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

IMG_9914.jpg

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.

On Potsdamer Straße (to see an old friend)

796534169_ff029011d2_o.jpg

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. 


PEN & Paper Aeroplanes: Sam Jordison for Narges Mohammadi

Sam 3.JPG

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 Sam Jordison for Narges Mohammadi:

In May 2016, the Revolutionary Court of Iran sentenced Narges Mohammadi to 16 years in jail. Charges included being a member of an organisation called “Step by Step to Stop the Death Penalty” and “committing propaganda against the state.” 

One of the main focuses of that propaganda campaign was to stop the state killing juvenile offenders. 

Which is to say, children.

She’s now in the Evin prison alongside Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe.  There she sometimes endures solitary confinement. She’s ill. She has a neurological disorder which causes muscular paralysis…  Yet, Evin prison officials denied her access to an neurologist for over a year. It’s partly for that reason that early this year Narges went on hunger strike. Since then, her health has deteriorated further. And it’s all too clear she hasn’t had the help she needs.

There’s a lot more to her story that I’d urge you to look into. And, of course, when you read that story, you’ll want desperately to help. And for Narges, there is something you can do. If you visit the website her friends and supporters have set up, the first thing you will see is a gallery of photos of mountains from around the world. The website explains:

“Foremost, we hope to raise awareness for Narges Mohammadi’s case, so that she is released and free to explore all these mountains and places, along with her family.”

Narges Mohammadi’s hobby used to be mountain climbing. When she was a university student, she was banned from mountaineering because of her political and human rights-related activities. She has been kept from the mountains ever since – but now people are sending her these pictures. I don’t know if she can see them in prison, but there’s still something  about this gesture. The photographs represent beauty and freedom: an alternative world were Narges is able to roam where she wants, enjoy nature on her own terms and feel the wind on her face. These pictures are also touching as individual acts of kindness. The people who have gone to the trouble of sending them are really sending solidarity and hope. 

I’ve tried to take inspiration from those people in what follows. I want to give my own small gift to Narges, which will be a walk on the mountain I love the most.

Actually, it’s more of a hill. It’s called Whitbarrow and it lies on the edge of the Lake District. Its summit is only 705 feet above sea-level – but that summit does glory in the name of Lord’s Seat. 

The rest of the hill, meanwhile, a long, exposed limestone escarpment laid down in the carboniferous period 350 million years ago, is a site of Special Scientific Interest, full of rare habitats, glacial erratics, and unusual rock formations. 

It’s an incredible place – but don’t take it from me. In his book the Outlying Fells of Lakeland, the great bard of fell-walkers Alfred Wainwright describes a walk up Whitbarrow as “the most beautiful in this book; beautiful it is every step of the way. ... All is fair to the eye on Whitbarrow.”

Which is true. But I love it especially, because it’s the hill behind my Mum’s house and I go up there all the time. 

From her front door, I just turn left onto a farm road, and I’m climbing. 

I go through a wooden gate at the top of the lane, and up though a steep field where lambs play in spring, and where, in winter, if it snows, the sledging is second to none.  At the end of the field there’s a style leading into a small wood, carpeted with bright bluebells in April and May, or where in summer, the air is thick and potent with wild garlic in and in late Autumn everything is dark and dripping. 

A short slippy trudge through this wood takes you to three old stone steps up the side of the wall. Then, a steep diagonal path up a bank and on to a stony, muddy track (which is inexplicably marked as a road on some maps, and so, every so often destroys a luckless lost saloon car… )

Leave this path quickly, cutting upwards to the right, through another, field, stonier now and scrubbier. There are thick bramble bushes that deliver sweet and tangy blackberries in early Autumn ---  and scratches for the unwary the rest of the time.

