Dispatches from the train: on becoming lost and found somewhere near Jackson, Mississippi

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By Anna Evans:

From the train, drifting through the land, America endless passes through windows. We are travelling from New York by train heading south. Long distance train travel foregrounds the journey itself – the hours stretch ahead of us and time passes differently. A whole litany of travel, of escape, of distance. This is travel for its own sake: departures and the unknown destination, the one yet to be arrived at. 

From New York we say goodbye swiftly, disappearing into a tunnel and emerging in New Jersey. Time passes easily: the names of the stations before us like a list unfolding. Counting the states as they roll by … New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Washington, Virginia … 

The landscape filters through the windows. Watching the outskirts of cities becoming central, immersed in the view from the window. Each place is a destination for someone, and at each station we await departure, glad to remain on the train with everything ahead of us, still a plan, an idea of travel; the onward pull of the train tracks. 

Windows frame the scenery, flickering still life by. To be in motion, like so many images coming together as a moving picture. Sitting still on a train this movement is entrancing. It is when I try to catch a moment of stillness and enclose it, that I get some sense of the speed we are travelling. Trying to read a sign at a passing station or recall someone glimpsed from the window. The view from the train is partial; momentary and suggestive.

Stepping out of the train at Washington, feeling the heat, feeling a difference. Sensing the unfamiliar, of places I have imagined but never seen. The names of the places resound through the announcements of the train conductor, coming up and down the carriage . . . Culpepper, Manassas. Small town America, picture perfect, while below the surface history crackles with tales of power struggles and the defeated. The railway tells stories of crossing a continent, of a means of leaving and becoming fugitive. 

As we travel it is hard not to think of all the unknown souls who laid down the tracks, lost to time. Immense bridges and river crossings connecting those vast expanses of land. All the images of pioneers and immigrants, wagons and horses, galloping across the horizon and as far as the eye can see, fabled legends of exploration myths and map-making. The iron road laid out as if to tame the land and mark out its boundaries, to fix and make permanent the story of a new world.

Shortly before our stop in Virginia, just as darkness is falling, the train comes to a stop. The storm has blown trees on the line. We wait in the middle of another huge forest, darkness outside, for news, for updates. Imagining great trees laid across the line, small figures scurrying around them. The falling night brings with it change and uncertainty.

America feels too big to begin, and I know that it makes no sense to think like this when I can track the progress of the train as I go. When it is restlessness that brought me here. I feel far from home, and the two impulses battle within me; my travelling spirit stretched to its limit, to the end of its comprehension. 

As the train travels through the night I am aware that we have barely scratched the surface of what lies beyond the next tree, the next horizon. Now I just feel lost. Is it possible to be lost when the train track winds onwards through the land, laid out piece by piece, when everything has been explained and laid to rest?

Except that no one really knows what lies beyond the measured miles, the boundaries of loss. 

***

We continue the journey by night. Our route passes through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana … People get on and off at stations along the way which I fail to wake at, pulled under by sleep, lulled by the movement, the sound of the train. Dimly aware of change, but cold, too cold, sheltering under the thin blanket, looking for a pillow to rest on. 

The fingers of sleep crept in stealthily and covered your eyes, tousled your hair, pushed you ever downwards, downwards. Sometimes you resurfaced and were crossing cities above like darkened shadows.

Train dreams are the ones that vanish through your fingers like the names of the stations while moving at speed. The train guards walking up and down the train. Good morning! First call for breakfast. Shifting, waking, looking out at the dawn, drifting again …

Onwards through the landscape, small settlements scattered through the tall and unending trees. Cities strung out in-between like troubled dreams. Passing, half imagined, the land divided into counties and marked out by rivers. Gatherings of houses and lights, the city like a dreamscape.  

Train dreams are the falling stars, the sleep that comes suddenly and takes over, the drifting and the sudden call back. The long and convoluted dreams that can only last a moment but that lie in infinite parallels circling back.

From the window, glimpses, snapshots, fleeting: time passing like something remembered you can touch. Travel makes you a stranger everywhere continually seeking for and casting off the sense of home. From the window impossibly long trails of freight cars. I picture the track that runs behind us, spooling away endlessly, lost into distance. The forlorn sound of the train, the sound for which the word was made, stretching outwards for-lorn.

