A bestseller in France since its publication in 2009, Frédéric Gros’, A Philosophy of Walking has recently been released as an English translation by Verso, billed as an “insightful manifesto” on walking. The book charts Gros’ reflections on walking, but also considers walking as a practice in the lives of great thinkers such as Nietzsche, Rousseau, Thoreau and Rimbaud. Following on the coat tails of the recent renaissance in walking as a critical and literary subject, this book steps into the growing “genre” of literary walking, represented by the writings of Rebecca Solnit, Merlin Coverley, Robert Macfarlane, W.G. Sebald, which have been very well received by readers over the past few decades.
Publishers know the popularity of this type of writing, but the reasons behind this genre as a cultural phenomenon have been given very little serious consideration. It is perhaps to give credence to a critical examination of walking as a literary trope, and philosophic mode, that I turned to Gros’ book. In it I hoped to find in it both the rambling poetics of W.G. Sebald, but also an analytical framework which would illuminate why discussing the act of walking is important. But, while titled “a philosophy”, I found the book more a dawdle than a march. Its prose limp and saccharine, often repetitive, and overall a waste of time. This might sound overly harsh, but the tautological style of this book often makes it exasperating to read. To give a good example, Gros writes, Continue reading “Review: A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros”→
Patrick Keiller’s film London (1994) has haunted and intrigued me since I first saw it nearly five years ago. The film, a blend of documentary and fiction, presents a year in London as seen through the eyes of an imaginary protagonist, Robinson, whose thoughts and insights are related by an unnamed narrator. Keiller, through Robinson, seeks to examine London, suggesting that it “no longer exists” – that it is the “first metropolis to disappear”. This heightened awareness of absence is central to Keiller’s relationship with the urban landscape of London, as well as the critical impetus behind much of his film-making. It is still there, at the heart of his latest book,The View from the Train, a collection of essays published by Verso that charts Keiller’s writing from the start of his career in the late 1970s to the present day. Although his more recent films, Robinson in Space (1997) and Robinson in Ruins(2010), have moved away from London, this collection of essays is clearly devoted to the landscape of the city in which he has been immersed for the best part of forty years.
In his introduction, Keiller sets out the influence that surrealism has had on his interpretation of London, in particular the exhibition Dada and Surrealism Reviewed at the Hayward Gallery in 1978. Surrealism, since the work of André Breton, has been symbolically embedded in the landscape of Paris, but Keiller saw how easily it could be applied to London, by imagining the capital as what Roger Cardinal termed the “soluble city”. This notion of the “soluble city”, in a constant state of flux and revision, is present in much writing about London, such as Jonathan Raban’s semi-fictional Soft City (1974), and greatly influenced Keiller’s film-making. At a recent talk about his work around Battersea and Nine Elms at the Open University, he returned to this idea, suggesting that, while continually changing, in some ways London hasn’t really changed at all. In his early work, Keiller documented the architectural changes of the 70s and the rapid cycle of ‘new’ architectures in the era of late capitalism. His work has often recapitulated the city as having an organic – rather than controlled or wholly planned – evolution. It is clear in this career-spanning collection, possibly with the virtue of hindsight, that Keiller considers continuous change to be in some way the status quo. He does not mourn for a lost London, but takes pleasure in re-appropriating what has been overlooked.
In one essay in this collection, Popular Science, Keiller quotes Guillaume Apollinaire’s description of the London suburbs from the train as “wounds bleeding in the fog”. Apollinaire stayed in London in 1904 and 1905 and saw the city’s rapid suburban expansion as a flight from the wounds at the city’s heart. Apollinaire’s beautiful phrase seems not just to encompass the suburban ideal that transformed the landscape around London at the turn of the twentieth century, but also to foreshadow the increasingly dystopian London of the 1970s that Keiller came to as a student; a city traumatised by the collapse of the Ronan Point tower block and troubled by the decline of the post-war modernist dream. In his essay Dilapidated Dwellings, which accompanied his television documentary of the same name for Channel 4 (2000), Keiller looks at the legacy of this period by juxtaposing what he calls ‘new’ space – corporate, short-lived – and ‘old’ space – residential, degraded.
