Spectres

Spectres

‘even if it is in oneself, in the others, in the others in oneself: they are always there, spectres, even if they do not exist, even if they are no longer, even if they are not yet. They give us to rethink the ‘there’ as soon as we open our mouths.’

– Derrida, Spectres of Marx, p. 176.

The Hardy Tree, St Pancras Old Church, London.

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“O passenger, pray list and catch
Our sighs and piteous groans,
Half stifled in this jumbled patch
Of wrenched memorial stones!”

“We late-lamented, resting here,
Are mixed to human jam,
And each to each exclaims in fear,
‘I know not which I am!”

-Thomas Hardy[1]

Known best for his works of literature, author Thomas Hardy played a little known but important role in the redevelopment of the Kings Cross area in the years 1862-67, in which he both studied under and worked alongside the Covent Garden based architect Arthur Blomfield. When the new Midland Railway Company lines were being constructed to serve the then new Kings Cross and St.Pancras stations, their trajectory was set to cross the grounds of St.Pancras’s graveyard. Rather than redirect the route away from or around the burial site, Blomfield was charged with relocating the contents of the graves elsewhere, an unsavoury task which he keenly delegated to his apprentice, the young Hardy.

The mass exhumation, grotesque in itself, led to a legacy even more curious than the events that created it; ghost stories, leylines and an ancient occult geometry. Hardy instructed that graves be repositioned around the base of an ash tree that lay to the east of the church buildings. Throughout its life time, the ash has continued to grow from within and amongst the weathered gothic headstones that surround it to create quite the (spectral) spectacle. The graves, like the corpses they bear, are jumbled; a frantic mass of jagged stones that break the earth as fractured concentric circles, imposing the macabre on an otherwise peaceful area of the churchyard. Bodies lay upon bodies, graves upon graves.

Hardy’s discomfort with the removal and relocation of the remains is made obvious in the lines of his The Levelled Churchyard (extract above). The words bring revenance to the place, depicting cries from beyond the grave; the unsettling groans of a disrupted dead resonate throughout the poem. Such a discomfort is even more apparent, more biting still, when visiting the tree in person.

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At times, the tree itself can seem alive; it reaches up from the depths of the underworld, dragging the surrounding dead with it. The fencing that borders this disturbing site seems more appropriate in the keeping of something in rather than keeping it out, especially as night falls. As Battista et al state ‘There are those that believe that spirits can gain access to the world of the living via the roots of trees.’[2]. If ever such a claim could be made of a place, it is here. The Hardy Tree certainly appears to offer itself as evidence of such an access point; the roots of the ash physically bound to the bodies and memorials of those who once inhabited the locale, perhaps hinting at a gateway to the ‘otherside’ ? The graves themselves are almost illegible, centuries of exposure to the elements have removed much of the engravings that gave testimony to the dead of St. Pancras; now it is the sheer spectacle of a place in which man and nature reside together, that acts as the signifier for all of the collective memories that are buried amongst its roots.

What is perhaps most striking about the Hardy Tree is this sense of entanglement with nature. Where in the past, trees were the preferred method for commemorating life and death, for marking burial[3], the act became outmoded, giving way to the more viable and perhaps personal use of the headstone. What Hardy offers through his tree of the same namesake, is a return, a return to nature in order to commemorate life and death. Even if such a return was the result of a rather utilitarian approach to land space (the use of the area is if nothing else economical), the result has been something far more affective; the tree has inherited the very memories of the bodies it shelters and is beyond all, a curiosity even within the traditions of burial and place making. It stands as a site where man has quite literally been brought back to the earth and its life cycle.

The ash that stands within the grounds of St. Pancras Old Church is a comportment of man and nature, a bizarre manifestation of London’s haunted past that bears the spirits of both the jumbled dead that lay under and within it, and the life that has continued to spring forth. Here man and nature are eternally bound, inseparable and indistinct, and this is perhaps the most discomforting element of the site, the muddling of peoples and place, as Hardy laments; ‘And each to each exclaims in fear, ‘I know not which I am!’.

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[1] Hardy, T., 1995, ‘The Levelled Churchyard‘ (1882) in Hardy’s Selected Poems, Dover Publishing, USA.

[2] Battista, K., LaBelle, B., Penner, B., Pile, S., Rendell, J., 2005,  ‘Exploring ‘ an area of outstanding natural beauty’: a treasure hunt around King’s Cross, London’, Cultural Geographies,  12, pp.429-462.

