We’re just back from a week in Kingussie, a small village on both the trainline and the edge of the Cairngorms. It’s a place that feels wild, that looks wild. I loved it, for though I know I’ve been steadily domesticated since the age of 17, I still miss the wild intensely. Here there are moors, mountains, the 1% of ‘ancient’ Caledonian forest that still exists with its host of rare species unlikely to be seen elsewhere. Just look at this beautiful place.
I came having read Nan Sheperd’s The Living Mountain, one of my very favourite books. She writes
The Cairngorm Mountains are a mass of granite thrust up through the schists and gneiss that form the lower surrounding hills, planed down by the ice cap, and split, shattered and scooped by frost, glaciers and the strength of running water. Their physiognomy is in the geography books – so many square miles of area, so many lochs, so many summits of over 4000 feet – but this is a pallid simulacrum of their reality, which, like every reality that matters ultimately to human beings, is a reality of the mind. (Sheperd, 1)
Like her, I am captive to this place.
Yet I hadn’t quite realised before we came just how many layers of human intervention have shaped the land even here in this wild place. I should stop being surprised perhaps, after walking glorious hills where the pits left by coal mining now sit in what feels like pristine countryside, or overgrown factory ruins spill down along the stream banks of remote valleys in the Pennines.
Continue reading Highland Landscapes
Curitiba, I remember it as a rather wonderful city, though I know it has different sides. But the buses…a brilliant example of an innovation that brings meaningful and important change to many thousands of people and has an impact on the carbon footprint. With service every few minutes, a life-changing improvement in accessibility built into the design, dedicated lanes and innovative safe and protected loading areas where passengers pay before they get on the bus, they revolutionised public transport for a fraction of the cost of underground lines. A stripped down version of the idea was introduced in LA, and London as well until Boris Johnson made one of his first disastrous marks. So in many ways I love this short book of what are essentially case studies from Jaime Lerner, the mayor who made the bendy buses possible and whose loss earlier this year made many mourn.
In some ways I am all for it. As Lerner writes:
Everyone knows that planning is a process. Yet no matter how good it may be, a plan by itself cannot bring about immediate transformation. Almost always, it is a spark that sets off a current that begins to spread. This is what I call good acupuncture–true urban acupuncture. (2-3)
I definitely love this idea of a spark — I think in the end this is actually how good things start to happen. And acupuncture is awesome, but has its limits, especially when you have no food or shelter.
So I do wish this book came with a warning label. Something like, YES! Be inspired, do what you can with what you have, imagine and innovate, try new things, get people involved, learn from others, see how powerful small changes can be. BUT DO NOT STOP THERE.
Continue reading Urban Acupuncture
Geese everywhere. Big. Mean. Angry. The collective noun is supposed to be a gaggle, in flight it is a skein a team a wedge a plump. None of these terms capture the absolute terror of geese protecting their young on a narrow canal path. Hissing bastards. Look at its tongue, my god:
We got past these but not the next. Four hissing adults square in the middle, a bunch of heedless goslings along the far edge. Maybe if we still had some of our pies left, but no. We beat a retreat. Less than a mile to go around, and we didn’t mind that the older gent and his young grandson we warned about them on our way back got past without a problem (the geese had obviously taken to the water, or they are as afraid of small boys as we are). I got this picture though, probably didn’t mean much to Mark, but it was a win for me. I love these contrasts of Victorian/Edwardian industrial architecture.
Just look at these enormous old mills.
Continue reading A hissing of Geese: Rochdale Canal Walk
We took the train to Disley, and from there walked over to Lyme and back again. A glorious walk, highly recommended.
Lyme is, of course, the house used as the outside of Pemberley. Pemberley! The home of not just any Mr Darcy but of Colin Firth playing Mr Darcy in the 1995 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. Oh my days.
I saw Pride and Prejudice for the first time in 1998. I lived in LA, alone, just off Sunset, in a tiny studio in a back second floor of an old apartment building. The front faced Los Globos (Los Globos! Cabron, que lugar but still not as bad as the bar just across sunset with its incredibly large women in incredibly little clothing who were playing pool and killed me with their eyes the one time I walked in one Sunday afternoon trying to find somewhere to watch the World Cup).
