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Built Things Times and Places

I’ve never been here

This story has to be about lots of things.  Some of them seem important, but some of them seem so very small, so small, in fact, that they might almost get lost.

We were walking around the side of the building and someone said “I’ve never been here” and I saw that the benches were ten years old and completely pristine. No-one had ever been here. And it made me think of a sort of story.

This story needs to be about white skies and rainy silent afternoons long ago.  It needs to be about grey concrete and moss and the places where no-one is walking right now.  It’s a story about spaces and gaps in the structure.  The void zones (they are usually labelled as such on caretaker floor plans), the walkways and glass bridges, the places that we pass through.  It’s a story about the afternoons, as I said, the silent afternoons, when workers and pupils are locked away and everything seems to hold a new shape, a different shape and sound and taste, just for now, just for the afternoon time.

1991 anti(C) DeeanaViolet

But that time is long gone, long, long gone.  And that’s the way it felt; those places and moments, they’re all about the days when life felt like a memory from far in the future.  And I could almost see the shape of it and listen the voice of days, telling me all those stories about dust and concrete and raindrops, about quiet roads and the sound of pale skies, and always, always the rain again. 

It has to be a story about the small things, because the big things are unseeable, at least they were then, to my eyes.  My brain and senses don’t work according to the standard model.  Not seeing the big picture is the phrase that the neuropsychologist used, but I rather like to think of it as seeing the big picture but only in the smallest of things.  

Writing is a fantastic exorcism.  The very effort of these paragraphs has rid me of a creeping nostalgia in the space of ten minutes or so.  As I sit in the warm and dry, I am now reminded of all the times when I was cold and wet, or hungry, or addicted to something, be it eating, spending, drinking, smoking, or starving myself, for that matter.  How on earth can I feel such longing for the cold grey places, when I was so lacking safety or perspective?  

Because the rain.  I can’t explain it easily, but that’s the thought I get.  Because the rain.  

Perhaps as I write, I’ll come to understand my own explanation.

(Raindrops fall, millions on millions, out of an infinite sky, small and forming from clouds that are unfathomable, that are patterned on physics beyond everyday understanding.  They fall and they land and they are rarely perceived, rarely observed or noted.  They are us, falling from one form to another; travelling to a new life in a new city, to a new job, relationship, house, feeling in charge but ultimately at the mercy of dynamics that we can scarcely comprehend.  And every one of them is part of the same rainy day, but they haven’t noticed, because they are only concerned with their falling, and because they are raindrops and lack the capacity to notice most things.)

When I write here, I would really like – I would love – to take my readers, that’s you, on a tour of a past and present that isn’t quite either.  Something liminal, or maybe something in process of becoming and never quite getting there.  And there are boots that keep the damp out, and a old gas fire that starts with a blue flame and slowly grows orange, and something about the roads that we don’t notice until it’s much too late.

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Built Things Times and Places Uncategorized

Writing on things

If you drive out of the city, through the suburbs and up the hills, the greenwood starts becoming clear and the houses get a little space between them and the architecture takes on the form of an afternoon.  Lazy gaps, quieter; I suppose the packed in, built up areas that you’ve left behind are the busy mornings.  This is afternoon space.    

As you travel, notice that things are less and less friendly for anyone not driving.  Invisible underpasses beneath unexpected dual carriageways, baby motorways trying to get bigger.  Pavements are sometimes narrow or sometimes just empty – perfectly usable but clearly pointless.  There’s not even litter here sometimes.  Then it’s the fields and the odd tiny estate, often disastrous and visibly falling apart, lost in a state perfect isolation and disconnect from the heart of the Town, slowly being eaten alive by fields that were first cultivated before the printing press was running.  

Just before you arrive at that space though, there’s a pub, a big late 60s ex-Harvester, the sort of place that’s there because it’s on a big spare corner at the ends of normal living space.  First one to get a huge TV in 1989.  A wide open car park, because people come here to have a burger after the shops, not to get drunk, or not much.   We aren’t going in.  There’s nothing wrong with the place really, but we aren’t going in.  

Here it is.  Right where the car park meets the pavement.  Slightly paler smush of concrete surface.  Details that are so small that they aren’t ever accounted for – a change in texture out front of a dull pub.  I can read it though, literally, because there’s a fragment of writing still there; it says L84 which I know because I was standing next to L in 1984 when they wrote it with a stick, in the first month of secondary school.

Fragments of writing hanging around, like the dark blue stabbed phrase in the subway about WOODS which was a testimony to someone’s power and control.  CONVICT BEATS in whitewash on the quarry wall for forty years.  But I can’t shift that moment from my mind.  Standing in the half sun in Autumn, near the bus stop.  And then what we make stays still in place and we get older and wander on but those words stay where we left them for a little while and anyone who sees them meets that version of us, the writer who was.  

Even when the writer isn’t any more.  Not in some dramatic and tragic manner, just in that we aren’t concrete.  We aren’t even wet cement.

