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. 


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.

Record Release: Outcrops, by Spaceship

Listened to by Paul Scraton:

Spaceship is Mark Williamson, a musician and sound artist based in West Yorkshire, and today marks the release of ‘Outcrops’, a site-specific, haunting and melodic album that is not only inspired by the landscapes of northern England but was recorded there. The sandstone outcrops can be found above the town of Todmorden, and the album was recorded in place, with Williamson taking his synth up into the rocks to create the pieces encased in small caves. Each of the tracks on the album is named for its location and incorporates field recordings and found sounds, and was also created to evoke a particular phase in the geological history of the outcrops – Orchan Rocks evokes the Ocean, Bride Stones the Glacier and so on. This story is also lyrically told in the sleeve notes, describing the rivers as they “surged from the uplands,” the “peaceful, aquatic interlude between the ever-shifting chaos,” and the ice as it “plucked and scraped and tore at the land…”  

Crossing the Pennine hills a few weeks ago it came to me once again that how we interpret a landscape, how it makes us feel, is tied to what we know about it – the stories we have heard and what we bring with us as we approach it. The same can be true of works of art. What we know of the author or the painter, the musician or the photographer can shape our interpretation of a work, whether we want it to or not. The knowledge of how it was created feeds into our experience. I sit at my desk in Berlin and listen to the Spaceship album and I can picture the sandstone outcrops and the fields beneath the moors as behind the melodies I’m sure I can hear the wind blow and the birds call. Are they there? I’m not sure. But I know one thing: the next time I cross the Pennine hills the tracks from this album will echo. I have added to my collection, the one that helps me understand a place. The hills will be different somehow. That’s the power of art, the power of music. The power of storytelling, in all its forms.

***

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‘Outcrops’ by Spaceship is available on 12” and download, and is released on 24 May 2019 by wiaiwya.


Mark Williamson on twitter
Spaceship on soundcloud



Imagined Cities: Stories from Berlin and Beyond

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Some familiar faces and new friends are getting together in Berlin on Sunday 5 May for a a literary event at the Sir Savigny Hotel, hosted by Influx Press. Our editor in chief Paul Scraton and contributor to Elsewhere No.01 Gary Budden will be reading, along with Berlin-based writers Donna Stonecipher, Linda Mannheim and Charlotte Wührer.

IMAGINED CITIES: Stories from Berlin and Beyond, is a night of literature exploring urban spaces and how we write them – from the German capital to London and New York – and the event will feature flash fiction, prose poetry, short stories and excerpts from city-based novels. It promises to be a lot of fun and we hope to see our Berlin-based friends there!

Sir Savigny Hotel
Kantstraße 144, Berlin (Google Maps)
7pm – Entry Free
Facebook Event Page


Sound of the times: Chalk Hill Blue by Will Burns & Hannah Peel

By Paul Scraton:

The final track reaches an end and the record stops. I pick it up and turn it over. Start again from the beginning. The music comes in waves, a fragmented, crackling, sweeping electronica that brings first to mind a desire path close to my mum’s in Yorkshire, where it passes beneath a huge, humming electricity pylon in the grounds of an old asylum transformed into a whole new village on the edge of the moors. But then I am taken, via a gentle voice, to the chalk landscapes of the south, and the stories to be found if we only “look beyond the intensive agriculture, the lookalike market towns, the wealth, the gold course and the four-wheel drive cars…”

Chalk Hill Blue is the name of a butterfly that can be found in those chalk landscapes around Wendover in Buckinghamshire, where the poet Will Burns lives and writes. It is also the name of the album Burns has created with the artist, producer and composer Hannah Peel, with his words and her music coming together to create a haunting, unsettling and strangely beautiful portrait of a place and its stories. Burns and Peel met in 2016 and two years later began working on the album. Sometimes the music came first, with Burns then selecting the poem that fit best with the sounds Peel was composing. Sometimes it was the poem that inspired the composition. The result was this album, released by Rivertones label of Caught by the River.

In a way this album is specific, telling as it does the stories of a particular place and of particular moments in time. The track titles themselves are rooted in location (Ridgeway), season (Spring Dawn On Mad Mile, Summer Blues), date (May 9th, February) and, of course, the local wildlife (Chalk Hill Blue). It is an attempt, as has already been mentioned, to look beyond the identikit everywhere of the 21st century world and find the real place that lies within or beneath. And it is a recognition that there are elements that have been lost. This might be true of the stories, which are now half-remembered, or the routines, work lives and traditions of the people. This loss it is most definitely felt when the album considers those other lives, the non-human lives, with which a place is shared. There is, Burns writes in the sleeve notes, “not as much as there should be, no, we must admit that.”

