Dispatches from the train: on becoming lost and found somewhere near Jackson, Mississippi

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By Anna Evans:

From the train, drifting through the land, America endless passes through windows. We are travelling from New York by train heading south. Long distance train travel foregrounds the journey itself – the hours stretch ahead of us and time passes differently. A whole litany of travel, of escape, of distance. This is travel for its own sake: departures and the unknown destination, the one yet to be arrived at. 

From New York we say goodbye swiftly, disappearing into a tunnel and emerging in New Jersey. Time passes easily: the names of the stations before us like a list unfolding. Counting the states as they roll by … New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Washington, Virginia … 

The landscape filters through the windows. Watching the outskirts of cities becoming central, immersed in the view from the window. Each place is a destination for someone, and at each station we await departure, glad to remain on the train with everything ahead of us, still a plan, an idea of travel; the onward pull of the train tracks. 

Windows frame the scenery, flickering still life by. To be in motion, like so many images coming together as a moving picture. Sitting still on a train this movement is entrancing. It is when I try to catch a moment of stillness and enclose it, that I get some sense of the speed we are travelling. Trying to read a sign at a passing station or recall someone glimpsed from the window. The view from the train is partial; momentary and suggestive.

Stepping out of the train at Washington, feeling the heat, feeling a difference. Sensing the unfamiliar, of places I have imagined but never seen. The names of the places resound through the announcements of the train conductor, coming up and down the carriage . . . Culpepper, Manassas. Small town America, picture perfect, while below the surface history crackles with tales of power struggles and the defeated. The railway tells stories of crossing a continent, of a means of leaving and becoming fugitive. 

As we travel it is hard not to think of all the unknown souls who laid down the tracks, lost to time. Immense bridges and river crossings connecting those vast expanses of land. All the images of pioneers and immigrants, wagons and horses, galloping across the horizon and as far as the eye can see, fabled legends of exploration myths and map-making. The iron road laid out as if to tame the land and mark out its boundaries, to fix and make permanent the story of a new world.

Shortly before our stop in Virginia, just as darkness is falling, the train comes to a stop. The storm has blown trees on the line. We wait in the middle of another huge forest, darkness outside, for news, for updates. Imagining great trees laid across the line, small figures scurrying around them. The falling night brings with it change and uncertainty.

America feels too big to begin, and I know that it makes no sense to think like this when I can track the progress of the train as I go. When it is restlessness that brought me here. I feel far from home, and the two impulses battle within me; my travelling spirit stretched to its limit, to the end of its comprehension. 

As the train travels through the night I am aware that we have barely scratched the surface of what lies beyond the next tree, the next horizon. Now I just feel lost. Is it possible to be lost when the train track winds onwards through the land, laid out piece by piece, when everything has been explained and laid to rest?

Except that no one really knows what lies beyond the measured miles, the boundaries of loss. 

***

We continue the journey by night. Our route passes through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana … People get on and off at stations along the way which I fail to wake at, pulled under by sleep, lulled by the movement, the sound of the train. Dimly aware of change, but cold, too cold, sheltering under the thin blanket, looking for a pillow to rest on. 

The fingers of sleep crept in stealthily and covered your eyes, tousled your hair, pushed you ever downwards, downwards. Sometimes you resurfaced and were crossing cities above like darkened shadows.

Train dreams are the ones that vanish through your fingers like the names of the stations while moving at speed. The train guards walking up and down the train. Good morning! First call for breakfast. Shifting, waking, looking out at the dawn, drifting again …

Onwards through the landscape, small settlements scattered through the tall and unending trees. Cities strung out in-between like troubled dreams. Passing, half imagined, the land divided into counties and marked out by rivers. Gatherings of houses and lights, the city like a dreamscape.  

Train dreams are the falling stars, the sleep that comes suddenly and takes over, the drifting and the sudden call back. The long and convoluted dreams that can only last a moment but that lie in infinite parallels circling back.

From the window, glimpses, snapshots, fleeting: time passing like something remembered you can touch. Travel makes you a stranger everywhere continually seeking for and casting off the sense of home. From the window impossibly long trails of freight cars. I picture the track that runs behind us, spooling away endlessly, lost into distance. The forlorn sound of the train, the sound for which the word was made, stretching outwards for-lorn.

Somewhere in the night we cross over to a time and space that feels different. Where time expands, and space widens. Overnight, recognition becomes replaced by a feeling of disassociation. That sometimes time reels out like so much track laid across the distance, when you try and picture the end of the line.

Waking to the morning light in Georgia. The train conductor passes calling out the names of the stops. Atlanta …

The railroad, the train track, always travelling, always moving on.

***

Travelling across America by train is like every song you ever heard that was melancholy and floated through you … in the telling of travel, departures and long distances, the lack of control over your own destiny, the loss of identity. The railroad reaches on into the distance, like the track spooling away behind, just out of view around the next bend.

Train songs, the names of destinations far away, connected, ever-connected by the railroad. The same music that America has been running from and tracing its way back to ever since. In these songs, departure and longing, distance and loss. Leaving the south, like exile and captivity, the weight of the journey and all those who dreamed of escape.

The longing of train songs; even if after roaming all those thousands of miles brings you to another place where things might be different, might be the same. 

The forlorn sound of the train approaching, like something remembered, already known. 

