The born-again flâneur, ambulant signmaking: Iain Sinclair lights out for the territory

Iain Sinclair’s Lights Out for the Territory (1997) is topped and tailed by epigraphs from Huckleberry Finn – the second of which provides the title of this loose collection of nine essays about wanderings in London:

I reckon I got to light out for the Territory…I been there before

Huck is in danger of becoming ‘sivilised’ again as he returns to sedentary, comfortable town life after his picaresque adventures with Jim, and he tramps off into unknown America – the ‘Injun Territory’ – to escape this terrible fate. These words close the novel.

This literary appropriation is typical of Iain Sinclair’s method. But his urban tramps through the streets of his adopted city of London (though he retains a bolt-hole in chi-chi St Leonard’s-on-Sea in Sussex) bear little resemblance in their purpose to shoeless fugitive Huck’s. Still, he’s unashamedly content to adopt the pose of the vagabond fleeing into the (urban) wilderness to liberate himself from modern life’s vulgar depredations. The horror. Unreal city.

I’m afraid it often descends into invertedly snobbish celebration of romanticised East End low-life and rapturous evocations of Elizabethan charlatan magus John Dee – who Sinclair prefers to the grim realities of Thatcherite-capitalist ‘redevelopment’ of 90s London.

My Penguin paperback edition of Lights Out for the Territory

My Penguin paperback edition of Lights Out for the Territory

Yes, it’s deplorable that decent working-class citizens have been ousted by gentrifying, speculator hipsters; but this is a process of change that’s existed in cities – not just London – for centuries. The silk weavers of Spitalfields and the dockers of Alf Garnett’s beloved West Ham are long gone. Sweet Thames, run softly. And the fictitious docker Garnett was a bigot – not one of the admirable Cockney-sparrer rascals Sinclair celebrates.

He writes a bizarre mash-up of Beat-poetry riffs and brusque, verbless Hemingwayesque bromides on urban decay, as he sees it, in the form of exploitative ‘regeneration’ schemes. One suspects he’d like to restore the rookeries and slums that Dickens described with such outraged horror; this might satisfy his misguided desire for Eastender authenticity. Heritage chic.

Let’s try to substantiate this claim. Essay 1, with his trademark punning playfulness, is called ‘Skating on Thin Eyes’. It has its own epigraph, name checking that esoteric magician, John Dee (who often crops up in the text):

the magus dee dreams of a stone island in force, dying in poverty, drunk on angelspeech…[etc.]

 A capital-free jive on the free Capital sets the tone for the essay. This guff by Richard Makin is presumably admired by Sinclair. His own style often stoops to such folly, seemingly not noticing its resemblance to the ill-advised excesses and self-indulgence of Dylan’s amphetamine-fuelled verbal doodlings on the sleevenotes of his early-period albums. There’s also too much Ginsberg, and Blake at his impenetrably weirdest, with a dash of dirty realism.

This first essay begins with a typically portentous mission statement:

The notion was to cut a crude V into the sprawl of the city, to vandalise dormant energies by an act of ambulant signmaking.

Meaning what, exactly? He goes on (with ever-increasingly pretentious alliteration) to plot a walk from Hackney, his home, to Greenwich Hill, back along the River Lea to Chingford Mount, ‘recording and retrieving the messages on walls, lampposts, doorjambs: the spites and spasms of an increasingly deranged populace’.

Not very complimentary to Londoners, is it? Maybe he means the despised gentrifying profiteers he despises, unconsciously mimicking their parasitic behaviour while jeering at them and their lego-block houses and grandiose skyscrapers. He’s against everything in the ‘culture of consumerism’ except the arcane and the archaic. He lights out as a King Lud-ite. Moorcock, Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor, history, pentacles and Interzone Neoism. ‘The aesthetics of provocation.’ Slogans shouted by the apolitical, no perspective, no prospect.

His style is catching. Not fetching.

