Category Archives: Dérives
Nottingham’s Caves and Reconstruction of Communities
Nottingham was our last stop on those glorious summer days in the Peak District, and a fascinating one. I didn’t know it was a city of caves, built over sandstone that human beings have been tunneling out for centuries.
We attempted a derive of underground Nottingham. It involved much suffering, especially by my partner Mark who can’t abide tours led by ‘characters’. I hate them too, but for me being underground offset that — though for the record, I thought we’d be able to do them without a tour leader in costume and was proved dreadfully wrong.
The 450+ caves underneath the city do not appear to be things that city bureaucrats and planners cared about at all until recently unless it was to seal them up and stamp them out — sometimes I wonder how it’s possible that people with such power view awesomeness as a liability. Until I read Le Corbusier. This church survived, but with the indignity of corporate identity and its reinvented nature as a Pitcher&Piano chain pub plastered all over it.
Planners tore down all the old narrow streets with their twisting and interconnecting cellars, and built scenic car parking, with ‘local colour’ added through its naming in a most disheartening way (poor Maid Marian):
They also plunked down Broadmarsh Shopping Centre on top of them. The best tour (that we had time to find and embark on) of the caves has to be accessed through the shopping centre itself, with more care gone into warning you of stick figures in peril than the wonders beneath that might distract you from Top Shop:
I thought, actually, the characters in costume were pretty good for what they were asked to do — I finally understand how tanning works! I personally prefer straight exposition, but I didn’t mind the acting. The tannery carved out of the rocks several hundred years ago once looked out onto running water — human beings have transformed this section of the landscape with immense thoroughness, and with a rather jaw-dropping destructiveness once you realize what has been lost. The caves were still eerie and wonderful, despite our being part of a large group of people tramping through in hard-hats
The very poor lived in them — at much risk to health and life expectancy:
They were used as cellars and storage rooms and hiding places and escape routes and gambling and drinking dens:
During WWII people escaped the bombs in them. I wanted more, so I decided we would brave the prison on our save-money-by-visiting-both-attractions tickets — a terrible mistake. They did try to make horrific injustices and horrible punishments a little less horrible, but the gibbet is there hanging. They just weren’t sure whether this needed to be an indictment of past (and present) barbarities and solidarity with its victims (my strong feeling), or a house of horrors, or a curiosity box of punishments with some celebration of law thrown in.
There’s a statue of a woman being burned to death complete with fake fire, a celebration of changing prison guard uniforms alongside a most heartbreaking procession of punishments for crimes of hunger and poverty, and reminders of just how many were transported to other countries both to cement the power of Empire and to rid England of the troublesome poor the wealthy had no use for, especially the ones that did not just die quietly of cold and starvation.
If I were not heartbroken enough, here the caves were things of horror, holding felons (remembering that god these were some unjust laws in a system of complete injustice) and people imprisoned for debt. These were the only caves I would love to see blown into tiny pieces, along with this prison.
Perhaps as an attempt to lighten the horror of all we were seeing, was they had recreated Drury Hill. A city nerd’s dream come true. Having destroyed this neighbourhood of history and character and community developed over a whole lot of hard years (from whence also came most of the desperate poor came who were sent of to America, Australia), they rebuilt a cardboard and mirror version for our enjoyment. We wandered through it:
We walked past ghosts
This was such a strange version of the modern urge to recreate the material past that people in power have destroyed and that now fascinates us, but in a sanitised and safe way. A belated recognition of what gives a city its character and why people love it. A nod to tourists, but I imagine this is one of the museums every child growing up in Nottingham is brought to see and in some ways is forming ideas of what Nottingham was and is now.
In most ways I prefer this version to Disneyland’s fake high streets, because there is no way you can pretend that this ever was or is real. This is perhaps as good as such things get, its absolute fakeness was still extensive enough that an old couple had some trouble finding their way out, and it is both interesting and disturbing — which this kind of exhibit should be, with a splash of Roger Rabbit’s toon town thrown in. Here is a taste of what was here before:
These pictures are from a forum in which people remember what was and shake their fists at the planners who destroyed it all, as they do in cities around the world where what people most love and remember has been torn down in the name of progress. I have no love of the dirt, disease and misery that once filled some of these streets, but surely we were capable of transforming them into decent housing for the people who lived there. I love that curve of businesses and homes up the hill, and mourn its loss alongside those who lost their homes and livelihoods — I know well that you are never the same again after those things are torn from you, torn down.