In many ways, Keiller’s perspective represents a particularly British mentality; his vision of London embodies a conundrum of town-planning that dates back to the reconstruction of the city after the Great Fire of 1666. Unlike Paris – with vast swathes of its centre straightened out by Georges-Eugène Haussmann in the mid-nineteenth century – London remains a hodgepodge of architectural narratives. Keiller uses the term ‘palimpsest’ in one of his early essays, characterising the city as being continuously rewritten, its land and architectures reused and adapted, rather than as a modernist tabula rasa. Whereas Apollinaire’s view of a bleeding London characterises a city at the turn of the twentieth century, Keiller’s appreciation of Apollinaire typifies a longer view of ebb and flow in the old and the new.
In his essay Benjamin’s Paris, Freud’s Rome: Whose London? (1999), the art writer Adrian Rifkin describes London’s streets as having this “linguistic” structure. Keiller plays with this idea in his own essay Imagining. Like Rifkin, Keiller considers his own history as a London commuter, as well as a wanderer, in a quintessentiallypsychogeographical manner, although Keiller treats this term with scepticism, lamenting its recent apolitical reincarnation at the hands of certain London writers. And yet, Keiller’s films are clearly part of this re-emergence of psychogeography in London – what Keiller calls “the current tendency”. Will Self has alluded to this in his own review of The View from the Train, in the London Review of Books, saying that the “unplanned perambulations” that make up Robinson’s cinematic narrative, and indeed Keiller’s praxis as a filmmaker, are, as Robinson puts it, “seemingly intent […] on bringing about the collapse of what used to be called neoliberalism”, and are therefore highly political. As Keiller states in the earliest essay published in this collection, The Poetic Experience of Townscape and Landscape:
The desire to transform the world is not uncommon, and there are a numbers of ways of fulfilling it. One of these is by adopting a certain subjectivity, aggressive or passive, deliberately sought or simply the result of the mood, which alters experience of the world and so transforms it.
Despite Keiller’s misgivings about psychogeography (particularly what he sees as its role in gentrification, which he describes as a form of colonialism) his vision and practice align with many of the post-Thatcher, London-based psychogeographers of the 1990s, such as Will Self. In fact, the popularity of his films, and the reason for this collection, lies in his very singular ability to consider and alter one’s experience of urban and rural landscapes in a way that many would associate with psychogeography.
This collection is a mixed bag, but it has a fragmented charm. A recurring motif in many of his later essays, evoked by the title, The View from the Train, and giving a loose sense of a theme, is the parallel development of cinema and technology, and the coinciding decline of the cinematic panorama with the growth of the railway. In both Film as a Spatial Critique and Phantom Rides: The Railway & Early Film, Keiller returns again and again to Henri Lefebvre’s assertion that the “space of common sense, of knowledge, of social practice” and everyday discourse was “shattered” in around 1910. Evoking Walter Benjamin’s formative essay The Work ofArt in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Keiller looks at the changing dynamic of cinematic narrative, from the early ‘cinema of attractions’ – in which a camera was mounted on the front of a train to create a continuous, single-frame, moving narrative – to the fragmented montage of space and time in Dziga Vertov’sMan with a Movie Camera (1929). He suggests that the train had an important role in early cinema, both as a subject and as a parallel technology that eroded this idea of a shared space, and the boundaries between geographical and mental space.
Like the railway itself, this collection has an intrinsic, almost perverse linearity to it, moving through Keiller’s thinking and work over forty years and charting his changing voice from failed architect to successful filmmaker and academic. It can be repetitious in a way that is alternately illuminating and frustrating, but for fans of Keiller it brings an important critical dimension to the reading of his films and his thinking over the past forty years. In the essay Architectural Cinematography, Keiller does give some details of his film-making process, but this is all too short and there is not much said about the making of his later films or his exhibition at Tate Britain in 2010. That said, such omissions do not make TheView from the Train anything less than invaluable reading, especially as Keiller’s essays are a singular companion to his films, considering the problems of his work without forcing the reader to reach firm conclusions. In that very postmodern way, they pose questions and reflect on his work without resolution. Keiller may pick holes in his own impact, but this collection solidifies his place in contemporary cinema and highlights the importance of criticality and politics in filmmaking. Here, as in his films, Keiller more than fulfills his own brief, as laid out in the first essay in the collection, “to alter the experience of the world and so transform it”.