Another gate, a short climb and then it’s just sky and the long stretch of the escarpment. The path cuts through a small declivity, so you don’t get the full view yet, but no matter. The hill top itself is lovely enough, a big empty expanse of brown grass and heather and rocks, punctuated by just a few wind-battered trees and hawthorn and juniper bushes. It’s bleak and stony – but that has its own rugged charm. Not to mention its own unique interest. There’s a limestone pavement to the left of the path. It’s a geographer’s dream of clints and grykes and a special, ancient place… 

And on we go. Don’t get too distracted because the track is generally pretty muddy and there are loose rocks to watch for. Also, gigantic hairy red cows with long horns. They don’t do much more than stand around chewing the cud and looking scenic, but let’s not bump into them…

The path is flat now, riding the top of the outcrop.  After a gentle, but nonetheless elating couple of kilometres, we get to a high dry stone wall, built over a hundred years ago, by unknown hands, one carefully selected rock at a time. It stretches out over the top, as far as the eye can see… After that a small pine copse, before the path leads you past some miniature limestone escarpments that look for all the world like scale models of the hill you’re on… Then take a sharp right for Lord’s seat and the summit…

Which is where the magic really begins. 

Because my mum’s house is so well situated for the hill, and because I’m a father and early mornings no longer hold any fear for me, I’ve quite often made it up there just after sunrise. I ran up there this winter just past on a day so foggy that it felt as if it was actually getting darker as the dawn progressed – until, at least, I got to the last slope towards the cairn at Lord’s Seat. That took me above the mist, and I found myself looking out over splendours suddenly visible under the rising sun. Morecambe Bay and the Kent estuary and the Irish Sea to the south, another temporary sea of rolling fog in the valley below and to the West and beyond that the outlines of the Lake District mountains brightening into sharp focus: Cartmel Fell, the Old Man of Coniston, the Langdale Pikes… The names are evocative enough in themselves. But it’s the feeling you get. The strange elation of mountains… Of their long campaign against time. Of their hugeness in the face of humanity. Of their stillness and silence. These are places we can’t touch, we can’t spoil. I can’t properly verbalise that feeling. But it’s the same excitement that moved the romantic poets to write about sublime nature – and, I’m guessing, which motivated all those people to send in pictures for Narges.

In the early morning there’s an extra selfish pleasure too. If you get there early enough, Lord’s Seat can be yours. You can be king or queen of the mountain. Later on there will be more panting joggers,.  Walkers will enjoy well-earned cups of tea here. There won’t be so many people that it ruins things, and everyone I’ve ever met at the summit has been cheerful. But there’s something special about feeling alone amongst all that beauty…

I enjoy this solitude especially, because I know it will soon end. In fact, most of the time when I’m there, I’m not even really alone. My dog will be with me, tail wagging, making the most of things, sharing and adding to the joy of being there. I also know that when I get back I’ll get to see my family… My Mum’s house has a glass front door leading to the kitchen, and as I approach I generally see my daughter sitting at the table having breakfast --- and that’s better than all the other views in the world. 

And I wish that simple delight for Narges. I wish the day will come soon when she can enjoy the companionable loneliness and freedom of mountains.

As it is, we know what she has to endure. Harder still, she’s a mother of young children and she has been denied the most basic and deepest joy of knowing that the next hello is just a short walk away. 

If I may, I’d like to finish with an extract from a poem she wrote in September 2017 called Three Goodbyes:

Three goodbyes and a separation, like dying three times
When Ali and Kiana were just three and a half years old

I was arrested by the security guards when attacking my home
Kiana had just had an operation and it was only a couple of hours I had come home.
She had a temperature
When the security guards were searching the house, they allowed me to put the kids to bed.
I put Ali on my feet, and rocked him, and patted him
And softly sang him a lullaby
He slept
Kiana was restless. She had a temperature, and was scared.
She’d felt the fear
She’d clung her arms around my neck
And I, as if gradually sinking,
Was separated from them
When I was going down the stairs, leaving the house
Kiana was left crying in her father’s cuddle
She called me back three times
Three times I came back to kiss her…

When Ali and Kiana were eight and a half, I got them ready for school in the morning
And they left
The security guards attacked my home again
This time Ali and Kiana were not home
I picked up their photo from the bookshelf
And kissed them goodbye
And was led to the car
With men who had no mercy
And now in September 2017

I have not seen them in two and a half years
My writing might not be correctly worded

But it has the certainty of feeling – the pain of mothers throughout history
The mothers who take pride in their convictions from one side, and feel the pain of conviction being away their children taken away.

