“…and the unshakable feeling that horrors untold awaited, silently, in the place that had risen up before them.”
“…and the unshakable feeling that horrors untold awaited, silently, in the place that had risen up before them.”
Harmonica Yokocho in Kichijōji, located in the west of Tokyo, is a warren of narrow, roof- covered alleyways, hosting a melange of compact shops, bars and restaurants. The Yokocho gives the impression of being halfway between a bazaar and the remnants of an historic ‘Oriental’ arcade. For those travelling from the West and who are in search of that coveted experience of the Japan recorded in the ethnocentric writings of nineteenth century exoticism, this is the sort of place where you might find a version of that. The tapering side streets are densely packed with fortune tellers, bars, restaurants, boutiques, zakka stores, a florist and a fishmongers, though this list is nowhere near exhaustive. The Harmonica Yokocho (or side streets) are so-called due to their arrangement resembling the comb of a mouth organ. Originally built as flea market, legend has it that the alleyways were home to a series of black-market vendors during the early days of the post-war period. Walking the dimly lit streets today, it is easy to see how such a rumour came to be spoken, and there is likely some truth in the tales of clandestine transactions having taken place amongst the shadows here.
There are, of course, a number of obvious entry points available to those wanting to describe Harmonica Yokocho: the proximity of the old, slightly ‘shabby’ looking area appears in contrast to the sleek, ultra modern construction of Kichijōji Station and its attached shopping mall, positioned directly opposite the alley entrances; the idea that this is a genuine taste of ‘old Japan’ or ‘real Japan’, whereby one both becomes and observes ‘the other’; the myth of the black-market providing traces of a less ordered past, complicating the Western view that modern Japan is a tidy, systematic and well-ordered space; and so on and so forth. Such analyses are trite and riddled with the typical prejudices that are set up in all too many explorative writings of Japan. This is not to say that such critiques have no value, rather that as a white, male, westerner, it is difficult to get beyond representations of such encounters with the Japanese, and in many ways it is what has come to be expected: representations of the strange, the exotic, the ‘other’. And whilst there have been significant attempts to reconcile descriptions of the foreign with a sense of the familiar and recognisable quotidian in writings on other parts of the world, it remains that Japan still engenders a state of confusion amongst visitors, one whereby we might point and stare: “How strange they are!”
It is troubling.
Suffice is to say, my approach to the alleyways is, then, something I’m more comfortable with. I walk through Harmonica Yokocho every day, not some days, not the odd day, but every single day. I’ve done this since I arrived in Kichijōji last March. “Why?” you might ask, because it feels like home. Not in the way that I’m reminded of the years l lived in London – these streets do not resemble those around Covent Garden, Spitalifields or Greenwich Market – nor are the alleys reminiscent of those found in Guildford, Northampton or Norwich, of which I became well acquainted in my teens and early twenties. Rather, the feeling I get from negotiating this linear circuit of lanes is one of simultaneous belonging and distance, such that I might be able to just be in this place, becoming lost in the oscillation between familiarity and reservation.
The cries of the elderly fishmongers, a cacophony of crashing pots and hissing pans, call outs from bars, tobacco smoke, the heavy scent of baking bread, neon glare, a warm glow of faux-candlelight emitted from paper lanterns, stale liquor, disinfectant, floral perfume, creeping shadows: each instils a further sense of belonging, one that I can only assume emanates from the sensory multiplicity that is spatial awareness. memory + experience = place. It feels like the alleyways carry with them tiny pieces of all those former sites and situations I’ve once thought of as homely, familiar. The Yokocho are enchanted. Here memories of previous sounds, sights and smells forgo cognitive distillation and work to inflect my present encounter. The shimmering corpses of recently expired fish lay stretched over their ice-filled, polystyrene caskets in a a scene both grotesque and uniquely exciting to observe. The lifeless sea creatures providing a tableau of existence beneath the waves, a static glimpse into their otherwise inaccessible kingdom.