[This review was published by Litro in Spring 2014]
Tactile Tactics: Yarn Installations in Public Urban Spaces Or/ Ariadne’s Employment
What I would like to present today is some strands of the research I have been exploring with regards to the practices of using thread and yarn materials in urban public spaces.
Over the past ten years these yarn practices have become a popular cultural phenomenon in cities across the world, known through various terms such as yarnbombing, yarnstorming, guerrilla knitting, graffiti knitting; and under wider umbrella terms such as craftivism and street art.
To start off I want to give a brief tour of some of the examples of these contemporary practices to give some context to the aesthetic diversity and geographic diversity by which these installations are practiced.These installations can be found on public structures such as trees and statues, bikes and buses, fences railings, telephone boxes and build facades.Indeed, any forms which are encountered in the urban environment. These practices can be found ranging from naïve wrappings to sophisticated architectural forms.
While I believe they represent a very recent phenomena in terms of popularity, public knitting installations should not be viewed as new practices, but can be seen within a historical perspective of appropriating textiles and materials in the public sphere. A history which connects with folk crafts but more particularly with a history of women and textiles explored by theorists like Roszika Parker in her pivotal work ‘The Subversive Stitch’.
Many visual tropes can be drawn between these contemporary practices and political feminist movements from the Suffragettes, to the Fiber Art movements in the 1960s, and the occupation of Greenham Common in the 1980s. Although these practices have a long history, it is only with recent cultures of photography and documentation, that have visually archived these activities, that they have been brought together and in which can one can frame them as something cultural cohesive.
Throughout this talk I will refer to these installations as ‘yarn practices’, not only to prevent a narrowed and periodised view on these actions; but also in order to explore them, not as defined mere artefacts, but as relational praxes. They reveal an engagement not only between the practitioner and the city space, but also between the installation itself and the viewer encountering them.
As I’ve suggested in the title of this talk; I would like to define this practices by what I’ve termed ‘Tactile Tactics’; taking Michel De Certeau’s definition of tactics as the re-appropriation of strategies which command the environments of the everyday.
In this presentation I wish to deal with these two terms ‘Tactics’ and ‘Tactility’; in the first half exploring the way in which we can examine these installations as Spatial Practices; and then to consider the way in which the materiality of these forms are implicit in the way in which they disrupt the boundaries of the public and the private.
First, I wish to return to De Certeau’s definition of the term Tactics, and the way in which he draws on the act of walking as a specific and political tactic of reclaiming the street. While his dialectical terms ‘Tactics’ and ‘Strategies’ can be seen as a reaction to Foucault’s ‘Discipline and Power’; Tactics in particular, is responding to a theoretical heritage from Henri Lefebvre and the Situationists in the 1960s and early 70s, who were examining the city as a unfixed and practiced space.
What I would like to suggest is that these yarn practices are fundamentally connected to the act of moving through the city, both for the practitioner and the observer who encounters it. But further than this, they are a tactical response to the urban environment and an expression of the experience of being within it.
Indeed, I would like to suggest that they are part of the practice of psychogeography, which has been broadly defined as ‘playful strategies for exploring cities […] that take pedestrians off their predictable paths and jolt them into a new awareness of the urban landscape’. A practice inherently related to the act of walking, to derive and the historic character of the male flâneur.
But while the Debordian Situationists saw derive, and the act of getting lost in the city, as a political gesture; these yarn installations reveal a very different form of derive which is worth considering.
If we look back to the Unitary Urbanist movement which pre-figured the Situationists in the 1950s; and in particular to its founding manifesto, ‘Form of a New Urbanism’ written by Ivan Chtcheglov in 1953, a narrative of derive emerges which has perhaps been neglected.
