Tag Archives: walking

Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks

Palestinian Walks - Raja ShehadehThey would take a few provisions and go to the open hills, disappear for the whole day, sometimes for weeks and months. They often didn’t have a particular destination. To go on a sarha was to roam freely, at will, without, restraint. The verb form of the word means to let the cattle out to pasture early in the morning, leaving them to wander and graze at liberty…a man [my only sadness that this was mostly men] going on a sarha wanders aimlessly, not restricted by time and place, going where his spirit takes him to nourish his soul and rejuvenate himself. But not any excursion would qualify as a sarha. Going on a sarha implies letting go (2).

Palestinian Walks is wonderful. Heartbreaking. Some of the same themes, of course, as the talk Raja Shehadeh gave some months ago, but the writing voice was a little unexpected somehow.

We share desert, though not the same one, loss and struggle, though not to the same degree, a refuge and retreat from struggle in writing, though mine mostly unproved. So many thoughts in this book echoed so exactly with mine, but born of out such a different reality. I love this invitation to walk with him, wish I could have known these hills before their fencing and their destruction.

I find the Arizona desert impossibly beautiful, full of life even if harsh. You know what bites scratches stings. Always what has scared me more are people, they are never this simple in their stinging. I understand Shehadeh’s incomprehension when people from outside call his land barren and violent and ugly, and know his anger when they ascribe these perceptions of the land to the people who live in it. This is what I hate most about Westerns and this particular gaze–it is not my land that created the terrifying levels of brutality, but the conquest of it. The genocide of Native Americans that took place there. The conquest of Palestine is clothed in a different language of manifest destiny, but that is still where the violence comes from.

It is also carried out through a different form of land occupation — occupation by luxury villa, though still defended by guns. Routes through the landscape go from this:

Built many years ago by the owners of the land, the path was a few metres wide and bordered by stone walls. It sloped gently along the side of the hill then turned down and headed downhill. It had been carefully designed. Had it followed a straight line down it would be washed out in winter, unusable, more a canal for water than a footpath (44).

To mazes of concrete, straight roads blasted across hill tops, their refuse filling the wadis and causing flooding and erosion. Developments destroying the hills. I watch this in my desert and there too it breaks my heart. Why can’t people sit easily on the land? Instead they conquer it. It was the same in L.A. It is the same here in London where investors build skyscrapers of luxury apartments to sit empty as investments at immense environmental and social cost while people sleep in the streets. I was at the Bishopsgate Institute this evening listening to the inaugural C.R. Ashbee  lecture on the Seven Dark Arts of Developers (a play on Ruskin’s Seven Lamps of Architecture) given by Oliver Wainwright — it was very good so I am still quite furious.

On the hillside outside my old house, there was always time and space to think and always my capacity for thought was deeper there, the superficial more easily stilled:

The further down I went the deeper the silence became. As always the distance and quiet made me attentive to those troublesome thoughts that had been buried deep in my mind. As I walked, many of them were surfacing. I sifted through them. The mind only admits what it can handle and here on these hills the threshold was higher.

The other day I had to plead with a soldier to be allowed to return home (50).

In my desert it is immigration, it is unmanned planes flying overhead seeking families fleeing to a better life, it is checkpoints and motion detectors, prowling four by fours. They churn up the roads, destroy the fragile plants, ensure you never feel secure, never feel safe. There is no space for thinking, they close down the horizons. When I was little we did not need to own the land to feel safe there, to open yourself to the world there, but now in so many hills you do. You have to have a reason to be there. Papers. There is almost as much loss in losing this as there is in losing home and land. We would not need to own things or have borders at all if justice and this need for space and freedom could be respected.

This does not compare to an occupied Palestine, the suffering of their people being steadily forced further and further from the lands they love, their old and sustainable forms of farming made impossible, water and the peace simply to exist both stolen, treasured generosity to strangers unable to survive. The cynicism of Israeli property development is also far ahead of our borderlands, for all that we now have the same horror of a wall. This book illuminates the lived experience of the development and planning strategies so well laid out by Eyal Weizman in Hollow Land. 

I realized that the beautiful Dome of the Rock, for many centuries the symbol of ancient Jerusalem, was no longer visible. It was concealed by new construction. This was by design. Not only had Israeli city planners obstructed the view of this familiar landmark — they had also constructed a wide highway along the western periphery of Arab East Jerusalem, restricting its growth and separating it from the rest of the highway. Highways are more effective geographic barriers than walls in keeping neighbourhoods apart. Walls can always be demolished. But once built, roads become a cruel reality that it is more difficult to change. No visitor would now sigh, let alone fall to their knees as many a conqueror and pilgrim in the past had done… (105)

God I hate highways. Huge roads impassable to pedestrians. Los Angeles pioneered this and Los Angeles broke my heart too. Every American city drove highways right through African American and Latino neighbourhoods, destroying communities and cutting off those that were left from white people and the resources they kept. To add insult to injury freeways allow commuters to fly right over the inner cities as though they don’t even exist. Seems that Israelis have perfected the system, creating massive roads that Palestinians aren’t allowed to use, blocking entrances to villages, destroying more of the mountains. A symbol of power.

Roads have so much to answer for. I too like them best when they are humble, two lanes, and wind along the curve of the hills.