Narges Mohammadi
September 2017, Evin

It’s June 2019 now. It’s time she was allowed to see them. 

***

About Narges Mohammadi: Narges is an Iranian journalist and human rights defender, who is currently detained in prison – the same prison as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe – has frequently been kept in solitary confinement, and suffers from a chronic and painful health condition that is not being properly treated.

About Sam Jordison: Sam is an author, journalist and publisher. He is the co-director of the award-winning Galley Beggar Press. He writes about books for The Guardian. He has also written over ten non-fiction books including the best-selling Crap Towns series and a book about Brexit and Trump called Enemies Of The People.






Sunrise to sunset: walking Kolkata

P1020413 black and white.jpg

By Alex Cochrane:

Kolkata has been called a city of furious energy, the city of joy, a dying city. It is teeming, intense, broken and modern, old British empire and a stronghold of Bengali pride and culture. It’s crumbling and developing, wealthy and poor. It’s digested a tragic history but has a unique soul where it’s almost obligatory to have chats, or ada, with random strangers in the streets.

Four am and I’m drifting through a north Kolkata neighbourhood. The streets are quiet, owned by scuttling rats and packs of dogs who strut and bark at my intrusion. It’s their time to own the streets. The night’s storms have slickened the streets and freshened the air.

Figures swathed in cloth sleep on the pavements, on rickety frames, under rickshaws, on mats, on ledges and on carts. Whole families curled up together under tarpaulin shelters, their washing strung out on nearby railings. The poverty is not as bad as it used to be, but it’s still a depressing sight.

The first tram of the day clanks and grinds its way through the still-dark streets. We sit in first class where instructions are written in English, for the old British colonialists. The streets are still silent but there are flashes of activity. The wholesale markets are up and running. We pass through one at the crossroads with huge mounds of coconuts; another has bundles of sugar cane ready for distribution to the juice crushers.  At another crossroads, groups of men stand around, sipping on early morning chai. These are the mechanics waiting for work.

Now the day is getting started - fires are being coaxed into life, figures are stirring, families are washing by the gushing street standpipes. Lights are lit on chai stalls cubby holes, pavement stalls. Power is hijacked from spaghetti junctions of illegal hook-ups. The first of the porters are pulling carts with huge piles of cooking pots. The crows hop about, looking for food and material to build their nests.

Soon it will rev up to full throttle, to the full cacophony of noise and traffic. Soon, along Rabindra Sarani or Chowringee Road, the pavements will be choked with so much trading you’ll be forced to walk on the road. The streets will smell of ghee, spices, urine, overripe fruit, smoke, pollution and incense from the Hindu street shrines. The beggars will rattle their tins and the rickshaw wallahs will ring their bells to attract business.

Since I was last in India, I had forgotten how busy its streets could be. The streets come at you from all angles - broken pavements to trip you, traffic to dodge and open drains to avoid.  The traffic is ferocious and fluid, furiously flowing round the ambling street sweepers with their carts of rubbish. The traffic snarls, beeps and roars at itself. Hawkers sleep, hawkers hustle, hawkers hawk. Conductors shout their destinations from ramshackle colourful buses that bolt off with sudden manic energy. Kids play cricket on a bit of wasteland amongst the tramlines.

Is this chaos intoxicating or overwhelming? In his book, The Epic City, Kushanava Choudhury, explores his ambivalent relationship with Kolkata. “Calcutta”, he writes, “is an impossible place”. When he was a boy he dropped a water bottle into an open drain and watched sink into the dark sludge with a great sense of loss. “Any of us, any time, could fall into the black river that bubbled below the sidewalks of our city and be sucked into oblivion.” This city built on a swamp that compels him to return home from New Jersey to the astonishment of his family.