My favourite days as a child started with my mother walking me down to our town’s Friday market. She would pick me up and show me the morning’s ‘catch’, displayed on a narrow slope of ice in the open hatch of the fishmonger’s trailer. I was fascinated by the chart of fish found in British waters (including sharks) that was pinned to the back wall of the mobile store, directly behind the fishmonger – a large, beaming woman with a thick Norfolk accent. If I was especially lucky my mother would buy me a tail of smoked haddock. The substantial woman in white behind the counter patiently waited for me to select my choice of luminous, ocre stained fish. The haddock would be held before me whilst the vendor keenly awaited confirmation. Once I’d given the all clear, the fish would be wrapped in paper and handed over to me in a plastic bag, whereupon I would waste no time at all in removing the paper package and sniffing its contents.
The alley streets are dark, not gloomy but neither are they particularly inviting. They speak to me of ghosts, of those things which manifest (as real or imagined) and that work to manipulate our perception – fleeting moments of familiarity, acquaintance, confusion, disturbance. As a sort of liminal zone on the threshold of present, historic and imagined Tōkyō, the streets could be stripped right from the pages of a novel. They are at once alive and dead, seemingly frenetic, yet turn a corner and you’re all alone. There is a strange air of perseverance here- a feeling that the space and its inhabitants strive to retain and preserve a part of the local community that has existed for generations – like that presented by Natsuhiko Kyogoku in his haunting description of 1950’s Itabashi. Unlike the majority of the city, this unassuming area of Kichijōji has remained untouched by developers since the war, though many of the bars and shops are relatively new arrivals to the market. Wider, more accessible streets demarcate the alley purlieus, giving way to upmarket department stores and illuminated walkways. In this sense, then, we might consider Harmonica Yokocho to be an in-between space, annexed by the less enchanting, envelopment of gentrification that consumes much of Kichijōji and the wider Tōkyō area.
I pass through Harmonica Yokocho not because I want to but rather because I need to. The necessity is not one of material need (although I must confess the bakery is rather good), I can walk around the alleys which would perhaps be less time consuming on many occasions. The need is far more spiritual. I gain a certain satisfaction from moving in and between the alleys, finding new routes in and out of the covered streets, bowing to those shopkeepers familiar with my daily visitation to the market. Moreover, I have an opportunity to submit to nostalgia, to reminisce of a home that is, in reality, a million miles away but one I can feel seeping through these dark narrow streets without any desire to understand why. Home is in these shadows, amongst the ghosts, the shopkeepers and the fortune tellers.
I’m going to be screening a couple of my favourite televised adaptions from the works of M.R. James in Leytonstone (London) next month. All You Read Is Love have very kindly allowed me to take over their cafe/bookstore/arts space for the evening to show, what I believe to be, the finest two filmic interpretations of James’ ghostly tales. I will also be giving a short introductory talk on the roles of hauntology and landscape in these works, as well as offering a few thoughts on the Jamesian geographies of East Anglia.
Free entry. Doors at 7pm.
I drafted this mid-2014 and for some reason never got around to posting it. A recent train journey back to East Anglia led my partner to enquire as to why we should travel ‘so slowly when Norfolk is so flat’, reminding me of the opening passages to Aickman’s ‘Ringing the Changes’. This in turn led me back to this post. I’ve made a few updates so as to keep the writing relevant. There is, without question, a great deal more I could say about Aickman, about his particular type of horror and moreover of the rich sense of geography he evokes in his writings, but I’ve neither the desire nor the urge to create spoilers (for those unfamiliar with the tales) to do so here. Instead I hope that the few words and suggestions that I have put to the page might pique interest and introduce Aickman to a few new readers….
Robert Aickman is a master of British horror. His writings are every bit as disturbing as those of other writers in the genre, in many cases I would say they are more so. What makes Aickman’s work particularly unsettling is that he rarely provides a definite ending; the tales themselves are short but often without a terminal narrative. Rather the reader is left in a continual state of suspense and this itself, I believe, proves far more frightening than the horrors described within the text – this sense that they have been created to endure, even after the tale has been read.