I don’t understand how this is the world we have inherited.

And so there must be struggle — I learned a whole lot here about the particularities of Israels expansion into the West Bank and just what the Oslo Accords meant. I didn’t learn nothing about how law facilitates the rich and powerful taking what they want, know too much this feeling that what you are up against is just too big, this questioning of why it is you fight.

For many years I managed to hold on to the hope that the settlements would not be permanent. I had meticulously documented the illegal process by which they came to be established, every step of the way. I felt that as long as I understood, as long as the process by which all this had come about was not mysterious and the legal tricks used were exposed, I could not be defeated and confused and Israel could not get away with it. Knowledge is power….I had perceived my life as an ongoing narrative organically linked to the forward march of the Palestinian people towards liberation and freedom…But now I knew this was nothing but a grand delusion. ..It was only my way of feeling I was part of the rest of struggling society, a way of enduring hardships by claiming and holding on to the belief that there was a higher meaning to the suffering–that it wasn’t in vain…

But the Oslo Agreements buried my truth… (123)

Writing saves me too.

There is so much more in Palestinian Walks, natural and archeological history, stories of family and friends, walks through country I have heard so much of. This is a deeply personal meditation of little romanticisation, aware of its flaws, with no hiding of discomfort or conflicted feelings and ideas. No hiding at all. This is absolutely the book I would give someone who wanted to understand why in the face of all news propaganda I hate the occupation, why I think it has to end, why I support the Palestinian cause. Maybe even if they didn’t want to understand.

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Street Haunting: Woolf’s London Adventure

Street Haunting - Virginia Woolf‘Street Haunting’ is such a lovely yet also immensely frustrating essay on wandering the streets — I have separated it from the other essays that it found itself in. I love the title. Somehow I am made so happy that her favourite time is winter, that we share this love of champagne air, bare branches against the sky, the beauty of lighted windows.

It begins in a room well loved and the need for a pencil. We are invited first into the room, a glimpse into Woolf’s life and the home she has created, and then we escape with her.

The hour should be the evening and the season winter, for in winter the champagne brightness of the air and the sociability of the streets are grateful. We are not then taunted as in the summer by the longing for shade and solitude and sweet airs from the hayfields. The evening hour, too, gives us the irresponsibility which darkness and lamplight bestow. We are no longer quite ourselves. As we step out of the house on a fine evening between four and six, we shed the self our friends know us by and become part of that vast republican army of anonymous trampers, whose society is so agreeable after the solitude of one’s own room. For there we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience. That bowl on the mantelpiece, for instance, was bought at Mantua on a windy day. We were leaving the shop when the sinister old woman plucked at our skirts and said she would find herself starving one of these days, but, “Take it!” she cried, and thrust the blue and white china bowl into our hands as if she never wanted to be reminded of her quixotic generosity. So, guiltily, but suspecting nevertheless how badly we had been fleeced, we carried it back to the little hotel where, in the middle of the night, the innkeeper quarrelled so violently with his wife that we all leant out into the courtyard to look, and saw the vines laced about among the pillars and the stars white in the sky. The moment was stabilized, stamped like a coin indelibly among a million that slipped by imperceptibly. There, too, was the melancholy Englishman, who rose among the coffee cups and the little iron tables and revealed the secrets of his soul–as travellers do. All this–Italy, the windy morning, the vines laced about the pillars, the Englishman and the secrets of his soul–rise up in a cloud from the china bowl on the mantelpiece. And there, as our eyes fall to the floor, is that brown stain on the carpet. Mr. Lloyd George made that. “The man’s a devil!” said Mr. Cummings, putting the kettle down with which he was about to fill the teapot so that it burnt a brown ring on the carpet.

But when the door shuts on us, all that vanishes. The shell-like
covering which our souls have excreted to house themselves, to make for themselves a shape distinct from others, is broken, and there is left of all these wrinkles and roughnesses a central oyster of perceptiveness, an enormous eye. How beautiful a street is in winter! (177)

I like thinking of home as a shell, an expression of myself and the places I have been and the kinds of things I love excreted in a glowing spiral. Perhaps because I grew up in the nautilus house. But you have to leave home.

And she does, and carries me with her in her wanderings and her musings, into a flow of reflections so similar to my own yet also into her prejudices and views of people I do not share. In fact, that I hate:

Here, perhaps, in the top rooms of these narrow old houses between Holborn and Soho, where people have such queer names, and pursue so many curious trades, are gold beaters, accordion pleaters, cover buttons, or support life, with even greater fantasticality, upon a traffic in cups without saucers, china umbrella handles, and highly-coloured pictures of martyred saints. There they lodge, and it seems as if the lady in the sealskin jacket must find life tolerable, passing the time of day with the accordion pleater, or the man who covers buttons; life which is so fantastic cannot be altogether tragic. They do not grudge us, we are musing, our prosperity; when, suddenly, turning the corner, we come upon a bearded Jew, wild, hunger-bitten, glaring out of his misery; or pass the humped body of an
old woman flung abandoned on the step of a public building with a cloak over her like the hasty covering thrown over a dead horse or donkey. At such sights the nerves of the spine seem to stand erect; a sudden flare is brandished in our eyes; a question is asked which is never answered. Often enough these derelicts choose to lie not a stone’s thrown from theatres, within hearing of barrel organs, almost, as night draws on, within touch of the sequined cloaks and bright legs of diners and dancers (181).