Somewhere in the night we cross over to a time and space that feels different. Where time expands, and space widens. Overnight, recognition becomes replaced by a feeling of disassociation. That sometimes time reels out like so much track laid across the distance, when you try and picture the end of the line.

Waking to the morning light in Georgia. The train conductor passes calling out the names of the stops. Atlanta …

The railroad, the train track, always travelling, always moving on.

***

Travelling across America by train is like every song you ever heard that was melancholy and floated through you … in the telling of travel, departures and long distances, the lack of control over your own destiny, the loss of identity. The railroad reaches on into the distance, like the track spooling away behind, just out of view around the next bend.

Train songs, the names of destinations far away, connected, ever-connected by the railroad. The same music that America has been running from and tracing its way back to ever since. In these songs, departure and longing, distance and loss. Leaving the south, like exile and captivity, the weight of the journey and all those who dreamed of escape.

The longing of train songs; even if after roaming all those thousands of miles brings you to another place where things might be different, might be the same. 

The forlorn sound of the train approaching, like something remembered, already known. 

For a while in Alabama, the train follows the course of the river, a wild and overgrown bridge. The track winds off in the distance to vanished routes. 

As the hours and miles go by, distance starts to overwhelm us and we look out of the window, speaking less and less. The train travels through Alabama and Mississippi, deep and far away. Sitting in the buffet car, listening to the train staff talking. Apprehension comes with the falling of the light, the lengthening of afternoon, and the building clouds across the sky. We lack the words to explain, they hang between us, like the storm beginning to build outside.

Train words are the ones that fall between the ones we say, the ones that float between our window reflections and out into the trees like dandelion seeds; tiny parachutes looking for a safe landing.

Lost railroad tracks leading off into the trees. The lonely cry of the train through one track towns, passing once each day going south and once in the other direction. Long straight roads, white chapels and the highway out of town, past boarded up buildings and lone walkers. Leaving, becoming ghost towns, out on the road beyond the view from the train. The road that runs alongside the rail tracks. Becoming lost in distance. Lonely road, broken down town, marooned. 

The perfect vista as viewed from a train. Flickering sunlight from above, clouds on the horizon. In the viewing carriage of the train you can sit immersed in the landscape, and skylights offer a view of passing skies. I sit with book in hand, unopened, listening to the talk of other passengers, where they are going to, and where they have been. The way the light falls on the trees making some a golden yellow.

Evening comes, and then night falls with a formidable darkness. Something overcomes us, a deep and unending weariness we are unable to explain. Words fail us and we look out to the fading light as if to a great wave. My suffocated soul begins to accept, to comprehend the unending distance, to frame the land as a recognizable space. 

I carry it with me so that I know it will always be there like a longing.

***

Anna Evans is a writer from Huddersfield in the north of England, currently living in Cambridge. Her interests are in migration and literature, cities and movement, and she has completed an MA in ‘Writing the Modern World’ at the University of East Anglia. She is currently working on a project on place in Jean Rhys’s early novels, and you can follow her progress through her blog, And The Street Walks In.


Between the villages

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By Paul Scraton:

Tarmac becomes cobblestones becomes sandy soil as the old road leads out from the village towards the forest. At this end it is named for the village on the other side of the woods. Over there, it is named for this village. The way to… has linked the two communities for centuries, even if now the main road cuts through the forest away to the north and the railway to the south, leaving this track for those who travel by bicycle or those who make their way on foot, like in the old days.

At different points between the villages there has been artwork placed by the track, sharing the space with the pine and silver birch, oak and beech of the forest. They are sculptures of metal or plastic, glass or steel. They have been created to reflect the stories of this place, of this landscape. A pack of fake wolves, ghosts of the past to remind us of what was lost, placed in the woods only a few years before the real thing returned across the border to the east. A doorway to nowhere, to remind us of the lost villages of the region, abandoned to nature. Metal crates to remind us of… what? Of caged animals transported from shed to slaughter house? Or the way that dice falls, of how life changes. People move on. Others take their place. 

He rides his bike between the villages daily, ever since they closed the pub at the end of his street. Now, for his beer and schnapps, he has to ride the old way through the woods, past the fruit trees and the artworks, through the forest and across the fields. Tarmac and cobblestone. Sand to trap his tires. There’s always a stretch where he has to stop and push. He chooses not to ride on the road because it is too busy, with cars and farm vehicles, and the lorries that use this cut through between the motorways, shaking the village houses as they pass. It takes him about forty minutes on the track, often only meeting others within a short distance of each of the villages. He often has the section through the forest all to himself.

