Thoughts on the songs that railings could sing: tracing taste and law via wrought iron

Recent years have seen publication of a number of serious studies into the essence and cultural history of barbed wire (Razac, 2002; Krell, 2002). Here I want to sketch out some thoughts on a similar, but more mundane and far less signified, border technology: metal railings. I’ve been thinking semi-seriously about railings recently, and over recent days have paid more attention to them (or their absence) in my neighbourhood.  Thinking about railings can open up some interesting areas related to my ongoing projects on meaning-making, law’s role in normative replication and ruination in the built environment.

The following is presented in the spirit of Sartre’s realisation that phenomenology gave him licence to study anything and: “I was carried away: nothing appeared to me more important that the promotion of street lamps to the dignity of philosophical object… [for] truth drags through the street, in the factories…” (quoted in Kearney, 1994: 3). But as I’ve said above, ‘semi-seriously’. I’m fully aware that lingering over the mundane can seem obsessive, otherwise odd or pointless. By studies in this vein I’m not saying that the mundane is more important than conventionally foregrounded subjects of study, just that bringing the mundane under the spotlight too can be a worthwhile endeavour.

Replacing railings

I’ve always been fascinated by the wholescale removal of railings as part of wartime ‘scrap drives’ – and the way that the truncated stubs of railings, sit on many front terrace walls. That something the Victorians who built the urban terraces that I’m writing about here could invest with such significance and artistry could be rendered to commodity by the exigencies of war. What concerns me here is how and why there was (only) a partial return of these low level metal perimeters after the war.

Looking around my neighbourhood in recent days I see various patterns in how the railings repopulated my streets. This revival of railings was far from total, many walls remain in ‘stubbings only’ state. But where the railings have recurred we can see a wide variety of interpretations of what railings should look like – of heights and styles. But what I notice most is approximate uniformity – a vernacular defined by some awareness of how everyone else is expressing the railings urge, a general conformity to scale, colour and often similar echoes of a standard twisted (two swans kissing-like) motif. Few hedges or wooden fences have interceded. In particular I’ve noticed that identical railings seem to occur in adjacent pairs.

Thus, in fanciful mode, a street scene presents as a musical score – a sequence of code permutations around a fairly stable ideal-type, expressed in metal. If you translated the railings into musical notes, they would make a tune – there would be sequences. But it wouldn’t reach the top of the charts…

But, I’m more interested in the stories that lie behind the design, selection and emplacement of these ‘replacement’ fences. I wonder, for example, whether the pairs I’ve spotted reflect an effect of ‘keeping up with the Jones’, bulk-purchase discount arrangements or simple convenience of being able to approach a workman ‘on the job’ next door. In some cases perhaps notions of aesthetic order came into play – that the frontages of the two adjacent houses needed to be retained.

Much has been written in recent years about ‘gated communities’. Perhaps at a symbolic level householders have come to feel safer, more private by reinstating their railings. But these were only ever token barriers. Even in the Victorian era of their birth they were insubstantial. All they could do was symbolically delimit the tiny front yards of these houses as a private space. At best they were an aspirational echo of the actual exclusionary effect of identical style (but much taller) railings to schools, parks and cemeteries of the time. The railing replacement rate of the few local streets I’ve looked at here in northern Sheffield is around 40%. So, 60% of properties are railing-less, and have been in this state since the 1940s – so, this doesn’t suggest that absence of railings made many householders feel exposed.

It would be difficult to get to the heart of the individual stories that lie behind railing reinstatement (or non-replacement). Each house has had a succession of owners across that period, any one of who may have been instrumental in that decision to reinstate. What perhaps might be achievable is a study of those few houses where the original Victorian railings remain in situ – to try and account for why these railings weren’t surrendered to the scrap van in the 1940s, and what the legal and or community response to such refusal may have been .

Railings as ruins

Walter Benjamin and others in the German Romantic tradition saw ruins as having revelatory power – that we see the true essence of something in its moment of decline. I find this approach helpful to understand why I’ve always been captivated by abandoned railings. In particular I recall encountering rusting municipal railings on deserted seaside pathways. These railings’ decay is more than the physical effect of corrosive sea air, it also speaks to a possible municipal abandonment. The walks I’m thinking of have every appearance of paths dreamt up by a ‘parks department’ planner sometime during the leisure optimism of the last century. “Build it and they will come” – but they probably never did. That pathway is now surplus, unloved and far from the repair prioritisation of the Council (or more likely its outsourced ‘street maintenance partner’). I get a similar impression when I glimpse rusting roadside railings in remote areas. Someone thought these railings necessary once. Perhaps as a necessary adjunct to a proud new municipal road scheme. But now the lie of the land has changed, the railings are difficult to reach – off road the vegetation is too overgrown, and the road is now too busy for maintenance crews to stop there and maintain them from the roadside. Also, such features are ‘first casualties’ in public cuts – the time and costs of scraping down and repainting an extensive set of railings is unaffordable in a world of cuts that, in some authorities, is seeing every second street light bulb removed as a costs saving measure.