If stories, of people and other living things, of places and what they contain, exist only in memory then they become by nature fragmented and infused with loss. This atmosphere of change, melancholy and absence permeates Chalk Hill Blue and is perhaps why, on the second and third listen, I am taken away from Wendover once more and back to my mum’s Yorkshire village and then on, to the flat landscapes around Berlin or an empty square in a crumbling French market town. For while the album tells the fragmented stories of a particular place, it resonates because of the questions it poses for places far beyond:

What role does place play in our identity?
What does belonging mean?
How do we find our feet in an ever-shifting world?
How do we make sense of what has been lost?

There is a danger in these questions, but it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be asked. Questions of home and belonging, of the lost stories of place and an impending environmental catastrophe are key questions of our time. It is not possible to observe the movements that gave us Brexit, the rise of the AfD in Germany or the Gilets Jaunes of the French periphery without understanding how these questions link in. As we mop out our flooded towns and we try to protect our villages from raging forest fires, as we wonder where the bees have gone or why the cranes are staying through the winter, these questions return to us time and again.

These are uncomfortable questions, and it is to Will Burns’ and Hannah Peel’s credit that Chalk Hill Blue provokes us to ask them. We cannot ignore them. We have to find the answers to these questions and find the answers that are not rooted in nostalgia or the exclusion of others. There is no going back. However we find a answer, and one which rejects the dead ends of nationalism and nativism, the first step is to tell the stories. The first step is to know what is happening. How did we get here? It can be the role of music, of poetry and of art, to bring those stories to light. Through its thoughtful, thought-provoking poetry and beautiful, atmospheric music, Chalk Hill Blue does just that.

***

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Will Burns & Hannah Peel will be performing Chalk Hill Blue live at dates around the UK. More info on Caught by the River here. The album is released by Rivertones and is available on CD or 12” Vinyl here.

Paul Scraton is the editor in chief of Elsewhere: A Journal of Place. His debut novel Built on Sand is published by Influx Press in April 2019.

And we're back... with a call for submissions!

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Did you miss us? It has taken a little longer than we would have liked but the good ship Elsewhere is sailing once more. Starting this week, we will be bringing more writing, visual arts, music, events, interviews and other place-related literature and art to the Elsewhere: A Journal of Place website as well as a revamped newsletter detailing everything we are up to that we plan to send out twice a month. You can sign up for the newsletter here. To get us started though, the big news is that we have finalised our plans for the next print issue of the journal, and we want your submissions.

ELSEWHERE NO.06: TO THE MOUNTAINS!

The sixth issue of our print journal will be published in Autumn 2019 in a limited edition print run and we have opened a submissions window that will run until the 30 June.

We are doing something different with this sixth edition of our print journal and invite submissions of prose, poetry, illustration, photography or other visual arts that are related to our theme of place and that have the name of an individual mountain as the title.

GUIDELINES FOR PRINT SUBMISSIONS

Beyond the limitations set by the title, for prose (fiction or nonfiction) there is an upper word limit of 5000 words and we would like to read completed pieces. For visual arts we are happy to consider a proposal but it would be great to see some examples of your work. Please send all submissions for Elsewhere No.06 to paul@elsewhere-journal.com.

Please note that, unfortunately, we do not pay contributors to Elsewhere. We have long had this as our aim, but the project as it is right now cannot sustain it. As a literary journal with a small print-run and sales, with no advertising or any external support, we have very little room for manoeuvre. In the four years since we have launched, neither Paul, Julia or any of the team have been paid for their work on the journal.

Remember: The deadline for all submissions is 30 June 2019

WRITING FOR THE BLOG

We are always open to submissions for the blog where there is no theme other than place. We are especially interested in work that would benefit from being published online, such as film and music, and when it comes to prose we rarely accept work for online publication that is more than 1000 words. To submit your writing, photography, artwork, music, illustration or film on the subject of place for the blog the address is paul@elsewhere-journal.com.

EVENTS & EXHIBITIONS

We would also like to use the blog to showcase any place-related events, readings and exhibitions, anywhere in the world. If you have something that you think would be of interest to our readers, please let us know.

PRE-ORDERS FOR ELSEWHERE NO.06

The financial situation at a literary journal such as ours is always precarious, and so we will be hoping to sell as many copies of Elsewhere No.06 in advance as possible. Unlike with previous issues, No.06 will be only available through our website. We will be making the issue available for pre-order in the summer so please sign up for our newsletter to keep track of where we are up to. In the meantime, if you would like to support the journal, please consider buying one of our back issues or a double set via our online shop.

