Tag Archives: writing

Elizabeth Gaskell’s House, Plymouth Grove

Longsight is a vibrant neighbourhood whose vibrance, as far as I can tell from my short sojourn here, is almost entirely contained within the walls of the local churches and mosques and community centres. I often see people spilling out into the sidewalk, children laughing, families strolling happily to or from an event. It is both lovely and quite lonely, for these are not open gatherings. There are few places to eat that are not fried chicken or take-out. There is nowhere to buy a great big cup of coffee the way I like it. There are few markets. There are many students, and furniture and bags of their rubbish now that they are gone.

It is hard to tell quite where Longsight ends and Victoria Park begins and the address says this is actually Rusholme – there’s a great blog on some of these changing boundaries here.  All I know is that on my walking route to the city I often walked past Elizabeth Gaskell’s old house on Plymouth Grove, and it feels like it’s still Longsight so the contrast is quite something. We finally managed a visit. It was built in about 1838 as one of Manchester’s early suburban developments, planned by architect Richard Lane.

The Gaskell’s moved into the house in 1850, and the booklet notes they had chicken and ducks, a much larger garden, a cow in a neighbouring field. Hard to imagine. Harder to imagine paying £150 a year, but I know that was a lot of money then. So many people have been in this house. In 1851, Charlotte Brontë described it as

A Large, cheerful, airy house, quite out of the Manchester smoke.

There is a floorplan! I love those, I keep thinking I will write my murder mystery one day.

There is a lovely picture of the drawing room as it once was — this room sat empty for a long time as they couldn’t afford to furnish it. I quite loved knowing that too. Ah, the days of living within one’s means. And five servants.

Along with Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens was a regular visitor, Jane Eyre? The Pickwick Papers? Marvelous. John Ruskin was here too, and Harriet Beecher Stowe (but she leaves me fairly unimpressed as I mostly raged through Uncle Tom’s Cabin).

This is where Elizabeth Gaskell wrote Cranford (1851–53), North and South (1854–55) and the biography of her friend, The Life of Charlotte Brontë (1857). I had never heard of that one, how?  She’d nearly finished Wives and Daughters when she died in 1865. Her family remained in the house until 1913, when her daughter Meta (Meta!) died. The campaign to preserve it was unsuccessful, the furniture sold off. But so much work has gone into restoring it as close to its original condition as possible, it’s lovely.

There are visiting cards on a salver in the entry hall (visiting cards! Cartes de visites!), people in the 1860s actually swapped portraits of themselves on small cards. These tidbits are partly why I love visiting places.

That of Elizabeth Gaskell herself.

I love these, I am suddenly possessed of a desire to collect.

The morning room is ‘designed to catch the morning light’. I like it when things do what they are supposed to, I rather want one that is not where I sleep, as at present. A study, where William Gaskell could work on his sermons (they are working on building a list of books the Gaskells owned to repopulate it).

I didn’t take many pictures, but this is the dining room, set up as if Elizabeth Gaskell were writing here. I quite loved that.

Elizabeth Gaskell's House

Elizabeth Gaskell's HouseThere is a brilliant and unexpected collection of Dürer prints Meta had collected that hang in the stairwell. Gaskell was also a keen gardener, and while the back garden has lost its former glory, I particularly love the way they do the front of the house, it is a joy to walk by. Upstairs a small look at how Manchester was then, and how much it has changed. This is the third place the Gaskell’s lived in this area, the other two are long gone. I am glad this is still here, and well worth a visit.

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Frank’s Bar Always Did Need a Woman’s Touch

Joe Arpaio’s been in the news so much, finally getting a little bit of what is coming to him I thought I’d share this and got permission. I wrote it for Southwest Noir, edited and with art by Vince Larue, which you should totally buy. When Steven Seagal is in the news I’ll share it again. Not that this is about them. It’s one of the most satisfying things I’ve ever written to be honest, though I still don’t like the ending. I should probably let everyone write their own.

Clock said over an hour ‘til dawn. She could feel the light coming, knew that warmth followed. She could feel things waking in the stillness. Sad to break it with footsteps crunching across the gravel, keys jingling in her hand, the roaring of the truck. Excitement walked with her, streaked through her sleepiness. Sat tingling between her ribs. She always forgot just how fine, how very fine the earth felt this early.

The coffee smelled so damn good.

Lena didn’t care for mornings most days, but damn she loved these early starts. Heading out far out into the desert. These mornings that came with extra adrenaline, heightened awareness because water runs weren’t no simple hikes. Never knew what you were going to find, who you were going to see. Made you nervous all this bat-shit crazy militarization of the border. Made you feel righteous too, doing something about it. She smiled at Rosita beside her. Pulled out of the drive. They headed south and west through nearly empty streets towards the border.

She hugged the highway’s curves. Saguaros took form and the world brightened and glowed all along its edge. The sky looked like the inside of their abalone shell, some wisps of cloud like sage smoke. Dolly Parton sang let it shine. They turned off on the dirt track and Lena wrestled with the gears. Rosa opened one gate, and then another. Both now sat closed behind them. Nervousness sang in the air and in their shoulders, but they saw no one. First drop off point, and they loaded up their backpacks with jugs of water. It pulled heavy against their shoulders.

Lista?” she asked.

Rosa nodded, grumbling. “I wish water weren’t so damn heavy. I wish they’d get the tanks up here already.”

“Shit,” Lena said. “Me too. Bill keeps saying soon.”

“Couldn’t be soon enough.”

They walked, came to the place they had been shown months ago and had been returning to regularly since. Dropped off their water for those who were thirsty, sick, lost, dying here in the desert driven by desperation to leave homes and families and everything familiar, driven by walls and drones and agents to avoid safer trails, traditional wells. Driven to carry their dreams in life and death struggle among desert stones.