This particular night a woman was off her meds or on the wrong ones or enjoying some kind of crazy cocktail in the dirt parking area, started screaming and screaming at someone in the building. Started throwing rocks. I looked out just to see it was just her, if she was all right (I mean, as all right as she could be) and she seemed to be so I didn’t think there was much to do. But she saw me looking and then started screaming at me. Awful. I debated getting the manager but thought surely someone else had already tried. A huge rock came through the window, almost hit me, scattered glass across the bed. Still screaming but the shattering glass must have got through to her she needed to leave. Good thing, because the manager made me call the police for the insurance on the window. They took hours to arrive of course, she had plenty of time to get away, and did nothing but fill out the report.
Continue reading Walking to Pemberley
About 6 weeks ago I got a text from my GP saying I could make THE appointment and I was surprised knowing it was early but so happy, not least because my GPs were administering the vaccine themselves ten minutes walk away. Brilliant. Within hours a number of other texts arrived from another number saying cancel that appointment immediately, there is no vaccine for you.
I’d just seen the news about vaccine shortages, the hold put on the roll out.
A real fall after something of a high. Of course I knew full well the vaccine roll out hadn’t even (hasn’t even) started in some other countries. Even disappointment carries its privilege. So many here means so few there. Things beyond my control but that I hold in my heart.
I finally did get to go get my vaccination last Thursday — freedom day. Of a limited kind still I know, but still. Sadly, the closest available location was Etihad stadium, home of Man City. I cannot afford to get there to see football of course, very sad indeed. Knowing it was a stadium I also knew the whole experience would be a little bit of a fuck you to pedestrians. My theory was the newer the stadium, the more of a fuck you. I was not wrong.
Continue reading Vaccination walk – Or A Beginning Typology of Ways in which Manchester Pedestrians are Screwed
Free Spaces was first published in 1986, second edition way back in 1992, yet the ways it thinks about space, conviviality, democracy, communities and societies that work…pretty timeless. Not everything, of course. But I love how it brings the ways in which people live in and occupy the physical spaces around them with the processes that contribute to political and social engagement, the ability to work across difference, the capacity to listen to others to build a better world. As they write:
Free Spaces asks an elemental but important question. What are the environments, the public spaces, in which ordinary people become participants in the complex, ambiguous, engaging conversation about democracy: participators in governance rather than spectators or complainers, victims or accomplices? What are the roots not simply of movements against oppression but also, more positively, of those democratic social movements which both enlarge the opportunities for participation and enhance people’s ability to participate in the public world? (viii)
It’s interesting also that they differentiate the positive kinds of neighbourhood activism and organising from the reactive through differences and a narrowed understanding of ‘public’, I think it would be really useful to bring this a little more into conversation with the renewed wave of thinking about populism (see for example Muller or Revelli).
Continue reading free Spaces: Social Movement, space and The Practice of Democracy
A last few things beyond Burnley, getting more to where history, narrative, memory, theory mesh in Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman. Where she pulls off all that she promised in her opening and more. Where she cracks open the contradictions. This is rather more full of fragments I loved, most with their headings to give more a sense of the flow, than any sustained narrative. She does it so much better and you should just go read it immediately. But I still feel like sharing the fragments.
I open it a little out of order maybe, but with one of my favourite quote about the Labour Party, a biting quote, one to relish in this period when I feel that once more the betrayal stings fairly sharp and new.
I grew up in the 1950s, the place and time now located as the first scene of Labour’s failure to grasp the political consciousness of its constituency and its eschewal of socialism in favour of welfare philanthropism. But the left had failed with my mother long before the 1950s. (7-8)Labour should read more I think.
