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Times and Places Uncategorized

Outside the A to Z

Once, about twenty-nine years before the day on which I’m writing this, I lived in one room of a four story Victorian semi in a massive city in the north of England. And I loved it, for a very short space of time, before the experience became so frightening that I still have nightmares to this day.

It was near a park and a football stadium. It rained a lot, sometimes inside the house, as the roof was not exactly in perfect condition. The landlords were respectably shady, comfortingly menacing. An old lady and her angry son lived next door. My room was the first on the right as you entered. It had three huge windows and two outside walls, and, had I not moved quarters by November, I think I might actually have frozen to death.

Seven of us lived there at first. Smokers every one of us, drinkers too. The furniture was not fireproof and the only heating was a series of small gas fires installed in every room. We had a lot of plastic mugs and we drank a lot of tea. There was a cellar with a dozen rooms and an incongruous bath plumbed in right at the centre of the maze.

No-one went in the cellar, except to show people the strange bath, or the meat storage room with hooks still hanging from the ceiling and a stone slab cutting table. Sometimes the cellar would flood and I’d sneak down to look at the little black waves. But I wasn’t always able to do that; after the first time someone tried to get into the house via that route, we dragged a cupboard in front of the door.

But I loved it there, those first few months. Walking through the park, perfect autumn sun, and the knowledge that I didn’t know what was going to happen next. The raised voices, laughter and rage, the screaming roads and crammed restaurants, windows that seemed far too bright, cheap neon, cigarette end illuminations, dark woods alive with alien movement, crumbling building sites, chains of buses snaking into town – I’d grown up on the edge of another city, where the night seemed to go on and on, out into farms that stank of three hundred years ago, the empty cold of deserted dual carriageways and derelict airfields. But if this place went back anywhere, it was only as far as about 1975, and it screamed with life and a sickly strength, a determination to manifest something not altogether wholesome, but with a bit of blood in it, or on it, at least.

It seems odd to remember thinking like that. Now, I choose to live somewhere that’s near silent and has been occupied for about four thousand years, but then such things felt like fading out into the emptiness and loneliness of history. There, I couldn’t stop smiling for the first few weeks, grinning with wild joy at the all night cafes and brutalist precincts, the record shops and vintage stores, the steam of industrial chimneys turned to flame by the sodium glare of the streetlamps. A million lights, a library of possibilities. I was a tourist, in the worst possible way.

And best of all, no-one could find me. No mail, no visitors, no phone. They’d rebuilt this district years ago and our little street had been cut off from the rest of itself, amputed by a carpark and a row of maisonettes. We weren’t in the A-Z or the streetplans. We didn’t exist. Should have been a warning, but what did I know? Lacking the self awareness to see that becoming invisible is an appalling crime against love, against identity, against becoming something brighter?

I could tell stories and I might do, just to record them somewhere. I can’t find any of those people I shared that space with, so otherwise, each story will be forgotten and that makes me anxious somehow. But for now, I want to record this; that room, the sun setting, the house silent for once. Sunday or Monday night perhaps. No light, the electricity has run out again. Sitting by the unsteady orange light of the gas fire, wrapped in an army coat. Curtains open, view of houses, lights, movement. Clear sky, a rarity. Cold excitement. Distant calls. All the space for anything to happen. It did.

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Times and Places Uncategorized

Sunday Tracking

It’s night nearly, dusk, the shadows are almost complete and I’m moving onwards, over and over.  I couldn’t begin to count how often I’ve been there.  So many times, following the pattern; you drive or get the train on Friday evening, you travel back in Sunday dusk.  

The train, then.  Getting the train just as the darkness starts, then two, three hours of Sunday darkness.  The movement, the sensation, swaying.  The Friday train is full, thinning out over time, but the Sunday train is often almost deserted, bright lights and the taste of instant coffee.  It’s a cellophane journey.  The morning’s paper rammed into the back of the seat in front.  Old news.  

