The Joy of Bookshops: Roe River Books, Dundalk

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A return to our irregular series, featuring some of our favourite places in the world: bookshops. Today, our books editor Marcel Kreuger pours over the shelves of the wonderful Roe River Books in Dundalk, Ireland:

Like libraries, independent bookstores to me are safe places. There is, of course, a materialistic aspect to their existence, but I’ve not yet encountered one merely dedicated to cold hard cash. Instead, independent bookstores are places where book lovers, amateur historians, budding poets and the local writing group can meet, browse and order (obscure) books, and talk everything literary with likeminded humans. And that might apply for small-town bookstores even more than to those in the metropolis.

Roe River Books is such a place. The only independent bookstore in Dundalk, the capital of County Louth in the Republic of Ireland with roundabout 30,000 inhabitants (and my chosen hometown), Roe River Books is the brainchild of Tom Muckian, book lover and thespian in his free time.

Roe River Books is my second stint as a bookshop owner. I ran the imaginatively titled Dundalk Bookshop from 1987 to 1992, before becoming a planning and design consultant. In 2007, a client asks me to survey the building which housed Carroll’s Educational Supplies, an institution in Dundalk where generations have bought their school books. My client informs me that he’ll likely be selling the business on after the summer season. I half-jokingly say to him not to sell it without talking to me first and thirty minutes later, I have a book shop again.

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Roe River Books still sells schoolbooks (crucial in a small town like Dundalk) but that does not mean that the range is shallow. Tom, a huge fan of thrillers and the fantastic (especially the books of John Connelly), stocks a broad range of classics of the occult like Lovecraft, Bradbury and King and, of course, a lot of Irish Noir like Connolly, Ken Bruen or Stuart Neville. Fitting for a ‘town bookshop’, local interest also plays a huge role.

We sell quite a lot of local historical publication – people are always interested in the history of their street or direct neighbourhood, and so we are also always willing to stock independent or self-published books by local authors.

Tom sees an independent, brick-and-mortar shop as the antidote to the fast, consumption-orientated world of online (book) shopping, as place to linger, a place to appreciate the magic of books. No wonder that Roe River Books self-identify as ‘luddite booksellers’:

The Amazon River is the longest in the world and its online namesake seems to want to take over the world. The Roe River once held the record as the shortest river in the world. I like the idea of being the polar opposite of that online giant. We may not have every book in print but we might just have the one you need.

Come May this year, Roe River Books will move into an even bigger premise a few houses down the road that will even offer a coffee dock (one of the best smells in the world, coffee and freshly printed books) and potentially an expanded programme of readings, acoustic concerts and readings groups. And it will still remain a safe haven for book lovers from everywhere.

You can find Roe River Books online here, and in the real world at 77 Park St, Townparks, Dundalk, Co. Louth, Ireland.

In the Back Seat

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By Anna Evans:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Look there’s Damian’s house.

- Who’s Damian?

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

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

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

- Can we meet him?

- Well, he is very shy.

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

- Can we visit Damian?

- Damian isn’t in today.

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

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

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

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

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

Postcard from... Cabo de Gata

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By Paul Scraton:

The walk took us through the desert town of Rodalquilar, past the abandoned mine workers’ cottages and the remnants of the goldmine on the hillside, until we reached the ridge and dropped down towards the green valley below. The road, built for the trucks and other vehicles that moved between the different mines of this corner of the Sierra de Cabo de Gata, was wide and rocky, the preserve not only of walkers and mountain bikers, but also families in their cars, rocking over the rough terrain on an Easter day-trip through the hills.

We stopped, just before the mountain trail turned the final corner to meet the cabbage fields of the high valley, to follow a tunnel through the rock to discover mine buildings abandoned in 1936 at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War. Mining continued in the area after the conflict, with over 1,400 workers living in Rodalquilar and earning their living from the gold and minerals pulled from within these mountainsides. This lasted until the 1960s, when calculations showed that the constant scraping and digging at these hills no longer made financial sense, and the buildings were left to crumble beneath the sunshine of Europe’s driest corner.