We are really pleased to be moving with Elsewhere once more, and we can’t wait to see what we get, both for the print issue and also for here on the blog. Thanks to everything who has supported the project up to now, and for your patience since Christmas.

Paul & Julia


A Boxing Day Letter from Elsewhere

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Dear friends,

In that week between the celebrations of Christmas and the coming of the New Year, it often feels like a good time to stop for a while, take stock and think about all that has gone and all that is to come. We do this on a personal level and we also think about Elsewhere, this project of ours that began at the end of 2014 and which has seen us publish five editions of the print journal and countless articles, essays, stories and reviews online through the blog.

We have big plans for 2019, both in print and on the website, but before we begin we need a little break. So there will be radio silence from Elsewhere HQ over the next couple of weeks as we relax, walk, think and prepare for all that is to come. We will return at some point in late January with news of the next steps and how you can get involved. We hope that you will continue to join us on our journeys to Elsewhere and that you have an excellent start to 2019.

Ever onward!

Paul and Julia,
Berlin & Hamburg, December 2018


Music and place: Kitty Macfarlane's Namer of Clouds

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Review and Interview by Paul Scraton:

I first heard the music of Kitty Macfarlane on her EP ‘Tide & Time’ a couple of years ago and was immediately struck by both the beauty of her voice and the spirit of place to be found within the lyrics. ‘Wrecking Days’ was the standout song, with its stories of beachcombers stalking the shore, and it was great to hear it again in a new arrangement on Macfarlane’s debut album ‘Namer of Clouds’, which is released by Navigator Records this week.

All the tracks on ‘Namer of Clouds’ speak to our relationship with landscape, place and the environment, whether it is Macfarlane’s native Somerset on ‘Man, Friendship’ or the story of the last of the Sardinian sea silk seamstresses on ‘Sea Silk’. This is an album of haunting, lyrical music that asks the listener to consider her place in the world, the beauty to be found there and the consequences of our negligence or disinterest. On ‘Wrecking Days,’ Macfarlane describes what is left behind by the tide, and if there is poetry in the image of cuttlefish bones, there is certainly a warning in what else can be found on the beach, from the discarded fishing tackle to the plastic bottle tops, resting among the seaweed and stones.

This is thoughtful songwriting, whether in the original compositions or new arrangements of traditional folk ballads. The album closes with an artistic collaboration across the ages: on Inversnaid Macfarlane reworks a 150 year-old poem by Gerald Manley Hopkins about the importance of preserving the wilderness for future generations, a task that is as important now as it ever was.

You can hear ‘Man, Friendship’ and see the official music video below, and we are extremely grateful to Kitty Macfarlane for answering some of our questions about the album, her songwriting in general, and the importance of place in her work:

From the moment I heard Wrecking Days on the Tide & Time EP, it seemed clear to me that there is a distinct sense of place in your songwriting. What role do you feel place has in your work, and which places most influenced the songs on the new album?

'Place' isn't just a geographical location. It's bound up in the stories that span hundreds of years, the changing face of a landscape over time (and our part in that), the traditions that tie people to the land, and the inexplicable way certain corners of the world can make you feel. At school we are taught geography, history, art, chemistry... as if they are separate things. For me, songwriting pulls it all together. My album couldn't help but be a bit of a tribute to Somerset, where I am from – the scenery creeps into my songs almost by accident, along with the stories of the people and creatures that live there. That said, there is also a song set on a small Mediterranean island off Sardinia, and another which is a song-setting of a poem by Manley Hopkins about a Scottish stream. I wanted it to be an album of songs loosely bound by mankind's relationship with the land.

Of all the places you have written about or the landscapes that have otherwise inspired your work, which is your favourite?

Again and again my songs return to the beautiful and ancient Somerset Levels. They are a large low-lying wetland area of peat and clay with an eerie timeless quality - perhaps something to do with their yearly renewal by ruthless flooding. The Levels hold stories of ancient people preserved in the peat; of wandering Neolithic people on their wooden trackways; of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, conquering the Danes against all odds from his hiding place on the isle of Athelney; of the disastrous floods of 1607 where thousands of people perished; of the basket-makers and thatchers, the elver fishermen and cider producers. Man, Friendship deals with our steadily changing climate, the cruel floods across Sedgemoor and what is left for humanity to cling to when all else is washed away.