Yet, I’m haunted by the thought that those railings were part of someone’s life’s work – a whole sequence of municipal history lying behind them. A decision process through a ‘need’ being identified, a barrier being found as the solution, design decisions being made about what should be provided, and a team sent to install and maintain that feature. But then the money ran out. Upkeep is a different type of expense to instalment outlay (and perhaps a different department). Indeed the abandonment of these municipal railings may in part be down to local government reform in 1972 – the splitting of local authorities into ‘district’ and ‘county’ councils – perhaps these orphaned railings got forgotten through that process?

As ruin then, these railings remind me of the optimism of modernism, and the less confident (and less provident) eras in which we now live and walk.

Railings as safety

The modernist era also had a great faith in the importance of segregating pedestrians from vehicular traffic. In the era of the underpass the separation sought was total – but it was never achieved. Underpasses were soon unsafe for other reasons. Thus segregation was largely via street barriers to control the flow and interaction of humans and cars. The vogue now is towards removal of this “street clutter”, to follow Scandinavian studies that suggest that removing these railings and other physical devices will encourage pedestrians and drivers to take greater care for their own, and others’ safety. In time this may see the decline of pedestrian railings (but don’t hold your breath).

But whilst there has been a backlash against these features at ground level, recent decades have actually seen the proliferation of such barriers on the top of buildings. ‘Edge protection’ came to prominence via the implementation of EU derived safety laws in 1992. Flat roofed buildings to which public or workers are likely to have routine access now need edge protection. Look up at rooftops and you will start to notice this latest accretion there.

Whereas railings were a symbolic vestige of private space in the Victorian era, their municipal occurrence in the present day is more often justified by matters of ‘public safety’, and the design and selection of railings is shaped by technical codes and specifications of law. The spacing and width of balustrades is a matter of law rather than aesthetics alone (the minimum gap between railings is calibrated by reference to the average width of a young child’s head rather than by notions of design flourish).

Conclusion: what makes railings – taste, law or metal?

In the case of the reinstatement of railings to Victorian terrace housing we are looking at a taste driven process – the realm of the householder’s aesthetic sensibilities. The streets described above are not designated conservation areas therefore the law’s writ and concern is not engaged in the question of whether or not these features should be present, and if so in what style and colour. But there are patterns in the reinstatement – suggesting that law is not the only normative order shaping local behaviour here. Elsewhere, law is more to the fore, and can account for the form and emplacement of, and subsistence (or abandonment of) railings.  The survival of railings is a function of the interplay of taste, law and the material vulnerabilities of metal to rust, theft or requisition.

Kearney, R. (1994) Modern Movements in European Philiosophy, University of Manchester Press: Manchester.

Krell, A. (2002) The Devil’s Rope – a cultural history of barbed wire, Reaktion Books: London

Razac, O. (2002) Barbed Wire – a history, Profile Books: London

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Making a plain building speak

This is a link to Tim Prevett’s fascinating blog about the traces of optical illusion painted on the long drab brick wall of Crewe’s Bombardier train factory during the Second World War. The now faint traces give a glipse of the mural painted there in wartime to fool Luftwaffe pilots into thinking that the features glimpsed below as their bombers sped across that town seeking out their targets were residential streets rather than a railway factory. Viewed at the correct angle (45 degrees?) from the distance of a speeding cockpit this effect would be achieved, whilst close up at ground level, even then, these blocks of black paint may have just seemed random and abstract daubings.

http://www.heritageopendays.org.uk/blog/making-a-plain-building-speak/

‘Skeletons in the closet’: Forgetting the past in an urban present

Kostas Arvanitis’ blog on the preservation of fragments of the ancient Greek built environment within and beneath modern developments gives a poignant – and more ancient – echo of de Certeau’s “seemingly sleepy, old-fashioned things, defaced houses, closed-down factories, the debris of shipwrecked histories[which] still today raise up the ruins of an unknown, strange city.” (1998: 133)

cities@manchester

by Kostas Arvanitis, Museology, School of Arts, Histories and Cultures

The past is closer to us than we sometimes think, says Susan Pearce (1990) and this cannot be truer than in Greek cities. A number of them, built layer upon layer on medieval, hellenistic, classical or prehistoric settlements have ‘deep roots’ in the land they occupy. These ‘roots’ are often visible in the material traces of past environments, such as archaeological monuments, sites or remains, that still stand or lie around the city.

