Countdown

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By Ian C Smith:

In nocturnal limbo, untethered from sleep since 2.30, body aching, checklist of not-to-be-left-behinds reducing like ended experiences sintering away, months morphing into years, or waves washing below the light aircraft he boards in hours and minutes counting down, he can’t stop check-listing a spun out life.

Averse to a homecoming of smelly rot, tiny insects swarming in decomposed matter in the silence below his sink, he deposits kitchen scraps in the compost, balancing this by removing some for scabbed garden spots, trowelling through a fecund reek writhing with worms before leaving for his beloved place, a shimmer of memories.

Repositioning items in two battered bags, he mulls over squeezing in a book he is nine-tenths through, a literary heavyweight as big as a best seller with a title of reducing numbers by a favourite writer, a rich rendition of possible paths taken in an artistic life.

Immersed in its saga, he is unable to leave the book behind, checks another item off, medication, considers arithmetical probabilities, how happiness can remain a hairsbreadth away, loved photos, angled light blessing an island, shrouded reminders of a life, prowling his mind’s distant alleys, treading softly through the dark stables of the past. 

About the author: Ian C Smith’s work has appeared in, Amsterdam Quarterly, Antipodes, Australian Poetry Journal,  Critical Survey,  Live Encounters, The Stony Thursday Book, & Two-Thirds North.  His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide).  He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island, Tasmania.

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.

The destroyed village: Fleury-devant-Douaumont

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By Paul Scraton:

As the road approaches the village through the forest, a sign appears at the sign of the road. It is like all others at the entrance to villages and towns throughout France: a white rectangle, fringed in red. The name of the settlement in black letters.

FLEURY DT DOUAUMONT

But unlike most other towns or villages in France, there are more words underneath.

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These two words mark Fleury-devant-Douaumont out from the other villages in the surrounding region and across the country. These two words help tell a story. In the forests around the town of Verdun, in the northeast of France, there are eight other villages with this categorisation. They stand in the Zone Rouge, an area declared uninhabitable by the French government after the devastation of the First World War. The land was contaminated, as along with the remains of the dead, poison and other dangerous gases had soaked into the soil along with lead and mercury, with impossible to calculate amounts of unexploded ordinances littered across the former battlefields.

Before the First World War Fleury-devant-Douaumont was home to just over 400 inhabitants, who worked the land or in the village itself. There were farms and smithys, a bakery and a grocery-cafe. A church and a school, a town hall and a weaver's workshop. It was not easy farming land, although even this far north the villagers were able to harvest grapes and make money from the forest that surrounded them.

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On the 21 February 1916 the sound of artillery shells marked the beginning of the German advance, part of what would become known as the Battle of Verdun, one of the deadliest in all of military history. A few hundred metres from the entrance to the village, the cemetery at Douaumont is the resting place for thousands of French soldiers who died in a battle that lasted months. The ossuary, one of France’s most important national monuments, houses the remains of over 130,000 French and German soldiers who fell at Verdun. Altogether, the fighting in these now peaceful, wooded hills, took the lives of well over 300,000 mostly young men and although the forest now covers the landscape, the scars remain. Trenches, dug down into the soil. Shell craters, that give the land a strange, undulating shape. And crosses, so many crosses, in long neat lines. A reminder, a hundred years later, of what was lost.

As the Germans advanced, Fleury-devant-Douaumont was evacuated. Altogether, what remained of the village exchanged hands sixteen times over the course of the battle. When it finally ended, the village was no more. It was in the Zone Rouge, declared a village that had ‘died for France.’ Nothing was left, but in honour of its sacrifice, it kept its legal status. The red-framed white signs still stand at the entrance and exit of Fleury-devant-Douaumont. It still has a mayor.