City planners never really cared about that, which was always part of the problem. Empathy could have gone a long way to save what was best in our cities. Instead poverty was dispersed, and the earth flattened (a bit) and all the cold barrenness of malls and parking garages put in their place. The hospital where my mum was once a student nurse now turned into luxury flats. A few memories remain in the midst of profit’s rush to reshape a city for its needs.
The castle is also preserved, along with the castle caves and Mortimer’s hole. More costumed characters leading tours and telling gruesome stories and too many people on the tour with you. But these caves are really cool.
Really, the way to enjoy old and underground Nottingham is through its pubs. Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem is of course the most famous, and the place my mum most remembered from her time there. It was immensely awesome and also very busy. We also made it to the Hand and Heart.
It’s a fascinating city, really. One fighting to create employment for its survival and believing development will do that also, and I know the shopping centre is as much a part of that as these rather forlorn attempts to turn empty store fronts into something positive:
Byron lived here, Charles I planted a standard several hundred years ago to ‘start’ the civil war (I think the roundheads did that really) — the plaques marking this occasion are many and cover a fairly large area that you realise was once a hilltop. I bought a book on the caves I have yet to read, and which charmingly has pictures of most of the caves with a woman I assume is the author’s wife in each of them — wearing a stunning array of clothes and hairstyles. The pubs were many and old — they seem to have survived much better here than other places. There is more potential in some ways for a city like this to reinvent itself from the bottom up, unlike London where money floods in from top down forcing anything interesting and creative out or coopting and destroying it. The moral is, more power in reimagining and recreating the city to more people. So I will end on my favourite sign and a slide show:
Wirksworth Trains and All Good Things
Look at the marvelous things people come together to get going and run in their free time — the train from Wirksworth to Duffield — the Ecclesbourne Valley Railway:
There was only one quite sad and rainy day on our little holiday this year, and so we did this, to enjoy the countryside from the safe indoors:
The trains are marvelous, and we sat in the front of course, as though we were driving — though only on the way back when we were some of the first back on:
That’s because on a wet Sunday, there wasn’t a huge amount to be done in Duffield. The foundations of the Norman castle, on a hill occupied in turn by Celts, Romans and Normans.
It doesn’t look like much of anything now, though once the keep measured 95 ft by 93 ft with walls up to 15 ft thick and an area of 5 acres.
We did love this hipster on a pennyfarthing though, half hidden behind the rubbish
And the old water pump
The wonderful door to Jacob’s Garden
The unfortunate phrasing of the plaque noting the girl’s school erected by the late Mr Jeffcock
This lovely pub reflecting the industrial history of this little town
and that was all before we reached Duck Island
or passed this window…
Guy Debord on psychogeography & the dérive
With my article on psychogeography and race and the city done and dusted and accepted by Salvage, I suppose I should finally finish off these half finished blogs collecting my favourite quotes from tom mcdonaugh’s wonderful book of new translations, the situationists and the city. There were a lot of them, too many for one post really, so I’ve mixed it up a bit with Wark’s Beach Beneath the Street to look at Constant and Jorn, my favourite piece by Ivan Chtcheglov and adventures in Limehouse. This one on Guy Debord, and one more and then I am done.
I liked Chtcheglov’s piece so much more than these more widely quoted pieces from Guy Debord, but they’re still interesting. Also infuriating. From ‘Introduction to a critique of urban geography’
(Les Lèvres nues no. 6 (September 1955)):
Of the many sagas in which we take part, with or without interest, the sole thrilling direction remains the fragmentary search for a new way of life.
I do like that very much. But then there comes the causal reference to an ‘illiterate Kabyle’ that I hate, and hate also that he (or she) remains unnamed. It taints the definition that follows, though it is an interesting one…
The word psychogeography, suggested by an illiterate Kabyle to designate the general phenomena with which a few of us were preoccupied around the summer of 1953, is relatively defensible. It does not stray from the materialist perspective of the conditioning of life and thought by objective nature… Psychogeography will aim to study the precise laws and specific effects of the geographic milieu, consciously planned or not, acting directly on the affective comportment of individuals.
