.9 magnitude earthquake and tsunami hit Japan
12th      Aftershocks and power cuts across Japan
13th      Clegg says ‘We Have Not Lost Our Soul’
14th      Threat of nuclear meltdown at plant in Japan
15th      Doctors discuss risky NHS plans
16th      Red tape forces quake team home
17th      Japanese authorities increase radiation threat level
18th      PM will ‘judge Gaddafi by his actions’
19th      PM attends Libya crisis meeting in Paris
20th      United States enforces no-fly zone
21st       UK Missiles Bombard Libya
22nd      UK inflation rises to 4.4%
23rd      Osbourne delivers ‘growth’ budget
24th      Man guilty in ‘Night Stalker’ case
25th      Sian O’Callaghan’s body found
26th      TUC March expects 500,000 protestors
27th      TUC condemn March violence
28th      147 charges over demo violence
29th      Tomlinson jury sees fresh video
30th      Police face ‘big cuts challenge’
31st      Libyan foreign minister defects to UK

Deaths during Feb

1st – Les Stubbs, 81, British footballer
2nd-René Verdon, 86, French-born American White House Executive Chef, leukemia
3rd – Tony Levin, 71, British jazz drummer
4th – Tura Satana, 72, American actress (Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!), heart failure
5th – Brian Jacques, 71, British fantasy author (Redwall), heart attack
6th – Robert William Gary Moore, 58, Guitarist, heart attack
7th – William Morais, 19, Brazilian footballer (América-MG), shot
8th – Charles O. Perry, 81, American sculptor, stomach cancer
9th – Jimmy Lemi Milla, 62, Southern Sudanese politician, shot
10th – Blanche Honegger Moyse, 101, American conductor
11th – Christian J. Lambertsen, 93, inventor of SCUBA, renal failure
12th – Mato Damjanovic, 83, Croatian chess grandmaster
13th – Shi Yafeng, 91, Chinese geologist
14th – Catherine Masters, 111, British supercentenarian.
15th – Charles Epstein, 77, American geneticist, pancreatic cancer
16th – Justinas Marcinkevicius, 80, Lithuanian poet and playwright
17th – Phil Vane, 46, British crust punk vocalist (Extreme Noise Terror)
18th – Spook Jacobs, 85, American baseball player (Pittsburgh Pirates)
19th – Omar Bocoum, 40, Senegalese soldier, self-immolation
20th – Barbara Harmer, 57, first female Concorde pilot, cancer
21st – Abdi Salaan Mohamed Ali, 20, Somali footballer, bombing
22nd – Nicholas Courtney, 81, British actor (Doctor Who)
23rd – Jean Lartéguy, 90, French soldier, war correspondent and writer
24th – Sergei Nikitich Kovalev, 91, Russian designer of nuclear submarines
25th – Carola Scarpa, 40, Brazilian socialite, multiple organ failure.
26th – Zhu Guangya, 86, Chinese nuclear physicist, helped develop nation’s first atomic bomb
27th – Amparo Muñoz, 56, Spanish actress, Miss Universe 1974.
28th – Emmy, 22, Albanian singer, vehicular homicide

(Natural causes, if nots stated)

2012: The Pipeline

      1. Lecturing Master’s students on methodologies, very briefly
      2. Conference paper in April
      3. Performances in Leeds (possibly)
      4. Field work: Jan – July
      5. Completing 2 more chapters of thesis: Spatiality and Technology

2012: The Resolutions

    1. Make more than a passing acquaintance with classical music
    2. Listen to the radio (possibly in conjunction with no. 1)
    3. Make more headway with LNT
    4. Return to learning Mandarin

Calls From The Distant Hollows

May 10, 2011

Over a year has passed since I wrote a piece on here called The Birds at Midnight, which pulled together various instances involving birds and gave the blog its highest daily viewing stats. Stats are important to me – except in my research. My general approach to the blog is to attempt to find common threads in my day to day life, hence the apparently frequent appearance of nature and the built environment, and then write a semi-substantial piece about them. The blog started out/is loosely concerned with my thesis, but more and more I find myself drawn to topics aside from that, as if this is in fact the home of catharsis for everything outside of my academic focus. For example, I set myself title and subheadings in WordPress to remind me what I am supposed to be writing about, and the ones on Roland Barthes/Adorno and Marcuse’s Theories of Aesthetics/Benjamin’s Arcades Project/The Past as the Future and so forth remain sitting there, unfinished. I think part of it is to do with the fact that some of the stuff is going in to the thesis and I’m concerned about putting up anything concrete on here prior to completion, in the unlikely chance that someone will beat my opinion/research to publication. How ridiculously amateurish of me. Anyway, this piece is a companion to The Birds at Midnight and goes against much of what I’ve just complained about:

Bempton
April 26th
The sound and the smell are overwhelming this time. I think it is something to do with time of year; the temperature is up on last time (though it is hard to tell this from the cliff top) and the birds are nest building. At the far end, past the listening station where a small group of appropriately booted structural decay enthusiasts are preparing for their descent in to the mine of Cold War secrets, the gannets gather around a grass covered promontory. They pick at the grass, and then soar out in to the head winds, back to line the nests with whatever they have collected. Further up, away from bigger birds, razorbills and guillemots jostle for space on rocky outcrops, while kittiwakes ride the wind in between the levels of gliding gannets. There are puffins here this time, which was the primary reason for a later return. Earlier last year there were none, or perhaps just the mythical one that the RSPB man spotted. This time I have my ridiculously heavy astronomical binoculars and there are plenty to pick. As everyone says, they are highly comical, like unconvincing orange tipped bullets. They are better in the water we are told.

The sound reverberates in strange ways. On the approach to the cliffs, there is little but weather, or the sound of goldfinches in the hedgerows and the distant rush of water, but once you approach the edge the calls and cries bounce around off every tiny surface and fissure. At one of the further platforms, which juts out over the cliff with the sea a hundred metres below, I find it hard to balance. The combination of the movement of the water, roar of the wind, and the sound ricocheting around my head is unexpectedly disorientating. I step back on to the path. In front of me, a huge lump of seaweed falls from the sky, from the mouth of a wheeling gannet. The bird’s wing span is a wide as I am tall. The path is littered with other unintentional tokens.

On the way to the car, a reed bunting pulls at sunflower seeds by the wooden shed and paystation.

April 2004

‘Whenever I hear the sound of church bells, it reminds me and takes me straight back to moments in time when I was small, vividly to the time every summer I’d travel to our family house in a small village in the south of Italy where we would visit my grandparents for a family holiday…the sound gives me a secure safe feeling, but also very sad, the sound always makes me cry. The bells always seem to be ringing, a very particular low hollow ring, the church being below us a little down the mountain, every quarter hour, Mass, or feast days the bells would ring all day long, interspersed with cannon fire which ricocheted around the mountains in the valley.

Lying in my bed in the bright sunny mornings, the bells ringing every quarter hour, I’d have the white sheets completely over my head, stopping the little flies tickling my face; there were so many flies in my room buzzing around my head, with the church bells ringing every fifteen minutes.’

Pia Gambardella

Toop says this is an example of what Michael Forrester calls a sound conglomerate, a marker of aural security. I heard a story, and I’m not sure of its provenance, about how the way in which we listen to the environment has changed since the Industrial Revolution. In the alpine fields of Austria, cattle herders would attach cow bells to their cattle and send them off up the mountain to graze. When the time came to bring the cattle back down to the relative warmth of the lowland valleys, a skilled herder could stand at the bottom of the mountain and from the sound alone, tell how many cattle he had and whether any had wandered further out of earshot. Now it is aeroplanes and factories. R Murray Schafer’s worst nightmare.

1 of 5
1977
An elderly woman had tried to commit suicide. A low throbbing noise was causing her distress, though nobody else could hear it. Eventually a noise consultant was brought in. He heard nothing, yet made tape recordings any way, and during his analysis of the tapes discovered a strong peak signal in the 30-40Hz range. Newspaper accounts of this result generated similar case studies from all over the country. The origin of many of these subliminal, profoundly unsettling sounds was pinpointed to power transmission lines. In other cases, houses and thin trees were amplifying vibrations ultimately attributed to the wind.

TH White
February
As a sort of extension to the words I had read in Macfarlane’s Wild Places, I followed his breadcrumb trail; it coincided with a piece in the Independent on Baker’s The Peregrine which has recently been reprinted. One of Macfarlane’s recommended reads, aside from the work of Roger Deakin and John Muir, was a book by T.H White, author of The Once and Future King. White’s book, The Goshawk, details his failed and then successful attempts to train goshawks (which, as dedicated falconer’s know, is the most difficult of all hawks to train), initially using a 16th century text that suggests breaking the birds in by starving them and keeping them awake for 3 days – which of course as the trainer you’d have to do as well. His first bird, Gos, escapes part way through the first section, and the notes detail White’s anger and frustration at his inability to train the bird and his quiet heartbreak at the idea of Gos catching his jesses and starving to death in the high branches of a tree. His subsequent hawk is a greater success.

Now I know nothing about falconry at all, though more now than I did, so I was a little worried that I would have another All The Pretty Horses moment, but that was far from the case. This book is a beautiful one, a sort of paean to a lost way of living – the hawks are central of course, but the environment that White describes is equally crucial – a life ultimately destroyed by the horrors of World War II. I wanted to take up a bit of space here recommending it to people, because I found it moving, primal, ethereal. That sort of thing.