Each town swings around into view.  The car parks and retail estates, all empty, all locked up.  Optimal Sunday train time, four pm, closing up time.  Some places locked since Friday, that turned the alarms on when I was shuffling for a ticket leading out into the wide world, when my bag was full of outfits and ideas, not just laundry.  Look out of the window and learn to see past your own reflection, stare into your eyes until you can see the streetlights of somewhere unknown.  Empty voids, closed up cafes, glimpse a wrecking yard, a bridge, the rush of water passing, only there in waves that steal the light, out into the country night, nothing now, fleeting village station lamps to break the self portrait.  We don’t stop there.

There, you can see the fields, Sunday afternoon fields, dog walkers and kids running free, but now utterly impassive.  Everyone’s gone home, the shoes are getting shined and the dread of an ironing smell fills the space.  Kitchen lights on, upstairs bedside lamp, rush past, what dreams?  What are you scared of, what are you dreaming of, whose eyes are they that you see as you look out of your own train, at your own track paling away into the unknown horizon?  Who is it you long for, rushing on towards a morning destination?

I hope they will be there to meet you from your train.  I hope you run into each others’ arms and I hope that the day you have arrived at is the one you needed.  I hope the eyes you see are only your own when you need them to be, and I hope that when they aren’t, they shine for you, bright lights of warmth, of contact, windows on a place that’s more than getting ready for another day.

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Built Things Times and Places Uncategorized

Underground Aeronauts

There are two small parks not far from here. One is neat and clearly holds the shape of its Edwardian origins, down to the small bay in which an ornamental cannon was once mounted. There’s a perfectly square boating lake (lacking boats this century), some ornamental flower beds, and a little playground which could well be the most modern part.

A busy road forms a boundary line, and there starts the other park. This one is wild, unplanned, open spaces, unexpected corners. Never fully in view. You could get lost and I imagine people have, though it seems to be nothing more than fields and trees. Here, there’s houses and flats and shouting late at night.

But it’s only two parks above ground.

If you could find a way into the underneath world – and I’m not saying that you can, because I don’t want you to die on my account – you could see that. There might – and I’m not confirming anything – be a whole other world down there.

The story is, it’s where they used to store barrage balloons. One doesn’t ride around in a barrage balloon, but this isn’t real, so in my mind, it’s the kind of balloon that you can travel to Paris in. Except, underground. In the subterranean park. How much space do you need to store a balloon like that? It seems like there’s a lot of room down there she says, based on nothing whatsoever. I think they were – are – inflated, perhaps even floating gently in huge ink dark spaces. Underground ballooning.

I might have done the neat park a disservice. It’s a beautiful place and you can hear owls there at night. Yes, the boating lake has no boats, and it’s a perfect square, but how deep does it go down? Every side is sentried with warning signs; it’s deeper than you think. How deep, exactly? How far down? Once I made a map of it, and drew undines at the edge, singing sirens in the municipal depths. Yesterday morning, there were swimmers where I placed water spirits, determinedly blanking the DANGER NO SWIMMING DEEP WATER signs, and the geese.

There’s no obvious water on the other side of the road. Never means it’s not there though.

According to legends, people often got into the Underneath. There were secret hatches, passages, unexpected caves in the bushes, ways In and Down. Lit by thin falling sunbeams from far off inspection hatches, it was party time down there after dark, despite the fact that one of the most popular routes in consisted of a climb down a disturbingly long steel ladder, descending a shaft into the earth, looking for balloonland. Candles propped in wine bottles, everything running from 9V battery packs, and smeared with that grime of dampness that fills such spaces.

Apparently. I wouldn’t know.

No, really, really. I wouldn’t. I’ve never been there. I’ve spent many hours in the two parks, but never in the one park, the one down there. I know the ways in, or I know where they might be, but they’ve been cemented and welded over many many times now, perhaps finally. Or maybe not. I don’t care. I love the idea of underground balloons, and I’m happier with the dream than the reality.

Also, why would anyone store balloons in a huge underground facility? Perhaps it’s not that huge. Don’t care. The legend is better.