Lena wondered if this water might have saved Rosa’s brother. She always did as they stood there hand in hand. Her grandmother’s peoples had been massacred for these lands. Her father’s people drowned in sea water or suffocated in containers trying to get to them. Rosa’s dehydrated and mummified in deserts. Now they stood and thought about Hector, the heat already beginning to rise, the cicadas about to begin their chorus. Every time they did this, Lena wished she could believe in God. She knew it would make it easier, most of the people who left water like this did. Her and Rosa though, they just couldn’t manage belief no more. It was like a hole inside them. They turned and walked back to the truck, more drops to make.

But someone waited for them.

Crouched down the other side of their truck. Stepping out as the two women approached, and Lena could see that one of the two had a rifle in his hands. White men. Not border patrol. Standing there between them and the truck. Bandanas over the lower half of their faces because they’d probably seen one too many Westerns.
“Shit,” she said under her breath. Rosita’s hand squeezed hers tight. But they approached with heads held proud, as though masked vigilantes were as smart as dogs in leaving the fearless alone.

“You fellows think we’re the stagecoach carrying payroll to Yuma?” Lena asked them. She stared at the big one, knew she knew him. Didn’t know from where. Those little piggy eyes; that long mullet tied back in a ponytail. Damn. She knew him.

“A fucking comedian,” the man said, rolling his eyes. “Now what’s a fucking pair of comedians doing way out here?”

Lena bit back another wisecrack. “Hiking,” she said. “It’s a beautiful place.”

The silence dragged out a moment or two. The men looked them up and down.

“You wouldn’t have been dropping off water for no illegals now, would you?” the other asked. A gravelly voice, unpleasant, old. Wrinkled around the mean blue eyes. Retired law enforcement she guessed.

“Because why would a nice pair of ladies be doing something like that?” Pig-eye asked. “Why would they betray their country like that? Except maybe it’s not their country. No, maybe it’s not. Maybe they got some kind of allegiances to a foreign power. What do you think, Abe?”

“They might, George, they just might. Though I hate to call any woman a bare-faced liar.”

“I know Abe, but look at ‘em. And this water in the back of the truck here is definitely for some illegals. I bet we’ll find a pile more of it just over this ridge.”

“I wouldn’t take that bet.”

“You never been much of a gambler, Abe.”

Law Enforcement smiled, they could tell from the light in his eyes.
“Only ever bet on a sure thing, George. But I hate to think of what will happen to them if we’re right.”

“I know,” said Pig-eye. He pulled a large knife from some kind of buckskin sheath complete with fringe and beads, tried to nonchalantly pick at his nails. Fucker was playing both cowboy and Indian.

“Are there some hidden cameras round here, or what?” Lena snorted. “If you’re done teaching us a lesson, we’re just going to head on home now.”

Rosa squeezed her hand so hard it hurt as they took a step forward.

“Don’t you bitches move,” said Law Enforcement. His voice cut the morning like barbed wire.

They stopped.

Pig-eye had become even squintier, face like tomato above the bandana.

“Funny, you talking shit like you’re the ones armed.” He pulled a bottle of water out of the back of their truck, ripped his knife up on through it like he was gutting a fish. It looked a hard way to eviscerate a harmless bottle of water. Still, that was a sharp knife.
He pulled out another bottle. Having learned something maybe, he stabbed this one near the top. Water spurted out and he pointed it at them. The thin stream hit Lena before dying away, spent. She worked hard not to flinch. The asshole had aimed at her breasts, and now he smiled.

“Not bad for an old lady,” he said.

Her free hand clenched into a fist. The light in his eyes slimed over and fell as he leaned into their truck, methodically stabbed each bottle of water one by one. Watched their faces. Water sprayed over the edges and dripped from the bed along the tailgate, released the scent of desert rain. Lena’s heart beat uncertain between uplift and rank fear.

Pig-eye straightened

“If you’re done there, George, we got some more wetback supplies to spoil,” said Law Enforcement.

“I’m done here,” said Pig-eye. “But what are we going to do with these two?”

Law Enforcement spat. “Don’t rightly know,” he said. “Maybe they’re illegals too. Can’t take no chances now, can we? We’ll just tie ’em up and leave ’em here while we think on it. Maybe send back the patrol.”
Lena saw now that plastic handcuffs dangled from his belt.

Pig-eye took a deep breath. Leered as his hands moved down past his gut to hook into his belt. He rocked back, looked from handcuffs to women to handcuffs. His aim seemed to be suggestion; Lena’s lip curled as his eyes glinted dark at her over his puffed cheeks. Something about him said money smug, not like the other one who just looked mean and old and boiled down into leather with skin as dark as hers but burned that way by the sun. Unnatural colour. She figured he’d be meeting the cancer soon, if he hadn’t already.

“Move it. Over there.” Law Enforcement snapped. The two women walked to stand beside the truck. Rosa’s hand trembled in hers now.

“Take off your shoes and socks and throw ’em over there.” The women stared at him, and his hands tightened on the rifle. They bent down and did as he said.

“Pat ’em down, George.”

Pig-eye grinned wider, moved over to paw them. Lena drew a breath and tried to hold it until he was done, shoulders squared and head proud and rage boiling in her heart. She had to take a few breaths. He groped and pawed and she bottled down the boiling. Play it smart, girl, play it smart. Her keys now jingled from his finger and he launched them out into the desert. They flashed towards the morning sun, fell out of sight with a jagged sound of metal on metal.

“You’re sure quiet,” Pig-eye said as he came to Rosa. “Bet you don’t speaka-de-English so good”. His hands fumbled at her breasts, and her knee came up square into his balls. Bent over double, he stumbled back to lean against the truck, a thin whine emerging from beneath the handkerchief. Lena smiled even as Law Enforcement cursed them for bitches. Stepped forward and brought the butt-end of the rifle to connect squarely with the side of Rosa’s head. She collapsed in place. Lena stood frozen a moment, smile stuck in rictus to her face. Half turned, fists raised, only to meet Law Enforcement’s rifle butt driven into her stomach, driving breath from her. She fell to her knees beside Rosa, stones cutting deep.

