“…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.
Having been lucky enough to catch the last day of the Swanscombe Project exhibition at the Blake Gallery in Gravesend earlier this year, I was inspired to then spend a rather dreary Sunday afternoon traipsing the marshes and former landfill site of Swanscombe, Kent. The Swanscombe Project, headed by photographer Peter Luck, is ‘an encounter between a heterogeneous group of photographers and the processes of redevelopment at the urban periphery’. The group aims to provide an alternative rhetoric of this diverse edgeland, to that being pushed by the developers of the site who are working on creating East London’s first theme park: London Paramount.
(Image courtesy of Google)
Swanscombe itself is a north facing peninsula that creeps out into the Thames from the Kentish bankside. The landscape is marginal; the peninsula is bordered by industry to the south, a river to the North and flanked by marshes and landfill on either side. Access to the site is restricted and seems to depend on the mood of the security guard monitoring the traffic barrier. Weathered signage warning of dog patrols and industrial traffic mark the entrance to the site, obviously aimed at deterring visitors. The periphery is cordoned off with mesh fencing, funnelling all entrants in past the security hut. Beyond the barrier lies a long, unmade road that leads toward the buried landfill and into the site proper. As the road begins to skirt former chalk pits it makes a sudden turn north, opening up a route that takes you past derelict brick structures, chimney stacks and landfill hills.
On walking through the landscape here, the eye is drawn to a gigantic steel-latticed obelisk rising from the marshland, half of the 400kV Thames Crossing. The pylon is one of two that make up the Thames Crossing, the other being well within viewing distance on the Dartford banks of the river. The pair are the tallest pylons in Britain, reaching some 190 meters into the clouds, dominating the landscape with a monstrous beauty. And this is perhaps the most accurate way to describe these structures; cold and utilitarian, stark against the soft grasses and grey skies of the surrounding environment, and yet, the intricacy of the gossamer-like weave of the steel is nothing short of awe-inspiring. And the scale. And the power. The vehement buzz of electricity permeates the air, hairs seem to start standing on end within thirty meters of the pylon.
The surrounding land surface is strewn with fissures, ruptures where the ground can no longer contain the discarded shit buried within it. Historic waste seeps through from the landfill below; 1980s coke cans, Marathon bar wrappers and garish Crisps packets spew from beneath the wild grasses in a metastatic creeping of anachronistic refuse. Everything here feels contaminated. And yet nature prevails. The site is bordered by three marshes; Black Duck, Broadness and Botany, each of which is teaming with shrubs, grasses, wildflowers, bird and insect life. This is the type of space situated within what Richard Mabey would describe as the ‘unofficial countryside’; a place that has its own distinct type of peri-urban (re)wilding. Perhaps not a picnicking destination but no means devoid of its own, idiosyncratic beauty.
As a place, Swanscombe is palimpsestic, its surface is inscribed with the scarring of industry, both contemporary and historical, commercial and residential waste, power lines, human occupation (Broadness moorings harbour a number of ramshackle houseboats and huts), prehistoric habitation (Homo erectus and large mammals) and myriad wildlife. Layer upon layer of history is written into the landscape here, previous variations in both the matter and form of the land offering a unique insight into the biography of this place; brickworks, cement factories, marshland, edgeland. Old Father Thames laps at the banks at the pylon’s feet, abandoning a wealth of drift wood, reeds, plastic bottles, children’s toys, food wrappers, carrier bags, dead birds, trolleys, tyres, footballs, and old clothes. Each item playing but a small part in the oscillating narratives of abandonment and memory that envelope this space.
After visiting the area it becomes all too obvious why those individuals involved with the Swanscombe Project care so deeply for this unique piece of land. The looming construction of the UK’s largest ‘entertainment resort’ will, no doubt, eradicate the existing narratives surrounding Swanscombe; the moorings will be displaced, the wildlife irreparably damaged and the character of the landscape changed forever, though perhaps this is the natural state of the edgeland? Margins have a tendency to blur, to become less defined, and in doing so create new borders, new sites for new experiences. It will be interesting to see what new margins are drawn here, and what new spaces are created from the destruction of Swanscombe.
