Razed to the ground – mapping and drawing the destruction of Tokyo, 1945

It’s a strange expression, ‘razed to the ground’. Heard (rather than read) it seems an oxymoron. Through a confusion of ‘raised’ and ‘razed’ two opposite directions of elevation are conflated and we have to pause to get our bearings. In this short post I’m reflecting on something that has caused me to pause for thought this week as I stumbled on an event that didn’t fit the version of recent history handed down to me.

The stumble-point has been an article in The Atlantic Cities by Eric Jaffe, which in turn points to a recent research article published by Fedman and Karacas in the Journal of Historical Geography. The theme of both is the ‘forgotten’ systematic erasure of 65 Japanese cities by US incendiaries in the six months prior to the dropping of the Atom bombs in August 1945, and the role that map-making played in that destruction.

Jaffe reports that Fedman and Karacas’ work aims to restore this campaign  to US public memory, for whilst the dropping of a new type of bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki has lodged in public discourse, the preceding campaign has largely been ignored. Whilst the London Blitz has a rich resonance, the Allied air campaign against Germany has provoked some debate in recent years, the ‘conventional’ bombing of Japan in the closing phase of WWII has not.

Why does this matter? Well, the scale of the destruction wrought on those Japanese cities is mind-boggling. Measured by civilian air raid casualties (all stats from Hewitt 1997: 297) the scale is shocking:

Britain – 60, 595 killed, >86,000 severley injured

Germany – 600,000 killed, c. 800,000 severely injured

Japan – >450,000 killed, > 1,500,00 severely injured

But what really distinguishes the raids on Japan is the concentration of destruction within a relatively short period (six months) and its focus upon destruction of Japan’s built environment – an urban erasure, for if we look at the statistics on the proportion of urbanised areas destroyed:

Britain –   3%

Germany – 39%

Japan – 62%

Coming at the end of a long war in which so much destruction had already been tested out and refined, the attack on Japan became a technocratic anti-planning (in the sense of a ‘town planning’ that normally aspires to grow and improve cities): something that Fedman and Karacas call ‘Urbicide‘. WWII had increasingly become a war of technology and industrial application. Science, engineering, medicine all found inverted expression in wartime. In the case of the raids on Japan (as Fedman and Karacas wish to remind us), planners and geographers were co-opted into the destructive schema.

And fire fighters too, for Vanderbilt (2002) cites a book, published in 1946, which (along with having perhaps the longest title ever), says it all: Fire and the Air War: A compilation of expert observations on fire of the war set by incendiaries and the Atomic Bombs, wartime fire fighting, and the work of the fire protection engineers who helped plan and the destruction of enemy cities and industrial plants (National Fire Protection Association International: Boston, Bond, H. ed.). In attacking Japanese cities, the knowledge of how to fight fires – learnt through bitter experience elsewhere earlier in the war, was inverted: employed as knowledge that would maximise destruction.

Indeed, a wide range of technical expertise was applied by the raids’ planners to maximise the urbicide, including architecture. Fedman and Karacas point to the methodical trialling of incendiary technologies in desert test ranges where townships of vernacular Japanese (and German) houses were built and then methodically destroyed. And by some grim irony Japanese housing was especially suited to incendiaries, due to its widespread use of wood (a material good for earthquake resilience, but also great for man-made firestorms).

Soon after, the planners checked their sums and tests and – as Fedman and Karacas show – a US Committee of Operational Analysis report produced in September 1944 concluded that a massed aerial incendiaries attack on Tokyo could leave 7.75million homeless and “should the attack have the favourable circumstances of high winds conducive the rapid spread of flames…should a regular bombing pattern occur with full saturation of the attack area, should exit arterials be quickly blocked by conflagrations, should mass entrapment of people occur, the resulting casualties will probably be substantially higher.” (Quote is from that 1944 report)

Once a supply chain of vast quantities of napalm had been secured through the good offices of war procurement departments and contractors, the destruction was unleashed and Japan’s 65 largest cities were systematically burnt-down between March and July 1945. Thereafter, as Lindquvist recounts:

“For lack of bigger game, the United States now bombed cities with only 100,000 inhabitants, scarcely worth the cost of the bombs. By the beginning of August they were down in the 50,000 range, [then] there were only four reserved targets left. One of them was called Hiroshima, another Nagasaki.” (para 232)

Like many educated Westerners the incendiary bombing campaign in Japan is not something I was aware of until I started looking into it this week. I thus claim no special knowledge or insight: other than a feeling of unease that I didn’t know.