For a while in Alabama, the train follows the course of the river, a wild and overgrown bridge. The track winds off in the distance to vanished routes. 

As the hours and miles go by, distance starts to overwhelm us and we look out of the window, speaking less and less. The train travels through Alabama and Mississippi, deep and far away. Sitting in the buffet car, listening to the train staff talking. Apprehension comes with the falling of the light, the lengthening of afternoon, and the building clouds across the sky. We lack the words to explain, they hang between us, like the storm beginning to build outside.

Train words are the ones that fall between the ones we say, the ones that float between our window reflections and out into the trees like dandelion seeds; tiny parachutes looking for a safe landing.

Lost railroad tracks leading off into the trees. The lonely cry of the train through one track towns, passing once each day going south and once in the other direction. Long straight roads, white chapels and the highway out of town, past boarded up buildings and lone walkers. Leaving, becoming ghost towns, out on the road beyond the view from the train. The road that runs alongside the rail tracks. Becoming lost in distance. Lonely road, broken down town, marooned. 

The perfect vista as viewed from a train. Flickering sunlight from above, clouds on the horizon. In the viewing carriage of the train you can sit immersed in the landscape, and skylights offer a view of passing skies. I sit with book in hand, unopened, listening to the talk of other passengers, where they are going to, and where they have been. The way the light falls on the trees making some a golden yellow.

Evening comes, and then night falls with a formidable darkness. Something overcomes us, a deep and unending weariness we are unable to explain. Words fail us and we look out to the fading light as if to a great wave. My suffocated soul begins to accept, to comprehend the unending distance, to frame the land as a recognizable space. 

I carry it with me so that I know it will always be there like a longing.

***

Anna Evans is a writer from Huddersfield in the north of England, currently living in Cambridge. Her interests are in migration and literature, cities and movement, and she has completed an MA in ‘Writing the Modern World’ at the University of East Anglia. She is currently working on a project on place in Jean Rhys’s early novels, and you can follow her progress through her blog, And The Street Walks In.


Between the villages

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By Paul Scraton:

Tarmac becomes cobblestones becomes sandy soil as the old road leads out from the village towards the forest. At this end it is named for the village on the other side of the woods. Over there, it is named for this village. The way to… has linked the two communities for centuries, even if now the main road cuts through the forest away to the north and the railway to the south, leaving this track for those who travel by bicycle or those who make their way on foot, like in the old days.

At different points between the villages there has been artwork placed by the track, sharing the space with the pine and silver birch, oak and beech of the forest. They are sculptures of metal or plastic, glass or steel. They have been created to reflect the stories of this place, of this landscape. A pack of fake wolves, ghosts of the past to remind us of what was lost, placed in the woods only a few years before the real thing returned across the border to the east. A doorway to nowhere, to remind us of the lost villages of the region, abandoned to nature. Metal crates to remind us of… what? Of caged animals transported from shed to slaughter house? Or the way that dice falls, of how life changes. People move on. Others take their place. 

He rides his bike between the villages daily, ever since they closed the pub at the end of his street. Now, for his beer and schnapps, he has to ride the old way through the woods, past the fruit trees and the artworks, through the forest and across the fields. Tarmac and cobblestone. Sand to trap his tires. There’s always a stretch where he has to stop and push. He chooses not to ride on the road because it is too busy, with cars and farm vehicles, and the lorries that use this cut through between the motorways, shaking the village houses as they pass. It takes him about forty minutes on the track, often only meeting others within a short distance of each of the villages. He often has the section through the forest all to himself.

If he made the journey on weekends he would meet more walkers, out from the city to hike between train stations, ticking off the artworks as they go. Because he is elderly now, and wears his old working boots all year round, they look at him as if he is an exhibit himself, a bit of local colour, a genuine country dweller on his genuine country bicycle. They don’t know that he also came out from the city, all those years ago, to work in the brewery. That he found life so dull and strange in the country, a feeling that he never noticed leaving him until one day it was completely gone and he realised he was here to stay. He couldn’t have imagined it. 

How the dice fall. 

This has always been a land of exiles, a landscape of settlers. A thousand years ago they came from the west, possessors of the right religion and skills to work the sandy soil. Later, the refugees of war and the economies of elsewhere. He himself had come for work, for better prospects than in the city. After him came the hippies and back-to-the-land dreamers. And later still, sleeping five to a room in an old factory dormitory on the edge of town, those fleeing more modern wars. 

The pub in his village has closed. The brewery where he worked for thirty years, has long been abandoned. Now the beer is brought out from the city by lorry and the warehouse where he spent his days slowly crumbles, roof open to the elements and trees growing out of the brickwork. But he has to admit: the beer is better now, better than what they used to make. It wasn’t their fault. You can only work with what you’ve got. 

Those visitors, those weekend walkers, they like to think the countryside remains fixed, that while their city neighbourhoods shift on uneasy foundations, out here things stay the same. It is a comforting thought, but it has never been true. A thousand years of comings and goings. Villages that take their names from long forgotten languages, the traces of religions that have no more followers. He has lived it through his life since he left the city, and still it continues. In the pub he reads the local newspaper headlines. Old businesses fade into memory as new initiatives are launched in hope. Bands from a country that no longer exists get together for one last show. Beetles and fires ravage the forest. A new bridge is built to help the animals cross the motorway. He sees the changes on every ride between the villages. Trees are felled. The brewery crumbles. The wolves return. Only the the track stays the same. At some point, he always has to get off and push.