Rosa groaned as consciousness returned, came to hands and knees. Raised a hand to her head.

“On your feet,” rasped Law Enforcement.

Supporting each other, the women stood. Pig-eye had almost recovered, but he waddled not walked. He walked up to Rosa and slapped her hard, deliberate. First across one cheek and then the other. She half fell into Lena as Pig-eye finished his search, slipping her lighter into his pocket.

He cuffed them, then. Standing too close with his smell of sweat and expensive cologne. His fat fingers caressed even as he closed the cuffs meaning to hurt. He cuffed them one to the other, then forced them back to their knees and used the second pair to cuff Rosa’s other hand to the truck. The thick plastic dug into their wrists.

“I wouldn’t struggle too much, ladies,” grated Law Enforcement. “You don’t want those cuffs tightening any more or they could get dangerous.”

Lena stared at the horizon with the fury inside of her, pain radiating from her stomach as she struggled with every breath.

“Now think about what you owe this country, and the sanctity of its borders.” Law Enforcement’s voice had razor edges. “Because it don’t owe you or those wetbacks nothing, and good Americans like us just won’t tolerate your aidin’ and abettin’ those filthy criminals bringing their drugs and their diseases over here.”

Pig-eye traced the line of blood his ring had left across Rosa’s cheek before moving to stand over their shoes. “We won’t take these too far,” he said. The women watched silently as the two men walked away from them, up over the ridge. They clearly knew where the water was stored.

“Fuckers,” spat Lena. She rearranged herself more comfortably, came to a cross-legged position, her free hand holding her stomach. She could hear herself breathe.

Rosa settled down beside her, bloodied lips worked to fluently curse gavachos in a low tone. Both sides of her face was swelling and blood rolled down her right cheek. Blood collected at her hairline. She spat more blood onto the ground.

Lena’s heart broke looking at her, and she held Rosa’s hand tight tight.

“My head is ringing,” Rosa said.

“They hit you hard, those mother fuckers.”

Lena studied the cuffs. Law Enforcement had been right, struggle risked tightening them.

“Why’d they take our goddamn shoes?” Rosa suddenly whispered.

“Fuck if I know,” Lena whispered back. “Pa’ chingar mas.”

“You think those fools are really gone? Where’d they even come from? I didn’t hear no truck.”

“Me neither.” Lena frowned. “They’re smart, looking to catch people up here. It must be back down the road a ways, which means they’ll be back, or maybe they’re walking up to the next drop off. Maybe they’re just getting off watching us from behind some rocks, sadistic mother fuckers. We gotta get out of here.”

“There’s a release mechanism on these chingaderas,” said Rosa. “But we need a pin or something. We don’t got a pin, do we.”

“Nope. You got an extra lighter they didn’t find?”

“Nope. You?”

“Nope. We’re fucked.”

Jodidas.”

Fregadas.”

“Shit.”

“We shouldn’t have left the rifle in the truck, huh.”

“Nope.”

“Still, you don’t expect two crazy vigilante crackers to jump you in the middle of the desert, do you. Even out here.”

“Shit, we got careless. But you recognize that big dude?”

“I think so. If he’s who I think he is, I been wanting to punch that pendejo in the gut for years now. Getting him in the balls was pretty good too.”

“He’s gotten a lot fatter, no? I’m still not sure, you’d think he’d have better things to do.”

“My wrists hurt.”

“I know, mine too.” Lena sighed. Twisted to look up at the sky. “We’re going to be fucked when the sun reaches us.” Her eyes returned to study the plastic bracelets cutting into their skin.

“Won’t be long,” Rosa whispered. Lena laid her head on Rosa’s shoulder, still staring at their hands.

“I know this is all Hollywood and shit, but I bet my glasses would work a little like a magnifying glass.” Lena looked up. “They might melt that way, no? How much shit have we melted in the truck over the years leaving it in the sun?”

“Maybe.” Rosa said. She was crying now, trying hard not to but crying all the same.

Rosa smoothed back her hair with her free hand, tried to smile. “Don’t hurt to try.”

The sun hit them sudden and hard, harsh, unrelenting. Heat rose in waves from the ground, cooked them like an oven, sucked moisture out of skin and breath. Lena chose two little pebbles from the ground.

“Here, suck on this. It will help you feel less thirsty.”

“Oldest trick in the book.”

“Girl, who needs new ones?”

Lena held her glasses over the plastic ring fixing them to the bumper as steady as she could. Heat radiated from the metal, it hurt to be so close. To stay so close.

The sun hurt.

Lena could feel her skin burning.

“I hate the desert,” whispered Rosa. The blood had dried dark and scabby, and her skin was burning around it. “This is what my brother must have felt before he died.”

“I know, baby, I know. But ain’t the desert’s fault. Humans are what’s fucked us.”

“Shit, it’s the vultures will be fucking with us soon. They’re circling already.”

“But not over us.” Lena squinted into the sky. “Hopefully just some road kill. Bet those vigilante motherfuckers swerve to hit ground squirrels might’ve crossed the border by mistake.”

Rosa sighed. “Assholes.”

The sun hurt.

“It smells like death,” Rosa whispered into the silence, and Lena realized it did. Strong. The vultures circled.

“Tell me a story, Lena.”

“Oh man, a story?”

“Anything,” said Rosa. “Any nice happy story.”

“I don’t think I can tell a nice happy story right now.”

“Please?” asked Rosa. “I just got the shit beat out of me by two white dudes. I need a happy story.”

“Shit,” said Lena, eyes shifting. Stayed silent a little while, thinking. Her gaze suddenly landed on her feet, white and smooth and soft, tucked under the truck so they didn’t burn as much as the rest of her.

“All right, I got a happy story.” She took a deep breath, smiled when Rosa smiled back at her and shut her swollen eyes the way a little kid would.

