All the Drunk Horses are Sparkling

If the portal is a smiley you want, abstracted, I already
am the same. Await your reply if we are alternative time
zones, your train was late and the wifi shaky is only
another ‘trembling structure’ in the words of John
Wieners. It wasn’t smiley it was pure mad HIYA smiley,
aslant on the concrete childhood where once I lay down
and later tried to make this theory. Lie flat. All the
horses lie down in protest of symbolism. That I write
anthropomorphically is only because most days I am
more like a fox and stealthily will steal your garden
gnomes to think they are chickens and the most
perverse fox I turn vegetarian, asking the gnomes what
happens down the drains and they say ask the trolls.
But this is why I left twitter in the year 2030, released
a thousand marbles in the weft of the sun’s coming
too close for comfort, organised my floating children to
clearfix the element, old and browserly on your blog. 
Shine brightly with flashes of light. Will I fuck. That feeling
when you miss someone but somewhere to know they are
there for you, making bread or like, conserving energy.
You should buy a firm mattress if you want to lie
on your back and tell me the stars were good, what else, like
how could you put that in a past tense where the stars are
still coming, £10.99, they are light years towards us and to think
of when the stars are come is delicious, becoming this
drunk at the splendid omen, lavishly served. Inebriate
starlight / a laced pony / liquored with three sheets
to the wind and call you beauty. Hold us up.
Bubble write most of the film, asleep
means only to dream in the house / your birth.
All the drunk horses are sparkling, swear it.

Mining the Light: My Time in Orkney

 

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I always have this sensation, descending the steps at Edinburgh’s Waverley Station, of narratives colliding. It’s a kind of acute deja vu, where several selves are pelting it down for the last train, or gliding idly at the end point of an evening, not quite ready for the journey home. The version that is me glows inwardly translucent, lets in the early morning light, as though she might photosynthesise. I remember this Roddy Woomble song, from his first album, the one that was sorrow, and was Scotland, through and through as a bowl of salted porridge, of sickly sugared Irn Bru. ‘Waverley Steps’, with its opening line, ‘If there’s no geography / in the things that we say’. Every word, I realise, is a situation. Alighting, departing; deferring or arriving. It’s 08:28 and I’m sitting at Waverley Station, having made my way down its steps, hugging my bag while a stranger beside me eats slices of apple from a plastic packet. I’ve just read Derek Jarman’s journal, the bit about regretting how easily we can now get any fruit we want at any time of year. He laments that soon enough we’ll be able to pick up bundles of daffodils in time for Christmas. The apples this girl eats smell of plastic, of fake perfume, not fruit. I’m about to board a train that will take me, eventually, to Thurso and then on via ferry to Orkney. I wonder if they will have apples on Orkney; it’s rumoured that they don’t have trees. Can we eat without regard to the seasons on islands also?

I needn’t have worried. Kirkwall has massive supermarkets. I check my own assumptions upon arrival, expecting inflated prices and corner shops. I anticipated the sort of wind that would buffet me sideways, but the air is fairly calm. I swill a half pint of Tennents on the ferry, watching the sun go down, golden-orange, the Old Man of Hoy looming close enough to get the fear from. Something about ancient structures of stone always gives me vertigo. Trying to reconcile all those temporal scales at once, finding yourself plunged. A panpsychic sense that the spirit of the past ekes itself eerily from pores of rock. Can be read in a primitive braille of marks and striations. We pick our way through Kirkwall to the SYHA hostel, along winding residential streets. I comment on how quiet it is, how deliciously dark. We don’t see stars but the dark is real, lovely and thick. Black treacle skies keep silent the island. I am so intent in the night I feel dragged from reality.

Waking on my first day, I write in my notebook: ‘the sky is a greyish egg-white background gleaming remnant dawn’. In the lounge of the hostel, someone has the telly on—news from Westminster. Later, I’m in a bookshop in Stromness, browsing books about the island while the Radio 2 Drivetime traffic reports of holdups on motorways circling London. Standing there, clasping Ebban an Flowan, I feel between two times. A slim poetry volume by Alec Finlay and Laura Watt, with photographs by Alastair Peebles, Ebban an Flowan is Orkney’s present and future: a primer on marine renewable energy. Poetry as cultural sculpting, as speculation and continuity: ‘there’s no need to worry / that any wave is wasted / when there’s all this motion’. New ideas of sustainability and energy churn on the page before me, while thousands down south are burning up oil on the London orbital.

When we take a bus tour of Mainland Orkney’s energy sources, we play a game of spotting every electric car we see. Someone on the bus, an academic who lives here, knows exactly how many electric cars there are on the island. There’s a solidarity in that, a pride in folk knowledge, the act of knowing. On the train up to Thurso, I started a game of infrastructure bingo, murmuring the word whenever I spotted a pylon, a station or a turbine. Say it, just say it: infrastructure. Something satisfying in its soft susurration, infra as potential to be both within and between, a shifting. Osmosis, almost. The kinesis of moving your lips for fra, feeling a brief schism between skin and teeth. A generative word. Say it enough times and you will summon something: an ambient awareness of those gatherings around you, sources of fuel, object, energy.

The supermarkets in Kirkwall seem like misplaced temples. This was me idealising the remoteness of islands, wanting to live by an insular, scarcer logic. The more we go north, the more scarcity we crave—a sort of existential whittling. Before visiting, I envisioned the temperature dropping by halves. On the first night, warm in my bed, I write: ‘To feel on the brink of something, then ever equi-distant’. The WiFi picks up messages from home. Scrolling the algorithmic rolls of Instagram, I feel extra-simultaneous with these random images, snapshots of happenings around the world. Being on an island intensifies my present. In Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (2016)a memoir of recovery and return on Orkney, Liptrot writes of ‘waiting for the next gale to receive my text messages’. On the whims of billowing signal, we wait for news of the south to arrive. Maybe I was an island and I wanted my life elsewhere to vanish, disappear in a wall of wind; I wanted to exist just here, in a hullabaloo of nowness.

I say an island, but of course Orkney is more an archipelago. And I’m on the Mainland, home to the burghs of Stromness and Kirkwall. Here for the ASLE-UKI conference, there wasn’t time to visit the harbour at Scapa, or the neolithic village of Skara Brae or the stone circle Ring of Brodgar. I spend most of my time in the town hall opposite Kirkwall’s impressive, sandstone cathedral, aglow by night with fairy lights strung in surrounding trees. Yes, trees. Orkney has trees. They are often gnarled-looking and strange, stripped by wind or held up inside by steel plinths. Anthropocene arboreal hybrids. But still they are trees. Using my plant identification app, I find hazels and birches. Autumn is traceable in the swirls of thin leaves that skirt the pavement, tousling our sense of a general transition.

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At one point in the trip, we visit the Burgar Hill Energy Project in Evie, alighting from the bus to stand underneath several massive turbines. The sound is wonderful, a deep churning whirr that feels like the air pressed charge on repeat. Under the chug chug chug of those great white wings we gathered, listened, moved and dispersed. I watch as our tight knit group begins to fragment; we need time apart to absorb this properly, little cells bouncing off and away from each other, quietly charged, loosening dots of pollen. Some of us finding the outer reach of the hill, looking for a view or panorama, leaning back to snap a photograph. I film the shadows windmilling dark the rough green grass. Capturing the turbines themselves seemed almost obscene. I don’t know why I was making them into idols, afraid to reduce them to pictures. It was easier to glimpse them in pieces, a flash of white, synecdoche. My friend Katy and I agreed the best photos were the ones out of focus, a bird-like blur against the blue.

Places I have been hit by wind:

  • The cloisters at the University of Glasgow, a wind-tunnel roar to blast out your thoughts post-exam.
  • The hills of Aviemore, my first and last time attempt to ski.
  • Ayrshire beaches in winter, icy particles of hail cast into my eyes and ears.
  • The last day of the Wickerman Festival, wrestling with tents that needed drying and folding, the wind blasting against my cliff of a hangover.
  • On the deck of a ferry, mascara stinging the black black veil of my lashes.

I am an air sign, Gemini, and there is something about losing your breath to elemental forces. I think I once finished a poem with a phrase like, ‘lashing the planetary way of all this’. We used to stand in the playground at school, brandishing our jackets like polyester wings, letting the wind move us forward, staggering in our lightweight bodies, our childish intuition of the way of the world. The pleasure in surrendering. Making of your body a buffeted object. Returning to Glasgow, I soon find myself hit with a cold, preemptive fresher’s flu; a weight on my chest, a diaphragm lag. A sense of my body heaving against itself.