In recent years, archaeological and museological research and practice in Greece has been concerned with the display in situ of such antiquities. However, this is often limited mainly to high profile sites, such as the antiquities excavated in the construction of the Athens Metro (images 1 and 2), or in the foundations of the new Acropolis Museum (images 3 and 4). Their preservation and display have…

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Back to the future: a trip to Infra_MANC

I took a day-trip to Manchester recently to see Richard Brook and Martin Dodge’s Infra_MANC exhibition, and it was well worth the time. The exhibition explores four modernist infrastructure projects designed for central Manchester: two that came to fruition (the Guardian Underground Telephone Exchange and the Mancunian Way elevated motorway) and two that never got beyond the drawing board (the Piccadilly-Victoria railway tunnel and the Victoria rooftop heliport).

Noticing infrastructure

The curators note that sustained engagement with infrastructure and its materialities is still relatively uncommon in the social sciences (and I think we should extend this verdict to the humanities also). The exhibition therefore seeks to foreground the “culturally invisible” (both to those academics and the ‘general public’) and in their impressively comprehensive catalogue, the curators present a wealth of support materials to contextualise and discuss the plans, construction schematics and promotional materials which they present as artefacts in the exhibition itself. Through both mediums a compelling sense of the creative endeavour and optimism (perhaps hubris) of the technocrats and their visions for post-war reconstruction of Manchester via these four featured projects is presented. Here I want to draw some themes that occurred to me during my viewing.

Hubris and the come-down

As Margolis (2001) has noted, examining a generation’s aspirations, predictions and plans for the future will tell you a lot about the cultural sensibilities of the time in which those predictions and plans were made. In broad terms the exhibition charts the path of each of these projects from the ‘new Jerusalem’ optimism of the late 1940s and 1950s, through the dawning of the pragmatic realities of construction in the 1960s and the era-ending effects of the energy crisis of the early 1970s. It is a testimony to the confidence of the city planners, that they could initially assume such mastery over space and its use. Here we are in the realm of Lefebvre’s (1991) representations of space – the objectifying gaze of the technocrat, and his god-like designs for the city.   The technocratic optimism on display in the designs reminded me of Willy Wonka’s (delusional) declaration in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory (1964) that:

“we are now going underground! All the most important rooms in my factory are deep below the surface…there wouldn’t be nearly enough space for them up on top!…But down here underneath the ground I’ve got all the space I want. There’s no limit – so long as I hollow it out.” (Dahl 2004, 59).

The fate of the Mancunian way shows (as every ‘delivered’ project will do) that achievement of the project requires evolution, adaptation, compromise and delay. Where the vision of the master planners may have been a system of efficient arterial roads ringing the city, the reality ended up much more reliant upon adaptation, and ‘fitting-in’ to the existing environment. Viewing the Mancunian way as it flies over Oxford Rd, I was struck by the way that the pillars of the elevated roadway seem to step ‘gingerly’ through that locality, much as I am forced to tip-toe my way through my kids’ toy strewn bedroom floors. The planners may have envisaged ‘cutting a swathe’ through tired portions of the city, but on the whole it didn’t work out that way.

As de Certeau notes, modernism lost its bullish self confidence somewhere towards the late 1960s, leaving amidst the new “seemingly sleepy, old-fashioned things, defaced houses, closed-down factories, the debris of shipwrecked histories[which] still today raise up the ruins of an unknown, strange city.” (1998: 133)

Yet modernisms own infrastructural insertions are now themselves trace-like, and becoming the objects of ‘heritage’ fetishism. At some future point they in turn will collapse or be pulled down in favour of something yet to be thought of.

Making plans

The exhibition included many annotated maps of central Manchester, with the flyover’s route and junctions superimposed by hand and ink. These maps come close to showing the spatial inception of such schemes, the moment at which the first hand annotates the first map, sketching through (perhaps in trial and error pencil to start off with) possible routes for the roadway. This searching-out of ‘what might work best’, is a fascinating moment to catch a documented glimpse of. I can top it only with a description, offered to me by an official who had worked in Sheffield at the time of the large scale slum clearance programmes of the 1960s, that the condemning and erasure of selected swathes of terrace housing started with moments of ‘drive-by’, the official and his colleague setting the ball rolling by touring the neighbourhoods and ‘spotting’ what struck them from their car window as suitable candidates for further – slightly more formal – evaluation and plan forming. Such ‘spotting’ was rooted in subjective ‘feels’ for the character of an area and its populace. So, in that sense those projects at least in part started with a ‘social’ assessment (though one in hindsight that may seem to us rather paternalistic), before moving into the geometric human-less abstractions of lines on maps and charts.