This is where the ghost zeppellins float dreamily on in the dark, lit by candlestars. Ferrying the council undines back and forth under the road. Of course, to one side there’s a tower where you can ride the Paternoster (another story) and over there is the aerodrome hidden by a ring of factories (another story). The sun rises dead on a line with this place, straight down into the district named for an Egyptian city, just over from where they used to take us to see the Egyptian sarcophagus (another story).

They built a huge university building right next to the neat park this year. And then they pulled it down again. It was sinking into the earth, vanishing into the underneath.

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Times and Places

Once

People you used to know. It’s such a slippery world, this one, the way that people just glide out of your life. So horribly easy to just let someone vanish away. It doesn’t take any effort, and despite what songs will tell you, you don’t even have to stop returning calls; you let the time between them grow until there’s just silence.

Suddenly, decades have gone past. People I knew thirty years ago could be dead or transformed totally, or just the same as they ever were. I can only navigate their absences by using my own life as a map. I was once like this, now I am like this. Thirty years ago, I was barely conscious, of myself, of my emotions, of others and their complexities and desires. And I wasn’t a good person, or a particularly good friend; I was cruel and thoughtless, and when I was kind, it was so foolish and badly attempted that it was seen as threatening or sinister. Perhaps this still holds true, though I sincerely hope that I’ve managed something of an evolution in three decades.

It’s the city that does it. On nights like this, after a day when the light has taken on that pale bright September edge, and the sunset is like the tide coming in, when the traffic after dark sounds clear but distant, then I think of you, every year.

When I drive the old roads, when I look down on the whiplash lines of streetlamps, or at front room lights shining through thin curtains, I wonder: what became of you? Where did you go afterwards, how did it work out? When were the good days, the travels, the loves, the times you don’t want to think about? Ego flares up: do you ever think of me?

Much of my life has been spent on trains or on long night drives, from place to place, usually alone, passing homes and families; might one of them be you? And did we used to sit and smoke together in the sun when we were children who thought we weren’t children? Was it you that I walked home with, shared dark thoughts with? Oh, but those adolescent crushes (the desire so sharp and unformed, and hopeless), or friends, or just the someones you had a laugh with one dark night round town, before there was so much to be done.

None of you will ever read this, and you won’t recognise me even if you do. It doesn’t matter. I think of you when the nights come back at the end of summer, every year. I think of you in those autumn mornings, when there seemed so many ways that we could go, and I think about you on those winter nights when the wind had a knife’s edge and we ran through the dark just to keep warm. And then I cry a bit, and carry on with the here and now, with the battles and triumphs and people of today, with the ones that are at the end of the phone right now, my wonderful wonderful chosen and blood families.

But I wanted you to know that I still think of you. And sometimes I dream about the adventures we had in the autumn so long ago.

I wish we could have one more race against the dark.

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Built Things Uncategorized

Rain

This city has a sky like no other.

People keep telling me this (I knew already, but I am very biased). They often tell me when they visit for the first time. “Big sky”, people say. They are quite right, and it is the sky that I remember most clearly from childhood. Two very particular visual memories in particular seem to dominate. A plain whitewash sky, a cloud layer so smooth that it seems like paper. Bright, and lacking any colour at all. Saturday sky, teatime sky.

And the other one, the dirty orange one. The same smooth surface but now lit up by cheap sodium streetlamps, each one with light that managed to be simultaneously warm and cold. Welcoming, and yet utterly comfortless. Perhaps I am old enough to remember the light of steel furnaces adding to the burnt tone of the clouds. I’m honestly not sure, but it would fit.

Out here, where this is, the moors and peaks form a jagged circle enclosing the lights. Thin ridges of colour stretch out desperately grabbing other towns across the night. That fact, always within reach; you can freeze, die of exposure out there on the hills, within sight of the town hall lights. Driving back at night, the orange glare was very, very reassuring, reflecting off the cooling towers and bridges. Brutalism as a fortress against everything that winter and politics aimed at us.