He mitigates this cultural-political hypocrisy by adducing the usual dodgy heroes. Apart from visionaries like Blake and druggy De Quincey, there’s a touch of Defoe’s plague journalising, Milton’s epic demons, cut with the situationist-surrealist reinterpretation of the flâneur posited (more subtly) by Benjamin via Baudelaire and Poe, and celebrated in works by expat London tourists from Apollinaire, Rimbaud and Verlaine to Céline, and crazed homegrown punk psychogeographers like Stewart Home and Tom Vague.

Sinclair’s ‘curious conceit’ is expressed in paragraph one:

The physical movements of the characters [he’s just cited his novel Radon Daughters] across their territory might well spell out the letters of a secret alphabet. Dynamic shapes, with ambitions to achieve a life of their own, quite independent of their supposed author. Railway to pub to hospital: trace the line on the map. These botched runes, burnt into the script in the heat of creation, offer an alternative reading – a subterranean, preconscious text capable of divination and prophecy. A sorcerer’s grimoire that would function as a curse or a blessing.

Not only does he seem to take this kind of ley-line mysticism seriously, he expects us, with that hippy-Gothic dog’s-dinner New-Age style, to admire him in the process of transcribing what he calls the ‘pictographs of venom that decorated our near-arbitrary route.’ (Simon and Garfield got there much earlier, and only slightly less embarrassingly, with their ‘words of the prophets’ written on the ‘subway walls, tenement halls’. I find graffiti difficult to admire, no matter how venomously done, how grimy the grimoire.)

Yes, there’s a creative energy here, and he turns some neat phrases – some excellent ones. But one has to endure paragraphs, pages, essays of pretentious tosh like this along with them. And his dislike of verbs renders his prose broken-backed, brandishing its ‘look at me, I’m avant-garde’ eccentricities that are so habitual they become mannerist clichés.

I sympathise with some aspects of his deranged scheme:

Walking is the best way to explore and exploit the city; the changes, shifts, breaks in the cloud helmet, movement of light on water. Drifting purposefully is the recommended mode, tramping asphalted earth in alert reverie, allowing the fiction of an underlying pattern to reveal itself. [p. 4]

 

I too love to get to know a strange city on foot. But Sinclair can’t resist going verbally too far; he doesn’t just crave exploration of the city; he wants to ‘exploit’ it. He doesn’t mean this in a capitalist-developer sense: they are the real villains of the text. No, he means this approvingly. Only psychogeographers tuned in to the arcane-mystical ley-lines, the proverbial beach beneath the street (that the rest of us are too insensitively materialistic or addled to perceive) can fully appreciate this aspect of city walks.

He goes on, perhaps realising how he’s beginning to sound (pretentious):

To the no-bullshit materialist this sounds suspiciously like fin-de-siècle decadence, a poetic of entropy – but the born-again flâneur is a stubborn creature, less interested in texture and fabric, eavesdropping on philosophical conversation pieces, than in noticing everything.

 And he’s off for another 9 small-print lines of prose, listing the random trivia/effluvia of the street detected by his superior sensory antennae and alchemised into gold by his visionary/literary caméra-stylo. He needed a judicious editor, because this flood of detritus ends up making for the very ‘poetic of entropy’ he’d decried earlier.

Any ‘underlying pattern’ that he claims to discern comes largely from his own febrile imagination. He portrays it in arabesques of prose that derive (as the dérive itself over the asphalted earth does, d’abord, from Debord) from the hallucinatory meanderings of De Quincey and Kerouac, with a pinch of Pynchon (sorry, it’s catching, this verbal gushing). Here’s the closing sentence of the paragraph I quoted from just now:

Walking, moving across a retreating townscape, stitches it all together: the illicit cocktail of bodily exhaustion and a raging carbon monoxide high.

This is the loose, prose-poetry, adjective-heavy kind of outpouring derided by Capote in Kerouac as being not writing but typing. Why must every key word be replicated synonymously? Not just ‘walking’ but ‘moving’. How exactly does walking ‘stitch it all together’, and why (and how) would one even want to try to do so? Seeds sown in the sewer. In what ways is this metaphorically mixed, stitched cocktail ‘illicit’? The prose is itself a cocktail of heady, mismatched, intoxicated ingredients. A good drink spoiled.

