A field, a bunker, a field again: The fate of place and the prosaics of place-making and unmaking.

Markyate Montage

“On top of the hill… I met an insurance agent and a radio salesman, wearing badges and armlets. Their oldest clothes and huge smiles. Theirs is a job that would drive schoolboys mad with envy. Any healthy-minded lad would give all his pocket-money to take a turn in this observation post, with its sandbagged watching place, its dug-out and camouflaged hut. Here is sentry work of a new and exciting kind.”

                J.B. Priestley, News Chronicle 17 Oct 1939

This is an abridged version of a paper that I wrote for an academic journal special issue on ‘Cold War Places’. I wanted to foreground the rise and fall of a prosaic wartime place-type, the aerial observation post and chose to stitch together a semi-fictionalised account of one site’s passage through time. This seemed the best way to give life to the fragments of stories that I had found for a variety of such posts in the National Archives. My aim was to show the ebb and flow of a place-formation, and how it is an unstable local-national constellation of people, environment, paperwork and policy. But in the end the editors didn’t feel my unconventional approach suitable for their history journal. So, rather than leave it in a drawer I’m presenting it here…

2017

We are at the verge of a country lane in the Hertfordshire countryside just outside the village of Wasnott, 30 miles north of London. Beyond a gap in the hedge a field gently rises to its brow on the horizon. Other than the stubble of an arable crop this field is empty; there is nothing to see here.

1979

We are at the same location, looking into the same field. A man wearing a dark beret and blue serge uniform is crouched over a portable petrol-electric generator trying to get it started. Around him stand three other men. One wearing a blue trench coat, another standing by a raised concrete hatch, into which the third man is about to descend. Two of the men are smiling, caught in the act of playfully chiding the generator attendant for his ineffective motor-starting technique. The men have brought with them an assortment of other bags and cases. The men and the concrete structures are surrounded by a high chain-link fence topped with barbed-wire, forming a compound within which a sign stands, declaring:

“Royal Observer Post

7/P2

Wasnott”

The men are ROC volunteers getting ready for a weekend exercise that will see them stationed within their post’s underground bunker. Here they will open a succession of manila envelopes at allotted times and act upon the simulated detonation and fallout readings contained within, reporting that data through to their ROC Group HQ.

1933

Four men are standing in the field: the head of the Observer Corps, the Clerk of the Parish Council, Wasnott’s police constable and an engineer from the General Post Office (GPO). The Clerk is present because the field is managed by the Parish Council, the western part of it having recently been turned into a recreation ground. The constable is here because his Chief Constable has been instructed via a “confidential” standard form letter issued by the Home Office to arrange recruitment of local men as special constables to man an observation post to be established at this spot for the purpose of detecting, plotting and reporting aircraft movements as part of the air defence system. The procurement of both men and physical sites for the Observer Corps has become standardised through experience and repetition since the Corps was established as a volunteer force in 1924 in Kent and Sussex, and then slowly expanded across the counties of Southern England. This field has been identified as suited to a post because it affords a good clear view towards London. However, the GPO Engineer is in attendance because this location is only feasible if a telephone connection can be run to it. The men agree a suitable position and a stake is driven into the ground.

As the Home Office’s letter assures the Council, this stake is the post’s only enduring physical element, for:

“as the [observation] equipment is portable, nothing remains on the site when not in use, nor is there anything to be seen, except, in some cases, a peg driven in flush with the ground to mark the exact site, e.g. in a field… A telephone pole may be erected close to the site, if no convenient pole already exists … no damage of any sort occurs, and it may perhaps be mentioned that the men manning the post are always local men, known probably to you, and that in the quite large number of posts already established, no difficulties with Landlords or Tenants have been found to occur”.

Accordingly, the Home Office’s letter offers no rental payment for the post’s use of the site, which it states will be used for annual exercises not exceeding seven days (or nights) per year.

1942

The Chief Observer is hauling a bundle of advertising hoardings from his delivery van and taking them into the post hut. For the first five years of the Wasnott post’s existence the observers continued to bring all of their equipment to the site for each exercise. Experience of bitter winds on this hillside encouraged them to also bring thick clothing and canvas windbreaks. However the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia in September 1938 changed things. For two weeks at the height of the crisis the observers manned the post permanently and it became clear that for continuous operation these posts would need to provide sheltered facilities to enable observers to cook, rest and simply get warm. Deciding upon the suitability of having each post served by a wooden shed, the Air Ministry issued designs for “Standard Pattern Huts” and provided £5 for materials by which shelter and welfare facilities could be locally sourced and erected. But in the face of rationing of building materials the roll-out of this solution was slow to bear fruit. In the meantime at Wasnott the Chief Observer scrounged around and improvised with sandbags “quite a good little fort around the spotting position”. But that proved unsatisfactory as a long-term shelter as after a hard winter the “bags gradually rotted and the sand swirled about in the breeze and got into eyes, cups of tea and everything”. As interim measures a tent and then a caravan were placed at the site and then at the height of the Battle of Britain, amidst fears of imminent invasion, two members of the Home Guard camped out near the post in an old car they had dragged onto the site.

At Wasnott the Chief Observer kept pressing for tools to do the job – and a wooden hut was eventually created, replete with a “cubby hole” featuring stove, small desk and shelves adjacent to open platform with removable glass windshields. But winter chill penetrated even that shelter, prompting the Chief Observer to now bring cardboard display adverts from a local tailor’s shop, to line his hut’s walls.

1946

The scavenger wrenches the corrugated steel shutter from Wasnott post’s now-abandoned observation platform and drags it to his van parked at the edge of the site.

By the end of the war the ROC had 40,000 observers, 40 reporting centres, and approx. 1,500 posts spread across the length and breadth of mainland Britain. But within a couple of weeks of the end of the European campaign in May 1945, the ROC was stood down and its posts quickly abandoned. Already in a tired condition by the cessation of hostilities, posts’ physical structures quickly fell into dereliction – a process accelerated by the post-war steel shortage and its ensuing scrap hunting. Some posts also became improvised homes for squatters: citizens or demobilised military personnel, adding further to their “eyesore” reputation.

