The invisible border

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“Where does Togo start?”

My guide looks out across the steep scarps of Ghana’s Volta Region, a vibrant green landscape that folds and curves like velvet curtains. His eyes trace the ferrous-red roads scratched between the hills before settling on one of the villages nestled in the valleys.

“It is that one,” he says, smiling shyly.

I return the smile and point my lens in the direction indicated, the reflections of the corrugated roofs leaving a temporary blind spot on my retina. Snap snap. Camera returns to case and we share another awkward smile.

We both know he guessed. He doesn’t have a clue where his country ends and its neighbour begins.

Why would he? The border is almost meaningless here; someone else’s line marked out decades before, when the Europeans carved up a continent to their uninvited whims and ideas. It matters little in the day-to-day living of life. While one side is Francophone country and the other Anglophone, the shared Ewe language is the one used to talk to friends or family who happen to be on the other side. And an ECOWAS passport allows for easy, visa-free movement across the whole region (a privilege that no one here would ever think of giving up through a plebiscite).

The name of the hill we are on – Mount Gemi – is another colonial legacy. This is not an Ewe word, not even Twi, but a contraction of the German Mission that came here to share the word of Christ, leaving a cross on its summit. Perhaps there would be a little more acknowledgement of the boundary if the Europeans had been a little more decisive, but it has shifted many times since then. Mount Gemi’s summit was once in a country that no longer exists, German Togoland. Little wonder that most ignore it.

We leave the summit and its cross behind and set off back to Amedzofe. Most of the village’s residents are watching the local football team’s match – are the opponents Togolese? – but we continue past the pitch to the village square. Ghanaians wait for the cooler evening air to meet with friends, thus avoiding the worst of the daytime heat. This respite comes a little earlier in this hilly country – we’re at around 600m – and even though the sun is still out, Amedzofe’s older inhabitants are already congregating in stone seats, waving as we pass.

Adjacent to this rendezvous point is the small visitor centre. Inside, my guide diligently asks his boss to identify exactly where the border lies. Maps are withdrawn from a large wooden chest and the obliging superior shows me where we are, then where the border is. My guide wasn’t too far off, and his face displays a mix of pride and relief. It’s around five miles away, the boss-man says; shall I take you there?

I thank him and decline. Time to move on; there are more hikes to be had further along this invisible border.

*

The border is much closer at Wli (pronounced ‘Vlee’, another linguistic leftover from the Germans). There’s even a checkpoint at the end of one road from the village, where the guards will happily mark your passport with Togo’s stamp and let you potter about in another country for a while, all for just a few cedis.

A more popular activity for the growing numbers of tourists – mostly young volunteers who comprise Europe’s present-day, less disruptive mission to Ghana – is to the double-drop Agumatsa waterfall, the highest in West Africa (although not the only one to claim this title). An easy path meanders through fruit farms and forest to the lower falls, where you can swim in the plunge pool and sip coconuts after. But I opt for the harder route along the steep-sided cliffs of this natural amphitheatre, which leads to the upper falls.

It’s a steep, sweaty climb, and its unpopularity relative to the signposted lower route is evident as my guide hacks constantly at the overgrowth – grasses, vines, saplings – barring our way. Eventually, after ninety minutes of slipping and sliding, swishing and swearing, we reach a viewpoint overlooking the hidden upper falls. Any waterfall is a captivating sight, but this one is flavoured with exoticism by being glimpsed through a thick frond of creepers and ferns. And it has further novelty to its name: the water leaves Togo, crashing down an 80m drop into Ghana. A truly spectacular border crossing.

The path continues beyond the viewpoint, and at some point along it enters another country. But there’s no border post, no fence, no wall up here; nothing except a leaf-covered footpath and a neat stack of felled trunks, about a hundred metres ahead.

Are those in Ghana or Togo?

I don’t bother asking out loud this time. It’s just forest.

*

Only when the border is close to running out of land does it assert itself. Lomé snuggles into the corner where the line meets the sea and here, things are done properly.

I’ve always wanted to walk across a national border. Perhaps it’s a legacy of growing up on an island, where our neighbours are all a boat ride or tunnel away. And Ghana/Togo indulge me in style. Late one Friday evening, two hours after departing the heat and hustle of Accra, a taxi drops me in Aflao, a town whose main purpose is to wave goodbye to those leaving the country or welcome those arriving, the lines of snack stalls ready to provide sustenance on their way.

From here, I proceed on foot beneath a crumbling arch, Ghana’s signatory black star on top, and wait for a stern border guard to scrutinise my passport for … what, exactly? Once waved through, I approach his Togolese counterparts. They usher me through without question; it’s late, they’ve evidently checked enough passports for one day. I raise a hand in acknowledgment and walk into another country.

Now this is a border. There is change, distinction, separation. A city springs up immediately around you; no suburbs, no urban sprawl, at least on this side. Just a few metres from the neatly farmed fields that surround Aflao are high-rise buildings, crowded streets and that distinctive scent of city tarmac warmed by tropical heat. There is a busy hum of horns and engines, the chaos of a thousand people in each street, an urgency that only urbanity provides. It feels a long way from Mount Gemi and Wli, where the border is little noticed.