This sense increased when I follwed an internet trail set for me by Fedman and Karacas. Their bilingual  www.japanairraids.org site seeks to address this Western memory-deficit. Their trail leads me through the “trophy” maps and other abstractions of the dehumanised process of (what Gregory 2011 has called) ‘the kill chain’ and then onward to web sites in which Japanese eye witnesses give written and pictoral testimony to the human reality of experiencing the onslaught of these raids. That journey ultimately led me to a feature entitled That Unforgettable Day – The Great Tokyo Air Raid Through Drawings (http://www.japanfocus.org/site/view/3470). Assembled there are paintings, produced in later years, by eye witnesses who had lived through the destruction of Tokyo as children.

These paintings serve very strong testimony to the power of marks on paper to communicate emotion and human experience, just as the military maps show the ability of marks on paper to aid destruction by rendering human lives and homes as abstract targets (a process Fedman and Karacas capture in their article’s title: ‘A cartographic fade to black’).

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The survivor’s pictures resaturate the event-picture with visceral colour and human affect. The paintings that I have reproduced here are the most muted ones. I do not want to sully the energy of the most visceral testimonies by pasting them into my ‘passer-by’ blog. They deserve to be seen in context on that site, if used here they might imply a voyeuristic ‘bomb porn’ (in the sense that a notion of ‘ruin porn’ seems to be coallescing in some quarters). That’s not where I’m wanting to end up. Elsewhere I’ve tried to explain my reasons for recently venturing into this bleak topic of air raids and urbicide. My gaze has been alerted to the brutal dehumanizing effects of objectifying cities as systems devoid of the citizens who seek to enact their lives within them, I’d like to help re-populating those empty representations, but I need to be mindful of a risk of separating a survivor’s visual testimony from it’s direct linkage to lived human experience.

I therefore commend the links and sources presented above and below.


Fedman, D. & Karacas, C. (2012) ‘A cartographic fade to black: mapping destruction of urban Japan during World War II’, Journal of Historical Geography available at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/89739986/A-Cartographic-Fade-to-Black-Mapping-the-Destruction-of-Urban-Japan

Gregory, D. (2011) ‘Above the dead cities’ in Daniels, DeLyser, Entrikin and Richardson, Envisioning Landscapes., Making Worlds – Geography and the Humanties, Routledge: London

Hewitt, K. (1997) ‘Place annihilation: air war and the vulnerability of cities’ in Regions of Risk: a geographical introduction to disasters, Longman: Harrow.

Jaffe, E. (2012) ‘Mapping ‘urbicide’ in World War II’, The Atlantic Cities, 28 May at: http://www.theatlanticcities.com/politics/2012/05/mapping-urbicide-world-war-ii/2121/

Lindqvist, S. (2001) A History of Bombing, Granta; London.

Vanderbilt, T. (2002) Survival City – adventures among the ruins of atomic America, Princeton Architectural Press: New York

Trace, absence and the concrete – reading non-places as event-spaces

In this blog-essay I think about the aesthetic ways in which mundane, non-places are valorised. I attempt this by looking back at some of the papers I listened to at the Affective Landscapes conference. I don’t cover all the sessions that I attended; instead I focus on the points raised by certain speakers, who I’ve now found myself trying to link together.

The above image is from the 1970s sequence, Middle England by John Myers. In her presentation Eugenie Shrinkle (University of Westminster), surveyed trends in landscape photography and the turn in the mid 1970s away from a picturesque focus (an aesthetic driven by the depiction of ‘prospect’ and ‘refuge’ – invoking Appleton’s (1990) The Symbolism of Habitat) towards the depiction of unsettling – either banal or human-damaged environments. ‘Hazard’ in Appleton’s taxonomy.  Merele Toennies (University of Paderbon, Germany) then underpinned this with her focus upon the ‘subversive use of the landscape in 1980s British colour photography’, highlighting the work of Martin Parr and Tom Wood in this tradition. By such artists the banal of everyday spaces was presented back as aestheticised: ‘art as social critique’.