This was a place of stories. In the high, farmed valley, a straight dirt track lined with prickly plants between the cabbage fields led us to another abandoned building. The Cortijo del Fraile is the farmhouse of Federico Garcia Lorca’s Blood Wedding, based on a true story from 1928 of a young bride-to-be running away with her cousin, only to meet the would-be groom’s brother at a crossroads where the eloping couple were gunned down. The cousin died, but the young woman survived, living in a nearby village until the 1990s. She never did get married.

Later, after the events depicted in Lorca’s tragedy, the farmhouse provided a suitably atmospheric backdrop for scenes in A Few Dollars More and The Good The Bad and The Ugly, but now it is collapsing in on itself, surrounded by fencing to keep visitors experiencing deep Ruinenlust from stalking the now overgrown rooms of the old farmhouse or stepping through holes in the walls. We sat for a while next to the farmhouse beside it’s old water-tank – the only part of the complex that has been renovated – and watched as the Easter day-trippers climbed out from their cars to wander the perimeter. From a valley beneath the mines to the theatres of Madrid, and now, ninety years on, a destination for those still fascinated by the stories of the past, whether they get there on foot, by bike, or behind the wheel of an increasingly dusty SEAT.  

Paul is Elsewhere’s editor-in-chief and wrote about Cabo de Gata in Elsewhere No.02, available in our online shop. Paul’s book Ghosts on the Shore: Travels along Germany’s Baltic coast is out now, published by Influx Press.

Waiting Rooms by Samantha Whates - Part I: Dunoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time and tide wait for no one.

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

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

Dylan White’s website / twitter
Samantha Whates on twitter

Murphy Ranch, California

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By James Horrox:

Tangled in the undergrowth of Rustic Canyon, a couple of miles’ walk north up the Sullivan Ridge fire road from the manicured absurdity of Pacific Palisades, lie the ruins of one of L.A.’s more unusual landmarks. Not much remains of Murphy Ranch these days – just a series of crumbling concrete foundations, twisted, burnt-out skeletons of abandoned buildings, and a weird atmosphere. For while the graffiti-tagged wreckage of yesterday’s industry is no rarity in the hills around the Los Angeles basin, cradle to so many wacko cults, failed utopias and botched attempts at the American dream, this is a ruin with a peculiarly ugly past.

Acquired in 1933 by one Jessie M. Murphy — presumed to be a pseudonym, given the absence of any other historical trace of such a character — during the 1930s the site was home to a group of Nazi sympathisers, led by a mysterious German known only by the name of ‘Herr Schmidt’. Convinced of the imminent fall of the United States to the forces of the Third Reich, so the story goes, Schmidt enlisted wealthy L.A. couple Norman and Winona Stephens and persuaded them to bankroll the construction of a self-sufficient stronghold in which they and a group of fellow travellers would sit out the war and prepare for the arrival of the conquering German army.

Nothing is known about this ‘Herr Schmidt’. Details of the Stephenses are hazy, but it seems that Norman was an engineer who had made a fortune in the Colorado silver mining industry, and Winona a Chicago heiress. A devotee of the occult, Winona was apparently enthralled by the mystical powers Schmidt purported to possess, and throughout the 1930s she and her husband shelled out millions of dollars on landscaping, architectural plans and construction to make his vision a reality.

Even from the ruins that remain today, overgrown and unkempt as they are, it’s clear that what Schmidt and his acolytes managed to create in Rustic Canyon was something quite astonishing in scale. Narrow concrete staircases snake up and down the hillside, once terraced and irrigated to harvest nut, fruit and olive trees, now thick with impenetrable undergrowth; a driveway lined with eucalyptus and cedar sweeps down through the estate from elaborate wrought iron entrance gates; lodged in the hillside at the base of the canyon is the arched exterior of what looks like a Mediterranean villa, the iconic façade of what was once a double-generator power station, now boarded up and plastered with layer upon layer of graffiti. Behind it, twisted in chaparral and vine, the rusting wreckage of a steel fuel tank towers thirty feet or more into the forest canopy.