We walk to the flower market in the shadow of the Hooghly Bridge. Great mounds of flowers are gently emptied out of large sacks. The sparrows descend on the flowers in search of insects. The market is a muddy warren divided into sections for marigolds, roses, leaf. The mobile flower sellers wander off with lines of orange and yellow flowers hanging down from around their neck. They put their hands on their heads to avoid crushing their delicate wares.

Pushing through the marketplace, we emerge onto the ghats where locals are bathing and washing. A man sluices out a row of pools for the birds to drink from.  By the river, a priest is blessing a man. They are crouching down with incense and flowers at their feet. A group of men with shaved heads watch and wait nearby. An air of sadness hangs round for them for this is a ritual of grief for those who have  a lost a parent.

P1020511-01.jpeg

We catch a ferry. I’m astonished when I see a man latch onto to the tyre on the side of the ferry, surfing with the wash. No-one bats an eyelid. This is why I love India. As the ferry nears the jetty, the man hauls himself onto the ferry and dives into the river, swimming to a jetty with moored fishing boats.

From the ferry, we walk to Kumartuli, the neighbourhood where gods and demons emerge out of clay and mud. It’s a warren of workshops, where statues are lined-up in all the different stages of creation - from crude straw and mud forms to colourful, painted gods waiting for transportation. We stop off to feast on delicious Bengali sweets and pastries.

Back around Park Street, men listlessly sit about or sleep under carts, sit at doorways to dark interiors, waiting for the intense heat of the afternoon to pass. Business has slackened a little but the pavement still offers every service you could need. Have a crumpled shirt? The iron wallah will sort with an old heavy iron heated up by a charcoal burner. Men stand ready with the tools of their trade at their feet - extracting wax from your ears, repairing your mobile, cutting your hair, polishing your shoes.

The evening sun floods the rooftops with a golden red glow as it quickly sinks away. Kites soar around the buildings, scouting for prey. Lizards scamper amongst the flower pots. Then in the last flush of daylight, it begins, the first murmur, then a growing sacred chorus rising and drifting across the city. It’s the call to prayer, the mosques summoning the faithful. As the call tails off, the sun sinks behind the horizon on this city of endless contradiction and its ceaseless human parade.

***
Alex Cochrane is based in Glasgow and blogs about exploration, travel, history, historical erotica and other curiosities on his website. You can also follow Alex on Twitter at @alexdcochrane. You can also see more images from his Kolkata walk here.

Dispatches from Olsztyn - Practitioners

Photo 11-05-2019, 14 44 25.jpeg

By Marcel Krueger:

This year, I have been selected as the official writer in residence of Olsztyn in Poland by the German Culture Forum for Eastern Europe, and until September I will be living here, observing, taking part in cultural activities organised by my 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 www.stadtschreiber-allenstein.de in German, Englisch and Polish (thanks to my official translator a.k.a. my Polish voice Barbara Sapala). But I will also write irregular dispatches from Olsztyn for the Elsewhere blog. As an amuse gueule, here is one of my first pieces for the Stadtschreiber blog, about a wander along the local river.

***

“Walkers are 'practitioners of the city,' for the city is made to be walked. A city is a language, a repository of possibilities, and walking is the act of speaking that language, of selecting from those possibilities. Just as language limits what can be said, architecture limits where one can walk, but the walker invents other ways to go.”
― Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

I like walking. This seems to be an odd statement, given that anyone does that on a daily basis. But I think we don’t walk enough these days, and not consciously enough. Or, as writer and editor Paul Sullivan writes in his essay Walking the City:

Like writing someone a letter by hand, visiting a friend across town spontaneously or just sitting on a bench and watching the world go by, the act of meandering slowly through the city streets with no particular destination in mind is one of life’s simple pleasures – and an almost entirely lost art. While most of us would argue that we do stroll through the city to some extent – to the post office, through the park, around the block – a combination of factors, chief among them a general deficit of leisure time and an abundance of convenient public transport options, conspire to ensure we usually don’t get very far on foot.