What a shame. In many ways Sinclair is on to something. I’m not averse to a psychogeographic dérive: I wrote about one (in Berlin; I can name-drop, too) on the blog some time ago. But don’t blot the copy by expressing it in the kind of psychedelic agit-prop rhetoric that was embarrassing when I was a student in the 70s. Lay the ley-lines to rest (see? It’s still contagious.)

This makes for a dyspeptic reading experience. How else could he justify, on the next page, this vomitorium (in the misconceived sense) about his intended route, part inspired by the quixotic ‘temperature traverses’ across London in the late 50s described by TJ Chandler, which were, he says,

An apparently scientific excuse for a glorious clandestine folly, joyriding the tail of the cosmic serpent. As with alchemy, it’s never the result that matters; it’s the time spent on the process, the discipline of repetition. Enlightened boredom.

Too much boredom, for me, and insufficient enlightenment. Anyone who can cite ‘a sorceror’s grimoire’; a ‘preconscious text’ of graffiti that ‘wink like fossils among the ruins’ and that are like ‘Polaroid epiphanies’; cosmic serpents, ‘botched runes’ and alchemy — without irony, or celebrate the funeral of a psychopathic Kray twin gangster as if it were Gandhi’s, has lost the plot. This is a weird kind of pompous, distorted hipster nostalgia.

By dressing it all up with half-digested geomancy, necromancy, Tarot cartomancy-mysticism, occult paranoia and laudatory, bookish reference to the Dissenters’ cemetery at Bunhill Fields doesn’t lessen the disrespect for the kind of Londoner (they’re called workers) I feel Sinclair would run a mile from if he had to sit and have a drink with them in one of the pubs he professes to admire so much.

Oh dear, I’ve only got as far as Essay 1, and had better stop there for now. I’ll maybe return to this infuriating, intermittently wonderful but mostly dire book later this week, as I have time off work.

Or I might just go off on some purposeless drifts.

 

 

 

 

 

From Devoran to Portreath: the Bissoe cycle trail and Mineral Tramway.

Devoran

Devoran quay, looking out towards Point; Feock and the Carrick Roads, then the English Channel beyond

Yesterday we took our bikes to the Bissoe Trail and did the coast-to-coast trip, from Devoran on the south coast (well, up Restronguet Creek a little, but that’s where the trail ends) via Bissoe to Portreath on the north coast – and back. 24 miles in total; not bad for oldies like us…

When the granite massif of nearby Carnmenellis was produced 300m years ago, the cooling rock left vapours and deposits that became rich veins of metals, principally tin (cassiterite) and copper (chalcopyrite), with some gold, arsenic (technically a ‘metalloid’, a by-product of tin and copper smelting in the later mining period) and other minerals. The Carnon Valley cuts at right angles across these veins, which explains how it became the base of some of the oldest mining activity in the western world.

Devoran

Devoran

The trail follows the route of the old Redruth and Chasewater (now spelt Chacewater) narrow-gauge mineral railway (or Tramway), which opened in 1825, and included several branches. Other lines later completed the route all the way to Portreath. When mining declined in the latter part of the 19C, so did the railway; it closed in 1915. Devoran ceased functioning as a commercial port at that point, and the tidal estuary had already silted up badly.

Devoran was, during the heyday of Cornwall’s mining industry in the 19C, a busy port. Mined minerals,

Devoran

Devoran

mostly tin and copper excavated in the nearby Gwennap area inland, were exported on the ships for smelting in S. Wales. Imports were largely coal to fuel the mines’ steam pumps and other materials to keep the mines operative. Its wooden wharf has largely disappeared, but there survive the remains of ore-storage bins, granite mooring-bollards and various former port buildings.

For a diagram map of the Gwennap mine sites, from ‘Fortune’ to ‘Busy’, ‘Maid’ to ‘Jane’ and ‘Unity’, and many others, with their quaint-sounding but deadly serious Cornish prefixes ‘Wheal,’ see HERE.

Bissoe trail

Bissoe trail passes beneath the viaduct

When tin streaming declined, coinciding with the fall in the price of tin, resourceful mining companies dug under the estuary to extract the remaining subterranean tin gravel. While the laden ships sailed above them, miners toiled 30-40 feet below.