Raiders of the lost archive

The exhibition foregrounds the documentation of infrastructure, presenting them as artefacts in themselves, in addition to their ability to represent the enacted (or abandoned) schemes. This (as the curators intend) brings to the public gaze documents which were created by, and in the case of the majority of these artefacts only intended for, professionals. As I walked around I was struck by two things. First that out of the context of an engineers’ office these documents take on a different ‘feel’. The temptation is to read them as ‘art’ rather than ‘technology’. The second reaction to the curator’s very thorough raiding of a wide spectrum of archival sources was that it brought back memories of my own encounters with similar infrastructure schemes as a jobbing lawyer in the 1990s. I would often stop and marvel at the artistry, and alien-ness of the plans before me (a welcome break from a professional world dominated by A4 text heavy screeds). But sometimes clients might spot my reverie and prod me back to attention to the job in hand, they only wanted me to engage with these documents in a way relevant to their purposes (for which – to be fair – they were paying me): the purpose of identifying risk, allocating blame, checking legalities. In that world I had dealings with many types of engineers, and working on the same documents in parallel was always an interesting experience – because they ‘read’ them differently to me. They read them as instructions for buildability, as a user-manual for fault-busting and as an aid to materials and work planning. To the lawyer then these documents were about the future (what might happen?) to the engineer they were about the (then) present (how do we do this?) and here, to the curators, they are about the past, as past that is too recent and within which these concrete landmarks are “not yet archaeological” (Virilio, 1994: 13).

Infrastructure & myth

The exhibition takes a necessary shift of focus in its attempts to depict the Guardian Underground Telephone Exchange (GUTE). For, whilst this structure was built (and therefore exists in that sense), it was created in the context of cold war civil defence. It started life as secret, and – as the curators note – remains so to this day. Therefore their depiction of it is through the eyes of others rather than through this structure’s designers or owner. Here curious local residents, urban explorers, heritage surveys and local media sources are invoked to give an account of these ‘secret’ tunnels under the city. The curators note the irony that infrastructure tends only to become noticed when it either breaks down or we are told that it is something that we are forbidden from knowing about. Here then we enter the realm of Lefebvre’s spaces of representation, a ‘bottom-up’ lived signification of space, a construct “embodying complex symbolisms, sometimes coded, sometimes not, linked to the clandestine or underground side of social life” (1991: 33). And these words are particularly apt here, for in their exhibition guide, the curators note the ways in which the absence of ‘official’ information about the role, location and layout of the GUTE tunnels, created a vacuum filled by mystification – meanings projected onto this prosaic underground structure by viewers who must embrace clandestine ways in order to ‘know’ this ‘secret’ place. This irony is part of the interplay of bunkers’ symbolic and concrete materialities, something that I explored in some detail in an article last year (Bennett 2011).

Reading infrastructure

For me then Infra_MANC gave a refreshing and fascinating glimpse of infrastructure, and the curators are to be commended for temporarily summoning these projects to ‘ground level’ and into public view. Whilst the exhibition was noticeably ‘light touch’ in its approach to narration of the what, why and wherefores of these projects, the catalogue provides plenty to burrow into if you are so minded. The exhibition closes tomorrow, so catch it if you can – before Manchester’s infrastructure once again slips into the background…

Bennett L, (2011) “The Bunker: metaphor, materiality & management” Culture and Organization, 17 (2), 155-173

Brook, R. & Dodge, M. (2012) Infra_MANC: Catalogue to accompany the exhibition CUBE Gallery/RIBA Hub, Spring 2012, The Authors: Manchester.

Dahl, R. (2004) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. London: Puffin.

De Certeau, M., Giard, L.& Mayol, P.(1998) The Practice of Everyday Life: Volume 2: Living & Cooking Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (trans Tomasik, Timothy J.)

Lefebvre, H. (trans Nicholson-Smith, D.)(1991) The Production of Space, Blackwell: Oxford.

Margolis, J. (2001) A Brief History of Tomorrow, Bloomsbury: London.