Describing his work as ‘strange stories’, Aickman wrote 48 supernatural tales before his death in 1981, most of which were published within a series of 7 collected works released between 1951 and 1980. Despite the number of works he produced, Aickman has remained relatively unknown, gaining far less notoriety for his writings than the likes of M.R. James, Algernon Blackwood, Walter de la Mare, Dennis Wheatley and so on. There has been something of a resurgence in Aickman’s writings over the past few years, with notable horror enthusiasts such as Jeremy Dyson and Mark Gatiss bringing attention to Aickman in their own work. Gatiss provides a particularly haunting (and haunted) performance in Dyson’s eerie short film adaption of Aickman’s ‘The Cicerones‘ (2002). Two years prior to ‘The Cicersones’, Dyson and Gatiss had worked together on a radio adaption of Aickman’s ‘Ringing the Changes’ for BBC Radio Four. The adaption isn’t all that easy to track down but I’m aware that there are a few digital versions floating around online and it is definitely worth a listen if you can track one down.
The collected works themselves have been fairly difficult and expensive to get hold of in recent years, cheaper alternatives being available in the form of Fortana’s Book of Great Ghost Stories, which Aickman compiled a good number of. Now however, one need not search so hard to find Aickman’s writings as Faber & Faber began republishing the key titles in June 2014. The first to be printed was Dark Entries, which contains two of my favourite tales; ‘Ringing the Changes’ and ‘The Waiting Room’. The second collection, Cold Hand in Mine, was published in July and boasts ‘The Hospice’ and ‘The Real Road to the Church’ – all the tales are worth reading but these two in particular are most unnerving. Two further collections The Wine-Dark Sea and The Unsettled Dust, published in August and September respectively, complete the Faber Finds series of Aickman’s works. Each of the books is beautifully adorned with updated cover art by Tim McDonagh and echoes the style of Ed Gorey who illustrated some of the original cover’s of Aickman’s works.
As a geographer, what strikes me about Aickman’s work and particularly his construction of the uncanny is his attentiveness to the description of place as well as an emphasising of movement in and between places and times.
Like all forms of storytelling, ghostlore is constructed from a series of key components; characters, dialogue, repetition, setting and so forth. There are of course narratival similarities between many of the ghost stories belonging to the British Isles, however the settings (or rather, the places) that spectral entities frequent are intrinsically linked to spaces of habitus as much as they are to the types of narrative that describe them. Ghosts appear to prefer specific places in which to haunt, notoriously sharing a penchant for stately homes, cross roads, old pubs. ruins, churchyards and various other historical sites.
Davies (2007) describes this ‘geography of haunting’ as being complicit with spaces of liminality, of sites that ‘are on the border or threshold of two defined states of existence’ (p.45). Liminal spaces are those that are imbued with a sense of duality, of binaries, they are spaces that allow for a transgression or moving in and between two states of being. Churchyards are an obvious example of such a site; existing at the thresholds of life and death; decidedly awkward, churchyards act simultaneously as spaces of materiality and immateriality, of fixedness and transcendence, they are out of sorts with landscape and time, both heterotopic and heterochronic (Foucault, 1974).
Indeed, Western ghostlore tends to develop phantoms that are attached to certain places. Though there are some exceptions to the theory of the fixed ghost (some spirits are indeed far more mobile than others, such as that of East Anglia’s Black Shuck), most tales tell of ghosts whom are static, frequenting staircases, bedrooms, hallways and the like. The anchoring of the ghost proves to stricken its sense of spatial autonomy and thus allowing for the haunted to leave the situation, usually at the their own (hastened) speed. Aickman’s spectral entities however are decidedly more mobile. Like the conjurings of James (see A Warning to the Curious, The Treasure of Abbot Thomas, Oh Whistle and I’ll Come to You), Aickman’s terrifying concoction of the spectral and the mobile creates a ‘geography of haunting’ that works towards an emancipation of the ghost, an unchaining of spirit from place.
