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

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By James Carson:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Dispatches from Olsztyn: Olga Tokarczuk’s Chair

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By Marcel Krueger:

This year Marcel has been selected as the official writer in residence of Olsztyn in Poland by the German Culture Forum for Eastern Europe and until September he is living there, observing, taking part in cultural activities organised by local partners the City of Olsztyn and the Borussia Foundation, and of course writing about the city. You can find regular posts over on the official writer in residence blog in German, Englisch and Polish (thanks to his official translator a.k.a. Marcel’s Polish voice Barbara Sapala). But he has also been writing some  irregular dispatches from Olsztyn for the Elsewhere blog: 

In an interview with the Calvert Journal last year, writer Olga Tokarczuk expressed her shock about the age of the furniture that she discovered on an old Scottish estate where she stayed for a writers’ scholarship, some of it dating back as far as the 16th century. “We don’t have such a stable reality,” she said. “Poland is in the central corridor of Europe.”

This is a notion I concur with, living on an island. While Ireland has and had its fair share of violence and tragedy over the centuries, it often feels as if more objects and places have been given longevity, by fate or coincidence. On my street in Dundalk I have the bell tower of a Franciscan abbey built around 1240 AD, and the last time the building has seen targeted violence was around 1315 AD, when invading Scots under Edward the Bruce burned it and killed 23 monks. There are Victorian post boxes strewn around town that were erected in the second half of the 19th century and are still in use, the royal insignia clearly visible under the Republican green paint applied after 1921. There are plenty of hundred-year old tables and chairs still in use in households across town that are not in a museum.

It is different in Olsztyn. Here the tragedies and invasions feel more numerous, the past more unstable. Last week I walked around Park Jakubowo with radio journalist Alicja Kulik, and we talked about melancholy and what Olga Tokarczuk said in the interview. For me, the park provided an almost perfect cross section of the horrors that have visited the city, and I didn’t have to go back to the Middle Ages to find them. The park was first established in 1862 as part of the expansion of Olsztyn from a small provincial town to one of the main cities of the area thanks to Prussian railways and army barracks, and over the following years saw the erection of a panorama restaurant, a dance hall and tennis courts. 

Today it is a pleasant place to wander around in, with a small lake, playgrounds and tall trees providing shade in summer – the oldest tree here is an oak tree, 28 metres high. But even here the currents of history are visible, mostly through the buildings and memorials. The large green area across the street from the park used to be a Protestant cemetery that was closed in 1973 and turned into a park. The small neo-Gothic red-brick chapel that stands there was built in 1904 and is today the Orthodox Church of the Protection of the Mother of God. Right next to it is the memorial to Bogumił Linka (1865 -1920), a social and nationalist activist who campaigned for Warmia and Olsztyn to join the newly created Poland at the Versailles conference, and who was killed by a German militia during the 1920 East Prussian plebiscite. The memorial was created by sculptress Balbina Świtycz-Widacka and erected in 1975. Maybe fittingly so: back across the road, in 1928 the citizens of Allenstein erected the so-called Abstimmungsdenkmal, the memorial to the result of the plebiscite where the majority of the inhabitants voted for remaining in East Prussia and the German Reich. Together with a similar memorial in Malbork and the Tannenbergdenkmal Olsztynek it was one of the main nationalist memorial sites in East Prussia.

Across the street from it is a remainder of what extreme nationalism can result in: here lie those killed by the Nazis. Some of the people buried here were patients of the sanatorium in Kortau (location of the university today) and killed by the Nazis as part of their euthanasia programme, some were killed in sub-camps of the concentration camps across East Prussia. The remaining patients, staff and refugees that had gathered at Kortau were massacred in 1945 by the Red Army.

Back in the park, the Abstimmungsdenkmal was replaced by another memorial in 1972, a monumental slab commemorating the ‚Warmian-Masurian Heroes of the National and Social Liberation‘ created by local sculptor Bolesław Marschall. Down the road from the park, at the end of nearby Sybiraków street is a memorial to those Poles taken to work at the GULAG and forced labour camps all across the Soviet Union. It lists the places the people were sent to, among them Sverdlovsk in the Urals (Yekaterinburg today), where my granny was also sent from her farm on the outskirts of town.

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All these tragedies and horrors, and some people always trying to claim them for political gains. But I think there is a better use for the past and what it leaves from the people that were here before us. As Alicja and I continued on through the park, we walked past one of the playgrounds were a group of young children were playing noisily, the sun was shining and the park was beautiful. We stopped next to what looked like an old unused fountain, a stone bowl now empty of water but still looking beautiful. Alicja said that ‘maybe this is our version of Olga Tokarczuk’s chair’, and I think she was right. This then, perhaps, is a better way to look at the past. Regardless of who created it, we should be able to share the good things, without jealousy and hatred. A German or Jewish or Polish or Russian sculptor might have created the fountain, but I don’t know if this is relevant. It’s a beautiful old fountain in a nice park.