Virilio, P. (trans. Collins, G.) (1994) Bunker Archeology New York: Princeton Architectural Press

Source of photo of GUTE surface station: http://www.flickr.com/photos/squeakywheel/43582668/. For a peek inside the tunnels see: a POV (Point of view) video of an urban explorer touring the GUTE tunnels sometime in the 1990s: www.youtube.com/user/hogshawrabbits/feed

On the perils of noticing everything: the urban gothic and the wandering mind of Mark E. Smith

I watched Out of Control?, a BBC2 Horizon documentary last night with an increasing sense of disappointment. The show was heavily trailed as a revelation of how neuroscience could now show that we are not really in control of our lives – of what we feel and what we think, due to the amount of data that our subconscious actively blanks out. However, the parade of media savvy scientists prodding brains, playing with scanners and setting up cheeky ‘experiments’ with college kids chasing after a remote controlled helicopter left me with no sense of revelation. ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ me thinks: poets, artists and philosophers (and a fair few psychologists) have been exploring this territory for over 100 years.

It’s probably very healthy that our brains deny us the ability to notice everything around us. Whilst walking the dog this morning I was struck by the apt opening lines of The Fall’s song, The Horror in Clay. The song is classic Fall, barely listenable but with artfully collated blasts of sound, image and insight. The song seems to be something to do with the discovery of a part-made statue, and mixes narration of the story of this article’s discovery, systematic transcription of its features, and the occasional interruption of the whole event by extraneous sound. There’s something about Cornwall and Sheffield in their too. At one point an aeroplane’s passing overhead obscures the monologue, for no apparent purpose other than to (I think) underscore this ‘song’s’ attempt to depict the incoherence of noticing everything. Mark E. Smith – the embodiment of The Fall – opens this performance with the following quote, which he attributes to US horror writer, H.P. Lovecraft:

“The most merciful thing in the world is man’s inability to correlate all of his mind’s contents. But the sciences one day, some say it is already upon us, will eventually open up such terrifying vistas of reality that we will either go mad from the revelation or flee into blissful sleep, peace and safety of another new dark age. ”

The song appears to be based upon Lovecraft’s opening chapter of his 1928 first book, The Call of Cuthulu. The statue is an attempt to depict a creature encountered in the sculptor’s disturbing dreams of “great Cyclopean cities of titan blocks and sky-flung monoliths, all dripping with green ooze and sinister with latent horror.” (Lovecraft, 2002: 143)

The theme of immanent horror irrupting within ‘daily’ life is a recurrent feature of both horror stories and The Fall’s songs, which are rooted in telling observation of the edgelands of Smith’s Manchester. In songs like Container Drivers and Industrial Estate Smith casts the wordsmith’s gaze onto the spectacular (and the grotesque) within the mundane, valorising features of life that simply do not get a look-in in conventional aesthetics.

In City Hobgoblins Smith summons a mundane tapping sound which then irrupts into the occult: “Tap, tap, tap, tap…you think it’s the pipes….but [then] it turns on the lights, the city hobgoblins…”. The song depicts the state of being within a built environment riddled with disruptive ‘noise’ and delves grotesque causal mechanisms – ‘gremlins’ if you will – offering fanciful but potential explanations that we may chose to dismiss out-of-mind for much of our lives.

Bracewell (1997), in his analysis of the dark aesthetics of a certain northern-industrial culture – in an essay entitled Lucifer over Lancashire, attributes Smith’s warped aesthetic in part to the Manchester region’s built environment, thus:

“The industrial heritage of the north, shaping the monolithic  Victorian mill towns and ports,…produced an architecture which was simultaneously mean, and dramatic with civic grandeur…The discrepancy, in architectural and political terms, between the immensity of the workplace and the terraced cottages of the workers created the image of the northern townscape, surrounded by the wilderness of moorland, that would become as predominant a cultural force in England as Edwardian Arcadia or Swinging London.” (165)

He then sketches the physical roots of the north-west’s ‘mythological darkness’ (Blake’s ‘dark satanic mills’, industrial decline, heavy rainfall, bleak moorland, “the moaning factory whistle [and] the brooding terraces” (Bracewell, 1997: 172) and maps a parallel cultural passage of an attendant northern ‘cult of fatalism’ from Emily Brontë to Mark E. Smith.

Bracewell summates Smith’s craft thus: “Smith’s writing [is]peopled with social misfits, mutants and autistic enthusiasts; their first person narration, more often than not, played with lunatic conviction as cock-eyed shamanism – delivering accounts of fantastical or disturbing occurrences between the pub and the Post Office, the High Street and the hotel. Writing from the point of view of an anxious victim of hostile forces, recounting his strategies for psychic self-defence…”(184)

At his best, Smith achieves something quite remarkable – a simultaneous summoning of the mundane and the spectacular from “deliquescing precincts, portakabins, blank British countryside and lurid psychological interiors” (184). But it’s a world happily taken in small portions – you wouldn’t want to really believe in, or actually see, the city hobgoblins…

Bracewell, M. (1997) England is Mine, Harper Collins: London.

