Category Archives: Walking

Three Colt St to the West India Docks, Limehouse

Not quite an every-day walk this in my new tradition, because it was very cold and marvelously foggy, and Limehouse isn’t at all ordinary I don’t think, even when it tries.

It’s not at all surprising to me that it has gentrified the way it has, because those old warehouse buildings are beautiful. This whole area along the Thames breathes a history now picturesque, as the poverty suffered by the dockers who once lived and worked here has been erased by a succession of Labour governments since the turn of the century.

Memories of old pubs fill this area  — as they do the memories of the handful of men who frequent the old boozers still remaining and mourn what was.
Three Colt Lane Angel

There is, however, to my knowledge only one remnant of wall with an awesome door that goes nowhere.

Limehouse

Limehouse

I love this street

Limehouse

And mourn arriving at the fortressed luxury that has been built all along the river…I seek a metaphor and fail.

Limehouse

It is best when the mist hides them…

Limehouse

Limehouse

Limehouse

But there is no doubt to what I prefer:

Limehouse

Limehouse

Turning back to head East again, there is the old under the looming weight and wealth of the new:

Limehouse

West India Docks

West India Docks

West India Docks

West India Docks

West India Docks

West India Docks

The West India Docks…I have strong feelings about this place, but I will save them. The museum is good, I visited the floor on slavery and couldn’t do anything else after, it is most powerful. Then you come out and the restaurant is called Rum and Sugar. You stare at the wealth of Canary Wharf — the latest form of global exploitation and destruction — and you despair.

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Field Lane and larceny, then and now

Field lane was once a narrow alley that led to Saffron Hill (once fields and gardens belonging to Ely Place and filled with actual saffron), and formed part of a tangle of the narrow lanes and courts that contained some of London’s most desperate poverty. Flora Tristan describes it thus in 1842:

Quite close to Newgate, in a little alley off Holborn Hill called Field Lane, which is too narrow for vehicles to use, there is absolutely nothing to be seen but dealers in secondhand silk handkerchiefs.’ I am sure I do not need to warn any curious traveller who might be tempted to follow in my footsteps, to leave at home his watch, purse and handkerchief before he ventures into Field Lane, for he may be sure that the gentlemen who frequent the spot are all light-fingered! It is particularly interesting to go there in the evening, as it is then thronged with people – which is easy to understand: buyers and sellers alike are anxious to preserve their anonymity for, after his purse. nothing is more precious to anyone in business than the mask of respectability he has been at such pains to acquire.

The shops are in fact stalls which project into the steet, and this is where the handkerchiefs are displayed: they hang on rails so that intending purchasers can recognise at a glance the property they have had stolen from them! The men and women dealers, whose looks are in perfect harmony with their trade, stand in their doorways and hector the customers who come under cover of the night to buy dirt cheap the spoils of the day. There is a bustle of activity in the street as prostitutes, children, and rogues of every age and condition come to sell their handkerchiefs (175).

I found a picture or two (with a jarring one in contrast, to bring us into the present):

Field Lane, c. 1840. (Old and New London)
Field Lane, c. 1840. (Old and New London)

What Was Field Lane

Near Field Lane c. 1844 Houses with the open part of the Fleet Ditch before rebuilding (Print: D. Bogue, Fleet Street)
Near Field Lane c. 1844. Houses with the open part of the Fleet Ditch before rebuilding
(Print: D. Bogue, Fleet Street)

They are described by Dickens of course, in Oliver Twist. I was so pleased to have accidentally been reading that at the same time as Tristan’s London Journal, and to have connected the two together on my own. Of course, I found out that is no big thing. This is from Dickens, describing one of Fagins’ haunts:

Near to the spot on which Snow Hill and Holborn meet, there opens, upon the right hand as you come out of the City, a narrow and dismal alley, leading to Saffron Hill. In its filthy shops are exposed for sale huge bunches of pocket-handkerchiefs of all sizes and patterns, for here reside the traders who purchase them from pickpockets. Hundreds of these handkerchiefs hang dangling from pegs outside the windows or flaunting from the door-posts, and the shelves within are piled with them. Confined as the limits of Field Lane are, it has its barber, its coffee-shop, its beer-shop, and its fried fish warehouse. It is a commercial colony of itself—the emporium of petty larceny, visited at early morning and setting-in of dusk by silent merchants, who traffic in dark back parlours and go as strangely as they come. Here the clothes-man, the shoevamper, and the rag-merchant, display their goods as sign-boards to the petty thief, and stores of old iron and bones, and heaps of mildewy fragments of woollen-stuff and linen, rust and rot in the grimy cellars.

Here is a map showing the maze of streets and courts:

By John Rocque (John Rocque's 1746 Map of London) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By John Rocque (John Rocque’s 1746 Map of London) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
But these were to become a thing of the past, 1844 ushered in efforts to rebuild the area, 1869 saw the construction of the Holborn Viaduct, by the time Charles Booth was making his second set of poverty maps in 1898-99, it looked rather different (in both, field lane is the bottom left), though the black sections show that poverty and crime abide:

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Today crime clearly still abides, at least, loitering does along these steps that lead down from Charterhouse.

What Was Field Lane
And it feels part of the City, the banking industry and corporate London has ever been a hotbed of crime I think.

Further down becoming Saffron Hill proper (though Field Lane has been wiped from memory through signage alone), it regains something of the feel for what was:

What Was Field Lane

What Was Field Lane

I love this area, despite the creep of the City, the expensiveness, the smart suits walking briskly to and fro. There are still a scattering of normal people, some estates not yet demolished or turned into luxury apartments perhaps. Still a sound of accents that make me feel at ease, still a raffish air to it. I don’t mourn the loss of the desperate poverty, the cold, damp and overcrowded housing,  or the picturesque views of stolen goods. What I hate is that our people were simply swept away for the most part, to build a cold corporate environment of nearly empty echoing alleys. Buildings that are a monument to greed and thievery of a different kind, often, though not always, a legitimated one.

People with money desire curious things.

For more on Victorian cities or Dickens…

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Everyday Bristol, Totterdown Way

I was thinking of how I often save my camera for what I feel are special or spectacular things, and don’t take it along on wanders along back streets or through the neighborhoods. Especially on Sundays, when we just need to get out of the house and have nowhere special to go and don’t care to face the same old hill to get central. But these residential streets, of course, are as important to how we live in and think about the city as anything else, and it’s funny here how much the feel of them changes from street to street.

Here is today’s walk. It made me realise I still couldn’t face pictures of many of the houses and streets, if they were too grim, boring, sad. Perhaps a challenge for future Sundays. To find their hidden beauty or uncover just exactly what is wrong with them.

Everyday Bristol

Everyday Bristol

Everyday Bristol

Everyday Bristol

Everyday Bristol

Everyday Bristol

Everyday Bristol

Everyday Bristol

Everyday Bristol

Everyday Bristol

Everyday Bristol

Everyday Bristol

Everyday Bristol

Everyday Bristol

Everyday Bristol

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Ironwood Forest National Monument

Round and about Ragged Top:

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Seven Falls

Seven Falls, oasis in the desert.

IMG_0088You can see a person in the picture for scale if you look hard enough. There were a lot of people on the trail sadly, probably walking off immense dinners like us.

We escaped to Sabino Canyon all the time when I was little, a long drive and then a short enough walk you could (well, my mum and dad could) carry an ice chest, we’d bring food to barbecue and swim in the stream. We knew all the deepest holes, the best places to slide down rocks. I don’t think we made it up Bear Canyon until I was older, high school maybe. Plenty of hiking to do around our own house, though no waterfalls.

Still, it’s one of those places I have layers of memories for. Some aren’t even mine, like my brother’s friend getting airlifted out after casually reaching for a football they’d been throwing around in one of the pools and getting caught in the undertow and sucked over one of the falls.