As roaming entities, Aickman’s phantasms are capable of moving through landscapes, of following and terrifying the protagonist within a multitude of environs. Such is the case in the ‘The School Friend’ which, like so many of Aickman’s works, is not so much a traditional ghost story but better described by that category of the ‘strange’ which Aickman himself used to talk about his works. ‘The School Friend’ makes use of multiple locations and situations of supernatural terror through which to draw the reader in; moving between homes and hospitals, and indeed room to room within the school friend’s home allows Aickman to develop a sense of mobility that not only creates a ‘geography of haunting’ but allows for multiple locative points through which the hauntings might occur.
‘Ringing the Changes’ is another tale indebted to landscape, specifically that of the East Anglian coast and moreover an emphasis on a movement within it. Making use of traditional rural/urban dichotomies (like those seen in Pinner’s Ritual), Aickman weaves a tale of ritualised horror that depicts a sheltered coastal community committed to an annual ringing of the church bells in order to wake the dead. In just a few pages the plot moves from train line, to platform, to hotel, to beach and back again. Street names, along with descriptions of lighting and sound are all used to give a sense of distance and time in and between places rather than to elaborate on the implied character of the locations themselves.
Both space and time important for Aickman, they allow his particular rendering of the uncanny to function; illustrative of a return of the repressed, an unexpected calling forth of place and time. As such we might view Aickman’s writings as hauntological, necessitating a return and making an all to often ‘other’ present in their absence. Further still, the role of mobility here not only sets up the distance required to dichotomise cosmopolitan/ coastal existence, but further constructs a space through which Aickman’s monstrosities move through, a space of wildness and savage tradition. The dead stalk the landscape, moving from beach through to town; their singing, calling and dancing echoing throughout the streets as they go. Even as day breaks and the tale concludes the reader is left ill-informed as to why the events of the previous evening have even occurred, only in the knowledge that they will again. Aickman’s works are topographically rich, allowing for an almost unrivalled spectral dynamy, where the strange is not so much preternatural but rather part of the landscape itself.
Robert Aickman was born in London, 1914. As well as being a prolific writer of supernatural tales, much of his life was dedicated to the conservation of England’s (then mostly derelict) canal system and he was co-founder of the Inland Waterways Association. Aickman died of poor health in 1981. Further information on Aickman can be found online at Aickman Data as well as in the recently developed journal Aickman Studies
I’ve been doing a spot of tidying up of my HD recently, having amassed scores of empty and duplicate folders over the course of my PhD. I was rather excited to rediscover a collection of photos of Waverley Abbey ruins that I took back in 2009 whilst conducting ethnographic work with ad hoc ghost hunters. I never used these photos in the thesis, although I think they made appearances in a number of supporting PowerPoint presentations for conference papers at the beginning of my research.
My experience(s) of Waverely Abbey ruins formed the basis for an entire chapter of my thesis and I have many fond memories of chilly nights spent taking audio recordings and shooting photographs in the darkness whilst waiting for paranormal enthusiasts to show up. It seemed like a shame to waste the shots, hence I am sharing the more interesting of them here. For those of you not familiar with the ruins, Waverely sits a few miles outside of Farnham, Surrey (UK). The abbey is free to visit and is accessible 24/7. Having spent about a hundred hours at this site over the last five years, I can highly recommended taking a trip out there (it’s especially atmospheric in the dark). Waverley Abbey is managed my English Heritage and is the first example of a Cistercian abbey in England, dating back to 1128 AD.
At the beginning of the summer, I decided to take a trip back to my parent’s house in Norfolk so as to briefly escape the claustrophobia of the city. Norfolk, with its somewhat oppressive, charcoal clouded skies and warren of hedge-lined lanes that wind their way through the patchwork fields of the Anglian countryside, makes for a much quieter environment in which to stop and take stock of things. The perfect retreat after weeks of 18 hour days in order to finish writing my thesis. On the train journey home (I always call it home despite having left over 12 years ago) I can physically feel time slowing down, the crash of the urban sprawl rapidly deteriorates into the undisturbed silence of open fields and bellowing clouds; even the train seems in no rush to meet its terminus, it decelerates to something of a saunter as it makes its way through the northern parts of Suffolk and into Norfolk. It is, as Robert Aickman commented on the region as if ‘time matters less’.