If he made the journey on weekends he would meet more walkers, out from the city to hike between train stations, ticking off the artworks as they go. Because he is elderly now, and wears his old working boots all year round, they look at him as if he is an exhibit himself, a bit of local colour, a genuine country dweller on his genuine country bicycle. They don’t know that he also came out from the city, all those years ago, to work in the brewery. That he found life so dull and strange in the country, a feeling that he never noticed leaving him until one day it was completely gone and he realised he was here to stay. He couldn’t have imagined it. 

How the dice fall. 

This has always been a land of exiles, a landscape of settlers. A thousand years ago they came from the west, possessors of the right religion and skills to work the sandy soil. Later, the refugees of war and the economies of elsewhere. He himself had come for work, for better prospects than in the city. After him came the hippies and back-to-the-land dreamers. And later still, sleeping five to a room in an old factory dormitory on the edge of town, those fleeing more modern wars. 

The pub in his village has closed. The brewery where he worked for thirty years, has long been abandoned. Now the beer is brought out from the city by lorry and the warehouse where he spent his days slowly crumbles, roof open to the elements and trees growing out of the brickwork. But he has to admit: the beer is better now, better than what they used to make. It wasn’t their fault. You can only work with what you’ve got. 

Those visitors, those weekend walkers, they like to think the countryside remains fixed, that while their city neighbourhoods shift on uneasy foundations, out here things stay the same. It is a comforting thought, but it has never been true. A thousand years of comings and goings. Villages that take their names from long forgotten languages, the traces of religions that have no more followers. He has lived it through his life since he left the city, and still it continues. In the pub he reads the local newspaper headlines. Old businesses fade into memory as new initiatives are launched in hope. Bands from a country that no longer exists get together for one last show. Beetles and fires ravage the forest. A new bridge is built to help the animals cross the motorway. He sees the changes on every ride between the villages. Trees are felled. The brewery crumbles. The wolves return. Only the the track stays the same. At some point, he always has to get off and push.

***

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.

Crimes of Miami

By Linda Mannheim:

I used to joke that Miami was the kind of place where, even if you weren’t a writer of crime fiction, you wound up writing crime fiction. I arrived there in the late 1990s. The drug wars of the 1980s were over. Edna Buchanan recalled Lincoln Road shootouts and the 5,000 violent deaths she covered for The Miami Herald in her memoir The Corpse Had a Familiar Face. But by the time I arrived, Lincoln Road was lined with art galleries and gelato parlours, one of Miami’s few good bookstores and buzzing German tourists.

And still there was something explosive in the air. In New York, people screamed at one another on the street, but the aggression didn’t mean anything – they moved on. In Miami, a man hinted he was going to pull a gun out of his car when I dared to challenge his idea that he had right of way when he was turning. Street harassment thrived in the tropical heat. South Beach was supposed to be the city’s most gay friendly neighbourhood, so why were so many men bothering me? The straight men are trying to show they’re straight, ventured a friend. My attempts at solitude were usually interrupted by smacked lips, sonorous sexual pronouncements, whispered profanity. 

I was alone in Miami. Or so it seemed to me. I lived in a little art deco apartment by myself that was mostly one big room. There was a separate little kitchen whose old linoleum tiles frequently came unstuck. Sometimes lizards climbed the walls and a ceiling fan in the main room slowly stirred the air. An old air conditioner drowned out the sounds of neighbours in the courtyard downstairs. When the window was open, you could hear everything – even the guy who lived underneath me complaining about how long it had been since he’d last had sex. You could hear the palm fronds rustling in the breeze. Salty air from the sea drifted over. The beach was only two blocks away.

The mythology of private eye stories and film noir is that the protagonist is always alone, unable to trust anyone. And I, in that place and time, was indeed alone, having discovered exactly who it was I couldn’t trust. And like the protagonists of shadowy black and white films, I’d been betrayed by the person I trusted the most. So it was perfect to be there --  in that city of heavy heat and wide streets, in that city of exiles, that city of unpredictability, that city of breathtakingly blue skies and glaring sunlight. The turquoise sea and the white sand seemed a consolation on some days. On others, the beauty was painful to see because there was no one to share it with. Miami was the perfect place to have a broken heart.