So during my first week in Olsztyn I did what I always do when I want to learn about a place: I went for a walk. I actually went on a walk every day, though some days I cheated by taking a bus or the tram. I first drew circles in and around the old town with my feet, exploring the main thoroughfares and shopping centres, but also the back alleys, laneways and suburbs of the city.

For me, someone who is now living in a central location and without a car, Olsztyn really is a city that lends itself to walking. The new parks along the Łyna river (the German Alle) are pleasant places to stroll and to linger, and on Friday afternoon there where students and teenagers sitting under bridges or on the wooden steps that lead down to the water, swigging from beer cans and smoking; office workers on their lunch break sat on benches and licked ice cream, parents leisurely pushed buggies along the pathways left and right of the river.

Photo 07-05-2019, 14 29 46.jpeg

From the parks, I then walked northwards, past the castle from 1346 and the Warmia brewery from in a former mill building from 1868, and finally under the railway viaducts from 1871 and 1893 and the newer road bridges into the city forest proper. Every time I see the viaducts I’m reminded of Robert Budzinki’s tongue-in-cheek travel book 'Die Entdeckung Ostpreußens' (The Discovery of East Prussia).

Budzinski (1874 -1955) was a painter, graphic artist and author, and – even though he himself was born in East Prussia in Klein-Schläfken (Sławka Mała today) – in 1913 published his 'travel book' which is not only full of wonderful woodcuts, but also sardonically talks about East Prussia as the proverbial distant eastern province. He also records the often exotic-sounding East Prussian place names, before they were 'Germanised' by the Nazis 20 years later:

During my wanderings I continuously discovered places with not very known but quite illustrious names; so that I often thought I was roving about in a magical landscape. One day I took the train from Groß-Aschnaggern to Liegentrocken, Willpischken, Pusperschkallen and Katrinigkeiten, breakfasted in Karkeln, arrived in Pissanitzen, Bammeln, Babbeln, and had dinner in Pschintschikowsken while aiming to overnight in Karßamupchen.

The book remains in print until today, which I think is a testament to his enduring humour and skill as an artist. From under the bridges then I made my way into the city forest proper, with the Łyna growing wider to my right and only the occasional biker disturbing my solitude. I like to be out, walking, slightly removed from the noise of the world. Or, as Walter Benjamin writes in 'Berlin Childhood around 1900', 'Not to find one’s way around a city does not mean much. But to lose one’s way in a city, as one loses one’s way in a forest, requires some schooling.' The beauty of Olsztyn is that the forest proper is never far – so I can train to get lost both here and in the city. The lady walking her dog just that came towards me on the forest path did not seem to agree with my Waldeinsamkeit: the look she gave me over the rim of her sunglasses seemed to suggest that only idiots stand in the middle of a forest and scribble in notebooks.

I continued for another 30 minutes before I decided to leave the Łyna valley and loop back to the city centre. I walked up the wooden slope right of the river and came across the Leśny Stadium, now almost completely reclaimed by grass and trees, where athlete Józef Szmidt (the so-called 'Silesian Kangaroo', born in 1935 and an honorary citizen of Olsztyn today) broke the world record for triple jump in 1960 with a length of 17.03 metres. I wonder if the soft peat soil here had something to do with that. Further on, I came across a graffiti of three knights on a wall, maybe a harmless reflection of the Teutonic Knights that haunted these woods long ago.

Photo 11-05-2019, 15 09 33.jpeg

A not so harmless reminder of the violent past was just up the road – two cemeteries of honour, one a German one with dead from both World Wars that was restored and is looked after by the German Minority Association of Olsztyn, with men who died in 1914 lying next to men who were born in 1914; and the other a small Russian plot, with no headstones left but a German memorial set up in 1914 that reads:

Here rest Russian soldiers who followed the orders of their ruler, found their death fighting against the liberators of East Prussia and are now buried far from their home

It seems a futile honourable gesture, something that would have surely not been set up following the industrialised mass murder of the Somme and Verdun and during the Brussilov offensive, which surely eradicated all humanity left then.

