Category Archives: City Unseen

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Knowledge and the Struggle

I loved Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle almost as much as Between the World and Me. Because the writing is so beautiful — you know, all those days he spent filling notebook pages full of words paid off. This is an incredible window into the struggle of a father, a mother, and all the woke people in a community to save their youth from catastrophe that rode through the neighbourhood like a whirlwind. That peak of violence and despair in our cities that emerged from structural violence and disinvestment and crack. It is the kind of voice I never hear in the pages of best-selling books, and I am so goddamn glad to hear it here.

I loved it for talking about the Knowledge. How much more important this book must be for those who were immersed body and soul in it, whether they liked it or not. It meant much to me, just having been on the weak wanna-be fringes of it. From somewhere that wanted so much to be hard like some big city, from among kids who saw themselves in movies and imagined themselves in rap lyrics and defended their territory and their honour. Kids who still had guns in their glovebox, and a hitch in their walk just looking for a reason to show how bad they were.

‘You looking at me?’ The phrase that haunted my nightmares. The phrase I never understood.

Later I’d understand that the subaudible beat was the Knowledge, that it kept you ready, prepared for anyone to start swinging, to start shooting. Back then, I had no context, no great wall against the fear. I felt it but couldn’t say it. (37)

‘School girl’ was the other phrase. A prelude to shame and fear and freezing in place like a goddamn rabbit. I never did hit back. I did my best to sound like everyone else if I absolutely had to speak, and to blend into every wall.

My style was to talk and duck. It was an animal tactic, playing dead in hopes that the predators would move on to an actual fight. It was the mark of unKnowledge, a basic misreading of nature and humanity. (47)

Yep. I read that so wrong too. it wasn’t life and death with me though. I am lucky, especially in the way I had it easy, getting on my school bus, living out in the desert. Most of  my abuse was verbal. Still hurts. But it’s easier being younger, dorkier, non-threatening, no one anyone’s boyfriend would look twice at. Only at risk as the nerdy weird kid. Only had those corridors to fear, and home room when the teacher left. When I went to work in LA I was old enough (21, so old) that my white skin in a place no one knew me put me forever outside all of that.

But now I knew that this was not chaos, that the streets were a country and like all others, the streets had anthems, culture, and law. (115)

Wish I’d figured that out a little earlier, before skin privilege kicked me out. And this:

That was how I came to understand, how I came to know why all these brothers wrote and talked so big. Even the Knowledge feared the streets. But the rhyme pad was a spell book — it summoned asphalt elementals, elder gods, and weeping ancestors, all of who had your back. (111)

Everyone was afraid. I had a different kind of spell book, but a spell book all the same.

Baltimore though. Baltimore comes through clear here, and maybe a few more unlikely hearts will break at the knowledge of what we have done to our cities, how  many kids we have lost.

We went to watch Moonlight on Saturday, with the same kind of unlikely audience I am sure were there on their Oscar rounds. It is another meditation on this subject, in this context, where being gay piles on even more risk, puts you even more in flight from yourself and others. I loved that it showed this enclosed world (and didn’t bother to reach out to audiences by having a saviour or a sidekick). Showed the way the violence of it twists and shapes and beats into shape and uses a knife or a bullet to cut short potential. Yet it showed too that the potential remains and there is something never fully beaten. But god does the world try, surely we must do better than this. I cried like a fucking baby.

I did laugh at least once, however, when Juan tells Little he should never sit with his back to the door. I laughed because I still can’t sit with my back to the door. I remember when I first realised that my general watchfulness came from an assumption that any stranger around me could attack me at any time, either physically or verbally. I am still aware of my surroundings in terms of who might be a danger. Still see people who walk while reading or wander around looking lost as stupid in the way they mark themselves as targets. I am still likely to be hit with Adrenalin if someone comes up behind me and tries to do something stupid like cover my eyes. I don’t even quite know where all these things came from, nor why they still linger now I have removed myself from anywhere such vigilance might still be required.  I am also well aware that this is an experience I share with many of my class, but probably not so many of my skin colour.

I still remember the amazement of bumping into someone and having them apologise. I was ready to run, you know?

Anyway. How did it come to this? How did a community, how did a beautiful collective struggle for civil rights and a fullness of life end in this?

The story began in our glory years with the banishing of Bull Conner and all his backward dragons. Never had the mountaintop seemed so close at hand. But marching from victory we stumbled into a void. And now we were here in the pit, clawing out one another’s eyes. We were all — even me — so angry. We could not comprehend how it came to this. (105)

I am still not sure. I hope we have emerged, to never go so far back. But the courage of those who fought to save young men and women at the receiving end of all this — inspiring.