Sorbs, a poem by Alistair Noon

Spreewaldkanal by Lübbenau  – Photo by Dr Seuthberg – Used under  CC-BY-SA 4.0

Spreewaldkanal by Lübbenau – Photo by Dr Seuthberg – Used under CC-BY-SA 4.0

We meet where slow green water meshes
with swatting meadows. In Slavic shirts,
they hail our raid into well-drained marshes.

Traditional business here's to steer us
beneath the boughs and along the arms,
then serve us gherkins and farmyard stories,

to oar us up for open canoes
before we wrong-turn a channel
their land was left, and soak our knees.

Their teenagers bus to school in Cottbus,
grow up to squat the Berlin tenements.
Their roads are damp with moorhens and coots,

but expect their verse to trill with jays,
their dances to settle as colourful flocks.
They've cultural centres and anthologies.

And while the halls of greater states
proclaim their headlines and daytrip anecdotes,
right of the decimal point, the stats

ripple whenever they do the math
and discover Texas. Quaintly dressed,
the local tale is a pregnancy myth:

they got their Bible, but pools evaporate
where enlightened princes ban your books.
Now they build budgets and write their rights,

the woodlands where their nucleotides hid
are cleared for cattle, and only clutter
where leaves flop over our twig-dodging heads.

***

Alistair Noon's poetry collections include Earth Records (2012) and The Kerosene Singing (2015), both from Nine Arches Press. Concert at a Railway Station, his translations of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, was recently reviewed in the TLS. ‘Translocal Underground’, a short film about him by filmmaker Paul Cooke, appeared last year. He's lived in Berlin since the early 90s.

On Potsdamer Straße (to see an old friend)

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By Paul Scraton:

Potsdamer Straße talks to me, as I walk down from the S-Bahn, past the library and across the canal. It talks to me about the Joseph-Roth-Diele, with its checkered tablecloths and a menu of goulash and spätzle, surrounded by the books and the words of a writer who was both of Berlin and not from Berlin, a man who disliked the city intently and yet became one of its greatest chroniclers. It talks to me about the shop for believers, filled with statues and trinkets; a little piece of Rome in this godless city. And it speaks to me of the Wintergarten and its cabaret stage, and the many thousands of performances I’ve never seen.

Not all the memories of the Potsdamer Straße are mine, but some are, and they take me back to my earliest days in the city. A long night with friends who lived on a side street to this great thoroughfare, starting with cocktails in a dark bar of concrete and polished wood, and ending in an all-night drinking den with carpet on the walls and friendly drag queens, with one more beer to toast the rising sun. Another friend lived down the street, from whose apartment we could watch Christopher Street Day parades while eating a huge watermelon bought from the supermarket on the corner along with Fladenbrot and dips. And Potsdamer Straße reminds me of the night bus home to Steglitz, catching glimpses of 21st century versions of Sally Bowles through the window, visions wrapped in long coats and heavy scarves beneath the street lights. How I was too lonely and scared to press the button, to bring the bus to a halt and climb down onto the pavement. 

***

Anyone who moves to this city at any time is told that they came too late. They should have been here in the 1990s. Or the 1970s. Or the 1920s. But in those first few months, the Potsdamer Straße I spied through the night bus window offered a glimpse of the different versions of the city I arrived too late to experience. There was Franz Hessel, passing Christopher Isherwood on the street corner outside a red-lit bar. Across the road, a pale boy in the shadows who has come to the city to meet David Bowie. And my friends on the side street, newly arrived from the south, moving in to the apartment as the shadow of the Berlin Wall still lingered up the road, just a mile or so to the north. 

A decade later it was my turn. A train from Schönefeld with the city under snow. The television tower, lost in the mist. Darkness in the streets around Alexanderplatz, which made the three letters – OST – above the Volksbühne seem to shine all the brighter. The earliest memories of a place, seared the strongest.

On Potsdamer Straße I walk to see an old friend accompanied by these memories. Fragments and faces. Bodies and beer bottles. Up to now, my friend has haunted other places in the city. A basement bar in Mitte. An art school garden in Charlottenburg. A soft summer evening in Wedding. After today, he will join the cast that stalk Potsdamer Straße with me.

***

None of us experience a place in the same way. We all bring with us our own stories and knowledge, our own cast of characters, whether real or imagined. Even in unknown or unfamiliar places we rarely arrive empty handed, and what we see when we get there is shaped by what we know and what we don’t. A few weeks ago, in my friend’s kitchen, he talked about his work in the same way that I think about the Potsdamer Straße. He could show me something, he said, but he couldn’t tell me what to feel. Everyone brings their own luggage. Everyone brings their own ghosts. 