On Orkney, I can smell the salt from the sea. Earlier in the summer, I was struck with wisdom tooth pain, the kind that requires salt-water rinses every half hour, not to mention agonised gargles of whisky. Wasting my precious bottle of Talisker. Amid the haze of those painkiller days, I felt closer to an elemental heat. Metonymically, I was inhaling islands. The taste of self-preservation, of necessary self-sustenance, is never as strong and unwanted as when you want a part of yourself to be wrenched out of you. Pulling teeth is an easy metaphor for lost love, or other forms of psychic distress. Breaking apart, making of the self an archipelago. There’s that song by The National, ‘I Should Live in Salt’, which always sticks in my head in granular form, occasional line. Refrain of refrains, ‘I should live in salt for leaving you behind’. I never knew whether Matt Berninger was singing about preservation or pain, but I saw myself lying down in a kelp bed, child-size, letting the waves lap over my body, salt suffusing the pores of my skin. Begin again, softer.  

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The rain here is more a tangential shimmer. I wake up to it, dreaming that my window was broken and no-one would bother to fix it. Fear of boundaries loosened, the outside in. The future as a sheet of glass, a shelf you could place your self on and drink. Salt water rinse and heat of whisky. We leave the hostel early and wander beyond the Kirkwall harbour, to the hydrogen plant bordering an industrial estate. Katy and I discussed our fondness for industrial estates as homely reminders. She would go running, and wherever she ran the industrial zones were inevitable. As if in any city you would reach that realm, it called you in with its corrugated fronts and abrasive loneliness. My love for the canal, biking up through Maryhill where the warehouses watch serenely over you, loom behind trees, barely a machinic rumble disturbing the birds. We traced the edge of a man-made waterfront, a crescent curving lip of land. The way it curled was elliptical, it didn’t finish its inward whorls of land upon water, but still I thought of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, or the cinnamon buns I bought from the Kirkwall Tesco. Finding a bench, we ate bananas for breakfast, looking out at the grey-blue sea, our fingers purpling with the cold. I like to think of the banana, Katy said, as a solid unit of energy. Here we were, already recalibrating reality by the logic of pulse and burn and calories. Feeling infra.

I love the words ‘gigawatt’, ‘kilocal’, ‘megabyte’. I like the easeful parcelling up of numbers and storage and energy. I am unable to grasp these scales and sizes visually or temporally, but it helps to find them in words.

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We learn about differences between national and local grids, how wind is surveyed, how wave power gets extracted from the littoral zone. My mind oscillates between a sonar attentiveness and deep exhaustion, the restfulness gleaned from island air and waking with sunrise. I slip in and out of sleep on the bus as it swerves round corners. I am pleasantly jostled with knowledge and time, the precious duration of being here. Here. Here, exactly. This intuition vanishes when I try to write it. A note: ‘I know what the gaps between trees must feel like’. Listening to experienced academics, scientists and creatives talk about planes, axes, loops and striations, ages of ages, I find myself in the auratic realm of save as…, dwelling in the constant recording of motion, depth and time. Taking pictures, scribbling words, drawing maps and lines and symbols. We talk of Orkney as a model for the world. Everything has its overlay, the way we parse our experience with apps and books and wireless signals. Someone takes a phone call, posts a tweet. I scroll through the conference hashtag with the hostel WiFi, tracing the day through these crumbs of perspective, memories silently losing their fizz in the night.

I grew up by the sea, in Maybole, Ayrshire (with its ‘blue moors’, as W. S. Graham puts it), but a lot of my thalassic time was spent virtually. I loved video games like The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, where the narrative happened between islands, where much of the gameplay involved conducting voyages across the sea. The interstitial thrill of a journey. There were whirlpools, tornados, monsters rising from the deep. On Maidens Harbour, I could hardly reach that volcanic plug of sparkling granite, the Ailsa Craig, or swim out to Arran; virtually, however, I could traverse whatever limits the game had designed. The freedom in that, of exploring a world already set and scaled. Movement produced within constraint. In real life, mostly our bodies and minds constrain. What excites me now is what I took for granted then: the salt spray stinging my lips, the wind in my hair, the glint of shells bleached clean by the sea; a beautiful cascade of cliches that make us.

‘To wake up and really see things…passages from a neverland.’ Back in Glasgow, fallen upon familiar nocturnal rhythms, I find myself craving the diurnal synchrony I achieved in Orkney. Sleepy afternoons so rich in milky light. The vibrational warmth of the ferry’s engine, activating that primitive desire for oil, the petrol smell at stations as my mother filled up the car for journeys to England. My life has often been defined by these journeys between north and south, born in Hertfordshire but finding an early home in Ayrshire. Swapping that heart for air, and all porosity of potential identity. Laura Watt talked of her work as an ethnographer, interviewing the people of Orkney to find out more about their experiences of energy, the way infrastructural change impacts their daily lives, their health, their business. Within that collaboration, she tells us, there’s also a sense of responsibility: stories carry a personal heft, something that begs immunity from diffusion. Some stories, she says, you can’t tell again. The ethics of care there. I wonder if this goes the same for stone, the stories impregnated within the neolithic rocks we glimpse on Orkney. Narrative formations lost to history’s indifferent abstraction, badly parsed by present-day humans along striated lines, evidence of fissure and collision. All that plastic the ocean spits back, co-evolutions of geology and humans. Plastiglomerates along the shore. But Orkney feels pure and relatively litter-free, so goes my illusions, my sense of island exceptionalism. I become more aware of the waste elsewhere. The only person I see smoking, in my whole time there, is a man who speeds his car up Kirkwall’s high street. Smoke and oil, the infinite partners; extraction and exhaustion, the smouldering of all our physical addictions. Nicotine gives the body a rhythm, a spike and recede and a need.

We learn of a Microsoft server sunk under the sea, adjacent to Orkney. There’s enough room in those computers, according to a BBC report, to store ‘five million movies’. And so the cloud contains these myriad worlds, whirring warm within the deep. Minerals, wires and plastics crystallise the code of all our text and images. Apparently the cooler environment will reduce corrosion. I remember the shipyard on Cumbrae, another island; its charnel ground of rusted boats and iron shavings. The lurid brilliance of all that orange, temporal evidence of the sea’s harsh moods, the constant prickle of salt in the air. The way it seems like fire against all those cool flakes of cerulean paint. I wrote a blog post about that shipyard once, so eager to mythologise: ‘Billowing storms, sails failing amidst inevitable shipwreck. It’s difficult to imagine such disasters on this pretty island, yet there is an uncanny sense to this space, as if we have entered a secret porthole, discovered what was supposed to be invisible to outsiders…The quietness recalls an abandoned film set’. Does tourism lend an eerie voyeurism to the beauty we see, conscious of these objects, landscapes and events being photographed many times over? Perhaps the mirage of other islands and hills glimpsed over the blue or green is more the aura of our human conceptions, archival obsession—the camera lights left buzzing in the air, traced for eternity.

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I come to Orkney during a time of transition, treading water before a great turn in my life. Time at sea as existential suspension. There have been some departures, severings, personal hurts, burgeoning projects and new beginnings. A great tiredness and fog over everything. ‘Cells of fuel are fuelling cells’. At the conference, my brain teems with this rich, mechanical vocabulary: copper wires and plates and words for wattage, transmission, the reveries of innovation. There is a turning over, leaf after leaf; I fill up my book with radials, coal and rain. My mind attains a different altitude. I think mostly about the impressions that are happening around me: the constant flow of conversation, brought in again as we move between halls and rooms, bars and timelines in our little human estuaries. We visit Stromness Academy, to see Luke Jerram’s ‘Museum of the Moon’: a seven-metre rendition of lunar sublimity, something to stand beneath, touch, lie under. I learn the word for the moon’s basaltic seas is ‘Maria’, feel eerily sparked, spread identity into ether. We listen, quietly, in the ambient dark, taking in composer Dan Jones’ textures of sound, the Moonlight Sonata, the cresting noise of radio reports—landings from a future-past, a lost utopia.

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On Friday night, Katy and I catch the overnight ferry back to Aberdeen. Sleep on my cinema seat has a special intensity, a falling through dreams so vivid they smudge themselves on every minute caught between reading and waking. Jarman’s gardens enrich my fantasy impressions, and I slip inside the micro print, the inky paragraphs. I dream of oil and violets and sharp desire, a pearlescent ghost ship glimmer on a raging, Romantic sea. Tides unrealised, tides I can’t parse with my eyes alone; felt more as a rhythm within me. Later, on land I will miss that oceanic shudder, the sense of being wavy. I have found myself like this before, chemically enhanced or drunk, starving and stumbling towards bathrooms. We share drinking tales which remind me of drowning, finding in the midst of the city a seaborne viscosity of matter and memory, of being swept elsewhere. Why is it I always reach for marinal metaphor? Flood doors slam hard the worlds behind me. There are points in the night I wake up and check my phone for the time, noticing the lack of GPRS, or otherwise signal. I feel totally unmoored in those moments, deliciously given to the motioning whims of the ferry. Here I am, a passenger without place. We could be anywhere, on anyone’s ocean. I realise my privilege at being able to extract pleasure from this geographic anonymity, with a home to return to, a mainland I know as my own. The ocean is hardly this windswept playground for everyone; many lose their lives to its terminal desert. Sorrow for people lost to water. Denise Riley’s call to ‘look unrelentingly’. I sip from my bottle, water gleaned from a tap in Orkney. I am never sure whether to say on or in. How to differentiate between immersion and inhabitation, what to make of the whirlwinds of temporary dwelling. How to transcend the selfish and surface bonds of a tourist.