Today, visitors park on the side of the road that links the Douaumont ossuary with the Verdun Memorial, and wander the three streets of the village, marked out as they are among the trees by white poles. Stone slabs inform visitors in three languages as to what building once occupied a particular plot of land. A farm. The church. A bakery. The wash house. The school. There are remnants of some structures – a few stones in the ground, foundations poking through the mossy forest floor – but otherwise there is nothing, except the war memorial and a rebuilt chapel, where Our Lady of Europe, draped in a blue flag with gold stars, offers a permanent reminder of what could emerge out of the devastation of not only this war, but the one that was soon to follow.

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A small plaque offers the visitor a few words from Jean Guitton of the Académie française:

It is here, in the silence of Douaumont and the wiped out village of Fleury that I came to realise that you cannot pull down walls in Europe without first reconciling the peoples.

In the village and at the ossuary, there are cars parked with visitors from across Europe. The GB and the B. The CZ and the PL. The L and the NL. Mostly F and D, coming like Mitterand and Kohl did, and later Hollande and Merkel, to pay their respects together to the fallen of both countries. It is without question a sombre place. Signs at the entrance of the forest gently remind you that it is not a place for picnics or music, ball games or impromptu campsites. Other signs warn walkers and cyclists to stick to the paths, that the weapons of war can still kill, even a hundred years after the peace.

Why is important to visit such places? Why should we walk through Fleury-devant-Douaumont, where the streets and the memories of the houses and the people that once occupied this hillside have been reclaimed by the forest? Stefan Zweig knew. In 1920, the Austrian writer travelled to Ypres. The guns had only been silent for a couple of years. The landscape was still devastated and the wounded were still returning to their homes and already the first tourist groups were arriving, to the battlefields of Flanders and elsewhere along the Western Front.

For Zweig, the traces were important, whether two years after the events or a hundred. In Fleury-devant-Douaumont I thought of Zweig’s words, written after his return from Ypres. It made me hopeful that there were other people there with me in the woods, walking the village streets now held in the embrace of the forest. Zweig knew that despite the distasteful elements of places such as these becoming tourist destinations, there was still something good, and something very important, “when a hundred thousand people, comfortable and carefree, clatter through … annually, and whether they care for it or not, these countless graves, these poisoned woods, these devastated squares still serve as reminders… All that recalls the past in whatever form or intention leads the memory back towards those terrible years that must never be unlearned.”

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… Múli, Faroe Islands

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By Tim Woods:

There is a temptation to romanticise the lives of those in remote outposts. On the extremities of our lands, they are immersed in nature, in tune with their ecosystem; pursuing a simpler, less cluttered existence.

Yet it is not always a choice. Some inhabit these places through circumstance alone. And the other side of this coin is often hardship and poverty, loneliness and isolation. There is little romance in any of these.

Múli, near the northern tip of Borðoy, is one of several deserted hamlets scattered across the eighteen Faroe Islands. But its abandonment is more recent than most: the last inhabitants only left in 1998. There was no disaster, no seismic event that forced them away; they had simply had enough. The gravel road, built not long before then, was a noble attempt by the Faroese authorities to connect the hamlet to Norðdepil and Klaksvík; instead, it simply made it easier to get away.

I drove along that road one evening in June, the light not even close to fading during the endless days of a Nordic summer. It hugs the edge of a dramatic glacial landscape, all plunging cliffs and bowl-like valleys, plus many other features familiar to anyone with a GCSE geography textbook. After parking, I followed the path beyond the four houses of the hamlet, dodging the fractious kittiwakes leaving their cliffside nests to shoo me away. That romantic side briefly took over: what a place to live this would be.

But five minutes later, I’d reached the farthest point accessible before those fearful cliffs take hold once more. It’s not even three hundred metres from the houses; a remarkably small space from which to eke out a livelihood from farming.

Passing back past the houses, I noticed smoke from a chimney and voices inside. They are not completely abandoned, having taken on a new life as holiday lets that are regularly booked out during the summer. Landscapes such as this are, it seems, best enjoyed for a few days rather than a lifetime. Perhaps Múli has finally found its purpose.

From Travail to Travel

By Ian C Smith:

On Saturday mornings in post-war London he thrills to the idea of escape.  For sixpence he sees a hero, dressed more like a movie star than a cowboy, elude a dull-witted gang, sidling from a spot tighter than his belt and boots, while the juvenile audience, escaped from grey boredom, jeers hoarsely.