The whole area – maybe a square mile or so – is scattered with foundations: raised gardens, outbuildings and other, unidentifiable structures of concrete, metal and stone. Much of the foliage consuming the ruins is conspicuously not native to this place: incense cedars, usually found higher up in the mountains; white oleander blooms; huge ornamental cacti, and the brilliant red bursts of bottlebrush growing out of cracked concrete terraces. Overhung with coast live oak and sycamore, the slumped, rotting carcass of a burnt-out stable building cuts a terrifying figure.

All this, however, was only the beginning of a much more ambitious enterprise. Over the course of the 1930s, several different architects from the Los Angeles area, including Welton Becket, designer of the Tower Records building in downtown L.A., and the African-American architect Paul Williams, were employed to draw up plans for what has been described as a “self-sustaining ‘utopia’ with a mansion fit for a world leader”. Their drawings, preserved in the Lloyd Wright collection at UCLA’s Young Research Library, contain elaborate designs for a palatial, four-story mansion, with numerous bedrooms, libraries and dining rooms, an underground gymnasium, an indoor pool and a communal area built around a grand central hall. The plan, some historians contend, was to build a Californian Berchtesgaden, in which to wait out the war and greet the Führer personally.

What exactly went on behind the compound’s barbed-wire perimeter during the 1930s is still a matter of speculation, but oral histories from local residents recall armed guards patrolling the canyon dressed in the uniform of the Silver Shirts — a white supremacist pro-Nazi group modelled on Hitler’s brownshirts, which had local chapters throughout southern California — and weekend gatherings during which the sound of gunfire and military exercises could be heard echoing through the canyon.

Whatever plans Schmidt and his associates had for Murphy Ranch were thwarted when, in 1941, following the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the ranch was reportedly raided by federal agents and dozens of its 50 or so inhabitants arrested. The subsequent fate of the community’s members remains unknown, but whatever happened, the mansion was never built. By 1948, the Stephenses were living above a steel garage, nearing bankruptcy, and desperate to rid themselves of the property.

This was the conclusion of UCLA professor John Vincent, who purchased the site from them that year on behalf of the Huntington Hartford Foundation. With L.A. architect Lloyd Wright at the helm, the buildings were renovated and several new ones constructed, and in 1951 the complex opened its doors as a retreat for artists, writers, poets and musicians. Andrew Wyeth, Max Ernst, Charles Neider and Mark Van Doren would all at one time or another call the place their home. Ernst Toch composed his “Vanity of Vanities” at the retreat, and Ruth S. Wylie refined her String Quartet No. 3 there. The essayist Max Eastman was a resident for a while, as was Edward Hopper, whose painting “Western Motel”, now hanging in the Yale University Art Gallery, was completed there in 1957.

The Hartford complex closed in 1965, and the estate was subsequently put to various uses until, in 1978, it was ravaged by wildfires and finally abandoned. In the decades since, the ruins have become a playground for taggers and local pot-heads, hikers, ghosthunters, amateur historians and Nazis, and the air hangs thick with the stench of spraypaint and weed. Despite the City’s repeated threats to bulldoze the place, only a handful of structures have so far been demolished. The rest remains for time and nature to reclaim, a crumbling monument to the eternal return where wealth, hubris and the urge for mastery collide.

James Horrox is a freelance editor, originally from the north of England, now living on the coast of Southern California.

Postcard from... England (Covered in snow)

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By Paul Scraton:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Orkney

By Ian S. Grosz:

I am headed north for Orkney, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and a landscape both largely devoid of trees and deeply sedimented in vast layers of human history. I surge up the A9 from Inverness, skirting the bleak seascapes of Caithness, and eventually reach Gills Bay. Here I will catch the ferry for the short crossing to St. Margaret’s Hope on South Ronaldsay, the most southerly of the Orkney archipelago.

On South Ronaldsay I camp at the wonderfully eclectic Wheems Organic Farm – just the right side of hippy - and fall into an easy sleep listening to the calls of oystercatchers and the swooping chirrup of swallows in the dusk. The next day, I head out on my bicycle to see the evocatively named Eagle’s Tomb, and the less compelling but well marketed Tomb of the Otters. That night I dream of bones. 