The little islands of our minds reach out across waves, draw closer. I dream of messages sent from people I love, borne along subaquatic signals, a Drexciya techno pulsing in my chest, down through my headphones. My CNS becomes a set of currents, blips and tidal replies. A week later, deliriously tired, I nearly faint at a Wooden Shijps gig, watching the psychedelic visuals resolve into luminous, oceanic fractals. It’s like I’m being born again and every sensation hurts, those solos carried off into endless nowhere.

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Time passes and signal returns. We wake at six and head out on deck to watch the sunrise, laughing at the circling gulls and the funny way they tuck in their legs when they fly. These seabirds have a sort of grace, unlike the squawking, chip-loving gulls of our hometowns, stalking the streets at takeaway hour. The light is peachy, a frail soft acid, impressionist pools reflecting electric lamps. I think of the last lecture of the conference, Rachel Dowse’s meditations on starlings as trash animals, possessing a biological criticality as creatures in transition. I make of the sky a potential plain of ornithomancy, looking for significant murmurations, evidence of darkness to come. But there is nothing but gulls, a whey-coloured streak of connected cumulus. The wake rolls out behind us, a luxurious carpet of rippling blue. We are going south again. The gulls recede. Aberdeen harbour is a cornucopia of infrastructure, coloured crates against the grey, with gothic architecture looming through morning mist behind.

Later I alight at the Waverley Steps again. Roddy in my ear, ‘Let the light be mined away’. My time on the island has been one of excavation and skimming, doing the work of an academic, a tourist, a maker at once. Dredging up materials of my own unconscious, or dragging them back again, making of them something new. Cold, shiny knowledge. The lay of the heath and bend of bay. I did not get into the sea to swim, I didn’t feel the cold North rattle right through my bones. But my nails turned blue in the freezing wind, my cheeks felt the mist of ocean rain. I looked at maps and counted the boats. I thought about what it must be like to cut out a life for yourself on these islands.

Home now, I find myself watching badly-dubbed documentaries about Orkney on YouTube, less for the picturesque imagery than the sensation of someone saying those names: Papay, Scapa, Eday, Hoy. Strong names cut from rock, so comforting to say. I read over the poems of Scotland’s contemporary island poets, Jen Hadfield for Shetland, Niall Campbell for Uist. Look for the textures of the weather in each one, the way they catch a certain kind of light; I read with a sort of aggression for the code, the manifest ‘truth’ of experience— it’s like cracking open a geode. I don’t normally read like this, leaving my modernist cynicism behind. I long for outposts among rough wind and mind, Campbell’s ‘The House by the Sea, Eriskay’: ‘This is where the drowned climb to land’. I read about J. H. Prynne’s huts, learn the word ‘sheiling’. Remember the bothies we explored on long walks as children. There’s a need for enchantment when city life churns a turbulent drone, so I curl into these poems, looking for clues: ‘In a fairy-tale, / a boy squeezed a pebble / until it ran milk’ (Hadfield, ‘The Porcelain Cliff’). Poetry becomes a way of building a shelter. I’m struck with the sense of these poets making: time and matter are kneaded with weight and precision, handled by pauses, the shape-making slump of syntax. Energy and erosion, elemental communion. Motion and rest. My fragile body becomes a fleshwork of blood and bone and artery, hardly an island, inclined to allergy and outline, a certain porosity; an island only in vain tributary. I write it in stanzas, excoriate my thoughts, reach for someone in the night. I think about how we provide islands for others, ports in a storm. Let others into our lives for temporary warmth, then cast ourselves out to sea, sometimes sinking.

Why live on an island? In Orkney we were asked to think with the sea, not against it. To see it not as a barrier but an agential force, teeming with potential energy. Our worries about lifestyle and problematic infrastructure, transport and connection were playfully derided by a local scholar as ‘tarmac thinking’. Back in a city, I’ve carried this with me. The first time I read The Outrun was in the depths of winter, 2016, hiding in some empty, elevated garrett of the university library. I’d made my own form of remoteness; that winter, more than a stairwell blocked me off from the rest of existence. Now, I read in quick passages, lively bursts; I cycle along the Clyde at night and wonder the ways in which this connects us, its cola-dark waters swirling northwards, dragged by eventual tides. I circle back to a concept introduced by anthropologists at Rice University, Cymene Howe and Dominic Boyer, ‘sister cities of the Anthropocene’: the idea that our cities are linked, globally, by direct or vicarious physical flows of waste, energy and ecological disaster. This hydrological globalisation envisions the cities of the world as a sort of archipelago, no metropolis safe from the feedback loops of environmental causality, our agency as both individuals and collectives. On Orkney, we were taught to think community as process, rather than something given. I guess sometimes you have to descend from your intellectual tower to find it: see yourself in symbiosis; your body, as a tumbled, possible object: ‘All arriving seas drift me, at each heartbreak, home’ (Graham, ‘Three Poems of Drowning’).

 

Playlist: August 2017

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Start with the kernel of something. The year’s first fallen acorn I have not seen yet, though pinecones have been thrown in the direction of whoever. Hypothetically, my life as a typewriter, the body punctuated with the same mechanical violence. Clattering impression of symbol. A certain attention to gardens, as if in longing for confinement, safety. Time spent in Cambridge. Willows sweeping the skin of the river, an endless wandering the result of what. Hard work, long mornings in bed with the warm aluminal form of a laptop. White glow, silence. Someone mowing their lawn too early. Being what it is to be lonely not letting the light in except with broken blinds it comes fractured, skewed, something. The early fears abated, return to trust the body. Sun beaming through unfinished paint, the colour of mauve roses, faded hydrangeas. There is a hyperspace in which the dreams become apartments with balconies folding to abyss, you lean out singing it felt like a kiss the crystal taste which is what a violent text a certain whisky with peculiar salt with the flavour of drowning. Shades of cool. Allergic to punctuation after so much editing. Late night taste of Mogwai, Aphex Twin in the long long mornings. The perfect cupid’s bow of her lips. A geometry of light on the living room carpet. Sit in me, wheat-coloured pool of Vitamin D. The gunshot pulse of the stuttering track. I close my eyes for the White Lodge, the shrouding. Mountains come up and when we are at work we hum the Song of Healing while customers come and go in a panoply, in circuits; the moon too close like a lump of cheese with a million calories like terrible space debris coming. There’s an underpass where the dank canal flows thick as a black black oil, as molasses. Closer, the exact texture of fishnets. Something of your composition, a fear. The cold and lovely brass legato. Confessions in brown paper-bags. These are penny sweets, many regrets, many ice-coloured touch of the tongue that flickers its absence. A pleasant stasis, curled fingers which wait for the rise of the chest and the breath that is chemical alone, that is Tennents at seven in the morning on a lino floor. Berryish, bitten. Making no sense of Four Quartets but embracing the paganism, looking equinox ready with a garland of wilted daisies as if August never happened. The goddess in flesh, Lana Del Rey with her seamless fragility that adds joy to melancholy, etc. You know it. Conor Oberst telling stories about Woodie Guthrie and another life-changing duet on Lua. Voices as clear and pure as expensive vodka, distilled through a mountain stream in the elusive valleys of sadness. Somewhere south of America. I see a desert. There are plants needing repotting in my room. A 39-minute album. A mixed-up connotation, lumps of quartz from a beach near Cardross. I wonder about the temperature of water. Last year’s gatherings, the same melancholy. The absolute cool refreshment of this late-summer’s day. Remembering Lilt as a Thing! Train rides, shudderings, altered temperatures. So much goddamn analysis. Saying it like a litany, my goodness my goodness my goodness. Enacting mythology of objects surrounding. The glass of ice cubes precisely polished, a sequence of droplets. Clotted spectrums. The time it takes between ordering and serving, circling like ravens or trying to negate the game of waiting. Complaints. August being the flourishing stammer of a potentially bad dissertation. Potentially not. Sometimes salt and vinegar just tastes good. Wake up to the sting of your own tongue. Passing creepy, sapphire hot-tubs at four in the morning while old-school Coldplay floats on by mysteriously. Bones sinking like stones. Floating on home at 9am past phalanxes of school children and furious mothers. With all these roadworks, the pavement is but a treacherous ridge between spaces. Samuel Johnson kicking a stone to prove something. Philosophical brutality. Voyage to the capital for Tom McCarthy. Sunlight and absurd erotic fiction displayed in cardboard boxes. The boiling point of all these projects. Nectarines. How everything these days just feels like browsing. Are we yet ready for nostalgia and autumn, and whichever comes before the other? I keep re-watching the same old episodes.