The so-called rump of England, East Anglia has often been the victim of unfair criticism; the whole ‘NFN: normal for norfolk’ myth did little to raise the reputation of the area, neither the horrific tales of inbreeding and webbed footed fen dwellers. Having cities whose only recognised claims to fame are being the home town of a fiction failed radio presenter and the lead singer of a 90s death metal act, Norwich and Ipswich respectively, rarely gain a chance to showcase the unrivalled beauty that the area has to offer. Anglia presents as a dichotomous landscape: its easterly and northern reaches are, in their entirety, sea lined, and offer some of the most diverse coastline in the country; from salt marshes to mudflats, vertical cliffs to expansive sands with dunes and sea bordering pinewoods to boot; W.H. Hudson, amongst others, wrote extensively of the region’s unrivalled beauty in his works of ornithology. The central and western parts of Anglia are instead completely rural, a combination of ancient woodland, meadows and fields. To the south, the Thames estuary creates a natural boundary between Anglia and the South East of England, working to keep London and its encroachment at bay. And whilst the criticism this region attracts is somewhat irksome to those who know it well, Anglia does feel like another place, somewhere olde, a place where superstition and folklore remains integral to the ongoing customs and traditions of many village’s existence.
This is no archaic romanticism at the hands of the author, not at all; having grown up in a place where almost everybody I knew had their own tale of a ghostly encounter, where apparitions, giant black cats and ominous spectral hounds remained ubiquitous within local memory, decades (sometimes centuries) after their last reported sightings, East Anglia, always was, and will continue to remain, a rather haunted landscape for me. Norfolk, in particular, is like nowhere else in England. Richard Mabey wrote of adolescent trips to the county in a short piece for Blythe’s Place: an anthology of Britain (1981), describing Norfolk as ‘an awkward protuberance’ that was both ‘cryptic and compelling’. Indeed the whole area is drenched in a stark remoteness that is scarcely felt elsewhere in southern parts of England. Unlike the cities and towns of the midlands, home counties and the South proper, Norfolk does not enjoy motorways or high speed rail connections. Norwich, the final destination of Norfolk-bound carriages from Liverpool Street, is quite literally at the end of the line and the feeling of being at the end of somewhere definitely resonates with the train passenger, right down to the the door handles that can only be accessed, with some precarity, by reaching out of the carriage window. Of the landscape, the rich fertile soils and close proximity to the German Sea has resulted in the county being blessed with plentiful crops of cereals and vegetables and the freshest supply of seafood one could hope for. Wildlife is in abundance; myriad rare species choose this region, and this one alone, to make their home, and as such, Norfolk provides a cornucopia of flora and fauna for the budding naturalist to explore, if they have the desire to do so.
You may well be asking yourselves why then, if the place is to be held in such high regard, would the author want to move away from these idyllic surroundings? And you would be right to do so. Whatever yearning I may have for the county, Norfolk is both helped and hindered by its remoteness; on the one hand it feels authentic, quintessentially English and untouched by the outside world. On the other, commercial success and cultural development have been retarded by the lack of decent communications with the rest of the South, there are limited opportunities for employment.
For the most part, Norfolk has been left alone by developers, some larger towns (like the one I grew up in) have expanded somewhat over the last 15-20 years and the extension of the Southern Bypass (a section of duel carriageway that skirts the county’s capital) in the early 1990s has seen an increased traffic flow through the area, in turn the quiet solitude of Norfolk life is probably not what is was, even as recently as thirty or forty years ago. Either way, Norfolk continues to have much to offer in the way of strange spaces and I believe much off the reasoning for this comes down to a combination of this sense of ‘slowing down’ and the permanence of the ruralism that inflects the landscape of the entire county; Norfolk, the eternal hinterland. Maybe not, but it does retain a definite sense of remoteness, of a wildness that is unlike anywhere else I have visited. Needless to say the area is a haven for exploration of all manner of weird and wyrd places, replete with ruins, earthworks, ancient meadows and woodland. All the places where enchantment might be seen to take root, which provides a nice segue for the introduction of the main subject of this post; the ruined church of All Saints, Oxwick.