But in the midst of Reconstruction’s second collapse, Lemmel fought back. The headmasters arranged their students into teams, and named each one after the Saints — Douglass, Tubman, Woodson, King. (23)

And I loved reading about Howard, the Mecca.

but somehow they were changed there, and left possessed by the spirit of Howard’s legendary professoriat, of Eric Williams and E. Franklin Frazier, and they fled South to be flogged by sheriffs and Klansmen. (26)

The struggle remains a beautiful one, a shifting one, but full justice and equality fought for in mutual respect and love for one another is the only key to living well in this world I think. So no more kids have to grow up with promise and potential cut short, snuffed out.

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Nothing Is Lost: Irvine, Leslie and Miller on Glasgow’s East End

I love the idea that Nothing is Lost. The struggle that it should be so. I long for it, having often felt the vertiginous realistion that you can’t quite remember what used to be in a place before the regeneration kicked off and filled the world with its shiny ugliness, or the equally vertiginous feeling of being lost yourself amongst streets you once knew well. Have fought over. I think much of academia alongside planners and architects and politicians have no words for this loss, no sense of its meaning. I think too often their own positionality prevent them from ever knowing such grief, much less coming to grips with it.

So it needs voices like those found in the collaboration Nothing is Lost both to understand the tangled legacies of regeneration, and to ensure that development does not succeed in erasing what was there before. I could even imagine a world where this kind of work helps form the foundation for rebuilding an area together with its residents to create a place the steps fully into its own potential, conducive to a fullness of life and creativity and wellbeing.

So what then, did the Games bring to the East End? A degree of examination and scrutiny of the city’s true historical centre, its frayed edges, the backdrop to its most shameful statistics of poverty and conflict, a part of Glasgow with a deep-seated and firmly held distrust of its city fathers (and a long list of grievances to support it) did make its way past the boosterism and aggressive myth-making of the organisers….
–Mitch Miller

I loved this beautiful collection of work in its awesome brown cardboard box, a surprise gift from Mitch Miller,  later rushed home from Glasgow to Manchester with anticipation. It hurt me to tear it open and  thus ruin a lovely object, but the contents were worth it of course.

Nothing is Lost Nothing is Lost

Inside three booklets of words, photographs, drawings (and more words), and the incredible dialectograms that unfold to display complex drawings mapping out the interactions between people and the spaces they live in and create. I am more than a little obsessed with those at the minute — love them so much I have already given one away to someone from one of the communities depicted. They are too precious to hoard. Because look:

I have without shame stolen some of the photographs and quoted text from the website (where you too can obtain this beautiful thing). Alison Irvine, novelist and tremendous writer on Schipka Pass:

Schipka Pass. The name is no help. It gives no clue to the gaudy, ramshackle lane between the Gallowgate and London Road that was once a cut through and then an in shot housing an eclectic flea market. It gives no indication of the splendour of the surrounding tenements, long since knocked down. I google the name, Schipka Pass, and try to find out the lane’s roots. Folk on Glasgow chat forums say there’s a Schipka Pass in Bulgaria, the site of a battle between peasants and Turks in the 1700s, and speculate that someone associated with the lane in Glasgow had ancestors who fought there. I don’t even know how to pronounce Schipka, but follow Gary’s lead and use a hard ‘k’ as in Skipka rather than a Connery-esque ‘Shkipka’ as I’ve also heard it pronounced.

Her words capture the experience for those of us who could not be there, the flavour of place and feeling, the smell and sound of the bright caf or the muddy chaotic laughing park as people talk about their work, their homes, their memories. My favourite I think was the chapter on Schipka Pass. That might perhaps just be because it took on the legacy of trader Dick Barton (!). So for me, and I suspect for many, there was a whole other layer of utter delight every time I read the name and this music running through my head for the whole of it. It seems to match the pace of his son’s banter.

Chris Leslie’s photographs reminded me I knew Schipka Pass when I lived there, but only ever as a wasteland.

Chris Leslie -- Nothing is Lost Chris Leslie Nothing is LostAs Leslie describes it:

The Wasteland

Schipka Pass – initially a hive of Victorian tenements and bustling back courts, a handy shortcut to get from the Gallowgate to London Road and eventually a flea market akin to Paddy’s Market, bizarrely and somewhat unfittingly named after a pass in the Balkan’s Russo-Turkish War of 1877.

