Category Archives: Writing cities

Smith: LA’s African American Renaissance of the 1940s

RJ Smith The Great Black WayI enjoyed The Great Black Way, and LA really was amazing in the 1940s. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean the awesomeness of the Harlem Renaissance was any less, so my only quibbles are with the taste of implied rivalry. One of the opening sentences of the book that sets the scene:

Walled off by segregation and custom, black L.A. built an infinitely rich world. Once upon a time, black L.A. was a stand-alone city within a city, and the more I understood that, the more artificial it seems to spear ate music from the rest of people’s lives. Once upon a time, everything was connected: the civil rights leader Clayton Russell was good friends with the R&B artists. He appears fictionalized in one of the early L.A. books of black novelist Chester Himes. On Central Avenue the jazz musicians were civil rights champions; the actors were tied to the gangsters; the gangsters court the crusading newspaper editor, who was allied with the Communist Party; the renegade communist was a member of the gay subculture… (x)

I loved how this connected a lot of the dots for me, because these artists, writers and activists are all people I love, but hadn’t really understood in their full context of place, friendships, connections. The interviews are pretty amazing, and beautifully full of a whole lot of knowledge and pride. I loved too that they understood the privilege they were bestowing on the author — he notes that a number of the people he interviewed gave him a caution in referencing Carl Van Vechten, white patron of the Harlem Renaissance who would end up writing a book called Nigger Heaven. That’s some betrayal of trust.  Smith seems to have taken the point.

Did I say there are some really good quotes in here?

“Anything the power structure wanted to know about blacks in Los Angeles,” said Gilbert Lindsay, “they would say ‘Call L.G.’ Now, this is a janitor. And he was the power for the whole Negro community of Los Angeles! . . . L.G. Robinson spoke for the Negroes.” (4)

another on the role of Central Avenue:

“Central was like a river,” recalled musician Clifford Solomon. “A mighty river like the Amazon or the Nile, or in this case the Congo. And all the streets were tributaries that branched off from this great river.” (4)

There are some great passages really evoking the feel of Central Avenue, an imagined tour heading south past all of the many sights to be seen.

Herb Jeffries bankrolling the Bronze Recording Studios, and the Flash Electronic Laboratories — where ‘engineers strive to perfect their ‘color organ,’ an instrument that can take sound from a radio and translate it into visual energy. Sound is seen; the invisible becomes indigo in your living room. (13)

Before it runs into the white wall…

Though Negroes have moved south to the neighborhood around Vernon and Central, all motion stops here. Mister Jones heard the Klan claimed Slauson and everything below; Lady Creswell heard about the kids put in the county hospital after the police caught them playing on the swings south of the line. Everybody’s got a tale of what happens to those detained in this white man’s land, and enough of it is true that the street has acquired a supernatural power. You and I will acquire a seat on the streetcar. (14)

Later on there’s a note about how the song ‘Open the Door, Richard’ became a catchphrase for ending segregation.

You have to jump that to continue on down south to other great centre of culture, though of a very different kind:

Head down to Watts, from jazz to blues, world of T-Bone Walker who can ‘lift a chair, put it in his mouth, and balance it on end as he plays a frenetic shuffle.’ (15)

Chapter 1 is written about John Kinloch, nephew of Charlotta Bass who is such an inspiration, and such a central figure in the black community here as the owner and editor of The California Eagle. I recognised Kinloch’s name from many of the articles, knew he had gone to fight in WWII and died there. He called Charlotta ‘Madame’, she was his mother’s sister. His mother lived back in Harlem — I didn’t know that. I think this gets Charlotta Bass a little wrong — one central factual error is that her husband Joe Bass was not a founder of the Eagle, rather she inherited it from its founder and hired Joe on. They were partners in life and activism, but he was never more than editor. Still, it’s cool to hear a little more of her from Kinloch’s letters, and the have more life breathed into Kinloch as well. A few other facts about people I’ve written about — Leon Washington was Loren Miller’s cousin.

There are lots of little snippets, fascinating facts. There are paragraphs like this one:

The Harlem Renaissance was cracking up on Central Avenue, its one time elitists dropping by to cash a Hollywood check. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Huston, Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen and Wallace Thurman had all been on its periphery between the early 1930s and the early 1940s as they performed lucrative, if fruitless writing tasks for the picture business. (29)

Some of my favourite writers, some of this made me a little defensive of them I confess, but there you are.

ellington-jump-for-joyMaybe the best thing to come out of reading this book — along with a new unfulfilled and unrequited desire so rare in this modern age —  is finding out about Duke Ellington’s Jump For Joy musical revue. Langston Hughes wrote a sketch for it. It featured Big Joe Turner and Dorothy Dandridge. It proudly proclaimed Black civil rights through songs like “I’ve got a Passport from Georgia (and I’m going to the U.S.A.)”, and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin Is a Drive-In Now.” It played at the Mayan — where I have danced the night away or watched Lucha — and received death threats from white supremacists. Never filmed, most of these songs have not been recorded. A fucking loss to humanity.