When I walked back from the cemeteries, my head full of somber thoughts, chance and sunlight and the city cheered me up: a pizza taxi stopped near the forest entrance and two teenage girls emerged from the woods, inexplicably wearing white plastic antennae and white plastic fairy wings. They paid for the pizza and skipped back into the woods, to what I can only imagine must have been the first fairy pizza picnic of spring in Olsztyn this year.

The People's Forest

The Peoples Forest with type-small.jpg

We’ve been following The People’s Forest project with interest, rooted as it is in place and what it inspires. Co-curated by Kirsteen McNish and Luke Turner, The People’s Forest includes a programme of events, talks, gigs and artistic collaborations, and continues the history of great writers drawing inspiration from nature and the outdoors to present a literary programme designed to seek out new writing related to Epping Forest – London’s strange and wonderful woodland, and its unique history that has been shaped and maintained by man.

As part of the project,  Faber New Poet and Caught by the River poet-in-residence Will Burns will create a series of new works inspired by Epping Forest. Over the year Burns will pen a collection of poems, one per season, in part reflecting on the unique nature of Epping intertwined with his own experience of the forest real and imagined, and we are extremely pleased and proud to announce that we will be publishing one of the forthcoming poems here on the Elsewhere: A Journal of Place blog.

Burns has proposed a long walk from Wendover Woods to Epping Forest, revisiting the physical act that his mother made in her lifetime, and as a family unit twenty years ago. This journey will in part shape the latter part of the series and will revisit family history, memory and these two forests many miles apart. This journey will cross the rivers and chalk streams and hillsides of this odd and lost middle land between the capital and the bulk of the country. He will also be exploring what this strip of lush, wooded country means - this dividing line, in this divided time.

Will’s first poem “The Word For Wood” appeared in Caught By The River’s online journal in March that conjures up themes of isolation, crisis and crossroads:

The fertility symbols of other, older cultures
harass me through the cold wood.
The sounds of jackdaws going berserk
(though the sound is not their name…).
I might as well come clean—
all this is to impress somebody else
though they have long given up interest.
First I read they had left the conversation,
then I watched them leave the house,
finally I heard they left town

Speaking about the project and his connection to the location, Burns said:

“Epping Forest has loomed strange in my imagination since childhood. I grew up just outside its shadow, in Enfield, and my mother was born in Epping itself without ever knowing the place. Since moving out of London at 10, I have always loved woods – either 'my own’ out here in Wendover, or others that I’ve visited. They are places unlike any other in our imaginations and I feel as if there is a whole chapter of my memory linked to that part of London but somehow missing. I hope to recover it through a year of walking and thinking and writing in the forest.”

We are really excited to read more from Will as the project continues and we hope to bring more from The People’s Forest to our readers in the coming months. For the full programme of events taking place, click here.

Passages / Transambulare

20190127_183959 (1).jpg

By Anna Evans:

The passage is a city, a world in miniature.
– Walter Benjamin

Our walk back through the city, in the fading light, when everything starts to look different. We take the Metro upwards, with the idea that we can descend back towards the centre via a series of steps marking our route. I am charged with navigating streets unknown to me: guesswork, anticipating the disorienting effects of the darkness. Already, it begins to fold over us, obscuring the paths we take, bending downwards through the lit city streets.

You expect the secrets of the streets to unveil themselves like a map, as if you could look at them from above; but they only come step by step, there is no panoramic view.

It is at this time of day that the city begins to reveal itself. When street lamps are lit, exposing walls and the narrow passageways between buildings. The lights illuminate brightly so that the wall seems cast in yellow stone, and the shadows of overlooked corners steal away to find new hiding places.

The shutters suggest a neglected abandon, broken and crumbling. For a moment I am mesmerised, drawn inwards to claustrophobic interiors, the living darkness; concealment of unspeakable shadow. Echoes of the uncountable possibilities of the concave life of the city.

Out on the streets daytime is retreating, furtively, while the night is lit up like a museum display. Steps leading upwards, and at their base the silent scream of graffiti on walls. Unabashedly colourful, it becomes a mural, taking its place within the narrative of the streets.