I know and love this piece of London, have wandered it many times. I hate the phrases ‘a bearded Jew’, ‘these derelicts’, ‘a question is asked which is never answered’. Woolf never answers these big questions. The silence continues, maintained through walking, superficially thinking in her streams of words and the passing of images. But I am grateful for these images, these city landscapes preserved.

She finds the old bookstores, they must be the ones on Charing Cross Road that now have lost so much of their magic, imagines the contents of rows of dusty books:

A tour in Cornwall with a visit to the tin mines was thought worthy of voluminous record. People went slowly up the Rhine and did portraits of each other in Indian ink, sitting reading on deck beside a coil of rope; they measured the pyramids; were lost to civilization for years; converted negroes in pestilential swamps. This packing up and going off, exploring deserts and catching fevers, settling in India for a lifetime, penetrating even to China and then returning to lead a parochial life at Edmonton, tumbles and tosses upon the dusty floor like an uneasy sea, so restless the English are, with the waves at their very door. The waters of travel and adventure seem to break upon little islands of serious effort and lifelong industry stood in jagged column upon the floor (184).

How are all of these things equal? I wonder. Travelling up the Rhine and converting ‘negroes’ and somehow returning to Edmonton with nothing changed but really you know the conquest of China and the view of the children dying in the tin mines surely must have changed everything, didn’t it? Are the picturesque poor not right to grudge you your prosperity?

She asks the questions but does not answer, does not think them through. I love walking for the way that your mind travels like this, lightly touching on a multitude of thoughts and impressions. I like to come home and write then, think deeper, explore further. Woolf uses the streets to open up her mind but then closes it all back down again, comes home and shuts the door behind her and so these questions just go on and on and nothing is ever done.

I love this sense of homecoming, but not of closing doors ensuring that the only treasure found was the pencil.

That is true: to escape is the greatest of pleasures; street haunting in winter the greatest of adventures. Still as we approach our own doorstep again, it is comforting to feel the old possessions, the old prejudices, fold us round; and the self, which has been blown about at so many street corners, which has battered like a moth at the flame of so many inaccessible lanterns, sheltered and enclosed. Here again is the usual door; here the chair turned as we left it and the china bowl and the brown ring on the carpet. And here–let us examine it tenderly, let us touch it with reverence–is the only spoil we have retrieved from all the treasures of the city, a lead pencil. (187)

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On Writing and Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk’s THE BLACK BOOK

The Black Book“Each life is unique!” cried the magazine writer. “A story is a story only when it has no equal. Every writer is poor and all alone.”
–Galip (104)

I read Pamuk’s The Black Book to then give away, and I am not sure I can. I feel that I should come back to it knowing more of the city’s history, knowing the city itself. Istanbul is so central to it, made so concrete through its pages that it becomes the standard — the cities wandered and written through my own life become the exotic others. It is a heady feeling.

It is a story of intrigue and mystery. It evokes and plays with some of the old psychogeographical cannon like Poe and Baudelaire, but its foundations are anchored in a Turkish literature that has, for the most part, not been translated. It edges around city–and the human face–as sign and signifier, drawing these into plots and conspiracies of occult dimensions playing on words and anagrams and numerology and games —  yet the lines are blended between the hysterically imagined and the real and violent, this is the time of the actual coup.

Always the city is there to wander, to describe, to inspire, to shape, to speak. Celâl Bey the columnist attempts over and over again to capture it, Galip Bey his nephew turns to it (and Celâl’s descriptions of it over decades) to help him solve the mystery he faces in the disappearance of Celâl and Galip’s wife.

This is a wondrous imagining of the draining of the Bosphorus, and the records of past glories to be found there and what will come after:

I am speaking now of the new neighborhoods that will take root on this muddy wasteland that we once knew as the Bosphorus…of brothels, mosques and dervish lodges, of nests where Marxist splinter groups go to hatch their young…
— Celâl (17)

As in all cities there are many mysteries and wonders. My favourite perhaps is the underground caves full of mannequins ‘possessed of a life force stronger than anything you might see in the crowds swarming across the Galata Bridge.’

My father always said we should pay close attention to the gestures that make us who we are…In those years his father held that a nation could change its way of life , its history, its technology, its art, literature and culture, but it would never have a real chance to change its gestures.
–Celâl (62)

Galip in his search ends up in these same caves, finds a mannequin of Celâl himself, listens to a new generation creating these mannequins and in effect talking through the way that culture survives modernisation, westernisation:

“My father quickly realized that our history could only survive underground, that these passageways leading to our house, these underground roads strewn with skeletons, provided us with a historical opportunity, a chance to create citizens who carried their histories, their meanings, on their faces.”
–Galip 191

The psychogeography of the city:

He surveyed the ramshackle shops lining the crooked pavements: These garden shears he saw before him, these star-spangled screwdrivers, NO PARKING signs, cans of tomato paste, these calendars you saw on the walls of cheap restaurants, this Byzantine aqueduct festooned with Plexiglas letters, the heavy padlocks hanging from the metal shop shutters — they were all signs crying out to be read. He could, if he wished, read them like faces.
–Galip (215)

Always the city like a face.