In the latter end of the 20th century it was spiritual home to Dick Barton, who covered his flea market with handmade painted signs of football rants, messages of public safety (beware of yawning dogs) and urban myths of a brothel called Sheik-Ma-Tadger. Empty and dormant since the 80s all that survived was the Patrick Thistle-coloured painted boards. When a wallpaper shop went on fire for several hours in 2011 the whole street level of shops was demolished and then boarded up, leaving another huge crater scarring the East End landscape.

This captures only a small taste of the wealth to be found in these writings and photographs. I feel that the Sheik-Ma-Tadger brothel will of a surety make an appearance at some point in my own stories in its honour.

Back to Alison Irvine, her talks with Robert Kennedy, local boy made good and building an adventure playground from the ground up. Reminding me of how connected the very basics are in communities like ours across the world. This reminded me of the Black Panther breakfast programs — a startling contrast even as I thought it, yet one which holds.

Feed the children, he says. Help out the parents whose budgets during school holidays are burst because they’re having to find money for breakfast and lunch when in term time these meals are provided for free at school. (37)

Irvine talks with a man with a name that actually beats that of Dick Barton:

Raecher Hiscoe thumps the cover of one of the seats on his family’s Sky Dive. ‘That’s the skin,’ he says, in answer to my question. ‘We take the skins off, inspect the steel frames, repaint them as needed, repair any damage and then we reassemble them. Stick your head beneath the floors and get an idea of the layout.’ The ride is mostly packed away but I crouch and take a look.

We’re in a shed in Carntyne, hired by a group of travelling showpeople, including Raecher and his family, to enable them to open out their rides and do the maintenance and safety tests required for the start of the show season. Inside the shed, rides stand in their unlit, undressed state, half opened out, steel arms stretching towards cold corners.

The stories of Dalmarnock’s travellers, how lives and patterns and spaces have changed. Dalmarnock, that I only ever walked through once, knew mostly as a name in a list being called as I waited for my train. Which brings us finally to Mitch Miller’s dialectograms:

For me it meant going back to the work I had done on my own community, Glasgow’s travelling showpeople. ‘We’ form the largest minority group in the schools of Shettleston and Carntyne, and before the new housing that came to Dalmarnock, its largest group of residents. Yet this community – one that has been in Dalmarnock for forty years, and associated with the wider East End for nearly two hundred – has rarely been discussed, despite being directly in the path of Clyde Gateway’s redevelopments. As Alex James Colquhoun, the former Chair of the Showman’s Guild (based just over the river at Cambuslang) noted, not one member of the community made it into Commonwealth City the BBC Scotland documentary on the changes taking place in the Dalmarnock area. Not even the aerial shots that swept over Springfield Road, Baltic or Mordaunt Street or Dalmarnock Road itself captured a single one of the twenty or so yards that line Swanston Street, just a few metres away from all of these thoroughfares.

Mitch Miller Nothing is Lost

I can’t begin to capture the wealth of stories, drawings, photographs held here, but I loved them. Together I think they explore in a most beautiful and complementarily detailed way the connections between people and place going back over generations, the stories hidden in today’s empty spaces and fading advertisements, the grief and loss caused by decay, ‘slum removal’, ‘regeneration’. Above all the ignorance built into a profit-driven process with no understanding of the wealth that exists here or ability to ever see it, making hope so precarious for meaningful improvement.

Hearing resident voices, seeing with new eyes what was there and what is gone, exploring through drawings how people connect to each other and inhabit a space to render it place — all of this allows the complexities of everyday life to surface in areas shaped by the structural violence of poverty and discrimination. The kindnesses and community and individual violences these larger structures engender, the hope and the despair, the beautiful and the far-from-beautiful-but-hell-of-interesting (and itsn’t that often so much better)? All of the things that create meaning, and that do so in relation to one another as they grow up over time — it is this old forest growth that is cut down by development, to be replaced with standardized and regimented rows that grimly shine.

Above all, Nothing is Lost throws into high relief the understanding that people matter without judgments or reservations. An understanding that rarely connects with the slick promises of regeneration, which too often simply brushes them away.

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Three Clear Sundays: Ken Loach

‘Three Clear Sundays’ aired on 7th April, 1965 on the BBC’s The Wednesday Play.  Directed by Ken Loach, well, I figured it would be sad. I still hadn’t quite known what I was in for. (This is chock full of spoilers, I warn you now).

It opens though, on some lovely footage of 1960s Portobello Market, back when Notting Hill was vibrant and full of life — the Portobello Market I’ve read about but only ever seen as dying embers. It opens on scenes of honest and dishonest graft, casual racism when the barman down the local throws out a black Caribbean fellow. You’re not welcome here, go to the other bar.

Back to his mates and his jokes.