However, in the Autumn of 1946, in the face of deteriorating relations with the Soviet Union it was decided that the ROC should be reactivated, and in December of that year, the Air Ministry wrote to Wasnott Parish Council proposing a year to year tenancy to formalise its resumption of occupation of the site. In the face of some resistance by the Council to the standard lease presented to them (but which the Air Ministry asserted had been accepted without amendment by many landowners), the Air Ministry eventually agreed a 15/- rent and to providing a more particularised definition of the post’s 3 yards by 3 yards plot.

But the revival of individual posts didn’t automatically revive the observation network for the wartime ROC reporting centres had closed, the radar system was barely operable and few fighter squadrons remained. Plans were put in hand to address this, but this investment would not see fruit until 1953 (by which time the evolution of military technology had rendered both the new reporting centres and the new ROTOR’ radar bunkers obsolete). Derek Wood, recalling his own experience of starting out as an ROC member in 1947, portrays the parlous conditions faced by the post-war observer, stood on site contemplating the emergent Cold War tensions in:

“their ill-fitting uniforms [which] were soaked through, post structure and hut were non-existent and the rickety wooden tripod legs of the instrument often fell to pieces, depositing the heavy metal table on the luckless observer’s feet. Telephones had a habit of emitting loud screams and crackling noises, or they cut out altogether. Where lines had not been laid on the observers solemnly wrote the [aircraft] plots down and put them in the mail the next day.”

1954

The pre-formed concrete panels are unloaded from the lorry and carried across to the site. The Council had anticipated this moment back in 1951 when they agreed to increase the site plot to 7 yards by 7 yards, and to increase the annual rent to 40/-. The Air Ministry’s plans to improve the physical condition of its observer posts had seen Orlit Ltd commissioned in 1952 to supply 400 sites with prefabricated concrete lookout posts in two variants: on-ground (Type A) or raised on stilts (Type B). But Wasnott’s new observation platform is of doubtful merit, for jets have now started to supersede human plotting capability. In recent Air Ministry trials it was acknowledged that the days of the ROC’s aircraft spotting role are numbered. Wasnott’s Orlit platform will indeed soon lie derelict, aircraft observation supplanted by the ROC’s new role inspired by the Hydrogen Bomb and the new type of accommodation required for it.

1956

The Chief Observer is sitting in his car, writing a letter to the Council thanking the councillors for their permission to bring cars onto the recreation ground for the duration of the one week summer exercise. The Chief Observer’s letter assures the Council that the rest of year’s training will be held in the function room of a local pub, The Lucky Duck.

Following the previous year’s exercise a spat had ensued between the Air Ministry and the Council. The Council had notified the Air Ministry of new bylaws prohibiting vehicles from the recreation ground and in turn the Chief Observer had alerted the Air Ministry to the prospect that this restriction could “considerably dampened the enthusiasm of our Post Instructor and Observers” adding that “it is no wonder that the ROC is struggling to attract volunteers”. After further correspondence a temporary concession was granted to permit the ROC volunteers to park their cars upon the site during their summer exercise.

The subject matter of the post’s training activity will soon change (although, out of these volunteers’ choice, aircraft spotting will remain a staple of the crew’s gatherings in The Lucky Duck for many years to come). In June of 1955 the Home Secretary had announced to the House of Commons that steps were being taken for the ROC – given its network of observation sites spread across the length and breadth of mainland Britain – to give warning of and to measure radioactivity in the event of air attacks in a future war. Henceforth, instead of plotting aircraft the ROC would be plotting nuclear explosions and fallout. At Wasnott there were some resignations when the post’s new duties had been announced. These volunteers had joined the ROC because they wanted to be aircraft spotters and they enjoyed being outdoors, sky watching. They did not want to hide underground like moles.

Results from US and UK testing in the mid 1950s had emphasised the importance of shelter in the face of not only blast, but also the ensuing fallout. Accordingly, in support of the ROC’s new role the Government had authorised funding for the ROC Posts to receive subterranean “protected accommodation”. The first designs for this had been settled in July 1955, and the resulting underground bunkers would be built by local contractors using “cut and cover” techniques to form in poured reinforced concrete a 19ft x 8ft 6in x 7ft 6in buried concrete box, its roof slab overlain by three feet of earth. Accessed via a hatch, a ladder leading down 15ft into the bunker gave access to its main room with desk, two sets of bunk beds and small anteroom with an Eltex chemical toilet. Ventilation was provided by two wooden or steel louvred ventilation shafts. Each post cost around the price of a modest terrace house, but inside the conditions were far from homely: the bulk of that expense being absorbed in the cost of excavating and building below ground. The ROC’s bunkers featured no heating and only dim lighting from a single 12V battery pack. Home Office habitation trials in 1956 found the subterranean posts fit for purpose, but their design and dwelling circumstances continued the ROC’s experience of abjection, with Wood recalling that “despite the monitoring room temperature of 60oF the insidious cold of the concrete floor crept through flesh and bone.”

1960

The local contractors are clearing the site, packing away the wooden shuttering planks used to form the Wasnott bunker’s poured concrete walls. The shuttering will be used again at the next site. As they drive out of the field they are keen to do so quickly, before the tenant farmer reappears. There has been recent correspondence between all parties about the mud churned up by the contractor’s to-ing and fro-ing, one more instalment in a long line of correspondence associated with this post’s latest phase of rudimentary development.