Freedom: scheming prisoner motivation, the door left unlocked, exit road snaking away to the hills, or shaking off hounds by crossing streams, or the fairground life, always moving on, appeals, his hourglass almost done, parents edging closer to learning of his shoplifting, their emigration to Australia offering him an escape tunnel.

Vanished people intrigue: a car stranded under a tree, keys no longer swaying, silence, the stars, restless wind, the only witnesses; fresh starts, no difficult goodbyes, off to find Utopias gloved in dreams.  Isolated Australians’ penchant for flying overseas triggers his idealised self as a secretive drifter who makes unscheduled stops.

Travelling light to New Zealand where the South Pacific, Tahiti, await, island hopping the Dateline, splendour beckoning beyond dock lights, then hitch-hiked highways, youth hostels somewhere in America, this yearning for other lives, his homing instinct, exempts him from worn out love, income addiction, the fetid weight of a wasted life.     

About the author:
Ian C Smith’s work has appeared in, Antipodes, Australian Book Review, Australian Poetry Journal,  Critical Survey,  Prole,  The Stony Thursday Book, & Two-Thirds North.  His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide).  He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island, Tasmania.

Postcard from... the Salt Range and Islamabad

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By Leylac Naqvi:

I am on the motorway between Lahore and Islamabad. At the point where the plains of the Punjab meet the Salt Range, I look and for a minute it seems a mirage, then more details of the shape, scope, and size of the hills emerge from the remnants of the mist I am leaving behind in Lahore. The sun is out, and I’ve got a cup of coffee in a styrofoam cup from the service station at Bhera in my hand. And as I ascend, and the sun is shining, I am seized with a sudden, unexpected happiness.

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I wake up in the morning to golden light. I remember that about this place. I remember that I like the wind and the light and the way the dust makes everything look as if through a filter, slightly antiqued.

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In contrast to Islamabad’s relatively staid exterior, the land seems to somehow call out from under, over and around its surroundings – the cloudless blue sky, the wind pushing the (imported) eucalyptus trees around, bright sun in the afternoon – they seem to try to speak even when the city itself is muted. Islamabad, situated on the Potohar Plateau and framed by the Margalla Hills, seems to have an undercurrent of vitality that is at odds with its usually calm surface.

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Originally from Oregon in the U.S., Leylac Naqvi called Pakistan home for several years and now lives in Singapore. This postcard is a composite of moments from multiple return trips to Islamabad over the years since she moved away.

Beacon Bound, Part I: The Collapse

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In memory of his grandfather, Nicholas Herrmann walks the length of The Ridgeway: an ancient road stretching for eighty-seven miles across chalk downland, from Overton Hill to Ivinghoe Beacon. We will be following Nicholas’ journey here on the Elsewhere blog over the next couple of months.

When a star dies, the collapse creates an event of such immense gravitational force, matter is compelled from far and wide, and all light is extinguished. That point in space, once brilliant and warm, turns impossibly dark.

This is the image I have in my mind on the day my grandfather dies. The family is gathering at the house, and I’m speeding eastward on my way to say goodbye. The twenty-year-old car rattles and shakes, struggling to do seventy, and as I wedge the drooping window with an elbow, I remember from whom the car was inherited.

The red kite signifies the beginning of the Chilterns. Usually, its presence is comforting, telling me I’m close to my childhood home. On the M4, they appear around Newbury, their distinctive shapes patrolling the skies at the limits of some invisible boundary. I see one now, urging me on like a herald, soaring on an updraft as it leads me towards the tragedy.

Several hard hours later, we fill the house with memories. His gentleness, his mischief and decorum, his astounding knowledge of the natural world. The January sun shines a cold light onto dregs of Earl Grey. With energy left only to sit still, my father speaks an idea into the silence: he will walk the length of the Ridgeway – that ancient track that John, my grandfather, loved, and lived beside for much of his life. Eighty-seven miles from Overton Hill in Wiltshire, northeast along the North Wessex Downs and Chiltern Hills, to Buckinghamshire’s Ivinghoe Beacon. Britain’s oldest road.