Other changes, too. Motorbikes, largely absent in Ghana, zip all over; the bread sold by street vendors is long and crusty, not soft and stodgy. And the language of the capital, into which people from all corners of the country pour, is the communal French, local languages reserved for when you meet someone from ‘home’. Yet just a few metres back that way, barely a word of French is understood. I hail a motorbike, ignoring the common-sense warnings about riding on one without a helmet, and struggle to summon enough schoolboy French to get me to the hotel.

*

Two days later, my brief sojourn over, I walk back across the border. The same taxi driver is waiting, as agreed, and we soon head west.

‘Do you know how the border is marked beyond the checkpoint?’ I ask.

‘It is a fence, I think. Yes, a fence.’

‘Do you know how far it goes? Because I was in Wli a few weeks ago and there isn’t a fence there, so I wondered where it stopped.’

The driver gives me a bemused glance in his rear-view mirror, then turns up the radio so that it is loud enough to drown out any more daft, irrelevant questions from the back seat.

***

Tim is an editor on Elsewhere: A Journal of Place and the author of Love In The Time of Britpop. You’ll find him on twitter here.          

April Book of the Month: The Border by Diarmaid Ferriter

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The Border - The Legacy of a Century of Anglo-Irish Politics
by Diarmaid Ferriter
Published by
Profile Books

Review: Marcel Krueger

It's quiet as I cross the border. The Enterprise emerges from the granite flanks the Gap of the North, for a moment there is the small grey hulk of 17th-century Moyry Castle visible to my left, and then the train chugs into the fields and hedgerows inside the Ring of Gullion. I've slipped into the North. While there is no visible sign of it, there is always a moment however that indicates the division between the Republic and the United Kingdom: when the phone networks change and the onboard wifi skips for a moment. A few phones across the almost empty carriage of the afternoon train start beeping, but that’s the only indication of a chance in jurisdiction. I could pay my tea in Pound or Euros all along the way anyway.

As I write this, the ship of fools that the House of Commons in Westminster has become is with every day producing new proof that as a parliament it is no longer functional and increasingly declaring its own bankruptcy over the issue of Brexit, and as Professor Tanja Bueltmann put it on Twitter: 'As a historian I am fascinated by watching a democracy dismantle itself.

As an EU citizen I am worried about what is happening to my home. As an observer I am facepalming basically every minute now. Never forget: everything that is happening is a *choice*, not a requirement.' And one of the things that is, unsurprisingly, seemingly confusing the British parliament is the border on the island of Ireland, the one I cross so often, quietly, on the train. If they would have time in between voting down any constructive motions for any progress, I would make historian Diarmaid Ferriter's latest book mandatory reading for every single Westminster MP. It's a small book, just 184 pages, but it concisely and understandably lines out the history of the Irish border from its creation in the 1920 Government of Ireland Act to the present day with (or without) its Backstop.

In 7 short chapters, Ferriter charts the negotiations between the Irish revolutionary government and the British Crown that lead to the Anglo-Irish treaty (and subsequent civil war in the south) and the creation of the border; and the often bizarre details of its inception, for example that the newly created border in Silesia between Weimar Germany and the new Polish Republic served as one of the blueprints for the Irish one. From then on he (literally) follows the border and its political implication for the leaders in Dublin, Belfast and London over the next decades, into the conflict in the North and how the subsequent opening of the border as part of the Good Friday Agreement helped overcome division and sectarian hatred and slaughter.

But this book is not purely historical or political non-fiction. Ferriter also weaves in voices from all areas of society and what the border meant and means for them, and how much the two countries on this island are interconnected: there's the Irish Football Association/Football Association of Ireland and Gaelic Athletic Association history of a divided and yet united Ireland (in sports at least) and the perspective of writers and poets; like Eugene McCabe (who's farm driveway crossed from Monaghan into Fermanagh) describing the borderlands as a '"dim, hidden country, crooked scrub ditches of whin and thorns stunted in sour putty land; bare, spade-ribbed fields... housing a stony-faced people living from rangy cattle and welfare handouts... To them a hundred years was yesterday, two hundred the day before."' And then, a few decades on, there's also the man who owns a bridge across the border and decides to plant his chip van smack-bang in the middle, avoiding taxes North and South. As Ferriter puts it, when referring to the shared commemoration of the Irishmen who fought in World War I: 'Such attention to inclusive commemoration, alongside the peace process and the sense of an "invisible" or "soft" Irish border, greatly improved relations between North and South; ultimately, up to 30,000 were travelling over the border each day, and that was convenient and valuable for both jurisdictions.'

What's most striking in this book is the crystal-clear analysis of past and contemporary blunders especially in London. The last few pages addressing the implications of Brexit on the Irish border are interspersed with recent quotes by English politicians who seem to have unlearned everything that should have been the lesson of the almost 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland followed by twenty years of peace. It hurts to read these bon mots of buffoonery collected in one place, and Ferriter's analysis sadly only increased the clinching of my guts and the fear of what mini-Trump Boris Johnson or the living cartoon Jacob Rees-Mogg might do if given free reign over politics that have a direct and immediate impact on the communities on this craggy island.

But there was, it seemed, a return to the politics and and ignorance of the past over the course of next two years as a succession of clownish Tories revealed the depth of their ignorance and contempt when it came to Ireland, none more so than Boris Johnson, foreign secretary from July 2016 to July 2018, who embarrassingly suggested the invisible boundary between the London boroughs of Camden and Westminster as a possible model for a post-Brexit border.

Ferriter has no solution for the dilemma of Brexit, but ends his book with a quote by Benedict Kiely, 'the most that can be hoped  for is that all Irishmen will some day learn to view the past without passion, ...'

