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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.

Categories
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
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
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.

Categories
Times and Places

Driftway 3

Instead of going Out, we could go In. Turning deeper into the city. The city’s all about signs, some obvious, some less so. Look closely and try to see where it all fitted together. Look up; I’m not being deliberately obtuse, I’m being literal. I remember looking up and suddenly noticing that the terraces around my home were caught up in a spider web of heavy duty cable, twisted and grimy with years of Yorkshire winters, or Yorkshire summers for that matter.

The cables could be a thing to follow. They are relics, the last fragments of the lost TV station experiment, about forty years back, that linked TV set to TV set, all woodgrain, static, and tuning dials.  In my head I feel like I know that those channels are still there, if only I could find the right number on the dial, reconnect the wires, stare into the tube.  

It’s something that needs to exist, that strives to exist; community digital TV stations and YouTube express the same need for connection. And as much as I adore the – well, intimacy I suppose – of being directly wired into the TV studio itself, the same need to express and speak, to quite literally broadcast – we still feel it. Shouting out our ideas, but also listening, talking. Cable webs joining lives together, from the top of the high hills, down into the city, and the studio, down by the secret rivers and tunnels.

In my head, the screen flares alive, phosphor and cathode monochrome, that orange glow and dust smell, the static click when you touch the screen; the station ident is in old English, the logo is a snarling stop motion animation of the Black Shuck that used to haunt the city centre backstreets, where there’s now a Cex and Sainsbury’s – oh, we might assume that the old ghosts are gone, but the staff in Boots didn’t dare used to go into the cellar alone – the screen comes to life.

 It’s twelve minutes past three in the afternoon.  There is sun and silence, dust in the streets, ice cream chimes and the voice of the crow in victory from where they don’t plant scarecrows anymore. It’s the Driftway, it’s the afternoon space, it’s not nostalgia; it’s what we are made of.  Land, and the big sky above, clouds and the winds from the valley that still speak quite clearly.  

I stop and look out of the front windows. This street was once a farm yard.  The stones are warming in the sun, I can see a spider run from the wall, into long grass.  These are dreams.

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Times and Places

Driftway 2

If you take a literal step back from the fields and study the patterns of the streets, you can see patterns appear. Here, as the edge of the city becomes visible, the road names feature the word Gate over and over again. Sometimes, they’re named for the far away cities that they point to.   A boundary and a suggestion of destination. That’s one of the things that the Driftway does.

Romans built a road here; if you follow pieces of it down into the valley, you reach the river. At least three generations of children have shared the ghost story about grey and faded centurions marching through the trees, past the speed camera and the ice cream van. Imagine the clink of armour and short sword, outside the snack bar and the paddling pool. There are more stories about this place, things not from forward or back in time, but perhaps from sideways; small green figures, swirling misty shapes, and silent lights overhead late at night.

 Follow this road far enough and you reach the drowned villages, the concrete and steel authority of the Water Board, as they once called it. It’s the place where they have legends about the silent planes that fly suddenly out of nowhere over the waves. I know that I’ve seen one, except that I also know full well that I haven’t. The memory of a Lancaster almost skimming the waves on a sunny afternoon, with the water almost golden; I saw that. I didn’t. I think it’s a dream, or words that I heard that became pictures when I was very young.

  There’s a story about a wildman, an actual woodwose crossing the road here. Not five hundred years ago, but in the 1990s, in front of family day trip cars waiting at the lights. If you were lucky enough to have day trips as a child, remember that feeling at the end, too tired, baked air in the car, dreaming, almost feverish, sun starting to get lower, Sunday afternoon getting later. Imagine that, and the shadowy primeval shape striding from the hills towards the water.

I once read about a journalist who saw a great shining thing hovering over the water, as if reaching down. To me, both stories are about something coming in from the outside to drink. We share our drinking water with the unknowable. Who knows what might come of that?

Everyone knows about the villages they drowned to build these reservoirs, the broken steeples that you used to be able to see in high summer, the high streets that we could imagine, swept up in silt and peat floods. This Atlantis had a pub and a corner shop. That feels very Driftway to me, Atlantis with a petrol station and a tea room. Just like the concrete and steel bridges, the 70s warning notices, the Derbyshire sasquatch crossing the road with the lights – turn right and you can be in suburban streets in ten minutes, following a road made for an empire long gone into ghost stories, battle veterans smoothing out elegantly into rumour.