This is where it all starts, where honest Danny Lee (Tony Selby) is accosted by  a crooked copper (I love a film where crooked mean coppers are just a fact of life), belts him one. Heads off to jail.

Again the documentary takes over in the passage down to the nick, the line of men waiting to be locked up. Again the casual racism, a bit of comic relief at immigrant expense  — a new inmate who’s single, though he’s shot the man who stole his wife. But he’s innocent now. Doesn’t know how old he is. Calls the copper ‘boss’, not ‘guv’. Can’t write.

But Danny Lee can’t write either. Nor can his brothers.

Some jokes at the tramp, his smell — a special disinfectant spray used on his seat.

Back to the drama.

Turns out Danny Lee is the youngest, the slowest, and the only straight in a family of fairly lovable thieves, their activities run by their mother (Rita Webb). She’s a fierce one, and never tires of repeating the moral of this particular story — the 11th commandment. “Never plead guilty.” Danny does, and see where it gets him.

Straight to the hangman’s noose.

I suppose that’s the other moral of the story — that the death penalty is wrong.

Danny’s path isn’t of his own making of course. He’s taken advantage of by some lifelong criminals, kings of the underworld — gone to prison for nothing, they ask. Couldn’t keep your nose clean? What couldn’t you do with £2000? He only dreams of a fruit and veg stall to replace his barrow, his Rosa (Finnuala O’Shannon), the baby coming, he’s so sweet and innocent…god you can see this tragic ending coming. So for the money to win this dream of his, he pretends to be crazy, bashes a guard over the head as part of their scheme to be let off early for good deeds rendered, kills him accidentally.

The story was a bit heavy handed for me, but I liked the documentary-styled bits. I liked when the criminals are raising cash amongst themselves and expand on easy money and hard-working poverty. Or when Rosa goes to visit Danny’s mother who dislikes her, says her son is too good for an ‘Irish cockney’ and offers to give her an abortion that very evening. She changes her tune when Rosa mentions her father’s offer of £500 and a caravan if she marries a man in work. I loved this glimpse into everyday life.

All of the scenes open up with a fairly mawkish Irish tune, I didn’t even notice right away that the lyrics tell of the characters and their dreams and their struggles and their failings. They bear the role of a Greek choir, the sentimentality of a drunk, the nostalgia of an immigrant and an innocence lost. The ballad of Danny Lee, his pregnant fiance,  his mother with her heart (almost) broken by her only straight son. I thought it was pretty brilliant when I found this paragraph in an article (‘Love and Justice’ — Andrew Weir, 12 Sept 1997, The Independent) about the original story’s author, Jimmy O’Connor, sentenced to hanging himself for a murder he didn’t commit:

A 24-year-old petty thief called Jimmy O’Connor was swiftly convicted of the murder and sentenced to death. It all seemed very straightforward. At Pentonville prison, he spent eight weeks in the condemned cell, listening to the air-raids and the maudlin singing in the pub over the Caledonian Road. He was to hang on the very day of his 24th birthday. But then, just two days before, the Home Secretary, Herbert Morrison, mysteriously reprieved him.

Ah, the maudlin singing. It explains everything. It turns out that one of my favourite things about Three Clear Sundays is the man who wrote it — and the author of those poetic musical interludes? Nemone Lethbridge, his wife.

In 1959, he married someone who was his exact social opposite. Nemone Lethbridge was a pretty, upper-class young barrister, 14 years his junior and the impeccably-accented daughter of a general.

I dislike her already, but I try to reign in my prejudices.

The fact that they met at all was a reflection of the prevailing culture of the mid- 1950s, as authors and dramatists pulled back the heavy curtains on working- class life. Room at the Top and The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner, and Frank Norman’s musical, Fings Ain’t What They Used to Be, had revealed the existence of what must have seemed an alien universe to the British middle classes. And in the new medium of television, Jimmy O’Connor became the first writer to open up the hermetic world of prison and the criminal underworld to general inspection.

This seems a bit late to be claiming such a thing, noir had been doing this a long time, no? And journalists like Arthur Morrison before that, but maybe through the medium of television this is true, I am no expert. But nor, I think, is this author. Anyway, the article continues:

“It was quite thrilling, extraordinary to see,” Nemone says about these times. “I was so drawn to this explosion of talent. Things we take for granted now, like EastEnders, The Sweeney and so on, would not have been possible but for the ground they broke. It is very hard to realise now how fresh and exciting all this was.”

Nor had I ever heard of The Star Tavern, might be worth paying it a visit. I am just sad I never knew of it before as I spent a few wearying afternoons in the horrors of Belgravia wishing for a drink but fearful of stopping amongst such people.