***

On Potsdamer Straße, where Joseph Roth loiters, making space on the pavement for pious shoppers, and the street looks the same now as it did when I viewed it through a rain- and exhaust-smudged window (even though I know that it can’t), I turn into a courtyard to meet my old friend. People used to make newspapers here. Journalists, editors, printworkers. You can see it in the buildings, read it in the brick and glass and concrete. A form for a purpose, now used for something else, like so many places in this city. I think of all those words, written and printed and sent out from the gates. News today. Chip paper tomorrow. Add this place to the memories;  my own and of others. Add it to what I hear when Potsdamer Straße talks to me. And add it to what I will be holding within as I face my old friend’s creations. 

***

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


The Graffiti Chapel

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By David Lewis:

Some days we could walk across the city without touching the ground.  In the 1960s, when the city was welcoming the car into her widened streets with open arms, it was decided to extend safe sky-streets over the busy roads.  We called them the walkways. Bridges sprang over the traffic and the walkways connected them. By the time I knew them twenty years later they were filthy and vandalised but still connected parts of the city centre, like a half-cleared railway network of odd branches and unused lines. 

So the city decided that the walkways had been a mistake, and decommissioned them.  Gently they were cleaned from the city’s streets and perhaps her memory as well. The scars are still there, brick or concrete rectangles on the first floor of buildings where a walkway used to be, the stumps of bridge supports, another scar-rectangle matching on the other side of the road. 

When I knew they were going to demolish them, I walked as many walkways as I could.  They leaped across Old Hall Street, Roe Street, the Goree, others I cannot remember, so familiar were they and so completely have they been erased from the cityscape.  The walkways squeezed between buildings to create sky-streets of broken lights and urine. And graffiti. Inevitably the taggers and street artists saw the walkways as a golden opportunity to enrich the city and the urban experience.  

Two walkways met at a small open pavilion, a room open on three sides to the elements, the roof supported on slender concrete pillars.  Every inch of the walls and ceiling and floors was spray-painted, and over-painted, and painted again. Names and titles and challenges and dates chased each other over the concrete in a swirl of reds and silvers, blacks and yellows, blues and a rich strain of orange. Standing there, I lost all sense of proportion or depth, as if in a chapel by Giotto, a street trompe-l’oeil, vertiginous and disorienting.  It smelled of cigarette smoke and urine rather than frankincense, and unlike Giotto the artists had no need to respect perspective, morality or architecture, but they were liberated by their concrete canvas: the words and colours flowed freely over floor and wall, onto windowsill and pillar, swirling to head height and beyond, so that the floor seemed to descend and the ceiling to rise into the sky.  It was bawdy, exciting, psychedelic, exhausting.  

And it was doomed.  The cigarette smoke was the problem.  The graffiti chapel stood like a debauched and drunken priest alongside the new solemn fortress of the Crown Courts on Derby Square, a reminder of the anarchic city, the lawless city, its underbelly, everything the towers of the Courts stood against. The Courts were built in a deliberate biscuit-concrete echo of the Castle that once stood there, and Crown Courts and graffiti chapel stood like a debased version of what used to be, Castle and Church. 

The graffiti chapel and the walkway was where the visitors to the Crown Courts, the families and friends of accused or plaintiff, stood for an anxious cigarette, and the smaller messages were prayers of hope, votive offerings to an indifferent Law; ‘Thomas is Innocent!’ ‘Luke S Got Five Years Should Have Been Ten’, ‘Where’s the Justice for Our Mary’.  Painting the walls would only attract the graffiti boys again, and it was decided to demolish. So one autumn day, tracing surviving walkways or their routes on the ground, I turned a corner to find the graffiti chapel gone. In my days writing about the city’s churches, I turned other corners to find other chapels demolished, but none saddened me as much. 

***

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


PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Sara Upstone for Dawit Isaak

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PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Over the next two weeks we are handing over the Elsewhere blog to a series of literary tributes from UK-based writers in solidarity with writers at risk around the World who are supported by English PEN. As they are added, all the tributes will be collected together here. Today is the turn of Sara Upstone for Dawit Isaak:

Dawit Isaak was born in Eritrea in 1964. He was granted Swedish citizenship in 1992. In 2001, having returned to Eritrea, he was arrested and imprisoned without trial for supposed anti-government activity involving his work as a journalist for the country’s first independent newspaper, of which he was a part owner. There has been no sighting of Isaak since 2005. #FreeDawit

Empathy

From the Greek, Empátheia
From the Greek, en- páthos.
In feeling.
In.

I am trying to step in. Not much, you say. Not angry. Or representative. Not of any real use, perhaps. 

