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.

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.