Oh god, we must leave our stories, we must, we must.  Every word that we can, because even your name and the year is glorious, shining in memory and saying yep, something happened, there was Something, and maybe there’s not any more, but it doesn’t matter, any more than it matters that some words in the ground got bulldozed over again, or words on a wall that got demolished, or painted on a quarry that’s a supermarket now.  

None of it stays forever, and that’s alright too.  

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Built Things Times and Places Uncategorized

Straight Track

Warning: you can’t follow this. It doesn’t work when you’re awake.

It starts in the woods.

There aren’t any woods anymore, so we’ll have to move back a few decades. When we are going to be, there’s a tower block unexpectedly in a clearing, with a sacred tree before it, growing in image of the dead. A tragic fall late at night. A story lost and filed in time until it’s only half recalled in quiet moments, as we are now, amongst the woods all round.

Follow the winding path to the white manor house, skirt the edges catch glimpses of faces watching, magpies thieving from windowsills. Leave the forests and cross the roads; your path will bisect them over and over until suddenly, you find yourself winding in circles and then the road runs with you and you’re following the long track.

It will take you a time and it won’t follow the straight road for a while. House upon house upon house. This is territory of big space, heavily inhabited and no-one around. You could die out here, no trouble. Keep walking; would be terribly unlucky for the sun to to set on you here. Keep looking, we need to find our way.

On and on, but here the houses shift upwards and become twisted with age and poverty. They become fractal, one big house becomes seven tiny houses, all creaking with the weight of Victoriana. Don’t step off, we need to keep out of the nineteenth century today, it’s much too respectable and has far too many buttons to undo. Keep walking.

Suddenly, the cinema. The seats are too small and will crush your hips, and no-one will stop you drinking, smoking, shouting. The screen worn soft with light for sixty years. I suppose we’ll lose some of you here, and not even halfway yet.

Suddenly, it’s busy, pints and hasty words, the epic solemnity of pubs in the daytime. Pass through, don’t stop for long, we can’t risk falling asleep, we might never find our way back. Long tables, and scattered faces, clean, too clean in fact. It’s only calm because it’s waiting for everyone to get out of work or university or school, and water down the afternoon crowd, half asleep and half maddened as they are, for the mood to turn frantic and for the endless nameless laughing to begin.

On on on on on

The bike shop, with it’s shifty forms half glimpsed within, shadows that terrify the man who obsessively grows nettles in his front garden to smoke and make bitter, bitter tea from, whilst he thaws cows’ hearts in the sink as a treat for the cat. Who can remember these shops, that sell such fancy and valuable nothings?

More towers and shapes here, but the territory runs thin now and you might want to start watching your back a bit, because this is where they beat the bus drivers for pulling in a bit too swift. Keep walking, but keep walking fast, and no, we aren’t nearly there yet. Just over there? House of cold. Stone cold, bitter through and through. Mice and beetles. You have to fight to stay warm, I mean it quite literally.

Hear that noise in the distance? Every inch crowded with images; that kid on the bus with the hair there reading Oedipus, reading about Teirisias, it means “he who delights in signs”, he’d have been well in here. He hit two snakes with his staff and turned into a woman, but the daft bugger turned back again seven years later, not knowing when he was on to a good thing.

Busywork, constant movement, don’t stand still, there’s a battle against entropy to be won. If you reversed this voyage you could gain speed and overshoot onto the plains, land by the radio telescopes watching the universe achieve a flatline dead stability over trillions of years. Down here, at the sharp end, everyone fights that flat balance every second. Till you get to the park. There’s the house that doesn’t exist, just behind the supermarket, the missing map place.

There’s the park, we’re passing it now. Blood shed, desperate young man shouting in breathless fear as wild eyed children threaten him, he’s running now, he got away, but no-one knew what to do until it stopped and we could move on. Magpies flying around, one for sorrow says the boy with the guitar at the bus stop. He’s just seen the other face of the place.

Don’t catch the bus, that’s cheating. Keep walking.

White stones now, huge and elaborate memorials to dead scientists and travellers. There’s a tattered television star on the steps; there’s a young couple in their finest getting turned away from the guestlist. Quicken your step, this can be hunter’s ground, especially by a bomber’s moon. That man shouts the time at you and tells you he’s filled with hate. Steps wind up, a wild collection of angles. Below them is a bar so dark and lost that people only go there in their dreams, which means the clientele is inclined to the less obvious meanings; every conversation is symbolic, mathematically, psychologically, semantically, inevitably. All you have to do to get past the bouncers is to be home in bed fast asleep.

Pass through, pass through. Peaceful retro future hidden here, turn the corner, frozen 1981, the movie posters are still up, even for those of us not dream-tripping right now. They never sold this place, at least not awake. Keep walking out and down the other side. Keep going, follow the line. There’s a bullet hole in the wall of the green tiled building (there’s not, but I once wrote that there was). New builds and redbrick now, in honour of queer martyrs, plugging the wires together that build thoughts out of impure silicon and leading the way into biology. Turing, eating an apple of temptation, destroyed by a serpent that wore a demob suit and offered him conversion therapy. Keep walking.