There is unanimous support for the idea. A plan is quickly formed and agreed upon: my father and I will walk the route in stages, others joining us whenever they are able. We rise to leave. As I pull on my coat, a Post-it catches in the corner of my eye – something destabilising, at once familiar and strange. A small reminder, of something done or undone, written by someone else in my own handwriting. Another inheritance.

*

We start on Good Friday. As we load our packs into the car, a pair of red kites fly out from their nest in a nearby beech tree and circle us. Their call: half whistle, half screech, steady like a kettle on a camping stove. They fly low, their kiln-coloured breasts almost skimming the chimney. We stop and watch in the light rain, able to make out every mark on their speckled chests, every feather on their ashen heads. Red, white, yellow, black: all the colours of heat. Like winged devils they twist their singed wingtips and flick their forked tails. Then they pitch and roll away together over the fields, two embers drifting on the wind.

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Scavengers, survivors, masters of extinction. As they once did in medieval times, kites fill the sky above Reading. At any given time, you can look up and see two or three of these raptors stalking the suburbs. But in the 1930s, after decades of persecution, just one or two pairs remained in the UK. Now, Britain acts as a lifeboat for the species – there are thought to be around 2,700 breeding pairs after a 1989 reintroduction in the Chilterns. And their numbers in Reading are on the rise. A study from 2015 found over four percent of households purposefully leave out meat for the birds, causing hundreds to commute into town each day from the surrounding countryside.

Avebury stone circle lies a mile and a half away from the start of our journey, so we make a stop to remind ourselves of its might and mystery. A crow lands on a megalith, oblivious, or uncaring. I place a palm on a pockmarked, rain-slick stone twice my height, its purpose lost to the ages. We make our way south, circle Silbury Hill – cumbersome and impenetrable – and pass the West Kennet Long Barrow, haunting us from a hilltop. The beginning of the Ridgeway is a car park that sits beside three squat tumuli, too regular on this topography to be given names.

This place undermines time. Prehistory and present congeal like the rain-churned paths orbiting Avebury, a thousand footsteps preserved in mud.

The Ridgeway National Trail was opened in 1973, and is just a section of a five-thousand-year-old route that used to run from the Dorset coast all the way to the Wash in Norfolk. In prehistoric times, the plains and lowlands were heavily forested and covered in undergrowth, making progress near impossible. The chalk provided a way through, drier underfoot, less impeded by vegetation. The trail we know today comprises two different ancient highways stretching across five counties and divided neatly by the Thames – the Ridgeway to the west, the Icknield Way to the east.

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I step over the threshold. The chalk track stretches out in front of me, a steady incline of white on green, clinging to the contours of the Marlborough Downs. Stuck between seasons, the landscape sags under the accumulated weight of the rain, the track transformed to a gritty paste beneath me. To our right, woody tangles of hazel, gorse and hawthorn. To our left, fields curve down to villages and farms safely tucked into the combes below. Everywhere, we pass the sleeping noble dead, their resting places marked by clumps of beech dotted across the undulating landscape.

It’s quiet on the ridge. The weather is deadening, driving wildlife to its shelters. We pass rook nests and badger setts, unreachable and dark. I imagine these creatures in their sanctuaries watching our progress along the hills, as they have done for millennia. A solitary skylark punctures the hush, jostled by the wind. A hare takes flight. I step off the track onto the furrowed edge of a field. Shards of flint mark its perimeter, newly banished by the plough. I am hunting for axeheads and arrowheads, as I was taught to, by John. I slow my pace, using my feet to nudge and lift stones from the soil, hoping to unearth an artefact – coins, pottery, a clay pipe – just as he would while walking these hills.