And yet, the fact that I’m still in touch with friends from that time means that I couldn’t have really been as alone as all that. And within weeks of being left, someone new had come along, so my loneliness couldn’t have been as constant as I remember it being either. But being carless meant that it was never easy to socialise. There was one trainline running through the town, a maze of unreliable busses all converging on the Omni Center in the middle of the city. Most people who rode busses stood outside the Omni Center at least twice a day. But when I tried to get friends with cars to meet me there, they had no idea what I was talking about.

Why don’t you buy a car? Asked a gee-whizz-voiced acquaintance. I knew the kind of car I could afford – the kind that broke down, left you by the side of the road, left you stranded. I wasn’t going to buy a car.

The city had brutal past and present. Car jackings, cocaine distribution, and corruption remained part of daily life even after the homicide rate went down, and whether you profited from this or were injured by it depended on who you were and where you lived. Did you live in the bright suburbs that looked like something out of E.T.? Or were you exiled to the bleeding rows of derelict motels lining the main drag of the bashed up downtown? Were you among the agua, fango y factorias of Hialeah? Or were you living in a Fisher Island mansion accessible only by a residents’ ferry others couldn’t board? Money was all that mattered in that time and place, and how that money came to be in your hands didn’t matter to the people that money mattered to. 

The inequality of Miami was part of its design. When the Miami was founded in 1896, it, like other Florida cities, designated a section where black people were permitted to live. That part of Miami was later named Overtown. Count Basie, Nat King Cole, and Billie Holiday were not allowed to stay in Miami Beach when they performed there; they returned to Overtown at night. Liberty City started out as a middle-class black neighbourhood, a housing development that was part of Roosevelt’s New Deal. Early films of it show pristine buildings sparkling in the sun, gleeful children leaping into swimming pools. When South Florida’s biggest highways were built, they cut right through Overtown, displacing generations of families and destroying Overtown’s heart. Liberty City succumbed to a deteriorating economy, disinvestment, and drug battles. In its early days, it had been surrounded by an eight foot high ‘segregation wall’ separating it from the white areas.

Don’t go on the public transport at night, I was told. Don’t go anywhere after dark without a car. Don’t leave your part of the city and go the other part. Don’t go through Downtown, or Overtown, or Liberty City. No offence, said the man on the phone, but you sound white and you should know this is a black neighbourhood. Don’t go wandering if you don’t know where you’re going. Don’t let anyone know you don’t know where you are. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

I was stuck in South Beach at night. South Beach, one of the few places in Miami where you could walk; it had sidewalks. And I walked everywhere.  I walked past the plastic-faced shoppers and rough sleepers on wide carless Lincoln Road, up to shabby Alton for the breakfast taco and coffee special, over to Fifth street past the gym where Muhammad Ali once trained, down Collins Avenue where the aspiring pretty wives went to get their hair done and buy expensive clothes, and back over to Alton for Pollo Loco’s yuca frita and black beans. I walked up Ocean Drive where the cars gunned at night and the college students gathered outside of nightclubs on the neon bright streets. I went up Washington Avenue where the Nicaraguan diner served café con leche to the old men wanting someplace to sit, and I went back to the beach where the men with tattoos who waxed their chest hair off eyed other men in the outdoor showers beneath the burning sun.

And I rode my bike. I’d bought a cheap, fat-tired ten speed at Target – the cheapest bike they sold. I bought a good bike lock. The lock cost more than the bike did. Bikes were snatched easily, even with two locks on, disappeared fast, were rumoured to be put on boats at the marina and shipped off immediately. I used to ride my bike down the roads and down to the beach and right onto the sand, ride on the damp, flattened down sand along the shore. 

And, one day, while I was riding along the shore, I remembered a joke that a man and I used to have. He’d once told me, ‘I’d do anything for you.’ And I’d goofed back, ‘I want you to kill my husband.’ And then we laughed and started riffing on the dialogue of noir films, kept pretending we were characters in it and laughing. And I thought, that would be a good opening for a story. What if this couple started playing around like that and then things got serious?  And then, like every writer who had come to Miami, I started to write crime fiction.        

***

Linda Mannheim is the author of three books of fiction: Risk, Above Sugar Hill, and This Way to Departures. Her broadcast work has appeared on BBC Witness and KCRW Berlin. She recently launched Barbed Wire Fever, a project that explores what it means to be a refugee through writing and literature.  Originally from New York, Linda divides her time between London and Berlin.