A few more stories, like the one from Howard McGhee of the Charlie Barnet Band, who told the board he refused the draft, refused to fight, refused to go to jail…they sent him to the psychiatrist:

I said, “Well, man, why should I fight? I ain’t mad at nobody over there.” … I said, “Shit, I’ll shoot any son of a bitch that’s white that comes up in front of me.” And they said, “No, we can’t use you.” (38)

Another story about how back in 1919 there was a celebratory banquet at Patriotic Hall for black Angelenos returning from the war, with a mass assembly and parade and military band. I think I remember reading about that, but don’t remember it being mentioned that film of it was used in a film titled Injustice. I’m trying to find it, it sounds awesome and I do believe Joe Bass of the California Eagle is the J. B. Bass who is named as an actor in it. Imagine seeing him walking down the street…

There are more stories about the People’s Independent Church of Christ — I know that church down on 18th and Paloma. Hattie McDaniels celebrated her Oscar there, Jackie Robinson got married there, Adam Clayton Powell Jr preached there…as did Clayton Russell. how did I never know any of that?

There is a rather fascinating comment on noir, which the more I think about it the more it makes sense and is perhaps best exemplified by Chester Himes:

In white noir the hero blinks for a moment, gives in to a single weak impulse, and his life is over. Order shatters around his ankles and we are supposed to realize how much darkness lurks beneath the surface of things when good intentions make way for bad. The moral universe of black noir is different; it’s about realizing good intentions don’t matter any more than bad ones in a world run by white folks. All intentions are equal and equally pointless. All choices in the end amount to one, have the same value — a value determined by people who think you are less than human. (114)

He talks about Bronzeville a little, the short term flowering of Black life, music, culture, bars in Little Tokyo after everyone of Japanese heritage was taken away to the camps. It is one of those more complicated moments of LA history, because while most of the African American said little at the time, there was by the end of the war a recognition of the injustice of it, and some coalition made. But histories of this time and place are made even more complex by things like this that I had never heard of:

By the Fall of 1945, within weeks of the atom bomb falling on Hiroshima and the Nagasaki, the always-looking-for-an-angle club owners of Bronzeville were on the case. Pianist Eddie Heywood was promptly billed as “atomic action manifest” for his stint at Shepp’s Playhouse. The band of Sammy Franklin had abruptly changed it s name to the Atomics, there was a spot called the Atomic Cafe, and you could get your laundry done at the Atomic Cleaners. At the Samba Club, patrons could hear a singer named Francis “The Atomic Bomb” Gray and drink something called an atomic cocktail. (155)

All I could think was damn. That is fucked up.

A little more on geography, and the earliest community in LA:

At the onset of the twentieth century, Azusa Street was an unpaved byway, basically an alley, which dead-ended into the Los Angeles River. It was also said to be the first all-black street in L.A. (160)

William J. Seymour builds his Pentecostal church — the Azusa Street Revival — on the site of first AME church. After the AME church had moved, the land had been used as a tombstone shop then stables.  All of it was built on this land formerly owned by Biddy Mason, once a slave, later a large landowner. These roots run deep.

I’ll end on a song, and a fascinating but not very good one. Still, it’s a symbol of how much changed during the 40s, as well as some of the ways people fought to change it back.

“Shipyard Woman” by Jim Wynn

They said the war is over
And peace is here to stay
You shipyard-working women
Sure did have your way
But it’s all over babe
Now you girls have got to pay (212)

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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.

Coming to Salford (and Manchester)

I love this place, love my new position at the Sustainable Housing and Urban Studies Unit at the University of Salford. It’s been crazy though. Moving two suitcases of things up from Bristol on the Friday, first two days of work on Monday, Wednesday off to Malta for the Cities as Community Spaces Conference, a week of work, been to London yesterday to remove almost all my worldly belongings from a dear friend’s East London attic and to meet the man and van this morning who I met this evening back here (on the train I beat him here by hours) — it has been six months since I have seen everything I own. I can’t wait to place it where it belongs. Tomorrow off to the Snowdonia region of Wales to conduct some interviews, back two days, Sunday off to Merthyr Tydfil for more interviews. Arizona the 16th.

I am tired.

But look at how beautiful Manchester is. From the days I stayed in Stockton to scout out flats, complete with beautiful dog:

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I’ve already had some time to wander through the city, visit the Working Class Movement Library

Working Class Movement Library

Working Class Movement Library

Visit Engels’ beard

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I’ve been here a couple of times before, and written about Salford itself as it’s portrayed in Love on the Dole by Walter Greenwood, and of course Engels’ account of Manchester — The Conditions of the Working Class in EnglandIts early suburbs were a model for further development, so a little about them can be found in Robert Fishman’s Bourgeois Utopias. When I walk to or from work (a long long walk to take on everyday I am finding, even for me) I pass Elizabeth Gaskell’s house, Mary Barton has been on my list of things to read forever…

But now a bit more unpacking, now that I am finally reunited with all f my things after over six months. If you don’t count the absurd number of books I have very little, but what I have I love very much and I have missed it…Just as I have missed having somewhere that is really home. That I can afford some graciousness here in this amazing city just makes everything that much better.

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Writing Cities: Oath of Fealty and right-wing utopian enclaves

oath-of-fealty-niven-pournelleOath of Fealty is one of the more vile and viciously right wing novels I’ve read, though to be fair I haven’t read many of them at all. But this is something like Ayn Rand – wig askew and on her 13th pink gin fizz – going off on a paranoid scree about the muggers and rapists who are all out to kill her. Because she’s so rich and talented and beautiful and they just can’t handle that so she’s bought 10 attack dogs and built a concrete bunker.

It’s all about taking the gated community to the next level, making it a maze of about a cubic square mile with about a quarter of a million people. It towers like a monstrous black cube in an area essentially burned down by its own residents – I would guess Watts or Compton. It’s powered by hydrogen, fed through pipes from ‘a complex of nuclear breeder plants in Mexico’.

Ah, the outsourcing of risk and contaminants.