“I’ll tell you about when I was little, well. Tell you about how the rains came once upon a time, the monsoons. Those were different days, magical days, you know? Those days when we were little in the desert. And the biggest storms always started with a tiny little black cloud, like a smudge of charcoal. That cloud had to be sitting over Cat Mountain, or the rain wouldn’t be for us. But when it was our turn that black cloud would sit there in the middle of a great blue sky, so small I could block it out with my little thumb. The sun would be shining like this, hotter and hotter. You feel the sun, Rosa?”

“Mm,” said Rosa. “It’s burning me, this pinche sun.”

“Well, imagine the other clouds, they would come along, from East and North, South and West the other clouds would come. Dark and black they’d come. We’d all be humming like the energy in the air, storm energy. Like the spirits coming up from the earth, coming down from heaven to make our whole sky dark, hide our hills in mist and then all of a sudden the rain came. We’d watch it move across the desert like a curtain. We’d watch it coming like a wall of water. And then it would come. Imagine it Rosita, dark and misty and the air full of rain.”

Rosa licked her cracked lips, her smile grew.

“This rain pounded on the roof until we couldn’t hear talking. It pounded against the sliding glass windows so we couldn’t see outside. Then the sound of it changed, cuz the hail had come, and the winds, so strong they knocked down powerlines. The lights would go out, all at once, and we got to light candles and sit around in the rain dark. The lightening would flash, and we’d count the seconds until the thunder sounded so we’d know where the center was. We counted that storm center moving towards us, moving and moving until the lightening and the thunder came together. Crack!”
Rosa jumped. Laughed and caught her breath with pain at the same time.

“Crack! So loud our ears would ring. We’d sit there in the dark like we’re doing right now, sit there warm and dry listening to that storm blowing outside. To the hail beating against the windows, little balls bouncing across the ground.

“Then we counted the seconds as the storm moved away, counted the seconds until the hail stopped and the rain came less and less, counted the minutes until we were allowed outside. Finally dad would say we could all go out. Then there’d be no time for shoes or coats. We’d run outside barefoot.”

“Shit,” said Rosa. “No shoes? Really? You?”

“Shut up, yes me. All of us. We’d burst out of the sliding glass door, dance out of the sliding glass door and run on bare feet to try and look out and see the wash beneath our house, see how high the water was. Always that wash flooded with that little cloud over Cat Mountain. We’d run down our little path without our shoes, so excited we didn’t care about those sharp desert rocks, walking right over all those spines and thorns the rain’d made all soft. We ran and ran, and the rain made the desert smell like life. Like the creosote was breathing. Breathe deep Rosa, deep. Can you smell it?”

Rosa smiled. “You know I can smell it. All our damn water leaked out under the damn truck.”

Lena squeezed her hand. “We’d run breathing this air in in gulps, and we only stopped when we got to this little grassy bank and we could watch the crashing water. It was taller than we were, that flood. It drowned the acacias that grew on the little island in the middle, it covered the rocks we always used as spaceships. It roared down the wash full of mud and crests of white water that swirled along the banks. It left thick dirty foam behind it. The sound of it filled the whole world. Imagine that much water, Rosita. Can you hear it roaring in your ears?”

Rosa nodded.

“We couldn’t play in it until the next day when there’d be just a trickle left, full of water bugs. There’d be little blue butterflies all along the ground where it was still damp. Like the butterflies here, these ones.”

Rosa opened her eyes again, really saw the butterflies. “They’re beautiful, Lena.”

“I know. We’d walk up the wash to the old dam; the water made pools up there big enough for swimming, us being little and all. Cattails grew there. The desert would fill up with red-spotted and spade-foot toads, climbing out of the earth when the rains came. Had their babies. We’d catch them and hold them squirming in our hands, dry and just cool to the touch, the perfect size to nestle into our palms so we could feel the beating of their hearts against our skin. We once went up to the damn at just at the right time to find hundreds of baby ones, the size of my thumbnail, leaping across the ground to escape our shadows, so that we couldn’t walk all scared we’d crush them.”

“Shit, I’d like to see that.”

“Me too, even just one more time. We’d walk up and down that trickle of water in the wash. Until we were all tuckered out.”

“Poor you.”

“Naw, those were my favourite times. But look at my feet now, dude.

I used to run around barefoot all the time and now they’re all soft and useless like some old city girl. So the moral of the story is, that you’re the one who’s going to have to go look for our shoes.”

“Shit,” said Rosa, laughing. “That was nice, right up to the end. But I didn’t ask for no moral.”

“You get what you get.” Lena smiled.

The sun hurt. Climbed the sky. They curled up small as they could, hid their faces.

Lena still held her glasses steady as she could, arm aching, watched that small point of light from beneath her lids.

“Maybe this is some wishful thinking, but seems like maybe this plastic melting shit is going to work.”

“Oh man, I think you’re right,” said Rosa. They stared anxiously at the spot of light on the white plastic.

“Not for a while though.”

They sat still, quiet. Waiting. Burning.

“It smells like death,” Rosa whispered into the silence.

“I know.”

“You think those two mother fuckers are coming back?”

Lena frowned. “If they do, it better be after we get out of these cuffs.”

The minutes dragged on and on.

The sun rose. It hurt.

Cicada song filled the world. Lena could feel the heat rising from her own skin, radiating out an angry red colour. She could feel her lips cracking and her eyes locking into a squint. Flesh shrivelled as the water was sucked out of it, the sweat drying even as it beaded along her skin. Muscles ached from holding position, and red welts burned along her forearms from touching the metal bumper. She struggled to hold the glasses in place, her arm like lead and her muscles knotted and screaming.

The sun peaked directly above them. Began to fall. She worked at the plastic circle now, almost melted through. It came away and she closed her eyes and breathed and said a prayer in thanks. Opened her eyes to find Rosa still praying.