This Way to Departures will launch in London on 3 October at Burley Fisher Books and in Berlin on 12 October at The.Word.Berlin. You can find out more about these and other events on her website.

Rumbling Bridge

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By Fiona M Jones:

Back in the years when people wrote with pens on paper and your postal address mattered, I used to wish I lived somewhere with an interesting name. Something more evocative, more resonant—more amusing even—than Crossford, Sturry and such like.

Does Canterbury sound fascinating, with its 14th-century literary pretensions—Geoffrey Chaucer’s tales of pilgrimage to the tomb of the holy martyr? Unfortunately the pressures of tourism and commercialism have pasted over history with anachronism and kitsch in a way that Chaucer himself would most gloriously have pasted into satire. Everything calls itself Chaucer. I’m not sure there isn’t an electronic cigarette outlet called Chaucer Vapes.

I do currently reside in Fife, where Macbeth held brief tragic Thanedom, but Birnam Wood or Dunsinane might fall more trippingly off the tongue… unless, again, the local shops sell Macbeth as a plastic fridge magnet wearing a tam o’shanter in the wrong tartan?

I think I’d settle for Bogside, temporarily at least—a name rendered charming by its sheer lack of pretension. Or Yetts o’ Muckhart, Coaltown of Balgonie or Milltown of the same. Lower Largo, birthplace of Robinson Crusoe’s real-life antecedent, sounds oddly musical; Saline (say “Sallin”) will always get mispronounced like a Shibboleth for Sassenachs. Gallowridge might suit a certain mood of late dark-eved autumn. Rumbling Bridge—

It’s a wonderful name, both picturesque and onomatopoeic, and the place lives up to its name. The bridge is 300 years old, a narrow two-tiered arching of stone across a roaring gorge that erodes deeper every year until in places the water itself disappears from view if not from hearing, far below you between black rocks, thin-spreading foliage and spray-dampened fern.

An inconvenient single-track road crosses the old, mossing bridge, and down beside the bridge a path follows the gorge upstream, far above the white-rushing, dark-pooling waters or suddenly close beside. Bare trunks of long-fallen trees straddle awkwardly the rocky sides at their narrowest points—deadwood smoothed by weather or greening once more into mosses and small ferns. Other trees cling precariously, obliquely, above precipitous edges, their roots holding together the very same ground that they originally broke. It is a short walk up through the loud, narrow valley towards flatter land and calmer water, but it feels longer, the inanimate roar and rumble putting time out of rhythm. If I lived in Rumbling Bridge I could take this route twice a week, seeing every time a different view of light and flow, weather and greenery, and progress of water cutting deeper still into earth.

Yes, I would like to live in Rumbling Bridge.

***

Fiona M Jones is a creative writer living in Scotland, a regular contributor to Folded Word and Mum Life Stories, and an irregular contributor all over the internet.
Fiona on Twitter

Snaresbrook Road

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By Dan Carney

Snaresbrook Road is a perfectly straight 800-metre stretch, along which can be found the Waltham Forest/Redbridge border. At its western end, there’s the sleepy, scruffy ambiguity of Walthamstow Forest, alternately bucolic and unsettling, dependent on factors such as season, time of day, and resting heart rate. The affluent suburban village of Wanstead is to the east, tucked up comfortably along the western flank of the London Borough of Redbridge and, according to The Sunday Times in 2018, one of the top ten places to live in the capital. Wanstead is a place not without a recent history of radicalism and subversion – the 1990s saw a series of high-profile protests against the construction of the nearby A12-M11 link road - but at a glance now it’s boutiques, tasteful cafes, and posh second-hand shops, satisfaction and prosperity, tethered and tiled.

This end-to-end contrast, between unpredictability and conformity, also runs side-to-side. There’s regimentation and structure, represented by the public school Forest, Snaresbrook Crown Court (housed in an imposing Elizabethan-style mansion designed by the famous Victorian Gothic revivalist George Gilbert Scott), and the concentric functionality of the adjacent Hermitage housing estate. On the other hand, the numerous woodland paths leading to Hollow Ponds and Leyton Flats, as well as the debris-strewn Eagle Pond - which separates the eastern end of the road from the court building on its oak-lined southern bank - embody nature, improvisation, and secrecy. The area directly behind the pond is Epping Forest’s most active homosexual cruising site, an eastern Hampstead Heath analog, where tissues, used condoms, and other sexual debris can be found strewn in thorny undergrowth. It’s played host to these activities since before World War II, when gay sex was yet to be legalized, and the existence of homosexuality yet to be acknowledged in any widespread form. Now, the forest authorities accept that it is one of the things that happen here, with keepers working alongside LGBTQI organisations in order to promote good littering practice.