So then he spread out the maps of Damascus, Cairo, and Istanbul side by side, just as Celâl had foreseen in a column inspired by Edgar Allen Poe. He cut the maps out of the Istanbul directory with a razor blade he found in the bathroom…When he first put the maps together, he saw that their arrows and line fragments were different sizes, so he was at first unsure how to proceed. Then he pressed them together against the glass pane of the sitting-room door…
–Galip (263)

This takes him nowhere. I liked that. A few more quotes I liked:

…every time it occurred to him that someone might be following him, his legs speeded up, the city ceased to be a quiet place where all signs and objects looked familiar and turned into a realm of horror, shimmering with mystery and danger.
–Galip (340)

The shopkeeper certainly remembered. His sense of place was as good as his sense of smell. Through his close reading of your columns. he had conjured up an Istanbul that was more than a cornucopia of smells: He knew every corner of the city that you had visited, grown to love it–love it secretly, without telling a soul–for its mystery, but just as he was unable to imagine certain odors, he had no idea where these places were in relation to one another. I myself had, thanks to you, visited these places from time to time–when I’ve needed to find you…
–phone call to Galip (350)

‘You bastard writer, you!’

This book is as much about identity, about discovering who you are, the intersections between the individual and the nation (or Empire), how writing facilitates, hides, occludes, makes possible.

This mystery, this truth you’ve been making us run after for all these years…: No one in this country can ever be himself. To live in an oppressed, defeated country is to be someone else. I am someone else, therefore I am! (390)

…when he told the story for the third time, it became clear to him that he could be a different person each time he told it. Like the Prince, I tell stories to become myself. Furiously angry at all those who had prevented him from being himself, and certain that it was only by telling stories that he would come to know the mystery of the city and the mystery of life itself, he brought the story to a close for a third and final time, to be met with a white silence that spoke to him of death. (417)

…he had been waging this war not just on his own behalf but for the many millions who had bound their fates to the crumbling empire…all people who are unable to be themselves, all civilizations that imitate other civilizations, all those nations who find happiness in other people’s stories were doomed to be crushed, destroyed and forgotten.
Galip as Celâl (429)

Because it was only when a man had run out of stories to tell that he came close to being himself. (431)

This was particularly interesting after reading Pamuk’s autobiography Istanbul: Memories of a City, which shows how he has been circling these ideas even as he circles this same family, apartment block, street, city, nation, empire…yes. I think I may come back to it. But in ten years or so, so someone else can read it in the meantime.

It ends with a lovely couple of pages from the translator Maureen Freely that has me contemplating learning to read Turkish — every translation should contain these few pages. Clearly there is so much that simply cannot be translated and I yearn to understand the cascading sentence structure that echoes the cascading of subject, the ways that a Turkish sentence can circle, obscure, make clear that English simply cannot.

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The Dickensian City Limits, and the People Who Crossed Them

Dickens - Oliver TwistLondon was so much smaller in 1838 when Dickens published Oliver Twist. What struck me, apart from the rank sentimentalism and the vile descriptions of Jews (on which I shall write more later) was mostly how everyone below a certain income level walks.

They walk everywhere.

Country folk come walking to London to make their fortunes. And from London, thieves walk to the country to steal theirs.

Oliver walks from the town of his birth (originally named as Mudfog, about 70 miles north of London) and tired and hungry arrives finally at the city where he is taken in by the Artful Dodger. This same journey is made by the coffin-maker’s apprentice who has run off with his servant, Claypole and Charlotte.

They describe the arrival at Highgate as it once was, with London still a good way before them (also exemplifying the need for feminism):

they passed through Highgate archway; when the foremost traveller stopped and called impatiently to his companion,

‘Come on, can’t yer? What a lazybones yer are, Charlotte.’

‘It’s a heavy load, I can tell you,’ said the female, coming up, almost breathless with fatigue.

‘Heavy! What are yer talking about? What are yer made for?’ rejoined the male traveller, changing his own little bundle as he spoke, to the other shoulder. ‘Oh, there yer are, resting again! Well, if yer ain’t enough to tire anybody’s patience out, I don’t know what is!’

‘Is it much farther?’ asked the woman, resting herself against a bank, and looking up with the perspiration streaming from her face.

‘Much farther! Yer as good as there,’ said the long-legged tramper, pointing out before him. ‘Look there! Those are the lights of London.’

‘They’re a good two mile off, at least,’ said the woman despondingly.

‘Never mind whether they’re two mile off, or twenty,’ said Noah
Claypole; for he it was; ‘but get up and come on, or I’ll kick yer, and so I give yer notice.’

Finally they get to the Angel at Islington:

In pursuance of this cautious plan, Mr. Claypole went on, without halting, until he arrived at the Angel at Islington, where he wisely judged, from the crowd of passengers and numbers of vehicles, that London began in earnest. Just pausing to observe which appeared the most crowded streets, and consequently the most to be avoided, he crossed into Saint John’s Road, and was soon deep in the obscurity of the intricate and dirty ways, which, lying between Gray’s Inn Lane and Smithfield, render that part of the town one of the lowest and worst that improvement has left in the midst of London.

It is hard, now, to imagine London beginning in earnest at the Angel. It is impossible, now, to imagine British people trudging seventy miles carrying all of their worldly possessions. Sadly I can still imagine the woman being asked to carry the heavier burden.