Completed in early 1960, the building of Wasnott post’s protected accommodation was the culmination of a protracted legal process that rather belies the urgencies of the first Cold War. Back in 1954 the Air Ministry had asked the Council to sell it the existing plot, but the Council had declined. After that, the Air Ministry has reconciled itself to meeting its needs by taking a 21 year lease of the site. Thereafter from early 1955 until March 1959 a succession of correspondence teased out mundane conveyancing matters concerning the nature of the Council’s ownership interest in the site variously under the Wasnott Inclosure Act 1842, the need for Ministry of Education authorisation due to the recreation ground’s educational endowment, negotiation of rent and fencing arrangements and steps to clarify the first names of all required signatories to the lease. Eventually, the lease was completed, regularising the Ministry’s occupation of the site (now increased to 136 square yards) for 21 years at an annual rental of £5 and, at the Air Ministry’s insistence, imposing a 50 foot radius safeguarded area ringing the protected accommodation within which the landlord agreed not to build any obstructions.

1962

The Chief Observer, visiting the site to tidy up after a recent fallout plotting exercise, finds that the entrance has been blocked by the tenant farmer who grazes cattle on the pasture adjacent to the recreation ground. With some difficulty, she manoeuvres herself around the obstacle and approaches the hatch, descending thereafter into the bunker. There she attempts with some difficulty to fit a piece of equipment, in the course of which she falls onto the post’s table causing a “splintering crash that reverberated round the walls, just as we are told the nuclear blast will do”. Gathering herself together she climbs back to the surface and once out of the hatch notices a bull amongst the herd of docile jersey cows. The bull starts towards her and she runs at full pelt towards the blocked exit. To her relief she manages to squeeze her way back to the safety of the lane and emphatically concludes: “to me a bull with a ring in his nose, is far more of a potential hazard than a nuclear bomb. This is a case of the evil that we know being ‘worse’ than that which we do not”.

With such naivety or bravado, Wasnott’s crew were slowly coming to terms with their new role, a process aided by their involvement in blast and fallout monitoring exercises, like the recent Fallex 62 national fallout plotting exercise. Such exercises could be monotonous however.  Fallex 62 had featured only a single simulated strike, meaning that only the eastern part of the country was substantively affected. Accordingly, Wasnott crew’s participation had been “limited to ‘monotonous’ fall out readings or ‘no reading’ for hours on end”, accompanied by the constant “blip – blip” chirping of the post’s Carrier Warning Receiver, a soundtrack relieved only by occasional chatter with the crews of the other posts in Wasnott’s cluster.

1980

The new recruit is being introduced to the post. In the face of rising tensions between the superpowers over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan recruitment to the ROC has doubled over the last year. The Chief Observer tells the recruit that his prospects for a long and enjoyable role in the ROC are buoyed by the Thatcher Government’s stated commitment to reviving civil defence. The Chief Observer does not mention his nagging concern that eventually the need for monitoring posts staffed by humans will be overtaken by remote sensing devices given everything that seems to be happening with the boom of electronic devices in the household. For the time being he will take comfort in the works in hand to convert the Wasnott post’s landline links to dedicated private wires and to replace its old terminal with a new loud-speaking Teletalk telephone.

But despite the recent rise in recruits the ROC retains its perennial anxiety about recruitment and at Wasnott this anxiety colours the Chief Observer’s stance around renewal of the Wasnott Post’s lease which is set to expire this year. The PSA (who have now taken over the management of civil assets from the Defence Land Agent) have advised that the ROC can rely upon standard continuation of tenancy rights set down in the Landlord & Tenant Act 1954 which mean that the 1959 lease will be deemed to simply continue on its old terms. The UKWMO’s HQ staff have become involved, and they share the Chief Observer’s discomfort with this passive approach. Ultimately UKWMO will insist that the PSA enter into negotiations with the landowner to secure the active grant of a new 21 year lease because “we know from experience that any uncertainty about the long-term future of a post will have an adverse effect upon the morale of its crew.”

1992

The Chief Observer places equipment removed from the post into the back of the hired van, it is now sixth months after the formal standing down of the ROC. The van is driven by full time ROC officers who have been instructed to liaise with ROC Post crews around the country so that they may arrange to collect equipment from their posts and take it to central stores. In July 1991 Kenneth Baker, the Home Secretary, had suddenly announced that following review of the defence requirements in the light of the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Home Office could no longer justify the continued use of the ROC volunteers for the nuclear monitoring role, and that this responsibility would in future be met by a mixture of local authorities and the military. The news had been received with shock by the ROC. At Wasnott Post the observers had gathered at the site for the last time and written their names, and the date, upon the wall of their post. Their sector’s commanding officer had exhorted his volunteers to “maintain our image to the end” and that they should “stand down with dignity…there is nothing to be gained from emotive statements to the media, petitions, demonstrations etc”. However, at many posts it had proved difficult to get the now disbanded post members engaged with the clear-out task. The van’s drivers will themselves be redundant by the end of March 1992. This attempted clearance of posts and gathering together of their records will therefore prove to be only partially successful.

1999

Accompanied by the bemused farmer, the man with the expensive looking camera climbs down into the Wasnott post. The photographs that he takes there will form part of a survey which will present on-line an account of the location and physical state of every traceable ROC post. The farmer acquired this field from the Council after the recreation ground was sold for housing development in 1967. He had never paid much attention to it prior to the ROC stand-down. In 1992 he had accepted surrender of the lease and a payment of £50 in lieu of the reinstatement liability. Shortly afterwards he took the post’s fencing down, and cleared away the collapsed Orlit post after it blew over in a heavy storm. But otherwise he had left things alone.

A few years later he had been approached by a businessman who said that he would like to rent the bunker as a weekend retreat. The farmer had seen the man on site a few times, cutting the grass around the post or sitting on the hatch admiring the view of London. One time in conversation the man had declared: “this place was originally built so the Royal Observer Corps could monitor London being wiped off the map. Sometimes that’s easy to forget” and the farmer felt that the man was trying somehow to resist that forgetting. But the man’s attendance had tailed off after a while and he eventually stopped paying the rent.

There had also been some approaches from former members of the ROC Post’s crew, with talk of preserving the post as a historic relic of the Cold War, and seeking funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund to do so. But nothing had come of this and the farmer had found all that rather hard to fathom – this place was surely too recent to be archaeological. The photographer assured him that the post had historic interest – and that hundreds of amateur investigators have been working since 1995 on a project to catalogue the twentieth century’s “Defence of Britain” sites across the UK.