***

Paul Scraton is the editor in chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place and the author of two books published by Influx Press: Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast (2017) and Built on Sand (2019), a novel set in Berlin and Brandenburg.

Five Questions for... Amanda Thomson

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Amanda Thomson is the author of A Scots Dictionary of Nature, a collection of nature-related Scots words from 19th and early 20th century sources and a beautiful representation of the relationship between the Scottish people and their landscape. She teaches at Glasgow School of Art and in her art and writing she explores themes of place, home, nature and migration.

Amanda has just signed a book deal and is currently working on a collection of hybrid essays about landscapes and a video and writing project about an alder tree. She’ll be the artist in residence at Small Halls Festival this November, and travelling to Southern Africa with other nine writers as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival initiative Outriders Africa

What does home mean to you?

I’ve been thinking about and actually writing about home a lot over the summer. For me, it can go from the micro, and being with my partner, to the house that we live in, or the place where it is. It’s about a feeling of missing a place and longing to be there, and that deep exhale of relief once you reach it. It’s not something that any of us can take for granted at all, so there’s a thankfulness to know I have a place I call home, when there are so many in the world who don’t.

Which place do you have a special connection to?

Abernethy Forest, where I did my PhD and is now a place I call home; the North West Highlands. I am smitten with Scotland and the Highlands and Islands. 

What is beyond your front door? 

I have a field which hasn’t been grazed by sheep or cattle for a couple of months. It’s been full of white and red clover, germander speedwell and all kinds of grasses, occasional deer and hares, and the aforementioned alder. The farmer has just cut it and bailed hay, and the swallows and house martins are swooping by just now on their way south. 

What place would you most like to visit?

I love living in Scotland and would happily spend all my time here. I always love going to the islands – North Uist in particular for the birds, and Shetland, and I am not long back from Sutherland in the North West. Now, and unexpectedly, I am very excited to be going to spend time in Southern Africa.

What are you reading / watching / listening to / looking at right now? 

Reading, I’m jumping between books: Kathleen Jamie’s Surfacing and Sadiya Hartson’s Lose Your Mother. Looking at the Collin’s Book of British Insects to figure out what kinds of moths I’ve been seeing.

Watching – This summer there have been red deer and hares in the field, swallows and house martins on the wires and just now the sun is coming and going and the trees are flouncing in the wind. The rain’s coming over from the West.

Listening to – this summer I have been listening to Braebach’s Frenzy of the Meeting a lot, also Duncan Chisholm’s music; Kinnaris Quintet’s amazing Free One, and Ali Hutton and Ross Ainslie’s Symbiosis II is the perfect album for the drive between Glasgow and the North – A lot of Scottish folk music.

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Crimes of Miami

By Linda Mannheim:

I used to joke that Miami was the kind of place where, even if you weren’t a writer of crime fiction, you wound up writing crime fiction. I arrived there in the late 1990s. The drug wars of the 1980s were over. Edna Buchanan recalled Lincoln Road shootouts and the 5,000 violent deaths she covered for The Miami Herald in her memoir The Corpse Had a Familiar Face. But by the time I arrived, Lincoln Road was lined with art galleries and gelato parlours, one of Miami’s few good bookstores and buzzing German tourists.

And still there was something explosive in the air. In New York, people screamed at one another on the street, but the aggression didn’t mean anything – they moved on. In Miami, a man hinted he was going to pull a gun out of his car when I dared to challenge his idea that he had right of way when he was turning. Street harassment thrived in the tropical heat. South Beach was supposed to be the city’s most gay friendly neighbourhood, so why were so many men bothering me? The straight men are trying to show they’re straight, ventured a friend. My attempts at solitude were usually interrupted by smacked lips, sonorous sexual pronouncements, whispered profanity. 

I was alone in Miami. Or so it seemed to me. I lived in a little art deco apartment by myself that was mostly one big room. There was a separate little kitchen whose old linoleum tiles frequently came unstuck. Sometimes lizards climbed the walls and a ceiling fan in the main room slowly stirred the air. An old air conditioner drowned out the sounds of neighbours in the courtyard downstairs. When the window was open, you could hear everything – even the guy who lived underneath me complaining about how long it had been since he’d last had sex. You could hear the palm fronds rustling in the breeze. Salty air from the sea drifted over. The beach was only two blocks away.

The mythology of private eye stories and film noir is that the protagonist is always alone, unable to trust anyone. And I, in that place and time, was indeed alone, having discovered exactly who it was I couldn’t trust. And like the protagonists of shadowy black and white films, I’d been betrayed by the person I trusted the most. So it was perfect to be there --  in that city of heavy heat and wide streets, in that city of exiles, that city of unpredictability, that city of breathtakingly blue skies and glaring sunlight. The turquoise sea and the white sand seemed a consolation on some days. On others, the beauty was painful to see because there was no one to share it with. Miami was the perfect place to have a broken heart.

And yet, the fact that I’m still in touch with friends from that time means that I couldn’t have really been as alone as all that. And within weeks of being left, someone new had come along, so my loneliness couldn’t have been as constant as I remember it being either. But being carless meant that it was never easy to socialise. There was one trainline running through the town, a maze of unreliable busses all converging on the Omni Center in the middle of the city. Most people who rode busses stood outside the Omni Center at least twice a day. But when I tried to get friends with cars to meet me there, they had no idea what I was talking about.