One of the few neutral zones in the class war of this time was a pub in Belgravia called The Star Tavern, run by a semi-criminal landlord named Paddy Kennedy, who cheeerfully handed out foul insults to all his customers. They included famous figures in entertainment like Bing Crosby, the actor Richard Todd and playwright Emlyn Williams, who would mingle with upper- class bohemians, among them Princess Margaret and the gambler John Aspinall. Both groups could also experience the frisson of hobnobbing with publicity- happy criminals. Men like Eddie Chapman, the safe-blower who worked as a British double agent during the war, Billy Hill, the self-styled “Boss of Britain’s Underworld”, and London’s most prolific cat burglar, George “Taters” Chatham.

Turns out the daughter-of-a-general and author of those maudlin verses had defended characters like the Krays:

she began to make a name for herself defending East End “faces”. “The East End thugs tended to get into big fights on Friday nights, ” she recalls. “When it came to pleading for them in the morning, I was usually the only one available. I defended many of the East End names of the day: the Kray twins, Red-Faced Tommy, Freddie Foreman, Frank Mitchell – the so-called `Mad Axeman’. I always got them off and, to begin with, I thought it was because of my brilliant advocacy. It was only later I realised all the prosecution witnesses had been terrified into silence.”

Was it only later? Was there that much translation needed between classes and their realities? The article argues that yes…

Fishman became a convert to O’Connor’s cause, and a friend and helper in getting him work on Fleet Street, where his speciality was the life stories of crooks: he ghost-wrote such gems as Burglar to the Nobility and I was the Priest of the Underworld. For Fishman and other Fleet Street editors, Jimmy was like a foreign correspondent reporting from the underworld, someone who could interpret for them news and even language they could not understand themselves.

I confess, it’s all very safe true-life flirtation with the glitz and glamour side of organised crime. I prefer in the end the depictions of its costs. The deaths of many a slow young man talked into something by someone slicker and more ruthless, the child growing up without a father, his mother without the man she loves or a chance at the future she hoped for. They’re the forgotten side of such crime that leaches off the system and calcifies into just another of its pillars. Criminals that always do prey on their own no matter the legend.

So back we turn to ‘Three Clear Sundays,’ and Danny Lee waiting in his cell, confessing his sins. We turn to perhaps the most powerful scene in the film, yet the most banal, as the hangmen practice their knots and their touch on the lever. As they talk about their everyday lives.

The end is still a shock.

The final scenes black with white lettering, quotes about the process of hanging, its effect on the body, how men do not always immediately die. A final quote from Arthur Koestler.

Down with the death penalty, you must agree. And still, cheekily, the original moral comes through — “Thou shalt not plead guilty”. Turns out that is the title Jimmy O’Connor used for his 1976 autobiography. I am almost certain this is him on the back of this book.

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Ashton-under-Lyne: Portland Basin Museum’s brilliant sign collection (and other things)

Portland Basin Museum is full of quite awesome things, Social History on one floor of the beautiful large warehouse, and Industrial History beneath. A series of rooms shows what life was once like, from the inside of worker’s cottages to shops and chippies and pubs…I love these sorts of things, from the collections of old artifacts to the figures placed there in an attempt to bring scenes to life. I’m not sure that it works, we found the recorded humming of the seamstress and  chip shop worker rather terrifying. And yet…

 Portland Basin Museum, Ashton-under-Lyne

Very cool. My favourite things though, the signs of yesteryear. This on the subject of women and drinking is my very favourite:

Portland Basin Museum, Ashton-under-Lyne

But they are all good…

Portland Basin Museum, Ashton-under-Lyne

Portland Basin Museum, Ashton-under-Lyne

Portland Basin Museum, Ashton-under-Lyne

Portland Basin Museum, Ashton-under-Lyne

Portland Basin Museum, Ashton-under-Lyne

The modern signs are pretty enjoyable as well:

Portland Basin Museum, Ashton-under-Lyne

And there is more awesomeness, like the bell rung to summon the Chartists of Hyde to meetings:

Portland Basin Museum, Ashton-under-Lyne

We came here to do some shopping, but I’m glad we wandered a bit, stared down streets with the moors rising up beyond them:

Ashton-under-Lyne

Wandered past the canals:

Ashton-under-Lyne

The shop is also full of brilliant local history publications…

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God I Enjoyed The Sellout by Paul Beatty

If only I enjoyed all prize-winning books a fraction as much as this one by Paul Beatty. I laughed out loud reading this on the long plane journey home, and I needed some laughter for that journey back to a wintry reality far from my family. Now this is the LA I love — complex, mixed up, full of chickens and kitchen gardens and farms too, hell of segregated, violent, funny, and pretty damn woke.

