“A sense of the past, at any given point of time, is quite as much a matter of history as what happened in it.” -Raphael Samuel
As this historic and influential city readies itself to host the Olympic Games, The London Chronicles by Francesca Panetta takes you on an audio journey through the life of the city to find its many voices and sounds. Chapter four, which Winch and myself feature in, reflects the theme of memory.
London Calling was presented and produced by Francesca Panetta. Sound design was by Nick Ryan, script advice from Tom Chivers and field recordings from London Sound Survey. Producers for the BBC were Pandita Lorenz, Paul Coletti and Pearse Lynch. The editor was Fiona Crack. Pour a scotch, take the plunge.
“Cities, like dreams, are made of desires and fears, even if the thread of their discourse is secret, their rules are absurd, their perspectives deceitful, and everything conceals something else.” – Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Inspired by Italian writer Italo Calvino’s novel “Invisible Cities”, on the 40th anniversary of its publication, this BBC 3 Between the Ears explores the hidden, fantastical and surreal stories caught between the cracks of the modern city.
With contributions from writers, urban explorers and mapmakers we explore the imaginative possibilities held within cities, their secret folds. How does the layout of a city’s streets, underground passages and the glittering spires of its skyscrapers capture our desires, our fears and our memories?
From the ghosts contained in a cavernous lost property office deep underground to the view from the top of an abandoned warehouse – what impression does the structure of a city leave on its inhabitants?
I spent a week in Istanbul, Turkey earlier this month, taking some necessary downtime after a heavy few months of publication submissions. The city was beautiful and I left feeling rejuvenated and ready to work on a new project. Which of course I did. My plane touched down back in London November 20th at 9pm and by November 21st at 6am I was on a train to Scotland.
At the workshop, we were given a free hand to produce whatever we felt drawn to and I ended up organically gravitating to Brian and Jonathan who I have worked with previously on smaller projects. We decided in the end to attempt to produce a small film in the 3 days we had to work. We envisaged the film being roughy based around the Jute industry which thrived in Dundee at one time but has been long dead, now surviving as urban memory as part of the flagging tourist industry here. We went into the city armed with video cameras and audio recorders to try and locate connections between the historic industrial Jute city, the port that was essential to the transportation of the Jute and the changes that are taking place within the city that both build on and and overwrite that rich maritime heritage. In the end, the film also became as much about process as discovery as we found that the story we sought was buried in the urban palimpsest.
Methodologically, we were interested in making a film that broke from traditional documentary form, a piece led by sound (collected by Jonathan and Michael) rather than visuals (collected by Brian and myself) only taken from our time in “the field”. We were particularly careful to avoid narration or a film score, leaving the viewer with, we hope, a strong sense of a particular place at a particular time.
Given that the film is built around the audio, it is best watched with headphones on. Hope you enjoy it!
Some places are afforded more time than others. Time to celebrate a vivacious existence, an existence full of dinner parties, lonely nights in front of the telly, broken-hearted phone calls and pre-dawn stumbles home after drinks with friends. Walking down this anonymous street, you might have passed right by this place, unaware that beyond these inside this crumbling shell, memories reside in empty corridors and small artefacts left behind, memories that don’t have much time left to ferment, wrecking balls swinging in.
Some places are afforded more time than others. Time to sit empty, festering, mouldering and decaying, falling into a state of perceived isolation. But, if you were to be brave enough to walk through these doors, you would find that the stories of this forgotten place still pulse with sad life. Green shoots break through cement floors, committing atrocities against human ingenuity. Rust eats away at handrails in violent invisible chemical reactions. Children’s toys, once cherished, left in a heap, small cries emanating from their plastic lips. Coat hangers sit empty, the ghostly bodies that required their presence still lurking in these dankly lit corridors. Love affairs that once took place here continue, unsolicited, uninvited, their solicitous sensuality now bathed in a coat of plaster dust knocked loose by rapid departures.