The principal family behind Devoran’s industry was the Agar-Robartes, whose huge estate was at the sumptuous Lanhydrock House near Bodmin – now a National Trust property open to the public.

Carnon viaduct

Original Carnon Viaduct, with wooden supports on granite ‘stumps’ (Wikipedia image)

Halfway between Devoran and Bissoe stands a magnificent viaduct, carrying the line from Truro to Falmouth.  Brunel’s original stumps are still visible below the later, wooden Victorian arches.

It was started in the 1860s. The foundations had to be dug through over nine metres of mine waste material, aka ‘tailings’. These had built up over the

Carnon viaduct today

Carnon viaduct today

decades of expansion from streaming to later deep ‘hard-rock’ mining, and from the construction of the County Adit drainage system.

 

Bissoe is from the Cornish for birch trees. In the 1600s it was a small port at the head of the estuary. Tin streaming activity, using at that time a complex system of leats and sluices, produced so many ‘tailings’ that the valley silted up with this waste material, cutting the place off from the sea.

Nearby is the Point Mills Arsenic refinery. Some imposing building fragments remain, as my picture shows. It closed after 100 years of production in 1939. Arsenic was used principally as a pigment in dyes for the Lancashire textiles industry, and as an alloy with other metals. It was exported for use in sheep-dip, an insecticide and for glass-making.

Bissoe

Mining has scarred and transformed the area near Bissoe

The land itself in places remains scarred and pitted by mining activity, or piled high with waste heaps – now further scored by the tracks of mountain bikers. This wild, bleak moonscape is weirdly beautiful – a far cry from the ‘Cornish Riviera’ images about which I’ve written in recent posts. Yet this is as authentically ‘Cornwall’ as the more famous and picturesque Charlestown or Portloe.

This part of the trail has since 2000 formed the Bissoe Valley nature reserve, 7.5 acres of wetland, heath and post-industrial land. There’s

Old mine buildings nr Bissoe

Old mine buildings nr Bissoe

Old mine buildings nr Bissoeplenty of information, maps, photos, videos, etc. at this website.

It’s teeming with wildlife and flora: dragonflies, damsel flies, birds. No fish, though. The river Carnon is still so polluted by mineral contamination that its mud shines unnatural orange, and the water is eerily coloured as a consequence.

Our dog Bronte, when we were walking here some years ago, didn’t realise there was a river: it’s so overgrown that it looks like a ditch, fell in and was swept away. She was lucky, my wife and I were able to save her. Other dogs since have drowned.

Portreath beach

Portreath beach: my helmet on the wall as evidence we made it

Portreath derives from the Cornish for sandy cove. Tin streaming was recorded there as early as 1602. The mining port’s construction started in the 18C, and expanded considerably in the second half of the 19th. Its purpose was similar to that of its rival, Devoran.

The first ‘railroad’ in Cornwall was the Portreath Tramroad, originally with horse-drawn wagons (steam engines only arrived in the mid-19C), started in 1809, to link with the copper mines at Scorrier and Poldice, near St Day. By 1812 it stretched to Scorrier House, owned by the Williams family who later occupied Caerhays Castle, about which I wrote last time. This family, along with the Bassets (whose Tehidy estate is vast, and now a popular park), made a fortune as pioneers of the Cornish mining industry.

To the south is the site of the old cable-worked, steam-fuelled incline, which linked the harbour with the main rail line at Carn Brea, near Camborne, another busy mining zone until the 20C.

The link between the grand estates like Lanhydrock, Tehidy and Caerhays, the mines and industrial archaeology is constantly apparent when one travels through Cornwall. All along the cycle trail we saw old engine houses, chimneys and ruined buildings.

IMG_4578When we got home this handsome dragonfly was basking in the sun over our front door lintel. I tweeted it to Cornwall Wildlife Trust, who kindly identified it as a female Southern Hawker.

 

 

 

Profound personal engagement with place: Kurt Jackson, artist

Yesterday’s post about my trip with my wife to Penwith, in the far west of Cornwall, ended with a mention of an art gallery in St Just: the Jackson Foundation. Kurt Jackson is one of our favourite artists, and probably one of the finest living British painters of natural phenomena – from flora and fauna to land, sea and riverscapes.