On Sunday 1st February, Rupert Griffiths and I joined Rob Irving for a guided walk around the mytho-archaeological landscape of Avebury, Wiltshire, as part of the ongoing Public Archaeology project that both Rob and Rupert are contributing to. This was the first time I had visited Avebury and I’ve no idea how or why I have avoided going there before but somehow I had managed to. As those of you familiar with Avebury will know, the entire landscape exists as a series of interconnected earthworks and standing stones and is quite simply staggering to behold. Without question, Avebury is unlike any place I have ever been before and for me, it has an unrivalled sense of wonder; it is peculiar even among other meso and neolithic monumental sites, not least because of the sheer scale of its surrounding henge construction – the largest stone circle in Europe.
Rob’s walk of the area was nothing short of epic, especially given the biting winds and borderline freezing temperatures. Nevertheless, our small but dedicated group made the five and half hour trek from the Waggon and Horses in Beckhampton, up to Windmill Hill, through a series of waterlogged meadows leading the way to Avebury village, across marshy borderlands skirting hillside crop fields to meet Silbury Hill and finally onto West Kennet Long Barrow to see the sun set over the West Country. Each of the sites we stopped at was entirely unique, in terms of both the materiality of the place and the affective workings on the body.
Our first stop, Windmill Hill, held a series of small, grass topped burial mounds, the largest of which we ascended to survey the landscape. From the elevation of this grassy knoll we were able to gain vistas over the entire area. Rob, with his wealth of knowledge of this landscape, was able to map out the features of the ridgeway that lay opposite us, pointing out a line of tree-topped barrows that ran along the ridge. It was evident that each visible feature was situated in correspondence with the next, placed within a zone of interaction so that a sort of placial conversation could take place. The barrows on the ridgeway focused their gaze down upon the henge surrounding the village, whilst simultaneously mirroring our own position atop of the burial mounds of Windmill Hill. Rising from below us Silbury Hill formed a central axis, a verdant spindle from which the rest of the landscape appeared to revolve from.
Rob commented on the placement of the ridgeway barrows, pointing out that they had been placed on the slope rather than the summit and in this sense allowed the ancestors to not only look upon their venerators, but forced the venerators to look back at them. This sense of interconnectedness, of being situated within a sort of topological conversation, belonged not only to the physical features of the landscape but also to us; we too had been coerced by our surroundings into both gazing upon and being overlooked by the earthy tombs that lay on the opposite side of the valley. One could easily become enveloped by the ‘deep time’ that ran through this environment, a sacred milieu that remains of enormous importance to those following the old religion(s) that engage to commune with the natural world. We were fortunate enough to visit Avebury on Imbolc, a Gaelic and (now) neo-pagan celebration of the mid point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The village was awash with tethered ribbons and folk adorned in robes and make up, all making a pilgrimage to the ancient stones.
Leaving the village, we followed steps to the top of the henge’s outer ditch bank, turning around to take in the full impact of the immense sarsen columns that created the outer circle. From the peak of the bank we were able to see the remains of the paired standing stones that marked the 1 1/2 mile causeway that led to The Sanctuary, a large circular formation of stone markers that lay at the southern extremity of the village. Briefly stopping to take a few shots of the huge mark-stone couples that formed The Avenue, it was evident just how important mobility was to this landscape. Each site led you to another, forming part of a continuous procession in and between places. One could sympathise with the belief that such movement is symbolic of a traveling between worlds. Indeed, a number of single stones continue to be identified as having mysterious properties attached to them; local folklore tells of encounters with the Devil, increased fertility, of stones moving of their own accord and of disembodied voices, music and shadows emanating from within the stones themselves. Legend is thick in Avebury, it smothers the entire landscape. Its viscosity, if we can speak in such terms, is a result of Avebury’s material presence (the sheer number of standing stones, barrows and mounds) and the extent to which a reasoning behind the placement and purpose of such materials remains largely undetermined, lost to ancient history.