I enjoy their fanciful parallels:
It has already been a long time that one has been able to say the desert is montheistic. Would it seem illogical, or devoid of interest, to declare that the quarter running in Paris between the Place de la Contrescarpe and the rue de l’Arbaléte inclines rather to atheism, to oblivion, and to the disorientation of customary routines?
I like this as well, with its quote that brings us back to King Lear, or Faulkner, both of whom would have found Haussman rather incomprehensible. I do wonder how historical it is for governments to want open spaces for the rapid circulation of troops however, so what exactly is he trying to say there…
It is right to possess a historically relative idea of the utilitarian. The concern to have at one’s disposal open spaces allowing for the rapid circulation of troops and the use of artillery against insurrections was at the origin of the beautification plan adopted by the Second Empire. But from any standpoint other than that of law and order, Haussman’s Paris is a city built by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. (59)
On privilege, of which Guy Debord had more than a little really, and some other interesting things:
Since we run into, even with such slight justification, the idea of privilege, and since we know with what blind fury so many people–who are nevertheless so little privileged–are willing to defend their mediocre advantages, we are forced to declare that all these details partake of an idea of happiness, a received idea among the bourgeoisie, maintained by a system of advertising that includes Malraux’s aesthetics as well as the imperatives of Coca-Cola, and whose crisis must be provoked on every occasion, by every means.
The first of these means are undoubtedly the spreading, with an aim of systematic provocation, of a host of proposals tending to make of life an integral, thrilling game, and the unceasing depreciation of all customary amusements… (60)
The revolutionary transformation of the world, of all aspects of the world, will prove right all the dreams of abundance.
The abrupt change of environment in a street, within the space of a few meters; the obvious division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the strongly sloping contour (with no relation to the unevenness of the terrain) that aimless walks must follow; the appealing or repellent nature of certain places–all this seems to be neglected. (61)
I love the description of beauty here:
…in speaking here of beauty I don’t have in mind plastic beauty–the new beauty can only be a beauty of situation–but solely the particularly moving presentation, in one case and the other, of a sum of possibilities.
But I am not so sure of the usefulness of impostures in achieving any kind of aims at all, much as I love their maps:
The forging of psychogeographic maps, and even various impostures like correlating (with little justification or even completely arbitrarily) two topographical representation, can contribute to illuminating certain displacements of a nature indeed not so much gratuitous but utterly insubordinate to usual attractions–attractions of this order being catalogues under the term tourism, that popular drug as repugnant as sports or purchasing on credit. (62)
So I’ll just throw in a few quotes from ‘Plan for rational improvements to the city of Paris’ (Potlatch no. 23, 13 October 1955), that exemplify all of the division of my feelings between loving their challenge and their call to reimagine the city, retheorise the city, rethink how we live in the city and move through it — and everything else that shows a lack of empathy, compassion, respect or connection to the real struggles of the time.
Everyone agrees to reject the aesthetic objection, to silence the admirers of the portal of Chartres. Beauty, when it is not a promise of happiness, must be destroyed.
Gil J. Wolman demanded the complete suppression or falsification of all information about departures (destinations, times, etc). This would encourage dérive.
I was trying to imagine the chaos this would cause with trains, the lifeline between myself and my own true love and the horrible thought of heading in an opposite direction from him when trying to get to Bristol and wanting to hit Mr. Gil J. Wolman. Is a dérive forced upon you by a half-baked French intellectual still a dérive? I think not.
This same article asks
Is it possible to see a cemetery without thinking of Mauriac, Gide or Edgar Faure? (70)
Which I found somehow irrepressibly funny for some reason, but that brought to mind another ridiculous prank by Marcel Mariën as related in ‘The Commanders Gait’ (Les Lèvres nues no. 5, June 1955) where he moved crosses around in a graveyard to be playful, to ‘favourably stimulate the minds of those who visited this spot…’ (57).