My journey home had been in part to catch up with family but equally as something of a cheap vacation to celebrate the completion and passing of my PhD. Whenever I visit, at least one person in my family wants to get involved with my research, driving me out to some remote ‘myth’ shrouded location, primed for paranormal investigation. On this occasion, I’d been staying in Norfolk for the best part of a week before my brother and I finally got our acts together and made a definite plan to visit an unusual/haunted site in the area. We got out the maps and trawled the internet in search of interesting locations that were, for us at least, as yet unexplored. Before too long, we had arrived upon a list of sites of archaeological significance and unanimously agreed upon the remains of a medieval church, hidden away in a secluded wooded area, as the subject of our investigation. Jotting down directions on the back of an envelope and hastily packing cameras and notebooks, we made a dash for the car, both excited about the prospect of having discovered a hidden gem in Norfolk’s forgotten ecclesiastic heritage.
The directions we had written down proved of little use, most of the turns they suggested didn’t appear to exist and the roadsigns were next to non-existent. After about 40 minutes of wrong turns and 20 point turns down ditch bordered lanes, we happened upon across a small area of woodland that extended from the back of an old cottage and out into a field. We parked up and made our way across the soil ridges of the field and towards the trees. A rusty wire fence marked the perimeter of the woodland. Below the trees lay a glimmering carpet of dew drenched emerald blades, each one raised to about knee hight and resting in perfect stillness. No church in sight though. Deciding to walk around the field a bit further, we found a small, overgrown trackway leading into the trees. We followed the route inwards, carefully negotiating low hanging brambles, neglecting to allow for the nettles sitting at calf-height that had been heating up in the Summer sun and which left trails of scorching, match-head sized bumps across the backs of our legs. The discomfort was worth it however, as within moments of walking the trackway, both the trees and the unsavoury undergrowth opened up to reveal a substantial, roofless church building surrounded by rough grasses and neglected headstones.
The space was silent: no birdsong, no traffic, no breeze. The entire site stood absolutely (and disconcertingly) still. To add to the eeriness of the silence further, the density and height of the surrounding trees, though not excessive, had done much to curtail the sun’s warming of the ruins and so the place suddenly felt a lot colder than the nettle lined peripheries of the field and woods. ‘This place is definitely haunted’ my brother exhaled. In a manner of speaking, it definitely was. The setting of an M.R. James work brought into existence, the church ruins cast an uncanny sense of mourning over the location. We made our way around the chancel and entered the church through a doorless archway leading into the southern side of the nave. The inside was even cooler than the structure’s exterior, heightening my brother’s sense of unease as inexplicably, there was ‘no roof to keep the sun out’. Attached to the side of the archway was a small wooden box containing folded information pamphlets. The container was still rather full; I picked a guide out from the front of the box, it was marked #78, presumably of 100. The pamphlet was dated December 1994, evidently, the church didn’t attract too many visitors.
To the eastern end of the ruins, a large 14th century stone window held fragments of red and white stained glass; sullen looking shards of hand-worked transparency were clasping to their lead linings in a final act of defiance against the dereliction that had enveloped the rest of the building. Under the window lay a bisected headstone, propped up against the knapped flint wall of the chancel. Turning to face the vestry, one gained a sense of the height of the structure, and in spite of the missing arched roof, the church building stood there, towering its spectators, above us. We headed toward the vestry, which appeared to be in a worse state (structurally speaking) than the rest of the church.