Lovecraft, H.P. (2002) The Call of Cuthulu and Other Weird Stories, Penguin Classics: London

Lyrics transcription for The Fall’s The Horror in Clay: http://www.metrolyrics.com/the-horror-in-clay-lyrics-fall.html#ixzz1p5SYRXsx

BBC (2012) Out of Control? BBC 2 Horizon documentary, 13 March http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01dlglq

Scuffed and scratched – reflections on building small worlds

There’s a heart wrenching dinner table scene in Close Encounters of Third Kind (Spielberg, 1977), that, in this piece, I will use to link climbing and model railway enthusiasts via various philosophers who have never written about either hobby. Link to video clip

In the scene that I’m thinking of, Richard Dreyfuss’ character sits down at home to eat a regular family meal. Absent mindedly he starts to play with his food, scrapping and exploring the mashed potato as his family members look on with increasing concern. His plate-sculpting becomes fervour, an intense concentration taking over his face. A mash-formed Mesa (a flat topped desert mountain) starts to take appear on his plate. Family members start to cry. Dreyfuss looks up, in teary explanation imploring them to understand, “this means something…”

In this short piece I’m going to look at the intense, tunnel-vision characteristic of moments of deep immersion in a hobby practice. I will touch on climbing and then spend longer on model railway world-building.

I read an interesting essay yesterday by Krein (2010) connecting climbing to the Stoic concept of freedom. Krein persuasively argues that the ‘freedom’ that climbers claim to experience whilst confined on a mountainside within the deadly proposition of a sheer rocky terrain, is a ‘freedom’ that can only be understood in the sense known to the Stoics (ancient Greek philosophers). Invoking Chrysippus, Krein concludes “one may achieve freedom by climbing in accord with the mountain”(18). What he means is that to align yourself with the physical circumstances of the mountain – to ‘work with the grain’ rather than against it – will enable the climber to excel in his chosen endeavour. And that to excel in that field requires that the climber focus down into that fraction of the world. His or her survival depends on concentrating on the rock, inch by inch, and blocking out the (potentially fatal) distractions of the wider world. Thus the climber’s tunnel vision and total focus is essential.

Dreyfuss’ character is building a mountain. But he’s not practising for an ascent. He’s a modeller, forced by extra terrestrial circumstances to physically enact the same flat-topped mountain in any available materials that will allow him to ‘work-out’ this compulsion. That brings me to model railways.

Just over a year ago I spent an intense two months working through something similar. No UFOs were involved and the ‘moment’ passed, and I can now look back on it with detachment. But at the time it came close to similar dinner-table tensions over the tunnel-vision that had temporarily overcome me. It all started with one of my kids deciding to spend some Christmas money on a model train set. We trekked off to Argos and got one (half price in the sales). He quickly lost interest in it. A train going round in a circle was pretty dull. So, I thought we could enhance it by building a scene for it – and getting some more track.

That was the point at which this tipped over into ‘Dad’s project’. The train set soon disappeared into the cellar, mounted on an ever-larger board and with an increasing elaborate track layout. I bought a couple more (fairly) cheap sale sets and became fixated on solving the challenge of how to fit together three identical oval tracks onto the same board footprint. The answer that eventually appeared to me late one evening was a system of ramps, tunnels and points. The challenge was like a jigsaw – to find a way of using every (mostly curved) piece. But one I’d solved that infrastructural problem there was still little joy in actually running trains on the network. So, I figured it must be because the layout needed land forming and the addition of buildings and scenery to make it a ‘proper’ world. And that’s when I got really lost. I discovered a sub-cultural world of cardboard and print-your-own buildings. The trains and their tracks became a distant memory as I spent every spare (and many not-spare) moments frantically building a fragment of an industrial town: mills, breweries, workers terraces, docks, canal, LPG storage etc. All my latent industrial archaeology and urban exploration urges became channelled into building my own gritty (and slightly grotty) world. I found that armed with my scanner and colour printer I could scratch build my own grimy industrial mill creations.

There is a focus within the railway model building fraternity on the authenticity of dirt, and signs of use-over-time. Nothing should look pristine. Items should be scuffed, in order to look ‘real’. Model paints bear this out in their names: ‘rust’, ‘dirty black’, ‘engineer’s grey’, ‘coach roof off white’. And model shops sell packets of dirt to sprinkle liberally upon these worlds (I preferred cutting out the middle man and applied real dirt: sawdust, sand, earth, ashes). There are also weird warpings of scale. Twigs become trees, moss clumps become bushes, rocks become mountains. Again, these materials can be bought at considerable expense. I just raided my garden. From the world I made a smaller world.