My own fiercest memory is of hiking it after getting bitten on the thigh by something I never saw (never be lazy and leave your jeans on the floor, never, I know this). I hiked up here about three days after, when my leg was aching and the bruised area around the bite still expanding. With my flesh turning black and liquifying, it was definitely a spider. Not as bad as many I’ve seen, so I was lucky.  Still, I have memories of that ache, remembered a stretch or two where I had been sure I wouldn’t make it. I made it. I was a lot prouder and stupider in those days.

My favourite memory is walking along the banks beneath the mesquites, the air full of the smell of sage, my mum and dad hand in hand somewhere behind me.

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This last trip was just beautiful, though so cold — snow on the Rincons, and ice on the puddles. The water was higher than I ever remember it, and I forgot just how many times the trail crosses it (seven), balanced precariously on stones. There was a bit of jumping. I loved it, loved seeing the desert so lush and knowing the wildflowers will be probably be absolutely gorgeous this spring, though I won’t be there to see them.

My partner had a hard time calling this desert.

There was a sliver of silver moon above us the whole afternoon, and my camera mostly loved the contrasts between light and shadow. But for the falls themselves it made the pictures less than what I was hoping for…
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Gissing’s Camberwell

Having just read In the Year of the Jubilee (there is some repetition here between posts, apologies), I thought it might be fun to wander over from Brixton to Camberwell and to see just how much was as Gissing described, how much had changed. Brixton these days smells much more of fried chicken or curry than fried onions — for someone like myself who gave up the fried chicken I love to avoid industrially raised chickens, rancid oil and a growing waistline, this is fairly tortuous it must be said. I don’t know where Beatrice lived when she moved off on her own, sadly for me, but I do love Coldharbour Lane, and I think it still has much the same feel of picturesque, somewhat industrial decay as it long ago did due to absentee landlords (now cashing in of course):

Before his admission to a partnership in Mr. Lord’s business, Samuel Barmby lived with his father and two sisters in Coldharbour Lane. Their house was small, old and crumbling for lack of repair; the landlord, his ground-lease having but a year or two to run, looked on with equanimity whilst the building decayed.

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Arriving in Camberwell I am always happy to see this:

Gissing's Camberwell

and then we arrived at this particular corner, which is worth a smile:

Gissing's Camberwell

And finally back to Gissing, as we came to De Crespigny Park, one side of which is still full of homes ‘unattached, double-fronted, with half sunk basement and a flight of steps to the stucco pillars at the entrance’. I also now have proof that those regularly-seen tall arched spaces that are almost always bricked up were actually once windows.

Gissing's Camberwell

Gissing writes:

De Crespigny Park, a thoroughfare connecting Grove Lane, Camberwell, with Denmark Hill, presents a double row of similar dwellings; its clean breadth, with foliage of trees and shrubs in front gardens, makes it pleasant to the eye that finds pleasure in suburban London. In point of respectability, it has claims only to be appreciated by the ambitious middle-class of Camberwell. Each house seems to remind its neighbour, with all the complacence expressible in buff brick, that in this locality lodgings are not to let (loc 56).

But now the south side is part of the massive complex making up King’s hospital — and some buildings to the north as well, breaking up the solidly respectable line of homes that once stood there. This lead to Grove Lane, where Nancy lives and of which Gissing says:

Grove Lane is a long acclivity, which starts from Camberwell suburban dwellings. The houses vary considerably in size and Green, and, after passing a few mean shops, becomes a road of aspect, also in date,–with the result of a certain picturesqueness, enhanced by the growth of fine trees on either side. Architectural grace can nowhere be discovered, but the contract-builder of today has not yet been permitted to work his will; age and irregularity, even though the edifices be but so many illustrations of the ungainly, the insipid, and the frankly hideous, have a pleasanter effect than that of new streets built to one pattern by the mile. There are small cottages overgrown with creepers, relics of Camberwell’s rusticity; rows of tall and of squat dwellings that lie behind grassy plots, railed from the road; larger houses that stand in their own gardens, hidden by walls.