Slowly they helped each other rise, joints creaking, skin feeling like it would tear as it stretched into new position.

Rosa stumbled, and Lena half caught her. They almost fell. The world dipped around them and Lena saw lights, heard static.

“I don’t feel so good,” Rosa whispered.

“We just need to get to that water in the truck, beautiful. We’ll be all right.”

They hobbled in joyless hurtful dance up the slight trail of burning cutting rocks. Stood at the top and saw a wreckage of water bottles amid blue butterflies. Their shoes and socks thrown up into a mesquite.

“Bastards,” said Rosa viciously.

They awkwardly half-climbed half-waded into the shrubby tree, still connected by the other set of handcuffs. Emerged with footwear and deep bleeding scratches across their forearms and their legs. Pulled socks on over bleeding feet with a gasp, and then shoes. Laced them with difficulty. Made their way back to the truck silent but for their angry breath, cracked and swollen lips in straight lines.

“Right,” said Lena. “Keys.” It hurt to walk. They followed the memorized trajectory, found them glinting beneath a cactus.

Back at the truck Rosa pulled her bag up from under the seat. “You know how we were going to see if there was time to drop by Nana’s this afternoon because she’s been bugging me about those roses?”
Lena suddenly grinned back. “You brought the pruners!”

“I did!”

Cabron, the first bit of luck we’ve had all day! I just hope they work.”

With effort and more pain they did. Lena rubbed the angry ridged line the plastic had left in her skin. They drank silently and with great concentration the two gallons of emergency water stashed behind the seat. Sighed. Leaned against the truck. Smiled. Top of the world for a minute, two. They’d left a little water to wash the blood off of Rosa’s face. It stained the ground but the butterflies didn’t mind.
Rosa grabbed the rifle from behind the seat. Loaded up the clip from the glove box. Smelled the air with an ugly twisting of her face.

“Let’s find whatever’s dead. Dios permite, it’s just a cow.”

They drove slowly a short distance back along the road, hopped out and walked painfully the short distance to where the zopilotes circled.

Found a man. Vultures with wingspans his length watching the women with bright eyes as they hopped deliberately away. Red beaks, red like ocotillo blossoms. He no longer had eyes.

Lena stood, one hand over mouth and nose and the other clutching Rosa’s. Rosa suddenly sagged into her, a great animal cry of rage and grief emerged from her. Grief and rage. It rolled from Rosa in a terrible echoing and fell from Lena’s eyes in great drops of salt. They doubled over around it and let it shake their shoulders, rob them of air. Lena buried her face into Rosa’s mane of graying hair, held her tight. The birds watched them, curious, unable to understand. Hungry.

Y la revolucion?” whispered Rosa.

“I am ready, but I don’t think it is ready for us.”

“I don’t want to die before the border comes down.”

Lena chuckled in spite of herself. Still sad. “Some things you don’t choose, mi reyna.”

They stood, one at his head and one at his feet.

Abuelito,” said Lena. “Forgive us that we will not be moving you with much respect.” Tears dripped from her chin, splashed on what was left of his face.

The nightmare journey back to the truck was not at all respectful. Rosa threw up, and then they drove away, his body in the truck bed staring up at the forbidden sky. His smell covered their hands, their clothes. Ignacio Gutierrez. 65. Born in Jalisco. Pictures of children and grandchildren. A few clothes in a backpack. No water left.
They turned a corner and Lena had to hit the brakes, face to face with a massive truck souped up on big wheels. She thought she recognized it from its excessive headlights and small-dick-compensation. Caught proof in fragmentary bandit faces staring down at them before Rosa threw open the door and lifted the rifle to her shoulder. The windshield exploded as the truck swerved and came to a halt beside them.

Rosa ordered them out of the cab and they came. Pig-eye shook, but Law Enforcement looked like a coiled rattlesnake.

“Take off your bandanas, cobardes. Might as well be hoods, no? But I guess those would get too hot during the daytime.”

They removed their bandanas.

“Assume the position,” Rosa said. Her laughter grated. The men turned and put their hands on their truck.

“Not there, go over to our truck pendejos. March.”

She watched them march down the barrel of her rifle. Watched their faces fill with disgust.

“What the fuck is that,” said Pig-Eye, choking on the smell.

“Not what,” corrected Rosa. “Who. The question you should be asking is who did we kill with our borders and our free trade agreements and our targeting of wells and destruction of water and our nasty vigilante ways.”

Lena got Law Enforcement’s rifle from the gun rack, a pistol from the glove compartment, the knife from Pig-eye’s belt. Placed them on the ground at their feet and Law Enforcement cursed bitches under his breath. Patted them down and removed three lighters, two wallets and a Swiss Army knife. She checked the wallets had ID, smiled, and threw them on the front seat of her truck.

“We were coming back for you, we wouldn’t have left you there in the desert,” said Pig Eye, his voice greased. His teeth flashed too white and straight in his face.

Rosa ignored him. “The answer to your question is Ignacio Gutierrez. 65. Born in Jalisco. Father of three children, grandfather to five children. A working-man’s hands. You say a prayer for his soul.”

“What shall we do with these vigilantes then, when their prayers are done?” asked Lena.

“Kill ‘em?’ Rosa responded, always the hopeful one. “Break their faces?” Her hand rose to feel the welt across the side of her head.

“Shit,” grinned Lena, “I feel that little bit of Apache in me rising.”

De veras?”

“Yes. But then we’d probably end up in jail and that’d kill me too.”

“Might end up there anyway,” Rosa said. They came closer, thoughtful in the silence. Lena explored the contours of her rage.

“I just want to kill them.” Rosa’s eyes had never left the two men, and her fingers twitched on the rifle.

“Me too,” Lena said.

A shot rang out, splitting the heavy air in two.

“Fuck Rosa, what the…”

“Just scared ‘em a little.” Rosa grinned. Levered in another round. Raised her voice. “That blow to the head’s making me see all double,” she called, firing again. “This is fun, Lena. You’re missing out.”