Always the clouds though, in memory! Why don’t I remember sunny blue skies? There must have been some, but the happiest pictures are of white skies and shining dark stonework running with water, glazed and mossy. This town is built around rain, and sometimes we get that balance wrong and the rivers come out to claim it back. I remember the last great flood, seeing the road tear open in front of me with the pressure of water below.

Listed as (c) David Dixon, labelled for reuse on Google. Not taken by me!

We used to build tunnels here. It’s in our instincts to do so. And it is the structure of the city that generates that, because there’s no great ancient mystical genetic bloodline here, just lots of people coming for work or art or because the climbing is good, or their old home is destroyed and burning. So they come into the rain, but generation on generation built tunnels and went underground. Mineshafts and secret escape routes in folklore, and sometimes folklore escapes into reality when they turn up a archway in the foundations of a new building.

The tunnels are always there, except they officially aren’t, which is a bit of a laugh because you can see them if you know where to look. Gargantuan Victorian drainage systems run in chambers underneath the city, and the entrances are right there, if you know what fence to look over, which culvert to follow, though if you do, you might well die. The air down there can be foul, and don’t forget about those irritable rivers that can change in an instant and sweep everything away again.

And that’s an official one, but there are legends too. Linking cellars and running to the old castle, for ridiculous distances. Everyone seems to know a story, though they are wearily explained as old sewers or bits of mining left over. But if you ask, people will tell you about the dark chamber with the archway that ran on under the city streets, and the ghost stories attached to it. You can ask me if you like, I was shown a hidden tunnel entrance deep below the city about twenty five years ago, and I’m sad to say I never explored further (I needed the job that I would have lost by doing so).

We built a huge network of tunnels in the late 60s and early 70s. They linked the shops; you could enter and leave through basements. The only one I’ve seen like it was in Kyoto, part of the station complex there in fact, but this was very different to the bright and regulated centre there. This one was all about hiding from the rain.

That’s where you went, avoiding the traffic and the damp. Concrete running wet and smeared with millions of dark wet footprints. In the centre, a huge dome open to the sky, to let everyone hurry under back into the tunnels, kiosks built into the walls, bright lights against dark patterns. Ask anyone of a certain age and listen to them talk about it like a long lost home, even though it smelled a bit and you could get murdered at night. Humans are strange like that.

When they built it, they cut through old tunnel routes. The people in the travel agents said that something walked through at night sometimes, following the path.

They filled the tunnels in. They blocked them up and if you wanted to stay out of the rain, you had to go to the mall out of town. Anyone you talk to about this will tell you that nothing was ever the same again. I hate useless nostalgia and the championing of the past just because it’s the past, but for once, this is true. The underground time was full of dreams and phantoms; there was a drive to make everything clean and understandable, to rationalise. It didn’t work, but the ghost stories died down. Perhaps that was the point.

Except people still tell you about things glimpsed underground. A forum post about looking over a security fence and seeing a thing like an underground station exposed by building work. Mentjon of rail lines running underneath a demolition site. A mysterious vault deep beneath the library building, itself covered in arcane symbols. Rumours of deep shelters and unknown systems.

We’re still tunnelling, into myth and stories. Loving the sound of the rain, and keeping dry.

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Built Things

Desire paths

The city is a collage at best, one that contains so much material that I begin to find the very concept unsettling. Every interaction leaves a mark, on the micro (the scuffs on the side door to the car park) to the macro (demolishing a quarter of the city centre for reasons that seems a little opaque if we’re being charitable). Intentional or less so, if you begin to look at the details, they will confound you until you feel that you could contemplate and study a single paving slab and not run out of things to say about it, even thought you will inevitably run out of people prepared to pay attention to you.

I once knew an urban planner. I will be circumspect and not name the city in question. They co-ordinated the design of a gargantuan renewal project and specified a colour scheme that would be boldly visible from the air and for miles around, purely on the grounds that it was a colour strongly associated with a football team widely disliked in the immediate area. I only share this because (a) it amuses me terribly and (b) it illustrates the “macro intentional” approach to collaging the city.