Before entering Avebury, Rob and I had been discussing the largely dismissive attitude that academia has generally taken towards qualitative readings of historical(ly) sacred sites. I made the comment that in fact, of all the academic disciplines, it is Archaeology that has successfully refined the art of ‘storytelling’. Whilst this was said in jest, I do believe there is some truth in the claim. Archaeology works to fill in the blanks that exist between the material fragments of history and the individuals who would once have been attached to them. To this end archaeology works to create and restore narratives, to place things within a storyline that makes sense, historically speaking. I’m aware that this is something of an abstraction but it serves the purpose of questioning why then, archaeology is anymore valid as a means of explicating the past of sacred sites than say, performative art or music? My point is really this; that sensing a place, physically and sensorially engaging with a site, also works to determine a narrative; further uncovering the biography of (a) place. This I believe to particularly hold true of sacred sites.
That ‘legend is thick’ at Avebury, calls for us to not only understand the area historically (through rigorous examination and excavation) but to feel it, to make sense of the links between say the standing stones, the barrows and Silbury Hill, through touch, movement, sight and sound, through becoming immersed in the landscape, by letting it speak to us. I’m aware of a shift in archaeology (as with human geography) towards a more embodied reading of place (Chris Tilley’s excellent A Phenomenology of Landscape springs to mind – a cornerstone text for my PhD) and indeed there has been a sensory and affective turn the humanities in general, but still, it has to be said that spiritual attachments to place, that is those that become the foundation for a ‘deep’ temporo-topological engagement with a site, are still met with much cynicism.
Leaving The Avenue and heading south-eastwards along the A4361, I noticed a tree-topped barrow that marked the edge of the village ramparts. Behind the barrow lay a further two burial mounds (one of which is visible in the image below); all three seemingly in alignment with both the ‘inner’ henge and the mounds situated on Windmill Hill. Viewing the site(s) from this spot reiterated the sense of interconnectedness that the Avebury landscape engendered, demonstrating that these individual sites were supposed to work together, to ‘speak’ to one another through their locative interaction, through a moving in and between them.
Much has already been said about the ongoing desire to mystify this landscape, John Michell referred to the process in his The View Over Atlantis as ‘an aesthetic law which defies formation’. Indeed, the ongoing mystification of the Avebury landscape is heavily reliant on such a process, one that seeks to assert an obscufication of meaning in the strange material forms that adorn the area. This is a view that sees the historical, social and cultural context of this landscape become occulted, hence further necessitating the need to stand within the site so as to commune with it, to discern for one’s self how and what these barrows, mounds and stones exist for.
Moving further along the A road, we took a left, turning onto a footpath that followed the River Kennet southwards towards Silbury Hill. Edging along the side of the river the trees that lined the Kennet’s banks would frequently break, giving views out over the flooded meadowland onto Silbury Hill. Beyond the viridescent agricultural land, Silbury triumphantly rose from flooded marshlands; vast amounts of water had collected at its foot to form something of a moat, an ominous black lake that prevented passage to the slopes of the hill itself from all but one raised crossing point.
Led by Rob, who was still narrating the esoteric history of the landscape as we moved along, our group continued to edge the fields that surrounded Silbury. The closer we came to the hill the more sodden the terrain became. We were forced to clamber over barbed wire fences to avoid the boggy land but this led us to no drier resolution. Gritting our teeth, we marched on, one by one, through the uninviting foot-deep waters of the marsh, stepping on waterlogged tussocks of grass in order to keep just above the thick, mud-covered bottom. Cold, wet and facing a biting wind, one could easily become despondent, but the sight of the hill, now just meters away, and the promise of reaching the burial ground at West Kennet kept everyone motivated. This was hardly an expedition of a saga-like nature but after four or so hours of walking our feet were now soaked, cold and the wind seemed relentless, to me at least. Rob didn’t seem to feel the cold, or perhaps it was just irrelevant to a man who was clearly in his element, trekking ahead to the next stop in the walk.
