Category Archives: Writing cities

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the Knowledge and the Struggle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I loved reading about Howard, the Mecca.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing is Lost Nothing is Lost

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wasteland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mitch Miller Nothing is Lost

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

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

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

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Production Designer Ken Adam: the architecture of villains, corporations and government

Ken Adam designed the iconic sets for Dr Strangelove, which we were at the Arnolfini to see, and it was very cool to see the original drawings of the war room. Kubrick cut the sho of the whole from the film to maintain its claustrophobic feel, but it was pretty awesome:

Not only that, but Adam drew it as a second attempt to please Kubrick who was staring down over his shoulder.

I learned too that the war room table was covered with green baize, to instill the feel of a poker game, amongst the actors at least.

But of course Ken Adam also designed a a multitude of Bond films in the 1960s and 1970s, and Addam’s Family Values,  winning two Academy Awards for best art direction. There were some other fascinating facts in the talk by Christopher Frayling at the Arnolfini, I hadn’t even known that Ken Adam’s family had fled Berlin in the 1930s:

  • Ken Adam was one of just two German citizens to fly RAF fighter planes in WW2;
  • his parent’s sports shop in Berlin, designed by Mies van der Rohe, equipped a number of mountain films (but none of Leni Reifenstahl’s);
  • he went to school with Wernher von Braun;
  • architect Norman Foster was deeply influenced by Ken Adam’s design of Bond villain’s lairs and volcano bases;
  • Ken Adam was a student at the Bartlett school of architecture and planning in London

It made me wonder to myself why it is I love architecture and cities, and yet never paid much attention to set design, and what that might tell us about the emotional affect and signification of space and building.

And of course, films are highly influential in their turn. I’ve heard this about Metropolis, about Blade Runner. But of course some of Ken Adam’s incredible and evocative sets influenced modern corporate architecture, the villains of today.

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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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