LA always hurt like hell too.

All that, and then there’s the language, oh the language.

When I was ten, I spent a long night burrowed under my comforter, cuddled up with Funshine Bear, who, filled with a foamy enigmatic sense of language and Bloomian dogmatism, was the most literary of the Care Bears and my harshest critic. In the musty darkness of that rayon bat cave, his stubby, all-but-immobile yellow arms struggled to hold the flashlight steady as together we tried to save the black race in eight words or less. (11)

That might just be my favourite passage, though tinged with jealousy because I always wanted a Care Bear and never did get one.

So later on he’s smoking up some homegrown (those names for his gardening genius elicited a lot of laughter I can tell you) in the Superior Court, amazing, and hello Clarence Thomas:

All I know is that the sour-faced Justice with the post-racial chronometer won’t stop looking at me. His beady eyes fixed in this unblinking and unforgiving stare, he’s angry that I’ve fucked up his political expediency…

There he is, Chamaeleo africanus tokenus hidden way in the back among all the shrubbery, his slimy feet gripped tightly around the judicial branch in a cool torpor silently gnawing on the leaves of injustice. “Out of sight, out of mind” is the black working-man’s motto, but now the entire country can see this one, our collective noses pressed to glass in amazement that he’s been able to camouflage his Alabama jet-black ass against the red, white, and blue of the American flag for so long. (20)

Oh shit, that is beautiful. Beautiful, and yet it gets even better (though maybe just because I’m obsessed with these lines, with the geographies of life, belief, language, opportunity):

You can assimilate the man, but not the blood pressure, and the vein pulsating angrily down the middle of his forehead gives him away. he’s giving me that crazy, red-eyed penetrating look that back home we call the Willowbrook Avenue Stare, Willowbrook Avenue being the four-lane river Styx that in 1960s Dickens separated white neighborhoods from black, but now, post-white, post-anybody-with-two-nickels-to-rub-together-flight, hell lies on both sides of the street. The riverbanks are dangerous, and while standing at the crosswalk waiting for the light to change, your life can change. Some drive-by homie, representing some color, clique, or any one of the five stages of grief, can stick his gauge out the passenger-side window of a two-tone coupe, give you the Negro Supreme Court Justice glare and ask, “Where you from, fool?” (22)

Damn, ‘the Negro Supreme Court Justice glare’? And ain’t that something about how these dividing lines stay with us, long after they’ve been rendered invisible by the flight of wealth and resources.

I was talking with my friend Debbie Humphrey, doing an about how writing fiction compares with writing a thesis on racism and struggle. An interesting question I’m still thinking about, probably will always be thinking about, but in trying to describe what this novel means to me…well. It does things academic work could never do, plays with possibilities and with feelings. Plays with how you might recover a community’s pride and identity through just drawing a line — and how that might be a positive thing, not a violent turf thing. Interesting question in LA because turf…I fucking hate so much how LA is full of lines, dividing up identity and the drug trade, our youth defending territory to the death. And so many of them die. They die in this novel.

I loved that awkward shaky paint line and that fake freeway sign reclaiming Dickens after white planners had erased it from the city’s official landscape.

It plays with that idea (and who hasn’t heard this idea?) that everything was actually better back in the day, when segregation kept all classes living close together. When segregation meant that everyone knew damn well they were all in it together, and kept them fighting for the race as a whole. Plays with the idea that something was lost when some of segregation’s walls came down, and everyone with a nickel fled. What it might look like if  some sleight of hand were to make it seem as though it were being recreated as it once was. A trick highlights segregation’s continued reality and shows that its existence requires clarity to inspire resistance. It asks hard questions (without actually asking questions, because, you know, this is fiction with a story to tell and a lot of satire along the way) about what so much struggle has actually won, and where we’re at now. Asks questions about the nature of change itself, what steps lead to liberation and what steps to a new form of old oppression.

It plays with the power of making a ubiquitous and politically correct racism visible again, naming it, showing it for what it is by insisting on a (faked and slightly half-assed) return to older, harsher forms whose clarity made it easy to know what you were fighting and have inspiration to fight. Slavery. Official white-only schools. Hominy (that name!) demanding he be considered a slave, demanding regular whipping — it embodies so many of the costs of racism, and shit, the Little Rascals? So vile and yet, this is where fame and money and work as an actor were to be found… The opposite side from the Nicholas Brothers of the damage done to artists through Jim Crow. Damage that continues in carefully colorblind language and tokenisation.