But still. 

Two years old. Wheezing sea-sick in isolation room, porthole window in antiseptic white door. Three. A stranger in my unconsoling father’s house. Eight. A bathroom door, rusted metal lazy in a lock just high enough to reach. 

Somewhere else, a twenty-three year old man has all the doors unlocked, an arrivant from a furnace to Sweden’s western coast chill. Sadness but with a heart-held, already-known, future. Marry. Raise children. Write words. Perhaps. Not here, but in that first, difficult love. 

It is a name with the poetry of a fantasy. Eritrea. 

Eighteen. The girl along the corridor is in love with university halls – they remind her, she tells me, of her boarding school. In the night, I forget where I am. Pack my belongings into the back of the car. Mollusc-spiralled on the backseat, shivering. Going home.

The young man, too, is home. In the place with the fantasy name he makes already-known futures real. Swims on the exhilaration of promises – independence, democracy, free-speech.

He is full of hope. He has called his first born daughter Betlehem. 

Twenty-two. Dissertation. Keywords: postcolonial, politics, space. Diversion in the project to Rubin Hurricane Carter, African American boxer falsely imprisoned for twenty years on charges of murder. Carter refuses to be freed from his cell; he wakes only when the other prisoners are asleep, exercises only at night. 

My style needs correction. My ideas are too political. They award me the thesis. 

The young man, too, is fulfilled. Perhaps. He has a little money. Buys pages of his own. Loves cheese. And coffee. He has a tendency to oversleep. 

They come for him on a Sunday, not in the newspaper offices but in his home.  

Twenty-six. I investigate escape ladders. Plan night-time routes along flat roofs. Debate the relative merits of ropes fashioned from sheets and mattresses thrown from windows. Decline invitations to travel by plane, decline anything where the aisle is unavailable. Accept employment where I can leave the room. Speak too fast, always, in case a door is about to close. 

In Eritrea two days pass quicker than the last 3000. The young man – he is still young –  smiles. Perhaps. He stretches and remembers how limbs move; visits the doctor and watches bruises transfigure purple to yellow. Kisses his children with plum-soft lips. Inhales just long enough for the heartbeat to return to normal before the handcuffs are re-secured. 

His wife tells the newspapers that this is a family matter. 

Thirty-two. My pregnant body is inside out; I am waiting nine months to be delivered. In the MRI scanner I forget not to open my eyes and for a second – an unalloyed heartbeat – am buried alive. 

For his fourth-seventh birthday, the man is given the gift of the rumour of his death. It is a premature arrival.

Perhaps.

Thirty-seven. My new lover sleeps like Gulliver. I crouch downstairs, in a small sliver of light, invocating camomile-conjured disappearing spells. I know the meaning of imprisonment. 

Hume broke his own rules when he said we can imagine a missing shade of blue. 

In Gothenburg, a replica cell is created. Visitors come. They sit with the absent man, respectfully. They are affected. 

With the surety of resurrection, it is impossible to experience death. 

Thirty-eight. I am with love. John gives us the house with the sheep for the music festival. We perform our separation from the world, wallow in isolation. Revel in the stripping of time. Bemoan lack of phone signal whilst surfing Facebook from the stairway. It is so good, someone declares, to get away from everything. 

The man is perhaps no longer young. He has been in his cell for more than 6000 days. 

Or, if you prefer, 518,400,000 seconds.

Or, if you prefer, the time it takes for a man’s children to reach adulthood.

What is your preference?

In the house surrounded by sheep the children bluster us to the first landing, to a small metal hook in the wooden floor. Incessant clamour demands we lift the lid – show us the priest’s hole, they squeal. We try to give them a lesson: mutter vaguely about papists, queens, and dying for one’s beliefs. They roll their eyes. Reach for the light switch. Clamber down the ladder, squeezing into the hole. My own daughter refuses, declines coaxing, peers silently over the edge. A den of detritus, midnight feasts littering the floor. The walls are covered in markings, initials carved, the audacity of marker pens. You can write here what you like. If John catches you then he will charge you more to remove the offending mark. Your parents will pay if you get caught. 

Concert day and the house is full. An old English man, white haired and pale faced, climbs the stairs. He sees the children curling into the floor, disappearing. He has never been to the house, he tells us, not before today. It is a fine building, and he wishes he had come earlier. But he has heard all about the priest’s hole, he says, and glances at my daughter. He wouldn’t go down there; you’re right, he says, to stay up here. Sometimes people do things you can’t even imagine, he says. There is a cruelty in people you don’t expect. His grandson came here once, some years past, with a group of friends. When he climbed into the hole, he tells us, the other boys shut the lid and stood on it. 

Weight on wood. 

What is the opposite of empathy? 