It calls itself Todos Santos – All Saints – why do white people in the Southwest always call their high-end real estate developments nice things in Spanish? A patronising nod to the people they stole the land from? Easier to pronounce than indigenous phrases for ‘Pretty View’ and ‘Mountain Hills’? But the authors aren’t being entirely metaphorical in calling the residents saints. Apparently you can pick them out of a crowd of poor old Angelinos, they are the shiny beautiful people who move in a certain way, speak in a certain way. They are a new kind of person.

THINK OF IT AS EVOLUTION IN ACTION.

I thought at first this rather chilling slightly fascist slogan must be ironic or a nod to the dangers this kind of project could raise. But no. These really are a ‘better kind’ of people, helped by those who commit suicide or get themselves killed. They like this slogan, paint it on walls, put it on stickers and huge banners like a big F-you to L.A.

The utopia?

We’re running a civilization, something new in this world, and don’t bother to tell me how small it is. It’s a civilization. The first one in a long time where people can feel safe’ (18).

Constantly watched, constantly surveilled and monitored. But the many guards are their friends. They don’t arrest people for being too drunk the way the terrible LAPD does, they walk you home. What is better than being safe after all? We know that the real danger is from criminal poor people who are all on the outside, hopped up to their eyeballs on drugs and trying to shoot down helicopters.

Todos Santos is of course trying to be completely separate from Los Angeles – the crime, the pollution, the drugs, the poor people. There’s a lot of anger in this book about how the government forces all of us to become accountants to pay our taxes, and the pain of collecting receipts and things. A whole lot of anger. Familiar tea party sort of anger. Trump kind of anger. Taxes in Todos Santos don’t go to welfare and they are part of your mortgage payment to the company – kindly saving you from wasting any thought on them at all. It’s a bit feudal, yeah, but they had some good ideas back then. Oath of Fealty rendered, everything else taken care of. Awesome. Of course, I can’t quite understand how this fits with America, Land of the Free in their heads, or their hatred of big government…I mean, my opinion is that these fit together because the residents of Todos Santos don’t see poor people, particularly poor Black and Brown people, as real Americans or as any kind of people they can cooperate in a democracy or a community with, sad facts that have forced them to secede and build something new. Something they may one day conquer and colonise outer space with. But I don’t think they think that, or at least, openly admit that.

Instead the book tries to show it’s not racist by trying to admit that some discrimination exists but it’s less than you think, and making one of the high executives Black. Well. Teak colored in the book’s own words. He’s a bit estranged from other African-Americans and admits there are only maybe a hundred among a quarter million, but his homies break him out of the L.A. prison he gets sent to after he kills a couple of kids pretending to be terrorists and becomes a hero to the population. That’s a long story I won’t go into, who’d want to give away such a sparkling plot?

The kids are sent in by activists to test the defences, because that’s what environmental activists do, right? Use kids without remorse. Make unreasonable demands. The civil rights movement made some unreasonable demands too, which is how they lost the support of the white community

We did care once. A lot of us did. But something happened. Maybe it was the sheer size of the problem. Or watching while everybody who could afford it ran to the suburbs and left the cities to drift, and complained about taxes going to the cities, and—Or maybe it was having to listen to my police explain why they’ll only go into Watts in pairs with cocked shotguns and if the Mayor doesn’t like it he can damn well police that precinct himself.

People think they’ve done enough. (126)

Note the use of the words ‘us’ and ‘people’ to mean white by default. Thinking you’ve done enough when you’ve done worse than nothing is an interesting contradiction noted by many. But let’s get back to the activists. They call people pigs even when they’re not cops – which is silly, cops have really earned that name. Activists are also almost always rapists apparently. Unless they’re women, in which case they are just sadistic and probably Lesbians. ‘She’s probably a Lesbian’ is a direct quote actually, as the ‘heroine’ imagines shutting her in a room full of rats to mentally survive the indignities of being kidnapped. The men probably couldn’t help raping her of course, they’re brutes and she is a stunning model-turned-business-woman who is powerful and talented and successful and rich and they obviously can’t handle all of that.

Anyway, I haven’t even cracked the surface, just released some of my bile. This is a story where you are supposed to cheer on the beleaguered community of alcoholic rich people who can only drink coffee if it’s Irish, creating their Utopia safely insulated from the nuclear power plants and the poor people who pick their lettuces and sweatshop workers who make their clothes and carrying out their own vigilante justice – which is ok, because they don’t kill people unless it’s absolutely necessary, they just paint them and tattoo them. There’s nothing about how the place stays clean or who makes the food etc, and it’s not the kind of fantasy story where house elves are a possibility though it is one in which things science fiction writers dream up are considered really cool and often become true.

The happy ending is the Black dude gets sent to Zimbabwe.

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Zbigniew Herbert: Architecture

herbertArchitecture

Over a light arch–
a brow of stone

on a wall’s
untroubled forehead

in the windows joyous and open
with faces instead of geraniums

where there are perfect squares
next to a dreaming perspective

where an ornament wakes a stream
in a tranquil field of level surfaces

motion with stillness a line with a cry
resembling uncertainty simply clarity

there you are
architecture
art of fancy and stone

there you dwell beauty
over an arch light
as a sigh

on a wall
pale with its height

in a window
with tears of glass

I the exile of self-evident forms
proclaim your motionless dance

Lovely Weekend in Plymouth

I quite love this city, and spent one of my Devon weekends here. We walked through the Barbican a bit — and some lovely little side streets, old and stone-filled, narrow and full of faded colour:

Plymouth

Plymouth

Plymouth

So much of this country is haunted by what was.

