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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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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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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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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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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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Planet Sunday

So, to start with; I’m writing in the heart of the biggest global crisis since the last one. I really didn’t want to start by referencing the State Of The World Right Now, but it’s especially relevant.

Nostalgia, poisonous and delicious low hanging fruit that it is, has suddenly shifted a gear from cosy distraction to “what our current reality is actually made of.” Two minutes from my home there’s a main street, one that follows a track that’s at least two thousand years old; the locked and silent shops, trapped in a permanent Sunday afternoon still have their Mother’s Day displays up. Last year they wouldn’t have registered; now they’re poignant and surrounded by an aura of pathos and loss. That Mother’s Day never happened, not as intended. The Easter displays never followed, and we are suddenly walking a path in a world that seems dreamlike and likely to take unexpected turns at any time. Everything left after this all-too-known-event is just the fragments of “do you remember…” though now it isn’t NES games and flip-phones that we’re reminiscing over, it’s traffic, or going out for coffee.

The silence is incredible. This is Planet Sunday (I’m fully aware that this is not the case for key workers who are living out any number of nightmares at present) and it’s already forming its patterns and rituals. Its magics, if you like. You might not like. I tend to see the world in magical patterns, though I should clarify that for me, magic can mean painting, dreaming, music, ritual, or talking to cats and crows, all of which I try to do to some extent, with varying degrees of effect.

I see the magics of the world shifting. Perhaps not; perhaps what I’m seeing is the exposure of the underlying structures. A better image might be to compare the process to a tide going out, leaving driftwood. We are in a kind of beachcomber reality right now.

A thought that keeps coming back to me: what happens after? Do things go back to normal, or did the world just change right in front of us? And it seems like as good a place as any to start to consider my haunted futures. If – and it’s a colossal if – the World We Knew isn’t quite coming back to us again, what might we hope for? If I’m collaging and curating a new world, what ghosts do I want included?

And that’s partly what Crow Violets is all about. Yes, I know, right now the URL is singular, the site is plural. Whatever. I didn’t think it through. Violets plural, because I want multiple realities and viewpoints. And I like the imagery of violets growing, each one a potential world…

Also, Mollie Sugden. Don’t ask yet. You aren’t ready. I’ll tell you when you are.


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