2007

Using now-readily available locational data the bunkerologist has programmed his sat-nav to alert him of proximity to any ROC post. Having detected one here, on the outskirts of Wasnott, he strolls across the field and down into the bunker. Inside he finds a burnt out shell. The polystyrene tiles combusted well, coating the underground room in a thick layer of soot, into which recent visitors have written their names and a few faux apocalyptic slogans, echoing the Half Life Video game.  The man takes some photos which he later uploads to an urban exploration forum website, describing his visit thus: “close to minor road and OPEN. As previously reported – empty and burned. Nasty. The site is overgrown and is being undermined by rabbits.”

2013

The farmer has decided to clear away the Wasnott post’s surface features, having heard recently that English Heritage had listed a ROC Post in Yorkshire, he wants to ensure that his site doesn’t attract any restrictive heritage designations. His insurance broker has also worried him by pointing out that he would be liable if anyone were to be injured with the post.

Erasure of the post is easy. The turrets fall with the aid of a towrope and a tractor, and he then grubs out the near-surface remains of the hatch, tumbling the masonry into the ladder well and then overfilling with soil to leave no trace of the ROC’s former presence in this now empty field.

Picture credit: A montage combining a 1979 view of Markyate ROC Post overlayed onto the site’s 2015 Google Earth form. The 1979 photograph is reproduced courtesy of Roland Carr.

Note: Wasnott is not a real place, but all of the quotes are taken from primary sources concerning various ROC Post sites and events at them. References for the quotes are available from me, if desired.

 

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Dread, Utopia and Survival in Subterranea: Bradley Garrett & Ian Klinke’s bunker CFP for AAG 2018, New Orleans

“Mrs Miggins crackling tasted good”. That’s what I heard them say. I was only about four years of age. The adults had gathered at my father’s house at his request one evening. The door was closed. But that’s what I heard them say as I played in the lounge listening out across the hallway.

The group of earnest adults were members of my father’s amateur dramatics society. They had gathered to rehearse his short play. It was set in a near future, post-apocalyptic world. In keeping with the multiple sources of early 1970s anxiety, the actual nature of the disaster (and whether natural or man-made) was left unrevealled. All that was clear in the play was that this motley group of characters were huddled, in an underground shelter, trying to work out where their next meal would come from. All of their non-human food had been exhausted. Cannibalism was the only option left. Aged four I somehow picked up on the dark double-meaning. This pun was chilling indeed. The sentence concerned the delicacy that was Mrs Miggins’ own cooked flesh.

Maybe this was the moment that sowed the seed of my interest in making sense of bunkers, survival architecture and the darkness that they exude. It certainly left an impression. I remember little else of my fourth year.

Bradley Garrett and Ian Klinke have recently issued a Call For Papers for a bunker/shelter/survival themed session at the Association of American Geographers’ conference in New Orleans next April. I’m not sure whether I’m going to be able to attend, but the session will – I’m sure – be very interesting.

By bringing to the surface the themes of survival, shelter and dread Garrett and Klinke are helpfully reminding us that bunkers are not just deactivated oblique ruins ripe for a funky make-over or reappropriation. They are primal, dark existential places, a fusing of womb/tomb and of all of the contradictions that flow from that. Taking shelter, making shelter and needing shelter is a fundamental in human life and in the face of nuclear or ‘conventional’ assault that urge to shelter becomes a trigger for frantic improvisation and life/death decision-taking. Their CFP reminds us that shelter comes in many forms (not just the monolith’s of Virilio’s Atlantic Wall). History shows that spaces of withdrawal and exception are formed, stocked and barricaded as society fractures – and whether as the underground citadels of dictators, billionaires, preppers or citizens caught up in the next warzone.

Perhaps the next horizon for bunker studies is better understanding sheltering and shelter-making, and of the politico-affective experience of taking shelter (or of being commanded to do so by a state that can no longer quite manage to assure the safety of its citizens). It will certainly be interesting to see what Garrett and Klinke’s session comes up with.

Call for Papers
Annual Meeting of the Association of American Geographers,
New Orleans, 10th-14th April 2018.
Dread, Utopia and Survival in Subterranea
Bradley Garrett (University of Sydney)
Ian Klinke (University of Oxford)

In recent years, a wave of work has explored volumetric geopolitics (Weizman, 2007; Elden, 2013; Graham, 2016) and social geographers have argued that ‘the experiences, practices and textures of vertical life’ (Harris, 2014, 608) need to be explored in greater detail. At the confluence of these prompts, the bunker has re-emerged as a site of fascination.
Long discarded as uninteresting, the subterranean ‘survival machine’ (Virilio 1994: 39) has more recently been investigated as a site of psychological preparedness for annihilation (Masco, 2009), an ambivalent space and a waste of modernity (Beck, 2011), a space of exceptionality and biopolitics (Klinke, 2015), of ruination and meaning-making
(Bennett, 2017, Garrett 2013) and of deterritorialisation and domestication (Berger-Ziuaddin, 2017). In short, the bunker, long thought of as an anticipatory and dystopian architectural byproduct of aerial war, has been rendered a more nuanced and varied architectural form.
As WWII shelters and Cold War bunkers are increasingly turned into underground farms, secure file storage facilities and heritage sites, and as governments continue to dig deeper boltholes and private luxury bunkers are being pitched as places to ‘escape’ globalisation, connectivity and even those same governments, can we find in architectural form of the bunker a shared philosophy of excavation that exceeds the ideological divides between Fascist dictators, Communist apparatchiks, business tycoons and the leaders of liberal democracies? What does ‘survival’ even mean today, given
current political and environmental circumstances? Could bunkers harbour hope for ‘conservation practices’ beyond the human? This session thus will bring together papers that address one or more aspects of a growing contemporary concern with the social and geopolitical underground. We seek to attract critically-minded work from a range of
theoretical and disciplinary backgrounds to explore issues such as:
• The relationship between geology, politics and human survival
• Subterranea as a cultural, (bio)political or existential space
• The materiality of the underground
• The (actual or speculative) phenomenology of self-confinement
• The socio-political significance of contemporary bunker construction (e.g. iceberg houses, prepping, panic
rooms)
• Bunkers as representational spaces (in computer games, films etc.)
• Philosophies of fear, dread, utopia and survival motivating excavation and burrowing
• The relationship between the horizontal, the vertical and the oblique
• Temporalities of underground survival and evacuation