Plymouth

We walked down along the sound as well

Plymouth

Plymouth

Also haunted

Plymouth

Plymouth

Plymouth

Not least by J.G. Ballard.

Plymouth

We managed a few of the ordinary everyday streets of Plymouth as well, apologies for sharing the most picturesque.

Plymouth

As we wandered back from a visit to Saltram House. I really wanted to see gardens — they were nice here, but not too special. The wildflowers were wonderful though.

Plymouth - Saltram House

Plymouth - Saltram House

Plymouth - Saltram House

Full of old beautiful trees

Plymouth - Saltram House

Plymouth - Saltram House

The house was all right, though I never do care too much for these massive displays of wealth really:

Plymouth - Saltram House

But I always love the kitchens. An early patented ‘portable refrigerator’ and more…

Plymouth - Saltram House

Plymouth - Saltram House

Also good for deeper insight into the class system:

Plymouth - Saltram House

The library was lovely — along with early adjustable shelves and Blount’s Jocular Tenures!

Plymouth - Saltram House

I also enjoyed the step stool into bed

Plymouth - Saltram House

and this early bathroom

Plymouth - Saltram House

Saltram House

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And just because I never did blog this earlier trip, and more pictures of things like the barbican and the point the Mayflower left from and all that sort of thing

Plymouth 2014

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A little prettier perhaps than the pics from this last trip…

Plymouth 2016

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Return from the Stars: The City of the Future

2bb02455f5bb878e1ca2ccb4faad2e2eReturn From the Stars — Hal Bregg has just returned to Earth after 127 years in space. Everything has changed. Bewildering public transportation systems moving impossibly fast, information points that take so much understanding for granted, they cease to be information points. Everyone is sedated through a process called betrization reducing all aggressive impulses — no one else will be going to the stars the way Bregg has. They use spray cans to put their clothing on. They love bright colours. They all seem a little bored. Their vocabulary has changed quite completely. It is utopia and also dystopia, a future of incredible technological advance, but something has been lost, has it not? So Bregg feels, so he is mistrusted by the bright, beautiful, youthful people around him.

The descriptions of this city of the future are pretty awesome, Bregg stares at the Terminal he has been fighting for hours to leave:

Was this still architecture, or mountain-building? They must have understood that in going beyond certain limits they had to abandon symmetry and regularity of form, and learn from what was largest–intelligent students of the planet!

I went around the lake. The colossus seemed to lead me with its motionless, luminous ascent. Yes, it took courage to design such a shape, to give it the cruelty of the precipice, the stubbornness and harshness of crags, peaks, but without falling into mechanical imitation, without losing anything, without falsifying. (45)

That’s the terminal from a park — these natural spaces are hardly used but found throughout, with ‘natural skies’ televised above them. This is the city:

Only now did I see–from the boulevard, down the center of which ran a double line of huge palms with leaves as pink as tongues–a panorama of the city. The buildings stood like islands, set apart, and here and there a spire soared to the heavens, a frozen jet of some liquid material, its height incredible. They were no doubt measured in whole kilometers. I knew — someone had told me back on Luna — that no one built them any more and that the rush to construct tall buildings had died a natural death soon after these had been put up. They were monuments to a particular architectural epoch, since, apart from their immensity, offset only by their slimness of form, there was nothing in them to appeal to the eye. They looked like pipes, brown and gold, black and white, transversely striped, or silver, serving to support or trap the clouds, and the landing pads that jutted out from them against the sky, hanging in the air on tubular supports, were reminiscent of bookshelves.

Much more attractive were the new buildings, without windows, so that all their walls could be decorated. The entire city took on the appearance of a gigantic art exhibit, a showcase for masters of color and form. I cannot say that I liked everything that adorned those twenty- and thirty-floor heights, but for a hundred-and-fifty-year-old character I was not, I dare say, overly stuffy. To my mind the most attractive were the buildings divided in half by gardens. Maybe they were not houses — the fact that the structures were cut in the middle and seemed to rest on cushions of air (the walls of those high-level gardens being of glass) gave an impression of lightness; at the same time pleasantly irregular belts of ruffled green cut across the edifices.

On the boulevards, along those lines of fleshlike palms, which I definitely did not like, flowed two rivers of black automobiles. I knew now that they were called gleeders. Above the buildings flew other machines, though not helicopters or planes; they looked like pencils sharpened at both ends. (54-55)

They still have cars, despite the flashing complexities of public transportation. The cars aren’t petrol based though. Nothing remains of what was, and Bregg is happy about that — no room for nostalgia here:

That nothing remained of the city that I had left behind me, not one stone upon another, was a good thing. As if I had been living, then, on a different Earth, among different men; that had begun and ended once and for all, and this was new. No relics, no ruins to cast doubt on my biological age… (88)

Funny, though, there is still immense wealth and it still lives in the suburbs:

We traveled a long time, in silence. The buildings of the city center gave way to bizarre forms of suburban architecture — under small artificial suns, immersed in vegetation, lay structures with flowing lines, or inflated into odd pillows, or winged, so that the division between the interior of a home and its surroundings was lost; these were products of a phantasmagoria, of tireless attempts to create without repeating old forms. The gleeder left the wide runway, shot through a darkened park, and came to rest by stairs folded like a cascade of glass; walking up them, I saw an orangery spread out beneath my feet.