It was difficult, no, impossible, to take decent pictures, I’m afraid. Some of what was there when it was described this way is, I think, gone, but it has retained that piecemeal feeling of Gissing’s Camberwell which is fairly charming.

Gissing's Camberwell

We walked up Grove Lane to the top of Champion Hill: ‘From the top of the Lane, where Champion Hill enjoys an aristocratic seclusion, is obtainable a glimpse of open fields and of a wooded horizon southward.’

No longer I’m afraid, but it is a lovely view:

Gissing's Camberwell

And Champion Hill remains fairly ‘aristocratic’. We started back down the LaGissing's Camberwellne’s ‘more formal neighbour Camberwell Grove’, finding fairly terrible decorative statues and much larger homes. While some sections had clearly been built by a single builder here, there was still  a great deal of difference — no real jerry builders were allowed up here. Perhaps the nicest thing to find on this road was council housing — Lettsome Estate for example. The dream of neighbourhoods containing people of all income levels living side by side and enjoying the amenities of beauty and elegance is one of my favourite post-war efforts to make a reality.

Gissing's Camberwell Gissing's Camberwell

We followed Camberwell Grove back down to Camberwell’s centre, where we sought out the new abode of the Barmby’s:

Samuel’s good fortune enabled them to take a house in Dagmar Road, not far from Grove Lane; a new and most respectable house, with bay windows rising from the half-sunk basement to the second storey. Samuel, notwithstanding his breadth of mind, privately admitted the charm of such an address as ‘Dagmar Road,’ which looks well at the head of note-paper, and falls with sonority from the lips (loc 2596).

Gissing's Camberwell
A  nice street. Writing this I’ve realised there must be an immense respectability that comes with half-sunk basements as Gissing never leaves that out of his descriptions. Best of all to see, though, was the new vibrance and color infused into what can only be described as a once stifling middle class area (because my god the Barmby’s, horrible people):
Gissing's Camberwell
And that was the end. It was very cold and so we did not linger. It was probably the cleaning-out-the-canal work I did a couple of days later that has bequeathed the terrible cold I am currently suffering (this one is already at two-tissue-box strength), but I might still blame it on Gissing because he’s rather a miserable bastard after all. Still, I enjoyed this walk a great deal.

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Liberec

Almost done sharing thoughts and pictures from the Czech Republic, alllllllmost done! With a host like Sandor Klapscik from the Technical University of Liberec, we could not go wrong (he invited Mark to work with students and give this awesome lecture: It’s About Time: Cinema, Science Fiction, Source Code). Far to the North of Prague, it is also beautiful. Only 60 years ago it was German speaking rather than Czech, which I found fascinating and yearned to speak either language so I could see how they had shifted and changed, or not. Being bilingual and from the Mexico/US border I love how I think differently in each language, the words that work in one that don’t exist in the other, the crazy mixing of the two that revels in wordplay and invention. Another thing that fascinates me about Kafka and I keep meaning to find out more (writing in German while living in Prague and speaking and surrounded by Czech also). Sadly, while I tried to learn some phrases, Czech is harder even than Russian I think, and the one person I practiced my greetings on turned out to be Hungarian and spoke neither Czech nor English. Language was definitely a barrier here in a way it wasn’t in Prague, and I was torn between frustration that there wasn’t more of a lingua franca and ability to communicate, and embarrassment that I was hoping such a language should be the imperial English that I lucked out on by speaking natively.