~

LCD Soundsystem – tonite

Kiran Leonard – Could She Still Draw Back?

Big Thief – Masterpiece

Conor Oberst – Napalm

Girl Ray – Trouble

John Maus – Hey Moon

Clarence Clarity – Naysayer Godslayer

Four Tet – SW9 9SL

Oneohtrix Point Never – Music for Steamed Rocks

Mogwai – Coolverine

Lana Del Rey – Shades of Cool

Au Revoir Simone – Lark

Lomond Campbell – Father is a Craftsman (Modern Studies cover)

Julie Byrne – Morning Dove

 

 

 

 

 

On Brutalism

Photo by Subflux: https://www.flickr.com/photos/subflux
Photo by Subflux: https://www.flickr.com/photos/subflux

One of the first things you notice when you come to university in Glasgow is the building that passed you by on the open days: Boyd Orr. Orr…ore…or? With such connotations of alchemy, alternation and mechanical process – the extraction of mineral from rock – you’d be forgiven for thinking this building might have that rare quality of metallic extraction. The glint of some loveliness got from the mined core of the earth – or at least some relic of its crust. Boyd Orr himself, as Wikipedia tells me, was a Scottish teacher, doctor, biologist and politician, who also bagged himself the Nobel Peace Prize for work relating to wartime nutrition. Fitting, perhaps, that this man who dabbled in the arts of healthy eating would give his name to a building that some have found physically repulsive and ugly – if anything, unhealthy.

Still, nutrition involves mining particles of food for their usefulness. Finding all the vitamins as a geologist might take ore from a rock. There is something abject about all this: wrenching nature inside out, textually taking apart her insides with the bland incisiveness of a knife (the linguistic thrills of science course-books). The molten loveliness of erosion, rocks, temporal process – we can reduce them to names and building blocks.  And so we have Boyd Orr, that building of much usefulness and much disgust. The beast of a building that somehow you find yourself in, day after day, traipsing up the stairs for lectures, waiting for someone to give you their jewels of information. You came here thinking you’d be living the Harry Potter high-life in the extravagantly gothic main building, chased by ghosts and granted with turret views. Instead, you end up four floors up in a building that sends its gross sneer across the otherwise lovely architectural landscape of the West End.

Source: theglasgowstory.com
Source: theglasgowstory.com

Whatever you might say about Boyd Orr – with its dirty-white panels, greying windows and greyer walls, with the greenish mould that creeps up its underside like seaweed on a rock and the ugly stark jut of its body against the surrounding skyline – you must say that it is a fine example of Brutalist architecture. The heyday of Brutalism was the period between 1950 to the mid-1970s, a reaction to the modernism of the early twentieth-century. Most examples of Brutalism tend to be found in governmental or institutional buildings (university libraries, shopping malls, high-rise housing), whilst corporate buildings have always favoured a more glassy, futurist chic. The thing that strikes you first about a Brutalist building is its sheer expression of, well, concrete. It hits you with the blunt materiality of a prison or fortress, and you know, it does take a while to get used to going inside. Sometimes it seems impossible that such a monolithic block is carved out inside with such things as canteens and toilets and classrooms. Part of its statuesque aura relates to its positioning: right on the corner of University Avenue and Byres Road, where the surrounding buildings are much smaller or indeed older (and prettier for that matter). There’s no getting away from this eyesore, this monument to an industrial modernity that seems now to be receding in the mise-en-abyme of contemporary metallic panelling, plexi-glass and plastic coating.

Edinburgh's Scottish Parliament Building. Photo by UncleBucko. https://www.flickr.com/photos/unclebucko
Edinburgh’s Scottish Parliament Building. Photo by UncleBucko. https://www.flickr.com/photos/unclebucko

Glasgow School of Art. Photo by gillfoto https://www.flickr.com/photos/gillfoto/
Glasgow School of Art. Photo by gillfoto https://www.flickr.com/photos/gillfoto/

Like the rest of Glasgow’s culture, its architecture is a tale of two cities. There’s the legacy of our colonial history, with flourishes of opulence on every corner; but there’s also the leftovers of 1970s ‘slum’ housing, the crumbling tenements where once upon a time (and, unfortunately, perhaps still today) a whole family would share a bedroom and washing was done at the ‘steamie’. In one street you might have a bizarre Art Deco number next to some crumbling sandstone tenements, or a gleaming new-build sprung up alongside Victorian houses with massive (single-glazed and listed) bay windows. There’s the black-and-white nostalgia of the Gorbals and then there’s the grandiose Park Circus, sat atop Kelvingrove Park looking out with picturesque views over the city. There’s the famous Carpet Factory, the Rennie Mackintosh Art School, the various churches, mosques and synagogues with their unique homage to Roman and Eastern styles. There’s the uncomfortable fact that much of Glasgow’s beautiful marmoreal and sandstone glory is built on the slave trade. We also have the bug-like SECC resting next to the Clyde as if we were in Sydney, the Royal Concert Hall that crowns the top of Buchanan Street, the new Hydro that more than anything resembles a UFO. It’s definitely a city of eclectic architecture. While we might not have the equivalent architectural (and indeed financial) notoriety of Edinburgh’s Scottish Parliament building (which in my family alone has been called ‘horrible’, ‘interesting’, ‘a waste of money’, ‘too modern’ and ‘more of an art gallery than a parliament’), we were in 1999 designated the UK City of Architecture and Design, beating the likes of London, Liverpool and of course, Edinburgh. You only have to reflect on the response to last year’s Art School fire to recognise how seriously we take our physical landscape and architectural heritage (even if it is often covered with ad posters and graffiti).

Photo by Susan Casey https://www.flickr.com/photos/susancasey/
The Gorbals, 1968. Photo by Susan Casey https://www.flickr.com/photos/susancasey/

Anyway, back to Brutalism. The key word related to its style, aside from concrete, is perhaps ‘function’. Stripped to its core elements, Brutalist architecture involves repeated ‘modular elements’ which are grouped together to form the whole. This is the raw fragmentation of modernism, here transformed into something with instrumental purpose, something solid that seeks to counteract the airy dissolution of modernity. ‘All that is solid melts into air’, Marx said. With Brutalism, the response is to make things as solid as possible. How ironic that Marx predicted a revolutionary dissolution of oppressive social structures, whilst the ‘proletariat’ in question remain literally trapped inside buildings which encase them in a physical manifestation of the very (metaphoric) solidity which binds them socially – the hard class structure, the poverty cycle and so on. And perhaps also ironic that some of these buildings were erected at a time when industrial labour was entering its decline in Britain and elsewhere, especially in Glasgow towards the end of the 1970s, as Thatcher came to power and that mineral source of wealth and opportunity (going back to ore of course) – mining – was dissolved from the national economy.

There is also the uncanniness of paradox attached to the fact that when one observes a Brutalist building, it is often difficult to discern its function due to the sheer vastness of its functionality. This relates back to what Edmund Burke in 1757 defined as ‘the sublime’:

The passion caused by the great and sublime in nature […] is Astonishment; and astonishment is that state of the soul, in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. In this case the mind is so entirely filled with its object, that it cannot entertain any other.

Burke was talking about the sublime as it was caused by scenes of nature: mountains, chasms, forests that seem to stretch on forever. However, as urban landscapes increasingly eat into our countryside, it seems fitting that we might consider the vastness of their proportions – or indeed, their ugliness – a kind of sublime in themselves. What else do we feel than a kind of passionate ‘horror’ as we find ourselves faced for the first time with buildings like London’s Trellick Tower and Barbican Centre or India’s Palace of Assembly? All those pattern-like repetition of squares resembling a Kantian ‘mathematical sublime’, whereby an overflow of signifiers stretching out into tedious infinity bears the threat of all meanings, distinctions and associations collapsing into one long metonymic chain leading to nothing but more signifiers. It’s enough to give you a headache, and quite ironic that Boyd Orr is next to the equally hideous though somewhat-smaller Mathematics Building.

Trellick Tower. Photo by Martin Hearn https://www.flickr.com/photos/martinhearn/
Trellick Tower. Photo by Martin Hearn https://www.flickr.com/photos/martinhearn/

Central to Burke’s idea of the sublime is the notion of the pleasure associated with terror: as we gaze at something which overwhelms us, we find ourselves staring into the abyss of meaninglessness, on the sheer precipice where representation itself collapses. St. Augustine suggested that the ugly was that which embodied formlessness in its lack of beauty. This aesthetics of excess or hideous terror appears curiously inappropriate for a style of building whose very purpose was built on form as function. We might think of Frankenstein’s monster, whose ugliness stems not only from the fact that he is composed of the flesh of dead cadavers, but also his sheer pointlessness – the fact that he is a ‘blot upon the Earth’, as Mary Shelley has him lament. Might we consider the likes of Boyd Orr a horrible, monstrous ‘blot’ upon our sacred streets? Or is this more than a question of mere aesthetics?