Please send an abstract of no more than 250 words by 13th October to:
Ian Klinke – ian.klinke@ouce.ox.ac.uk
Bradley Garrett – bradley.garrett@sydney.edu.au
__________________________________________________________________________________
Beck, J. (2011) ‘Concrete ambivalence: Inside the bunker complex’ Cultural Politics, 7, 79-102.
Bennett, L. (2017) The ruins of the Cold War bunker: Affect, materiality and meaning making (London: Rowman and Littlefield International).
Berger Ziauddin, S. (2017) ‘(De)territorializing the home. The nuclear bomb shelter as a malleable site of passage’ Environment and Planning D, 35, 674-693.
Elden, S. (2013) ‘Secure the volume: Vertical geopolitics and the depth of power’, Political Geography, 34, 35-51.
Garrett, B. (2013) Explore everything: Place-hacking the city (London: Verso).
Graham, S. (2016) Vertical: The city from satellites to bunkers (London: Verso).
Harris A. (2014) ‘Vertical urbanisms: Opening up geographies of the three-dimensional city’ Progress in Human Geography 39 601-620.
Klinke, I. (2015) ‘The bunker and the camp: inside West Germany’s nuclear tomb’, Environment and Planning D, 33, 1, 154-168.
Masco, J. (2009) ‘Life underground. Building the bunker society’ Anthropology Now 1(2): 13-29.
Virilio, P. (1994) ‘Bunker Archeology’ (New York: Princeton Architectural Press).
Weizman, E. (2007) Hollow land: Israel’s architecture of occupation (London: Verso).

Image credit:

https://www.popsci.com/sites/popsci.com/files/styles/1000_1x_/public/import/2013/images/2013/02/1960_0.jpg?itok=rH3p36Sm

 

 

Approaching the bunker with Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line

It’s the epitome of serenity, the green field hill in the Windows 7 default wallpaper. Millions have stared at it for hours, days, weeks of our working lives. Did you ever wonder what was over the brow or catch a glimpse of movement on the ridgeline?

Last night I finally sat down to watch The Thin Red Line, Terrence Malick’s flawed 1998 meditation on the 1942 Guadalcanal campaign. I’ve put it off for years, warned away by others who have described the film to me as a sumptuous mess. Originally presented to the studio that commissioned it as a 5 hour epic, the version eventually released to cinemas was a hacked-back edit around 2.5 hours long. Consequently characters come and go, events appear or jump with little explanation and the viewer is left to work to interpolate a narrative arc.

But the film does sumptuous in spades, particularly in the mid section in which a squad of US marines are stuck under fire in the middle of a pastoral scene reminiscent of the Windows 7 screensaver. Surprisingly, given the pressure to edit the film down to a manageable size (and the coherence lost everywhere else) this scene holds a good, unhurried 45 minutes, with lingering shots of sky, hill and the shoulder-high kunai grass blowing in the breeze as vulnerable bodies seek what shelter they can improvise at its roots. The squad, pinned down, repeatedly look anxiously towards the ridgeline and try to reconcile their peril with orders to advance.

thin-red-line-03

But it is at the moment towards the end of this scene when their officer announces specifically that the object of their assault is a “bunker” at the top of the ridge that the scene both grasps a narrative coherence and loses its strange power. Until that moment the enforced sojourn in the field seems a shapeless purgatory in a hostile paradise. But with the announcement “bunker”, a trope is keyed in queuing up a ‘mission’ and the films story (and the situation of ‘stuckness’ that it otherwise portrays) is broken. We, the viewer then know – “ah, so the next scene’s a bunker assault then”. And, lo and behold it is. Lots of running around, explosions and shoot-outs from behind fortunately placed rocks. In the assault dialogue the “bunker” is descriptively reduced in to a “dug-out” and, through a combination of this semantic re-designation and a few grenades the mission is solved.

Many war films follow the bunker assault trope – see for example the bunker/cliff scene in Saving Private Ryan, the bunker assault in one of the early episodes of Band of Brothers. In these the structures under assault are the monolithic concrete cubes of the Atlantic Wall, but representations of the Pacific war present bunker assault climaxes too, albeit that the bunker complexes there are rudimentary dugouts or underground tunnels.

What intrigues me about the bunker assault in The Thin Red Line is its lingering prelude – the meditation on the rolling green hills and the unspecified nature of the jeopardy on the ridgeline. Here is an environment both calm and hostile. This is very different to the ‘set-up’ work done in the D-Day films, where the bunkers sit castle-like on the horizon, taking centre stage signalling the action-to-come. This unknowing aspect of the peril faced in the Thin Red Line scene is atypical, and all the more potent for that reason. Here the bunker is more menacing before it is seen and whilst we (the audience) and the pinned-down marines are in its thrall. This effect (whether intentional or a byproduct of Malick’s destruction of the film’s narrative coherence) is reminiscent of classic horror films, in which (in the pre-CGI era) the object of menace is most scary when it is left weird: hidden and unclarified. But once named, framed inter-textually by reference to every other war film that has gone before, and thereafter seen it loses some of its power through assimilation into its known, measured and brought-down-to-size state.