Anyway, Liberec in the morning light:

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I thought it quite beautiful, and was so disappointed their castle was closed to the public:
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From Sandor’s office the view was amazing — I was rather jealous I’m afraid. These are looking down onto the Opera House and the Town Hall on a most beautiful fall day:
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The building needed a little renovation outside, but I loved this — Ještěd Tower I think?
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And speaking of unnecessary awesomeness, this is their staircase:
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A few more views of the city:
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Like Prague, the details were all beautiful and I was just as fascinated by doors and ornamentation here as there:
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Sadly, they also had a terror of cherubs, this must be one of the most frightening of all, because there’s no way holding its neck at that angle hasn’t killed it — if it wasn’t always dead:

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This almost made up for it:
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As well as the great street art:
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The awesome handbills showing counterculture alive and well (a punk band called Rosa Parks? I am so there):
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One of the loveliest street art installations I’ve seen about remembrance, focusing attention on the self and the soul in ending violence and accomplishing reconciliation (and that’s us there in the mirror!):
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The birds painted on all of the glass:
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The wonderful pub signs — and pubs. Their dumplings were most unexpected, but delicious. I also loved how often the most unpretentious strip-mall kind of exterior always contained a warm and unique recreation of a traditional village restaurant with wood paneling, old photos and flowers. I enjoyed every meal, particularly the soup.
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Liberec, in a word, was wonderful to wander around. Of course there’s also Ještěd Tower, and its beautiful countryside, and we didn’t partake of the tour of the city hall or get to any museums. We did enjoy the sunsets however, a good way to say goodbye to the city.

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Until I remembered the robot that greeted us our last morning as we grabbed a coffee before catching our bus back to Prague:
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Prague Walks: The Big Picture

So much focus on details and beautiful craftsmanship (doors! naked statues! the terror of cherubs!) along with Kafka (I’ve been reading and greatly enjoying Bohumil Hrabal and Karel Čapek, and Čapek is perhaps my favourite yet their words don’t map onto the city as much as Kafka — surprisingly). I’ve maybe missed the big picture, the feel of the streets and the city itself. So here it is. Starting with a bit of the town just outside the tourist quarter walking east, and then heading down to the river and along to reach some of the more well-known vistas:
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There are these beautiful streets in Mala Strana, NE of the Charles Bridge (packed with people and thus fairly horrible and we mostly avoided it entirely):

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Then you turn up through this beautiful arch, climb up towards the castle area, stare out over the city. One of my favourite things is the SF space station away in the distance (I know, I know it’s really something else):
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You come down the other side, towards the street where the Čapeks lived, where together they invented the word robot (I’m sure I have mentioned that already, it was most exciting)

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Their vista
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One of the most beautiful turnings in the world
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You continue down and cross the bridge again, we didn’t make it as far down as Vyšehrad, but there are beautiful modern buildings to be found here, This surprise glass walkway:
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Gehry’s Dancing House (1996):
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The wonderful Manes Gallery:
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There are some really interesting contrasts between the old and the new:IMG_9329

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Prague had some tagging going on, but wasn’t too full of street art. Still, we found this:
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And this wonderful trompe l’oeil:

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And then just vista after vista of the beautiful and the unexpected, the non-sanitised splendour as you wander:
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So that the tourist trail packed (and I mean packed, even in November) across the Charles bridge:IMG_9510
Down into the main square with its extraordinary clocks (which I loved despite the hordes):

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Even that square in the sunset: IMG_9596
was hardly the most beautiful place. I’m glad there is a centre and a focus for most tourists, I almost felt bad wandering the places many others didn’t seem to go, because I imagine Prague’s residents are even more protective of their city and their space. It is hard to imagine it as it was before the industry of travel, though on many of the more distant streets this seems possible. Still, I am so glad, feel so lucky, that I have had the opportunity to go.