The Lost Patrol following the river into the land of factory units. Both are powerful. Both are full of stories and secrets. Never make the mistake that one is lacking in someway, because Drifting links it all together.

Categories
Times and Places

Driftway 1

Afternoon space is where I am. I’ve spent a lot of my life in the Afternoon Dimension, and now I’m exiled there by lockdown, along with a few million friends. And I’m a teacher, which means that the never-quite-stable reality of schoolspace is always just hovering around Afternoon Land. I’ll explain, sort of, after a fashion.

Everyone is somewhere else apart from you. You’re right here.

 Afternoon Space is a feeling, a mood, one triggered by particular events or times, yet also having a very clear set of characteristics. As a simple experiment, wait until city life returns to normal (which I presume it will in some way) and take a walk at around 2:35 in the afternoon. It can’t be in the school holidays; you’re looking for people and things that don’t fit in. By 2:35, the longest of office lunches is probably over and it’s too early for the schools to finish. The roads are generally slightly quieter. It helps if you try this on a warm day. Look at the spaces, at how they feel different, how the usage of them changes. Look carefully. Afternoon Land.

Or I could choose another name that I very much like for its connotations. Penelope Lively once wrote a book called The Driftway, this was the canal tow path that links times and places across what should be vast divides of history, but of course, aren’t. Not a furious leaping time travel, but a slow artistic collaging of worlds and lives and emotions. It’s quite beautiful, and I’ll write about Lively soon, (along with Helen Cresswell and Diana Wynne Jones, a trinity of women who defined my imagination).

I borrow the name then, and try to use it in my own world, to apply it to the liminal space that I find so fascinating. The Driftway for me tastes of dust and calm, old sunlight, and half silent roads.  It’s both the electrical substation and the standing stone; it’s the way that an eleventh century scare story about murderous robbers in the forest will twist into a warning about serial killers in Meadowhall car park.

This isn’t limited to the past; it’s right here and now, but the patterns and feelings of childhood mean that it’s far easier to access if one does so via cultural artefacts brought from twenty or thirty years ago. So the Driftway is   Watch With Mother, or perhaps See-Saw, but it’s also The Domesday Book, Nationwide, mysterious wi-fi networks, and the carvings on Gardom’s Edge.  It’s the communal dreaming of wherever you happen to be; it so happens that I’m in Yorkshire, but the Driftway doesn’t respect nation state boundaries and will shift and surprise you by a canal in Amsterdam or in a Kyoto back alley.  

Not Yorkshire. Datchworth, in fact. But very much Driftway.

The Driftway is in the shapes of the fields.  Ten minutes from this room, there’s a half wild park, built a hundred years ago on a rubbish dump and quarry; the gorse and heather there are indistinguishable from those out in the Peak wilderness.   There are neat tarmac paths, but they lead you past long grass that seems tougher and coarser than elsewhere; it’s a descendant of the hay that grew here to feed the horses stabled in the grey buildings that adjoin the parkland. I think there’s something in that juxtaposition (a collage of time and place) that demonstrates the essential Driftway-ness.   

What it suggests, to me at least, is the haziness of the the distinction between past and present.  Here in the silence of Afternoon Space, the Driftway, we can be anywhen we choose, not that we always have much choice in it.  Electrical transformers hums and sing inside their little pen; if you walk up that hill, you can find curbstones with EL carved carefully into them, indicating that this house was wired into the mains.  

Stone stories, in Yorkshire this time

These hills and valleys reach out, curve away, fill me with disquiet sometimes; it seems like an empty sea, an archipelago that’s not quite been installed yet, the promise of a possible future implicit in the present and past.  Sometimes I walk here and find offerings carefully placed on old stones, so as to find the light of sun or moon; those stones are carved with memorials, MARK 1980, a tulip labelled 1938, strings of names and letters wound all around, incantations against loss and vanishing, bargaining a way into the Driftway, becoming syllables in longer stories that aren’t easy to tell.

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Uncategorized

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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