Saturday, March 08, 2008

Instal Festival 2008: Part 1

Thursday 14th February

So it is, of course, the usual method: up too early, too much to eat for breakfast, packed and ready on the station platform by 7.45. City types, travelling from their gated Bournemouth communities to London pigpens, create a line of briefcases along the platform. I settle myself down in a daze, almost thoughtless; the train pulls away, moving through the culverts of Boscombe, Pokesdown, speeding through the thinner suburbs that connect with Christchurch, and it’s only then I can partly relax: I’m finally doing what I’d planned, it’s happening how it should. Like being stuck inside a film, future memories. The train carries on over the flat, hedged country that connects us with the New Forest; trees multiply either side of the line, gazes disappear down into the deep woodland I always thought of exploring. Visiting my aunt and uncle at their farm, near Beaulieu, we would take walks with the dogs through the relatively tame woods around them; more than once, I got stuck in mud, and had to be pulled from my Wellington boots, followed, with an almighty efforts, by the boots themselves. The woods set off mental triggers, phantom memories: the sleeping forest around Kurt – oops, sorry, ‘Blake’s – mansion in Van Sant’s Last Days; the hours I spent in the tiny copse in Littledown, reading Camus’ The Rebel; the Walden-like communes of occultists and ‘free-thinkers’ who lived, isolated, in the New Forest during the Victorian era. We stop a few times, gliding sleepily to the tiny platforms of these backwoods stations; some schlep in a business suit sits next to me, asks whether I like Japan’s Tin Drum (the title of which came from my eponymous reading material), reads his BMW manual. I sit, listen to Oren Ambarchi, Charalambides, watch the stasis of deep leaf litter. My downloading activities, more frequent in recent days, whilst despicable, serve their purpose.

The words popping up become a litany of obscure names, sleepy villages, trees hanging over lanes distant from the stations. Emerging out into the desolation surrounding Southampton – old industrial parks, what I think are artificial swamps, the carcasses of abandoned boats – prepares us for the run up to London. The historic character of these spots – the rural spaces interspersed with railway villages, cathedral-infected Winchester, the sprawling non-place of Basingstoke – seems almost erased, their psychogeographic character standardised, unreadable from a train window. Connection brings homogenisation, but not in a good way: the ‘existential’ writers who railed against the ‘machine society’ in the 1950s were still dealing with an efficiently brutal Fordism – beneath the banally shiny surface lurked violence. Nowadays, homogeneity is just that; one wonders how long before buildings and landscapes are reduced to pure surface, their functional insides removed to leave simply a façade. By the time you head towards Reading, you’re already in London satellite country – an endless suburbia, a Britain sponsored by Barratt Homes and numerous American multinationals. Everywhere looks rather like the upmarket parts of Boscombe – ill-built sandy brick boxes, tarmac, bridges and underpasses thrusting their geometry across the traveller’s vision. It’s no wonder Iain Sinclair, in London Orbital, twinned Metroland with the asylum colonies that were swept out to the capital’s edges: here, on its Western periphery, there are still cracks in the façade of Capital, a boredom not yet elevated (or alleviated) by mall non-entertainments; an older, nastier violence still just pokes through. The transition into ‘London proper’ is slow, odd: there is no violent change once inside the orbital motorway, just that the streets are a bit wider, the trees slightly more plentiful. But where you might expect the smallest intervals of country or pseudo-country between satellite towns, here it just goes on, and on, endlessly. The architecture becomes weirder, older – compacted buildings that look as if they’ve been sawn-off, grey stone pubs smaller than your average NHS surgery. The topography, the micro-regional separations that make sense when on the ground simply become alienating when glimpsed from afar like this. Eventually, there’s no room even for the train above ground, and we’re forced into culverts between buildings that open up into the long, desolate approach to Waterloo.

My first time back in London for an age, and I’m almost shaking as I leave the train: London seems to exist almost as a parallel universe with its own logic, one motivated by cold mania. I practically rush to get off the platform, run straight for the Underground station. At this point, I feel like I’m running purely on adrenaline, instinct: the possibilities of fucking up, of things going wrong, that I had contemplated so many times before, didn’t even occur to me; the tunnels, which I had always thought of as a labyrinth, seemed only to lead towards the destination. Once at King’s Cross, with almost 40 minutes to spare, I wander outside – getting funny looks for taking a photograph of the bizarrely-constructed (Victorian white brick, but looking as if it should be the corner of a much larger building) Scala, pay a visit to the famous Housman’s bookshop (making a mental note to return with more money), popping into Soho Books (only, I may add, browsing the ground floor, not the rather more rum section upstairs). Once on the train – the carriages are helpfully indicated this time, as opposed to those of the accursed Southwest Trains – I struggle to get to my seat, and remain determined not to move from it. Pulling away from the capital, I feel almost a sense of relief – the trip was finally properly underway, all I had to do was sit, carried away from the distorting, deathly gravity of the bloated South.