The next time the House of Commons suspends its sitting amidst a crisis that has implications for millions of people because of a leaking roof or sewage leak, every single MP should a) receive a slap with this book (as I said, its relatively small) and then read it. The border with its past tragedies and current hopes must stay open.     

***

Wherever possible we recommend that readers of Elsewhere buy their books from a bricks and mortar bookshop or direct from the publisher.

Marcel Krueger is the Books Editor of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. His writing has been published in numerous places both online and in print, and he is the author of Babushka’s Journey: The Dark Road to Stalin’s Wartime Camps (I.B. Taurus, 2017) and the upcoming Iceland: A Literary Guide for Travellers (I.B. Taurus, 2019). You’ll find him on twitter here.


An Autumn Sunday afternoon walk around Rawhead

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By Julia Bennett

Driving eastwards past the 150 year old mining engine house chimney - a lieu de mémoire for the dark dirty-secret past of this green and pleasant corner of England. This is the old Salt Road. Salt was carried from the Cheshire 'witches', the towns of Middlewich, Nantwich and Northwich, to the port at Chester, and later Liverpool, to trade with Africa and Asia. Up the steep Coppermine Lane to reach the top of the ridge. Squeezing in amongst a crowd of Sunday cars on the side of the road.

The path heads off. A stony farm road leading first west and then south towards Whitchurch. This is the Sandstone Trail tracing the sandstone ridge along the western side of Cheshire for 55 kilometres.

The potholed track soon dissolves into a footpath. Skirting the edge of the steep wooded hillside:

silver birch leaves burnished gold;

blood red rowan berries;

prickly sweet chestnut tempting hungry squirrels.

Trees frame distant views:

north across the Mersey, the solid square-built sandstone tower of Liverpool’s Anglican cathedral; closer, a cluster of slim flame-topped stacks pinpoint the oil refineries at Ellesmere Port. Closer still the Roman City of Chester hunkers down on the banks of the river Dee all but hidden in the folds of gentle rolling green pasture, that most English of English landscapes extending to the very edges of the country before drowning in the waters of the Dee.

… black rooks somersaulting against the blue-grey sky …

Across the fields to the east, beyond the giant white saucers of Jodrell Bank, the hazy beginnings of the Pennines.

… pinky-brown chaffinches flash white stripes as they flit from bush to bush …

The path narrowly clings to the edge of the soft, red sandstone cliffs. Cliffs formed during the Triassic period 250 million years ago, says the information board, once upon a time, a long, long time ago.

Not so very long ago, in the 1220s, Beeston Castle was built on a rocky outcrop, here in bas relief against the sky, a five kilometre walk north on the trail. Once upon another time it was the site of one of the Iron Age hillforts strung out along the ridge like a ‘join the dots’ guide to life here 3,000 years ago. . . . the trail following in ancient footsteps.

Steps lead down the side of the hill to a wooden platform. This is Dropping-stone well. Local people climbed up here to fetch drinking water as recently as the Second World War. In the not so distant past servants took sand from the caves which pockmark the soft sandstone to use on stable floors and as a scouring aid in the kitchens of the ‘big houses’. This was a busy, productive place, and not only on Sunday afternoons.

Rawhead itself, the trig point and the highest part of the Sandstone Trail stands at 227 metres. Rocks jutting above the trees, there are clear views from here. Over the border into Wales, Wrecsam’s industrial estate stands out against a background of the Clwydian Hills. Shropshire to the south and on a (very) clear day a faint outline of the Wrekin about 30 miles away.

The path turns southwards, continuing to snake along the very edge of the steep cliffs. Careful footsteps are needed to avoid sliding over the edge into the canopy of silver birch and scots pine that cloak the sides of the cliffs. Black holes mark caves in the rock faces.

A turn to the east. Rhododendrons flood a steep valley. A dull green for much of the year, in spring this ‘alien species’ large purple flowers are a prelude to the native purple heathers and plump ripening bilberries yet to come.

A small wood of scots pine, a cluster of farm buildings, the path runs next to a field separated by an electric fence. Noises off:

in the spring a cuckoo;

summer occasionally brings the insistent tapping of woodpeckers;

autumn, the rustling of pheasants in the maize stalks;

crows and farm dogs scrap and shout for attention all year round.

Down towards the kissing gate and the farm track. The Sandstone Trail turns towards the main road and southwards to Bickerton Hill. The sign to the Bickerton Poacher points left. This path follows behind the line of the fields and houses which border the main road. Overhung with stray fruit trees, damsons and crab apples tempt those walking beneath.

Crossing the muddy stream at the lowest point of the path, then uphill again past the memory of the industrial past: the brick chimney above Gallantry Bank.

Buzzards haunt the tall scots pines edging an open field, swooping ghostly shadows a prelude to their loud territorial claims. Shooting parties gather in this space. Gallantry is an elision of ‘gallows tree’. Hiding history in plain sight.

Over the stile and a steep climb up Coppermine Lane brings us back to the present.

Julia Bennett is a sociologist with an interest in place and belonging. She has lived in this part of Cheshire for 16 years.