Yet the solution to this need to be whipped? Hilarious, and gives me some faith things are a bit better. Because, you know, there are places you can go for that, and no one will judge.

It plays with urban farming and self-reliance. With the trials of being raised by a political father. With the good and bad of philosophy, activism, struggle. It manages a lot of pain and knowledge, reflections on life and our heritage and our responsibility.

That’s the problem with history, we like to think it’s a book–that we can turn the page and move the fuck on. But history isn’t the paper it’s printed on. It’s memory, and memory is time, emotions, and song. History is the things that stay with you. (115)

Amazing to manage all of that, and still…be full of laughter. There’s more I should say, so much more here, will be so much more waiting for me when I re-read it, but now I got some rewrites to do. One more blog and that will be me for a while.

Valletta’s Spaces of Stone

Valletta’s architecture is unified in its building material — as is all of Malta it seems, but here it is most striking how this unifies the old and the new. Renzo Piano’s fabulous new city gate rises up as you enter, it’s massive square forms work beautifully in this space, as modern as they are. I wish I had taken more pictures.

Valleta

Just as I wish I had more pictures of the opera house beyond (the columns visible just beyond), where they chose not to rebuild the massive building left in ruins by WWII bombs, but to leave its foundations and columns to embrace an outdoor performance space, which I also quite loved. Similar pictures of the ruins were shown several time through the Cities as Community Spaces conference, a symbol of the city’s resilience.

Valletta opera-house-8-april-1942Valletta is in fact surrounded by monumental space, this stairway rises up to the left as you enter, leading to Hastings gardens along the battlements that protect the city.

Valletta

I’ll come back to those because they are fascinating, but still what most captivated me were the narrow streets in this Renaissance city, originally named the most humble city of Valletta, after the Master of the Knights of Malta, Jean de Vallette, who had successfully led the defense of the island against the Ottoman Turks in 1565. This city on the isthmus was to solidify defenses — and you can tell. Built in 40 years by Italian architect Francesco Laparelli, student of Michelangelo, and finished by the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, I am curious to explore how it connects to other city planning from this time. Their auberges — grand renaissance building with a municipal feel that housed the langues and now house museums and government offices — are familiar, the churches also:

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These wonderful grand colonnaded spaces

Valletta

But the streets laid out in a perfect (then almost revolutionary) grid with these wonderful balconies — these are like nothing I had ever seen.

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

It is a city where the whole is beautiful to look upon, but the details are as well…

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

And just look at these balconies, the individuality they bring to each building front, and the craftsmanship of them, they all seem to have their individual touches amplified by the passing of time and the histories of their owners:

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Interesting, though, that so many of them are enclosed and hardly large enough to be used as extended living spaces. They seem used for laundry and plants. You could not squeeze a table and chairs outside as we saw so often in Paris, you cannot easily connect and talk to your neighbour next door or across the way, even with the windows wide open as they are above. It seems an opportunity missed, a reflection of a more enclosed society or perhaps an aspect of the city that helps create one. Nor are there stoops or enough space to extend living into the doorways and streets the way families do in say New York. Much of this seems concentrated in the squares, but still, I wonder at the impact on the everyday life and conviviality.

These streets contain atmosphere, and the surprise lost through the absence of twists and turns is found instead in the variegated building surfaces and the faded palimpsests painted onto stone, the flaking remnants of the past .

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

I don’t have a picture of the old grafittied pictures of ships that was pointed out to me by someone from Valletta as we walked back from a panel through the streets — her friend had uncovered it as he was cleaning the stone. There is no telling how old it is, a deep ochre red and it looked like pictures of the galleys so prevalent in the Mediterranean I have seen in books. She told me too the use of statues of saints at the street corners instead of street signs — St Christopher easily recognisable embodied in stone for those unable to read the letters of his name. We laughed that no longer are we literate in that way. I had a thought to catalogue them, but it fell away, saints are not my favourite things, and these are many of them grand, not the humble saints dressed in hand-sewn clothing I am more used to. But I do love shrines.

Valletta

This on the other hand…on the grand masters palace on the edge of George’s Square. Perhaps this was explained on one of the tours or if I could hit upon the right search terms, I usually love grotesques but this man in European dress riding what seems to be a naked African woman? Telling, if rather horrible.