[3] Bevan-Jones, R., 2002, The Ancient Yew, Windgather Press, UK.

 

Landscaping Literature

As a bibliophile I find myself defenseless against the power of books. Useless against the allure of the new, I have frequently spent the last of my wages on books and would more than likely do so again, if given half the chance. In many cases books have become a substitute for meals and so whilst the cupboards might be bare, the bookshelves are overflowing. It seems only right then, that some of my favourites should get a mention of their own.

Over the past few years I have been trying to build up a collection of first and rare editions of some of the older texts that I’ve used in the research for my thesis. I felt like I should share some of my more interesting finds here; they aren’t all firsts and some of them aren’t even particularly rare, but each book offers a rich discussion on our engagement with landscape, on nature-culture relations and on the dynamy of place.

I would highly recommend Watkins’ work in particular, to anyone wishing to pursue alternative forms of engaging with the landscape. Watkins’ leylines offer a unique method for walking and seeing the historical environment and as such  throws up a number of interesting questions about how we map and move through our surroundings. Belloc’s The Old Road is, as with Watkins, a exposition of ancient trackways, a sort of speculative, quasi-archaeological account of pilgrim paths, again written within a highly detailed, clearly articulated yet poetic approach that evokes a sense of wonder. I would view Hudson’s writings in much the same way; Hudson offers beautifully descriptive accounts of the English countryside in a very precise yet accessible style. The level of detail present is meticulous. Hudson works his ideas through in highly crafted narratives that leave the reader with a real sense of place. Adopting a style that comfortably straddles the chasm between anthropological study and the new naturalist writings of the early twentieth century, Hudson provides us with a generous topology, replete with sensual encounters, memories and moreover, vitality.

Memory and encounters are two themes that are further explored in the B. Bond and Underwood texts; though these belong to a more arcane genealogy than either Hudson or Watkins, each of the authors posits a link between placial experientialism and a wider topographical knowledge. For Underwood this forms part of a deeper archaeological understanding of Stone Henge through dowsing practices, for B. Bond, though still within the remit of a fringe archeology, the focus is on place based spirits; gaining knowledge of the land through its revenant occupants.

Mabey attempts to pick up where writers such as Hudson left off. Along with Deakin, MacFarlane et al, Mabey narrates across a sort of ruralised (sub)urban landscape where ubiquitous habitus is threaded through naturalist accounts of peripheral wildlife. Together with various other writers of the ilk (Sinclair, Papadimitriou etc), Mabey has developed a ground for the exploration of an urban undercurrent that is premised as much upon marginalized nature as it is the psychogeographic. Not that one would accuse Mabey of wading the same stagnant waters as the psychogeographic crowd, but there is a strong sense of wandering, of the affective nature of these vital enclaves that runs throughout his writing, that same sort of privileged knowledge which pervades the works of those who hold some esoteric understanding of the ‘hidden city’.

Hoskins ponders man’s effects on the development of the English settlement and countryside, examining the archaeological and historical frameworks that support them in what is essentially a cultural history of our landscape.

I have little to say of the Wainwright Sketchbook, other than as with all his works, the sense of a deep love for the place of study permeates each and every page of the text. Wainwright always said that he felt that he belonged in the Lake District and as any of his readers will confirm, there is testimony to this passion to be found in every offering on the Lakes that Alfred Wainwright has given us. This same sense of a deep belonging runs through each of the seventy five illustrated studies of Wainwright’s favourite Yorkshire haunts.

The Texts

1. Guy Underwood, The Pattern of the Past, 1968, Museum Press. 1st Edition.

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2. Alfred Watkins, Early British Trackways: Moats, Mounds, Camps and Sites. A Big Discovery, 1922, Simpkin, Marshall, Hamilton, Kent and Co. 1st Edition.ImageImage

3.Alfred Watkins, 1948, The Old Straight Track, Methuan and Co. 4th Edition.ImageImage

4. Richard Mabey, 1973, The Unofficial Countryside, Collins. 1st Edition.ImageImage

5. Alfred Wainwright, 1976, A Dales Sketchbook, Westmorldand Gazette. 1st Edition.ImageImage

6. W. G. Hoskins, 1981, The Making of The English Landscape. Hodder and Stoughton.Image

7. W. H. Hudson, 1978, A Shepherd’s Life, Compton Press.Image

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8. W.H. Hudson, 1919, Birds in Town and Village,  J. Dent and Sons. 1st EditionImageImage

