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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.