I try not to imagine it. I must imagine it. 

I try to imagine it.

At it is then I hear the call, quiet but clear, the door opening, the ladder climbed, the face – this face both old and young – looking outwards, emerging amidst a dancing mist of words. 

***

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About Dawit Isaak: Dawit is an Eritrean-Swedish journalist who was arrested as part of the September 2001 crackdown on Eritrea’s independent press, and arrested along with other print journalists who have since been held incommunicado. Although alleged to be ‘traitors’, not one of them has been charged or tried.

About Sara Upstone: Sara is Professor of Contemporary Literature and Head of School of Arts, Culture and Communication at Kingston University, London. She is the author of three monographs, most recently Rethinking Race and Identity in Contemporary British Fiction (Routledge, 2017), but her real pleasure is creative work that explores the intersection of literary forms and interdisciplinary practice. She is a regular contributor to the online journal Versopolis, and editor of Literary London Journal

Postcard from... Rüdenhof, Moritzburg

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By Paul Scraton:

In 1943 the artist Käthe Kollwitz left her apartment in the Berlin district of Prenzlauer Berg for the final time. The war, which she had campaigned against through her art long before it even began, had forced her out of the city she’d called home for 52 years. Her first destination was Nordhausen, but that soon became a target too, and so in July of 1944 she arrived at the Rüdenhof, a manor house on the edge of Moritzburg in Saxony. There she was given two rooms, and a balcony from which she could look out across the fields and the rolling landscape of this town a few miles north of Dresden. There were many refugees, both in the Rüdenhof and elsewhere in town, and hardly any of them knew that they had the famous artist in their midst. It was to be her final stop. She would not experience the end of the war, dying just a couple of weeks before the German surrender, in her room in Moritzburg on the 22 April 1945.

Today, the town of Moritzburg draws visitors from Dresden to wander the castle grounds or the only lighthouse in landlocked Saxony. On a July morning there are plenty of people strolling in the sunshine, crossing the bridge to the castle where it stands on an island, eating ice cream or drinking an early beer on the cafe terraces. At the Rüdenhof, it is quieter. One small group explores the rooms of the house, now turned into a museum devoted to the life and work of Käthe Kollwitz. We follow them through, tracing the story of the artist from her beginnings in Königsburg in East Prussia and the move to Berlin, her early illustrations and woodcuts, the tragic death of her son during World War I and the pacifism that inspired her work through the 1920s and 1930s, most clearly in her epic War cycle of 1921-23.

Es ist genug gestorben! Keiner darf mehr fallen!

Enough had died during that war to end all wars, and yet Kollwitz would live to see many more fall, including her grandson who was killed in 1942. War had taken a son and a grandson from her. It had changed the boundaries of her world. The only house she ever lived in to survive the second war was the Rüdenhof. Her childhood home in Königsburg was rubble. What would be built in its place was now in Kaliningrad, USSR. Her apartment block in Prenzlauer Berg was destroyed. What was built in its place would look out across a square that would take her name. Kollwitz was gone. Most of the places she called home were gone. But her art and message would live on. 

Summer sunlight shines in despite the blinds in the windows as we walk among her work, so dark and painful yet full of compassion for those who are suffering. When she reached Moritzburg at the end of her long journey, Käthe Kollwitz had left all her art behind. She came only with her diary and a few personal bits and pieces. The group ahead of us ask questions of the guide. Gentle, respectful questions, about a woman, her life and her work. There are not many of us in these rooms today, but it is clear that all of us who are here have been touched by her genius. She speaks to us, all these years on, whether we encounter her in Cologne or Berlin, in an old manor house in Moritzburg or in the pages of a book. She speaks to us and she inspires us. Our job is to make sure we continue to listen. 

***

Paul Scraton is the editor in chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. His latest book is Built on Sand, a novel of Berlin and Brandenburg, published by Influx Press. He also wrote about the places of Käthe Kollwitz in Berlin on his website Under a Grey Sky.

The Käthe-Kollwitz Haus, Moritzburg.

In Walthamstow Forest

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By Dan Carney

Wide, flat dirt paths carving through lush woodland, open meadows flanked by wooded corridors and undulating, densely covered glades. Clusters of hornbeam, oak, and birch, many ancient, pollarded at the top to encourage further growth, presiding over hundreds of plant species; grass, herb, nettle, weed, fern, and wort. Underfoot, the fossil-rich London clay soil, hard and stiff but deceptively quick to churn during wet weather. Birdsong mingling with the low, umbilical hum of traffic on the A104, Epping to Islington, everywhere between, periodically suppressed by the sound of a plane or the sudden and invasive whooping of a siren. Bisected by both the Woodford New Road and the endless, disheveled North Circular, this is the beginning trickle, the tentative first stretch of the north-east London woodland panhandle which will open out into Epping Forest proper, and eventually creep, pleasingly, just beyond the confines of the M25. This part of the forest is a scruffy outpost, often overlooked in favour of its more storied and unbroken counterparts. There are no visitors’ centres, Iron Age settlements, or Grade II-listed timber hunting lodges here, but the paths lead, eventually, to all these things.