With characteristic French obliqueness, Gaston Bachelard, as part of his phenomenology of intimate places, wrote of the urge to create worlds in miniature:

“Minature is an exercise that has metaphysical freshness; it allows us to be world conscious at slight risk. And how restful this exercise on a dominated world can be! For minature rests us without ever putting us to sleep. Here the imagination is both vigilant and content.”(1964: 161)

Bachelard characterises the miniature world as one which is capable of being dominated by the maker’s command or viewer’s gaze, as distinct from the big, complex messy ‘real’ world of daily life. Here we can link to Michel de Certeau’s (1984) conceptualisation of the two perceptual levels at which a city may be known. De Certeau opens his essay, ‘Walking in the city’ with the vision of a spectator “seeing Manhatten from the 110th floor of the World Trade Centre…its agitation is momentarily arrested by vision. The gigantic mass is immobilized before the eyes. It is transformed into texturology…” (91). At this height, a degree of abstraction kicks in which filters out the infinite complexity of that world as formed, lived and perceived at street level.

Puff (2010) makes a similar point – this time specifically about city models:

“Models executed to scale make urban space experiential in a particular fashion. Unlike actual cities, models are devoid of human life. Models show the city as urbs, or built environment, rather than as civitas, or urban community…space as expressed in urban models typically drowns out the multitude of societal relations encoded in actual cityscapes…devoid of human interaction and social signification, the city model presents itself as an instrument.” (256)

Puff draws a distinction between semi-abstract city models of the master planner and dioramas: models composed as three dimensional scenes, which may well feature human figures and aim to narrate  stories of social interaction. Railway world models, at their best, can achieve diorama status and portray a social world (albeit a selected, frozen, static one). Looking at the elaborate railway model worlds that have been created by true aficionados via a near lifetime’s effort we can see all kinds of signification (of the maker-god’s direction). A completed railway scene is likely to be saturated in nostalgia, a yearning for a previous age – the ‘glorious’ age of steam and coal, or (in the apparent styling of younger protagonists), a gritty end-of-modernism, 1980s tired, greying urbanism. By comparison there are few modellers building truly contemporary depictions of railway worlds. In short, each railway scene maker’s composition will shout out their take on the world.

My railway mania passed as suddenly as it had arrived. I realised that I simply didn’t have enough spare time in my life to finish building my under the stairs mini-world (and that the time and energy spent so far was draining my real life credit balance both financially and in terms of family goodwill). I closed my cellar door, and my part-made world lies abandoned there. I can still marvel at those who stick with it, but it’s not the world for me. Building and running worlds is too demanding…

Bachelard, G. (1964) The Poetics of Space, Beacon Press: Boston

De Certeau, M. (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life, University of California Press: London.

Puff, H. (2010) ‘Ruins as models: displaying destruction in Postwar Germany’ in Hell, J. & Schönle, A. (eds) Ruins of Modernity, Duke University Press: London

Krein, K. (2010) ‘Climbing and the Stoic conception of freedom’ in Schmid, S.E. (ed) Climbing: philosophy for everyone, Wiley-Blackwell: Chichester.

www.scalescenes.com

www.metcalfmodels.com

Weaselling in the wilds

SPOILER ALERT: a reader found the following post boring. Feel free not to read it if you are looking for something dark or point-ridden. If you are interested in an attempt to explore the ‘modesty’ of adventure read on…

I’ve just found a copy of a participant observation account of a group rock clambering trip which I wrote up a few years ago as part of my MRes. I’ve edited it down a bit, but otherwise it’s as I wrote it and still has some interesting observations relevant to a number of my current areas of work:

My research interest is in how law, norms and physical factors combine to control the definition and use of space / place. The participation described below gave me the opportunity to observe some ‘lived’ experience of people interacting with space in a potentially dangerous (and to them) unfamiliar way. Some friends of mine helped run an inner-city church youth group and I was invited to join their afternoon of ‘weaselling’ in the Peaks with my son. Weaselling involves squeezing through rock crevasses and boulders. A lack of internet hits for this practice (by this name) in anywhere other than the Peak District suggests that this may be a particularly prevalent activity in the Peaks, reflecting the local geology. It is referenced by a number of Peak District activity / outward bound organisations. It is a core feature of experiential learning / team building packages offered by these providers. Our session was run by a qualified instructor, who was also part of this church group.