In this essay Chtcheglov brings attention to the labyrinth in the Jardin de Plantes in Paris, on which a sign reads ‘Games Are Forbidden in the Labyrinth’, and in doing so he presents the figure of Ariadne as the playful heroine of subversion. In Greek Mythology it was Ariadne, the daughter of the Cretan King, who directed Theseus through the seemingly impossibly labyrinth of the Minotaur using a ball of yarn. The tactile tactics of Ariadne’s yarn, subverting the masculine strategies of the labyrinth. Indeed it is Ariadne with her yarn who becomes a symbol of location within the urban landscape; using her yarn as a mapping tool which, if we extent the metaphor, becomes emblematic of the geographer’s string.
The figure of Ariadne is an interesting symbol when considering a contemporary form of derive, particularly as it relates to the recent history of psychogeography in London. In the last couple of decades writers like Iain Sinclair and Peter Ackroyd have reframed psychogeography as a practice of reclaiming forgotten narratives of urban space. Moving away from the Situationists, their practice is based not with the production of a new space, but with experience and recording of their environment. As Will Self puts it, as ‘a means of dissolving the mechanised matrix’.
However, in examining the history of psychogeography, what becomes clear that even in recent years it has been primarily dominated by men and male narratives of the city. In his recent book on Psychogeography, Will Self has referred to this lack of women, suggesting in a tongue-in-cheek way, that this is because women are less interested in ‘orientation’. Of course I strongly disagree with this, but more fundamentally I think this is a problem of definition rather than interest.
To consider an example: the central publication of the London Psychogeography in the 1990s; ‘Transgression: A Journal of Urban Exploration’, includes only one woman published over all four issues, the Canadian artist Jean Macrae. But what is interesting is not her gender, but the very different way in which she suggests exploring and interacting with the urban space which is tactile rather than merely textual.
In her article, a piece of site-writing, Macrae describes her practice of derive around her home city of Vancouver, and her knitted responses to the urban environment as she walks. As she says;
“I am in the process of fabricating a map; selective and authored, a gendered and specific occupation. [..] (I) pull out my needles and cotton, my mapping instruments.”
As Macrae suggests in a later interview, her act of derive is not the ‘male’ derive of the situationists; a means of getting lost; but a ‘coping strategy’ a way of navigating what she calls ‘geographies of fear’. Her work can be seen more closely as a tactic of being found; of having presence in the face of absence or familiarity; a reaction I would suggest against the post-modern city.
Macrae’s work is both personal and political, not only a playful interaction with the city space but a disruption of the narratives which dominate ways of exploring and encountering the urban terrain. I am not suggesting that all practitioners of these yarn installations are working with actively feminist intentions, or indeed that they are always women, but as tactics; they have often been employed to engage with feminist dialogues and radical political agendas. Indeed, from my research I know that a number of women involved in these enacting yarn installations are also active participants in other contemporary movements such as ‘Reclaim the Night’ and the recent ‘Slut Marches’, both of which sought to provide a women’s voice and to subvert the dominant narratives imposed on women in public.
With reference to this, I would like to draw particular attention to the artist OLEK, whose use of knitted fabrics makes potent references to patriarchy, to women’s sexuality and radical expression. Her works have become renowned for her particular use of pink and purple camouflage, subverting the masculine associations normally made with these patterns, and literally taking over symbolic objects in the street, recasting them with a new meaning. Shown all over the world, in public spaces and private galleries, OLEK’s work stems from a very radical side of these knitted practices which is strongly connected with queer and gender politics; and which sees the aesthetics of craft as itself a site of reclamation, and assertion of a radical female identity in the public space.
As I have sought to argue, these yarn practices are inherently spatial practices. While traditional considerations of spatial theory have often neglected textiles and material modes of practice; there is significant history of employing metaphors of textiles within conceptualisations of space. Indeed, the early 1960s, Asger Jorn, a prominent figure in the experimental COBRA movement and a founding member of the Situationist Internationale; presented his vision of situology, not simply on political grounds but also geometrical ones. In his essay ‘Open Creation and Its Enemies’ he presents the symbol of the Knot as spatial representation of the situation and indeed the experience of the labyrinth itself. As Jorn puts it, the knot becomes the space of interaction and intrinsic experience, one which requires you to be present within it to understand it. Indeed, as the contemporary critic Mackenzie Wark has suggested, ‘learning to tie a knot is like the art of derive’. And really, what is the craft of knitting or crochet, but a rhythmic spatial practice of skilful knot making. A repetitive act of encounter; based on interaction and presence.