The first path, approaching the southernmost entrance to Rising Sun Wood, is inauspicious; a thin, dusty track, cracked and dry in the summer months, running through an open field, reassuringly parallel with the 1930s semis of Forest Rise opposite. The entrance is marked by a wooden post, painted white at the top, ground-secure in the shadow of the trees at the top of Greenway Avenue. Underneath the first flourish of woodland canopy, the path widens, becomes even and firm. The trees are tall, with dramatic branch formations exploring every possible angle. Some are hollowed out, exposing tender white bark. Dead trunk husks lie everywhere. A sparse glade foregrounds the wrought iron gate of the St. Peter’s-in-the-Forest graveyard, where the headstones are lopsided, covered in ivy, many rendered semi-legible by weather and time. The air is comfortable and still.   

Just to the north is an open, unkempt meadow. Large oaks guard secretive glades along one side, hash paraphernalia and half-empty chicken boxes strewn at the thresholds. Opposite, behind the incongruously shiny Empire Lounge on Woodford New Road (“Enjoy The Food, Enjoy The People, Enjoy The Vibe”), lays Bulrush Pond. Bog-like, derelict, murky water mostly obscured by large clumps of reeds. Once there were paddle-wheel boats, ice-cream kiosks, and deckchairs, before widespread car ownership enabled the leisure-seeking families who gathered here on bank holidays to travel further afield. It’s quieter now, but by no means deserted or bereft. Joggers, cyclists, dog-walkers, families on short-hop rambles, occasional equestrians, and groups of teenagers punctuate the calm, but now it’s less organized, no longer an end point but a backdrop, a surrounding, or a point on the journey. On a warm summer’s day, the meadow feels enveloping, hermetic, unconnected to anywhere else, only leading back to slightly differing iterations of itself, like a gently fluttering audio loop or blinking, cyclical visual display. Bucolic and restorative, a place to think things through, but always with something flickering away, faintly, off to the side. A made-for-TV fever dream poking through the idyll. Layers and stories just beyond the lens flare, unseen, unarticulated but ready to emerge and speak, when the wind rises and the nights draw down.

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Back inside the forest cover, the track splits around a stubborn old hornbeam, its knotted roots securely encased under the top layer shingle. The route to Mill Plain is kinder here, on the west side of the A104, where there’s no need to engage with the fractured grimness of the Waterworks Corner pedestrian interchange. This is where the path breaks clear of the cover and ramps up, knobbly, cracked, onto a raised, open ridge, where the track bends gently through the long grass and willowherb. To the right is the Thames Water pumping station, its wonky rear steel fence offering negligible protection from anything with sufficient stature and determination, and the Waterworks Corner roundabout, only metres away. South Woodford to Redbridge, Barking, Beckton, Woodford Green, Loughton, Epping. To the left, the scoop of the Lea Valley. The atmosphere is sleepy and strange, ominously peaceful. Twin paths converge and slope down towards Forest Road, the occasional tent visible through the bushes, and the sharp tops of City of London buildings poke through the trees. Look into the valley-dip from the bridge adjacent and it’s Walthamstow, Tottenham Hale, Edmonton, Harringay, Alexandra Palace, Brent Cross. Stadiums, reservoirs, retail parks, antennae, the ever-present wash of the traffic, distant and interior.

On the other side, nestled behind the roundabout, is a raised, circular grass platform, flat, wide, and empty, aside from a shabby Thames Water brick hut at the edge. Marked, appropriately, as “The Circle” on Google Maps, it offers readymade laps for joggers, and numerous exits, down the tight, surrounding verge, back into the cover of the forest. Manmade and incongruent, barely visible from the road, it’s easily cast as the site for something more atavistic and obscure. A sacred place, where anonymous figures gather to offer up euphoric human sacrifices to a provincial woodland deity. A landing site for a small extra-terrestrial reconnaissance craft, carved out to order by devoted earthbound aides. A place to hide in the open. Stay too long and the joggers, smiling and efficient, assume – possibly through no fault of their own - a slightly sinister, collective aspect.