Snaresbrook Road thus takes you from the panoptical and the administrative to the concealed and the unrecorded, in the space of a few dozen strides. It’s a syncretic centre line, a starting point for any possible tangent, where high court judges on ornately carved chairs deliver public verdicts a few yards from men, many of whom lead outwardly straight lives (and some of whom may well be high court judges), engaging in furtive, frantic woodland liaisons. Footfall is, however, sparse, and even with the Victorian opulence of the court building, as well as the pond’s considerable size and appeal, Snaresbrook Road’s in-between status ensures it never quite feels like an actual place. Semi-fluorescent joggers, returning dog walkers, and waterfowl enthusiasts eager to inspect the tufted ducks, coots, mute swans, moorhens, and Canada geese that gather at the water, trudge a thoroughfare that seems only to have been implemented as an afterthought. A connective in search of a destination; a lonely, infinite corridor, laid in the absence of any other planning initiatives. 

This air of unreality frequently tempts the mind into a dreamlike lull, where thoughts form unanticipated and unhindered, free to seep idly into whatever nooks and crevices appear. In the imagined worlds into which I have stumbled while walking here, Snaresbrook Road has been both the M1 and the Pacific Coast Highway, while the court building has morphed into the White House or the US Capitol, with Eagle Pond the reflecting pool in front of the Ulysses S. Grant memorial at the base of Capitol Hill. While it is the insubstantiality, the essential blankness, of the road that invites the arbitrary superimposition of fantasy over fact, Washington DC over Wanstead, this fuzzy ambience can quickly harden into something sharper and more hostile. Sometimes, in the half-light of dusk, when grey, smoky clouds hang low and perfectly still in the gloaming, and there is a rare, portentous lull in the traffic hum, the fronts of the flats, houses, and retirement homes opposite the water can appear as facades, fabricated or adapted for the concealment, or ventilation, of something undesirable behind. Two-dimensional, intended to mask, distract, and deceive, recalling the two “houses” comprising 23-24 Leinster Gardens, Bayswater, erected to hide an uncovered section of railway line, or the townhouse-turned-subway vent on Joralemon Street in Brooklyn Heights. The fact that there is nothing behind the buildings here which might need concealing or ventilating does very little to lessen this early evening architectural paranoia. When it hits, one is left disconcerted and uncertain, keen to wander around the backs of the buildings, to seek reassurance amidst the car parks and the gardens. 

The pond, unprotected from the road by railing or wall, stands as testament to our relentless appetite for the seemingly arbitrary division and allocation of land. Its banks are owned by different entities, with the City of London Corporation, Her Majesty’s Court Service, and the London Borough of Redbridge each responsible for a particular section of the surrounding grass or concrete. The water body itself, which seems to have existed in some form since the eighteenth century, was adjudged part of Epping Forest - and thus the responsibility of the Corporation - in 1882. When you stare across the pond surface as you walk, it’s not hard to conjure the sensation of floating serenely across it, like an overfed waterfowl or even a piece of fetch-driven litter. Sometimes, even on a drearily overcast, uninviting afternoon, the urge to take advantage of the lack of pavement barrier, and dive gleefully into the water, can be momentarily overwhelming. Although the pond is covered in considerable islets of green algae, it would likely provide an excellent place to float or wade, separate from everything else but still visible, and easily contactable, from the pavement twenty metres away. It may be that this is the standpoint from which Snaresbrook Road is best experienced; present but not completely involved, removed but vigilant and ready, with a watchful eye on all sides. Even if the buildings don’t quite feel real, the birds seem happy enough. You’d probably get used it as well, given time.

***

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

Dan on Twitter

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

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By James Carson:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Dispatches from Olsztyn: Olga Tokarczuk’s Chair

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By Marcel Krueger:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sorbs, a poem by Alistair Noon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

On Potsdamer Straße (to see an old friend)

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By Paul Scraton:

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

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

***

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

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

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

***

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

***

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

***

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


The Graffiti Chapel

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By David Lewis:

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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