Valletta

I only really noticed it my last day, because always your eyes are drawn to the life in the square — though early on a Sunday as I headed to the airport is was more quiet than I ever saw it:

Valletta

There are fountains here which must be wonderful in summer, it was  always full of children, including two little girls swanning through delightedly on scooters. Tourists and townfolk and migrants alike make use of the many places to sit that ring the square, as did I the night I wandered here alone. It is a lovely space, especially at night when the cafes overflow and there is lively talk and the clink of glasses and the smell of food…

Funny that it almost never smells of the sea here. Yet the sea surrounds it, on the other side of these enormous fortifications. This is looking towards Sliema:

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Finding these fields tucked away made me so happy though, I can’t image football in this kind of setting! I was glad too, as many of the conference speakers mentioned the way they had played football in the streets as children — streets now very full of cars, and it’s true no children play there now.

Valletta

More views, this of Fort Manoel with the massive luxury build in Sliema behind it:

Valletta

Back over Valletta itself — in the foreground graffiti. Float like a butterfly sting like a bee, I was happy to find Mohammed Ali quoted here.

Valletta

Valletta at night — it is magical, I confess I wrote reams, though nothing coalesced quite into a story. My thoughts circled around Caravaggio for some reason, swaggering through the streets. It struck me that sober he wanted to be like the knights who were lords of all this, and that drunk he wanted to destroy them. It is easy to imagine him wandering through streets such as these, unlike England the modern almost never intrudes to break the atmosphere. Maybe the story will come, tinged with the recent car bombings, the old man wandering down the street with a bird in a tiny cage held reverently between his hands, chirping as he went. The undercurrents you can feel here, though I am ignorant of their precise nature.

Valletta

Valleta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Looking across from the other side of Valletta, towards the Forti Sant’ Anġl

Valletta

There are spaces underneath as well — I was lucky enough to visit the air raid shelter beneath the Crypt of St Augustine where the conference dinners were hosted. The crypt itself is a beautiful vaulted space where many lived during WWII, escaping down rickety stairs at the sirens. Boards covered the puddles of water at the bottom, we half-drunkenly explored the long passages and rooms and it was wonderful.

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

I had to leave too soon. But luck brought me a window seat, and it is from the air that you can best appreciate how small Valletta is, and the position it holds within this much larger urban conglomeration. I loved the fields as well, these are small plots that can never become too mechanised or monocultured.

Valletta from the air

Valletta from the air

I think this was Gozo in fact, but you can see the stark lines of the towns and the terracing of the hillsides, even if you can’t quite see the wonderful blues of the sea itself.

Malta from the air

A wonderful place, I am so thankful for the luck and generosity of those I love that allowed me come here.

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Creatures of Valletta

In a city so beautiful — I know I have already waxed poetic about the stonework — I didn’t immediately focus on some of the details, like the wonderful door handles. Not since Prague have I seen such beauty bestowed on what is usually relegated to the mundane — as though all the artistry and craftsmanship establishing the sacredness and mystery of the doorway between spaces in prehistoric Malta have been transferred to the method of opening such a door.

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The same kind of curve, the triton tail…I saw a number of these around the city, but this one was my favourite.

Then there were the seahorses.

Valletta

A kind of demon, I think of protective spirits but have no context to know what this means to those who live within — only that this is one of the few that is not immediately and obviously of the sea:

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Nor is this one perhaps, yet it has the feel of shipwreck and ancient sea waters.

Valletta

I know this isn’t a creature, but I just liked it, the shape of the kinght’s cross and it seemed possibly carved of bone. Or bakelite. But the second seems impossible.

Valletta

Fish:

Valletta

Possibly even cooler fish, and the cross of the knights:

Valletta

On the narrow stairway street where I was staying, this beautiful turtle:

Valletta

The creatures were not simply on the doors, I have already posted the picture of the cat who also lived on my stairs, who disappeared into its own private renaissance cat door, but cats were ubiquitous. Especially as I wandered at night. There was the well-fed and I believe well-housed cat of Ħaġar Qim. Wild, but also loved, this one (I know it is hard to see) sits on a rough box of recycled wood made to purpose as a home beside a dish of food.

Valleta

I often walked past handfuls of food, bowls of water in doorways. Only one allowed me to come near enough to touch it, and it wound itself around my legs for some way down the street. He did not desire a photo taken.

Dogs I only saw being walked by their owners (though like East London, avoiding dog shit required some intense concentration at times). Well-fed, well cared for. Until I stood at the edge of the city along the great defensive walls staring out towards Sliema. From the corner of my eye I saw a shadow, turned my head and found nothing. Until luck brought this little dog into view. Darting with quick movements it sought and sniffed for food, never have I met a dog so little interested in my existence. I rather loved it.

Valletta

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Bristol Wanderings, Autumn

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