What would “macro unintentional” be? Fire damage, perhaps, though in the city I’m writing in, flood is a more pressing issue. People have drowned in the streets here, and we’re three hours from the coast. Fire creates interesting new patterns in many ways (at the time and during the redevelopment) but flood tends to create a warier design based on caution and really wide gutters.

On the micro scale, we leave such patterns that I find it overwhelming my ASC tends to respond very positively to these, to the extent that I can easily become unable to function, lost in the joy of a vacant lot or an aged advertising hoarding, or the specific shade of grey carpet used in pharmacies; to a brain like mine, the world is filled with secret codes and spycraft messages.

I find myself instinctively following the desire paths in the park. A desire path is one created by the needs of a large number of pedestrians, rather than one planned and designed for their usage. Look for them cutting the corners of green spaces, running through corporate flower beds towards entrances, cutting across fields towards school gates. They are a map of the dreams and wishes of any culture, albeit one heavily focused on “I don’t want to walk all the way around there.”

It sounds like the set up for a ghost story, but it’s not; I followed a desire path in the park recently. Deeply worn, clearly still very much in use. Deeper grass either side, packed earth track. It seemed to lead nowhere at all. Just stopped; apparently it at a specific tree. One could jump to all kinds of wild conjectures.

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Times and Places

Late Night Story 4

Last one left, even if you aren’t alone. Everyone’s gone. There’s only the lingering sense of emptiness, because this feels unmistakably like an act of transgression. Even if we never leave the houses, even if we never leave our seats, we have begun to explore, to trespass in the fields of night. The sense of dreamers has passed; they’ve gone too deep to listen to now.

Cold dark and a need to talk, to talk so much. If one is alone, insomniac, abandoned, this feels so sharp, so very sharp. Talking to ourselves at 3 am, “fitfully, inarticulately”, half afraid of hearing answers. Ghost houses, alone, exhausted mind screaming for dreams, weaves shapes and patterns right up the wall, spinning faces out of plaster and paint. Turn the lights on, sickly and bare. An analogue land line isn’t your friend right now, but everyone should try this at least once; lift the receiver, look around and listen to the dial tone for as long as you can bear it, convincing yourself that there are voices on the wire.

Or there are real people there, or more obviously real people at least. And you talk, talk, never stopping, all of you knowing that if you let the pace slacken, you’ll begin to lose it and sleep will take hold. Hours and hours. Less frightening, but with a sense of desperation; don’t let go of the night! It’s ours and right now, it feels like the last night ever, and we mustn’t waste a second of it. Talk and despair and fall in love that won’t even last until breakfast, born out of the need for sleep and dreams, a story improvised out of absences and the night. Cut by dawn.

The cruel cuts of first light. The sickened feeling of exhaustion and sour taste of too many words. Guilt, because we went where we shouldn’t and sunrise noticed.

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Times and Places

Late Night Story 3

Then you pass into the edges of sleep. Perhaps not your own. Take a moment, and you can feel the shape of the sleeping minds all around you. Something more than the quiet, something in addition to the single motor noise and the nearly muted televisions. Get up and look out of the back window. Lights going out one by one. It’s there, within the range of a sense that doesn’t have a name, the sense of sleeping. Ghost time.

Why shouldn’t it be? Dreams can get out and wander around at this time. Past and future smudging each other like charcoal on clean paper. Fear and longing rattling chains at midnight, as you slowly turn the lights off, make your nightwatch rounds of the house, checking doors and windows perhaps, looking nervously at the stove to be sure that it hasn’t turned traitor on you since dinner. But only perhaps. You might stay awake a while, all night maybe.

Time takes on a taste into the later and later. A thin and lonely flavour, but worth relishing.

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Times and Places

Late Night Story 2

Once you’ve closed the curtains, you establish a boundary. Inside and Outside. You could sneak behind the curtain and press your face to the cold glass. And all the car lights passing by outside, the secret other world on the other side of the curtain. Huge and dark and full of mysteries, a fairground of the imagination. But I don’t want to get into personal anecdotes, much, anyway.