Cape Cornwall

Cape Cornwall, looking west towards Land’s End

Looking at his currently exhibited work at St Just inspired us to deviate from our road home to take a look at a place that is one of his greatest inspirations and which features in much of his artwork, and in a video installation that can be seen in the gallery upstairs: Cape Cornwall. I included some pictures of it in yesterday’s post. Here’s another.

 

You might have seen some lovely reproductions of his work at Paddington Station in London some ten years ago, decorating the wooden boards screening building work that was going on there at the time.

The new Jackson gallery

The new gallery that will open shortly at the Jackson Foundation

In recent years his ‘projects’ have been inspired by a particular route – a river, a prehistoric track way, or a workplace and its inhabitants – quarry, mine, fishermen, farmers; a group of fauna or flora – crows, bees, a tree – or just his personal response to a particular place.

His paintings often include written notes on the sounds, wildlife and other sensual influences that pervade his warm, almost spiritual depictions of the scenes in which he immerses himself in order to capture their living essence and biodiversity – their past and present ‘clamour and silence’, as the catalogue describes his ‘This Place’ exhibition.

Born in Dorset in 1961, he graduated from Oxford in 1983 with a degree in zoology; his love for and deep empathy with living things animates all of his work. A year later he moved to Cornwall with his wife, and settled in St Just, on the marginal edge of mainland Britain, a ‘transitional space’, as he calls it, between the the wild and rugged moorland, granite outcrops and craggy cliffs of west Cornwall, and the Atlantic Ocean.

This is how his gallery website sums up his approach:

A dedication to and celebration of the environment is intrinsic to both his politics and his art and a holistic involvement with his subjects provides the springboard for his formal innovations. Jackson’s practice involves both plein air and studio work and embraces an extensive range of materials and techniques including mixed media, large canvases, print making and sculpture…

Three illustrated monographs on Jackson have been published by Lund Humphries depicting his career so far; A New Genre of Landscape Painting (2010), Sketchbooks (2012) and A Kurt Jackson Bestiary (2015). A Sansom & Company book based on his touring exhibition Place was published in 2014.

His passionate interest in psychogeography – the culture, lived history and precarious ecology of our world – is reflected in his numinous work, but also in his involvement with charities and campaigning organisations, from his role as artist in residence on a Greenpeace ship and at Cornwall’s Eden Project (and at Glastonbury Festival!), to acting as ambassador for Survival International. He has also worked closely with Friends of the Earth, WaterAid, Oxfam and Cornwall Wildlife Trust.

We managed to catch his latest exhibition – ‘Place’ – just before it closed – today. It arose from a collaboration with 32 writers from a varied range of backgrounds, and reveals the physical diversity of the British landscape, whilst providing an insight into the concept of ‘place’ – that ‘collective sense of identity, meaning, longing and nostalgia present within the British psyche’, as his website puts it.

Words are provided by writers Robert Macfarlane and Richard Mabey, as well as by scientists, poets, and others, each providing a personal transcript or evocation of a place they felt connected with. Jackson’s pictures are complemented by these portraits and images in words.

Inside the gallery at the Jackson Foundation

Inside the gallery at the Jackson Foundation

The Foundation will close for a couple of weeks now, reopening to house his next exhibition, from Sept. 14: ‘Obsession – Following the Surfer’. Here’s his website again:

Obsession sees Jackson follow his studio assistant on surfing trips around the Cornish coast.

He adds:

“Often it’s argued that the surfer’s path is a spiritual one – this connection between the individual and the wave, the ocean hosting its rider, but what is certain is that it opens the eyes of that person to the natural world, to an extraordinarily beautiful and powerful side of nature that needs respect and admiration and in the long run our protection and conservation.”

This body of work was produced in partnership with Cornwall-based eco-campaigners Surfers Against Sewage to highlight the charity’s work to protect the UK’s oceans, waves and beaches for everyone to enjoy safely and sustainably.