To turn now to the materiality of these yarn practices; I would like to argue that is the very tactility of these installations which is fundamental to the way in which they engage with the urban environment.
One of the questions I have been examining is the way in which these installations subvert the traditional boundaries between the private and domestic spheres, most associated with knitting and textile crafts; and the public space. As the domestic space has been fundamentally associated as the place of women, this is an inherently political dialectic, providing a tactile montage which Walter Benjamin has suggested would ‘jolt the collective into a political awakening’.
The symbolic ‘homeliness’ is a central aesthetic facet of these installations; and a reason why I believe these practices have been generally ignored by cultural critics and academic in comparison to other forms of street art. As these yarn practices wrap themselves around public forms and monuments, I would argue they provide a symbolic softening of the public space. Indeed, many of the words used by the media and in publications on these activities have described them with words like ‘comforting’ and ‘nurturing’; which suggest to extent an association with the maternal body.
To consider Freud’s notion of the uncanny, and more recently theorists like Antony Vidler who have examined the uncanny in relation to architecture; this blurring of the boundaries of public and private suggests a desire to fill a void, an absence within the public, which these yarn installations are reacting to. Holes which these practices are attempting to knit together.
This idea of absence is one which has been considered by the contemporary film maker, Patrick Keiller, who is a key figure in contemporary psychogeography. In his series of films on London in the early 1990s, he used the figure of Robinson Crusoe to suggest London as ‘a place of shipwreck and the vision of Protestant isolation’. Indeed, it is Robinson, the neurotic contemporary Flaneur, who falls victim to depression and paranoia as he becomes increasingly obsessed by the enforced secrecy which separates him from his urban environment.
Returning to Jean Macrae, and her term ‘geographies of fear’, it is this anxiety and alienation of the urban environment which this term would suggest her practice, and these wider yarn practices, are responding to.
To highlight a recent example of how this has been cultural manifested; earlier this year a police force in Leicestershire employed artists to make knitted characters to install in parks and public areas in the city, as an attempt to reduce crime. In statements they suggest that the these pieces would psychologically make these public spaces appear more friendly, and by extension make them more populated and reduce the chance of criminal activity. Though they received a backlash against this apparent wasting of public money, this suggests the way in which these ideas are not only acted on, but culturally accepted.
It is interesting here to draw a comparison to traditional graffiti and street art, which often has an antagonistic relationship to the authorities. In contrast these yarn practices are commonly accepted by the police, and in this case actively encouraged. Part of this non-antagonistic relationship must be that these installations are only temporary, and leave very little or no lasting damage to the structures they encompass. But it could also be because of the feminine association inherent their material craft, which are seen as playful rather than destructive, existing in a different ethical framework to tagging which seeks to leave a more permanent mark on a territory.
This presents an interesting paradox because, because while practitioners like OLEK do not intend to be polite of mollifying in their installations, questions should be asked about how much these installations actually have an impact on the social fabric? To what extent they can be considered more ‘comforting’ than ‘transformative’.
Indeed, it could be argued that the impact of these practices is not the installations themselves, which are quickly dismantled; but through technologies of recording these activities, particularly in the growing cultures of street photography, by which these works are archived and disseminated through online communities and blogs. Though their inherent tactility is an integral to their reception and affect on the site, their cultural importance has been defined by these two dimensional records of the pieces as historic objects.
A recent collective, who I will discuss quickly, is ‘Knit the City’ based in London; who make considerable use of virtual social networks to create and publicise their activities. In 2009 their installation ‘Oranges and Lemons’, which created a knitted tour of the city of London, installing yarnstorms referring to different verses of the medieval children’s nursery rhyme on the city churches; which went hand-in-hand with coverage of the tour on social media. As the central figure of the group, Lauren O’Farrell, known by the pseudonym ‘WhoDunKnit’ suggests, the re-narration of the space which their knitted tour created, was given an extended virtual life and meaning through these online interactions.