Sarsen stones – those huge, mystical sandstone blocks used to construct Avebury and Stonehenge – litter our surroundings, increasing in number as we approach Fyefield Down. In this area alone, there are said to be 25,000. They are called the Grey Wethers, resembling sheep from a distance, but to me they just look like stones: inert, lopsided and lichenous, strewn across the hillside by a geological cataclysm. We press on, past four White Park cows sheltering from the easterly wind behind a gorse bush. Charming and ancient, with long, perfect horns, they turn to watch us through barbed wire.

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Soon, we enter a section flanked on either side by shivering hawthorns, dense vegetation climbing their trunks as if the ground is rising to claim them. I pause in a puddle, confounded. As I consider the trees I become agitated, realising I don’t understand the process taking place. I don’t know if the growth on the trunks is moss, or lichen, or liverwort – if it’s harming the trees, or killing them, or benefitting both sides.

I don’t belong. I am out of place – a vagrant, a product of the city, a non-native species in a foreign land.

What am I doing out here, so exposed, so far away?

This is John’s world, not mine. He had a passion for moss and lichen, collecting them on walks, filing them with labels carefully away in a miniature chest of drawers. The photograph at his memorial is a portrait of John kneeling in a wood somewhere, studying the undergrowth, excited by a find. He would have understood this. He would have been able to explain it to me.

Further along, the track levels out, an alley of breeze-bent trees winding past a dew pond. Above, a kestrel is suspended against the clouds, feathers fanned and tousled. From a great height it scrutinises the hedgerows, before yawing behind the ridge and out of sight.

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The landscape is an infinite pallet of earth – every imaginable shade of green and brown: grass, moss, leaf, thorn, footpath, fence post, bark and branch, soil, flint, chalk. Puddles like rock pools stretch across the width of the track and lead the way to a metalled B-road that spills down the hillside towards the village of Broad Hinton. Then, another car park – an island of discarded energy drinks and weathered Walkers multipacks. After hours on the ancient track, these objects feel uncanny and unwelcome. We stop by a log in a nearby copse for lukewarm coffee, and cheese and pickle sandwiches made soggy by the rain.

The sun fails to punch a hole through the sarsen sky. The wind picks up and the way gets muddier leading up towards Barbury Castle – the site of an Iron Age hillfort rising above the landscape, imposing even now after 2,500 years. It blocks the way ahead, the path climbing and cutting straight through. It’s in the ideal position – it has an eye on us long before we reach it, and its steep sides slow our progress. From the top I can see for miles to the west, surrounded by sheep grazing in deep ditches formed by the castle’s earthwork ramparts. And somewhere above, the radio told us, a Chinese space station is tearing up and hurtling down towards Earth.

The breath is blown from our bodies as we step onto Smeathe’s Ridge. Like a backbone holding together the land, the ground falls away on either side to the awesome expanse of the country. We follow the narrow ridge past plantations of oxidised larch and fields below, chalk showing through the dark topsoil in waves. At last unimpeded, the wind harries and hounds us, lashes the cold rain and numbs our cheeks. With a kite’s-eye view, I glide over the land, and I am overcome.

Our boots touch Tarmac, and we’re received by the sleepy environs of Ogbourne St. George, the first ten miles behind us. The rain swells the town’s little river, submerges great sections of road. We return home in a daze, our minds still on the hills. Clay-stained, we gather ourselves by the fire. It has been a day of elements.

That night I slip and slide in dreams of falling.

The journey has begun.

Nicholas Herrmann is a writer and photographer based in Bath. His work has appeared in journals and online, and his writing has been shortlisted for the Bath Novel Award and Janklow and Nesbit Prize. He is a graduate of the Creative Writing MA at Bath Spa University. He is currently working on his first novel. You can find him on Twitter: @NickPSH.

In the Back Seat

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By Anna Evans:

In the back seat you observe the journey from a different angle and your eyes are free to wander from the road ahead. The space of the back seat is exactly the right size so that you can lie across it if you want to, and pretend to sleep.

In the back seat, the time is not now; it is unending horizons, the space of a snowflake. The map isn’t an accurate one, but a blend of the real and imaginary, where different journeys can merge together and become one. In the back seat you are always travelling home, the sky darkening around you.