In the middle of the vestry was a tall and narrow arched window, different to the kind that were built into the nave and chancel. The surrounding walls were low and crumbling and the southern side in particular was succumbing to the onset of ivy growth. The high pitched gable end stood defiantly upright and in surprisingly good shape, in comparison to its adjoining walls. We looked out through the slender window frame and across the unfolding graveyard, through the trees and into the earthy field beyond. We could have seen anything through that window, but we didn’t. Just the field. The mind conjured shadowy figures stalking the spaces between the graves, but we only had to look around to see that we were really quite alone out there. If anything, the sense of haunting, of loss, felt in the space was more a grieving for the church and its evident retreat from habitus as well as from local memory.
The information pamphlet drew attention to a number of features on the exterior walls and so we set out in order to find them. Walking clockwise around the vestry and to the northern side of the church, two stone figures, carved in the 14th century, stood guarding the now blocked north doorway. The elements had not been kind to the carvings over the past 600 or so years and the facial features looked badly weathered. As such, the once ornamental carvings had become transformed into rather more malign looking grotesques. The gaping mouth and hollowed eyes of the figure carved on the right side of the archway appeared particularly menacing. The scream of a startled pheasant suddenly echoed against the old flint walls and the two of us leapt in fright, though laughed about the incident only moments later. I still maintain that I only ‘jumped’ as an act of solidarity, you have to do these things for family.
We carried on shuffling through the sodden grass that surrounded the church, examining headstones as we did so. One grave, that of Thomas Lawrence, was especially Jamesian looking, sporting a carved totenkopf nestled between upturned hourglasses. Suitably macabre for the cold and isolated setting.
Leaving the church via the trackway by which we had entered, we then made a turn to the right and walked along the side of the cottage and onto the road, so as to evade the nettles and thorns that had proved so irritating just an hour or so before. At the end of the track was a grass verge. Raised about half a foot above the road, the verge had two very old looking white markstones, similar to the white markstones that line the roads leading from Fakenham (another small norfolk town) out to the coastal villages, which are, as local legend goes, pre-Roman in origin. The stones seemed like a final gesture from the site to present itself as extraordinary, a way of confirming both its place in the spectral lineage of abandoned mediaeval settlements that lay across the county, and further evidence of the site’s more ancient past.
It’s been a while since my last post, predominantly this has been down to time constraints; chapter deadlines, conference organization, a house move, my job etc etc. But it has also been down to not knowing what to say, or rather how to say it. See, the subject of this entry has been with me for a few weeks now but I couldn’t make my mind up as to how it should be presented, In general I am not a huge fan of photographic essays. A number of works in this vein seem to posit, quite weakly, images as a substitute for text. I didn’t want to produce a tepid interpretation of an engagement with a truly beautiful site. But I also didn’t want to give a huge textual regurgitation from my thesis on the hows and whys of the hauntological and these barges. In any case I have decided that the images are strong enough, maybe not in composition but definitely in content, to speak for themselves with minimum introduction.
And so herein begins my first photographic essay, a visual exploration of London’s urban peripheries and an abandoned fleet of concrete barges that rest there. I include a short introduction.
The site is fairly easily accessible (with a car) and if you have the time it is worth waiting for the tidal movements of the Thames to change so that you see the barges both concealed and revealed by the acrid waters of London’s aqua arterial route. The marshes and the the barges are around a 15 mile drive east of London city centre.