In his discussions of craft Walter Benjamin draws a natural connection between crafts and oral traditions; suggesting the craftsman as storyteller, and drawing a comparison to the figure of the journeyman. In many cultures the weaver or spinner has been the symbol of the narrator; both spinning the yarn, and recording them as historical narratives; but also unpicking them along the way. In a continual process of mending, and re-crafting the narrative.
For Benjamin, the practice of craft is comparable to the allegorical or epic literary forms; existing in a different temporal framework to the modern novel or short story. Indeed, it is a point worth drawing attention to that the inherent slowness and effort required to make these installations is what makes them so dialectically opposed to the functional aesthetic of the public space.
As Benjamin argues, while technological advances have made hand craft essentially redundant as a practical necessity; crafts as hobbies remain a popular part of contemporary culture, especially recently with the revival of knitting and wider trends of DIY. While the critic Lucy Lippard suggests a nostalgic facet to the popularity of craft, one connected to a utopian idealisation of past community; I would argue that these forms of craft have continued and thrived through the accessibility of these materials and more fundamentally because of a desire to make connections; between the threads themselves, and with the process of making; with the everyday spaces of encounter in the urban environment, and with other craft practitioners as an inherently social activity.
So, before I tie myself in knots, I want to draw together some of the threads which I have been arguing.
The first is my placing of these installations as relational spatial practices, and from an anthropological perspective, as material dialogues which reveal a lot about the way in which people engage and re-craft the contemporary city space.
From the term ‘tactile tactics’ I suggest these installations can be seen tactics of subversion by which the hegemonic narratives of the street are being played out, and re-narrated. Indeed, to be political, they can be associated with a particularly feminine reading of space, which counters the flâneur’s desire to be lost in the crowd. To fill the void presented by the absence of a coherent or active public space. In reaction to this, yarn practitioners represent the counter figure of Ariadne with her yarn, playfully interacting with in the city space and inviting the observer to a new awareness of the urban space and their own place within it.
This piece is an extract from a longer piece about my walk up the Suffolk coastline, following the footsteps of W.G.Sebald’s work The Rings of Saturn. By walking this landscape, which I had mentally drawing and redrawn in my head many times whilst reading the book, I endeavored to explore the inner recesses of Sebalds motivations and methodology in writing this book. Using walking as a critical practice, and as an archaeological tool which would alter both my experience of the landscape I encountered, and of the book itself. In some ways this was a successful endeavour, and certainly an interesting one. But, I also found it sycophantic and ultimately concluded that Sebald himself would have been strongly against people following him like tourists, or lemmings. While he became the shepherd, crook in hand, which led the way; this became about my own experience and memories. My own observations and imaginations.
And so I find myself, one foot in front of the other, toes pressing into my insoles, into the tarmac and the earth below holding me up as I march towards the sea. The salt drifting in the air in front of me..
On a sunny summer day, nearly twenty years ago, the writer W.G. Sebald stood in almost this exact spot. As he put it, at the start of his book, The Rings of Saturn:
“In August 1992, when the dog days were drawing to an end, I set off to walk the county of Suffolk, in the hope of dispelling the emptiness that takes hold of me whenever I have completed a long stint of work”
It’s a modest start, but the work which it opens into is a piece which completely altered my core. A body of writing which cannot be rounded down to the simple perambulations of travel writing, nor the excavating regurgitations of history. In that ambling prose for which Sebald was so renowned, The Rings of Saturn is the epitome of that oft evoked portmanteau, psychogeography. A melancholy wander across the coast of East Anglia, which re-sees, recalibrates the landscape drawing us into Sebald’s thoughts and the intractable webs of his memories. Travelling from Norwich down to Orford, through Southwold, Dunwich and Sizewell, Sebald explores these places sitting on the soft membrance between the past and the present. Drawing on the anatomical history of Sir Thomas Browne, to the Dowager Empress Tz’u-hsi with her silkworms and the overwrought Victorian poet Algernon Swinburne; he draws together these threads with a seamless fluidity, showing the past as continuously present, and the act of walking as a part of what Eric Hobsbawn called a ‘protest against forgetting’.