“At least shoot at their goddamn truck, not ours.”

Rosa ordered them back to their own truck. Lena looked down at the shiny semi-automatic she’d taken from Law Enforcement. Picked it up and sent a dozen bullets into the tail gate. The men fell to their knees, arms protectively over their heads now. Pig-eye had pissed himself.

“Shit, this thing’s a fucking disgrace,” she said with disgust. “No skill required at all.” She laid it back down on the ground. Turned back to Rosa.

“Well, we got two problems,” she said, her voice low. “We got two bad guys need picking up and some retribution, and one good guy needs burying. Third problem is that really, we don’t want anyone in authority to know anything about us. Right?”

“Right.”

“Right.”

Lena whispered her thoughts to Rosa.

Rosa pondered them, fired off another bullet with a chuckle, nodded.

She ordered the two men to remove their shoes and throw them into the desert. Ordered them to move Don Ignacio into the back of their own truck. It was real awkward and took some time. Once Don Ignacio was settled, Lena ordered Pig-eye to lie face down in the back of the truck. She could tell the metal burned his skin. Grabbed his ponytail with distaste but with a joyful light in her eyes. He twitched angrily.

“You got that rifle pointed at his balls?” she called out to Rosa.

“Gift to the world to shoot those off,” Rosa replied.

Pig-eye lay very still as Lena hacked at his hair with the knife. It came away like a greased worm in her hand. Her eyes met Rosa’s and they both looked at it.

Rosa’s lips twisted.

Cabron, now you can say you’ve actually scalped someone,” she said. “All these white European immigrants, done invaded our lands, and you finally get to scalp one.”

Lena threw it onto the floor of their own truck, wiped her hands over and over again on the front of her jeans. Ordered the vigilantes to sit on either side of Don Ignacio, ankle to ankle, hands on their heads. Lena cuffed each of them to the dead man, cuffed their ankles and wrists tight tight. Cuffed Pig Eye’s free wrist to the gun rack, pretending she could smell his nasty urine over the smell of death. Swung down, grabbed the keys from the ignition then returned to Lena’s side. The keys jingled and flashed silver in her hand. She didn’t throw them into the desert.

The women stared at the vigilantes sitting there in the back of the truck with Ignacio Gutierrez between them, his head fallen forward onto his thin chest hiding the wreckage of his face.

“I hope he will be ok,” Rosa said, crossing herself. “I hope he is enjoying just a little this payback. You think he’ll be ok?”

Lena bit her lip. “Maybe we should cuff Law Enforcement to the truck too. I don’t trust him not to disrespect the dead while trying to free himself. You?”

“Hell no. But we need them to keep the vultures away from Don Ignacio.”

She’d never forget the panic on Pig-eye’s face.

“They got their free legs, no?”

Lena nodded, cuffed his other hand, jumped down from the truck bed and put an arm around Rosa’s shoulders. They turned to go.

“You’re just going to leave us here like this?” Pig-eye’s fear made Law Enforcement wince.

“We could kill you instead.” Rosa smiled.

Lena’s lip curled at Pig-eye’s whine. She took a few pictures with her phone. “We’ll let the police know where you are. You say anything and I’m sure our friends at Channel 5 will enjoy this little story, you being who you are, and they’ll have your ID’s as proof of course. We’ll leave it there unless you want to start something. It’d be real embarrassing for you, I’m sure, to drag it on further than that. We can do old and frail real well.”

“Fuck you,” said Law Enforcement.

“No,” said Rosa with a huge smile. “Fuck you.”

Back in the truck, back on the highway, Rosa used her foot to nudge the ponytail on the floor with disgust.

“What the hell are we going to do with that?”

Lena smiled a great golden smile.

It looked real nice, their trophy. Mounted on a piece of painted plywood, hung in legendary ceremony over the back of Frank’s bar.

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Grandma’s Story: Trinh T. Minh-Ha on Storytelling and Truth

Grandma’s Story is the final chapter of Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism by Trinh T. Minh-Ha. My favourite chapter I confess because it opened up horizons, and also sang with the words of Leslie Marmon Silko among others, whose words I have always loved.

It is written beautifully, interspersed with stills from film, the language difficult, rewarding. It works to overflow, expand, burst open the limits of Western intellectual thought the way that stories do without trying.

Why this battle for truth and on behalf of truth? I do not remember having asked grandmother once whether the story she was telling me was true or not. (120)

It is a language of possibility, of what is still unknown (and there is so much we don’t know).

If we rely on history to tell us what happened in a specific time and place, we can rely on the story to tell us not only what might have happened, but also what is happening at an unspecified time and place. (120)

It is a language of the interstices, freed from boundaries.

On the one hand, each society has its own politics of truth; on the other hand, being truthful is being in the in-between of all regimes of truth. Outside specific time, outside specialized space. (121)

And it is bigger than we are.

Truth does not make sense; it exceeds meaning and exceeds measure. It exceeds all regimes of truth. (123)

Above all, it is not ours, but builds on and also builds our communities and our connections.

Storytelling, the oldest form of building historical consciousness in community, constitutes a rich oral legacy, whose values have regained all importance recently, especially in the context of writings by women of color. (148)

And so we repeat our stories, tell them as fragments of the whole and as the whole itself, always changing as living things change, depending on circumstances, depending on who is speaking and who is listening, depending on many things that cannot be separated out. It is this unity in flux, this complex fluidity that can embrace the world and our place in it in multiple different ways that renders useless so many conventions of western fiction separated so starkly from western academic work or philosophizing.