The path to the bridge over the A406, just beyond, is gravelly and uneven, bricks and slate pieces baked into the dirt, recalling the clay pits and brick kiln once residing nearby. A well-covered passage, accessible via a tight, cosy glade, runs parallel with the road, overlooking it. Thorny and narrow, discarded carrier bags hanging forlornly from bushes, a person-thin viewing corridor for the unending, thrusting snake of the daylight Walthamstow traffic. Crossing the bridge, to the South Woodford side, is a journey of metres but feels like an escape from this exhaust-choked claustrophobia into something wholesome, time-frozen, pastoral. The trackway widens, getting flatter and kinder underfoot. The canopy is less oppressive, offering a pleasing combination of light and shade. Patches of sunlight cast through the trees, dappling the floor. Little private clearings just off the main track lead into exquisite mini-mazes. To the left, an intricate branch structure built around a large horizontal trunk, and a carved stone memorial marking the birth site of a celebrated gypsy evangelist. Everything honeyed in yellows and browns. With minimal effort, you can block out the vehicle drone. Approaching the open field in front of Oak Hill, boundaries begin to dissolve; thoughts flicker and fade, hazy before they have fully formed. You start to feel drowsy, detached, separate, before the sudden rustle-rush of a small animal brings you back, sharply, to jittery alertness. You turn and hurry back the way you came. The sun hangs low and follows you, blinking and glinting through the gaps, and the temperature starts to drop.

***

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

 

 

 

 

 




Sleepers, a poem by Stewart Carswell

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A curtain of ferns
spreads at eye height
to a child, and parts
from the push of a hand

to expose
the shrinking clearing
and the treasure at its centre:
an ancient sleeper

laying like a sunken casket
and shrouded by a puzzle
of oak leaves. The specimen
ornamented with metalware:

rusted plates and bolts,
brooches carried by the dead
to the next station of life.
Close the curtains. Change the scene.

A figure stands at the end
of the platform, his face masked
by a flag. Steam
spirals around him,

a spire above rows of sleepers.
There is one line
drawn from childhood
through junctions to connections,

and the destination close
to definition.
I feel the platform vibrate
from something about to begin.

The figure sounds his whistle.
His flag drops
and it is my face unmasked
and time to leave this dream

and I see it now. The trackbed
has lost its track and I have lost
track of time. I get up
to check my phone

but there’s no signal
and my daughter is asleep,
habitually dreaming
of a better life to travel in

and I see it now.
The ancient sleeper
is a relic, an inherited burden,
second-hand history.

I step outside
and the first engine of the day
sets out light and I see it now:
I know what to do.

***

Stewart Carswell grew up in the Forest of Dean. He studied Physics at Southampton University, and has a PhD from the University of Bristol. He currently lives and works and writes in Cambridgeshire. His poems have recently been published in Envoi, The Lighthouse, The Poetry Shed, and Ink Sweat & Tears. His debut pamphlet, Knots and branches, is published by Eyewear Publishing (2016). Find out more on his website or on Twitter.

Autumn Street, 1981

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By Jude Abbott:

I have no love for where I grew up. It was suburban and stifling, and it taught me nothing except I didn’t want to be there. I got out as soon as I could, legitimising my escape with good A level results. I  had few criteria for my choice of University, except it had to be a long way from home and it had to be in a proper city. 

I went to Leeds. 

I lasted a couple of terms in student accommodation, but, like much of my University life, it was a disappointment. I didn’t understand the girls I lived among. I’d been imagining a cross between The Girls of Slender Means and Mallory Towers, but it was just dull. My flatmates were shallow yet poised, and appeared to be effortlessly navigating a path through this new territory, while I floundered, forever caught in the brambles of my own ineptitude.

In the final term of my first year. I moved into Autumn Street. 

Autumn Street was the first place I felt was a home to me once I’d left the one I grew up in. Arriving in it was like breathing out - a long deep exhale. It was the shining jewel in the wasteland of my University life. I lived there for not much more than three months.

Between 1981 and 1984 (apart from a year’s reprieve in France, and a term at home when I had Hepatitis B - there’s two other stories right there)  I lived within the same square mile of Leeds 6, and gave myself up to the heart of the student Shangri-la that revolved around The Royal Park pub and Maumomiat International Superstore. I lived in a series of houses that have subsequently blurred into one generic student house, with their fan heaters and filthy toilets. I trod water among an ebb and flow of people who had little in common except circumstance. Mostly I kept my eyes on the horizon and trudged dully onwards. My fellow students had lives that were unfathomable to me. They studied subjects I had never heard of, and they threw up with dismal regularity on a Sunday morning in the freezing bathrooms that always seemed to be next to my bedroom. 

Autumn Street was where I found my family. Not the oppressive family I had been born into and couldn’t wait to escape from, but my chosen family. My people. My person. It was where I found Nancy. We were the sisters we had never had. Except we both had sisters. 