I have loved this book since the moment I smoothed its cover back and laid my eyes on these opening words. So, it seemed natural that in the summer of 2013, I would take Sebald’s words and trace them with my feet. On my own ‘English Pilgrimage’, as the original German title of the book most evocatively suggests. Almost incongruous to the book itself, with its melancholic and often morbid tone, my partner Tim and I set out on a day of violent sunshine. Starting from Ipswich, walking in the opposite direction to Sebald, we marched on the road to Orford, following the curls of the tarmac and learning to ignore road signs which seemed to double back on themselves in some unique dimensional configuration. Endless and timeless in their unfixed wander. Along the coast these roads melts into the lagoon of waters which is the River Ore. A river of black gold, which runs parallel to the North Sea; the two bodies rippling southwards in undulating corrugation. Long marshlands sink into gentle shores, and little islands rise up across the tributaries with stately houses nestled in well placed fir trees soaking-up the rising tides. As the sun began to set on that first day, we spied the stout battlements of Orford’s castle as it mounts the town’s small hillock, and made my way down to the wetland meadows behind the town’s famed pub to set up camp. We had intended to stay at the back of the pub in the listed ‘campsite’, but soon found that local opinion had since driven casual campers to less idyllic spots out of the town. The wetland meadows therefore became our illegal occupation, nestling our little black tent behind the lip of the bank and beyond the bend of the wetland path. In a medieval configuration, these fields still sweep up to the very lip of the habitations, affording a panorama of the town with its little marina on the river. In the morning, the sunshine pierced through the gaps in the zip, waking us early as it climbed over the horizon and flooded the fields with gliding gold light. Peering beyond the rays I looked out across the river. Past the mud flats and the little boats bobbing, to the spit of Orfordness in the distance.
This is where I had been longing to go. Orfordness. This sandy peninsula of shale beyond the mainland, sounding more like ‘awfulness’ than anything else. A spit which the locals, in that very familiar shorthand, called simply ‘the island’. To get there, the National Trust run a small boat which takes you across the small width of the Ore, with a short portly man volunteering his own boat for the purpose. After hours of waiting for this small vessel to cross the 20 metres of water, we boarded the boat and I felt not only of crossing the Styx but of transcending into some Elysium, into another world. Sebald describes this landscape desolately. He recalls the emptiness of this desolate landscape, the legends of seamen eager to avoid its lonely shores for fear of madness. Walking across the dry flatness you could feel the land pulsating under the sun. The small sand pebbles rustling beneath foot, the nesting wild birds squawking from the rushes and reeds. But, despite this, there is a strange silence which echoes across the spit. As if time has rolled to a gentle stop.
Up until the 1980s, Orfordness had been a secret military testing site, the home of hundreds of military engineers and inventors during the Second World War when a large scale radar had been developed in the middle of the little island, leaving today the imprint of its ribbed crater at its heart. Outhouses, now worn down and moss clothed, punctuate the level land; and strange concrete pagodas sit in the distance, still cut off in the ‘forbidden-zone’ of the island. Along the shingle, rusted iron structures, wires, coils and bolts litter the ground. Mechanical ruins sitting orange against the warm white stones. It is a place, which like many other military spaces has not been dismantled, but abandoned to time. That very passive action which seeks both to placate history and slowly erase it. Like the Nuremberg stadium in Germany, for which destruction would be too pointed a statement. The ruins of post-industrial Europe and North-America, laid waste by change. And, of course, the Auschwitz internment camp which still stands in its own putrid history. Ruined monuments for which decay is the emblem of the undigested past; a sign of disillusionment, difficulty and the desire to forget.
In one of the little outhouses, drawings and photographs have been blu-tac’d in an ad-hoc display, showing the vestiges of the great inventions and military projects run at Orfordness. The towers, guns and, most impressive of all, a huge transmitter photographed in black and white made from a long pine trunk, on which wire had been coiled in screw-like concentric swirls, held down by yachting rope. Here, the apex of Suffolk’s engineering talents, shows the self-made beacon, beautiful in its simplicity. The product of military minds brought up by the sea, looking out onto the horizon at what could be beyond. These homemade devices were followed by more destructive weaponry of war. Earthquake bombs, aerodynamic machines, gas turbine engines, and, in the 1960s, post-Manhattan project ballistics tests on early nuclear weapons. Many of these projects seem an anathema to the benign landscape as it now sits. And yet, that whiff of anticipation, of secrecy and military efficiency still lingers. When Sebald visited Orfordness, soon after the National Trust had opened it up to visitors for the first time, many of the projects which had been carried out here would have still be secret. And yet, while concentrating on his own psychological reaction, we see how ruins of a place so geographically separate, so intentionally isolate, brought with it the decaying isotopes of this history. The dynamics of military power, of warfare and mechanical invention; reduced to rusting rubble scattered on a lonely spit.