*****

For reasons of copyright I have been unable to reproduce any images of his artwork here, but the links I’ve included will take you to a number of websites where you can enjoy some beautiful representations. If you’ve never seen his work before, I’d urge you to take a look.

Even better, take a trip down to the land of Lyonesse and man engines, where DH and Frieda Lawrence strode the cliff paths, haunt of the ghosts of countless hard rock Cornish miners who lost their lives or limbs extracting the minerals that transformed this world of Celtic fantasy into an industrial, working, living landscape.

Choughs

Painting of Cornish (red-billed) and yellow-billed Alpine choughs, by J.F. Naumann (via Wikipedia)

PS to yesterday’s notes on Cornish choughs:

legend has it that King Arthur didn’t really die: he was transformed into a chough. For this reason it’s still considered unlucky to kill or harm one of these handsome corvids – one of which I was lucky enough to spot at Cape Cornwall yesterday.

Thanks to Fynn, at the Jackson Foundation, for the photos of the gallery interior.

Chloe Aridjis, ‘Book of Clouds’

 

I read most of Book of Clouds, the first novel by Chloe Aridjis, appropriately, on a long-haul flight to Chile, mostly above the cloud cover. Clouds are the central (perhaps over-obvious) symbol in an engaging narrative about a lonely young woman called Tatiana, a Jewish Mexican linguist adrift in Berlin after five years of solitude (lonely as a cloud?).

Photo: Hartwig Klappert, New York Times 2009

Photo: Hartwig Klappert, New York Times 2009

The novel opens with her teenage hallucinatory vision of a female centenarian Hitler on the U-Bahn in 1986, three years before the fall of the Wall, that ‘intractable curtain of cement’ that divided the city for decades, and the presence of which still haunts it – one can see its trace picked out in the pavements and streets.

Every  10 or 12 months Tatiana moves apartments:  ‘Spaces became too familiar, too elastic, too accommodating. Boredom and exasperation would set in’ –  she suffers from ‘restlessness’. That usage of ‘too accommodating’ is revealing of her illogical inability to settle.  From the empty apartment above come disturbing noises. Like Caliban, she’s troubled and intrigued by them. Or is she imagining them?

She strives to fill the ‘empty, loveless hours’ by wandering the streets of the city, alert and observant, marginalised, a true étrangère (in the French senses), but with the hypersensitive antennae of a poet. Here’s a typically lyrical description of one such dérive as a storm brews:

The restless air was closing in…A plastic bag, the discarded ghost of the object it once carried, was blown toward me and clung to my leg for a few seconds before I managed to shake it off. Birds twittered nervously in the trees but were nowhere to be found, not a single beak, claw or feather when I looked up. And then they fell silent. The sky had grown a shade or two darker, a slate grey cumulonimbus blotting the horizon.

Aridjis shows here she has a poet’s ear for rhythms, and an eye for the mundane image made numinous, even disturbing, defamiliarised (those disembodied, nervous birds). It’s not all grim though; Aridjis can be quite amusing in her wryness, for example in a description of a Russian market stallholder: ‘his nose stuck out like the muzzle of a malnourished fox.’

We begin to wonder if Tatiana isn’t perhaps going slightly mad in a Berlin that’s a combination of so many literary ‘unreal cities’ full of spectral figures, past and present. But she also portrays the real Berlin very evocatively, its cafés, ice-cream stalls, tram sidings and beggars.

Along with clouds and other weather events it’s time and the ghosts of the past that permeate the novel. Decades of dirt and dust rise up through the floorboards after a storm, and she feels ‘something in the building’s very foundation had shifted, ever so slightly, revealing new fault lines’ – images of the seismic, cosmic, meteorological urban sediments of time accumulate, clouding Tatiana’s (and our) sense of place and self.

In Berlin, an ‘omphalos of evil’,  she’d become ‘a professional in lost time…The city ran on its own chronometric scale.’ On Sundays the solitude ‘hardened into something else’ – loneliness. One of her only high points is the S-Bahn announcer’s voice, which  pleases her with its mechanical inhumanity,  ‘especially on days when I felt disconnected from the city, attached by the thinnest of strings’.