Rainham Marshes lay nestled between London’s Dagenham Dock to the east, and Purfleet to the west, and make up an expansive area of waterside wilderness protected by the RSPB. The barges themselves rest upon a small area of mudflats which is temporarily revealed by the Thames throughout the day. On our arrival, the tide was in and only the tops of a couple or more of the barge hulls could be spotted; grey, brutalist and in keeping with the stark industrial complex of Erith that lay on the opposite embankment of the nature reserve. As the waters shrank away a whole platoon of skeletal concrete remains were revealed, the history of which is equally as ambiguous and spectral as the boats’ strange visual presence. The concrete barges are, according to the local authority’s heritage signage, survivors of the D-Day landing, however there appears to be little evidence of this. Alternative explanations for the boats’ existence have included suppliers of drinking water and or oil to larger sea faring vessels both during and after WWII. The ambiguity surrounding the barges history augments their curious existence and makes for a site of rather bizarre character. It is not merely the cyclical and phantasmagorical revealing and veiling of these objects that makes the place seem so bizarre, but rather a process whereby the occulted history, strange proximity to natural and industrial landscapes and the aesthetic of the very material these barges are constructed from, that leads to a sense that this place is ‘uncanny’, that it is of an almost ghostly quality. Nothing really fits. Nothing makes sense. Why were the barges abandoned here? What was/is their purpose? What happened to the people that built them, sailed them and ultimately abandoned them?The site is strange but it is inviting regardless. The landscape the barges are set upon and within appears unwelcoming, the marshes to the east of the City are perhaps not the most secure or surveilled area of the capital, however they are unquestionably worth a visit. It is a truly hauntological landscape- the solidity of the remains that exist there invite a questioning of the remains that lay absent.
If hauntology can be used to describe the infidelity of the material landscape – it regularly blurs and distorts our sense of history, allows for absences to manifest as presences- then aquascapes like this site might be seen to amplify the process; the movement of water reiterates the rippling of time, moreover it provides us with an smooth and distorted surface. A surface which both reflects the present world and which allows a vision beyond or within it. To perceive the landscape as haunted is to see through the surface, to refuse infatuation with the ‘now’ and to understand the power of a past that can permeate, prevail and preclude a sense of an unshakeable present. Rainham’s concrete barges do this, they do so by existing semi visible and without fixed context. They problematise and question our thinking of the spatial and its temporality. It is perhaps both their hints of a working history in the narrative of war, and of their place within an imagined habitus, that allows the spectral occupants of the marshes to haunt the landscape they dwell upon. It is perhaps the reason that a the barges appear so dislocated, odd considering their anchored nature. I don’t want to say anymore about the site, other than it has to be experienced first hand. The rest is down to the photographs and the barges themselves.
London, 28-30 August 2013
Sponsored by the History and Philosophy of Geography Research Group (HPGRG).
Julian Holloway (Manchester Metropolitan University)
James Thurgill (Royal Holloway, University of London)
Over the last decade geography has turned its attention to engaging with those elements of place that remain unseen and to exploring the relationality between materiality, agency and the invisible as affect or spectrality.
This session seeks to explore the way that place not just affects us, but stirs, moves, disturbs, confuses and distorts our perception. In particular, the session focuses on the occult and occluded facets of various geographies. Here the occult pertains to that which is hidden or obscured from our perception but potentially not to that which is unknowable. The occult provides a way in which to enframe those uncanny aspects of place such as unseen agency, strange naturalisms, magic, ecologies of the spectral, and positions them within esoteric practice. As such, the occult as a movement represents a history of practice that seeks to work with and manipulate the invisible and unseen aspects of place; the occult in its various manifestations therefore signifies an often ignored, yet deliberately hidden, frontier in geographical practice.
The session invites papers that deal with occult and esoteric geographical imaginations and spatial practices. Furthermore, we seek papers that highlight new occult directions for the geographic imagination and explore how the occult can potentially be used to redefine the world around us. Therefore, we seek papers that both analyse occult movements and their geographies, and papers that aim to deal with the occult as an exploratory method in the study and development of geographic thinking that have the potential to reconfigure our understanding of place, materiality and agency.
Topics might include but are not limited to:
* Geomancy and arcane cartographics
* Magick and the esoteric manipulation of space and place
* Ambiguous materialites and their spaces
* UnNatural agents
* Occult movements and their geographies (Rosicrucian, Speculative Freemasonry, The Golden Dawn, The Illuminati, Hermeticism, Chaos Magick, etc.)
* Haunted and ghostly landscapes.
* Placing the occult
* Geopolitics and the occult
* Occult prophecies and apocalypticism
* Conspiracy culture and the ‘hidden control’ of geography.
* Popular culture and commodifying the occult imaginary (from Dan Brown to ghost tourism)
For the Royal Geographical Society Conference page, click HERE
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