In the back seat you are transported. It is the perfect mode of non-navigational travel. Protected and vulnerable, the fuzzy blanket of childhood, the one which lets you dream in peace, the window framing images of the world passing by.

The back seat is the site of stories and of daydreams, the ones which come without being summoned, like a ritual to trace over the back of your hand. The speed and the motion allowing glimpses, partial and unformed, always passing and never fully realized. From the back seat I am always looking for places that will tell me stories.

From the back seat you watch the road in a different way, through the side window. Counting the boundaries along the road as they flash by swallowed up, each the same as the next, never to be seen again. The road signs going past so quickly, but looking back means being left behind, means missing the next one… The names of places take on a mythical aspect. The Devil’s Elbow…

My favourite journeys. The ascent to the moors, that gradual climb, the winding roads, the fields, the dry stone walls, the lost villages, the farmhouses which become more and more spaced out. It is breath taking to look around, to see below, laid out like a memory, the valleys, and to feel transported from it all.

The ascent to the moors. And when you’re up there it’s like a plateau where time feels different. Slowing down for the sheep walking along the road. Always wanting to stop and give them a hug. Looking through the window at those hills which always seem out of bounds somehow, they are boundless.

With my eyes I follow the trails, the trodden paths fading away to nothing. A place to be on the run, a fugitive landscape. Bleak, high and unyielding, this landscape without shelter, where only sheep could live, boulders next to the sky. A place where people seem out of place, those tiny walkers and climbers, a place to get lost in. The sheep, already prepared with their solid feet, their warm and waterproof coats. Even the footpaths look out of place somehow, as if you would drift away from them, bidden by some siren song, away into a parallel landscape far from anywhere.

- Tell us about the time when mum got stuck in a bog!

In the back seat, I listen to stories of walking up here and straying from the footpath. Imagining my mum stepping in the bog, her foot sinking, my dad trying to pull her out….

- Oh no, please don’t tell that story…

No, don’t tell it, but do… because it fills me with trepidation and excitement all at once. Imagining what it must be like, the foot caught, being pulled downwards into the bog, sinking into the earth. Like a trap laid by the hills themselves, to warn us away and keep us from venturing too far. Imagining the bog a living entity. How would you know it was there? How would you stop yourself from sinking?

In the back seat we make up stories about the passers-by, the lone runners and cyclists become fugitive too. Where are they going? They are criminals for sure, escaping the scene of the crime.

The forlorn houses on the edge of the hills seem like the last outposts, just below the clouds, or at the edge of an ocean. Waking each day to their desolate spectre, misty ocean, stretching as far as the eye can see. Full fathom; acres of rolling seas.

The part of the road where it feels like you’re flying - long and straight through a ravine cut into the hills. Scammonden Dam on a school trip. The sun shines and we draw sketches of pond skaters, and they tell us about the village sunk underneath the reservoir. This takes on mythical proportions for me, as the story of Pompeii.

- Look there’s Damian’s house.

- Who’s Damian?

- A friend of mine. He lives in that little house by the water. Hello Damian!

- Does Damian really live here? But doesn’t he get lonely?

- There he is, look he’s waving. Hello Damian!

- Can we meet him?

- Well, he is very shy.

Sometimes getting out of the car and knocking on the door of the wooden shack next to the water, and peering through the tiny windows calling out ‘Damian, Damian’… sometimes driving past and waving.

- Can we visit Damian?

- Damian isn’t in today.

The reservoir, high up and dramatic like a coal black furnace, the clouds dark grey with fury, or sad and open, the land of twilight blue. The cast of the hills above Meltham dark and alone, rain clouds the view towards them.