Fuck that guy, even if this is simply a provocation. What made it worse was that he wanted to move rich people’s grave markers but they’re all massive stone things, so instead he wrote of moving the humble wooden crosses of the poor, fucking with people’s relationships with their dead and every belief they hold most dear, rather than their perceptions of space or any empty boredom of their lives (presuming this exists). It highlights the arrogance of young intellectuals who think they know best, which means they are never able to think very deeply or learn from who and what is around them. To me this kind of thing (and it is hardly unique) makes harder attempts to take seriously this movement more or less as a whole.
So I’ll return to fragments… back to to Guy Debord, and the ‘Theory of the dérive’ (Les Lèvres nues, no. 9, November 1956)
I enjoyed the dig at the surrealists:
An insufficient distrust of chance, and of its always reactionary ideological use, condemned to a dismal failure the famous directionless ramble undertaken in 1923 by four Surrealists… (79)
But on the whole I found this less interesting than I had hoped, being very definitional…useful but not so interesting.
Dérive‘s lessons permit the drawing up of the first surveys of the psychogeographic articulations of a modern city. Beyond the reconnaissance of unitary ambiances, of their main components, and of their spatial localization, their principal axes of passage, their exits, and their defenses would be perceived.
This I liked, but it’s fairly obvious after all:
The distances that effectively separate two regions of a city are measured, distances that cannot be gauged with what the approximate vision of a map may have you believe.
Such certainty, I can’t imagine feeling this kind of certainty about everything, whether hopeful posturing or not:
Everything leads us to believe that the future will precipitate the irreversible transformation of current society’s comportment and setting. One day, cities will be built for dérive. Certain areas that already exist may be used, with relatively light touching up. Certain people that already exist may be used. (85)
What is it about Guy Debord that makes me hope his vision of city built for dérive won’t actually come true?
For more on situationists and psychogeography…
Parkland Walk — and the transformation of every unused track
Parkland Walk is an extraordinary thing to find in London — it removes you from the city and carries you through it at the same time. You catch glimpses of buildings through the trees, everywhere little paths join it, allowing people to enter and exit from their streets of concrete and brick and stone. Each such path or stairway stands as a tantalising road not taken.
Never do you lose the feeling you have somehow escaped the city for a while into a cathedral of green.
It carries you along with quite a number of other people.
Past these wonderful ruins of the old train platforms
Through tunnels of leaves
Through tunnels of stone and brick, covered with a generally higher quality of graffiti art than I am used to in this city
past alcoves with sprites [as we found out later, a spriggan] smiling down on you
rounded towers and stairs Trees intertwined with brick
And nearing the end in Highgate, a meadow, with a dirt trail that invites you along
To find the bats:
Surely we can do this with all of our disused railway lines. A welcome breath of peace and beauty, a place for birds and wildlife, and a safe place to walk that many people can integrate into their daily routines, and the rest of us can enjoy from time to time.
Aragon: Paris Peasant
Few books I have read so far evoke the experience of wandering Paris quite as much as this one — but is a Paris now gone, rebuilt beyond recognition. Part of the reason he wrote it — to document and fix in place the experience of a geography soon to be destroyed. But first, spring in Paris:
I had just reached this point in my thoughts when, without any warning, spring suddenly entered into the world.
It happened in a flash, one Saturday evening around five: everything is bathed in a different light and yet there is still a chill in the air, impossible to say what has just taken place. (7)
I felt just this way about summer this year, except I missed the moment of its coming, was away for the weekend and returning to London found it installed.
This description of watching women, however, is an unfamiliar experience, and I confess evokes scorn:
Instead of concerning yourself with the conduct of men, start watching women walk by. They are great patches of radiance, flashes of light not yet stripped of their furs, of brilliant, restless mysteries. No, I don’t want to die without having first gone up to each one, touched her at least with my hand, felt her weaken, willed that this pressure shall be enough to conquer her resistance, and then hey presto! (8)
But the obsession with planning and planners something else we share, and a path to be retrodden by the Sitautionists with little reference to this great early psychogeographer as far as I can find (they do write of him ‘We cannot be accepted with the spinelessness of a false eclectic interest, as if we were Sartres, Althussers, Aragons or Godards’*). This, in its first section, is a documentation of the destruction of the arcades:
The great American passion for city planning, imported into Paris by a prefect of police during the Second Empire and now being applied to the task of redrawing the map of our capital in straight lines, will soon spell the doom of these human aquariums. Although the life that originally quickened them has drained away, they deserve, nevertheless, to be regarded as the secret repositories of several modern myths: it is only today, when the pickaxe menaces them, that they have at last become the true sanctuaries of a cult of the ephemeral, the ghostly landscape of damnable pleasures and profession. Places that were incomprehensible yesterday, and that tomorrow will never know.