When I heard about this trip I quickly started to develop preconceptions about what I would learn from the exercise. I pictured a mini bus full of under privileged inner-city kids, who would be full of awe (a mix of terror and excitement) upon encountering the “great outdoors”. This image had partly been fuelled by my impressions of the part of Sheffield from which the Church group hails and a comment that had been relayed to me by one of the organisers prior to the event – that one of the kids parents had claimed not to know where (or what) the Peak District was. I had also been struck by a comment that one of the organisers had apparently sought to reassure a concerned parent that there was nothing to worry about (and that therefore their child should participate) “because the instructor is fully insured”. This struck me as a rather incongruous way to reassure someone who (presumably) was concerned about their son or daughter’s safety. The organiser was using a bureaucratic discourse (i.e. the language of insurance, risk and loss prevention) rather than a more “caring” / emotional reassurance.

I arrived at the lay-by start point to find a collection of private cars. There were various people milling about – all dressed anonymously in red or blue overalls and helmets. The anonymity created by the ‘suited up’ nature of the task clothing removed identity – and seemed to entitle everyone to remain anonymous. The mobile (i.e. ‘on the move’) and ‘turn taking’ nature of the event further removed the need for group cohesion.

Early into the event the instructor clearly signalled his role and rule framework for the session. He did so in noticeably up beat and ‘kid friendly’ language (I have heard the same speech with other groups – and therefore could spot the subtle changes of register).   He deployed a sequence of graduated tasks leading us to the main rock pile. He emphasised the dangers posed by straying too close to the cliff edge in clear but colloquial language. However when the weaselling itself commenced he was (necessarily) engaged in coaxing (and in some cases pushing) participants through the cracks and crevasses. He could give little if any attention to those who were waiting (or who had already completed) that task. In that sense the event consisted of a series of queues. Those waiting their turn were left to make their own sense of their queuing – and increasingly as the event progressed (and levels of confidence and/or boredom increased)  they wandered around over the boulders (if keen) or drifted out of the event mentally / socially into chatting. Whilst there was some mutual encouragement spontaneously issued by members of the group, there was no team spirit formed – and responsibility for bored or reckless children sat fairly vaguely in ‘no man’s land’:  responsibility for each child hovering somewhere between the parent(s) – if present – the church group adults and the instructor.

The instructor was supportive and non-pressuring in his approach to participants, but I observed one situation in which a youth, half way through a vertical crevasse ascent was told that there was no option but to go forward. Clearly (from where I was standing) there was physically an option of retreating backwards, however his ‘white lie’ appeared to encourage the participant to carry on and squeeze herself through the remaining void.

Part of the “knack” of weaselling is being able to judge your size and shape – and your body’s distortion capabilities. It would be interesting to know whether youths with body image disorders find this pursuit harder (and or a revelation about their actual body shape). I observed some mild body image related self-deprecation / self-justification for refusal to  attempt a particular task from some of the adults – but no instances of manifestly perverse body / void measurement incongruities.

One of the interesting features of weaselling is that children can do the tasks more easily than the adults (because they are smaller) – this introduced interesting levelling moments where young children were chanting “easy, easy” in the intention that that would (somehow) encourage and assist their more bulky parents as they struggled to wriggle through the same rock hole.

It was a cold, windy day and towards the end of the event it started to rain. It was evident that the addition of rain and darkening skies altered the group mood, and hastened the withdrawal of those with marginal interest in the activities. The event was also elemental in another sense – some of the adults remarked on the ‘re-birthing’ imagery and sensation of crawling and squeezing through rocks back into the world, combined with the necessity of ‘surrendering’ the body into these holes and trusting your own ability (and the rock’s indulgence) to be allowed to emerge extruded but unharmed  from them. On a less spiritual note, the event gave permission for adult and child alike to get dirty and for adults to do ‘clambering and crawling’ in a way that they may not have had opportunity to do (as play) since childhood.

I heard an adult member of the church group remark that they were pleased to have provided “a day these kids will remember for the rest of their lives”. I’m not sure that this event necessarily will have had that effect / meaning for all. For one child the presence of sheep dung seemed to be the biggest source of alarm, whilst another’s concern appeared to be to clarify whether the instructor owned the rocks that were being explored. For me the most dangerous part was my son milling around too close to the side of a busy road.

I was also reminded that small children see the world differently – I asked my son why he hadn’t wanted to go into the first mini-cave. “Because its dark in there”. He didn’t appear to have the adult apprehension of getting stuck or the boulders collapsing onto him – instead something more primal and indescribable. I asked if it was a fear of monsters – “no, just the dark” he said. 

On reflection I didn’t discover much about how participants in this activity view risk, safety or issues of liability about their pursuit. However it was interesting to see how I had to fight against my own preconceptions, and notice what was actually being said / done – rather than wait for what I was expecting to occur.