Why don’t you buy a car? Asked a gee-whizz-voiced acquaintance. I knew the kind of car I could afford – the kind that broke down, left you by the side of the road, left you stranded. I wasn’t going to buy a car.

The city had brutal past and present. Car jackings, cocaine distribution, and corruption remained part of daily life even after the homicide rate went down, and whether you profited from this or were injured by it depended on who you were and where you lived. Did you live in the bright suburbs that looked like something out of E.T.? Or were you exiled to the bleeding rows of derelict motels lining the main drag of the bashed up downtown? Were you among the agua, fango y factorias of Hialeah? Or were you living in a Fisher Island mansion accessible only by a residents’ ferry others couldn’t board? Money was all that mattered in that time and place, and how that money came to be in your hands didn’t matter to the people that money mattered to. 

The inequality of Miami was part of its design. When the Miami was founded in 1896, it, like other Florida cities, designated a section where black people were permitted to live. That part of Miami was later named Overtown. Count Basie, Nat King Cole, and Billie Holiday were not allowed to stay in Miami Beach when they performed there; they returned to Overtown at night. Liberty City started out as a middle-class black neighbourhood, a housing development that was part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Early films of it show pristine buildings sparkling in the sun, gleeful children leaping into swimming pools. When South Florida’s biggest highways were built, they cut right through Overtown, displacing generations of families and destroying Overtown’s heart. Liberty City succumbed to a deteriorating economy, disinvestment, and drug battles. In its early days, it had been surrounded by an eight foot high ‘segregation wall’ separating it from the white areas.

Don’t go on the public transport at night, I was told. Don’t go anywhere after dark without a car. Don’t leave your part of the city and go the other part. Don’t go through Downtown, or Overtown, or Liberty City. No offence, said the man on the phone, but you sound white and you should know this is a black neighbourhood. Don’t go wandering if you don’t know where you’re going. Don’t let anyone know you don’t know where you are. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I was stuck in South Beach at night. South Beach, one of the few places in Miami where you could walk; it had sidewalks. And I walked everywhere.  I walked past the plastic-faced shoppers and rough sleepers on wide carless Lincoln Road, up to shabby Alton for the breakfast taco and coffee special, over to Fifth street past the gym where Muhammad Ali once trained, down Collins Avenue where the aspiring pretty wives went to get their hair done and buy expensive clothes, and back over to Alton for Pollo Loco’s yuca frita and black beans. I walked up Ocean Drive where the cars gunned at night and the college students gathered outside of nightclubs on the neon bright streets. I went up Washington Avenue where the Nicaraguan diner served café con leche to the old men wanting someplace to sit, and I went back to the beach where the men with tattoos who waxed their chest hair off eyed other men in the outdoor showers beneath the burning sun.

And I rode my bike. I’d bought a cheap, fat-tired ten speed at Target – the cheapest bike they sold. I bought a good bike lock. The lock cost more than the bike did. Bikes were snatched easily, even with two locks on, disappeared fast, were rumoured to be put on boats at the marina and shipped off immediately. I used to ride my bike down the roads and down to the beach and right onto the sand, ride on the damp, flattened down sand along the shore. 

And, one day, while I was riding along the shore, I remembered a joke that a man and I used to have. He’d once told me, ‘I’d do anything for you.’ And I’d goofed back, ‘I want you to kill my husband.’ And then we laughed and started riffing on the dialogue of noir films, kept pretending we were characters in it and laughing. And I thought, that would be a good opening for a story. What if this couple started playing around like that and then things got serious?  And then, like every writer who had come to Miami, I started to write crime fiction.        

***

Linda Mannheim is the author of three books of fiction: Risk, Above Sugar Hill, and This Way to Departures. Her broadcast work has appeared on BBC Witness and KCRW Berlin. She recently launched Barbed Wire Fever, a project that explores what it means to be a refugee through writing and literature.  Originally from New York, Linda divides her time between London and Berlin.

This Way to Departures will launch in London on 3 October at Burley Fisher Books and in Berlin on 12 October at The.Word.Berlin. You can find out more about these and other events on her website.

Rumbling Bridge

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By Fiona M Jones:

Back in the years when people wrote with pens on paper and your postal address mattered, I used to wish I lived somewhere with an interesting name. Something more evocative, more resonant—more amusing even—than Crossford, Sturry and such like.

Does Canterbury sound fascinating, with its 14th-century literary pretensions—Geoffrey Chaucer’s tales of pilgrimage to the tomb of the holy martyr? Unfortunately the pressures of tourism and commercialism have pasted over history with anachronism and kitsch in a way that Chaucer himself would most gloriously have pasted into satire. Everything calls itself Chaucer. I’m not sure there isn’t an electronic cigarette outlet called Chaucer Vapes.

I do currently reside in Fife, where Macbeth held brief tragic Thanedom, but Birnam Wood or Dunsinane might fall more trippingly off the tongue… unless, again, the local shops sell Macbeth as a plastic fridge magnet wearing a tam o’shanter in the wrong tartan?