“Today the Boulevard Haussman has reached the Rue Lafitte,” remarked L’Intransigeant the other day. A few more paces forward by this giant rodent and, after it has devoured the block of houses separating it from the Rue Le Peletier, it will inexorably gash open the thicket whose twin arcades run through the Passage de l’Opéra before finally emerging diagonally on to the Boulevard des Italiens. …It seems possible, though, that a good part of the human river which carries incredible floods of dreamers and dawdlers from the Bastille to the Madeleine may divert itself through this new channel, and thus modify the ways of thought of a whole district, perhaps of a whole world. We are doubtless about to witness a complete upheaval of the established fashions in casual strolling and prostitution… (14)
What could give you a better sense of being in this this passage than
…the noise, whose low throbbing echoed back from the arched roof. I recognized the sound: it was the same voice of the seashells that has never ceased to amaze poets and film-stars. The whole ocean in the Passage de l’Opéra. (22)
Or the flows and experiences of it than:
At the level of the printer who prints cards while you wait, just beyond that little flight of steps leading down into the Rue Chaptal, at that point in the far north of the mystery where the grotto gapes deep back in a bay troubled by the comings and goings of removal men and errand boys, in the farthest reaches of the two kinds of daylight which pit the reality of the outside world against the subjectivism of the passage, let us pause a moment, like a man holding back from the edge of the places depths, attracted equally by the current of objects and the whirlpools of his own being, let us pause in this strange zone where all is distraction, distraction of attention as well as of inattention, so as to experience this vertigo. The double illusion which holds us here is confronted with our desire for absolute knowledge. (47)
He describes a visit to a tawdry brothel of two rooms, sad and almost sweet — it can’t quite reach sweet as this is a man who sees all women in each individual woman and therefore can see no woman truly. It brought to mind a visit to Tombstone’s Birdcage with its own tiny two rooms side by side and its own sad reality of dingy walls and uncomfortable beds as compared to literary and cinematic representations of such houses of ‘pleasure’ in the wild West — raising the similarities between this representation and that of Paris and of the Moulin Rouge. A false romanticism that this thankfully pushes to one side.
He shares the notices put up to organise protest — text and notices are sprinkled throughout, an early collage:
He describes what this place has meant to a group of people, to a movement
…believe it or not it’s the Restaurant Saulnier. Its two floors, ground and mezzanine, fill the space between the Baths and the transversal corridor that emerges right opposite the entrance of the lodging house. A gift of the gods, this restaurant: I have absolutely nothing to say about it, having eaten there a hundred times. The great quarrels of the Dada movement (you may have heard of the Dada movement?) used to adjourn to this place under something resembling a flag of truce, so that the combatants, who had just spent two hours at the Certa defending their reputations, could discover in a plate of cold meat evidence of the height of morality, the height of fashion… (70)
A quick digression into American cinema and stories of sartorial fashion and race:
Don Juan acquired the taste for this caramel-and-whipped-cream footwear after seeing his first Hollywood film. He scoured Paris to find something similar, and it was at a shop in the Quartier Saint-Georges specializing in tailors’ misfits and undelivered orders that he finally ran to earth this pair of shoes that a Negro, in a moment of glorious extravagance, had had specially made for him, but which a combination of bailiff, cocaine and sheer nonchalance had obliged him to dispense with. (71)
And a return to the Certa:
It was while I was sitting here one afternoon, towards the end of 1919, that Andre Breton and I decided that this should henceforward become the meeting place for ourselves and our friends, a choice motivated partly by our loathing for Montparnasse and Montmartre, but partly also by the pleasure we derived from the equivocal atmosphere of the passages. (74)
This is not without an immensity ego of course — this great rambling documentation and discourse published in installments, he had time to receive complaints about the contents as he finished the next installment and writes a description of their contents:
You do them an injustice: what will happen to their rights in the great struggle against the Boulevard Haussman Building Society? What on earth would the lawyers think if by some misfortune they should read your mishmash of inventions and real facts? ‘There’s a bunch of people we can forget about,’ is what they would think. And each of your epithets could bring down the total of the compensation figures a further notch. (85)
We bump thus against the common misconception amongst intellectuals that writing and description are in themselves somehow struggle. You could at least demand that they do no harm, but Aragon is careless of that, his words in print come before the needs of the current residents of the passages. I think of the two women he describes in their two tawdry rooms, receiving his attention for money and finding some sort of connection if he is to be believed — were they just cast into the streets? We’ll never know, his compassion does not extend that far, if it were ever genuine to begin with.