It is here on our walk that the limits of literature became clear to us. While Sebald discusses many parts of his walk, and the physical exertions of the act of walking, he discusses little which is geographically useful to the traveller. His own attempt to shadow the walk in its own veil of mystery no-doubt. From the hand-drawn maps, bought along with our bread from the gentrified village shop in Orford, we had assumed the right to walk across the spit of Orfordness and up to Aldeborough. And yet, reality is never the same to the maps simple cartographic lines, and so we found ourselves almost stranded back in Orford, and without a little hitching around the Snape of the river, would have been forced to another night on the marshes. At Aldeborough, the rural idyll suddenly becomes a burgeoning seaside town with long boulevards, painted railings, beach huts and white gabled housing. It is the place of 99p flakes, scampi, chips, malt vinegar and deck chairs. Elderly ladies gingerly dipping their toes into the sea up to their swollen ankles while older men flop their canvas hats over their eyes and slumber. As a determined wild-swimmer, Tim dived in, creating much entertainment to the locals on the beach. Pounding up and down, his arms appearing out of the water as little blobs on the distant waves. The sea twinkled, and the town behind it stood cheery in its decaying whitewash.
It is incredible how quickly a new landscape can change you. The melancholy musing of Orfordness was replaced here by a playfulness, a sense of abandon on the beach. Later that day, we marched up the sandy shores, reaching another town, Thorpeness, up the coast. We were now rapidly diverging from Sebald’s original path, but the warm sands glowed ahead, guiding us up them like a yellow-brick road, and we soon forgot the origins of the journey and let the landscape guide us. Unlike Orford, with its sense of authenticity in the age of its rambling medieval roots, Thorpeness is a strange parody of a medieval town. Built almost entirely in the nineteenth century by the Ogilvy Family, the town is contrived with mock-tudor fronts, with a large watertower elaborately decorated as a wooden clapboard house. Like a house which has suddenly, like Alice in Wonderland, eaten a mushroom and grown upwards into the sky, the watertower sticks up from behind the pine trees that line the coast, punctuating line of the soft dunes and leading you into a completely different landscape. In the middle of the town, we passed the central lake, entirely man-made and edged by perfectly maintained chain-fences and just the right amount of reed and water planting. It is the lake which apparently inspired J.M.Barrie’s Peter Pan. Barrie, who was a friend and sometime guest of the Ogilvy’s in Thorpeness, was apparently inspired to write the section where Peter almost drowns with Wendy, allowing her to escape on a ballon while he waits for death uttering that unforgettable line, ‘to die would be an awfully big adventure’. But looking out on the lake I can’t see it and I am disappointed.Though Barrie certainly did stay here while he was writing Peter Pan, I can’t imagine how this lake, with its contained and measured expanse, could inspire such a dark and potent image. One which struck me as a child and has stayed with me since. How could one of the great moments of literature, have been inspired by the most benign and controlled replications of nature. This Victorian vision of a wild medieval past, made palatable and suburban. Seemingly miles away from the wild edges of the coast, being ravaged and endlessly corroded by the sea only minutes away.
[END OF PART 1. Part 2 will continue with the journey through Sizewell, Dunwich and Southwold]
ORFORD and ORFORDNESS
“The contours of the Sizewell power plant, its Magnox block a glowering mausoleum, begin to loom upon an island far out in the pallid waters where one believes the Dogger Bank to be, where once the shoals of herring spawned and earlier still, a long, long time ago, the delta of the Rhine flowed out into the sea and where green forests grew from silting sands” [Sebald]