Kylie Crane (University of Mainz, Germany) then showed the hyperaesthetic dimension of certain aspects of contemporary urban exploration photography, considering the ways in which that exploration can (sometimes) present as an art-driven (and specifically late-Romantic) practice.

Source: http://www.artefactdesignsalvage.com/beauty-in-decay/

I’m used to examining urbex photographs presented in online forums as natural (unmanipulated) ‘survey’ records of sites and visits. Kylie showed an alternative facet to that heterogeneous practice – markedly manipulated (enhanced) images, and their creators directly acknowledging the aesthetic intentions of their projects.

All of these speakers, helpfully reminded me of the link to ‘high-art’ and  its genres. Such approaches present mundane places as art-object through the interpretative endeavour of the artist. But what other practical or esoteric aesthetics also enable ‘dull’ spaces to spring to life?

It was the speakers who engaged with such places as being at the human/building interface that got me thinking the most. Here the connecting point was a question of how a place might be ‘read’ in order to elicit the fleeting uses of such spaces – the lives passing through. The first paper to spark this line of thought was Justin Ascott’s (Norwich University College of the Arts). A link to Justin’s short film Passageway is presented here. It is well worth a watch. It is a study of the ‘life’ of a mundane passageway within a town centre. It is a study of both the ‘bricks and mortar’ and of the ‘lives passing through’. A fleeting glance of a full urban ecology.



The next speaker, New Zealand artist Lisa Chandler showed how her artworks seek to map the fleeting passage of multiple lives through airport terminals and other crowded public non-places. Her art works to partially erase each figure, to leave overlapping traces. Joanna Geldard (University of Derby), then presented a call for  investigation of the gaps between the temporal and spatial moments and places of use. The emptiness between each fleeting inhabitation of the passageway, concourse or other linear environment, we glimpse these spaces and moments of non-use in both Ascott’s film and Chandler’s paintings (and in Myers photo above).

Lisa Chandler – Negotiating the non-place, 2011

Source: http://lisachandler.co.nz/

But to return to the traces (the human bits between the emptiness of non-use) it was a passing comment in Bran Nichol’s (University of Portsmouth) surveying of the approach of Film Noir to the depiction of place that got me thinking about other aesthetics by which these places become ‘known’ (over and above the purely pragmatic knowledge of purposeful navigation: in order to get somewhere else). This examination of the gaze of the Private Investigator (PI), and its framing of typically bland or margin places as crime scenes in Film Noir, prompted me to recall an article recently in the Guardian in which John Cockram, a ‘Crime Scene Manager’ outlined his forensic aesthetics:

When I arrive at the scene, it’s my thinking time…What am I seeing? What am I hearing? …Which lights are on? Which are off? Has the toilet been flushed? Is the seat up or down? You may not know the relevance, but take in the details – a ring of dust, an open drawer…maybe 70% of what you retrieve is not relevant. That doesn’t stop you from finishing with a fingertip search, looking for that last piece of detail. You retrieve and work out the relevance later.” (Guardian Weekend 28 April 2012: 25-26)

Cockram’s testimony reminds us that a crime scene is ‘read’. Suddenly, a mundane place becomes rich with potential meaning – those cigarette butts glimpsed fleetingly in Ascott’s film, and other other detritus on that floor would be scoured over, inch by inch in the aftermath of a crime. Collected, collated, photographed. As Cockram states, most of this ‘dirt’ will be irrelevant – testimony of thousands of other people and their journeys through this space. But in the forensic gaze these items, in and as part of this temporarily spotlighted place, will be regarded as rich with potential meaning.

In his presentation Nicol pointed to role of the PI in Film Noir – here the investigator is fallible, sites do not deliver up their stories quickly (or at all). The PI does not have the mastery of a Sherlock Holmes (a consummate semiotician). Instead, the PI must scour these places, stumble upon clues. To underpin his point Nicol presented a clip from the film The Lady in the Lake (1947). This film attempted a first person : ‘point of view’ (POV) portrayal of the PI’s world. The camera roams as the eyes of the PI. The audience must thus follow the search for clues – the search to find elements that – when connected – will deliver up a meaning to the place and its grizzly events. Here is a clip from that film:



The forensic is not the only aesthetic that we can add alongside the high-art valorisation of non-places. From my perspective as an environmental lawyer the passageway is a matrix of overlapping legal narratives – ownership, safety, drainage, laid down over the years, much of this law lying dormant unless and until something happens to bring the existence of that layer of meaning ‘to the surface’. In similar terms a city planner, engineer and archaeologist will all have their own ways of reading this place as and when the need arises.