And then that section is done and dusted, we hear no more of it as we move on to philosophies and a drunken night-time adventure in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont. Which contains much of interest I shall return to in a future post.I can’t really bear to do it here.
In many ways it makes a mockery of this earnest description of all that is about to be destroyed in the name of progress under some vague impression of solidarity. Perhaps that impression is my own and gives him too much credit — or destroys what little he has. Perhaps the term human aquariums in itself sets him to be always observer, though to be sure he does get himself wet. It is not a position I admire very much, but one which is all too familiar.
*’Our goals and methods in the Strasbourg Scandal’ Internationale Situationniste #11 (Paris, October 1967). This translation by Ken Knabb is from the Situationist International Anthology (Revised and Expanded Edition, 2006). No copyright.
The Zone, Bristol
The forest invites, sun dappling leaves and winds softly blowing, heat driving you deeper and deeper into shade.
The brook gurgles now on your right, it will follow you throughout, or you will follow it, bending back on your tracks, crossing and recrossing it and snaking alongside it through the trees.
Then the ruins come, singly, in brick
then stone and iron
Then enshrined mystery without a visible guardian god.
Gaping mouth that cannot speak.
Cannot warn of incipient destruction.
Hollow but for stone.
The same stone shaped into bridge form in the medieval age.
The same stone built to mark a holy well, once venerated, cared for by St Anne who welcomed pilgrims and believers. These stones now fill it, there is no room for wishes or prayers now. Something still crowds the gaps and crevices, ignoring the iron bars that attempt to hold the ethereal prisoner.
Goats most domestic are followed by Victorian devil-may-care power imposing straight lines and railways and bridges in the air.
You stumble across rusting memories of a more modest aspect of some decade of our modern age, flaking paint of white.
The woods end, spitting you out into sunlight and fumes and paved roads once again. Unsure of where or when you are.
Until you suddenly remember. Time resumes its flow towards our ending.
Traces of the Irish in Paris
We feel ubiquitous to me sometimes; there were many traces of the Irish in Paris, and our great poverty and casting to the winds. We wandered past the Rue des Irlandais — so named because the Irish College could be found there beginning in the late 16th Century and for three more centuries eduacting Irish people. Extraordinary, more to explore there. The Irish Cultural Centre sits here now.
We wandered past the Quiet Man Pub — complete with men inside on this ridiculously hot day drinking Guinness.
I didn’t care so much for the film as John Wayne is a dick and Maureen O’Hara was asked to play a kind of woman I hardly admire — still, there is nostalgia here as it was filmed in the next village over from where my family is from and visited by us for that reason.
On a trip across Lough Corrib to Inchagoil Island, we were serenaded by a villager there, who had been an extra in the film:
Such lovely memories.
More intriguing is the Flann O’Brian Irish Pub, given my immense love for Flan O’Brien. I surely would have gone in there to raise a toast, but it was closed.
Flann probably would have liked this addition to its window’s however:
If only they had been on bikes.
We were staying across from the Jardins des Plantes, near the rue Cardinal Lemoine. Joyce lived there, and we made an aborted attempt to see the place, but then realised it was up the hill rather than down…
It was very hot you see.
That’s all I got for now on Irish people in Paris.