Some places are afforded more time than others. Time to put nervous sweaty flesh on lipstick-stained mugs that look like they smell of morning cigarettes, to try on shoes embedded with the flat-arched imprint of a size 9.5, to sniff a container of seasoning for food long overgrown with furry moulds. Small altar offerings of blank CDs and cassette tapes to gods left behind testify to corporeal engagement with the materiality of this place, to lives lived, altars to human transience. This little Pompeii, now reduced to dust, preserved only on film and in memory, is a tourist attraction for the iniquitous and the inimitably curious.
One of the most unique things to explore in and around London for the past 20 years or so has been the county asylums, many of which were shut down in the 1980s during Margaret Thatcher‘s privatization of UK government systems. Asylums like Severals, Cane Hill, Horton, Manor, Long Grove, and West Park have been places that inspired slow strolls, beautiful photography and space for quiet contemplation about local histories that we seem to have collectively forgotten.
In January of last year, I wrote about West Park, about how the legendary security guard lovingly called The Hammer came down on us like a ninja and walked us off the property. He was a good sec and likely the reason why the place was so beautifully preserved.
Then, in July, I wrote about it again, this time making it in after The Hammer had been laid off, probably due to the recession. I predicted at the time that this may be the end of our beloved asylum, with the economy crumbling and every developer grubbing around for areas to “redevelop” in line with the government’s plans to embed a curtain of concrete, metal and glass over the whole of greater London before the Olympic games in 2012.
Where we still play
Well, sure enough, I just got word that Jonathan Lees, the Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Candidate for Epsom & Ewell has announced plans to level the site and build “a total of 373 new homes.”
When I posted the news story to my facebook page, I was surprised by two things. First, there was no cry of “let’s stop them!” (as my archaeologists friends might do) and second, the two comments that were posted (by UrbExers) were very reasonable in terms of letting go of the place. The first from Midnight Runner who say this “always happens but who’s going to buy their buildings in this financial climate?” and the second from Statler who said “interesting that they propose to convert the water tower into 4 dwellings, that tower has a HUGE crack down the middle of it and is held together by steel bands!”
Well thought out?
These comments reinforce my earlier postings about the UrbEx communities enjoyment of architectural transition and the lack of a need to hold on to the physicality of a place. But these comments also say something about the depth of our relationships with these places. Who else in this city has such detailed information about dangerous substances, unsafe architectural elements and archaeological points of interest?
Granted, most of us who explore this place never saw West Park as an active asylum and maybe there are some memories here that people might want to forget. Perhaps this concept sits behind the scenes like a memory architect, quietly guiding the hand of redevelopment. We get nostalgic about the London Asylums but as David Lowenthal writes in The Past in Foreign Country “nostalgia is memory with the pain removed. The pain is today. We shed tears for the landscape we find no longer what is was, what we thought it was, or what we hoped it would be.” But does our discomfort with particular memories warrant an erasure of that past? Certainly a lesson here could be learned from Germany, a country which humbly preserves horrible memories because even memories of difficult times can help us to better understand who were are today, even if it is just about not repeating certain mistakes.
The question that lingers is an important one – do we need the physical space to remain in order to remember? The UrbEx community seems content to look at thousands of photos taken and say “yeah, I was there when it was something different” yet we know an intimacy of place through experience. It seems to me a very mature response to spatial change, memory without attachment to place. But the archaeologist in me still wants to cry foul.
One comment on Lee’s blog by Dave Baker asks whether “there also been budgetary arrangements and provisioning for a photographic survey prior to demolition”. Dave, just so you know, there is probably no building in the city that has been better documented. The better question in my mind is whether our digital archiving is all that is needed to make sure these places are never forgotten. Where is the room in the agenda for experience of place?
I guess the likelihood of that argument holding weight in a society based on a commodity system is not likely to sway many hearts or minds but in terms of documentation, whenever the council would like to thank us for our wonderful work in preserving memories of these neglected places, including Rookinella’s controversial tour offered to The Independent, I am sure the UrbEx community would be happy to hear it. In the meantime Mr. Lee, just from an economic standpoint, please consider the possibility that the Asylum would make more money as a London County Asylum living museum and heritage park that as a housing development in the middle of a recession. Just a thought.