I think I’d settle for Bogside, temporarily at least—a name rendered charming by its sheer lack of pretension. Or Yetts o’ Muckhart, Coaltown of Balgonie or Milltown of the same. Lower Largo, birthplace of Robinson Crusoe’s real-life antecedent, sounds oddly musical; Saline (say “Sallin”) will always get mispronounced like a Shibboleth for Sassenachs. Gallowridge might suit a certain mood of late dark-eved autumn. Rumbling Bridge—

It’s a wonderful name, both picturesque and onomatopoeic, and the place lives up to its name. The bridge is 300 years old, a narrow two-tiered arching of stone across a roaring gorge that erodes deeper every year until in places the water itself disappears from view if not from hearing, far below you between black rocks, thin-spreading foliage and spray-dampened fern.

An inconvenient single-track road crosses the old, mossing bridge, and down beside the bridge a path follows the gorge upstream, far above the white-rushing, dark-pooling waters or suddenly close beside. Bare trunks of long-fallen trees straddle awkwardly the rocky sides at their narrowest points—deadwood smoothed by weather or greening once more into mosses and small ferns. Other trees cling precariously, obliquely, above precipitous edges, their roots holding together the very same ground that they originally broke. It is a short walk up through the loud, narrow valley towards flatter land and calmer water, but it feels longer, the inanimate roar and rumble putting time out of rhythm. If I lived in Rumbling Bridge I could take this route twice a week, seeing every time a different view of light and flow, weather and greenery, and progress of water cutting deeper still into earth.

Yes, I would like to live in Rumbling Bridge.

***

Fiona M Jones is a creative writer living in Scotland, a regular contributor to Folded Word and Mum Life Stories, and an irregular contributor all over the internet.
Fiona on Twitter

The Welcome Chorus at Turner Contemporary, Margate

Image © Yuri Suzuki / Pentagram

Image © Yuri Suzuki / Pentagram

Preview by Sara Bellini:

Yuri Suzuki is a Margate-based sound artist, designer and musician that uses sound to examine the relationship between people and their environment. As part of the festival Margate NOW, he was commissioned by Turner Contemporary, in collaboration with Kent Libraries, to create an interactive installation that will be activated for the duration of the Turner Prize opening on 27 September. 

The Welcome Chorus features twelve horns, representing the twelve districts of Kent and paying homage to the etymology of the county’s name: the Brythonic word ‘kantos’, meaning horn or hook. Twelve libraries all over Kent offered workshops open to everyone that gave the participants the possibility to record lyrics based on the different sides of their Kentish experience, encompassing history to landscape to migration. The recordings were processed by an AI software and will be reproduced by the horns installed at Turner Contemporary. The AI technology will be active throughout the exhibition to record the visitors’ voices, expand its own database and interactively change the installation itself. 

Turner Contemporary is also hosting another exhibition focused on Kent, belonging and identity. Barbara Walker has been artist in residence since April 2019 and from September until the following April she will present her artwork Place, Space and Who, featuring portraits and sound recordings centred on five women from the African Diaspora living in the Margate area. Barbara Walker’s works are the product of her experience growing up in the Black community in Birmingham and try to address the questions of race, gender, class, identity, belonging and (mis)representation.

The Welcome Chorus
28 September 2019 - 12 January 2020
Turner Contemporary, Margate (Google Maps)
Turner Contemporary Website


Edgework Artist Profile #3: Nicky Hirst

#nothere63 by Nicky Hirst

#nothere63 by Nicky Hirst

As part of our collaboration with Edgework an artist-led cross-disciplinary journal and store with an emphasis on place, we are running a series of monthly profiles of the artists here on Elsewhere. The third artist in our series is Nicky Hirst: 

Nicky Hirst’s work is best described as an exploration of serendipity, where sources may be places, objects or words. After studying Fine Art followed by Art and Architecture she has pursued a parallel practice, working both in the studio and collaboratively producing diverse projects for the public realm. 

She takes photographs as a daily discipline, like a diary, taking note of preoccupations and looking more closely at connections and the unintentional consequences of the everyday. Both of her Instagram accounts reflect an interest in material already in circulation. She categorises her Instagram images with hashtags such as #causeandeffect63 #shadows63 and #glazed63 and has published a series of postcards (Available from Edgework) featuring her #nothere63 double yellow line photographs.

#causeandeffect63 by Nicky Hirst

#causeandeffect63 by Nicky Hirst

Elemental Works 2012-2019 are an on-going series of visually paired images. Mark Twain once said, ‘There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope.’ These works operate within this terrain as they started life elsewhere, from another source, second hand, borrowed. Hirst states, ‘I feel the shapes of the diptych rather than think them. The limitless photographic pairings create new unspoken narratives, each with its own internal logic such as similarity, difference, scale, poetry, chance and humour.’ 

Elemental 225 by Nicky Hirst

Elemental 225 by Nicky Hirst

Forthcoming exhibitions include: Off the Page | Another Place Press at The Northern Eye International Photography Festival from 7 – 20 October 2019. The exhibition features artists published by independent publisher Another Place Press and includes two other Edgework artists, Victoria J Dean and Iain Sarjeant. A selection of images from Hirst’s Elemental Works is also included in Coventry Biennial 2019 which runs from 4 October to 24 November 2019.