As Romantic poets readdressed the Neoclassical distaste for the gross pointlessness mountains (favouring, as Alexander Pope’s Windsor Forest perhaps best exemplifies, a view of nature as ordered and harmonious) by fetishising the psychologically disruptive experience of the sublime (in the way that Coleridge, de Quincey et al also favoured the psychologically disruptive experiences of opium), today’s generation are raising Brutalism to idolised status rather than rejecting it as a mere eyesore. Sure, you will have the many students who moan about Boyd Orr’s appearance on their campus, but you will have an equal number of enthusiasts on the likes of Tumblr posting Brutalist architecture onto their blogroll, alongside your Banksys and softcore erotica and fan-fiction all that other Tumblr jazz. Stark black and white photographs record an almost antiquarian fascination with the aesthetics of these buildings and their value as some relic of a solid past we can’t quite get back to in our shiny era of crazy postmodern architecture.

Photo by Tom Donald: https://www.flickr.com/photos/clearwood/
Photo by Tom Donald: https://www.flickr.com/photos/clearwood/

But is there an ethical problem underlying this fetishising of some Brutalist buildings? They are, after all, often the homes of many people living in relative poverty. Sometimes, these buildings are just down the road from areas of affluence and architectural extravagance. I don’t need to mention specific areas for you to think of places in Glasgow, because there are certainly many. It’s a problem related to the way that urban decay is appropriated as a kind of dark backdrop upon which a white, middle-class guy sorts his life out. There’s always been the ethnographer’s dilemma of how ethical it is making a living out of describing poor conditions without doing anything about it politically or practically. I suppose what I’m getting at though is that there’s something a bit more uncomfortable about using these buildings as ‘cool’ aestheticism, a mere viewing-spot on the blasé scroll of online photography. Still, I don’t think there are clear answers to this; and maybe it’s good to share images, because sharing raises awareness.  You just have to keep in mind the whole problem of ‘poverty porn’, and the notion that by glorifying certain buildings you are also glorifying a particular experience of poverty, however unintentional your actions.

Photo by  https://www.flickr.com/photos/22087304@N07/
The Red Road flats. Photo by <p&p> https://www.flickr.com/photos/22087304@N07/

Indeed, this perhaps is what made me so uncomfortable about last year’s plans to demolish the iconic Red Road tower blocks and transmit the demolition live as part of the Opening Ceremony of the Commonwealth Games. While it is of course good that the Games involved building new, much more accommodating and safer houses to replace these crumbling relics of Glasgow’s past, I don’t agree that it should’ve been broadcast to add a ‘bang’ to the Opening Ceremony. London gets magnificent fireworks for the Olympics, we get…glorified demolition? Destroying a symbol of poverty doesn’t destroy poverty itself, however easy it makes it look. Luckily, these controversial plans were scrapped in the end after much public opposition (which just shows again how much Glaswegians care about their physical environment and the social consciousness within it). Regeneration is underway with the Games’ legacy and of course it is a great thing, but there is no need to sanctimoniously erase history in front of the world to show that you’re doing it.

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This points to the whole issue of Brutalism’s somewhat brutal decline since the 1980s, especially in Britain. Vocalised distaste from public figures, the association with urban decay, problems with graffiti, cramped living conditions and its starkly cold, almost totalitarian appearance, all contributed to this decline. Another contribution to this decline perhaps came from British Literature’s concrete guru, J. G. Ballard, as his novel High Rise (1975) documents a dystopian, Lord of the Flies situation where the closed conditions of a high-rise building lead to a swift degeneration of the residents lives. The enclosed spatiality of place itself gives rise to a carnival of savagery and violence, where primitive desires are unleashed in this isolated environment. The opening line perhaps gives you a good indication of where Ballard is going with this novel: ‘Later, as he sat on his balcony eating the dog, Dr Robert Laing reflected on the unusual events that had taken place within this huge apartment building during the previous three months.’ There is a strain of dark humour running through the text, as well as the shock value of its exposure of human nature placed in its urban limits. You get the sense that Ballard secretly revels in both the sheer surreal ugly inhumanity of it all, whilst critiquing the politics of urban planning that might one day lead to such a scenario.

Overall, I’m not sure where my position on Boyd Orr lies. There are days where I’m walking to uni along Highburgh Road and when Boyd Orr looms out of a cloudy winter sky my spirits sink like a puddle of snow slush. But there are times when you can’t help but notice the strange beauty of copper-coloured sunlight flashing upon its windows at dusk, as if a thousand eyes were staring out of those cold, impersonal walls. I think there’s value in preserving these buildings, not just because they possess a kind of chic urban sublime, but because they remind us of the ideals our society once held, even if they were misguided, flawed or impossible. I suppose I’d rather stare at the stark reality of an ugly monster, a decrepit Boyd Orr, than lose myself in the illusory surfaces of the glassy Wolfson Medical School, or the kitsch blue and green panels of the neo-Brutalist Fraser Building. I’d rather a chunk of dull glowing ore than a perfect rhinestone…

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The Fraser Building opposite Glasgow Uni Library

Loving the Other: The Cinematic Magic of Paddington

Source: www.walesonline.co.ukSource: http://www.walesonline.co.uk

It was the morning after the busy Black Friday weekend at work, and, predictably, I slept in. The rain was pouring down thick and fast and Glasgow was a gloomy vat of grey. There was a need for something warm and enchanting in this mist that overshadowed Christmas.

Every year, my Mum, brother and I try to find something to visit – it’s become a kind of tradition. An acoustic gig, a play or a film, usually. In past year’s, we’ve seen the likes of Pearl and the Puppets, Great Expectations; a long time ago, it would be Maybole Bazaar or the Carrick Christmas Show. Sometimes it’s true that the older you get, the better things are. There was a year when I was supposed to go see Frightened Rabbit at The Arches with some friends, but a heavy snowdrift cancelled out all the trains and so I had to content myself with a night at home studying Higher Sociology…

Anyway, this year I found myself on the train to Edinburgh on Sunday morning. Since the weather was a gloomy storm of wind and rain, we decided to go to the cinema. I always like the thrill of going to a cinema I haven’t been before – even if it’s got the same pick and mix, popcorn machine and seats, there’s still something exciting about navigating the screen doors and the dark staircases. We went to the VUE cinema. Mum was keen on going to see Paddington. I was pretty sceptical; I mean, I’m not too keen on animated films, and I agreed with my brother that it might end up being a bit…childish. Probably like going to see Frozen, although I wouldn’t dare to be so controversial as to comment on that film, and anyway I haven’t seen it. Certainly, when we sat down to watch the adverts, there were a lot of commercials for toys and cereal and films that come with a ‘U’ certificate. A baby behind us intermittently crying. We exchanged Sibling Glances. What was this going to be?

I suppose in my mind I’ve always lumped Paddington in with Winnie the Pooh, The Wind and the Willows, Watership Down and Beatrix Potter: fuzzy, anthropomorphic children’s tales which hold prime place in the history of children’s literature. Yet all these tales tend to have a hidden dark side: like all traditional fairytales, their simple stories of adventure are interwoven with commentaries on the likes of family, love, violence and perhaps even racism. So I wasn’t sure what to expect from Paddington, but as I waited for the adverts to roll out, I was imagining that perhaps this would be more than just a plain old children’s film. Maybe it would reach the stature of one of the only children’s films I like, the (I think) highly symbolic Bug’s Life. 

Paddington begins in the midst of ‘darkest Peru’, recounting a colonial tale whereby an English explorer named Montgomery Clyde makes friends with two bears and tells them upon his return to England that they will always be welcome in London if they ever visit Britain. The whole film holds a self-conscious ironic mockery of British colonialism, like some postmodern update of Conrad. Imperial knowledge is held by the ‘Geographical Society’ who cruelly banish Clyde for his benevolent approach to the ‘natives’.

Soon after, we witness fantastical elements of the bears’ lives as they live alongside their nephew in the wilds of darkest Peru. These lives are remarkably sophisticated, featuring an intriguing marmalade-making machine and a radio crackling with the sharp tones of BBC R.P. informing distant listeners about life back home on the streets of London. There are also some very nice hats. The simple harmony of the forest is disrupted one day by a violent earthquake, which leaves the female bear Lucy effectively a widow as the other bear Pastuzo disappears. Lucy sends her poor bereft nephew away to London to seek adventure and fortune by sneaking him onto a ship, and retires peacefully to a retirement home for bears.

After this, the film follows a somewhat bizarre but delightfully heartwarming immigrant narrative. The young bear finds himself alienated in a strange city, acquires himself a ‘British’ name (Paddington, after the train station he arrives at), and then a suitably quirky and very English family to adopt him. The Browns (with Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville as the dad and Made in Dagenham’s Sally Hawkins as the mum) embody that kind of slightly dysfunctional, messy and a bit bizarre middle-class family that holds mythological status at the heart of our culture. Yes, there is the threat of stereotype, but the film carries off these qualities generally well as they mould perfectly into warm, fairytale figures that chime in various ways with cultural caricatures without becoming too flat or prescriptive. The stern, paranoid father and the liberal, empathetic mother; the boy obsessed with building things; the girl choked on embarrassment and fear of seeming ‘weird’ to her friends. The Scottish and slightly alcoholic housekeeper, Mrs Bird, who can predict things with her knees and saves the day towards the end of the film by distracting a security guard with copious shots of whisky.