Indeed, as a presentation by Rosemary Shirley (Manchester Metropolitan University) reminded me, passageways of travel – in her case motorways speeding through the countryside – are themselves the physical product of design processes and technocratic aesthetics, processes that strive to limit the visual stimulation of those places (e.g. not too much to ‘distract’ the driver), but which never fully achieve that goal given the propensity of the wandering eye and the ‘wandering semantic’ (as de Certeau so aptly styled the viewer’s desire to render everything is his or her gaze meaningful).

Non-places are only ever non-places during those brief gaps between active interpretation.

New uses for old bunkers #8: Affective landscapes – Sebald, Orford Ness and the patriotism of pillboxes

I’m giving a paper at a conference on Affective Landscapes tomorrow and I’m also chairing a session on ‘traumascapes’. Below are my abstract and my set of slides. A full paper is in production:

“Where and in what time I truly was that day at Orford Ness I cannot say, even now as I write these words” – exploring bunkers, genre and ambivalence

In recent years it has become rather de rigueur for cultural theorists to quote this excerpt from W.G. Sebald’s haunted account of his visit to the ‘post-human’ ruins of the former Orford Ness military testing range in Suffolk, when theorising aesthetic engagement with military ruins. Recently, Beck (2011) has invoked Sebald in support of his argument that military bunkers “resist assimilation” into culture because they are a phenomenon riddled with ambiguity born of an unresolved interplay of fascination and repulsion. This paper will argue that whilst social theorists and artists may wrestle with this ambivalence, lay bunker-hunters do not suffer this crisis of signification. On the contrary, they readily find and sustain stable and rich representational codes by which the remains of abandoned military bunkers can come to be known and cherished. The presentation will look at the ways in which these genres (invoking that term in the broad manner developed by Frow, 2006) are evident, important but also adaptable, mutually reinforcing and often open to combination. I will argue (following Haakonsen, 2009) that bunker-hunters actively perform their practice, and use the available codes of representation as repertoires, key tools for that performance. I will show how some of the genres foreground affective response to bunkers, whilst others firmly do not. But in each case I will argue against the temptation to equate the affective with truly subjective and unstructured ways of being-in-the-world

Here are my slides:

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New uses for old bunkers #7 – demystifying or dulling the former UK Government citadel at Corsham Quarries?

In disaster movies, when the asteroid is hurtling towards earth, or the super volcano is about to blow, there is always a top-secret location where the president, government officials and top-scientists are whisked away to. Only big enough to support the most important humans, it is usually some sort of mountain, cave, or subterranean bunker made to support a few thousand folks for long enough for the radiation/dust/fire to clear. In England, it just so happens that that location is real and located under a charming sleepy market town known as Corsham, Wiltshire.” (atlasobscura.com)

This blog-essay will consider the steps by which – in part through subsequent use and discourse – the former Cold War central government underground emergency HQ complex beneath the gently rolling hills of North Wiltshire has moved from ‘secret’ to ‘known’ status over the past 20 years. It will close with a rumination on whether this appearance of ‘known-ness’ (familiarity even) is itself a way of hiding the violent potency and ‘otherness’ of such places.

Repurposing a quarry

The gentle limestone hills of Corsham were under-mined (i.e. quarried out from inside) for over a century up until 1934, leaving a vast underground complex of high, and long, man-made caverns. The sheltered (and shielded) advantages of this were exploited in WWII by the construction of an entire aircraft factory (served by a workforce of 20,000) within a portion of the complex. Elsewhere, these caverns were used for munitions storage. The Cold War saw these former mineral workings repurposed once more: this time into the UK central government’s hide-out, complete with its own railway station. Known by its Cold War codename, ‘Turnstile’ (until the mid 1960s ‘Burlington’), this site was strictly top secret, access to it guarded by the RAF base perched on the surface of this subterranean Whitehall-in-waiting, designed to be manned by a staff of over 7,000 in time of emergency (to be delivered there from London by train and 200 requisitioned buses).