But it is particularly difficult for a dualistic or dualistically trained mind to recognize that “looking for the structure of their narratives” already involves the separation of the structure from the narratives, of the structure from that which is structured, of the narrative from the narrated, and so on. It is, once more, as if form and content stand apart; as if the structure can remain fixed, immutable, independent of and unaffected by the changes the narratives undergo; as if a structure can only function as a standard mold within the old determinist schema of cause and product. (141)

This chapter struck me so forcibly after reading Barbara Fields on race and ideology, which forced me once again to confront the ability of people — most problematically white people — to maintain widely contradictory beliefs about others, often completely at odds with lived experience. This embodies the power of certain narratives shoring up power and privilege, as well as the inability of dualistic thinking to really grapple with them, the need to look in many places for a way of communicating that can build the world we hope to see.

Minh-ha also describes a very different way of working within the wider community, of relating to others. Imagine how much more powerful the kind of story embodied by theorising could be if this were true, as it should be true of all those who are in the struggle to transform the world:

I memorize, recognize, and name my source(s), not to validate my voice through the voice of authority…but to evoke her and sing. (122)

And transform the world we will.

Each woman, like each people, has her own way of unrolling the ties that bind. (148)

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A Place to Call Home

It’s been such a long few weeks of trying to recontact people I talked to months ago facing homelessness… many homeless still. Others housed. Some in prison. Most impossible to contact. I’ve been across Wales, away from my own home for most of the month, and work hasn’t stopped while I’m away. I’ve edited an issue of City, and written this piece about my hopes for Labour policy and homes that support life as it should be lived for a Verso ebook, also online with Salvage. Of course it could not look away from Grenfell, my heart is still broken.

A place to call home. A simple thing. Labour once had a vision that there should be housing for everyone, though what makes a home is perhaps not so simple. As Kim Dovey writes, home is deeply intertwined with our identity. It centres the relationship between ourselves and the earth, centres our connection to community and culture and society, to our past with its memories, and to our ability to grow into our full potential with the power to define our future. A home should be a place of strength and safety.

A home should not be what kills us.

Yet Grenfell went up in flames, went up in a great stench and acrid smoking to consume its survivors’ past and their present, their safety and security and community. It greedily consumed a still unknown, possibly never-to-be-known, number of human beings who trusted it and built their lives within its walls. Each of them was a world of stories and dreams and laughter. Only memories and ashes now, a gaping hole in the hearts and lives of those who loved them.

But I tried to dig down, go further. Think about how housing should be rethought before it is rebuilt. It was so hard to write, everything has been hard to write. Grief has been ever-present this month. Fundraising for the funeral for Julian, fundraising for Chelsea’s Silas and his future now that hers has been erased. The murderer of Philando Castile set free, a jury who could see what I and the rest of the world saw and do nothing. My friends sharing stories and fears, and nothing can ease fear for their lives in a country that puts no value on any Black life. On another front. My mother fighting to get the medicine she needs to live, and the Republicans doing what they can to take away the little and the imperfect support she now has. And bombs keep dropping and people far from here are still dying and millions are in movement across this earth and home has become such an impossible thing and their grief rages like a forest fire beside my small blaze.  I suppose this diminishes neither. I just wish there were more that I could do.

Henrik Ibsen — At Home and At Work

We went to see Henrik Ibsen’s home on Friday. In Oslo. We were in Oslo! It was cold for a summer day, quite rainy, never did really stop raining the whole time. So all my photos have a tremendous background of grey skies and water. Still, Oslo is a lovely place.

Reading Ibsen again was good too — I confess I read him too young. I read The Doll House I think, long long ago. Didn’t really understand it, what could I know of bourgeois emptiness and the disfigurement of women under hypocritical middle-class moralities? Like another planet, and a fairly boring, if not downright nasty one. I remember not liking it.

I like Ibsen so much better now — I worry, perhaps, that I know too much now about bourgeois emptiness. But still only from the outside. I can see, though, why Eleanor Marx would work so hard to translate them into English, why she wrote of seeing Hedda Gabler (1890) in the theatre and emerging transfixed. It was my favourite of these three. There are women here who save, and women who destroy, but all of them feel like real women. Rounded. Fighting their boundaries and the customs that hem them in, even if like Hedda, they don’t have the self-awareness to fight well. This is the tragedy of women who have not found meaning in life, but know that it is missing. Know that the narrow role allotted them is not enough. Hedda wasn’t brave enough to strike through to the centre of things — maybe she wouldn’t have been a nasty bully if she had. I wonder. But she was too brave to live constrained under the power of a man.

The there is The Pillars of the Community (1877). Here Lona has returned from the New World to the Old to shake out the stuffiness and the hypocrisy. She knows just what she wants, is comfortable in her own skin. The New World continues to be a place for Europeans to reinvent themselves, escaping the constraints and disfigurings of middle-class society. Here, the possibilities it offered and the woman who has grasped them, win a happy ending for everyone.

It felt a bit didactic, but I quite loved it as exemplary of that Victorian capitalist who long ago ceased to exist — the one who grew rich on others’ misery yet who was firmly anchored in position and place. This led to a paternalism, a sense of duty, a sense of being a pillar of the community. While it is entirely hypocritical to say that their investments were disinterested, they still had a care to ensure their investments could be seen as building and growing their community.

Hell of paternalistic and hypocritical though — here he has secretly bought up all the land where he is trying to bring a railway line in:

Karsten Bernick: See, I have risked this for the good of the community.

Lona Hessel calls him on it. You have to like her.

Karsten Bernick: And isn’t it the community itself that forces us into crooked ways? What would have happened here if I hadn’t dealt secretly? They would all have thrown themselves into the concern, divided it, scattered it, mismanaged and bungled the whole thing…That’s why my conscience absolves me in this particular case. It is only in my hands that these properties can become of permanent benefit to the many people they will provide with a living. (97)

He is, of course, in the process of replacing workers with machines, forcing them beyond their capacities, and almost commits murder. But at the last moment he is saved from his own self, which allows him to see himself truly and repent. Come out to the community he has felt so constrained by, even as he comes clean. A nice moral.