In February this year I went down to Shapwick Heath nature reserve on the Levels to watch the starling murmurations at dusk. I was surprised to find hundreds of other people with the same idea, and there we all stood, wrapped up in coats and scarves, while a hundred thousand winged bodies swelled above us, bound by some magnetic tether, a pulsing leviathan in the sky. I wrote Starling Song about this uncanny phenomenon, but it was more than just a spectacle for me - it felt like a moment of immense connection with humanity.

Glass Eel is a on the surface a song about the eels that have historically filled Somerset's waterways. Their colossal, near 4000 mile migration from the Sargasso Sea to Europe is one of science's great mysteries, and there are many parts of their enigmatic life cycle that we still don't understand. The song is about the constant motion of the Earth and everything on it – how we are all compelled by the same centrifuge that drives the eel. But the European Eel is now critically endangered, due to a loss of intertidal and wetland habitats, overfishing, and man-made obstacles to their mammoth journey. I think the plight of the lowly eel is strangely metaphorical for the problems our own species faces – our fragmentation of the land with motorways, dams and weirs is like the international fissures wrought on a global scale, our gluttony and overfishing relates to our wider exploitation of the environment, and the eel's journey recalls our own questions of rights to land, migration, and belonging.

Do you find yourself most inspired by places you know well, or have travels - on tour for instance, or otherwise - given you new places to write about?

There's a definite appeal to writing about places that are familiar, as they become entwined with so many unaccountable emotions and memories. But there is inspiration everywhere and it's exciting to think of how open-ended songwriting can be. For one of the songs on the album, Sea Silk, I travelled to Sant'Antioco, a small island off Sardinia to meet and interview an elderly Italian lady who is one of the last remaining people to create 'sea silk' in the authentic and traditional way. Sea silk is a very fine thread spun from the filaments or 'byssus' of giant endangered clams that live in the Mediterranean. It has extraordinary qualities which turn it from a dull brown to a brilliant gold in sunlight. The art of spinning sea silk has been practised for centuries, and is passed down through generations of women in Sant'Antioco – traditionally, it cannot be sold for profit, but must only be given away. It crops up throughout history here and there – Nefertiti's bracelets, King Solomon's robes, even perhaps Jason's golden fleece... but is shrouded in mystery. Chiara Vigo is a remarkable woman who has devoted her life to this art form, and it was incredibly special to hear her talk about how she learnt it from her grandmother as a girl.

To me it spoke of the historical relationship between women and textiles and the land, and the important roles women throughout the world have quietly performed in the background that are rarely acknowledged by the history books. I love knitting, and part of that is the feeling of connection with generations of women before me. I don't actually speak Italian, and Chiara doesn't speak English, which made for an interesting interview (luckily I brought a friend who could translate!) but when we showed each other our own knitted creations, it felt like we shared a common tongue. A recording of Chiara's rich italian speaking voice opens the song, along with part of a soft chanting folk song that she sang to us, that coincidentally happened to be in the right key... it all felt spookily preordained!

In the album notes it says that "the album is augmented by all kinds of 'found' sound." Can you tell us a bit more about this, and how you think this helps route your songs in the places you are writing about?

I really wanted the album to feature little pieces of the places that inspired the songs. We borrowed a portable mic and took field recordings in various locations – the chaotic waterfowl recorded at dawn from a hide on the Avalon Marshes set behind Starling Song (I saw my first Bittern while recording this!)the babbling brook with its restful birdsong to accompany Inversnaid, the crash of Sardinian waves behind Sea SilkMorgan's Pantry is a traditional song about the malicious 'Morgans' that live in the Bristol Channel, that allegedly come to the shore at the foot of a hidden waterfall on the North Coast. We set out to track down this waterfall, only accessible at low tide, from an Ordnance Survey map, and recorded the rush of water falling onto the rocks, which then formed part of the song's soundscape. Using found sound seemed to pay tribute to the people and places in the songs, and made the process feel like a sort of collaboration between myself and the wild.

What are your upcoming plans? Tour dates you'd like to tell us about... oh, and when will you be coming to play in Berlin?

I'm just about to set off on a big UK tour! It starts on the 4th October in the Lake District, then I'm off all over the country for 23 gigs in all. The two biggies though are my album launch shows in Bristol (10th November) and London Kings Cross (13th) – these will be really special evenings where I'll be playing with a full band with lots of treats and surprises... Unfortunately no European gigs yet, but I'd love to come and play in Berlin one day!

The Namer of Clouds by Kitty Macfarlane is released on 21 September 2018 by Navigator Records.

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… Szent Mihály, Balaton

Photo: Katrin Schönig

Photo: Katrin Schönig

By Paul Scraton:

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

Photo: Katrin Schönig

Photo: Katrin Schönig

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

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

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

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

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