The Weaver’s Daughter
I cry now over accounts of childhoods like this,
Continue reading Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (part 3)
weeping furtively over the reports of nineteenth-century commissions of inquiry into child labour, abandoning myself to the luxuriance of grief in libraries, tears staining the pages where Mayhew’s little watercress girl tells her story. The lesson was, of course, that I must never, ever, cry for myself, for I was a lucky little girl: my tears should be for all the strong, brave women who gave me life. This story, which embodied fierce resentment against the unfairness of things, was carried through seventy years and three generations, and all of them, all the good women, dissolved into the figure of my mother, who was, as she told us, a good mother. (30)
I loved the storytelling as much as the theory-making in Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman, and to tell the truth the two seem to effortlessly intertwine. I imagine the writing of it was far from effortless, of course, and as I said in part 1 on this wonderful book, this is a tour de force that few could accomplish so well. It is also a most moving glimpse into the past lives of the women who lived just a few miles from where I sit writing now. She writes:
Continue reading Steedman’s Stories: On Weaving and Fashion and Burnley (Pt 2)
My mother’s story was told to me early on, in bits and pieces throughout the fifties, and it wasn’t delivered to entertain, like my father’s much later stories were, but rather to teach me lessons. There was a child, an eleven-year-old from a farm seven miles south of Coventry, sent off to be a maid-of-all-work in a parsonage in Burnley. She had her tin trunk, and she cried, waiting on the platform with her family seeing her off, for the through train to Manchester. They’d sent her fare, the people in Burnley; ‘But think how she felt, such a little girl, she was only eleven, with nothing but her little tin box. Oh, she did cry.’ (30)
The eleven-year-old who cried on Coventry station hated being a servant. She got out as soon as she could and found work in the weaving sheds – ‘she was a good weaver; six looms under her by the time she was sixteen’ – married, produced nine children, eight of whom emigrated to the cotton mills of Massachusetts before the First World War, managed, ‘never went before the Guardians’. 2 It was much, much later that I learned from One Hand Tied Behind Us that four was the usual number of looms in Lancashire weaving towns. 3 Burnley weavers were badly organized over the question of loom supervision, and my great-grandmother had six not because she was a good weaver, but because she was exploited. (31)
Another escape onto the moors as lockdown eases. Still glorious. Today was an effort to do better than our last attempt at these particular moors, walking from the station Buxton. That was a grim, cold walk and no mistake, and a closed pub at the end of it. I almost cried.
This was a beautiful sunny day, we sat on a wall eating pasties and taking in a view of the now-open Crescent Hotel (I rather fancy staying there when things open again), bought ice cream as we walked through the Pavilion Gardens. My last memory of it I was tired, hungry and bedraggled. And there were mummers. I never know what I think about them. But no mummers today.
This was lovely, a bit long to get out of Buxton maybe, but then a swift climb up hill, over an old rail line, and up where you feel on top of the world. Across the hills in sun and shadow. A brief encounter with a geezer in a tweed waistcoat, awesome. The lovely blue waters of the reservoir. The ruins of Errwood hall and a brief wish we’d arrived a little later to see the hillside of rhododendrons in full bloom. Exhausted stumble into Whaley Bridge. Home.
This book, this Landscape for a Good Woman by Carolyn Steedman…I loved it with a love reserved for few other books really. For its lyricism and beauty, the sharp insights about mothers and daughters, about how we are classed and gendered, about how we just might break free of this yet never break free…the pain of all of it. The complexities of all of it, and the complexities of our own inner lives too often flattened by words like working-class, woman, mother. I loved this book for an ability to share a world with her briefly and watch her theorise so beautifully from there, there, this complex, working class landscape. This place usually only the object of theory, the ‘problem’ for theory.
She manages it so beautifully, you long to try but feel pretty certain this is a high wire act not to be emulated lightly or without years of training. She opens so:
Death of a Good Woman
She died like this. I didn’t witness it. My niece told me this. She’d moved everything down into the kitchen: a single bed, the television, the calor-gas heater. She said it was to save fuel. The rest of the house was dark and shrouded. Through the window was only the fence and the kitchen wall of the house next door. Her quilt was sewn into a piece of pink flannelette. Afterwards, there were bags and bags of washing to do. … She lived alone, she died alone: a working-class life, a working-class death. (1-2)
This conflicted moment of loss is the beginning. Not the lovely quote from John Berger which follows, describing how we carry our biographies with us.
Continue reading Steedman’s Landscape for a Good Woman (part 1)
The present tense of the verb to be refers only to the present: but nevertheless with the first person singular in front of it, it absorbs the past which is inseparable from it. ‘I am’ includes all that has made me so. It is more than a statement of immediate fact: it is already biographical.
(John Berger, About Looking)