Paris, the thrill is gone…
I’ve been trying to uncover what I think about Paris…
We were only there for a few days and I quite loved it. It is such a graceful and liveable city, at least in the centre. Everyone walks so much slower there. You spend time in the sidewalk cafes, in the restaurants, in the bars. No one is in a hurry. The food is good, and so is the wine. Flowers line the wrought-iron balconies. Bookshops are everywhere. Style abounds. My god, the cheese alone is a wonder. You look at some of those everyday apartment buildings, and in comparison to the new insanely expensive glass-and-steel development mushrooming along the Thames, you think to yourself that those are really what is meant by luxury flats.
None of the new abominations that hurt my soul are to be found here in the centre. None at all.
And yet. In the words of Ivan Chtcheglov, ‘We are bored in the city’.
I think it is because they (in particular Haussman) have bulldozed the mystery.
The poor were moved out to the banlieues, places that seem designed to contain and suppress their energies. We didn’t make it out to them, it felt too voyeuristic somehow. Yet I confess in most cities I have lived in, our neighbourhoods are best for a little crazy colour, street vendors, rich smells of food, music, people chilling outside, general chaos.
And the built environment? Of course, I say to myself, of course it produced the Situationists. The yearning for alleys and corners and contrasts and wonder. Because most of that is gone.
Where the crazy alleys of The Mysteries of Paris once stood, where there was
a labyrinth of obscure, crooked, and narrow streets, which extend from the Palais de Justice to Nôtre Dame.
Those teetering stairways so steep you needed a rope to climb them, those shacks and tenements and drinking dens of thieves have been converted to this:
I am not a fan of slums, no, but this is built for cars and the control of people. Stories of romance and adventure are impossible here.
Revolution has been erased, under the statue/entrance to the metro was once the guillotine and the Terror, unsigned:
In the Rue Transnonain barricades were thrown up during a worker’s uprising between 13-14 April, 1834 and twelve people were murdered by soldiers in response. It was intentionally erased to create a newer, wider boulevard. All of these wide and straight boulevards with their uniform buildings were created to prevent barricades, to allow soldiers and police the ability to steamroll across uprising, and to prevent escape or any cover of darkness. All that remains is one sign:
It is no longer a site of pilgrimage and memory, apart from this remaining street name chiseled into an old wall, all that remains is this telling depiction by Daumier, down to the dead child:
Daumier himself, one of my favourite artists who ruthlessly chronicled abuse of power and privilege, is rarely mentioned, has no museum or home or collection to remember him by that I could find.
The Paris Commune took their last stand in Père Lachaise Cemetery. Where soldiers shot dead over a hundred people, we found a simple plaque:
Simple is all right (facing it is the grave of the Lafargue’s, Marx’s daughter Laura and her husband who committed suicide in old age so as not to be a burden on the movement. Tragic in every sense). But let us compare it to the two massive monuments here to the soldiers who lost their lives putting down their own people, part of the force that shot those 100 of our comrades dead:
There can be no doubt of the politics of value here.
There are luckily still hints of past strangeness, another in the same cemetery (a wonderland of beloved figures to pay your respects to actually, more on that soon):
But it is the tomb of a Scot, well, someone descended from a Scot at least, name of Robertson. My sister in law’s family probably.
All this probably underlines the connections between the urban the cultural the political. Returning to Chtcheglov, he writes:
All cities are geological and three steps cannot be taken without encountering ghosts, bearing all the prestige of their legends.
Paris has done its best to erase the ghosts. You have to know your history to feel their absence.
It should not be forgotten that modern Urbanism has not yet been an art–and even less a setting for life–it has on the other hand always been inspired by Police directives; and after all Haussman only gave us these boulevards to more conveniently bring in the cannon (Lettrist International, Potlatch no. 5).
There was one curiosity, tied in to Police directives:
Perhaps this disturbing old bar sign also, it needs returning to in another post in terms of race and colonial politics. It sits alongside one of the older buildings sprinkled here and there, bringing relief when you find them:
A handful of stories that could be told:
We found the medieval home of Nicholas Flamel of philosopher’s stone fame, but were unable to face another meal:
We found a few remnants of the arcades so loved by Aragon and Benjamin, vilified slightly by Zola, all of them feeling like well-preserved leftovers and decidedly private — thus very closed on a Sunday.