We might compare this play on well-loved family archetypes it to the likes of TV comedies My Family or Outnumbered, which features semi-improvised scripts depicting the chaos of modern family life. The overly-inquisitive little sister Karen, the perpetually-stressed mum, the wearied father, the embodied chaos of Ben, the youngest brother, the sulky teenager. What makes Paddington shine above any TV drama is the simple humour of its script and the cinematic magic of its costumes: Nicole Kidman’s sharp heels and trench as she stars as the villainous taxidermist who seeks to capture and stuff our beloved bear for the Museum of Natural History, Sally Hawkin’s outfits (all marvellous colour-clashing, woolly hats and embroidered cardigans), and that iconic blue duffle coat and red hat that Paddington wears himself. Let’s hope sales of said duffle coat go up in the aftermath of this film because I’m more than happy to see it everyday, especially in that lovely cobalt colour that Paddington sports so well:

Source: www.cityam.com
Source: http://www.cityam.com

Then there’s the magic of the house itself, which features a giant spiral staircase and walls painted with a Japanese cherry blossom tree, the blossoms of which bloom or fade beautifully according to the emotional tone of the story.

As Paddington adjusts himself to (human) family life, the audience goes through scenes of low-level cognitive estrangement, as Paddington explores everyday human life and tries to make sense of it, with amusing consequences: flooding the bathroom, using a toothbrush as an ear-cleaning cotton-bud, mastering how to use the escalators at the tube station. As I said at the beginning, I’m not generally a great fan of animated films, but Paddington carries off its loveable animal protagonist flawlessly, down to the details of individual water droplets shaking off each strand of his fur. Originally, Colin Firth was set to play the voiceover for Paddington, but he stepped down after worrying that his voice didn’t sound quite ‘open’ enough for the young bear. Instead, Ben Whishaw got the part and the sweet dulcet tones that so charmed us in his portrayal of Romantic poet John Keats in Jane Campion’s Bright Star are here perfect for the innocent wide-eyed charisma of Paddington. It’s a remarkably technical process; Whishaw had to wear a kind of helmet so that the animated Paddington bear could match the facial expressions and head movements of his kindred (human) spirit.

Source: www.networkrailmediacentre.co.uk
Source: http://www.networkrailmediacentre.co.uk

London is a dream in this film. From the grand corridors of the museum to the polished floors of Paddington Station (I imagine a much-needed plug for Network Rail…) and the snowy streets, it provides a romantic backdrop to Paddington’s adventures that makes us fall in love with the old city all over again. Sometimes I get very sick of London, especially the way it always flickers through media as this glassy corporate giant full of rich people with perfect lives (I’m thinking of the sweeping shots that open The Apprentice or basically every shot in Made in Chelsea that isn’t an awkward closeup of someone’s glakit face). The London of Paddington is a city of nostalgia, drenched in snow and old antique shops and red telephone boxes and a Dickensian wallet thief. Peter Capaldi playing an archetypal nosy old neighbour with a cockney accent and Doctor Who scarf. The family portrayed at the heart of the film are at once old-fashioned (the boring, distant father that perhaps echoes the banker father of Mary Poppins?) but deal with relatively modern issues: the presence of technology, the moodiness of teenagers. It’s this blend of the nostalgic and contemporary that really adds magic back to London itself, that spins a fairytale of visual beauty and enough narrative suspense to keep you hooked to the end (there is the encroaching threat of Kidman’s cold cyborg of a villain coming to kill and stuff our beloved protagonist).

Aside from the lovely visuals and fairytale storyline of good vs. evil, there’s the narrative of the Other which I already touched upon. Paddington experiences both alienation and welcome, and simultaneously the audience goes through the motions of heartbreak and compassion. Initially, he finds himself spurned by Mr Brown for his clumsy inability to fit into the household without making a mess of everything. In the cold rain he wanders the streets, and finds shelter with one of the Queen’s Guards who kindly offers him an emergency sandwich that he has stuffed under his enormous hat. Paddington is of course perfect for Christmas time: there is the message of family love, compassion and understanding, but also that simple narrative of sharing food that means so much in the shared gluttony of the festive season. There’s a reason we buy a tin of Roses or Heroes or Quality Street and it’s not just because it offers choice, but also because it’s a shared pleasure. Much like the film itself (I recommend everyone sees it on the big screen where the glorious visuals can really come to life).

You can look to the likes of Derrida or Donna Harraway to academically unpick the importance of understanding animality and other species for recognising the animal in us. By the end of the film, we realise that species shouldn’t divide us or cause fear or hatred or hierarchy. It’s wrong to treat another being as an instrumental object: something to be prized and displayed and stuffed. Go to Peter Singer for some philosophy too; I recommend ‘All Animals Are Equal’ (1974). It’s wrong to treat the Other with anything less than the respect you’d give to your own ‘species’. If bears and humans can become family, then can’t we all as humans get along in the turbulent times of the terrorism and threat and anti-immigration rhetoric of the 21st century?

What draws the immigrant narrative out from this Every(bear’s)man’s tale of immigration is the interspersed classic calypso songs which a band play throughout the action. Michael Bond’s children’s books were written, as Tim Masters (BBC 2014) points out, around the time when a new immigrant community were settling in Notting Hill – the place where Paddington himself finds a home. The songs are all positive and cheery, telling a story of endurance in the face of hardship and rippling with a fresh, hopeful spirit. The kind we need for 2015. By invoking the positive narrative of the Caribbean settlers in the mid-twentieth century (who came to help rebuild post-war Britain), the film implicitly critiques our contemporary societal stance on immigration. All the fear-mongering rhetoric that gets whipped up by the likes of UKIP is exploded in this heart-warming tale of love and discovery and acceptance of difference. It’s a classic tale of the journey of the Outsider that could be applied to anyone who has had the experience of settling into a new community as some kind of racial/ethnic/sexual/physical Other. And perhaps this, more than anything else, is the enduring magic of Paddington. So I’m glad I went to see it.

(On a side note, the only thing I was sceptical about was the heroic pigeons who essentially save Paddington at the film’s climax – not to put to fine a point on spoilers – I can’t see pigeons ever acting so benevolently. But then maybe that’s a terrible species bias that I should work on myself).

Bibliography:

Masters, Tim, 2014. BBC News Online. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-30196290

Pauli, Michelle, 2014. Interview with Michael Bond. http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/nov/28/michael-bond-author-paddington-bear-interview-books-television-film

Christmas Traditions

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Christmas begins with a different ritual for everyone. For some people, it’s when the radio stations start playing familiar Christmas hits from the 80s. For others, it’s the first bite of a mince pie crumbling its buttery sticky sweetness in your fingers. For most supermarkets, it’s the day after Halloween, when the shelves are quickly stocked with tins of Roses and Quality Street and Celebrations and a Christmas tree is rather humbly erected in every store’s entrance. For me, it used to be when we started making cut-out paper snowflakes at school; when they would play Christmas songs on the old stereo system that crackled when anyone walked near it, as if it were possessed somehow. Or a trip to a pound shop to buy our dog an artfully tacky sparkly collar and/or chew toy and/or basket of treats. These days I’m involved in buying sparkly socks more than dog collars, but the sentiment is still there.

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Some people are super keen for Christmas and have their trees up right from the first of December. In the library during exam period the festive jumpers are out in full swing, as are the seasonal lattes (Praline and Pumpkin Spice) retrieved from the Byres Road Starbucks. In our house, the tree usually doesn’t get put up until Christmas Eve; since our cousins from England would sometimes come up to us, we would wait for their arrival to decorate it, late in the evening, before leaving out a carrot, mince pie and brandy for Rudolph and Santa.

Traditions, however, change just like people. At school, Christmas came with the baggage of P.E. becoming training for social dancing throughout December. No Scottish child has been exempt from the painful awkwardness of having to choose a sweaty-palmed partner and learning to dance often incredibly complex steps (I’m looking at you, Strip the Willow) to the amusement of all their peers. And that’s if they’re lucky enough not to be left last and paired with a teacher. Of course, the older you get, the less embarrassment tends to dominate your entire consciousness, so dancing becomes more fun. You know, I would even go to a ceilidh of my own free will now, although back then I thought it was a form of torture cooked up to torment children out of enjoying their Christmas. It didn’t help that the school dance also involved the necessity of buying a compulsory sequined party dress (not a fun enterprise when you are a ten-year-old tomboy that hates shopping) and a dinner whose only option for vegetarians was salt and vinegar crisps (I swear I’m not really complaining). Still, the brutally hilarious fights over ‘he wiz dancin with ma girlfriend’ that you could witness outside afterwards while waiting to be picked up made the night somewhat worth it.