The book was written, White explains candidly at the beginning, because he was running out of money. It took him decades to complete however, distracted as he was during the note taking for his training manual by another idea; he went off and wrote The Once and Future King as an aside, a book that opens with an escaping hawk.

Watson
October

‘I was up in Glen Affric at dusk in October trying to record the sounds of the red deer rut. I had set up my recording equipment on the edge of a clearing with the microphones pointing up at the hillside. As the light faded the distant roar of stags rolled down through the forest and in to the clearing. As usual I heard the rushing sound of the wind blowing through the glen and across the canopy but just at the point when the light was almost gone, the wind changed. The effect was dramatic. The atmosphere changed very quickly, as did my mood and perception. I can honestly say that I felt something blow down that hillside in to the clearing – the quality of the sound changed, the deer seemed to stop calling and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck – what few I have – stand up. I packed up as quickly as I could and left. Over the next few days I went back up there to similar locations and made a series of recordings without ever feeling the same effects’.

Chris Watson

November 2002
December 20th was a song I recorded in my second year at University. The song was composed using microsamples from a piece by Henryk Gorecki, combined with a number of field recordings I had made in Norwich over the previous year. There were two particular recordings that I wanted to include – the first was of children playing in the snow at the bottom of my road and the second was a recording I made in first year halls. I had woken up at around 3am, and noticed from my window that a freezing fog from the lake to the south of the halls had engulfed the campus. I decided to go out with my minidisc recorder and see if I could pick up the sound of the fog. It was disquieting experience, light from the ziggurat windows above me streaming out like luminous barbs through the fog. The recordings I eventually used contained a strange crackling noise that I do not remember hearing at the time, though it is equally likely that this is a quality issue. Subsequently, I now find it impossible to listen to the track without being transported to this particular time in my life. During the week in which I put the piece together there were frequent snow storms and power outages; at the time they seemed foreboding and in retrospect this has added another layer of association to the disjointed and distant sound of the music. This piece of music was the first thing I had created that I was completely happy with; it is made up of personal resonances I can never replicate. When I put it together I remembered the specific places I had been to, the time of day, the unnerving atmosphere. I wanted to make sure the final piece still sounded like this, even when transposed to what is essentially a commuter’s hub thirty minutes on the Thameslink line to London.

As Barthes suggested, a tapestry of meaning is woven from the music, a pyschogeographical map of narratives of sound, memory and experience which others can follow should they wish to.

Blackbird
April 5th
The upstairs windows are open as far as they can go in a pointless attempt at generating some breeze on a sticky afternoon. The light is hazy, the air thick and unpleasant. From the front bedroom, where my little office desk sits facing pictures of burnt out oil refineries and endless Chinese tower blocks, I can hear what I assume to be two birds fighting. They’re blackbirds – I can tell by their calls, which I believe marks me out as the lowest rung on the twitcher ladder (I was genuinely surprised to hear a Chiffchaff calling in early April, alerting me to the end of a long migration from Africa, the official start of spring and a rude awakening as to how much of a loser I have become). I went to the back window to see what the problem was, what they were fighting over. The trees are in full leaf so it is largely impossible to see what is going on, but a male and a female blackbird are flying from fence to fence in considerable distress. I head downstairs and open the back door. At the back of the garden, nestled in a large pot full of early garlic, is a baby blackbird emitting some fairly pathetic peeps. On the opposite fence doing little but sitting about is Molly, the cat from No.30 that periodically visits us for attention. The blackbirds are flying about her, but Molly just sits there. She isn’t doing anything. At the point at which I step out of the back door in to the garden the baby blackbird, seemingly unaware of the stupidity of its actions, flies at the cat. Instinctively Molly grabs it and falls backwards off the wall in to next door’s garden. The male and female blackbird follow. I go back upstairs to see what is going on. The wall obscures much of the scene. Periodically I see Molly emerge, close to the ground, in predator mode. The blackbirds are swooping down at her, screeching, terrified. She gives up pretty easily, the birds chasing her in to the alley way and then out in to the street. They remain flitting between both my garden and next door’s garden until dark. I don’t see the baby.

The main issue with this for me is that I have obviously fallen in to the trap of romanticising nature (which is nearly as bad as treating it like a ‘perfect system’), and this has fundamentally changed my relationship with the cat.
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Although I’ve done it several times before, and broken it as often, I promise to get something up here that people smarter than me (e.g. most people) can complain about in relation to something I am actually pulling apart in my thesis. Though of course it’s not for others really is it, it’s for me and my own sense of getting-things-done-the-right-way. Perhaps a good purge will enable me to see that the right way is always an illusion.

Also, I managed a post without footnotes. Ta ta


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