Nicky Hirst on Edgework
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Snaresbrook Road

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By Dan Carney

Snaresbrook Road is a perfectly straight 800-metre stretch, along which can be found the Waltham Forest/Redbridge border. At its western end, there’s the sleepy, scruffy ambiguity of Walthamstow Forest, alternately bucolic and unsettling, dependent on factors such as season, time of day, and resting heart rate. The affluent suburban village of Wanstead is to the east, tucked up comfortably along the western flank of the London Borough of Redbridge and, according to The Sunday Times in 2018, one of the top ten places to live in the capital. Wanstead is a place not without a recent history of radicalism and subversion – the 1990s saw a series of high-profile protests against the construction of the nearby A12-M11 link road - but at a glance now it’s boutiques, tasteful cafes, and posh second-hand shops, satisfaction and prosperity, tethered and tiled.

This end-to-end contrast, between unpredictability and conformity, also runs side-to-side. There’s regimentation and structure, represented by the public school Forest, Snaresbrook Crown Court (housed in an imposing Elizabethan-style mansion designed by the famous Victorian Gothic revivalist George Gilbert Scott), and the concentric functionality of the adjacent Hermitage housing estate. On the other hand, the numerous woodland paths leading to Hollow Ponds and Leyton Flats, as well as the debris-strewn Eagle Pond - which separates the eastern end of the road from the court building on its oak-lined southern bank - embody nature, improvisation, and secrecy. The area directly behind the pond is Epping Forest’s most active homosexual cruising site, an eastern Hampstead Heath analog, where tissues, used condoms, and other sexual debris can be found strewn in thorny undergrowth. It’s played host to these activities since before World War II, when gay sex was yet to be legalized, and the existence of homosexuality yet to be acknowledged in any widespread form. Now, the forest authorities accept that it is one of the things that happen here, with keepers working alongside LGBTQI organisations in order to promote good littering practice.

Snaresbrook Road thus takes you from the panoptical and the administrative to the concealed and the unrecorded, in the space of a few dozen strides. It’s a syncretic centre line, a starting point for any possible tangent, where high court judges on ornately carved chairs deliver public verdicts a few yards from men, many of whom lead outwardly straight lives (and some of whom may well be high court judges), engaging in furtive, frantic woodland liaisons. Footfall is, however, sparse, and even with the Victorian opulence of the court building, as well as the pond’s considerable size and appeal, Snaresbrook Road’s in-between status ensures it never quite feels like an actual place. Semi-fluorescent joggers, returning dog walkers, and waterfowl enthusiasts eager to inspect the tufted ducks, coots, mute swans, moorhens, and Canada geese that gather at the water, trudge a thoroughfare that seems only to have been implemented as an afterthought. A connective in search of a destination; a lonely, infinite corridor, laid in the absence of any other planning initiatives. 

This air of unreality frequently tempts the mind into a dreamlike lull, where thoughts form unanticipated and unhindered, free to seep idly into whatever nooks and crevices appear. In the imagined worlds into which I have stumbled while walking here, Snaresbrook Road has been both the M1 and the Pacific Coast Highway, while the court building has morphed into the White House or the US Capitol, with Eagle Pond the reflecting pool in front of the Ulysses S. Grant memorial at the base of Capitol Hill. While it is the insubstantiality, the essential blankness, of the road that invites the arbitrary superimposition of fantasy over fact, Washington DC over Wanstead, this fuzzy ambience can quickly harden into something sharper and more hostile. Sometimes, in the half-light of dusk, when grey, smoky clouds hang low and perfectly still in the gloaming, and there is a rare, portentous lull in the traffic hum, the fronts of the flats, houses, and retirement homes opposite the water can appear as facades, fabricated or adapted for the concealment, or ventilation, of something undesirable behind. Two-dimensional, intended to mask, distract, and deceive, recalling the two “houses” comprising 23-24 Leinster Gardens, Bayswater, erected to hide an uncovered section of railway line, or the townhouse-turned-subway vent on Joralemon Street in Brooklyn Heights. The fact that there is nothing behind the buildings here which might need concealing or ventilating does very little to lessen this early evening architectural paranoia. When it hits, one is left disconcerted and uncertain, keen to wander around the backs of the buildings, to seek reassurance amidst the car parks and the gardens. 

The pond, unprotected from the road by railing or wall, stands as testament to our relentless appetite for the seemingly arbitrary division and allocation of land. Its banks are owned by different entities, with the City of London Corporation, Her Majesty’s Court Service, and the London Borough of Redbridge each responsible for a particular section of the surrounding grass or concrete. The water body itself, which seems to have existed in some form since the eighteenth century, was adjudged part of Epping Forest - and thus the responsibility of the Corporation - in 1882. When you stare across the pond surface as you walk, it’s not hard to conjure the sensation of floating serenely across it, like an overfed waterfowl or even a piece of fetch-driven litter. Sometimes, even on a drearily overcast, uninviting afternoon, the urge to take advantage of the lack of pavement barrier, and dive gleefully into the water, can be momentarily overwhelming. Although the pond is covered in considerable islets of green algae, it would likely provide an excellent place to float or wade, separate from everything else but still visible, and easily contactable, from the pavement twenty metres away. It may be that this is the standpoint from which Snaresbrook Road is best experienced; present but not completely involved, removed but vigilant and ready, with a watchful eye on all sides. Even if the buildings don’t quite feel real, the birds seem happy enough. You’d probably get used it as well, given time.

