Categories
Times and Places

Once

People you used to know. It’s such a slippery world, this one, the way that people just glide out of your life. So horribly easy to just let someone vanish away. It doesn’t take any effort, and despite what songs will tell you, you don’t even have to stop returning calls; you let the time between them grow until there’s just silence.

Suddenly, decades have gone past. People I knew thirty years ago could be dead or transformed totally, or just the same as they ever were. I can only navigate their absences by using my own life as a map. I was once like this, now I am like this. Thirty years ago, I was barely conscious, of myself, of my emotions, of others and their complexities and desires. And I wasn’t a good person, or a particularly good friend; I was cruel and thoughtless, and when I was kind, it was so foolish and badly attempted that it was seen as threatening or sinister. Perhaps this still holds true, though I sincerely hope that I’ve managed something of an evolution in three decades.

It’s the city that does it. On nights like this, after a day when the light has taken on that pale bright September edge, and the sunset is like the tide coming in, when the traffic after dark sounds clear but distant, then I think of you, every year.

When I drive the old roads, when I look down on the whiplash lines of streetlamps, or at front room lights shining through thin curtains, I wonder: what became of you? Where did you go afterwards, how did it work out? When were the good days, the travels, the loves, the times you don’t want to think about? Ego flares up: do you ever think of me?

Much of my life has been spent on trains or on long night drives, from place to place, usually alone, passing homes and families; might one of them be you? And did we used to sit and smoke together in the sun when we were children who thought we weren’t children? Was it you that I walked home with, shared dark thoughts with? Oh, but those adolescent crushes (the desire so sharp and unformed, and hopeless), or friends, or just the someones you had a laugh with one dark night round town, before there was so much to be done.

None of you will ever read this, and you won’t recognise me even if you do. It doesn’t matter. I think of you when the nights come back at the end of summer, every year. I think of you in those autumn mornings, when there seemed so many ways that we could go, and I think about you on those winter nights when the wind had a knife’s edge and we ran through the dark just to keep warm. And then I cry a bit, and carry on with the here and now, with the battles and triumphs and people of today, with the ones that are at the end of the phone right now, my wonderful wonderful chosen and blood families.

But I wanted you to know that I still think of you. And sometimes I dream about the adventures we had in the autumn so long ago.

I wish we could have one more race against the dark.

Categories
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

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.