The heavy gate opened soundlessly. A huge hall enclosed by a high gallery, pale pink shields of lamps neither supported nor suspended; in the sloping walls, windows that seemed to look out into a different space, (103)

Old racial constructs continue as well — this is a white world, and the only people of colour in it merit mention as in service to adventure fantasy — a kind of theme park where danger can be enjoyed through realistic holograms of an African river safari:

Although I had been prepared for a surprise, my jaw dropped. We were standing on the broad, sandy bank of a big river, under the burning rays of a tropical sun. The far bank of the river was overgrown with jungle. In the still backwaters were moored boats, or, rather, dugouts; against the background of the brownish-green river that flowed lazily behind them, immensely tall blacks stood frozen in hieratic poses, naked, gleaming with oil, covered with chalk-white tattoos; each leaned with his spatulate oar against the side of the boat.

One of the boats was just leaving, full; its black crew, with blows from the paddles and terrifying yells, was dispersing crocodiles that lay in the mud, half immersed, like logs; these turned over and weakly snapped their tooth-lined jaws as they slid into deeper water. The seven of us descended along the steep bank; the first four took places in the next boat. With visible effort the blacks set the oars against the shore and pushed the unsteady boat away, so that it turned around… (90)

Women, too, have forgotten how much they love raw emotion, desire, power plays, rape. Some, but not all of this confusion is evoked by this rather hilarious cover:

Return from the Stars

I confess, while Return From the Stars is one of the books that works best of Lem’s in terms of narrative and arc, it is one of the ones I have liked least apart from the imagined built environment of the future. The unnamed city is also in evidence in other versions of the cover, but I couldn’t find any other illustrations sadly…

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Return from the Stars

[Lem, Stanislaw. 1990 [1961]. Return From the Stars. London: Mandarin Paperbacks.] It doesn’t credit the translator! Bastards.

For more science fiction…

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Eavan Boland’s Dublin

I did not know Eavan Boland before this, did not know Paula Meehan. I did know the exquisiteness of words, the occasional poet that tells my heart, spells my heart, rips rebuilds reweaves renews and changes the world for me. Gift-givers. Both of these women are such poets.

Instead I bought this book because they were writing cities.

I bought this book because I love Dublin, too. This post focuses on words and writers and cities, but I loved every word, every poem, the so-much-more, the different-for-all-of-us that lies in every line. Paula Meehan at the ends says ‘The way a poem lets you hold so much in mind’. Which is why each poem will forever be so much more than what I write here. This is an apology for narrowing them down really, for making too obvious how much this blog is to mark and capture things I hope to weave together sometime in the futures. Not tell how things are. I’d have to write poetry for that.

The intro is from editor Jody Allen Randolph, and situates everything nicely — there is so much to think about here:

What gives cities their unique identities? As this book will suggest, a city gets its identity not just from its buildings, its industries, its history, its public events, and its notable citizens. It also finds its identity from being imagined. The years, decades, centuries in which a city shapes its inhabitants add up to a rich life and afterlife of meaning and memory. Those meanings and memories requires language and expression (9).

She writes ‘We also understood that poets both find and give identity to the city…As editors, we imagined this book as a topography of the city with the poet…’ Thus poems arranged topographically not chronologically, in sections of river, city, suburb.

And this, a paradigm…I am never sure I like those, but this works better than most:

But we wanted to do more that just suggest the ways in which a poet has imagined a city over a span of four or five decades. We wanted to sketch out a paradigm for how a city is imagined. To this end, we envisioned a series of suggestive dialogues between text and image, and between poet and poet. (11)

And so a skimming of poetry, pulling bits and pieces that speak to the city and hopefully not damaging the whole and damn but you should go read them all anyway.

From City of Shadows, a reclaiming of the ordinary for poetry, so much of her work is about that.

I absorbed the sense that poetry was safe here in this city at twilight, with its violet sky and constant drizzle, within this circle of libraries and pubs and talks about stanzas and cadences. Beyond it was the ordinariness which could only dissipate it; beyond it was a life for which no visionary claim could be made. (13)

Except Boland makes this claim, scatters it in beauty and pain across the page.

Once in Dublin (my city of white pepper):

Small things
make the past.
Make the present seem out of place.

Unheroic

How do I know my country? Let me tell you
it has been difficult to do. And when I do
go back to difficult knowledge, it is not
to that street or those men raised
high above the certainties they stood on —
Ireland hero history — but how

I went behind the linen room and up
the stone stairs and climbed to the top.
And stood for a moment there, concealed
by shadows. In a hiding place.
Waiting to see. Wanting to look again.
Into the patient face of the unhealed. (19)

The Huguenot Graveyard at the Heart of the City

This city with its colours of sky and day —
and which is dear to us and particular —
was not a place to them: merely
the one witty step ahead of hate which

is all they could keep. Or stay. (21)

Migrations, our city through the eyes of others, an empathy with the plight of strangers. Everything our world lacks now.

Tree of Life

Wait
for dawn to make us clear to one another

Let the sun
inch above the roof-tops,

Let love
be the light that shows again

the blossom to the root. (27)

An Elegy For My Mother in Which She Scarcely Appears

as is my mother, on this Dublin evening of
fog crystals and frost as she reached out to test
one corner of a cloth for dryness as the prewar
Irish twilight closes in and down on the room
and the curtains are drawn and here am I,
not even born and already a conservationist,
with nothing to assist me but the last
and most fabulous of beasts — language, language —
which knows, as I do, that it’s too late
to record the loss of these things but does so anyway,
and anxiously, in case it shares their fate. (33)

Language, over and over it is language in many of the same ways other colonised people experience its loss, its erasure, the way it shapes experience and meaning. Much here reminded of Assia Djebar among others.