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More beautiful things in the Czech Republic

We stayed a week in Liberec while my partner lectured at the
Technická univerzita v Liberci, getting the chance to visit Ještěd Tower, which I have already written about, but also see a bit of the countryside. The rolling hills of the north are simply beautiful, mist-filled, green. We rolled through them on our train on the way to Hodvokice, just as filled with beautiful craftsmanship as Prague really, and of the kind I like more as it not as cherubbed and otherwise statued. This house I fell in love with, it is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen I think — the day was a terrible one for taking pictures however, so apologies:

IMG_9161The most stunning windows, and the detailing exquisite. The town’s wealth seemed to come from this factory — textiles perhaps, as Liberec? I am unsure, but it is also beautiful from the outside. Strange to stare at a factory and have not the slightest context for what it is, who works (or worked) there, what that is like. IMG_9169
I am, of course, obsessed by details and found some more door knobs for my collection:

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There was also a wide use of tiles, as in much of Prague, and though some might have seen better days, they were still beautiful.

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Just like the town itself.

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Perhaps even more than in Prague — where beauty could possibly be seen as a project of Empire — I was so impressed by all that was functional yet exquisite:

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Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised by the way that this craftsmanship seems to also fill the countryside — the antithesis of the hamlets of the Southwestern U.S. I know so well, which are always interesting but rarely beautiful and often creepy. But everything was well cared for and this kind of work very common:

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We came to this beautiful old place as well, now tragically falling down.

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We were walking up to Sychrov Castle, bought (as one of several) after the French Revolution by some aristocrats who had managed to keep most of their money. Their connections to the Bourbons fill the place through its decorations and carvings — and the carvings are exquisite. I didn’t take pictures inside, but here is a view of some of the details I did capture.

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IMG_9228And a view of the castle as a whole — again, far removed from what an English castle looks like:
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From the castle we walked down to another small village to catch the train back — you can wander over the tracks at will and the ‘industrial’ area alongside was very cool.IMG_9278
I know I have used the word beautiful far too much, but that is what the country is.

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Kafka: The Castle

An amazing book, and how lucky I got to read it in the Czech Republic! I had it for kindle, translated by John Williams I think, so I may have to read the alternative translations. A little fan-girl of me perhaps, but to be reading it as we explored Prague’s castle and the Kafka Museum (which I wrote about here) was brilliant really. Though also existentially terrifying, as I find all of Kafka.

The book opens with a concrete description of the castle, a clear vision of its place and structure as well as the clarity available to those living at that height, but one that becomes more and more complicated as he gets closer to it:

Now, he could see the Castle above him clearly defined in the glittering air, its outline made still more definite by the moulding of snow covering it in a thin layer. There seemed to be much less snow up there on the hill than down in the village, where K. found progress as laborious as on the main road the previous day. Here the heavy snowdrifts reached right up to the cottage windows and began again on the low roofs, but up on the hill everything soared light and free into the air, or at least so it appeared from down below.

On the whole this distant prospect of the Castle satisfied K.’s expectations. It was neither an old stronghold nor a new mansion, but a rambling pile consisting of innumerable small buildings closely packed together and of one or two storeys; if K. had not known that it was a castle he might have taken it for a little town.

This shifts into a more mundane reality of village homes, churches, streets. But always the Castle itself remains something always seen yet always out of reach, an impossible distance to cover. K. walks and walks, yet overcome by strange weariness and drifts of snow, he turns aside. Day by day the castle becomes ever more distant, unreal yet at the same time ever more powerful in its oppression of his spirit and his circumstances.

The castle is home to rarefied beings, almost supernatural in their powers over those in the village and their effect on them. Controlling K.’s fate is Klamm, yet he is as out of reach as the castle, and K.’s attempts to contact him are the stuff of daily nightmares. K. crosses boundaries and suffers the consequences — for example here, in a hidden courtyard he waits for Klamm to enter his waiting sleigh. Instead the coachman eventually leaves K. alone in the darkness, turning off the lights as Klamm cannot, will not face K.  This transgression of space is unforgivable and brings with it a Pyrrhic sense of defeat in victory:

…it seemed to K. as if all contact with him had been broken off, as if he were now freer than ever, as if he could wait here in this otherwise forbidden place as long as he wished; as if he had fought for this freedom as few others could have done, as if no one could touch him or drive him away, or even speak to him, and yet at the same time — and this conviction was at least as strong–as if there were nothing more senseless, more desolate than this freedom, this waiting, this invulnerability (loc 1792).