I liked the The Wild Duck (1884) better. Liked that the wealthy idealist in this play does more damage than good. Is as blind as his avaricious father, but in different ways.  I loved how this play turned The Pillars of the Community on its head in a sense, complicated the value of truth, showing its destructive power. I particularly loved this interchange:

Relling: While I remember it, young Mr Werle — don’t use that exotic word ‘ideals’. We have a good enough native word: ‘lies’.

Gregers: Do you mean the two things are related?

Relling: Yes. Like typhus and typhoid fever. (244)

I’m still thinking about Relling’s ‘medical’ use of the ‘saving lie’. Just another way towards misery, but whether more or less miserable is a difficult question. Hjalmar Ekdal is a vain, weak man. Perhaps What was best was whatever kept little Hedvig and the wild duck alive.

Ibsen’s house and the museum attached was by far the priciest thing we saw in Oslo, apart from perhaps Engebret Cafe, where Ibsen ate on occasion along with Grieg and Bjornstjerne Bjornson and etc (and where Munch was kicked out of, after accusing staff of stealing his gloves and scarf). It was delicious however, and all paneled wood, which you know I loved.

 Oslo - Engebret Cafe

I failed completely to get a good shot of Ibsen’s home’s exterior… here is an oblique shot, where this wonderful statue faces the park where the palace sits:

Ibsen in Oslo

What it once looked like:

We had walked across the park to get to the museum from one of the precisely ten thousand Scandic hotels scattered across the city. It was bought when Ibsen was old and famous and rolling in funds — and so he ended his days in a setting very much like one of his plays:

In face he did all the decorations himself, like his own stage set. It is quite opulent. The dining room and salon (with colours all off due to the light):

Ibsen in Oslo

His amazing study — his wife used to sell tickets to see it after he died, people would line up. She lived here until her death in 1914. It was turned into dentist offices before being returned to almost its original state:

Ibsen in Oslo

They even rescued the bath from a farmer’s fields.

Ibsen wrote five hours every day. Exactly.

One one wall of the study, Ibsen hung a huge portrait of Strindberg — his mortal enemy. I read Strindberg before our Stockholm adventure, and never got round to blogging that. While I quite liked The Red Room, his plays had me raging over the treatment of women. I prefer Ibsen.

Ibsen in Oslo

Suzannah died in this chair  (on the right behind glass) in the lovely but very little library, sitting up as she had wished

Ibsen in Oslo

Ibsen in Oslo

In addition to his plays with interesting women, there are the lovely hand drawn certificates he made for his wife Suzannah on special days:

Ibsen in Oslo

That was from the museum, full of fascinating odds and ends:

Ibsen in Oslo

Ibsen in Oslo

We didn’t go direct from his home to the Grand Cafe, where he went every day. But we did go. Here is Munch’s drawing of Ibsen at the Grand Cafe:

Oslo

It has changed quite a bit, but still feels very expensive and rather glamorous. We drank wine.

Oslo -- Grand Cafe

Oslo -- Grand Cafe

While wandering we also accidentally passed the location of his first house (I think, it’s in Norwegian) that his wife Suzannah hated, said it was cold and all corridors…

Ibsen in Oslo

I could end with his grave, which we found in Vår Frelsers gravlund…

Oslo -- Vår Frelsers gravlund

But instead will end with the cafe, where we actually found a very decent cup of coffee:

Oslo

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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Two Poems by Derek Walcott (colonialism, cities, words of fire…)

A City’s Death by Fire

After that hot gospeller has levelled all but the churched sky,
I wrote the tale by tallow of a city’s death by fire;
Under a candle’s eye, that smoked in tears, I
Wanted to tell, in more than wax, of faiths that were snapped like wire.
All day I walked abroad among the rubbled tales,
Shocked at each wall that stood on the street like a liar;
Loud was the bird-rocked sky, and all the clouds were bales
Torn open by looting, and white, in spite of the fire.
By the smoking sea, where Christ walked, I asked, why
Should a man wax tears, when his wooden world fails?
In town, leaves were paper, but the hills were a flock of faiths;
To a boy who walked all day, each leaf was a green breath
Rebuilding a love I thought was dead as nails,
Blessing the death and the baptism by fire. (6)

Origins

VII

The sea waits for him, like Penelope’s spindle,
Ravelling, unravelling its foam
Whose eyes bring the rain from far countries, the salt rain
That hazes horizons and races,
Who, crouched by our beach fires, his face cracked by deserts,
Remembering monarchs ask us for water
Fetched in the fragment of an earthen cruse,
and extinguishes Troy in a hissing of ashes,
In a rising of cloud.

Clouds, vigorous exhalations of wet earth,
In men and in beasts the nostrils exalting in rain scent,
Uncoiling like mist, the wound of the jungle,
We praise those whose back on hillsides buckles on the wind
To sow the grain of Guinea in the mouths of the dead,
Who, hurling their bone-needled nets over the cave mouth,
Harvest ancestral voices from its surf.
Who, lacking knowledge of metals, primarily of gold,
Still gather the coinage of cowries, simple numismatists,
Who kneel in the open sarcophagi of cocoa
To hallow the excrement of our martyrdom and fear,
Whose sweat, touching earth, multiplies in crystals of sugar
Those who conceive the birth of white cities in a raindrop
And the annihilation of races in the prism of the dew. (15-16)

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God I Enjoyed The Sellout by Paul Beatty

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

LA always hurt like hell too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Valletta’s Spaces of Stone

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

Valleta

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

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

Valletta

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

IMG_5070

These wonderful grand colonnaded spaces

Valletta

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

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

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

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

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

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

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

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

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

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

Valletta

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

Valletta

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

Valletta

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

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

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

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

Valletta

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

Valletta

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

Valletta

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

Valletta

Valleta

Valletta

Valletta

Valletta

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

Valletta

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

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

St Augustine's Bomb Shelter Valletta

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

Valletta from the air

Valletta from the air

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

Malta from the air

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

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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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