The backseat on the way home at night. The lights of the towns and the strange psychedelic lights of the motorway, sometimes well lit, high up, laying out the wasteland below them in empty, white, measured light. Sometimes the roads have barely any visibility, and it is then that you follow the red taillights in front, and the lights of the oncoming cars, creeping stealthily through the shadows. What can and can’t be seen conjures up a thousand travelling possibilities, the countryside spread out in darkness, the cat’s eyes in the road reflecting back our own intrepid lights. Let me tell you about cat’s eyes, you say…

The darkening sky marks the inside space of the car out as mysterious, and the driver into further reaches away. Silence is the place where the flickering miles creep by. I must remain awake, alert. My job is to monitor the surrounding landscape and I keep a vigil, keeping my dad company on our journeys together. While the inside of the car is shrouded in mystery, the seats, the objects; I can form a silent communion with the outside, familiar but cast anew. I am reflected in the window, my own features becoming one with the scenery outside, the recognisable call of the forehead, nose and lips, the eyes. Blinking lights fall into them and are swallowed up. Following the road of my own thoughts as you would trace the line of a headland. Like existing with your own ghost beside you; the self which ends and is endless.

In the back seat it is always the journey home at night and looking outwards becomes looking inwards. Crossing the high dark moors, the scattered lights of the houses seem fragile, the road seeming to melt once more into the hills as it is engulfed by the descending blackness all around.

About the author:
Anna Evans is a writer and researcher from Huddersfield in the north of England, currently living in Cambridge. Her interests are in migration and literature, cities and movement, and she completed an MA in ‘Writing the Modern World’ at the University of East Anglia in 2017. She is currently working on a project on the places in Jean Rhys’s fiction.

Waiting Rooms by Samantha Whates - Part I: Dunoon

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Singer and songwriter Samantha Whates is writing and recording her forthcoming album entirely on location in a series of waiting rooms, some active, some abandoned, trains, buses, hospitals, ferries, care homes. The album will address themes of loss and waiting, of transition and of time passing in transient spaces.

The first recording took place in Dunoon in Scotland, a stunning Victorian ferry waiting room on the inner Hebridean island; the second was overnight in an art deco waiting room at one end of ta tube line, as empty trains rolled in and out; the third took place in Great Ormond Street Hospital with a full band in the public waiting room on a busy Sunday.

Dylan White, who is working with Samantha on the project will be writing a series of posts for the Elsewhere blog from the different locations of the recording sessions. First up, Dunoon on the Isle of Bute:

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We're all waiting. Everybody waits. Hospitals. Train stations. Airports. Life itself is a waiting room. In writing and recording her new album entirely in waiting rooms Samantha Whates has tapped into something vital, universal, and as the country creaks and lurches towards who knows what, something urgent and essential.

I set off with Samantha to scope out a former ferry terminal waiting room on a Victorian pier in Dunoon on the Isle of Bute. Gulls swooped and circled as we loitered, ourselves waiting for the harbourmaster to arrive and let us through the padlocked gates. Just as we began to worry we had the wrong day a member of the crew arrived, all hi-vis and friendly bustle. As he led us out over the gangplanks towards the turrets and timbers of this strikingly restored space, Ian regaled us with tales of the great paddle steamers that would ferry Glaswegian holiday makers across the Firth of Clyde from the 1800's right up until the 60's, and tales of the wild Saturday night parties he'd DJ at here in the 80's. Only afterward I learned this town had a US nuclear submarine base around that time, it's location a faintly obscure Harvey Keitel movie, and imagine raucous squaddies quarreling on these boardwalks. With the fall of the Soviet Union the navy moved on, the base closed and along with much of this little town these rooms fell into disrepair and ruin, awaiting its next chapter.

Recently refurbished and completely renovated into its new incarnation as a local community centre and civic attraction, the freshly painted walls sing back at us with reverb and history as Samantha tests the sound of this space.

Ian leaves us to it to check the fittings and the sockets and the practical repercussions of using this place as a recording location. Beyond accessibility and acoustics, the navigation of bespoke bureaucracy and email tennis, one of the challenges facing Samantha is sheer logistics: aligning the calendars and itineraries of geographically disparate musicians and their instruments into remote locations.

