Categories
Built Things Times and Places Uncategorized

Writing on things

If you drive out of the city, through the suburbs and up the hills, the greenwood starts becoming clear and the houses get a little space between them and the architecture takes on the form of an afternoon.  Lazy gaps, quieter; I suppose the packed in, built up areas that you’ve left behind are the busy mornings.  This is afternoon space.    

As you travel, notice that things are less and less friendly for anyone not driving.  Invisible underpasses beneath unexpected dual carriageways, baby motorways trying to get bigger.  Pavements are sometimes narrow or sometimes just empty – perfectly usable but clearly pointless.  There’s not even litter here sometimes.  Then it’s the fields and the odd tiny estate, often disastrous and visibly falling apart, lost in a state perfect isolation and disconnect from the heart of the Town, slowly being eaten alive by fields that were first cultivated before the printing press was running.  

Just before you arrive at that space though, there’s a pub, a big late 60s ex-Harvester, the sort of place that’s there because it’s on a big spare corner at the ends of normal living space.  First one to get a huge TV in 1989.  A wide open car park, because people come here to have a burger after the shops, not to get drunk, or not much.   We aren’t going in.  There’s nothing wrong with the place really, but we aren’t going in.  

Here it is.  Right where the car park meets the pavement.  Slightly paler smush of concrete surface.  Details that are so small that they aren’t ever accounted for – a change in texture out front of a dull pub.  I can read it though, literally, because there’s a fragment of writing still there; it says L84 which I know because I was standing next to L in 1984 when they wrote it with a stick, in the first month of secondary school.

Fragments of writing hanging around, like the dark blue stabbed phrase in the subway about WOODS which was a testimony to someone’s power and control.  CONVICT BEATS in whitewash on the quarry wall for forty years.  But I can’t shift that moment from my mind.  Standing in the half sun in Autumn, near the bus stop.  And then what we make stays still in place and we get older and wander on but those words stay where we left them for a little while and anyone who sees them meets that version of us, the writer who was.  

Even when the writer isn’t any more.  Not in some dramatic and tragic manner, just in that we aren’t concrete.  We aren’t even wet cement.

Oh god, we must leave our stories, we must, we must.  Every word that we can, because even your name and the year is glorious, shining in memory and saying yep, something happened, there was Something, and maybe there’s not any more, but it doesn’t matter, any more than it matters that some words in the ground got bulldozed over again, or words on a wall that got demolished, or painted on a quarry that’s a supermarket now.  

None of it stays forever, and that’s alright too.  

Categories
Built Things Times and Places Uncategorized

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.

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.