And Eavan Boland loves rivers too, and their complex relationship with the city, here a generative one.

Gifts of the River

I begin with the Liffey because a river is not a place: it is a maker of places. Without the river there would be no city. Every day, turning its narrow circle, endlessly absorbing and re-absorbing the shapes and reflections of the city, it mirrors what it created. With the river, the city every day has to throw itself again into those surfaces, those depths, those reflections which have served as the source of all its fictions. (43)

The Scar

Dawn on the River.
Dublin arises out of what reflects it.

Anna Liffey
looks to the east, to the sea, (45)

And here, I don’t know why I was surprised, happily, but so I was. Empire. Its complexities.

The Harbour

City of shadows and of the gradual
capitulations to the last invader
this is the final one: signed in water
and witnessed in granite and ugly bronze and gun-metal.

And by me. I am your citizen: composed of
your fictions, your compromise, I am
a part of your story and its outcome.
And ready to record its its contradictions. (55)

The Mother Tongue

The old pale ditch can still be seen
less than half a mile from my house–

its ancient barrier of mud and brambles
which mireth next unto Irishmen
is now a mere rise of coarse grass,
a rowan tree and some thinned-out spruce,
where a child is playing at twilight.

I stand in the shadows. I find it
hard to believe now that once
this was a source of our division:

Dug. Drained. Shored up and left
to keep out and keep in. That here
the essence of a colony’s defence
was the substance of the quarrel with its purpose:

Land. Ground. A line drawn in rain
and clay and the roots of wild broom–
behind it the makings of a city,
beyond it rumours of a nation–
by Dalkey and Kilternan and Balally
through two ways of saying their names.

***

I was born on this side of the Pale.
I speak with the forked tongue of colony.
But I stand in the first dark and frost
of a winter night in Dublin and imagine

my pure sound, my undivided speech
travelling to the edge of this silence.
As if to find me. And I listen: I hear
what I am safe from. What I have lost. (77)

The segregated spaces created by power, created for domination, the damage they do to hearts and lives:

Witness

Here is the city—
its worn-down mountains,
its grass and iron,
its smoky coast
seen from the high roads
on the Wicklow side.

From Dalkey Island
to the North Wall,
to the blue distance seizing its perimeter,
its old divisions are deep within it.

And in me also.
And always will be.

Out of my mouth they come:
The spurred and booted garrisons.
The men and women
they dispossessed.

What is a colony
if not the brutal truth
that when we speak
the graves open.

And the dead walk?

I am awe-struck by these poems. I sat, and then dragged myself back to the register of prose.

Glad I did. It is a wonderful conversation between the wonderful Paula Meehan, who crosses class boundaries and tells Eavan Boland:

I realised that an accent is not a politics…then it was, suddenly, both a political and a literary argument. About who writes the city. I began to see that the city you were writing into your poems was not a scenic backdrop for the working out of the drama of the self, that, in fact, your relationship was with the polis, with the power structures of the state as manifest in architecture, in statuary, in the suffered histories of the excluded as much as in the commemorated and sanctioned official histories. (98)

She responds:

…I was interested in looking at a city as a place where the ghosts of power are remembered and tested. For me these ghosts are often colonial. But sometimes they’re just the spirits of place. (98)

Paula:

I always puzzled at being told Irish poets have a great ‘sense of place‘. I suspected that underneath was an unstated ‘and you should stay in your place’. It felt like a simplification…It has become such a cliche that it masks, possibly drains of power, one of the most vital and crucial acts of the poet, the compact between the non-human and the human. Between the locale and its creatures, what waters and nourishes, as well as what threatens, what grows there. You mention ‘spirit of place’ and this rings truer to me than ‘sense of place’. We can trace this aspect of our work back to the Dinnseanchas, the responsibility we once had to enshrine, possibly encode, in language the lore and etymology of place. (98)

and again Paula on language:

And now consider the other games that are being played, when you sit down to work with a poem: with the language itself, English and its imperial nature, our resistant version of it, the beautiful words with their own histories, their ghosts; the play with the shape of the poem…The way a poem lets you hold so much in mind. That excites me. It’s the hit I get from making a poem. Why I go back again and again, craving the making.
Aren’t we always making the city up? The cities? (101)

and again

To walk the streets of the city was, is, to stroll at will through the layers of its making and its peopling, to learn to place a particular building withing its era…all that, and always the lives lived there.

But, I have a sense also of something else at work — a kind of dream city or dreaming city. It doesn’t exactly map on to any known verifiable place. It’s the private sonic Dublin each poet makes — the individual song of the self in place, the free self in the given place. Maybe that’s our true city? (104)

They talk of Joyce, Akhmatova, Flann O’Brien and The Charwoman’s daughter by James Stephens which I too loved with a great love. Paula is more like me, writes of poverty and housing, being put in place, always fighting. Which makes this conversation between two such different voices so rich.

Final words from Boland responding to Meehan’s raising of the power of words and voice, of poems as communal:

The adjective ‘communal’ has a related verb — an old-fashioned one — which is ‘communing’. A word I’ve always loved. And one, when you look at it, that’s quite a bit removed from the adjective that seems close to it. For me, even when a poem is not apparently communal, even when it seems to be private, it can still commune. In fact it may make a particularly strong community with a reader, and still not be communal, just by speaking to and of solitude…truly one of the great possibilities for the poem. (107)

Writing Worlds

Victor Hugo’s Paris in Les Miserables

It is hard nowadays to picture to one’s self what a pleasure-trip of students and grisettes to the country was like, forty-five years ago.