Remember, though? You have your own stories. In the Inside world, we have heating, light, rules. In memory, we had TV in there too, now we’d have a thousand different distractions. In the Inside world, we had homework waiting and bedtimes. As I’ve said, if we were lucky and privileged. And not everyone will be.

Noises in the evening, the watershed times. Distant voices, unexpected cars. Train sounds, very very far off. And as you try to grow up, you try and find ways out into the night. Most of us make it upstairs, just a little way out of the lights, into your own world (again, not everyone’s experience). Some of us actually escape, sneak off. Sooner or later, almost all of us make that leap. And then, in the dark, it’s us who make the weird noises, us who are the figures walking past the bright cold window. Going further out. Burnt orange streetlights and bus sounds, fox bark. Smoke taste.

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Times and Places

Late Night Story 1

I would like to chart out the path of a night, to describe one possible navigation through from dusk till alarm clock.

So much for the statement of intent. Along the way, I’ll talk about media and memory, but I have one other strong feeling here; it’s one that I’ve mentioned previously, but a repeat never hurt anyone much. Whilst I’ll touch upon nostalgia, I’ve no interest in living for, or in, the past. For example: a few minutes ago, I read some tweets to the effect of “the world was better when Bless This House was on” and my mood went straight to the teethgrit.

The medium these thoughts were being expressed in, the very mechanism that allowed that person space for that debate wasn’t even a dream when the Abbot family were around. For god’s sake, Sid James preferred the film version anyway. As well he might, it’s got Robin Askwith and Peter Butterworth in it.

My ethos has always been set out; this is a collection of writing about haunted futures. Whatever I stir up, must stir up the world as it is, not as you imagine it to have been.

So it gets dark.

Straight away I’m in a fix. I could write forever on this, which is a shame, because there are very few people willing to read me forever. But which version of getting dark? Do I mean winter dark, before work has even finished – When the lights come on at four at the end of another year as Larkin once wrote, probably staring out at the Humber or something, I dunno – or do I mean the weird never-dark of midsummer? Both have their charms.

Early sunset, especially at the weekend, is filled with terror and excitement, a sense of urgency, of getting back home to the warmbright (and I’m going to assume a level of privilege here, that very few humans have ever had access to). Late dusk has a feverish laziness to it, a slight sense that everything has been permanently delayed, yet a comfort and a swathe of safety.

And both kinds of nightfall get redefined by rain or snow or fog! Going to bed in daylight at the age of nine, with golden shadows all around the room, is a very different set of memories to lying listening to silver rain and the enchanted drabness of an evening completely emptied by the weather. In winter, remember that sound, the cold sound, a shifted tonality, crisp chill noises? My house had no real heating that worked. I had blankets and duvets and sleeping bags as armour.

This photo seemed much less creepy when I took it.

One accepts light evenings and the slow sunsets with an element of reluctance, keeping curtains open as long as possible, drawing out the day. At the other end of the year, we close up as soon as we can, get the lights and the heating on, thick curtains and thick socks most probably.

And I think about all those kinds of lights. Big light*! Lamps, Christmas tree lights, the TV. And not forgetting the scary forbidden light we weren’t allowed to look at, which I’ve just built up impossibly, purely to let you down when I explain that it was the beautiful warm orange from the CRT at the back of a valve based TV set. On no account were we to stuff our faces up close to this. Orange radiation. And, y’know, massive electric shocks and that.

Let’s use winter then, for the moment. More evocative. Easier for me to write about. The summer memories are more abstract, filled with faraway voices and faded longing that’s just an echo of an echo now. Summer belongs to the time when you’re old enough to enjoy it, to run in the streets and grow up unexpectedly one evening, around half nine. Summer really belongs to you when you’re old enough to not remember afterwards.

I will write about summer though. But it’s not about the night, so let’s leave that for later. More next time.

*Big light: UK phrase, often associated with the north. Means the overhead light, as opposed to a standard lamp or uplighter. You put the big light on when you’ve lost the back off an earring, or there’s a spider.