I can’t find a film still of the rudimentary dug-out that is eventually revealed in the Thin Red Line, so here’s a real-life one:

jap-dugout
On Guadalcanal the Japanese defences were particularly hastily constructed as the defenders retreated inland in the wake of what would come to be the first of many US amphibious island-hoping assaults. But as Rottman (2003) notes the early, vernacular style was also characteristic of Japanese bunkers generally. With its forces spread across a vast archipelago of conquered Pacific territories materials characteristic of Western European industrial construction could only be dreamt of: concrete and steel were simply not available. Thus local improvisation was the only option, adapting to widely varied terrains (from barren sub-arctic wastes to dense tropical forests, via rocky volcanic outcrops). Typically a Japanese bunker was a dugout augmented by a sheltering structure made of logs, lashed and stapled together, overlaid with earth and vegetation.But it was not just material exigencies that kept things simple compared to the pattern book endeavour of the Nazi Atlantic Wall bunkers – the Japanese were also having to learn the art of defence quickly and from scratch, as defensive warfare was – until the tide turned – alien to Japanese military doctrine. As a 1944 Handbook on Japanese Military Forces put it:

“The defensive form of combat generally has been distasteful to the Japanese, and they have been reluctant to admit that the Imperial Army would ever be forced to engage in this form of combat.”

 

Image credits: 

http://wallpaperpulse.com/wallpaper/1767671

http://cinetropolis.net/wp-content/uploads/2013/10/thin-red-line-03.jpg

http://www.mnseabees.org/flashback.htm

Reference:

Rottman, Gordon L (2003) Japanese Island Defenses 1941-45, Osprey Publishing

 

Bored to death? Here’s how to attend one (or both) of the book launch events for ‘In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker’ on 1st and 7th September 2017.

IMG-20170727-WA0000 cropped

The next couple of weeks sees a flurry of promotional activity for my bunker book, In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker.

THE LONDON LAUNCH: 1 September 2017

Next Thursday (1 September 2017) is the ‘bunkerfest’ at the RGS, with three sessions in Skempton Building, Room 307:

11.10-12.50 The Future of the Bunker (1): new uses and meanings for the 20th century’s abandoned bunkers

14.40-16.20 The Future of the Bunker (2) : materialising contemporary anxieties and desires in 21st century bunker building

16.50-18.30 The Future of the Bunker (3): In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker: John Beck in conversation with Luke Bennett, Kathrine Sandys and Kevin Booth.

Full abstracts for the sessions and their contributors are available on the RGS conference website, http://www.rgs.org (and in earlier blogs on this site).

THE SHEFFIELD & YORK LAUNCH: 7 September 2017

There are just a few free places left on the ‘guest-list’ for this afternoon seminar, early evening bunker tour and book launch. If interested please email me at:  l.e.bennett@shu.ac.uk asap.

The event starts and ends in Sheffield (close to the railway station), and comprises:

1.30 – 3.15pm Sheffield Hallam University, City Campus: Cantor Building, Room 9130.

ASLE / LAND2 Conference Session – “To The Bunker: Three Views Of Cold War Landscapes”

A public session chaired by Luke Bennett, Sheffield Hallam University

Writing at the end of the 1970s, amidst resurgent US/Soviet nuclear brinksmanship, Thatcher’s reassertion of the authoritarian ‘Nuclear State’ (Jungk 1979) and the rebirth of the anti-nuclear movement across Europe, investigative journalist Peter Laurie declared that “the paranoia of power can be read in the concrete of the bunkers, the radio towers, the food stores and the dispersed centres of government” and concluded that this materialisation of both power and paranoia was now “written on the face of England” (1979: 9). This paranoia, and its sculpting of both discursive networks and concrete structures across the landscape has in recent years become a productive point of focus for artists and writers who have been seeking to examine the traumatic power of that era, and specifically to explore the links between the unsettling of minds and of the nuclear state’s colonisation of otherwise bucolic landscapes, by what landscape historian W.G. Hoskins, writing in 1954, had called “the obscene shape of the atom-bomber, laying a trail like a filthy slug upon Constable’s and Gainsborough’s sky [and on the ground an equally contaminating] “high barbed wire around some unmentionable devilment” (1985: 299). This cross-disciplinary field has also increasingly seen attempts made to trace and understand the lingering, after-effects of these Cold War framings through into the early 21st century and to investigate the motivations behind the current revalorisation of the now-abandoned brutal ruins of the cold war. This session will seek to show case three artists work in this field, alongside launching a collection of essays to which they and others have contributed that examines this psychic and material legacy of the cold war’s bunkers.

Three views of Cold War landscapes will comprise a showing of work by the following artists, with short accompanying presentations and Q&A opportunity:

  • Louise K. Wilson (University of Leeds) The Eerie and the Banal: This sonic exploration reflects on artists’ and writers’ troubled fascination with Cold War bunkers. A strange interplay of fact and fiction frames this reflection into these anomalous and primal spaces. The role of the ‘eerie’ (explored in the writings of Robert Macfarlane and the late Mark Fisher) is invoked in a new sound work that melds memories of places visited, imagined and composited.
  • Matthew Flintham (Kingston University) Torås Fort: A Speculative Study of War Architecture in the Landscape. Matthew will show his short film which in image and narration uses the techniques of speculative fiction to unsettle an account of a geologist’s compulsive analysis of the materialities of the remains of a Norwegian coastal battery, fusing the styles of the natural sciences and horror writing to do so. Flintham’s account reflects the ‘weird realism’ stylistics and concerns of contemporary writers (like De Landa 1997; Negarestani 2008; Bogost 2012; and Harman 2012) who each ascribe ominous, ‘hidden in plain sight’ posthuman mystery to seemingly dumb brute banal geological objects.
  • Stephen Felmingham (Plymouth College of Art) Peripheral Artefacts: Drawing [out] the Cold War, Stephen will show and discuss his use of experimental drawing techniques to access the ‘hidden in plain sight’ uncanny qualities of now abandoned ROC Posts. In doing so he will show how his bunker-entering reconnaissance accessed his sublimated childhood trauma of growing up in East Anglia in the 1980s amidst USAF and RAF nuclear bases, pointing to the potency of material and spatial triggers to memory and feeling.