There’s no getting away from it, even if we have the excuse of being born here – England is a strange country. This is especially apparent when glimpsed from train windows (apparently one of Alex Neilson’s favourite hobbies on train journeys is making sketches based on these fleeting visual impressions): the flat, undifferentiated land-mass of Herefordshire blends into the Midlands, operating with the same aesthetic logic: namely, that there is none. Supposedly one of the most affluent and (previously) industrially successful nations on earth, we still have, just outside the population centres, vast swathes of land apparently doing nothing; divided by the same criss-crossing patterns of hedges and stone fences for hundreds of years, apparently left without any design other than the annual trimming and reaping. The Kipling England of bowling greens, small chapels and hay-making screens something much darker, much more interesting – the world accessed in English folk song, the blackened drift of Mick Harris/Martyn Bates’ Murder Ballads.
After Peterborough, the country begins to get rougher – the further North we travel, the more this atmosphere seems to emanate from the land itself. By the time we approach York, the landscape consists of endless rocky hills covered in short grass, scattered sheep. The washed-out, drifting tones of Steven R. Smith’s Owl (a pirated MP3 edition, sorry) proves apposite. The Pennines seem almost part of a far-away dream as we head towards Darlington, Newcastle, and the east coast. Entering Newcastle, I’m overjoyed to spy the Sage Gateshead, where Jandek played in 2005, his second ever show, and 5 months before the London concert at which I caught him – a freakish, bulbous structure, like a Dune sandworm had lain down on the land, died, and been conveniently coated with disco-ball mirrors; the graceful span of the Gateshead bridge shows up the pitiful efforts of London architects, the wobbling ‘Millennium’ bridge. Hissing on through the countryside towards the eminence of Durham – the Gothic beauty of the cathedral surrounded by reams and reams of red-brick terraces, distant wooded hills encircling the city – we hit the east coast. There’s almost no room between us and the North Sea – a grassy embankment, bare cliff, then endless white and green expanse. The sun shines, for the first time in what feels like an age. From there, the view is almost unchangingly beautiful: up through the bleak beaches and rich (and decidedly provincial) town of Berwick-Upon-Tweed, up and around Britain’s hump towards Motherwell, the medieval greyness of Edinburgh. Om’s Conference Of The Birds is playing loudly as we split the country in two, pull in past the black expanses of industrial parks and tenements south of the Clyde.
The less said of the evening, the better, perhaps. I feel vaguely overwhelmed by the scale of Glasgow – having found no information whatsoever at the Tourist Information office, and having no change, I end up walking to my hotel; in fact, overshooting it, having to go back by quite some distance before I get to the slightly better suburb of Craigpark, and scour the hill. By the time I arrive, I’m famished, exhausted, running on adrenaline and bile. The guest house itself is absolutely lovely – incredibly cosy, lacking only a stag’s head or stuffed owl. The proprietress is very friendly, and seemingly indulgent of my eccentricities (the main thing, when it comes to me.) After a short recuperation, I stumble out into the night; among the Chinese takeaways, tattoo parlours, pawn shops and boarded-up relics of the East End, sitting in a collection of tacky bridal shops and nail parlours, is Mono, where I have a somewhat embarrassed meal. No, I’ve never ordered at a restaurant before, discounting your average Ballardian Chinese – the staff seem distinctly bemused by my directness, and the fact that I’m eating alone on Valentine’s night, but ask no questions. The food, it should be mentioned, is the best of its kind I’ve ever had (and vegan as well!) – a beautiful salad with toasted pine-nuts, and a gorgeous (and big) vegetarian lasagne. I walk back, and sit listening to Om on my enormous and deep bed. Sleep (as innocent as I can manage) is slept.


Blogger owen hatherley said...


old industrial parks, what I think are artificial swamps, the carcasses of abandoned boats

Oh, the beauty of my home town...I've taken the Soton-London train more times than one could possibly imagine, and habitually stare out of the window at the landscape - the peculiar watertanks and electrical substations as one approaches New Malden are a particular joy. I must admit though, I find Basingstoke oddly fascinating...all these towering, vaguely Scando flats and offices, it takes its non-place rep and rather runs with it - they know nobody will ever visit it for Heritage, so it's actually a lot less bland than Southampton or Reading, where there are appearances to keep up.

March 12, 2008 at 12:55 PM  
Blogger Dan said...

Oddly enough, I'm starting to be rather fascinated by the idea of visiting all these provincial places like Basingstoke - Southend, Grimsby, High Wycombe, Wakefield - even just on day trips; I think they might yield interesting anomalies... Better absorbed just passing through, as Baudrillard said of America...

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