I think of getting to the country now in terms of recreation, of space. It was certainly far less of a walk back then to get out of the city, into the fresh air of the country. Hampton, for example, has now been well swallowed up by London to become a suburb. But once upon a time:

They turned round to the left, a short way past the public-house; and then, taking a right-hand road, walked on for a long time: passing many large gardens and gentlemen’s houses on both sides of the way, and stopping for nothing but a little beer, until they reached a town. Here against the wall of a house, Oliver saw written up in pretty large letters, ‘Hampton.’ They lingered about, in the fields, for some hours. At length they came back into the town; and, turning into an old public-house with a defaced sign-board, ordered some dinner by the kitchen fire.

The kitchen was an old, low-roofed room; with a great beam across the middle of the ceiling, and benches, with high backs to them, by the fire; on which were seated several rough men in smock-frocks, drinking and smoking. They took no notice of Oliver; and very little of Sikes; and, as Sikes took very little notice of them, he and his young comrade sat in a corner by themselves, without being much troubled by their company.

I do not yet know Hampton, but here it is a world away from the slums of Holborn, through countryside and ‘gentlemen’s houses’.  A walkable world away, and yet… not a pleasant day trip for those on foot and without business here.

This is still a world where easy movement between town and country for pleasure is still the province of the wealthy. Where trips tend to be one-way for the poor — seventy miles walk is no small journey. As we escape the underworld with Oliver, swept up in carriages belonging to the good, the kind and the beautiful we also find the ability to more easily escape the city. It is still for longer periods of time, one season spent in London, the summer in a large house in the countryside.

It is only the thieves that move easily and regularly between the two.

It is also the thieves and the outcast that fill the edges of the city. There are some amazing descriptions of Rotherhithe in here. Concentrations of poverty form another kind of limit in a way, rather like the slums around Field Lane. Yet the South Bank of the river was always seen as different, somehow outside — and for a long time formally outside many of the restrictive laws belonging to London proper.

Near to that part of the Thames on which the church at Rotherhithe abuts, where the buildings on the banks are dirtiest and the vessels on the river blackest with the dust of colliers and the smoke of close-built low-roofed houses, there exists the filthiest, the strangest, the most extraordinary of the many localities that are hidden in London, wholly unknown, even by name, to the great mass of its inhabitants.

To reach this place, the visitor has to penetrate through a maze of close, narrow, and muddy streets, thronged by the roughest and poorest of waterside people, and devoted to the traffic they may be supposed to occasion. The cheapest and least delicate provisions are heaped in the shops; the coarsest and commonest articles of wearing apparel dangle at the salesman’s door, and stream from the house-parapet and windows. Jostling with unemployed labourers of the lowest class, ballast-heavers, coal-whippers, brazen women, ragged children, and the raff and refuse of the river, he makes his way with difficulty along, assailed by offensive sights and smells from the narrow alleys which branch off on the right and left, and deafened by the clash of ponderous waggons that bear great piles of merchandise from the stacks of warehouses that rise from every corner. Arriving, at length, in streets remoter and less-frequented than those through which he has passed, he walks beneath tottering house-fronts projecting over the pavement, dismantled walls that seem to totter as he passes, chimneys half crushed half hesitating to fall, windows guarded by rusty iron bars that time and dirt have almost eaten away, every imaginable sign of desolation and neglect.

In such a neighborhood, beyond Dockhead in the Borough of Southwark, stands Jacob’s Island, surrounded by a muddy ditch, six or eight feet deep and fifteen or twenty wide when the tide is in, once called Mill Pond, but known in the days of this story as Folly Ditch. It is a creek or inlet from the Thames, and can always be filled at high water by opening the sluices at the Lead Mills from which it took its old name. At such times, a stranger, looking from one of the wooden bridges thrown across it at Mill Lane, will see the inhabitants of the houses on either side lowering from their back doors and windows, buckets, pails, domestic utensils of all kinds, in which to haul the water up; and when his eye is turned from these operations to the houses themselves, his utmost astonishment will be excited by the scene before him. Crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud, and threatening to fall into it–as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations; every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage; all these ornament the banks of Folly Ditch.

In Jacob’s Island, the warehouses are roofless and empty; the walls are crumbling down; the windows are windows no more; the doors are falling into the streets; the chimneys are blackened, but they yield no smoke. Thirty or forty years ago, before losses and chancery suits came upon it, it was a thriving place; but now it is a desolate island indeed. The houses have no owners; they are broken open, and entered upon by those who have the courage; and there they live, and there they die. They must have powerful motives for a secret residence, or be reduced to a destitute condition indeed, who seek a refuge in Jacob’s Island.

These long, weary journeys on foot, these marginal spaces where the poor crowd together and struggle to survive are also well documented in the accounts of reformers and early social scientists. Margaret Harkness describes wandering through the city looking for work, Maude Pember Reeves too notes a number of men who regularly walk distances of many miles to their employment and back.

Mary Higgs herself goes ‘on the tramp’ to study the conditions that women faced on the road, particularly when it came to finding shelter. The absence of provision for the thousands of people criss-crossing England’s countryside — cut loose from traditional employment by enclosure and industrialisation and desperately seeking work — is appalling.