But Victor Hugo will do his best to picture it for us.

The suburbs of Paris are no longer the same; the physiognomy of what may be called circumparisian life has changed completely in the last half-century; where there was the cuckoo, there is the railway car; where there was a tender-boat, there is now the steamboat; people speak of Fecamp nowadays as they spoke of Saint-Cloud in those days. The Paris of 1862 is a city which has France for its outskirts.

Hugo writes to inscribe Paris in the memory, to immortalize it as it was, to make sure that generations never forget. This has an immense weight to it, a ponderous feeling as though an ancient uncle were pressing your hand and whispering truths about things you will never see but he expects you to hold dear. In this case, the setting of the Gorbeau house, where Jean Valjean flees with Cosette.

Gorbeau-house-largeThe barrier was close at hand. In 1823 the city wall was still in existence.

This barrier itself evoked gloomy fancies in the mind. It was the road to Bicêtre. It was through it that, under the Empire and the Restoration, prisoners condemned to death re-entered Paris on the day of their execution. It was there, that, about 1829, was committed that mysterious assassination, called “The assassination of the Fontainebleau barrier,” … Take a few steps, and you come upon that fatal Rue Croulebarbe, where Ulbach stabbed the goat-girl of Ivry to the sound of thunder, as in the melodramas. A few paces more, and you arrive at the abominable pollarded elms of the Barrière Saint-Jacques, that expedient of the philanthropist to conceal the scaffold, that miserable and shameful Place de Grève of a shop-keeping and bourgeois society, which recoiled before the death penalty, neither daring to abolish it with grandeur, nor to uphold it with authority.

Leaving aside this Place Saint-Jacques, which was, as it were, predestined, and which has always been horrible …

Bourgeois houses only began to spring up there twenty-five years later. The place was unpleasant. In addition to the gloomy thoughts which assailed one there, one was conscious of being between the Salpêtrière, a glimpse of whose dome could be seen, and Bicêtre, whose outskirts one was fairly touching; that is to say, between the madness of women and the madness of men. As far as the eye could see, one could perceive nothing but the abattoirs, the city wall, and the fronts of a few factories, resembling barracks or monasteries; everywhere about stood hovels, rubbish, ancient walls blackened like cerecloths, new white walls like winding-sheets; everywhere parallel rows of trees, buildings erected on a line, flat constructions, long, cold rows, and the melancholy sadness of right angles. Not an unevenness of the ground, not a caprice in the architecture, not a fold. The ensemble was glacial, regular, hideous. Nothing oppresses the heart like symmetry. It is because symmetry is ennui, and ennui is at the very foundation of grief. Despair yawns. Something more terrible than a hell where one suffers may be imagined, and that is a hell where one is bored. If such a hell existed, that bit of the Boulevard de l’Hôpital might have formed the entrance to it.

Nevertheless, at nightfall, at the moment when the daylight is vanishing, especially in winter, at the hour when the twilight breeze tears from the elms their last russet leaves, when the darkness is deep and starless, or when the moon and the wind are making openings in the clouds and losing themselves in the shadows, this boulevard suddenly becomes frightful.

Only suddenly. Only at night.

He explains the importance later, of these long descriptions of the city that of all his many long digressions I did really appreciate:

The author of this book, who regrets the necessity of mentioning himself, has been absent from Paris for many years. Paris has been transformed since he quitted it. A new city has arisen, which is, after a fashion, unknown to him. There is no need for him to say that he loves Paris: Paris is his mind’s natal city. In consequence of demolitions and reconstructions, the Paris of his youth, that Paris which he bore away religiously in his memory, is now a Paris of days gone by. He must be permitted to speak of that Paris as though it still existed. It is possible that when the author conducts his readers to a spot and says, “In such a street there stands such and such a house,” neither street nor house will any longer exist in that locality. Readers may verify the facts if they care to take the trouble. For his own part, he is unacquainted with the new Paris, and he writes with the old Paris before his eyes in an illusion which is precious to him. It is a delight to him to dream that there still lingers behind him something of that which he beheld when he was in his own country, and that all has not vanished. So long as you go and come in your native land, you imagine that those streets are a matter of indifference to you; that those windows, those roofs, and those doors are nothing to you; that those walls are strangers to you; that those trees are merely the first encountered haphazard; that those houses, which you do not enter, are useless to you; that the pavements which you tread are merely stones. Later on, when you are no longer there, you perceive that the streets are dear to you; that you miss those roofs, those doors; and that those walls are necessary to you, those trees are well beloved by you; that you entered those houses which you never entered, every day, and that you have left a part of your heart, of your blood, of your soul, in those pavements. All those places which you no longer behold, which you may never behold again, perchance, and whose memory you have cherished, take on a melancholy charm, recur to your mind with the melancholy of an apparition, make the holy land visible to you, and are, so to speak, the very form of France, and you love them; and you call them up as they are, as they were, and you persist in this, and you will submit to no change: for you are attached to the figure of your fatherland as to the face of your mother.

I’m just throwing this sentence in because I loved it:

Every flight should be an imperceptible slipping away.