What I have really come for, like most people, is the enigmatic group of monuments centred around Brodgar and Stenness - the latter the site of an ancient stone circle that pre-dates Stonehenge by a thousand years - and the mysteries being uncovered at the Ness of Brodgar, where a five thousand-year-old complex of ceremonial buildings has been unearthed. Approaching the head of the isthmus that separates lochs Harray and Stenness, linking the dark and brooding Ring of Brodgar with the other sites, I find myself in a natural amphitheatre dominated by the two peaks of Hoy to the west. At mid-winter the sun sets between these hills and, for three weeks either side of the solstice, illuminates the deep interior of the incredible feat of engineering that is Maes Howe Chambered Cairn. 

This is a liminal place, a portal between worlds: between our time and theirs, between the setting sun and the mountains, and the shimmering waters of the lochs. It is a place between life and death, and not without atmosphere. Taking in the monuments in context with the surrounding landscape makes sense of the location of these sites, and bridges the vast gap in time between the people who built them and us. Here, in the low lying fertile ground, where fish and wildfowl were plenty, and the sun’s light fell at year’s end, was where they found and made their place. 

Maes Howe, still a striking feature in the landscape today, pre-dates the Great Pyramid at Giza by several hundred years, and commensurately, to view it I must join an official tour that needs to be booked in advance. No photography is allowed inside the tomb. Pictures of it for a keepsake are available as part of the official brochure. Still, it is worth the expense, and the unwanted chitchat with other tourists on the bus from the visitor’s centre to the tomb itself.    

Once inside the tomb, we crowd around the guide in a reverent hush, as ages layered on ages are revealed in the light of her torch: from the standing stones re-used in its construction and the Viking graffiti on the walls, to the Victorian roof repair. Swallows nest above our heads while the ages are unpicked for us, and once or twice the lights are dimmed to bring the tomb-dark that bit closer. The earthen smell is both sobering and strangely comforting, and the now empty spaces where the dead once would have lain seem no more than generic storage places. Those people of so long ago are absent, and yet moment-by-moment their presence seems to come closer.

Between the layers of larger facing stones that make up part of the walls are many smaller pieces, wedged in to level each course in the wall. Seeing this calls to mind the dry-stone walls that still criss-cross the countryside all over the British Isles.  I begin to feel a connection to the people who built these impressive monuments, building with hands just like ours, looking out at the Universe, and trying to make sense of it all.

Later, in Stromness, I visit an exhibition entitled Conversations with Magic Stones that is part of an island-wide collection tracing our relationship with stone: from those who work it, collect it, or simply have special pieces that have been passed down in the family or come to them by chance. How many of us pick up pebbles on a beach, are drawn to stone sculpture, or seek out these ancient memorials in the landscape? Stone is aeons old, constituted in stars, formed in the earth, shaped by ice and water, and worked by people. In them is an impossible journey spanning time we cannot imagine.    

Whilst camping at the Sands of Evie, I take a walk along the crescent moon-shaped bay as the sun dips toward the horizon. There, amongst the many stones and pebbles grouped and sorted by the tide along the beach, I spot a long, pale, tapered stone. It is smoothed and rounded at the edges like many of the other stones gathered by the waves, but has a shape I am drawn to. I pick it up and turn it in my hands. It has a weight and a presence that communicates with me. It fits in my palm perfectly. It seems made for my hands: for pounding or hammering. It has a feel, a life: imminence. Although smoothed by wave action it has an overall size, shape and balance that cannot be accidental. The Broch of Gurness - occupied between 500 BC and 100 AD - lies just beyond the headland. It could be wishful thinking, but perhaps this stone in my hands is a once discarded Mace Head, now washed to the shore on to this beach.

Barbara Hepworth said that ‘…it is a perfectly natural feeling to wish – to take a rock and turn it into life and to make, in that way, an image which has a magic to preserve life in one’s own personality.’ In this stone I now hold in my hands, I feel a personality coming through; as though someone is speaking to me from a time I had thought unreachable.   