Dickens obviously walked these ways himself — perhaps not the seventy miles from ‘Mudfog’ to London — but he certainly tramped the city from one end to the other and his marvelous descriptions of it  bring to life what is now long past.

I like to walk, but this is a kind of walking as far removed from my experience as this level of poverty, an experience of the city and how you live in it that I can only catch glimpses of through imagination and weary feet. How transformative has the change in transportation been?

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Prague Walks: The Big Picture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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More beautiful things in the Czech Republic

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

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

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

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Just like the town itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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The London Adventure or The Art of Wandering

The London AdventureA delightful book of meanderings, almost too meandering because there are some really brilliant things in here that deserve some deeper thought but the style of it almost carries you right past them. I know, I know, that the style of the book maybe reflects the art of wandering itself, stumbling over the unexpected, taking up the digressions, exploring the byways. But still. I wanted more places, more stories of places, more London. Still, there are some real gems about the city, how we experience it, where its wonder lies, speaking both as urbanist and as author. And just thoughts on being human in this world of toil. This is clearly someone who has known toil.

In this pleasant and retiring spot I was sitting not long ago, enjoying gin and that great luxury and blessing of idleness, concerning which so much cant and false doctrine have been preached. (6)

On writing:

Always, or almost always, I have had the horror of beginning a new book. I have burnt my fingers to the bone again and again in the last forty years and I dread the fire of literature (12).

On life:

It is possible, just dimly possible, that the real pattern and scheme of life is not in the least apparent on the outward surface of things, which is the world of common sense and rationalism, and reasoned deductions; but rather lurks, half hidden, only apparent in certain rare lights, and then only to the prepared eye; a secret pattern, an ornament which seems to have but little relation or none at all to the obvious scheme of the universe’. (21)

One of my favourite phrases of all time is now ‘amiable Conandoylery’ (27). It certainly takes him a while to describe the purpose of this book he is being paid to write — and this sense of literature as something for hire, something you must sell to live and feed your children is never absent here, anchoring his wonderings and wanderings. His dread as he sits ensconced in a comfortable pub that Spring has arrived and the book must be begun opens every chapter, humorously to be sure, but not entirely. But it is still on a subject he loves — rambling the city:

[the book] originated in old rambles around London, rambles that began in 1890 when I lived in Soho Street and began to stroll about Soho and to see that here was something very curious and impressive; this transmutation of late seventeenth-century and early eighteenth-century social stolidity and even, in some cases, magnificence, into a wholly different order (30)

What he loves is not about tourist stops or antiquarian wonders but:

the general queerness; a piece, a tesserae, that fitted in very pleasantly with that hopeless 1860 terrace and that desolate 1900 shop, and the cabbages, and the raspberry plantations and, above all and before all, with the sense that I had never been that way before, that the scene to me was absolutely new and unknown as if the African Magician had suddenly set me down in the midst of Cathay, that I was as true an explorer as Columbus, as he who stood upon a peak in Darien. For if you think of it: the fact that the region which is to you so strange and unknown is familiar as daily bread and butter or—more likely—the lack of it to multitudes of your fellow men is of no significance on earth. (40)

There’s some interesting colonial stuff here, though I think it echoes in my own mind far different than in his for I cannot divorce colonial exploration from despair, conquest, slavery and death. I am hesitant to strip these away, but in Machen’s writing it seems to be simply the seed of wonder at what is new, and the acknowledgment that this lies alongside hunger and misery and want. Lightly done, but it is there.

My book, then, was to take all these things into account: the old, the shabby, the out of the way; and also the new and the red and the raw. But it was utterly to shun the familiar. For if you think of it, there is a London cognita and a London incognita(49)

He seeks the incognita, the overlooked. Finds the things that I too love:

I can look with a kind of pleasure on a very doorstep, on a doorstep approaching a shabby grey house of 1810 or thereabouts—if the stone be worn into a deep hollow by the feet of even a hundred years and a little over…The feet of the weary and hopeless, the glad and the exultant, the lustful and the pure have made that hollow; and most of those feet are now in the hollow of the grave: and that doorstep is to me sacramental, if not a sacrament, even though the neighbourhood round about Mount Pleasant is a very poor one. (48)

There is a section imagining the life of the reporter as a road, traveling through cities, opening up the countryside, ‘where there is no money but plenty of happiness’ (62). That old city/country divide. There is also, of course, a touch of the gothic here, a familiar strand running through so much literature of the city:

Strangeness which is the essence of beauty is the essence of truth, and the essence of the world. I have often felt that, when the ascent of a long hill brought me to the summit of an undiscovered height in London; and I looked down on a new land. (127)

I loved the idea that we must no longer seek wonder in castles and keeps, but in the everyday. Even then the sense of the madness of developers and real estate, the joy in the battered cottage amongst plate glass and brick shops, a hold out against profit. On this score there are some brilliant descriptions of Enfield being developed (35) to return to, perhaps after I’ve visited Enfield.

Why have I waited so long to read his fiction? It’s available, unlike this book, which was an amazing birthday present in the form of a first edition.

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Legally Underground

I love being underground, I love dark, close places. And dark massive airy places of course. And while London is undergirded by miles of tunnels, bunkers, culverts, sewers, abandoned underground stations and etc, can you legally get into any of them?