Catholic Ghosts on Vauxhall Road

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By David Lewis:

Note:

Liverpool has a small old Jewish community but, as Islam and Hinduism are traditionally not strong faiths in the city, even now there are few mosques or temples.   The religious landscape, fading or vigorous, is overwhelmingly Christian.  Once the division between Catholic and Protestant was deep and strong.  Protestant Orange Lodge marches and Catholic celebrations of St Patrick’s Day could lead to violence.  Schools were segregated on sectarian lines and even the football teams were divided between Catholic Everton and Protestant Liverpool.  These faultlines have largely disappeared. 

The new city can pall; too much glass, too much steel, too many towers.  I turned inland to hunt ghost pubs, the alcoholic ruins along Vauxhall Road, where derelict Victorian public houses stand like broken teeth in a new urban landscape.  The Atholl Vaults, boarded and violated, plaster crumbling; the Castle, alive but closed; the Glasshouse on the corner of Eldon St; and wildernesses of bramble and buddleia behind faded advertising hoardings, the sites of mourned pubs like the Great Mersey, their ghosts silent.

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On Eldon Street I turned to the Catholic church of Our Lady of Reconciliation.  Scaffolding and tarpaulins dripped with rain and melting frost, as if the huge church had just risen from the bottom of the sea. This was a strong Irish Catholic district, fiercely political.  The area returned a Nationalist MP to the British parliament for over forty years, and a store of pre-IRA weapons was found in the cellars of a local pub in the late 1800s.   But I found that this pub too had been demolished, leaving only a brick scar.  I thought about taking one of the old bricks, to have a small piece of Liverpool Irish Nationalist history.  But why?  Perhaps one day the sounds in inanimate objects will be heard; the anxious voices, the thuds and curses as the boxes of rifles were manhandled downstairs; but not in my lifetime. 

From lost pubs, I began to see Catholic ghosts in road names and old churches.  This was now a meander across a landscape of invisible parishes, destroyed shrines torn apart in the mechanised Reformation of the 1960s when Liverpool savagely regenerated many of the older districts.  On Titchfield Street I found cobbles beneath the tarmac, stone Victorian ghosts, which took me to Trinity Catholic Primary School.  A trinity of Anglican churches - St Martin’s in the Fields, St Alban’s and St Titus’s - were lost many years ago.  The towers and walls of the Catholic St Sylvester’s survive, but they are embattled, razor-wired against vandals and arsonists, gradually being smothered by buddleia.  St Brigid’s has suffered even more.  Demolished for the Kingsway Tunnel, a slash of Brutalist concrete, it survives only as a place name behind St Sylvester’s, a clustering of Catholic names gathered as if for safe keeping. 

There are deep echoes of the Reformation on these old streets.  St Sylvester’s stands near Latimer Street, named after the bishop who was martyred for his Protestant faith.  Catholic churches, Protestant streets.  Churches stand empty, street names have lost their meanings.  Nobody in Liverpool takes these divisions seriously any more, only rain-tramps like me, trudging these darkening streets; only gutter-historians, church-watchers, people who care for the memories of the city.  And we do not believe, we just remember. 

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The people are still here, of course.  Old terraced houses have gone and bungalows and semi-detached houses with gardens and driveways line the streets.  Pubs and churches are the last to go, closed, abandoned to the weather, and then demolished, their love and faith dispersed, forgotten.  But the people remain, living modern lives in a landscape of fading Victorian ruins, architectural, cultural, theological. 

My last ghost was a church that I had watched disappear.  St Gerard Majella’s was a strange brick and concrete church near Scotland Road, and I watched it’s demolition over a month or six weeks.  The brick tides of the city have closed over this sunken church, and the name survives only in a street and a new courtroom.  I contemplated a further walk to Cranmer Street, another martyred bishop, another faded street bookended with ghost churches; but the rain was heavier and the day was darkening.  I turned towards the river, and walked slowly down to the warm shiny truths of the new city. 

David Lewis has written five books of history/landscape/psychogeography about his native Liverpool and Merseyside.  He posts urban/rural images on Instagram - davidlewis4168 and mutters about the world on Twitter - @dlewiswriter

The Library: Hard Border – Walking Through a Century of Irish Partition, by Darach MacDonald

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Read by Marcel Krueger:

The Automobile Associaton of Ireland's 1962 handbook contains six pages of guidance for people planning to cross the border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. There are 18 approved roads with customs posts, and the AA warns that vehicles were liable for customs duty and purchase tax upon entering Northern Ireland, requiring motorists to 'lodge large sums of money at the frontier' or avoid doing so by providing a so-called 'triptyque' passbook for stamping at frontier crossings. The border section closes with a warning: motorists crossing on unapproved roads are 'liable to very severe penalties, including confiscation of [their] car.' Customs post also only had limited opening hours and late-night crossings incurred an additional fee of 2 shillings, usually paid in advance.

The slow train wreck of Brexit and the connected question of the future of the only land border between the European Union and the UK has in recent years increased the interest in the history of Irish partition and the 499 km-long frontier between the Republic and Northern Ireland. Countless TV and print reports have investigated it, the border now has its own darkly funny Twitter account, and there has been a loose series of books about the border as well, first and foremost Garett Carr's 'The Rule of Land' (2017), which follows the author's trek from Carlingford Lough along the border to Lough Foyle. Darach MacDonald's 'Hard Border' is the latest addition to the loose canon of Irish border books, but this one zooms in a bit deeper than most. Despite the flashy cover which seems to indicate a more political look at the potential of a 'hard' border, instead this is a deeply personal look at the history of the border, and 'hard' here could also mean 'deadly'.