About the author:
Ian is a writer interested in the themes of Place, Landscape, Belonging and Identity. He writes both poetry and prose and uses photography to supplement his non-fiction work. He has recently completed a Post Graduate Certificate in Social Research and is now enrolled on an MLitt in Creative Writing at the university of Aberdeen. He is currently planning a trip for a project in the Outer Hebrides.  

A companion piece to this essay was published by our friends at The Island Review. You can read 'Orkney: a sense of time and place' here.
 

Elsewhere: A poem by Patrick Wright

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The ambulance wends its way through conifers. All screams
déjà vu. They give you room 16. It reminds me of our hotel
in negative. I share a sense of prescience. You on a gurney
say ‘it’s by design’, which again was expected.

Shuffled in, your glass doors open to a garden of squirrels.
Close, the jingle of an ice cream van. You slurp a cornetto,
sure it’ll make you puke. A final wish, with fizzy lemonade.
Ice cubes too, on tap. Ice gold, nil by mouth. Every sip, bliss.

Doctors crowd round with clipboards, a welcoming party. No
prophets of doom. Smiling receptionists. They list objectives.
They come, go. They begin sentences with so. You ask to be
‘safe, happy.’ I talk of ‘art class, garden visits, lucid chats.’

Outside, benches where we’ll slow and squeeze a lifetime,
pretend our future veranda. This jolts a small resurrection.
‘Fling open the doors, windows,’ you cry, ‘let the squirrels in.’
I comply. Wind catches curtains, sends the cactus spinning.

By day, more dreamlike than dream, a way-station. The light’s
tinged, a polaroid, like this already happened, was meant.
The full sunlight, inappropriate, the solstice ill-timed, spent
as I sit by your bedside, whisper though light-headedness.

I say everything – again – everything I want to say. Words
dense, right into your ever-waking ear. The final sense. Last
words, you requesting your hair washed, the hairdresser and
aromatherapy lady. So random, far from drama, non-events.

Then comatose days. Corridors, nodding nurses, nulled time,
snack bars, numbed out, peering through slats, wax, soap-like,
Madame Tussauds, open mouths. No yawn. By night, to your
door, moth-like, your lamplight through the nightmarish gap.

I catch your breath, nothing else. Nevertheless, it’s etched,
taken back to the camper bed. Routinely I enter, reassure you,
how close my vigil. Quick, before leaving, I kiss your forehead.
Next morning I’m told your lips are white. I check fingertips.

Outside’s sickly warm again. Volunteers knee-deep in weeds,
lawnmowers dragging a din. Likewise, inside, hoovers mutter,
say we’re earthly still. Vitals no longer matter, just measures
of distress. The room smells of cabbage, your skin porcelain,

hair spread, Pre-Raphaelite. The CD player spins, loathsome  
notes, panpipes. You talk with an eyebrow. That and twitches
of your cruicked arm. Your lips, paralysed. A straw no longer
knocks your nose pipe. Your hands warm, as they were at home.

I dim your side lamp with a scarf. The gestapo bulb overhead
gives me a migraine. Syringe drivers bleep, end a programme,
and a sparrow sings like a normal day. Pine trees surround
the grounds, while your observed breath beats, primitive.

Through doors, dandelion seeds swarm, souls in June heat.
They drift, orbs. They drift, fall. They are, I think, past residents.
A pastor offers a sticking plaster. I confess, want to follow you
to fields of patchy grass, roundabouts. I dream of tumbleweed,

wait for a knock at my door, on pins, wait for the knock, news
of a change of rhythm. Hours pass, lighting candles, listening
to news 24. Panic managed, diazepam, a fact sheet. A scream,
withheld, says why are you not doing more. Surely a remedy,

the vestige of hope. I just mop your legs with frankincense.
All I do is say – again – how I’d gift you my every limb. This
as fatigue overwhelms, cells go haywire, your body turns on
itself. A bee stinging, which stings and takes the consequence.