No. But Graham and I did our best.

We started in the Cafe in the Crypt, St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields. A copy of American Colonial architecture, which is really just a variation on a copy of traditional English architecture…and they sell decent coffee and quite delicious currant buns in a warm, dry, well-lit brick vault that a self-respecting ghost would never be caught…in.

They have an art exhibit on now, Cartooning and Conflict, international takes on the situation in Palestine/Israel. Some of them were good, some of them ridiculously simplistic. Of course.

So coffeed and fed, we started on the quest for the (now underground) Tyburn river. On foot. And wandered past St. James Palace just as a marching band was scheduled to appear (!), line up in front of the palace, play, salute, and head out again. It made no sense at all, but the tourists did like it.

I just love the incredible feeling of being fortuitously in exactly the right place at the right time…even if it’s only to see a marching band. We passed Truefitt & Hill, London’s oldest barber shop established in 1805. They say that:

Men deserve the best in everything they do. If you are looking for the finest in men’s grooming, we are confident you will find Truefitt & Hill’s unmatched product quality and prestigious tradition extremely compelling.

And looking in their window I believe them, almost makes me wish I were one

And so we wandered on. And in another blinding moment of fortuitosity, I mentioned we were looking for Davies Street and Graham realized we were on Davies Street, and so a moment of awed silence for such mad luck…

On Davies Street you can find Gray’s Antique Market, full of beautiful and very old things. But you actually want to turn the corner, head down the back for Gray’s Mews, because you head down into the basement there and you will find a section of the (famous) Tyburn River. Actually, I don’t think the river is famous, but the spot where they used to hang people certainly was. The river runs in culverts below London, until it arrives here, where it is neatly channeled and full of gold fish.

We couldn’t quite work out the mechanics of it, both of us thinking that the Tyburn river should be larger, dirtier, primeval. Possibly behind thick glass, certainly not staid and well-lit and mechanically aerated. But it was quite extraordinary all the same. And Gray’s Mews? Beautiful. You can see at the bottom the fabulous vintage clothing and jewelry store…quality gorgeousness, Chanel and proper furs and etc etc, long cigarette holders, old compacts that I could have conceivably afforded…it is the kind of place that is most dangerous, in that it has beautiful old things at the top of my price range (but still within it. Hence the danger.). Many other stores were shut up, sadly, like the shop below with the pair of dragon-bearing elephants that I truly desired:

It was a day of desire really, walking back down Bond Street we passed this store full of silver, and all of it beautiful

We were filled with a sense of satisfaction, of vague melancholy, of…thirst. So we stopped at the Iron Duke for a pint, a most satisfactory pub with a very interesting wall covering and scrumpy jack on tap:

From there we wound our way back down to a pub previously-spotted and tagged for a return. But once more on St. James we decided to wander into the cigar store, James J. Fox & Robert Lewis. And discovered that not only can you smoke a cigar inside (lit for you by use of a small, insanely impressive blow torch), but there is also a museum. In the basement! Underground once again, and happy because look at this:


And I discovered that, like Winston Churchill,

I am a [wo]man of simple tastes, easily satisfied with the best.

The Queen Mother had her account here as well…I like to think of her kicking back and smoking a fine cigar or two. This place is packed with phenomenal things, an old register you can flip through, Oscar Wilde’s account, fur covered cigar cases, Cigars that are two, maybe three feet long, a tin of “Potter’s Asthma Smoking Tobacco”, this letter to the company from Churchill once again:

Dear Sirs,

Confirming our telephone conversation, Sir Winston Churchill would be much obliged if you would send a box of 25 cigars of good quality, but not quite as good as the Romeo and Juliet, and of medium size, to his grandson for his birthday on October 10…

Highly recommended. Though we couldn’t afford cigars at the time. But we will be back, the humidor at the end of the room was extremely impressive. And I have never seen anything like this:

But I tore myself away.

So we found our way to the Red Lion, a small pub and the second oldest license in the West End. The oldest license? No one could say. That’s a quest for another day. But a good mix of people, Graham believes that many were masons, I accept their cover story of a funeral. The lad with the red trousers? Well, there’s no excuse for that sort of thing of course. And there were china plates lining the piece of wall between the wood paneling and the ceiling, I loved that. We had laid down the one pint per pub rule, this being an exploratory excursion, so we headed out. We passed the Golden Lion. Sadly closed. And then we found a second Red Lion. A slightly larger pub, with beveled and engraved mirrors

And as buns weren’t quite enough to support this kind of effort and quantity of drink we went in search of food. I hadn’t prepared an underground location for this, so we ended up with pizza. Probably the most delicious pizza I have ever eaten but we all know that’s because I was drunk. Drunk on the magic of London at night

From Soho we headed to embankment and a martini at the Buddha Bar. That was planned, the Buddha Bar is in the old tram tunnel you see, though of course you’d never know. We weren’t dressed for that kind of poshness of course, so most of the waitresses were rather dismissive and politely rude. Our waiter was awesome though, redeemed the whole place for me beyond any doubt.