MacDonald is a veteran journalist hailing from Clones in County Monaghan, and has written extensively about his home country and the border, most recently in ' Blood & Thunder: Inside an Ulster Protestant Band' (2010). For this later border-book, he walked the 75-kilometer route of the now-defunct Ulster Canal, which was completed in 1842 to link Lough Neagh to the Erne system but proved unsuccessful, was outstripped by the railways and the subsequent partition of Ireland and finally closed in 1932. Even though there are plans to develop a greenway along its banks, to date most of it is neglected and overgrown, which forces MacDonald through dense undergrowth and on many detours – which is almost synonymous for the tangled history of the Irish border which he encounters. Following the canal from Castle Saunderson to the Moy, the author explores both the drumlin landscape and the history of the last 100 years in the border heartlands, where five counties meet: Cavan and Monaghan in the Republic and Fermanagh, Tyrone and Armagh in Northern Ireland. Here, the border shifts and snakes around villages and roads, forming loops that almost become enclaves and exclaves (and will cause many a Brexit headache): for example, there are eight roads in and out Clones in Monaghan – five of which run into Fermanagh.

Walking this convoluted border give MacDonald the chance to dive deep into the political reasons behind partition and also to chart the violence that spilled across the border from both sides: from the Irish Civil War over the so-called border campaign of the IRA in the 1950s to the horrors of the Northern Ireland conflict between 1969 and 1998. And it is the latter which results in the strongest parts of the book, when MacDonald talks about the horrendous tit-for-tat killings that he witnessed, often perpetrated by neighbours and members of the same community:

The terror persisted and lapped to and fro across the border, as with the abduction and murder of Ross Hearst of Middletown in 1980. The 52-year old father of five was taken at gunpoint outside a friend's house in Tullylush, back near where the Monaghan Mushrooms plant stands today. His corpse with four bullet wounds was dumped at Wards Cross, a short distance away on the border. [...] Seamus Soroghan of Monaghan town was later convicted of the murder. Yet no sentence could allay the trauma of the Hearst family, which at the time of the father's death was still mourning the 1977 killing of his daughter Margaret Ann Hearst, a 24-year-old-single mother of a 3-year-old child, and part-time soldier in the UDR [Ulster Defence Regiment].

As an outsider from Germany, the Irish border and its effect on the communities it historically divided and still divides often reminds me of the Berlin Wall, which had similar seemingly random nooks and crannies that meant division and death for their inhabitants. There is the 'Entenschnabel', the Duck's Bill in Glienicke/Nordbahn, where a GDR neighbourhood along one street was enclosed by West Berlin on three sides, or the Eiskeller, where three West Berlin farmer families could only get to the city along a small road four metres wide and 800 meters long. And while the Irish Border was not as tightly sealed as the Berlin one, it was at least as deadly and meant similar arrangements for those affected by it. At the height of the Troubles, the five roads out of Clones into the North were closed, and just a single main route across the border remained open in the area, and any traffic wishing to pass had to go through a full military checkpoint, often resulting in long delays - and at the height of the IRA’s campaign in the 1970s and 80s most smaller lanes leading from that main road across the border were spiked, blocked with concrete blocks or blown up by the British Army.

There's a lot of fighting and killing in this book, but this is no over-proportionate for the slice of Irish landscape and history it analyses – the terror, after all, was real. This is not a lighthearted romp, but also not a hopeless one. There's plenty of positive stories, like the history of the Leslie family of Glaslough and their (in)famous parties, or the stories of local entrepreneurship (like the aforementioned mushroom plant) that were made possible by the opening of the border after the Good Friday Agreement 1999. MacDonald is apprehensive about the potential impacts of Brexit, and rightly so, as his fine mix of memoir and history in 'Hard Border' properly put the border and its effect on the local communities into perspective. The only thing lacking is a detailed map, which would make it easy for those encountering the pitfalls of the Irish border for the first time to trace its weird loops – and a timeline would also have helped.

But otherwise, this is a fine journey through the history of the Irish border heartlands, filled with affrays, danger, hope, a soviet in the Monaghan Lunatic Asylum and Oscar Wilde's sisters, burning to death on Halloween. I can thoroughly recommend it to both newcomers to the Irish border as well as veteran border writers and walkers. And especially to Jacob Rees-Mogg.

Hard Border is published by New Island and is available through their website or from any independent bookshop.

Postcard from… Szent Mihály, Balaton

Photo: Katrin Schönig

Photo: Katrin Schönig

By Paul Scraton:

From the bike path that was leading us around Lake Balaton, a small track led up through the trees, winding its way around a couple of tight hairpins until it reached the top. There were picnic tables up there and a clearing in the woods that clung to the hillside, offering views across the curve of the lake’s western shore, back to Keszthely where we had started out that morning and across to Fonyód where, the previous day, we stopped to watch a congregation of egrets as they stalked along the pebbled shore.

Photo: Katrin Schönig

Photo: Katrin Schönig

Also atop the hill was a white chapel, bright against the blue sky, and a series of crucified figures, carved out of wood and looking sorrowfully down towards the picnic tables and the views belong. The chapel was dedicated to Szent Mihály, and St Michael’s chapel had been built on this promontory above the lake for a very specific reason. The chapel was there to remember a day almost three hundred years before; a day very different to the one we experienced beneath a hot, June sun.