Passage Vero Dodat seems quite magical despite that (and it is here that the police stumbled across Daumier’s print of the massacre at Rue Transnonain, which led to six months in prison for him):
But Passage Choiseul feels like nothing more than a mall really (and I thought to myself, Cardiff’s arcades are so much better…)
Even the sewers are memorialised and opened to public gaze in guided safety for a fee, in the most banal of surroundings:
Shut when I dragged Mark to see them despite all misgivings. Sadness.
Almost all surprise, strangeness, wonder is brought to Parisian streets by lively art, détournements everywhere both playful and clever. There is Paris under the sea, and more to come. There is much to love, especially the way that people live and play in public space, and I’ll explore that too.
While there are still some narrow winding streets to lose yourself in, always you find yourself back in broad boulevards of a sameness and the mystery is mostly gone. They couldn’t kill it entirely, it is too strong for that, but they have tried.
Finding Bristol’s Brislington Brook
We needed an adventure this Sunday, stared at the map trying to find it and we did — in the form of the Brislington Brook, a winding piece of water that starts and ends abruptly and not too far away in a little loop of the Avon.
Without wellies we couldn’t jump in and follow it — a bit sad perhaps. But we did our best, starting from a small footpath leading off the giant Tesco parking lot that led into an unexpectedly beautiful path and brought us to the water.
Looking up towards the far end of the brook that we didn’t quite reach from a little bridge:
And looking down towards the long stretch we would seek to follow that very afternoon, and a rare bit of natural bank here:
It is beautiful, as is the path leading up to Water Lane, but so soon you hit asphalt and fences. Roads. The brook is channeled beneath them, almost invisible to cars I should imagine:
From Water Lane you look down the next stretch…but you cannot follow it:
So we walked down Hulse Rd to Kenneth Road, and another little footpath that crosses it there:
Looking back where we’d come, the concrete canalisation method is not quite as nice, but it looks as though this is one of the places water might busily be carving away at the bank were it left to its own devices. Instead it goes exactly where we tell it, for now…
We turned around, had to leave the brook again and trace it in parallel back down Kenneth Rd to the Bath Rd where it disappears for a short distance under this large-traffic filled way, though we found an old pub if only we’d been crawling:
The only wildlife we saw apart from the giant bird soaring in the skies above us:
More privatised space. Sadness. I hate these signs. I hate that they have taken the name of badgers in vain. But this tall and very thin engine house with the church up a curving road behind it was amazing:
These cottages lovely:
Imagine this place in the 1700s, pub and engine house and cottages, church, a little village here now swallowed by the city. And then we find another glimpse of the brook, a sedate trickle now:
Another pub, a memory of this part of England as a place of pilgrimage to St Anne’s Well:
Perhaps that is partly why it has such a lovely feel here, we reached a series of streets I would be so happy to live in, they are somehow removed from the city and have an openness to them:
An alley took us back to the Brislington, beautiful stone walls draped in flowers though the brook looks so much sadder and smaller in its bed of concrete and we couldn’t really hear it — there seems to be little babbling with this configuration:
A dead end, but a picturesque one:
Back to Jean Rd (my grandmother’s name, I think she would have loved this place too), a look back down the brook here with a house overhanging it, beautiful, though possibly a bit damp.
School Rd to Clayfield Road and an estate that we thought brought us to the end, but we found a long remembrance of a public right of way, fenced and a little unfriendly but still taking you back to Brislington Brook:
It is beautiful here:
the brook flows on, still channeled behind high walls
We cast around, thought about heading back, headed uphill a bit but realised it would take us round too long a way. Still, it is beautiful, still doesn’t feel too much like city:
But in the end we found a way up towards Allison Rd:
Reached the park where the Brislington continues its flow more as it once used to:
Though we decided to continue it another day…a good thing, because deciding otherwise we would have missed this guy:
There is also a lovely Friends of Brislington Brook project and website, so you can read more here.
[Part 2 of Finding Brislington Brook]
For more on Bristol…