***

Dan Carney is a musician/writer from north-east London. He has released two albums as Astronauts via the Lo Recordings label, and also works as a composer/producer of music for TV and film. His work has been heard on a range of television networks, including BBC, ITV, Channel 4, HBO, Sky, and Discovery. He has also authored a number of academic research papers on subjects such as cognitive processing in genetic syndromes and special skills in autism. His other interests include walking, hanging around in cafes, and spending far too much time thinking about Tottenham Hotspur.

Dan on Twitter

Life and Death and the Walls of Weetabix: A walk up Glasgow's High Street

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By James Carson:

It’s best to stop at the lights. With traffic coming from all directions, the slightest trip could put me in hospital. But it’s too long a wait for one young lad, who strikes out for the other side, ignoring the blitz of angry beeps. Beside me, a baldy bloke with hairy ears glares at the youngster, who’s now happily powering up High Street.

“Obviously trying to make a statement,” he says, eyebrows twitching. “And the statement is he’s a dickhead.”

I’m at Glasgow Cross, once the bustling centre of a medieval burgh. Today, the fish and cloth traders of old are long gone, replaced by pubs and pawnbrokers, chip shops and bookies. 

It’s the last day of winter. Tonight, the golden hands on the face of the old tolbooth clock tower will be wound forward into British Summer Time. As ever, Mother Nature is one step ahead. This afternoon, Glasgow is wearing her spring collection: a cloak of yellow sunlight, with matching cerulean sky, accessorised by feathery white clouds.

To the south of Glasgow Cross lie Saltmarket and the River Clyde; to the east is Glasgow Green – the city’s oldest park. And westward is Argyle Street, a place of pilgrimage for those who worship at the church of St Marks (and Spencer). But today I’m heading north, up High Street. It’s a road well-travelled; I often use it as a shortcut when I’m in a hurry. Today I’m taking my time.

The 120-foot clock tower at Glasgow Cross was once attached to the tolbooth, a multipurpose building whose functions included town hall, jail and reading room. Perhaps most importantly, the tolbooth was a gathering place, a stage for the mercantile glitterati to see and be seen. It was built in 1626, the same year as the finishing touches were being put to the new St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. But while St Peter’s endures, Glasgow’s tolbooth was demolished in the 1920s, one of many fine buildings the city fathers have sacrificed to the wrecking ball. Only the slender clock tower remains, marooned on its own little island as Glasgow flows around it.

History is in the stones of this quarter, and in the street names: Brunswick Street recalls the House of Hanover; Blackfriars Street is named after an order of Dominican priests who founded a church near here in 1248.

High Street gets its name from the High Kirk, better known today as Glasgow Cathedral, which crowns the top of the street. If this were Bordeaux, say, or Zagreb, this quarter would be known as ‘The Old Town’, with quirky little shops selling vegan shortbread, clock tower fridge magnets and inflatable kilts made in China. There would be restaurants with buxom wenches in authentic medieval smocks, serving authentic medieval haggis. A historical tramcar would jangle its way up and down the street, ferrying tourists from Baltimore and Brisbane. 

On the lower reaches of High Street, the vibe is very different from this imagined world. People are doing Saturday afternoon things: football fans on their way to the match, students brunching on sausage rolls. There’s a Turkish restaurant (“opening soon”), a pub (closed), a charity shop (closed down), a bedding store, another pub, student flats and another pub.

Actually, not just another pub. A sign outside declares it to be Glasgow’s oldest, dating from 1515. This is a bit of creative PR on the part of the owner. The bar actually dates from the 19th century, although its shabby appearance wouldn’t look out of place in The Flintstones.

The pub may be nothing to look at, but its neighbour is a real beauty. With a two-storey step gable and a gorgeous little domed canopy (a tempietto, if you please), the former British Linen Bank building is like an exotic fusion of Amsterdam townhouse and Mughal temple. It stands now in solitary confinement, badly in need of some TLC.

In fact, this whole stretch of High Street feels rundown, although little shops are doing their best to cheer things up (“The Best Steak Pie in Glasgow!”). It’s possible that Billy Connolly was thinking of this very spot when he once mused that if a nuclear bomb ever fell on Glasgow, no-one would notice the difference afterwards. Since the Big Yin made that observation, much of the centre of Glasgow has been given a makeover, morphing from industrial relic to Barcelona of the north. Decades of grime were removed from civic buildings and a constellation of starchitects sprinkled the city with their fairy dust.

It’s been an impressive transition, and Glasgow has somehow managed to achieve it while retaining its essential character. It’s a city that can celebrate the great works by Van Gogh and Dali displayed in its galleries, while simultaneously applauding the artistic genius who used the medium of spray paint to declare that “Boris Johnson is a pure fanny.”

The final section of High Street curves round towards Cathedral Square. There are lots of empty properties here, but also a cluster of new-age businesses, dispensing everything from aromatherapy to tarot card readings. And there’s an off-licence, so if the cards say your future’s not looking rosy, you can quickly hit the rosé.

Above the shops, sturdy tenements in red sandstone lend an air of dignity to the street. If Toulouse is La Ville Rose, and Aberdeen is the Granite City, then Glasgow is simply red. The russet colour features strongly in tenements all over the city. They’re made from an iron-rich building material that dates back nearly 300 million years, when Scotland was covered by a vast desert. The same colour can be seen today in the sands of the Sahara that are sometimes carried by dust storms to fall on Glasgow as ‘blood rain’.