Local resident Nick McCamley’s lifetime project to investigate this complex started when, as a youth, he stumbled into an abandoned portion of the underground quarry. His years of painstaking research at first met with blank denial from the authorities:

“We were saying one thing and the government were absolutely denying it…They simply wouldn’t admit that [the Cold War bunker] existed. They wouldn’t admit they had an emergency war HQ, and even if it did exist, it wasn’t at Corsham” (McCamley interviewed in Bizarre magazine (Hot Cherry, n.d)).

But with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the ‘peace dividend’ identified as flowing from the end of the Cold War stand-off, secrecy (and potential use) of this facility was progressively stood-down, and by 1998 McCamley was able to publish his book-length study of this complex, and its eras of adaptation to national exigencies: Secret Underground Cities. Despite the plural in the title, McCamley’s book is primarily concerned with the Corsham site, his later book Cold War Secret Nuclear Bunkers (2002)– as its name suggests – dealt with the national array of Cold War sites and their facilities.

Describing a secret underground city

From the late 1960s the UK civil defence infrastructure moved increasingly towards a decentralised stance – with ‘Regional Seats of Government’ like Hack Green in Cheshire reducing the need (or wisdom) of a single centralised ‘national’ Government HQ and the Corsham site began its slow decline. But it remained secret until the mid 1990s, since when  the Corsham site has progressively become more ‘knowable’.

What is notable in the accounts that have emerged of this place as a result of this ‘opening up’ is the way in which a contemporary genre-blend of a titillating apocalyptic poetics and studious political research appears stylistically unavoidable. Thus, Peter Hennessy’s The Secret State (2003), a learned academic investigation into how the civil service managed civil defence and nuclear diplomacy in the 1950s and 1960s, invokes these genres in an interlude in which Hennessy visits the Corsham Cold War complex.

In keeping with the wider subject matter of the book, Hennessey logs in precise detail the branches of the Government that his request for permission to enter the Cold War base is passed amongst. Thereafter he describes the experience of his visit to the base that ‘misty spring morning’ (2003:187) – and for this episode Hennessey momentarily feels obliged to slip out of mandarin speak and to steer his narrative tone towards something more poetic. In a nod to conspiracy theory, Hennessey conjectures whether he has been shown all of the complex – or whether some areas have been withheld for sinister reasons. He then slips further into conjectural mode: would the denizens destined for this place have made it in time? Meanwhile in an echo of tropes common to national nostalgia for wartime states of readiness and valour Hennessey writes of ‘a rusty, red-cross-emblazoned tin helmet [resting] next to two white tea cups – enduring symbols of Britishness.’ (2003: 189)

Hennessey’s slip into a more poetic register in this chapter of his book does not appear contrived, but it is notable for its shift away from his certain and authoritative tone elsewhere in his book. It may be that such places summon a particular style of response – that the stimulus forces a visitor to write evocatively. Hennessey was accompanied by a photographer, Jason Orton, and his book includes photos of the visit. These photos follow the usual visual tropes found in bunkerology (and urban exploration more generally): an image of the nondescript surface structure; a rear view of the explorer (Hennessey at point of entry in helmet and fluorescent jacket – clothing to signify the ‘danger’ and otherness of the world to which he was about to descend); warning and other operational signs; derelict furniture; de-populated areas of activity (in this case the kitchens); remnants of occupation (a photograph of the aforementioned helmet and tea cups); light switches (with adjacent enticingly half open door); a long corridors (here the underground rail siding).


A web search reveals that Hennessey’s photographer, may have been selected precisely because his specialism is this type photography. Orton’s website (Orton n.d.) declares that his “photographs combine topographical observation with a personal, cultural, literary and psychological interpretation of place.” and presents his photographic essay: Codename Turnstile. [NB: the photographs presented here are not Orton’s, they are from Fortaguada’s Flickr photostream – but they are very similar in style].

The Corsham complex is not open to the public – but public tours of it are available via a variety of virtual studies. Thus BBC Wiltshire’s website (BBC 2009) has a set of 360 degree photographs depicting this state citadel, whilst the BBC’s World Service (2005) provides a feature on the site as part of an English language teaching programming (for spies?).