It wasn’t the actual house. The house was just a back to back terrace in Hyde Park. The front door opened straight into the living room, which was painted an unlikely shade of brown. There was a tiny galley kitchen off to the left with stairs leading off behind a door. Single glazing. Rattly sash windows, stuffed with bits of rolled-up newspaper to soak up the condensation, and keep the warmth in. A curtain behind the front door. A gas fire. An immersion switch in the kitchen for when you wanted a bath. An Indian print throw covering the worst of the sofa. 

It wasn’t a coup de foudre with Nancy. We only gradually became inseparable. We had found each other on the evening of my very first day at University - part of a loosely connected group of people who ended up back at Fat Nick’s in Woodhouse, after some sort of ghastly Freshers event in the Student Union Bar.  In fact, we didn’t even see much of each other after that first meeting. We’d find each other drifting around the peripheries of the same political groups. Or we’d be brought together in a configuration that inevitably involved Fat Nick and the circle of people who orbited around him (he was a small time campus dealer). I got mushrooms from him, and once Nancy took acid with him and spent all night scrubbing his bath. I was drinking Gin and Tonic in the Student Union bar on my 19th birthday and Nancy gave me a Creme Egg.

Nothing can ever match the intensity of a friendship forged while you’re  a clueless work in progress. People know me and Nancy as we we are now, but only we know what we were then. Nancy and I held hands while the chaos of our lives  - the fuckings-up, the disappointments, the sudden beds - swirled around us. We were extraordinarily lucky that we had each other.

And Autumn Street was where it played out.

Of course, every dramatic set up needs its foil - the worldly and glamorous Gatsby figure who the narrator looks up to and who seems, at that point, to be the one who glitters and has it all.  Our Gatsby was Lesley.

Perhaps Lesley is the centre of this story. Because without her, Nancy and I had no-one to  measure ourselves against and be found wanting. Or maybe she had no influence at all on how we all turned out, but she was a a big part of how we thought about ourselves while we lived in Autumn Street. 

While Nancy and I slept with unsuitable men in our chilly attic bedrooms -  rarely out of real desire, and sometimes only so we would have a good anecdote to share afterwards -  on the floor below us Lesley was embarked on a sexual odyssey that belonged to a universe whose laws we would never understand and where we would never gain admittance. Although of course we both did. But not until much later.

Nancy and I employed a rather scattergun approach to sex - if we did it enough then some of it would hit the target - but Lesley had intensely passionate relationships that we were all drawn into. Her affairs were all of our concerns. Which was why, after she’d dumped Kevin for his housemate Nick,  it was Nancy and I who had to deal with him crying in our living room for hours. He came round most evenings and we didn’t really know what to do with him, and Lesley was too busy rolling around upstairs with Nick to care.  

Lesley delighted in dropping discomfiting nuggets of information about her and Nick’s sex life into  conversations with me and Nancy. This meant that we knew more about Nick than we needed to. He could, according to Lesley, make her come just by walking into the room (something I was more impressed by then than I am now), and he’d learned to masturbate by rubbing himself against the mattress rather than using his hands, and it was still what he preferred to do.  For our part, Nancy and I embraced our roles. Turning round and saying, “Actually I’m not fucking interested” was not something we even contemplated. We were the housemates of the more glamorous Lesley, and we got to trail in her wake, mopping up the mess and absorbing some of the glamour of her life.

Today we teach girls to value themselves, and I wonder why that was a lesson I hadn’t learned by that point. Looking back at my lack of self-esteem at that time is painful. What also saddens me a little now,  is that everything was so much about men - how they were, for us, still the means by which we validated ourselves. This was the eighties - feminism (and the Yorkshire Ripper) was all around us. We had badges. We knew women who had chosen political lesbianism as the only logical path to follow to escape the patriarchy. Our bodies were our own, we said, but we had so little self-regard that we offered them up indiscriminately to anyone who showed a flicker of interest. We were seeking affirmation from elsewhere, when all along there was something amazing right in front of us.  

I make it sound miserable, but it wasn’t. Mainly it was fun - a small beam of sunshine that lit up the overriding dullness of those four years.  I don’t think I’ve ever laughed so much before or since as I did then. We each had an ally. Whatever shit life threw at us, we dealt with it together. Nothing was so awful we couldn’t get a laugh out of it. There was even an element of daring each other to do our worst. Who could have the most humiliating sexual encounter? Who could be the most gormless around the people we sought to impress? I can argue there was an element of self-awareness in how we were for those few months in Autumn Street. That we were watching ourselves, knowing now was just a phase we had to get through, and life wouldn’t puzzle us for ever, and we wouldn’t always be hopeless, and this was probably as good as it was going to get for Lesley. I like to think we both knew our time would come.

***

Jude Abbott grew up in the suburbs of London. Following 16 years as an accidental pop star she now divides her time (unequally) between Berlin and West Yorkshire. Jude on Twitter.