Crossing the river. You can feel it, just after the basketball courts under the motorway bridge, beat of the water right down deep below, getting into your bones, washing through decades of silt and fag ends. Down there there’s underground bridges from the sheep fairs, slabs of ancient wood, bats and spiders running halloween rampant. Screams of the city, louder you scream, faster we go, here we are. Oh! This is nearly the end. If we ran further, there’s a dead woman wrapped in carpet right out in the open behind the car park, but they won’t find her for twenty years yet. And over there, the cold war gate that leads down into the secret city, the municipal afterlife that waited impatiently. Lift shaft hidden in a simple yard behind the Odeon, with a neat sign “Enquiries 0236 0430” – secret code in plain sight, though the razor wire is a bit of a giveaway.

On, but now you’re running into a dead end, the conclusion, the temple that balances the woods. The great hall, the Library, to return the books we borrowed and it feels like heartbreak to reach the end and I know I want to travel it again and again, leaving more of myself in the stories each time until I’m just a ghost whisper down the Road.

Or a part of me does, but that’s not why we’re here today, did I not say?

This time, don’t slow down.  Keep walking, let it merge into running.  On on on on, faster, run straight at the temple to end the road, let all the accumulated speed of years fill you like lightning, on until you can orbit around the curve of the building round and round faster, gravity well, swinging around with delirious velocity until the weight of time turns into speed and we fly, off into stars and free, planet diminishing behind us, out into night and sky forever, onwards, on on on on.

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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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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.

Categories
Built Things

Perspex and Grey

The city in which I was born is famous for brutalist architecture. This is largely a consequence of having the living shite bombed out of it in wartime, combined with a distinct lack of cash immediately after. Even so, there was a frenzy of tearing down fancy old buildings and replacing them with a modernist dreamland.

I can kind of see why. I get a sense of a sort of compulsive desire to be rid of the past that had bred fascists and depressions, an urge to escape into a clean science fiction future. Clean? Oh yes. My city was caked in industrial pollution, so much so that locals could tell exactly which forge system had just been fired up by the type of smog currently ruining laundry day.

Killer smogs became Clean Air Acts, and slums became clearances. You can see the almost obsessive need to scrub reality clean, to replace blackened sandstone with immaculate grey. Elsewhere, you can read about the brutalist futures that sprang up across Britain at this time, the upright mazes, what went wrong, what could have gone so very right. The networks of urban tunnels, underpasses, either busy prototype malls in the city centre or strange, silent, deserted walkways, often out on the borders of the countryside, where the new estates merged inexplicably into farmland and ancient woods.

My time was long after this rush. My strongest impression from childhood is the emptiness of it all. Silent subways, pavements that looked as though they’d never been used, stretches of urban space simultaneously pristine and chaotic. The only way I can explain that concept is to consider the space in the centre of a large roundabout; traffic rages around constantly, but in the confines of the island itself, everything’s almost totally untouched. A little time capsule of the day whichever dual carriageway it is was finished, the ribbon cut, the plans locked away, the relentless driving starting. There were so many spaces that felt like this.

And I remember elderly relatives in tower blocks, quite happy to watch the world from a huge distance. In memory, these become impossibly tall, and the plains around them become impossibly wide, empty, sunstruck. My mind must have constructed this from a single visit, yet I can still picture the structure of it all so clearly.

Shapes of a castle, overlooking the hidden ruins of a castle.

In my school dining room, painted black, garish perspex shutters edge the corners. Science fiction halls, clearly striving for the future. Roundels cut out of dividing sections, like eating inside a structure, lit orange, purple, black. Somewhere between this fragment and the grey towers out on that nowhere plain, I feel like there’s something worth salvaging.

We all know what happened without funding, of course. We can chart the decay, the alleged collapse of those minicultures, though I say “alleged” because I’ve met many people who deny that the situations in postwar housing such as the Kelvin estate were ever as bad as they were painted by re-developers. That perspex dining room was torn down and then its replacement torn down a few years later, just to be sure. They built a Costa on the site. Which teenage me would have much preferred and still would, if I’m being quite honest. I like the Black Forest Chocolate.

I also like the idea of science fiction houses, of this mix that I’m playing around with the imagery of. Downstairs, I have a 1951 chiming clock and a strip of neon-style LED lighting, just as those sleek grey dream towers had their little rooms full of wartime photos and horsebrasses. We can take and collage as much as we like; keep that gaze looking forward in design, carry as much of the past as looks good and still works. I won’t mourn the loss of a decrepit school just because it made me feel like I was in Doctor Who or The Tomorrow People, but I might just steal a bit of the aesthetic, in design, in art.