Leaving the ‘mud flats’, our party joined the relative comfort of the soft verges that followed the A4. From here it was another twenty minutes of walking before we had made our way to the top of a (sprout?) field and reached the final site/sight of the day; West Kennet Long Barrow. Like each of the other places we had visited that day, West Kennet was at once both breath taking and haunting. The construction of this vast Neolithic tomb, some 100 meters long, is believed to date back to around 3600BC, and is situated atop a chalk ridgeway that overlooks Silbury Hill, Avebury and across to the burial mounds at Windmill Hill. Again, one couldn’t help but feel that the placement of this site was designed to allow a space of performance within the landscape, to view and be viewed by the surrounding sacred sites.
Our experiencing of West Kennet was heightened all the more by the fortunate circumstance of having arrived as the sun began to set, allowing an intense orange glow to permeate the glass skylights, melting away the darkness that would otherwise fill the tomb’s chambers. It would be impossible not to feel awe-struck in a situation like this, where natural elements seem to come together to display the otherwise hidden vitality of a site in all its glory. Even as a sceptic, I could see past the problematics of assigning agency to nature here; the true mystery of the Avebury landscape has to be its ability to coerce you into becoming part of it, to look beyond reason and doubt and to prioritise experience alone as the point from which an understanding of place might be found. In doing so we might be no nearer the historical truth behind these mysterious sites that lay strewn across the Wiltshire countryside but the intensity with which such places act upon us, aesthetically and sensorially, demands a unique kind of veneration, one that exists beyond any prescribed spirituality.
Having reached the final point in our walk, we made the trek back down the ridge and along the main road toward Beckhampton from where our journey had begun. Pairs of headlights sped past us through the dusk as we followed the road leading to the village and I think all were glad to soon find themselves in a log fire warmed dining room, lamenting past travels over hot food and decent ale.
Avebury is special, not only because of its continued spiritual significance or site of seemingly unsolved mystery, but because it demands something from us in order to be seen, felt, heard. Each of the sites relates to another in such a way that I have experienced in no other place. This landscape is ancient, obviously so, and a desire to decode or unravel the deep history that surrounds it is surely something felt by all who visit Avebury. But Avebury seems to require more than this, offering trajectories that run in and between its myriad hills, mounds, trackways, standing stones and barrows, so as to invite the walker inwards, to become part of the landscape. As such, Avebury is a place that becomes excavated at ground level, through perambulation in and between its ancient features. To move through this place is to wade through the mires of a landscape saturated in lore and legend, it really is an area that demands to be explored – my only advice, bring your Wellies!
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.
1. Guy Underwood, The Pattern of the Past, 1968, Museum Press. 1st Edition.
the spaces in-between
My World in Sound - Exploring "that gratuitous, never-ending show for which no ticket is needed": Robert Doisneau
Public Engagement with Archaeological Themes & Practices
Goldsmiths, University of London
For more than a decade we – photographer Jason Orton and writer Ken Worpole – have documented the changing landscape and coastline of Essex and East Anglia, particularly its estuaries, islands and urban edgelands. We continue to explore many aspects of contemporary landscape topography, architecture and aesthetics, and in 2013 published our second book, The New English Landscape (Field Station | London, 2013), the second edition of which was published in 2015 and is now out of print.
Exploring Time Travel of Place
Publishing Discoveries by Maria Vassilopoulos
Mind The Books
Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Science And The 'Miraculous' (But Were Afraid To Ask).
Recent work and work in progress and anything else that interests me
Plumbing the depths on the south coast of England
Swimming Roger Deakin's Waterlog, one dip at a time
Essays, poems and reviews by Longbarrow Press poets