Above all remains the split between Castle and village, rulers and ruled at varying degrees of distance. There is a visual refinement in the faces of those who have been there, particularly the women singled out for gentlemen’s pleasures. Government is designed to preserve and enhance this split. The landlady tells K.

‘Herr Momus is Klamm’s secretary like any of his other secretaries, but his office and, if I am not mistaken, his official duties too…’ Momus, still writing, shook his head vigorously, and the landlady corrected herself: ‘Well, only his office is confined to the village, but not his official duties. Herr Momus deals with the written work relating to the Village…That’s the way it is; all the gentlemen from the Castle have their village secretaries.’ (loc 1841)

Absolute power reflected in the weakness and uselessness of petty officials. K. only seeks to be informed of his work, his purpose. Instead he is told by letter:

To the surveyor of Bruckenhof. The surveys you have made so far meet with my approval. The work done by the assistants is also commendable… (loc 1953)

He has done no work. He has been given no direction. The assistants are mad. Sill, it is the interview with Olga, sister to the messenger Barnabas, that I found the key to it all in my own mind. I was completely surprised by what was essentially an attempted rape at the centre…a letter demanding a village girl come to a Castle gentleman, her refusal at the heart of the entire family’s destruction. K.’s involvement in it all by extension. It is an extraordinary thing I thought, to find in this bewildering maze of rural geography and bureaucracy and madness. Something so much more real than in The Trial or the Metamorphasis, just as K. is better defined and more sure of himself. Yet K.’s initial outrage changes, shifts, softens to accommodate itself to Olga’s views, the villagers’ beliefs, and it all falls back into the nightmare as Olga continues to describe their desperation and scheming. After the museum, though, I was particularly focused on the geography, and these descriptions of barriers formal and informal, physical and mental, visible and invisible are so fascinating, they almost make me want to study the geographies of bureaucracy–or paranoia:

…it gives us doubts about everything. Is it really Castle work that he is doing, we ask; he goes to the offices, certainly, but are the offices actually part of the Castle? And even if there are offices that are part of the Castle, are those the offices he is allowed into? He’s admitted into some offices, but only some of them, then there are barriers, and behind these are more offices. He’s not actually forbidden to go any further, but he can’t go any further once he’s seen his superiors and they have dealt with him and sent him away. What’s more, you’re watched all the time up there, at least that’s what we believe. And even if he did go further on, what good would it do him if he had no official business there; he would just be an intruder. And you mustn’t imagine these barriers as a hard and fast divide, Barnabas is always reminding me of that. There are also barriers in the offices he visits, so there are some barriers he goes through, and they look no different from the ones he has not yet gone through, and so it can’t be assumed that the offices behind these barriers are any different from the ones Barnabas has been in (loc 2775).

It isn’t just the geography of bureaucracy that is opaque, confused, unreadable. Barnabas works for Klamm, he thinks, yet no one can ever be sure even just of Klamm’s appearance, so at times he is not even sure of that:

…all these differences are due to magic, they are quite understandable because they depend on the present mood, the level of excitement, the countless degrees of hope or despair on the part of the observer, who is in any case only able to catch a momentary glimpse of Klamm (loc 2809).

And so we come to the greatest fear of all perhaps, the method of governance instilling the idea that if one were only stronger, more connected, wiser, everything would be all right. That it is all your own fault:

What I mean by all this is that something is there, Barnabas is being offered something, at least something, and it’s his own fault if all he can get out of it is doubt, fear and hopelessness (loc 2923).

And all of it an exercise in collective (mis)understanding, world building:

Olga’s story was revealing such a vast, almost unbelievable world to him that he could not resist intruding on it with his own little adventure, in order to convince himself of the existence of her world as well as that of his own experience (loc 3402).