Over the winter of 1739, a group of fishermen walked out onto the ice on the edge of the partially frozen lake. As they worked, lifting fish from the cold waters, the ice they were standing on broke free and began to float off into the lake. The waters were so cold it was impossible for them to swim for safety. Six died, from the cold or from falling into the water. The other forty were left, floating on the lake, waiting to meet a similar fate.

That the forty fishermen survived was thanks to a shift in the wind, which began to move the ice floe back towards the shore. Once back on dry land the fisherman decided to build a chapel in thanks to their miraculous survival, and they built it on the hill that looked down on where they had returned to shore, so that it could continue to watch over the fishermen of the Balaton from that point on.

It was hard to imagine the lake frozen as we sat there on the picnic table beneath Christ on the cross and the tower of St Michael’s chapel. There seemed little movement on the lake as the sun rose higher in the late morning sky. But the church on the hill stood there as a reminder, not only of those who survived that winter’s day, but those that hadn’t been so lucky to be saved by the changing wind.

About the author:
Paul Scraton is the editor in chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. Paul’s book Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast is out now, published by Influx Press.

Postcard from... Cafe Leopold, Mumbai

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By Marcel Krueger:

In the sweaty humid madness of the cyberpunk city that is Mumbai, where 60-storey skyscrapers rise into the night sky behind crumbling British colonial buildings and where men with typewriters and computers sit in little wooden booths offering letter writing and translation services on the streets, Café Leopold has been haunted by generations of foreigners. Lonely Planet calls it a ‘clichéd Mumbai travellers’ institution’, and it features heavily in Gregory David Roberts’ 2003 novel ‘Shantaram’, about an Australian hiding from the authorities in Mumbai and a staple in the literary diet of backpackers coming to India – they even sell it at the counter in the café.

The café itself however does not seem to live up to its reputation. Its small entrance is almost completely immersed in the tourist infrastructure of the equally touristy Colaba Causeway, the main street of this southern Mumbai neighbourhood. It’s flanked by small stalls and shops selling trinkets, fake jewellery, smart phone covers and T-shirts, and only the two security guards wearing ‘Leopold’-T-shirts at the entrance give it away (and check your bags for dangerous items). What I like about the place is its matter-of-factness. Despite being in business since 1871, there is no European café grandeur amidst the languid air pushed around by the many ceiling fans on the ground floor, only Indians and foreigners, backpackers and businessmen who come here for cheap food, cakes and cold beer.

Maybe it is this matter-of-factness that made it one of the targets in the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks, when the attackers sprayed the café with bullets from their AK-47s, killing ten guests and injuring many more. Some of the bullet holes can still be seen in the walls, between old beer advertisements and Pulp Fiction posters. Café Leopold defiantly re-opened only four days after the attack, and I for one believe that cold beer and cake will always beat terrorists and their bullets.  

Postcard from... Cabo de Gata

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By Paul Scraton:

The walk took us through the desert town of Rodalquilar, past the abandoned mine workers’ cottages and the remnants of the goldmine on the hillside, until we reached the ridge and dropped down towards the green valley below. The road, built for the trucks and other vehicles that moved between the different mines of this corner of the Sierra de Cabo de Gata, was wide and rocky, the preserve not only of walkers and mountain bikers, but also families in their cars, rocking over the rough terrain on an Easter day-trip through the hills.

We stopped, just before the mountain trail turned the final corner to meet the cabbage fields of the high valley, to follow a tunnel through the rock to discover mine buildings abandoned in 1936 at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Mining continued in the area after the conflict, with over 1,400 workers living in Rodalquilar and earning their living from the gold and minerals pulled from within these mountainsides. This lasted until the 1960s, when calculations showed that the constant scraping and digging at these hills no longer made financial sense, and the buildings were left to crumble beneath the sunshine of Europe’s driest corner.

This was a place of stories. In the high, farmed valley, a straight dirt track lined with prickly plants between the cabbage fields led us to another abandoned building. The Cortijo del Fraile is the farmhouse of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding, based on a true story from 1928 of a young bride-to-be running away with her cousin, only to meet the would-be groom’s brother at a crossroads where the eloping couple were gunned down. The cousin died, but the young woman survived, living in a nearby village until the 1990s. She never did get married.

Later, after the events depicted in Lorca’s tragedy, the farmhouse provided a suitably atmospheric backdrop for scenes in A Few Dollars More and The Good The Bad and The Ugly, but now it is collapsing in on itself, surrounded by fencing to keep visitors experiencing deep Ruinenlust from stalking the now overgrown rooms of the old farmhouse or stepping through holes in the walls. We sat for a while next to the farmhouse beside it’s old water-tank – the only part of the complex that has been renovated – and watched as the Easter day-trippers climbed out from their cars to wander the perimeter. From a valley beneath the mines to the theatres of Madrid, and now, ninety years on, a destination for those still fascinated by the stories of the past, whether they get there on foot, by bike, or behind the wheel of an increasingly dusty SEAT.  

Paul is Elsewhere’s editor-in-chief and wrote about Cabo de Gata in Elsewhere No.02, available in our online shop. Paul’s book Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast is out now, published by Influx Press.