And then still not quite ready to go home, we made a last stop, sort of underground once again, in the Coal Hole, “famous for coal-heavers and cartoonists”. Great little pub too, according to the menu (always a supreme source of local history), it was one of the last informal clubs of the Victorian era. Gillray and Rowlandson used to haunt this place! And I dearly hope they still do…Gilbert and Sullivan used to show up from time to time as well, but I’m not so fussed about them.

What a day, what a city, what a cousin. Joy.

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Muay Thai and the Museum of Death

Thai festival today! There was absolutely no parking at all anywhere, but it was worth it when we got to Thai town. The day was sunny, the skies were blue, the crowds were hopping, and the food…oh the food was magical. We ate in the little square, in the least-full looking restaurant though we still had to wait for seating. I kind of wanted to throw over vegetarianism, even more than I already have I mean, and order the chicken volcano (it’s an entire chicken, steamed veggies, and the whole thing seems to be on fire…I don’t think you can ask more from an entree.) But I didn’t. And I wasn’t sorry taste wise.

We actually only saw dancers, none of the dancing, though we did wander the booths. Because the main attraction and the real reason we were there?

Not him specifically, though I wouldn’t have minded, especially as he is a new champion. We were there for Muay Thai, or Thai boxing. Remember Ong Bak? Oh yeah. Unlike Western boxing, you don’t just use your fists. It is known as the “Art of the Eight Limbs” as there are 8 points of contact, the two hands, shins, elbows, and knees.

And while it has no long tradition of women fighters (tradition holds that a Muay Thai ring will be cursed if women fight in it…not surprising of course), there is a new popularity and some kick ass women fighters were there.

And we stood watching it for several hours, there were 18 matches in all, and I think we stayed for perhaps 11 of them…we left after the first heavyweight match as it wasn’t as exciting or lively I’m afraid. A very drunk thai man in a wool hat enlivened the afternoon; he really wanted to bet. He kept shouting out bets that I couldn’t understand, 200 of something or other, and cheerfully embraced everyone from the fighters to security. And there were a few guys behind us who drank the whole time, smoked three bowls of weed and had the most revolting conversation I have ever heard. I pray that they die single and never reproduce, but any women priveleged to hear their comments would have to be dead before allowing any of them to touch her.

The above was the best shot (and the tats by far the best as well), the light was none too good, even after we’d worked our way to the front. And like western boxing, there are a lot of clinches…where the photographs essentially look like two guys holding each other tenderly. I did get a good one of spittle flying out of a guys mouth, and some good expressions…I might put those up later.

Jose and I had lost Bev by that point, she wasn’t so into the fighting, or the standing in the sun for hours. I was too into the fighting to notice really, until I started getting tired, and then we moved and my legs were hating me. They still do. They might hate me for some time. Because we walked down Hollywood…passing some amazing graf

There was more, but I tire…we were headed exploring, and to the Frolic Room, and we passed the Museum of Death. I have been wanting to go there for some time, with such a name how could you not go?

The best thing about the Museum of Death, apart from the name, is that the owner has a siamese turtle.

It’s a bit blurry, but it is extraordinary…and will be as long lived as a regular turtle, as there are two hearts. He had an albino turtle as well, who was lovely.

You’re not allowed to take pictures inside, and it is pretty…gruesome in there. Very gruesome. Very graphic. I’m glad I went, I recommend it to everyone with a strong stomach and a taste for the macabre. I shan’t be going again however! You start out in the warm-up room, full of the embalming arts, a horrifying training video, pictures of dead babies laid out in funeral splendour, the implements of the trade, matchbooks from funeral parlours…you move into a corridor full of photographs of car accidents, a couple having an affair who killed the husband, stripped, dismemebered him while naked, had much traditional fun with the body parts, and took pictures of it all. They were caught while developing them (this is pre-digital days obviously), and lads, the woman was released after only 6 years, so she’s out there and possibly dating.

There’s a room on suicide cults. A room on L.A.’s biggest crimes…the Black Dahlia (those photos will keep you from sleeping for a week), the Manson murders (likewise), OJ Simpson (seems like a sweetheart next to the rest…) There’s lots on serial killers, little write ups, surveys they’ve filled out, letters, pop up books, drawing, pictures…Richard Ramirez showing what Jeffrey Dammer’s fridge probably looked like, a cheerful letter from the Son of Sam. It’s a nice intimate look at the mind of killers.

Ooh, and there’s Jane Mansfeld’s stuffed chihuahua. And a video room. And a section on hollywood stars who have croaked in extraordinary or violent ways…I’d say more but I’m winding down. So go. And don’t forget that the Frolic Room is only a few blocks away, you will almost certainly want a drink. I admit to “needing” one after the Museum of Death. And who could ask for more from their dive bar?

Jim Belushi was here. He fit in with the mood.

And so two beers later, my legs hating me much more after a museum tour, we walked to the train station. Which was crawling with cops. And waited for the train. And waited. And waited. Union Station was closed due to a “police incident,” and I couldn’t find anything yet on the news this evening, but hopefully tomorrow. Finally the train came, and it was packed full of course, and there was a break-up in full swing right next to us. And both the girl and the guy were annoying. I almost wanted them to stay together so no one else would be tempted to date either of them. And my legs were hating me. And I was starving. And freezing.

So back home to Echo Park, chilaquiles at Rodeo Grill, and back home. To play some with my pictures. And to write. And to sleep, but I shall hope for no dreams!

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