9. W.H. Hudson, 1925, Hampshire Days,  J. Dent and Sons. 1st Edition (Second Press)Image

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10. W.H. Hudson, 1924, The Book of a Naturalist,  J. Dent and Sons. 1st Edition.ImageImage

11. W.H. Hudson, 1927, Birds and Man,  Duckworth Press. 1st Issue in New Readers Library Edition.ImageImage

12. W.H. Hudson, 1932, Adventures Among Birds,  Temple Press.Image

13  Hilaire Belloc, 1911, The Old Road, Constable and Co. 1st Edition (2nd Press)Image

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14. Frederick Bligh Bond, 1920, The Gate of Remembrance, Blackwell. 3rd Edition.ImageImage

St. George’s Gardens, London

St. George's Gardens, London

It’s been quite a while since i last posted anything and the site was in dyer need of an update. I’ve been busy working on completing my PhD over the past few months and with various other demands on my time, including work, I’ve neglected to use this space as I had intended. Anyway, the next few months don’t appear to be any less busy so I am forcing myself to make time and try and get one post out at least every two weeks along with some photos on the wyrd and occluded spaces I come across in my research, as well as more frequents images, sounds and links to events that might be of interest. Other than as a brief update this entry details a strange burial site I came across a few weeks ago – St George’s Gardens. It really is a strange little spot and I will write a more detailed account of the place and uncanny frequencies that resonate within it at some other point, however what is below serves as an introduction and will hopefully direct readers to a rather bizarre though tranquil spot in London’s city centre.

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St. George’s Gardens are formed by a small, walled cemetery in the Bloomsbury area of central London. A stone’s throw from the Kings Cross/ St. Pancras complex, the cemetery is now a public garden maintained by Camden Council. There are many cemetery spaces scattered throughout London, what makes St. George’s stand out is the the alignment of large stones set across the graveyard, diving it into two sections.

Established in 1713, this pair of burial grounds were created to serve the parishes of St. George the Martyr Queen Square and St. George’s Bloomsbury and were the first Anglican burial grounds to be placed away from the churches they were built to serve.

The line dividing line itself is constructed of what appears to be crumbled headstones. Though the area is no longer used for burials, the remaining boundary imparts a sense of strange psychic partitioning, forcing the observer to question the sacrality of either side. The demarcation of the sacred by the alignment brings the politics of both death and consecration under scrutiny – we are used to seeing such elements contained, enclaved by the non sacred, but a division within the sacred space appears quite distinct, with the line of stone itself mirroring the social division between the people of Holborn and those of Camden of who the sides of the grounds represent. The Gardens are worth a visit by anyone visiting the area and are around a 15 minute walk from either Euston, Holborn, Kings Cross or Russell Square stations. There are also plenty of large ivy clad tombs to be seen, numerous gothic style headstones and a single obelisk which along with the stone boundary is a highlight of the gardens.

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Paperweight Radio

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A couple of weeks back I returned to ResonanceFM to feature as a guest on the pilot broadcast of Paperweight’s radio show. I had originally written a short piece for Paperweight: A Newspaper of Visual and Material Culture, a couple of years back when they ran a themed issue on ghosts. For a number of reasons that was the last issue of Paperweight to be printed before the editors moved online. Anyway, it seems that the publication is due for a comeback with the next issue being put together for later this year and as well as their online presence, the journal has now moved onto the airwaves.

The pilot show hosted by Juliette Kristensen, also themed on ghosts, featured an interesting line up of guests and covered quite a broad reading of ghosts and the occult. Paul Atkinson, Professor of Design at Sheffield Hallam, spoke on the topic of vapourware – technological innovations that are designed, prototyped and marketed to the public but never manufactured or sold, leaving a design history littered with objects made present only by their absence. Brad Feuerhelm introduced his work on Paraphotography, speaking to a number of occult themes and introducing his current collection, On Paraphotography: Uncertainty, the Occult and the Uncanny. showing at Harlan B. Levey Projects, Brussels. The show concluded with an interview with Ninteenth Century Literature and Culture scholar, Clare Pettitt, on ‘The Nineteenth Century Telegraphic Imaginary’. Somewhere in between these guests I answered some questions on the strand of spectral based geography I am working on for my thesis, what I have termed, the parageographical.

A recording of the show can be found here.