Murphy Ranch, California

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By James Horrox:

Tangled in the undergrowth of Rustic Canyon, a couple of miles’ walk north up the Sullivan Ridge fire road from the manicured absurdity of Pacific Palisades, lie the ruins of one of L.A.’s more unusual landmarks. Not much remains of Murphy Ranch these days – just a series of crumbling concrete foundations, twisted, burnt-out skeletons of abandoned buildings, and a weird atmosphere. For while the graffiti-tagged wreckage of yesterday’s industry is no rarity in the hills around the Los Angeles basin, cradle to so many wacko cults, failed utopias and botched attempts at the American dream, this is a ruin with a peculiarly ugly past.

Acquired in 1933 by one Jessie M. Murphy — presumed to be a pseudonym, given the absence of any other historical trace of such a character — during the 1930s the site was home to a group of Nazi sympathisers, led by a mysterious German known only by the name of ‘Herr Schmidt’. Convinced of the imminent fall of the United States to the forces of the Third Reich, so the story goes, Schmidt enlisted wealthy L.A. couple Norman and Winona Stephens and persuaded them to bankroll the construction of a self-sufficient stronghold in which they and a group of fellow travellers would sit out the war and prepare for the arrival of the conquering German army.

Nothing is known about this ‘Herr Schmidt’. Details of the Stephenses are hazy, but it seems that Norman was an engineer who had made a fortune in the Colorado silver mining industry, and Winona a Chicago heiress. A devotee of the occult, Winona was apparently enthralled by the mystical powers Schmidt purported to possess, and throughout the 1930s she and her husband shelled out millions of dollars on landscaping, architectural plans and construction to make his vision a reality.

Even from the ruins that remain today, overgrown and unkempt as they are, it’s clear that what Schmidt and his acolytes managed to create in Rustic Canyon was something quite astonishing in scale. Narrow concrete staircases snake up and down the hillside, once terraced and irrigated to harvest nut, fruit and olive trees, now thick with impenetrable undergrowth; a driveway lined with eucalyptus and cedar sweeps down through the estate from elaborate wrought iron entrance gates; lodged in the hillside at the base of the canyon is the arched exterior of what looks like a Mediterranean villa, the iconic façade of what was once a double-generator power station, now boarded up and plastered with layer upon layer of graffiti. Behind it, twisted in chaparral and vine, the rusting wreckage of a steel fuel tank towers thirty feet or more into the forest canopy.

The whole area – maybe a square mile or so – is scattered with foundations: raised gardens, outbuildings and other, unidentifiable structures of concrete, metal and stone. Much of the foliage consuming the ruins is conspicuously not native to this place: incense cedars, usually found higher up in the mountains; white oleander blooms; huge ornamental cacti, and the brilliant red bursts of bottlebrush growing out of cracked concrete terraces. Overhung with coast live oak and sycamore, the slumped, rotting carcass of a burnt-out stable building cuts a terrifying figure.

All this, however, was only the beginning of a much more ambitious enterprise. Over the course of the 1930s, several different architects from the Los Angeles area, including Welton Becket, designer of the Tower Records building in downtown L.A., and the African-American architect Paul Williams, were employed to draw up plans for what has been described as a “self-sustaining ‘utopia’ with a mansion fit for a world leader”. Their drawings, preserved in the Lloyd Wright collection at UCLA’s Young Research Library, contain elaborate designs for a palatial, four-story mansion, with numerous bedrooms, libraries and dining rooms, an underground gymnasium, an indoor pool and a communal area built around a grand central hall. The plan, some historians contend, was to build a Californian Berchtesgaden, in which to wait out the war and greet the Führer personally.

What exactly went on behind the compound’s barbed-wire perimeter during the 1930s is still a matter of speculation, but oral histories from local residents recall armed guards patrolling the canyon dressed in the uniform of the Silver Shirts — a white supremacist pro-Nazi group modelled on Hitler’s brownshirts, which had local chapters throughout southern California — and weekend gatherings during which the sound of gunfire and military exercises could be heard echoing through the canyon.

Whatever plans Schmidt and his associates had for Murphy Ranch were thwarted when, in 1941, following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the ranch was reportedly raided by federal agents and dozens of its 50 or so inhabitants arrested. The subsequent fate of the community’s members remains unknown, but whatever happened, the mansion was never built. By 1948, the Stephenses were living above a steel garage, nearing bankruptcy, and desperate to rid themselves of the property.

This was the conclusion of UCLA professor John Vincent, who purchased the site from them that year on behalf of the Huntington Hartford Foundation. With L.A. architect Lloyd Wright at the helm, the buildings were renovated and several new ones constructed, and in 1951 the complex opened its doors as a retreat for artists, writers, poets and musicians. Andrew Wyeth, Max Ernst, Charles Neider and Mark Van Doren would all at one time or another call the place their home. Ernst Toch composed his “Vanity of Vanities” at the retreat, and Ruth S. Wylie refined her String Quartet No. 3 there. The essayist Max Eastman was a resident for a while, as was Edward Hopper, whose painting “Western Motel”, now hanging in the Yale University Art Gallery, was completed there in 1957.

The Hartford complex closed in 1965, and the estate was subsequently put to various uses until, in 1978, it was ravaged by wildfires and finally abandoned. In the decades since, the ruins have become a playground for taggers and local pot-heads, hikers, ghosthunters, amateur historians and Nazis, and the air hangs thick with the stench of spraypaint and weed. Despite the City’s repeated threats to bulldoze the place, only a handful of structures have so far been demolished. The rest remains for time and nature to reclaim, a crumbling monument to the eternal return where wealth, hubris and the urge for mastery collide.

James Horrox is a freelance editor, originally from the north of England, now living on the coast of Southern California.