I loved most of all that amazing nighttime meeting in the bureaucrat’s hotel wing, which is itself an incredible description of physical space that is as much mental space, constricting, suffocating, claustrophobic:

Here everything was small but elegantly constructed, and space was used to the best advantage. The corridor was just high enough for them to walk upright. Along the sides was a series of doors almost next to each other. The side walls did not reach right up to the ceiling, no doubt to provide ventilation, for the tiny rooms along this deep cellar-like corridor probably had no windows. The disadvantage of these walls that were open at the top was that the noise in the corridor must have been heard in the rooms too (loc 3790).

Everything is concealed, bewildering, yet at the same time there can be no privacy:

The servant climbed onto K.’s shoulders and looked over the gap above the wall into the room. ‘He’s lying on his bed’ (loc 3803)

K. is betrayed by his own weakness, his own tiredness, he cannot take advantage of the interviews he obtains. And then follows the most brilliant of all scenes: the men pushing the carts, distributing folders, the opening and slamming of doors, whispered negotiations, hands emerging from rooms, peeping through cracks and recriminations. K.’s very presence throwing everything into complete chaos as no one can bear to let themselves be seen, much less spoken to.

It ends in mid sentence — I didn’t know that when I started, so it was an almost vertiginous ending. Kafka couldn’t find his way to the ending, I know the feeling, and I’m not sure it could have ended. I found the beginning quite terrifying in its way, but that steadily dropped off, you can feel the tension unwinding somehow, even as it gets more interesting in other ways.

There is so much more here — as always — but being in Prague and reading this, I am thinking most about Kafka and space and remember I found this in the museum:

…Kafka carries out a more difficult operation: he turns Prague into an imaginary topography which transcends the fallacy of realism. Kafka’s phantasmal architecture has other ends. Rather than a particular house, school, office, church, prison or castle being important, it is what these constructions reveal when they act as topological metaphors or allegorical places. What surprises does this transfigured Prague hold in store? Just how far can the metamorphosis of a city take us?

I think they do act as metaphors and allegorical places…in some ways I think they are also ways of imagining the barriers and impassible places in our own minds and actions. But the castle of Prague itself makes some concrete sense of this as well perhaps, the relationship between writer and city a dialectical one. Prague’s castle is no one large building surrounded by defensible stone walls that I would imagine from living in England or Scotland. We looked for it and I’m not sure when we actually found it, entered it, reached the castle. You go through this splendid arch just off the Charles bridge

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And you wander up and always up past a whole lot of Baroque magnificence, becoming more magnificent the higher up the hill you get. You go up a whole lot of steps and suddenly you are there, and walking through stately home sort of buildings to get to the splendidly gothic St Vitus’s Cathedral, which is surrounded by this labyrinthine pomp and what seems like administrative space. Maybe. But there is palace after palace up there, making sense of homes for the many named and revered Castle gentlemen. It is not until you are walking along part of the backside that you really get a sense that this is in any way the defensible space I associate with the word Castle — or was once:

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and there the contrasts are more striking:
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There are some fake turreted kind of battlements at the top awash with tourists, but there you can also get a real feel of just how high above, how far removed this castle complex is from the rest of Prague:

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We went back down and I found more remnants of ‘castle’ the way that word sits in my imagination:
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But really, despite the wonderful drain covers, to me here was no sense of any one place you could call a castle

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Instead it seemed a collection of powers, a complicated administrative centre…and of course, for much of its history, an empty shell, a representation, with the real power always residing with the Hapsburg empire far away. A Kafkaesque castle in more than one respect. Also a beautiful place:

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Of course, there are other candidates for the inspiration for The Castle, but Kafka grew up beneath this one, and being here made the book a little less dreamlike and removed from reality — just a little less.

I searched for images of The Castle to see how others had imagined it — conventionally I am afraid, the bookcovers imagine it most conventionally. But I also found this, the most startling, built by architect Ricardo Bofill outside of Barcelona. A modern day construction for your viewing pleasure:

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