Vinyl butterflies cling to your bed. You’ll never notice them.
They take the place of eloquence. I recycle those same words,
repeat them again. I kiss your fringe, stroke your lobe, mourn
those wispy bits on your cheekbone, lashes the nurses praise.

I call to angels in agnostic space. I am here for the vapours,
for the portents. I am here as witness. Only now should I pray?
Enough of this horror show. Enough of this pincushion flesh.
Enough of vomit, faecal taste. Enough’s enough she finally says.

About Patrick:
Patrick Wright was born in 1979. He completed a PhD in English at the University of Manchester in 2007, supervised by Professor Terry Eagleton. He graduated, more recently, with an MA (Distinction) from the same university in Creative Writing, and is now working towards a second PhD at the Open University, focusing on ekphrastic poems in response to modernist painting. Here he also teaches Arts and Humanities modules, including Creative Writing. His poetry pamphlet, Nullaby, was published by Eyewear in 2017. His poems have appeared in several magazines and anthologies, and he has been shortlisted for the Bridport Prize. 

Uncanny Waters: Upcoming events in London and Hastings

Photo: Katrin Schönig

Photo: Katrin Schönig

Our editor-in-chief Paul Scraton is heading to the UK next week for a couple of events that bring writers, filmmakers and musicians together to explore the topic of uncanny coastlines and waterways, from the Baltic beaches of Paul's book GHOSTS ON THE SHORE (Influx Press) to the canals of London and the coastlines of southern England. The events will take place at The Social in London on the 28 February and at the Electric Palace in Hastings on the 2 March.

Paul will be reading and presenting, with filmmaker Eymelt Sehmer, the short film IN SEARCH OF GHOSTS, a lyrical portrait of the book. Alongside Paul and Eymelt, Gareth E Rees will read from his new book THE STONE TIDE (Influx Press), his novel about tragedy, folklore and eco-apocalypse in Hastings, with a live musical performance of U118, a psychedelic invocation of the town’s infamous beached U-Boat. Finally, Gary Budden, author of HOLLOW SHORES (Dead Ink) and contributor to Elsewhere No.01, will explore the emotional geography of Kent's coastline and London's haunted canals with a reading and GREENTEETH, a wyrd fiction super-8 film directed by Adam Scovell based on one of Gary's stories.

In Hastings, they will also be joined by Rebecca E. Marshall who will be presenting her immersive documentary GLITTER AND STORM, which evokes the magical joys of sea swimming.

If you are anywhere near London or Hastings, we would love to see you at one (or both!) of the events. You can find out more information and get tickets using the following links:

Uncanny Waters - The Social, London - 28 Feb 2018 / Facebook event page Buy tickets
Uncanny Coasts - Electric Palace, Hastings - 2 Mar 2018 / Facebook event page / Buy tickets

Curious contours of time in a city – Hyderabad

Hyderabad.jpg

By Suranjana Choudhury:

“The desire to see the city preceded the means of satisfying it.” Michel de Certeau

Can one experience a city and then narrate it? Is it not quite challenging to embark on such a task? A city lives its own life. I had visited Hyderabad before, the most recent being my fourth time in the city. I knew that Hyderabad also possesses its own lived realities and fantasises. But prior to this I never experienced any urgency to write about this city. Now, as a resident of a quiet and mildly pensive hill station like Shillong, I have grown rapidly sharp and perceptive to the kinaesthetic appeal of a place like Hyderabad.

A longer stay in the city offered me the scope to experience Hyderabad with all its fluidities and fixities.  The sights and sounds overwhelmed me as I realised that I had come to live in what was both an ancient and a very modern city. I remembered my stay in Rome. Rome too had a similar appearance. It had witnessed thousand years of history and preserved many derelicts of the past amidst its growth as a global metropolis. Hyderabad also exuded such a peculiar charm. As a city, Hyderabad has traversed a historical route which has been quite different from that of most other cities in India. The city is defined through its relationships between the expansiveness of its space and episodes of its past. History is a tangible, palpable presence which none can dare ignore. The city does not merely tell its past, it does more than that.