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"One of the songs we recorded here Sailors has been arranged for Shruti - Lute - Voice. We went on the Ferry from just outside Glasgow with all our recording gear and instruments including a double bass! It felt so in keeping with the songs we choose to record there - something about the journey on the ferry looking out to the water and seeing the pier appearing in the distance. Knowing it was the first recording - I really got into the feeling of the start of the journey. Where all these songs came from. Something about putting the songs back to the source of where they were written - the sentiment and emotions felt through the subject of these songs feels so much clearer when you're on your way to these rooms to go back to that feeling and record them...."

I'm researching and drawing these buildings as part of my involvement in this project, but right now I just loiter and listen, looking out at the circling gulls over the grey waters beyond as the lilting sound of Samantha's guitar and voice stirs life and warmth back to these old rooms, summoning the ghosts of holidays, labourers, sailors and fisherman who've watched these same waters from this spot for the past hundred and fifty years or more, waiting for a bite, a sign, a passing moment.

My reverie is curtailed by Ian's sudden return. "I'm sorry to cut you off I gotta deal with that boat."

And we are hustled back out into the world as he runs to greet the next ferry's arrival. This is a port and he's on shift.

Time and tide wait for no one.

Watch a film about Waiting Rooms from Julius Beltrame, a filmmaker and photographer with an eye for place, architecture and the arts:

We are looking forward to more blogs from Dylan as the project progresses. In the meantime, if you would like to support Samantha as she goes along you can make a pledge in return for different goodies via her pledgemusic page.

Dylan White’s website / twitter
Samantha Whates on twitter

Postcard from... England (Covered in snow)

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By Paul Scraton:

It felt like an escape, when the train eased its way of the Leeds station on its way south towards London. There was snow on the ground and more to come, the newspapers losing their minds over the SNOWMAGGEDON to be brought down upon the country by the BEAST FROM THE EAST. Somewhere on the edge of Wakefield, where fields crossed by electricity pylons met the last garden fences of a housing estate, kids pulled sledges in the direction of a hill as crows circled above.

At London Bridge station, construction workers threw snowballs at each other, exploding them against hard hats and the metal fences, laughing and calling out to each other in the accents of many different nations. A man in a suit stood next to a young woman with a backpack in the door of the station, watching the snow falling before pulling out their phones to capture the moment. Everything seemed to have stopped to watch it come down. Station workers, travellers and the pub-door smokers.  The city, so loud and intense only a moment or two early, was now muffled.

Watch out mate, came the shout, as a misguided snowball sailed over the fence from the construction site, just missing my head.

The next morning Clapham Common was white but the roads were clear as we caught the bus to Vauxhall. Once there it began to snow again, so intense this time that the opposite bank of the river was obscured and the Houses of Parliament were nothing but a ghostly, Gothic shadow in the gloom. With nowhere to be that we couldn’t reach on foot, the snow for us was just a distraction, a pleasant break from the norm. Newspapers told a different story. Cars stranded on the M80. Army deployed in Lincolnshire. Scotland and Ireland on shut-down.

We have bread, the sign said, snow piling up against it outside a grocery store somewhere along the east coast of Ireland, and now appearing in my social media feed.

In another gap in the weather, we made it south to Hastings, where the announcer at the station greeted us with apocalyptic warnings of impending doom. An hour or so later it began to snow again. All trains cancelled. We walked over the hill and down into the old town, along fairy tale streets of crooked houses, like a Dickens scene in the snow. On the beach waves crashed against the snow that had settled on the pebbles and around the fishing boats pulled up high, away from the water. An eerie scene. We were alone, for a time, until a group of exchange students appeared out of the sea mist. Phones raised, they captured the icy onslaught of the snow and sea spray as it blew in from the English Channel.

The next morning it was time to leave. Most of the snow had gone. Another travel window in the weather, rolling north through frosted fields and past white cliffs towards Gatwick. I was heading home, from home. Always a strange feeling and it was made odder still, having spent five days in an England covered in snow.

Paul is the editor-in-chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. His book Ghosts on the Shore: Travel’s along Germany’s Baltic coast is out now from Influx Press.