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At secondary school, playing in the brass band forged new festive traditions. There were the rehearsal days for the Christmas concert, where you got to take a whole morning out of class, carrying your instrument down to the tinselled town hall and sit for hours munching snacks from the local Spar and watching everybody else perform. Then there were the primary school tours, where we would pile into a mini van and play in the surrounding school assemblies for the generous payment of a box of chocolates that were swiftly devoured before lunch. You felt so important, playing up there on a stage and being praised by your old teachers while all the little kids watched you with wide-eyed wonder and you remembered that you were in that crowd only a few years ago, hoping that someday you could be the big kid on stage with the shiny instrument adorned with tinsel.

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When Glasgow’s shoppers’ wonderland, the aptly-named Silverburn, opened its doors, a new tradition was created. Picking me up after a hard day at college, Mum would drive me up to the shopping centre and we would do the last bits of our Christmas shopping. There’s a certain magic to the indoor consumer paradise, with all the lights and the giant snowglobe for kids to get pictures in and the seductive glow of expensive shop windows. Everything was warm and clean and once we’d done our shopping we’d go for a mince pie at Starbucks, where we could look out over all the people dressed in reindeer jumpers and laden with glossy shopping bags. These days, traditional Christmas has become more fashionable and you can go to see the Christmas markets in pretty much every British city. It all has a German and Scandinavian flavour which still feels a bit refreshing. We used to always go up to see the lights at George Square, a tradition that seems very sad and innocent now after yesterday’s heartbreaking incident, but nevertheless retains importance in my memory – and many people’s memories, I should imagine. There’s also the lovely, extravagant decor of traditional department stores which resonates the Christmas magic of the early twentieth century: I’m thinking Princes Mall and House of Fraser in Glasgow, then Jenners and Harvey Nichols in Edinburgh. I’m sure London too has much to offer, although sadly I only get to experience that through my half-hearted attempts to join my family in watching the terrible Christmas specials of Made in Chelsea.

George Square
George Square

It used to be that we’d go to Culzean to collect twigs and fir cones and sprigs of holly for decorating the house. We’d spray them with gold and dip them in glitter. Sometimes we still do that, as if living out the old ritual of making Christmas cards that Mum made us do every year when we were at primary school. I love crafting and firmly believe that it’s one of the most relaxing things you can do. A few years ago I went through a phase of making loads of candle holders out of glass jars which I painted with acrylics. At school there was always the last few days of term where people wandered about not doing much and hardly going to class. Teachers would wave us away with a ‘Merry Christmas’ instead of teaching us and we’d sit and watch Meet the Fockers on repeat (at least in primary school we had the enterprise to bring in board games) and wish we’d decided to skive. Often I retreated to the art department where we could make snowflakes and paint bottles and pretend we were little again.

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At uni, the last classes are a bit more exciting. For one thing, mulled wine often factors in. Also, the fear (in first and second year at least) of Christmas exams. I used to hate how university decided to give us exams in December, with only a week to study for them. It was incredibly stressful, but in the long run I suppose it was a good thing because we didn’t have to study much over Christmas, as we did with the January prelims for Highers and Advanced Highers. Sometimes, the fear makes Christmas all the more sweeter. I remember in my first year at uni, I’d just gone with a friend to an impromptu gig at Brel on Ashton Lane. It was Rachel Sermanni and the singer from Admiral Fallow who were playing acoustic sets and it felt very wintry and magical. And when I left, to go back to my flat to cook chilli bean soup and study, it began to snow as I walked up Great George Street. It was one of those enchanting moments when you feel everything swell up and really seem to mean something. Like you’re in a movie. I was finally so happy to be in Glasgow and a student, even with three exams that week. It’s hard to not love your university and city when it looks like this:

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After exams (and more recently, essay and dissertation hand-ins) comes all the comforting Christmas rituals that I love so well. Buying sparkly nail polish and the December edition of Vogue which weaves a fantasy of luxury office Christmas parties thats nowadays I have the (privilege?) of serving if not just imagining. Seeing fairy lights being put up in the restaurant where I work and all the Black Friday and Christmas bookings looming before us. Decorating the Christmas tree at home each year with new decorations got in our stockings. I missed out on decorating the Christmas tree at school, but came back from Belmont one day to see that we’d managed to procure one for the sixth year common room, and someone had decorated it artfully with ornaments worthy of any John Lewis special collection: a load of empty crisp packets.

My flat at Christmas time, 2012
My flat at Christmas time, 2012

Still, sometimes makeshift Christmasses can be fun, or at least interesting. My brother and friend Jack randomly phoning in and singing ‘Last Christmas’ live on BBC Asian Network radio. Stringing a half-hearted bit of tinsel and some Poundland fairy lights over my bookshelf. In first year at uni, we had a festive dinner party in halls, but seeing as I’ve always prioritised exams and studying over pretty much everything else, I ended up cooking my own vegetarian option which was incidentally the only thing I had in the fridge: a fried courgette. Even so, the party poopers (obviously I was included) were the ones who had to scrape all the meat scratchings and grease off the dirty pans like a band of Cinderellas until one in the morning while everyone else was having a good time at the QMU’s Cheesy Pop. Still, it was a lesson in the underside of hospitality…

My Mum's nutroast
My Mum’s nutroast

Arguing about who will do the washing up is a regular feature of our household at Christmas, as it probably is pretty much everywhere. It’s not so bad when you do it together. That’s the festive spirit, anyway. Then on Boxing Day we tend to go for a nice long walk – one year it was along Ayr Beach and through Belleisle, another through Maidens and Culzean, in past years it will have been places in England. Christmas Day used to be an early dinner and then sitting in  the hallway stuffing myself with Quality Street and playing the new Pokemon on my Game Boy Advance while everyone else watched the Queen’s Speech and boxsets of Only Fools and Horses. We still retain the tradition of eating bagels for breakfast (I wonder is this some kind of strange nod to our Jewish ancestry?), but nowadays it’s more a cheeky Amaretto or some Bucksfizz (maybe it should adapt and be Buckfast) and a lovely walk up to Maybole monument through the golf course and dinner at about eight when the crappy oven we have at home has finally decided to roast the parsnips. Both have their magic. The best part is still the waking up early to open my stocking. This year, I’ll be working Christmas Day, so I’ll have my Christmas on Boxing Day. But that’s okay, because Christmas is what you make it.

A typical Christmas scene...Bella worn out from opening her many presents...
A typical Christmas scene…Bella worn out from opening her many presents…

Places of Memory

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Glasgow Uni spire seen from Kelvingrove Park

There is a sense in which selfhood is just a scattering of remembrances, remembrances dependent on places. Everywhere in which I have been encodes some trail, some trace of memory. As a child whenever we went on walks I would magic things into being, imagining worlds on top of worlds, layering enchanted spaces and creatures upon the reality of adolescent landscapes. I’d see fantastic beings darting in rocky streams, strange birds sweeping from forest canopies, a thousand intriguing microbes, exotic in colour, swirling on the ground amidst the paws of my (real-life) dog. And even as I grow older, shedding away these whimsical worlds, I keep the magic of perception, imbuing the places I visit with a mental significance. As some store their spatial memories in smartphones, clicking them into flattened snapshots, I try to inscribe them in my mind as networks of sentiment – of senses, thought and memory. There is this particular spot in Kelvingrove Park, with the perfect view of the Glasgow Uni spire and a quiet pool of sunlight that occurs in May at about 4 o’clock; the spot where after my first year exams I sat lazily making daisy chains and reading Laurie Lee’s nostalgically beautiful Cider With Rosie. There is that salt smell and clacking of pebbles, the quick breeze that is Brighton Beach and with it many far off summers, of paddling cold feet and minty sticks of rock. Weird innocence. There is that favourite place in Culzean, a small jutting of cliff that looks out to a glittering dusk-covered ocean and the eerie mound of the Ailsa Craig. So many times I have sat up there with various friends and family and each time I am a different person, bound together perhaps only by the chains of associations set off by this location. Although I was brought up in the country, my mind is also a sprawl of urban spaces: the wintry, bustling streets of Paris at New Year, the seagull strewn alleyways of Ayr, Glasgow’s gritty pavements and eclectic skyline of the modern and the gothic, Edinburgh with its panoramic view of hillside, castle, parliament and sea. What makes all these places somehow special is my relationship to them both cognitively and spatially – in other words, psychogeographically – a sense of pulsating interconnections based on walking, on exploring the world on foot.