Marco Polo in Calvino’s Invisible Cities tells us that the past in Zaira is contained “like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the Bags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.” There are many ways of describing the city. On the one hand, it incarnates the busyness of lives driven by corporate dreams. On the other, an idleness of an archaic feudal order. The forts, the tombs, some celebrated museums, some half-forgotten memorials, stood in sharp contrast to a few glamorous and a few prosaic components of contemporary city culture. I responded with awe to the richly nourished histories of Salarjung museum, to and fro motions of time in Golconda gullies, aromatic tastes of biriyani, dazzling visuals of various saree stores and of course heavy trail of chaotic traffic on the streets.

Of all my experiences received in Hyderabad, I remember a particular twilight spent in Golconda fort. This extraordinary structure is not a singular edifice; rather it is a community of constructions spread on a sprawling landscape. Being a Saturday, the place was already swollen with visitors arriving from everywhere. The composition of this anonymous crowd chronicled the hierarchy of a society and the differences of lives lived. On the huge, sprawling canvas one could witness such multiplicities in terms of nationality, ethnicity, language, religion. In short, the place was microcosmic India.

Some fashionably attired young men and women had arrived to spend a casual evening, some very spirited and dedicated travellers browsed every spot of the fort. Interestingly, it appeared that for some families the fort also offered a veritable site for picnicking. Some burqa-clad women, some scantily dressed. A father trying to appease a demanding baby. Some ravenous children gorging on multi-coloured ice-creams… They all presented an aesthetic delight of a different measure.

It was not just the sound or the sight or the smell; the space had transformed into something else. It evolved into an enduring visual, aural and tactile archive, preserving all the contours of this unique experience. It was a rhapsodic evening. As I walked along the belly of the historical ruins, I grew progressively aware of something which is perhaps symptomatic of every tourist spot. Golconda fort has ceased to be a piece of history. It had embraced saleability. This remnant of history had become an object to be exhibited; a public display to be visually consumed.

Amit Chaudhuri, the noted creative artist of our times, writes about a similar trope in his extremely evocative article “Kalighat Revisited.” I had read it long before I visited Hyderabad. I suppose his writing was somewhere lurking in the margins of my mind, and this in turn informed my observations. As more and more viewers trickled in, the fort growingly ascertained its acceptability, its popularity in the sphere of public desire.

There were other aspects of the Golconda narrative. Just as a television visual often renders random layers of a scene one upon another, so does the pattern of traveller/ consumer behaviour offer compelling commentaries on time and change. Some years back, when digital cameras were not digital and world was not so narcissistically obsessed with ‘selfie-images’, the photographer-sellers hitting those tourist places had reason enough to experience their own sense of self-importance. But now, these photographers appeared more and more desperate and sad. There were quite a few of them hanging around. They longed for potential buyers. With anxiety and hopelessness writ large on their faces, these professionals exercised several strategies to acquire a willing customer. They seemed haunted by phantoms of a happier past.

Their tragicomic predicaments held sway over everything else. Even a few years back there was no dearth of customers for them. The visitors who did not possess cameras or who forgot to bring one would gravitate towards these photographers to carry back their own personal memories of having been visited the fort. They would deliver one photograph after another in surprisingly short span of time. They were performers, conjurors who ensured that the audiences experienced full satisfaction after the show got over. However, a post-globalised universe has now fiercely transformed our imagination and cravings. I perceived these lost professionals as parallel recipients and victims of a changed world. They haunted the margins of an existence. Could they launch a different career? Is there any other strategy?

It is difficult to arrive at any answer. When I walked outside this luminous, resplendent architecture, my thoughts had changed perceptibly. I no longer felt an outsider. The collective experience of this visit opened up an imaginary space. This space was infinite, boundless. I was happy to inhabit and possess it together.

About the author:

Suranjana Choudhury is an Assistant Professor at the Department of English, North Eastern Hill University, Shillong. Her areas of interest include Narratives on Partition and Displacement, Women Studies, Travel Writings and Translation Studies. Besides her academic writings, she has also contributed to Humanities Underground, The Statesman, Cafe Dissensus, Coldnoon Travel Poetics, and Scroll.in.