Plus a presentation by me to launch the book:

  • Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam University) What do we want from our Bunkers? Ruins, Reinvention, Anxiety and Power. This presentation will explore the relationship between the enduring cultural salience of the bunker and the intransigent materiality of its concrete instantiations. In short, it will ask “why is it that the bunker refuses to fade away?” Within this examination of the bunker’s continual reverberation I will explore the strengths and limits of Strömberg’s (2013) “funky bunker” hypothesis, consider the continued valence of bunker imagery across popular culture and its symbiotic relationship with contemporary bunker-building. I will also seek to build a conceptual linkage between recent scholarship on ‘concrete governmentality’ and the sociology of shelter (Deville, Guggenheim & Hrdličková 2014; Foster 2016; Shapiro & Bird-David 2016) and the ruin-focussed material-cultural disciplines that have tended to be the core of the nascent bunker studies reflected by the contributors to In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker.

At 3.15pm we will then depart by coach to attend a private viewing of English Heritage’s York Cold War Bunker plus a panel event there in which Ian Klinke (Political Geographer, University of Oxford) will interrogate a panel of contributors to the edited collection, In The Ruins of The Cold War Bunker. Due to space constraints within the bunker there will be two sittings of the panel session (alternating with the bunker tour). The panel will comprise:

  • Louise K. Wilson / Stephen Felmingham (Artists) (alternating between presenter and chair)
  • Luke Bennett (editor of In the Ruins)
  • Arno Geesink (Architect)
  • Kevin Booth (Senior curator, English Heritage)

The coach will then leave York bunker around 7.15pm, returning us to central Sheffield by 8.30pm (approx.)

Here’s a chance to work as a post doc with me and others on our study of the St Peter’s, Kilmahew modern ruin project

“You have been warned”
A photo of the seminary gates with asbestos warning signs, May 2013.

Back in December 2015 I announced here that I was part of an AHRC bid for a large project to study the re-activation of the modernist ruins of former seminary, St Peter’s, Kilmahew, details here . That bid got through to the final round but ultimately wasn’t granted. So, we picked  ourselves up and dusted our ideas off and I’m please to report that we have now secured a smaller grant from The Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland that will enable a more modest study of the project to now go ahead.

The key element enabled by this funding is a 14 months post-doc post (based at the University of Glasgow) to provide the embedded eyes and ears of our study. Here’s the summary of the post that’s been circulating via other channels this week…

“Research Assistant

‘Re-Placing Risk and Ruination: Experimental Approaches to Access, Design and Engagement in Transitional Heritage Sites’

RA Grade 7, Part-Time (0.8 FTE) for 14 months

Full details and job specification (post reference: 018433) available at:

https://udcf.gla.ac.uk/it/iframe/jobs/

This position is part of a research project funded by the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland, entitled:

‘Re-Placing Risk and Ruination: Experimental Approaches to Access, Design and Engagement in Transitional Heritage Sites’.

The post-holder will enable the research project to address three research questions:

– How do you activate a modern ruin safely?

– How do you activate a modern ruin creatively?

– How do you activate a modern ruin collaboratively?

Responses and findings will be drawn from an interdisciplinary study that investigates the on-going transformation of a Scottish site of international architectural significance and its surrounding historic landscape, Kilmahew-St. Peters (Argyll & Bute). Studying the novel and experimental approach to heritage site presentation and management being taken by artists, architects and designers at Kilmahew-St. Peters, will be the means to produce novel research findings with widespread relevance and applicability. Nationally and internationally, there are a multitude of valued heritage landscapes, in a ruinous, vulnerable, degraded state, requiring equivalent levels of creative intervention for the purposes of rehabilitation and to safeguard cultural legacies for the future. See: http://nva.org.uk/artwork/kilmahew-st-peters/ The post-holder will gather original data through a combination of critical literature review, stakeholder interviewing, and immersive, participatory fieldwork activity in the site under investigation.

Data gathering undertaken by the Research Assistant will be managed and supported by the Principal Investigators: Professor Hayden Lorimer (University of Glasgow), Professor Ed Hollis (University of Edinburgh) and collaborators Dr Luke Bennett (Sheffield Hallam University) and Angus Farquhar (NVA).

The project team will produce high-quality academic outputs, complemented by a range of dissemination activities.

Applications are sought from candidates with an awarded PhD in one of the following subject areas: Cultural Geography, Landscape Architecture, Landscape Studies, Architecture and Design, Heritage Studies, Creative Arts.

Closing date for applications: Monday July 31st 2017.

Applicants should note that interviews for the post are due to be held at University of Glasgow on Monday 21st August 2017.

Projected start date for post: 1st October 2017.

The appointed researcher will be based at University of Glasgow, in the School of Geographical and Earth Sciences, and will be a member of the Human Geography Research Group:

http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/ges/

http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/ges/researchandimpact/humangeographyresearch/

 

Image credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/ianrobertson63/8959128176/lightbox/

Preview and discount code for my ‘In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker’ edited collection which is being published on 30/6/17.

In the Ruins - final cover

Provocative and informative yet personal and thoughtful, this diverse collection of essays offers a much needed exploration of that defining cultural space of the 20th century – the bunker. Bennett and his collaborators approach the ruins of the Cold War not just as historical curiosities but as the starting point for a myriad of transdisciplinary journeys and adventures.”

Ian Klinke, Associate Professor in Human Geography at the University of Oxford and the author of the forthcoming monograph Cryptic Concrete: A subterranean journey to Cold War Germany.

I’m pleased to present below a copy of the publisher’s flyer for my book, and delighted at the reviews featured there (and above).

I’m told the book (hardback and ebook formats) will be available to buy from 30 June 2017, and using the code below on the publisher’s website you’ll be able to get 30% off either format. Please note that all author and editorial royalties are being donated to www.msf.org.uk (Medecins Sans Frontieres).