Curious contours of time in a city – Hyderabad

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By Suranjana Choudhury:

“The desire to see the city preceded the means of satisfying it.” Michel de Certeau

Can one experience a city and then narrate it? Is it not quite challenging to embark on such a task? A city lives its own life. I had visited Hyderabad before, the most recent being my fourth time in the city. I knew that Hyderabad also possesses its own lived realities and fantasises. But prior to this I never experienced any urgency to write about this city. Now, as a resident of a quiet and mildly pensive hill station like Shillong, I have grown rapidly sharp and perceptive to the kinaesthetic appeal of a place like Hyderabad.

A longer stay in the city offered me the scope to experience Hyderabad with all its fluidities and fixities.  The sights and sounds overwhelmed me as I realised that I had come to live in what was both an ancient and a very modern city. I remembered my stay in Rome. Rome too had a similar appearance. It had witnessed thousand years of history and preserved many derelicts of the past amidst its growth as a global metropolis. Hyderabad also exuded such a peculiar charm. As a city, Hyderabad has traversed a historical route which has been quite different from that of most other cities in India. The city is defined through its relationships between the expansiveness of its space and episodes of its past. History is a tangible, palpable presence which none can dare ignore. The city does not merely tell its past, it does more than that.

Marco Polo in Calvino’s Invisible Cities tells us that the past in Zaira is contained “like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the Bags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.” There are many ways of describing the city. On the one hand, it incarnates the busyness of lives driven by corporate dreams. On the other, an idleness of an archaic feudal order. The forts, the tombs, some celebrated museums, some half-forgotten memorials, stood in sharp contrast to a few glamorous and a few prosaic components of contemporary city culture. I responded with awe to the richly nourished histories of Salarjung museum, to and fro motions of time in Golconda gullies, aromatic tastes of biriyani, dazzling visuals of various saree stores and of course heavy trail of chaotic traffic on the streets.

Of all my experiences received in Hyderabad, I remember a particular twilight spent in Golconda fort. This extraordinary structure is not a singular edifice; rather it is a community of constructions spread on a sprawling landscape. Being a Saturday, the place was already swollen with visitors arriving from everywhere. The composition of this anonymous crowd chronicled the hierarchy of a society and the differences of lives lived. On the huge, sprawling canvas one could witness such multiplicities in terms of nationality, ethnicity, language, religion. In short, the place was microcosmic India.

Some fashionably attired young men and women had arrived to spend a casual evening, some very spirited and dedicated travellers browsed every spot of the fort. Interestingly, it appeared that for some families the fort also offered a veritable site for picnicking. Some burqa-clad women, some scantily dressed. A father trying to appease a demanding baby. Some ravenous children gorging on multi-coloured ice-creams… They all presented an aesthetic delight of a different measure.

It was not just the sound or the sight or the smell; the space had transformed into something else. It evolved into an enduring visual, aural and tactile archive, preserving all the contours of this unique experience. It was a rhapsodic evening. As I walked along the belly of the historical ruins, I grew progressively aware of something which is perhaps symptomatic of every tourist spot. Golconda fort has ceased to be a piece of history. It had embraced saleability. This remnant of history had become an object to be exhibited; a public display to be visually consumed.

Amit Chaudhuri, the noted creative artist of our times, writes about a similar trope in his extremely evocative article “Kalighat Revisited.” I had read it long before I visited Hyderabad. I suppose his writing was somewhere lurking in the margins of my mind, and this in turn informed my observations. As more and more viewers trickled in, the fort growingly ascertained its acceptability, its popularity in the sphere of public desire.

There were other aspects of the Golconda narrative. Just as a television visual often renders random layers of a scene one upon another, so does the pattern of traveller/ consumer behaviour offer compelling commentaries on time and change. Some years back, when digital cameras were not digital and world was not so narcissistically obsessed with ‘selfie-images’, the photographer-sellers hitting those tourist places had reason enough to experience their own sense of self-importance. But now, these photographers appeared more and more desperate and sad. There were quite a few of them hanging around. They longed for potential buyers. With anxiety and hopelessness writ large on their faces, these professionals exercised several strategies to acquire a willing customer. They seemed haunted by phantoms of a happier past.

Their tragicomic predicaments held sway over everything else. Even a few years back there was no dearth of customers for them. The visitors who did not possess cameras or who forgot to bring one would gravitate towards these photographers to carry back their own personal memories of having been visited the fort. They would deliver one photograph after another in surprisingly short span of time. They were performers, conjurors who ensured that the audiences experienced full satisfaction after the show got over. However, a post-globalised universe has now fiercely transformed our imagination and cravings. I perceived these lost professionals as parallel recipients and victims of a changed world. They haunted the margins of an existence. Could they launch a different career? Is there any other strategy?

It is difficult to arrive at any answer. When I walked outside this luminous, resplendent architecture, my thoughts had changed perceptibly. I no longer felt an outsider. The collective experience of this visit opened up an imaginary space. This space was infinite, boundless. I was happy to inhabit and possess it together.

About the author:

Suranjana Choudhury is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, North Eastern Hill University, Shillong. Her areas of interest include Narratives on Partition and Displacement, Women Studies, Travel Writings and Translation Studies. Besides her academic writings, she has also contributed to Humanities Underground, The Statesman, Cafe Dissensus, Coldnoon Travel Poetics, and Scroll.in.