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Ailsa Craig

Someone who has written extensively on his psychogeographic travels is the author Will Self, who ambles everywhere, in the search for new perspectives of space – walking famously from his house in England to New York (albeit with the help of an aeroplane), exploring the curious border spaces between urban and rural, airport and field. Self worries that in the contemporary world of globalisation and machine transport, we are becoming increasingly confined to ‘micro-worlds’ which offer restricted, miniature universes of hotels, airports, clubs and bars that bear little difference from city to city, in the sense that they are being used for the same purpose, and we rarely escape them. The frequency with which tourists, travellers and the like will take a taxi cab, subway or train rather than exploring on foot results in a limited perspective of urban space. There is no chance to stand back and observe one’s situatedness in relation to the built environment, to gauge one’s relationship to north, to the cathedral, the river; to form the intricate networks of association and recollection that pattern themselves around street-walking. I want to make a plea for this street-walking, not just as a fitness alternative to the stuffy mundanity of the gym but as an exercise in perception, in self-formation. (Sometimes, sounding pretentious or perhaps overly poetic is worth getting my point across, especially if it’s a pretty simple point about the joys of that most archaic of sports: walking.)

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street in Dowanhill

I feel like I’m naturally bad at driving. I don’t like being in control of a dangerous vehicle; yes, that’s one reason, and a reason certainly more justified after delving into J. G. Ballard’s dystopian account of sex, violence and dangerous driving in Crash. The car, as a vehicle of speed charged with the excitement of modernity – see Marinetti’s ‘The Futurist Manifesto’ – is the antithesis of the slow pacing of walking. With a great driving instructor, I took lessons for over a year and while I enjoyed the freedom of leaving my small town and gliding (at my shy snail’s pace) along country roads, I don’t think I’m cut out to drive powerful vehicles. Even a bike I manage only at a push. I spend too long getting distracted by pretty sunsets, sheep, or the name of a passing cafe.

So I guess rather than machine-obsessed Marinetti, I’m more aligned with the modernism of the flâneur, the original ‘street-walker’ who spent his/her time sauntering the streets (usually of Paris) and losing his/herself in the crowd. Charles Baudelaire describes the flâneur in The Painter of Modern Life: 

The crowd is his element, as the air is that of birds and water of fishes. His passion and his profession are to become one flesh with the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate spectator, it is an immense joy to set up house in the heart of the multitude, amid the ebb and flow of movement, in the midst of the fugitive and the infinite. To be away from home and yet to feel oneself everywhere at home.

There is something strangely ‘natural’ in becoming a liminal figure, between observation and participation, haunting the city streets and drinking the atmosphere of the crowd as if it were the very sustenance of life itself. Moreover, this sense of haunting can be literal, as stepping among a wealth of sensations recalls dreaded memories and fugue states of psychological wandering, as the narrator of Jean Rhys’ novel, Good Morning, Midnight suggests:

Twelve o’clock on a fine autumn day, and nothing to worry about. Some money to spend and nothing to worry about.
But careful, careful! Don’t get excited. You know what happens when you get excited and exalted, don’t you?….Yes….And then, you know how you collapse like a pricked balloon, don’t you ? Having no staying power….Yes, exactly….So, no excitement. This is going to be a quiet, sane fortnight. Not too much drinking, avoidance of certain cafes, of certain streets, of certain spots, and everything will go off beautifully. The thing is to have a programme, not to leave any thing to chance – no gaps. No trailing around aimlessly with cheap gramophone records starting up in your head, no ‘Here this happened, here that happened’. Above all, no crying in public, no crying at all if I can help it.
Thinking all this, I pass the exact place for my after dinner drink. It’s a cafe on the Avenue de l’Observatoire, which always seems to be empty. I remember it like this before.

The narrator, Sasha, speaks in ellipses, in the strange silences and drifting prose of a vagabond, losing her mind to the networks of memory that haunt and map out her present.

And while Rhys’ flaneur is at times made painfully aware of herself by her own solitude amidst the Parisian crowds, sometimes in the city, one actually craves the claustrophobia of people and buildings and even the nasty proliferation of pigeons. It is maybe a kind of sublime, where one forgets one’s self in the overwhelming hustle and bustle. I remember my first time walking into Glasgow city centre on foot via Argyle and St Vincent Street. Standing breathless at the crossing of the A804 I looked up to the massive glass-coated buildings, beaming off bright April sunlight. There’s a feeling there that I don’t think I’ll ever quite replicate, that of a young adult from a little town, now encountering for the first time alone the vastness and slightly daunting excitement of the metropolis. It is a vision of the city infinitely different from seeing the big buildings from the safety of the backseat of a car; a vision that seems much more urgent on foot, with the vehicles rushing around you and the commercial structures seeming so much grander from the pavement. And it is funny now, how I walk past these buildings so often and they seem diminished; I have adopted more of a blasé, Simmelian attitude to an urban environment that once appeared so compelling. The only solution to this, of course, is to explore new places, gain new perspectives.

It isn’t easy to explore new places when you are notoriously bad at navigation. I didn’t take Modern Studies over Geography for nothing; I genuinely find it a problem grasping my location through maps, to mentally situate myself. Instead of compass coordinates or street names, I tend to place myself in relation to strange landmarks: a telephone box with wild flowers sprouting out the side, an antique shop where the man sits outside polishing wood and making sandwiches, a crumbling wall or peculiar tree that grows by a river. My brain is more of a mesh of colours and markers than a standardised map of labelled coordinates; I know my space through unstable nodes of remembered landmarks which shift and change  and alter my spatial awareness. Perhaps this is why Glasgow (or even just the West End) no longer seems the same, huge place it once did when I first came to uni. Perhaps this is why I always tend to get lost in new places, because I can’t follow a steady route without getting distracted by the allure of a pretty residential estate or a path that detours miles along a canal.

An example of this is my sense of Victoria Park. Victoria Park often comes up weirdly in Limmy’s Show as a place where the fences demand repainting, but that isn’t my only notion of it. Victoria Park is a strange place in its location: a kind of island of green surrounded by motorway. And it is quite difficult to get to, requiring knowledge of the underpass and the correct entrances. I’m better at it now, but before I used to set out for it, following the trail set out by my portable Google Map, and then get confused and lost, ending up wandering aimlessly around Whiteinch. I don’t really know why I forgot how to get there, after the first time I stumbled across it. It flashed in my mind only as a bizarre mirage, almost like Mirage Island from Pokemon Ruby & Sapphire, appearing to me only on certain days when the weather was right and I was in the proper frame of mind necessary for navigation. I actually had to search online for photos of the place, to make sure I really had been there, to make sure it existed at all. The seeming elusiveness of the Park gave it an ethereal quality that remains today, even though I have now memorised exactly the route to get there.  And it’s not that difficult at all, really. Barely thirty minutes from my flat. Yet arriving upon that still, wide silver pond with its hordes of swans, I feel like I have found a peaceful, otherworldly territory. And then I hear the Glaswegian accent of a fellow walker with his dog, and the illusion shatters somewhat.

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Victoria Park in autumn

Glasgow is peppered with these secret spaces, and as the old etymology goes, it is in a strong sense a ‘dear green place’. There are so many parks and walkways I have yet to discover. I have found canals and strolls along the river, where you could be anywhere – until you spot a stunning piece of architecture peeping through the trees. And like all the places of my childhood, I feel like Glasgow is now a part of me: I have a  hidden history that exists among the old buildings, the pretty parks and streets. I don’t think I’d have such a strong sense of rootedness if I hadn’t explored the city always on foot; if I’d always gotten the Clockwork Orange (the subway) rather than meandering through various roots to town, would I have stumbled upon Park Circus, or the spring blossom that lights up Great Western Road? Living in the country is lovely, but when you are in a city, all it takes is a walk out the door and down a few streets and suddenly you are part of a crowd; not just a crowd of people, but a crowd of forgotten memories and historic spirits, of buildings that bear the souls of all those who have set foot inside them. The city has a certain music to it, different from the birdsong and breeze and tractor groans of the country, lively and beautiful and ambient all the same. Personally, I believe that you can only experience this music in its pure form by using your good old legs and walking the  metropolis. I’d like to end with one of my favourite passages of psychogeography, from Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, where the young Stephen Dedalus is discovering Dublin for the first time:

Dublin was a new and complex sensation. […] In the beginning he contented himself with circling timidly round the neighbouring square or, at most, going half way down one of the side streets but when he had made a skeleton map of the city in his mind he followed boldly one of its central lines until he reached the customhouse. He passed unchallenged among the docks and along the quays wondering at the multitude of corks that lay bobbing on the surface of the water in a thick yellow scum, at the crowds of quay porters and the rumbling carts and the ill-dressed bearded policeman. The vastness and strangeness of the life suggested to him by the bales of merchandise stocked along the walls or swung aloft out of the holds of steamers wakened again in him theunrest which had sent him wandering in the evening from garden to garden in search of Mercedes. And amid this new bustling life he might have fancied himself in another Marseille but that hemissed the bright sky and the sum-warmed trellises of the wineshops.

Yes, I’ll leave you with that lovely, assonant image of sun-warmed trellises and bright skies and wineshops…because it’s always nice to imagine a sunnier world on top of the real one.

(all photos taken by me)