In the meantime my introductory chapter is available to view for free here:

https://www.rowmaninternational.com/book/in_the_ruins_of_the_cold_war_bunker/3-156-afdcfe7a-b585-4303-82a2-23ee9b64e05d#

and here:

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Ruins-Cold-War-Bunker-Materiality-ebook/dp/B072SSPTXS/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1498233592&sr=8-1&keywords=ruins+of+the+cold+war+bunker

Further details of launch events will follow soon.

In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker flyer-page-001

In the Ruins of the Cold War Bunker flyer-page-002

‘Cold War Ruralism’ – my new article for the Journal of Planning History is now out

Path of fallout (complete)

My new article, ‘Cold War Ruralism: civil defense planning, country ways and the founding of the UK’s Royal Observer Corps’ fallout monitoring posts network’, has been advance-published online today. It will eventually feature in a ‘Cold War Urbanism’ themed special issue of the Journal of Planning History, guest edited by Martin Dodge (University of Manchester) and Richard Brook (Manchester School of Architecture, MMU).

The journal’s main audience is North American (hence the spelling ‘defense’ above) and the special issue’s theme keys into a vein of primarily US scholarship examining the influence of the Cold War upon the urbanism of the 1950s and early 1960s. Thus Jennifer S. Light (2005) shows in her US based study, From Warfare to Welfare: Defense Intellectuals and Urban Problems in Cold War America, University of British Columbia Press) that:

“during the 1940s and 1950s…civil defense initiatives offered important social settings for several groups – defense experts, atomic scientists, urban planners, and city managers – to come together in conversation about topics from highway planning to shelter design to future city form”

The aim of my article is to explore why the UK (despite having a strongly interventionist, command economy pedigree in the aftermath of the Second World War) did not display the same melding of Cold War military-industrial imperatives and urbanist physical manipulation of the post War built environment.

Having summarised the US scholarship and the arc of post-war UK urbanism, the article shows how war planners in the UK increasingly struggled from the early 1950s to even conceptualise (let alone implement) a shelter policy and how a combination of the rise of the H-bomb and end-of-Empire crises saw the withering of UK civil defence policy and its attendant impact upon the built environment.

The article then develops this analysis through a case study of an actual Cold War inspired building project – that of over 1,500 small underground Royal Observer Corps nuclear blast and fallout monitoring posts spread across the length and breadth of the UK between 1956 and 1965. In doing so, the case study develops an argument that studies of Cold War urbanism have tended to be too fixated upon urban centres – and that the impact of the Cold War can (and should) be traced into the countryside, and that aspects of a Cold War urbanism can be observed there, but that it can be shown to be mediated and modified somewhat by the isolation and ways of being and doing prevalent in the countryside (thus producing a variant, ‘Cold War Ruralism’).

In addition to the ROC Post case study, the article also briefly considers the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food’s 1958 publication Home Defence and the Farmer, and an echo of the article’s overarching argument can be illustrated by the following quote from the its discussion of that MAFF publication:

“In 1958, after working upon it in secret for three years, and with the Prime Minister and his Cabinet wavering during that period over what and when to release information to the public about fallout and what could be done about it in terms of civil defence, the UK Government finally published, ‘Home Defence and the Farmer’, guidance to British farmers on the threats of fallout. The publication publicly acknowledging that the peril of H-bombs extended far beyond the range of their explosive effects and also (even more tellingly) admitted that (even after those three years of rumination) “knowledge about the effect of fall-out in farms is still incomplete”. Couched in the clipped, officious language of the time this admission featured an implicit assurance to the reader that a technocratic solution to this new problem would be found soon. But this reassurance was hollow, amidst the planners’ growing pessimism about their ability to offer salvation. Tellingly, the remainder of the document then instructs the lone farmer on how best to try to protect himself, his crops and livestock by his own efforts – as reflecting civil defence’s post Strath lurch to a “self-help” posture, at least as regards civilian protection.

protection - from HDATF 1958

Notably a paragraph in the farmers’ finalised guidance strove to encourage peacetime configuration of new farm buildings to incorporate principles that would also assist in the event of nuclear war, thus:

“Even the layout of buildings, yards and roads would help, not only in peace time but in fall-out conditions in war time. A good layout would help the farmer and his men to reduce the time spent out of doors and so minimise the dose of radiation they might receive. So efficient farming is not only in the national interest and the farmers’ interest in peace time, but it is a way [also] of preparing for safer farming if another war should occur.”

shed - from HDATF 1958

Here we see the civil defence planners acknowledging that the countryside has its built environments too, and that to be persuasive planning for civil defence needs to be linked (somehow) to the exigencies and logics of peace time operations (because the contingencies of war alone are insufficient incentive to change). This urging for spatial efficiency in the development and use of farm buildings also smacks of urbanism’s quest for improvement of urban environments through purposive designs. It is a sign of cold war urbanism’s penetration into the countryside.

Strath implicity, and ‘Home Defence and the Farmer’ explicitly, signalled that nuclear warfare could no longer be conceptualised in an urban-centric manner. The threat posed by thermonuclear war was not just that of urban destruction, it was now nation-wide, and that this included the countryside that lies between urban centres. In the light of such pronouncements it was clear that planning to address the effects of nuclear war was not solely a matter of urban defence, and there would be a need to develop a system of warning and monitoring that could address this meteorological, dynamic, whole-country situation posed by fallout. Set against this backdrop any neat binary equating “urban” with target and “rural” as safe fell away. Rigid separation of town and country has always been simplistic, but fallout sharply emphasised this. Even before the rise of the H-bomb portions of the countryside were co-opted into the service of urban areas, or targets in their own right, for example as bomber bases. These alone summoned the prospect of 70 nuclear strikes upon the countryside, for in the 1950s the UK Government’s publicised policy was to disperse nuclear bombers to over 70 airfields around the country in time of crisis.”

My article is available here (subscription required):  http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/1538513217707083

Alternatively, a slightly earlier pre-publication draft version is available on open-access here: http://shura.shu.ac.uk/15465/

Image Credits: All from Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food / Central Office of Information, Home Defence and the Farmer (London: HMSO, 1958), reproduced at http://www.atomica.co.uk/farming/main.htm.