The vision of Glasgow Cathedral at the top of High Street is an uplifting moment. It was built between the 12th and 15th centuries, and is the only mainland Scottish cathedral to have survived the Reformation intact. The interior has soaring gothic arches and sublime stained glass. Below, the tomb of Glasgow’s sixth century founder, St Mungo, underlines its historical resonance. When it was completed, Pope Nicholas V declared that a pilgrimage to Glasgow Cathedral was the equal of one to Rome. It’s fabulously beautiful. 

Across the square, the Museum of Religious Life and Art is less so. Opened in 1993, it was intended to blend in with its venerable surroundings, but doesn’t quite get there. The exterior walls seem to have been crafted from breakfast cereal (it’s known locally as Fort Weetabix), and there’s a Disneyfied attempt at a bishop’s castle. The whole effect is less medieval masterpiece, more product of the muddle ages. I could spend the rest of the afternoon exploring its exhibits, but I’m enjoying the warmth of the sun on my face. It’s time to walk among the dead.

Glasgow’s Necropolis occupies a hill overlooking the cathedral, with panoramic views across the city. I feel at peace among the tended plots, but I’m not alone. The place is teeming with tombstone tourists, with voices from France and Germany, Poland and America.

Here, every stone tells a story; different circumstances, but always the same ending. Death at war, at sea, and all too often, in childbirth. Most of the permanent residents here are from well-heeled Victorian and Edwardian families – merchants and magnates, aristocrats and knights of the realm. But there are surprises, too: a Polish freedom fighter, the matriarch of a Gypsy dynasty; the first woman to graduate in medicine from Glasgow University. Even in a graveyard as grand as this, there are no answers to existential questions. Only an eternal verity: life goes on until, at some point, it doesn’t.

From up here, I can retrace my afternoon walk. I’ve only covered about half a mile, but I’ve reached across the centuries. It was the medieval High Street that nourished the relationship between the cathedral’s community at one end and the market traders at the other. Which is why, for all its faults, this stretch of land retains a special place in the city’s history and heart: no High Street, no Glasgow.

***

James Carson is a writer from Glasgow. His work has appeared in various magazines, including From Glasgow to Saturn, The Skinny and ExBerliner, and his stories have also been selected for anthologies such as Streets of Berlin, Tip Tap Flat and A Sense of Place.

Five Questions for... Jessica J. Lee

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Two years ago we reviewed Turning, her memoir about swimming in the lakes around Berlin. This autumn Jessica J. Lee is back with the autobiographical Two Trees Make a Forest: On Memory, Migration and Taiwan. She is an environmental historian, writing tutor, nature writer and editor of The Willowherb Review, an online platform for nature writing by writers of colour. Jessica writes with the precision of a botanist but without the pretence that nature writing has no singularity, discarding the old cliché haunting the genre: that we all experience the environment in the same way, that diversity doesn’t matter and doesn’t exist. 

 What does home mean to you?

Multiplicity. It’s taken me a really long time to realise that home didn’t have to be singular, that I didn’t need to pick one place to call home. Both my parents are immigrants, and I’ve been an immigrant myself: instead of seeing that as a kind of “dislocation”, I’ve made a conscious choice to see that as productive, as a way of saying I belong to many places. I was born in London, Ontario, which people seem to find confusing because I lived in London, England for so long. Halifax (in Nova Scotia). Toronto. Berlin. Taipei. 

Which place do you have a special connection to?

I wrote my PhD dissertation about Hampstead Heath, which I lived next to through my early twenties. There was a beautiful lime tree that I used to hang out under, reading, resting, dreaming, crying: it bore witness to a lot of my most transformative moments in young adulthood. The tree came down in a storm in 2012, but the spot where it stood still draws me in. I have its leaf tattooed on my arm. 

 So I’d say there, but also: the bay at my family’s cottage in Canada, the cafe window in Berlin where I usually sit and write, the Taiwanese breakfast shop in Taipei where I get cold soy milk and hot shaobing youtiao. 

What is beyond your front door?

My street has one of the most beautiful views in Berlin, I think: it’s abnormally long and tree-lined and lovely. To the left, you’ll find more children and ice cream shops and wine bars and pet stores than necessary, and to the right you’ll find a busy road with a tram that races back and forth over the old Berlin Wall border all day. There’s a spicy hand-pulled noodle shop not far away, which is probably the best thing within walking distance. 

 What place would you most like to visit?

This is an impossible choice! There are so many countries I’ve yet to visit—Japan, Norway, New Zealand—but if I can be really specific, I’ll say Jiaming Lake in the Central Mountains of Taiwan. It’s a teardrop of a lake at the top of the mountains, famous for being a shallow, glassy mirror of the sky. People used to say it was formed by a meteor strike, but it was actually formed by glacial movement. But it’s a nightmare to hike to because of permits, the logistics of getting to the trailhead, the three-day trek, etc. I’ve twice had journeys to the Jiaming cancelled, so it’s become something of an obsession for me to one day actually make it there. 

What are you reading / watching / listening to / looking at right now?

I have the bad habit of reading many books at once. Currently, Brandon Shimoda’s The Grave on the Wall and Yoko Tawada’s The Last Children of Tokyo during the day, and Ben Aaronovitch’s The October Man as bedtime reading. I watch too much television—it’s one of the only ways I can switch off at home—so I’m currently finishing with Jane the Virgin. And for music, I’ve returned to Japanese Breakfast’s Soft Sounds from Another Planet on repeat. 

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