This is the Berlin of peripatetic Walser and Benjamin’s Berlin Childhood, experienced by Tatiana as coeval with the Holocaust and the TV tower in Alexanderplatz.

She has bizarre, often unsettling encounters on her random journeys as a flâneuse, observing urban existence like a latter-day Baudelaire in this ‘fourmillante cité’.  There’s a mysterious Xoloitzcuintle dog (Xolo) that ‘in Aztec myth would guide human souls through Mietlan, the ninth and lowest circle of the labyrinthine underworld, to their eternal resting place.’ Berlin’s past interpenetrates its present, life and death/afterlife coexist in this visionary protagonist’s liminal consciousness. Symptomatic of this are the ‘ghost stations’ of old East Berlin.

She gets a job working for the reclusive Dr Weiss (owner of the Xolo), an eccentric historian in his 70s, with 14 books published, but nothing recent. She transcribes his antiquated cassette tapes for projected essays on

the phenomenology of space, specifically in Berlin.  Spaces cling to their pasts, he said, and sometimes the present finds a way of accommodatinig this past and sometimes it doesn’t. At best, a peaceful coexistence is struck up between temporal planes but most of the time it is a constant struggle for dominion…[also] the reverberation of objects, the resonance of things long banished or displaced…

The quietly surreal tone that permeates the narrative is also seen when Dr Weiss tells Tatiana that he knew a man in her home city,  Mexico: ‘a photographer from Budapest named Chiki Weisz…He was married to Leonora Carrington.’ She was indeed a surrealist painter and author (1917-2011), who fled the Nazis in Europe, lived in the US and Mexico; his near-namesake Weisz was a photographer who worked with Robert Capa during the Spanish Civil War.

She interviews Jonas Krantz, 36 – one of the child artists who’d depicted the old East Berlin. He lives in an outer, bleak Plattenbau district on the 18th floor, ‘much closer to the clouds.’

As a meteorologist he loves clouds, which enables Aridjis to return to her central image; here he is, talking about them:

…all structures are collapsible. Just look at their own existence, condemned to rootlessness and fragmentation. Each cloud faces death through loss of form, drifting towards its death…destined to self-destruct…the fogs of time and all the obfuscation that surrounds them.

He strives to see contemporary Berlin as more than a ‘museum of horror.’ Yet Tatiana has a terrifying experience in a former Gestapo Bowling Alley, part of the spectral underground world, ‘a whole topography that lay, forgotten, twenty or thirty or forty feet down…’

Aridjis, Book of Clouds coverThere she tries to rub out the chalk scores scratched on the wall by the erstwhile bowlers, but ‘nothing can truly be rubbed away or blotted out…the more you try to rub something away the darker it becomes.’

The poetic, muted, ethereal style of this haunting novel persists until the final sentence, as she flies back to Mexico (another long-haul trip, somewhere above the clouds) after a violent encounter with neo-Nazi thugs: ‘there was little difference between clouds and shadows and other phenomena given shape by the human imagination.’

Aridjis occasionally lapses into stereotyping Berlin’s terrible Nazi legacy; her characters and slightly creaky plot are less compelling than the dissonant, vatic-magical mood and style created so deftly through the language.

I found it an intriguing novel with a highly original take on the psychogeography of a city as experienced by a sensitive individual.

 Chloe Aridjis, Book of Clouds, Vintage paperback, 2010; first published 2009

 

A virtual dérive

This will be a virtual derive:

Theory of the Dérive, by Guy Debord: Les Lèvres Nues #9 (November 1956)
reprinted in Internationale Situationniste #2 (December 1958)

Translated by Ken Knabb (link here)

ONE OF THE BASIC situationist practices is the dérive [literally: “drifting”], a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances. Dérives involve playful-constructive behavior and awareness of psychogeographical effects, and are thus quite different from the classic notions of journey or stroll.

In a dérive one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there. Chance is a less important factor in this activity than one might think: from a dérive point of view cities have psychogeographical contours, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes that strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones.

But the dérive includes both this letting-go and its necessary contradiction: the domination of psychogeographical variations by the knowledge and calculation of their possibilities. In this latter regard, ecological science — despite the narrow social space to which it limits itself — provides psychogeography with abundant data.