I also love that we arrive here at Saint-Sulpice, the church I know from Georges Perec’s study of a Paris square, and one of the more touching stories between father and son:

While he was growing up in this fashion, the colonel slipped away every two or three months, came to Paris on the sly, like a criminal breaking his ban, and went and posted himself at Saint-Sulpice, at the hour when Aunt Gillenormand led Marius to the mass. There, trembling lest the aunt should turn round, concealed behind a pillar, motionless, not daring to breathe, he gazed at his child. The scarred veteran was afraid of that old spinster.

Everyone, it seems, writes about the Fauberg San-Antoine, again here is Hugo in phrases eminently quotable:

The Faubourg Saint-Antoine had also other causes to tremble; for it received the counter-shock of commercial crises, of failures, strikes, slack seasons, all inherent to great political disturbances. In times of revolution misery is both cause and effect. The blow which it deals rebounds upon it. This population full of proud virtue, capable to the highest degree of latent heat, always ready to fly to arms, prompt to explode, irritated, deep, undermined, seemed to be only awaiting the fall of a spark. Whenever certain sparks float on the horizon chased by the wind of events, it is impossible not to think of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine and of the formidable chance which has placed at the very gates of Paris that powder-house of suffering and ideas.

And in ever more precise geographies:

“I am capable of descending the Rue de Grès, of crossing the Place Saint-Michel, of sloping through the Rue Monsieur-le-Prince, of taking the Rue de Vaugirard, of passing the Carmelites, of turning into the Rue d’Assas, of reaching the Rue du Cherche-Midi, of leaving behind me the Conseil de Guerre, of pacing the Rue des Vielles Tuileries, of striding across the boulevard, of following the Chaussée du Maine, of passing the barrier, and entering Richefeu’s. I am capable of that. My shoes are capable of that.”

Prisons play such a key role in US economies, cities, communities — I am always rather fascinated to see where they have come from:

The New Building, which was the most cracked and decrepit thing to be seen anywhere in the world, was the weak point in the prison. The walls were eaten by saltpetre to such an extent that the authorities had been obliged to line the vaults of the dormitories with a sheathing of wood, because stones were in the habit of becoming detached and falling on the prisoners in their beds. In spite of this antiquity, the authorities committed the error of confining in the New Building the most troublesome prisoners, of placing there “the hard cases,” as they say in prison parlance.

The New Building contained four dormitories, one above the other, and a top story which was called the Bel-Air (Fine-Air). A large chimney-flue, probably from some ancient kitchen of the Dukes de la Force, started from the groundfloor, traversed all four stories, cut the dormitories, where it figured as a flattened pillar, into two portions, and finally pierced the roof.

And of course Hugo does not forget Les Halles, that working-class district later studied by Abdelhafid Khatib of the situationists, celeberated by Baldwin and more. But it doesn’t look like this any longer — I am glad Hugo had this project of inscribing streets in literature so that they would never be forgotten:

Otherwise the riot was conducted after the most scientific military tactics. The narrow, uneven, sinuous streets, full of angles and turns, were admirably chosen; the neighborhood of the Halles, in particular, a network of streets more intricate than a forest.

and during the uprising

All that old quarter of the Halles, which is like a city within a city, through which run the Rues Saint-Denis and Saint-Martin, where a thousand lanes cross, and of which the insurgents had made their redoubt and their stronghold, would have appeared to him like a dark and enormous cavity hollowed out in the centre of Paris. There the glance fell into an abyss. Thanks to the broken lanterns, thanks to the closed windows, there all radiance, all life, all sound, all movement ceased. The invisible police of the insurrection were on the watch everywhere, and maintained order, that is to say, night.

Les Halles old view, Paris. Created by Girardet, published on Magasin Pittoresque, Paris, 184
Les Halles old view, Paris. Created by Girardet, published on Magasin Pittoresque, Paris, 184

I’ll write more about the barricades I think, I did love them. But here they are placed at their precise locations:

The Parisians who nowadays on entering on the Rue Rambuteau at the end near the Halles, notice on their right, opposite the Rue Mondétour, a basket-maker’s shop having for its sign a basket in the form of Napoleon the Great with this inscription:—

                    NAPOLEON IS MADE
                    WHOLLY OF WILLOW,

have no suspicion of the terrible scenes which this very spot witnessed hardly thirty years ago.

It was there that lay the Rue de la Chanvrerie, which ancient deeds spell Chanverrerie, and the celebrated public-house called Corinthe.

corinth-189x300It is quite a Public House. And it is no more, this is all we have of it.

The Mondétour labyrinth was disembowelled and widely opened in 1847, and probably no longer exists at the present moment. The Rue de la Chanvrerie and Corinthe have disappeared beneath the pavement of the Rue Rambuteau.

As we have already said, Corinthe was the meeting-place if not the rallying-point, of Courfeyrac and his friends.

Then back for a brief moment to more bourgeois streets — on the Marais

Everyone in the house was asleep. People go to bed betimes in the Marais, especially on days when there is a revolt. This good, old quarter, terrified at the Revolution, takes refuge in slumber, as children, when they hear the Bugaboo coming, hide their heads hastily under their coverlet.

But I will end with a paragraph I loved best:

There are soothing spots which act in some sort mechanically on the mind. An obscure street, peaceable inhabitants. Jean Valjean experienced an indescribable contagion of tranquillity in that alley of ancient Paris, which is so narrow that it is barred against carriages by a transverse beam placed on two posts, which is deaf and dumb in the midst of the clamorous city, dimly lighted at mid-day, and is, so to speak, incapable of emotions between two rows of lofty houses centuries old, which hold their peace like ancients as they are. There was a touch of stagnant oblivion in that street. Jean Valjean drew his breath once more there. How could he be found there?

 

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