As we walk, you identify one of the symbols that mark the famous passageways, the lion’s head, and opening the heavy wooden door we enter, perhaps there is a passage through. At the entrance I take a photograph…

***

It has been a day of wandering streets, drawn into courtyards and entrances, seeking glimpses of interiors, arches and vaulted ceilings. The traboules, the network of passages between buildings, crossing through the streets of old Lyon.

When the city was occupied in the Second World War, Resistance fighters used this system of passageways to evade the Gestapo and as meeting or drop-off points. Perhaps this is why they feel underground in some way, like stumbling upon the unseen and hidden side of the city. An in-between space, they suggest undercover operations, secrets and trespass, a code you have to know about; off the map.

They are a passage through where it looks like there is none.

***

The photograph shows a series of staircases lit up, rising to the top of the building. Railings ascending, the stairwells connect the floors, crossing sides and linking them together. The stairway exposed, ironwork and stone pillars; it is as though one partition, one side of the edifice has been removed, like a doll’s house.

In the photograph, the yellow light is eerie; it accentuates murkiness and incandescence. The ascent of the stairs a gradual slant upwards, shadowy and bending towards the reflected cast of iron railings. Lit up, haunted space. Through the closed door the city continues, spilling its inside into the outside. It is like seeing what usually takes place under cover, behind the walls of the building. Like an undercover car park, subterranean and suggestive. The illusion of mystery; what it looks like when no one is around.

Looking at the photograph, I notice the figure again; remembering how entering the passage had seemed like an intrusion, into a space we thought was empty. In the way that cities have always that possibility of an encounter, in passing by or meeting another, in crossing over. Footsteps following onwards.

In the contrast between bright and dark, the figure both blends in and is exposed. Like a shadow emerging from the walls of the building, ghostlike, and appearing only as the photograph is taken. An apparition. An echo of the light and the shadow. As if the figure is both there and not there.

It is the stillness of the figure that strikes me now. It is as though they have been sitting a long time, on the stairs, outside of laws and history. The lit cigarette, like a pause. The brightness of the light making a silhouette. The smallness of a human figure positioned in space and timeless, against the city streets. A witness to all the hidden and secret encounters, and to everything that might take place in a passageway.

***

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


Seven Days Walking by Ludovico Einaudi

"I remember that in January 2018 I often went for long walks in the mountains, always following more or less the same trail…”

Ludovico Einaudi is a prolific Italian composer and pianist, and has published 20 albums since 1988. In his work he is often influenced by the quotidian and nature: his album 'Una Mattina' is the perfect soundtrack for a lazy spring morning with a book and a good coffee, and in 2016 he recorded a heartbreaking 'Elegy for the Arctic' for Greenpeace. 

His latest project is 'Seven Days Walking', a series of seven albums that will be published in the next seven months; all focusing on a different day of the same walk in the Alps, and how the days change while walking, slowly but discernible. 

"The idea first came to me as I was listening to the recordings of the first sessions: each version seemed to me to have its own personality, with subtleties so distinct from one another that I was unable to choose which I preferred. I associated everything with walking, with the experience of following the same routes over and over, discovering new details each time. And so in the end I decided to thread them all together in a sort of musical labyrinth, a little like stepping inside the twists and turns of the creative process, to understand how a musical idea can develop in multiple directions, and changing once again at the moment in which it is heard."

You can listen to the album through a variety of different services here.

An Autumn Sunday afternoon walk around Rawhead

Rawhead_Julia.jpg

By Julia Bennett

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

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

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

silver birch leaves burnished gold;

blood red rowan berries;

prickly sweet chestnut tempting hungry squirrels.

Trees frame distant views:

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

… black rooks somersaulting against the blue-grey sky …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

in the spring a cuckoo;

summer occasionally brings the insistent tapping of woodpeckers;

autumn, the rustling of pheasants in the maize stalks;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Macdonald.jpg

Read by Marcel Krueger:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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