The average duration of a dérive is one day, considered as the time between two periods of sleep. The starting and ending times have no necessary relation to the solar day, but it should be noted that the last hours of the night are generally unsuitable for dérives.

 

My drifting, however, was initiated this morning when I came across this link to the British Library’s blog, The Mechanical Curator: Randomly selected small illustrations and ornamentations, posted on the hour.   Rediscovered artwork from the pages of 17th, 18th and 19th Century books.  I browsed the links and followed this one:

Exped cover pg online edExpedição portugueza ao Muatiânvua. Descripção da viagem á Mussumba do Muatiânvua … Edição illustrada por H. Casanova. [With plates, including portraits and maps.] vol. 1-3
Author: DIAS DE CARVALHO, Henrique Augusto (Lisboa, 1890)

The image which first caught my eye, from the hundreds of thumbnails on offer at this site, was this one of an egregiously sulky-looking bird:

Sulky bird(Helotarsus ecaudatus)

aka ‘jester’, or Gaukler in German; I found this out from this site, which has been translated with customary inattention to idiomatic English, by

Bing (which gave up, evidently, on many words, and left them untranslated):

‘A beautiful matte black, head, neck, back and the whole bottom engaging, stands by that, Graulich Brown on the internal flag is made white, decorated with a wide, black end edge last four hand – and the consummation scapulars lively off from the bright chestnut coat, the similarly-colored tail, slightly thinner lower back, as well as a broad wing bandage, in opposition to the deep black first flight. The deck spring of the primaries are black, the arm swings brown-black with Brown Endsaume, the other upper deck feather wings dark brown, lighter margins who know under deck spring wing. The eye is nice and Brown…’

The bird is also called Short-tailed eagle (or kite), Bataleur (or Bateleur) eagle (‘tumbler’, or ‘tightrope walker’ in French), the name given by the ornithologist François Le Vaillant.  Born in Surinam in 1753, he studied in Metz (where I once lived – a nice situationist coincidence).  I found this about him at Wikipedia:

As a traveller in Africa, Le Vaillant tended to describe the African people without prejudice. He shared Rousseau’s idea of the “Noble savage” and condemnation of civilization. He described the beauty of Narina, Khoekhoe woman in Gonaqua named after a flower in terms that were not to be found later in the colonial period.[3] He was infatuated with Narina, and she stopped painting her body with ochre and charcoal and lived with Le Vaillant for many days. When he left, he gave her many presents but she was said to have sunk into deep melancholia.

Le Vaillant parrot by Jacques BarrabandThere’s this lovely image on the same site of this parrot from Le Vaillant’s Histoire naturelle des perroquets, 2 vols, 1801-05, illustrated by Jacques Barraband.

I wondered how accurate an image of the Bateleur eagle the one above was, so did some online searching…Bateleur Eagle (NY Public Library, image ID: 820528)

Bateleur Eagle (NY Public Library, image ID: 820528): from Gustav Mützel (1839-93), ‘The Royal natural history’, Warne 1894-96.

This bookplate doesn’t look much like the Portuguese one: nobler, less grumpy.  Digging deeper I came upon this alternative name for the bird:

Century Dictionary and Cyclopedia, s.n. mountebank,  n. 3: The short-tailed African kite, Helotarsus ecaudatus: so called from its aërial tumbling. (via Finedictionary.com).

The online images at the NYPL led me on to this plate of a collection of Accipitres (diurnal birds of prey):

Bateleur eagle is no. 6

Bateleur eagle is no. 6

 

 

 

Next was a bird called ‘bucorax’ (or Cazovo, I think the text in the caption to Carvalho’s image reads; it’s not very clear.)

Here it is: Bucorax p384 online edn

 

 

 

 

 

This is from an online edition of the book found via Google booksearch.   Mützel has a clearer image (also at the NYPL site, Image ID: 820820) where it’s called Hornrabe, Bucorax Abyssincus Bodd. It’s also called the Ground Hornbill, I discovered.Bucorax Mutzel

And now I’ve run out of time.  I’ll continue this post next time, with more images of birds, animals, people, places.