Meanwhile, the Reader’s Digest’s Secrets of Underground Britain DVD series (Croce 2008) provides 20 minutes of underground footage and comment from the depths of the complex, including interviews with the manager of the complex and the RAF commander with overall responsibility for the base above. They both, with wry smiles, comment on some of the more fantastical claims made about the site from the conspiracy theory extremes of the family of genres by which this place is made ‘known’:

“Rumours abounding about the facilities down here. At one time we were said to be the UK’s Area 51, we have alien space craft down here, and we have experimentation with aliens [PAUSE] which people, they can go out and think that if they want to.” (Interview with the Mine Manager, Andy Quinn, in Croce 2008)

Thus the Corsham complex, in various sources, is depicted in a manner that presents a process of exploration and uncovery of ‘a secret base’. Not surprisingly, this allows speculation about ‘other’ secrets to remain – and requires even those who own the facility to at least acknowledge (albeit ironically) conspiracy theory and apocalyptic tropes.

Repurposing a once secret citadel

From their investigations into the ways in which bunkers and other military structured come to be encultured both Beck (2011) and Flintham (2012) have argued that the urge to (and facilitation of) the transformation of Cold War bunkers from ‘secret’ to ‘known’ status may have a dulling effect, that blinds or obscures the viewer (and particularly the bunker-enthusiast) to the military machine that continues to dwell elsewhere in other bunkers which are still very much operational (or standing in readiness for operation).

I don’t disagree with their point here – but I would view this side-effect of knowing as more viewer-led than perhaps they would. I don’t see a cunning plan behind this de-naturing, cherishing or rendering banal of abandoned bunkers. Instead I see a process of projection at work here – meanings are projected onto these blank structures by a variety of cultural groups, and culture comes to absorb these places, for they cannot exist outside the human urge to interpret, categorize, story-tell and re-use.

These last two (story-telling and reuse) bring me to the latest irony that strikes me about the life of this once secret and apocalyptically focussed place. That irony is the co-option of the site by filmmakers, who appear to have been given extensive access to this facility to film episodes of the recent BBC children’s television drama, The Sparticle Mysteries. In that series a group of children find themselves suddenly bereft of all adults (the adults have disappeared due to some sub-atomic accident or other that appears to have a link to a fortune teller’s booth at a funfare, I confess that I never quite managed to work it out in my snatched viewing). The series comprises a series of quest-type journeys, one of which leads them into a bunker complex, replete with self-acting intelligent security technologies, and lots of provisions assembled for civic and military survival – but no adults. Pretty much a depiction of the facility at the time of McCamley’s first incursion.

Life imitating art imitating life here I think…

In 2005 the Ministry of Defence attempted to sell off portions of the complex – but the sale attempt was unsuccessful. Meanwhile in 2008 English Heritage commissioned a comprehensive survey of the underground facility – perhaps one day this vast 35 acre Cold War tomb, including its 10 miles of internal roadways will be open to all, not just film crews and adventurous explorers.

For more see urban explorer’s video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5FsIbx_WAuo and http://www.burlingtonbunker.co.uk/?ref=news.

Source of photographs: Fortaguada’s photostream http://www.flickr.com/search/show/?q=bunker&w=53098302%40N00&ss=2

BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) (2005) ‘Weekender – Wiltshire’s Underground City’ feature on BBC website. Available at:


BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) (2009) ‘Wiltshire’s Underground City’ feature on the BBC website. Available at: www.bbc.co.uk/wiltshire/underground_city/

Beck, J. (2011) “Concrete ambivalence – Inside the bunker complex” Cultural Politics 7 79-102

Croce, B. (Dir.) (2008b) Secrets of Underground Britain – Volume 3:  modern mysteries, London: Readers’ Digest Association Inc.

English Heritage / Oxford Archaeology (2008) Joint Support Unit (JSU), Corsham – A characterisation of the quarries, their 20th century defence uses and related above ground infrastructure, copy available at: http://corsham.thehumanjourney.net/pdfs/CORSHAM_report.pdf

Flintham, M. (2012) ‘The Military-Pastoral Complex: contemporary representations of militarism in the landscape’, Tate Papers (available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/military-pastoral-complex-contemporary-representations-militarism)

Hennessy, Peter (2003) The Secret State – Whitehall and the Cold War, London: Penguin.

Hot Cherry (n.d.) ‘Going Underground’ article published in Bizarre Magazine, available at http://www.hot-cherry.co.uk/writing6.htm (Last accessed 5 August 2010).

McCamley, N.J. (2005) Secret Underground Cities, Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military.

McCamley, N.J. (2007) Cold War Secret Nuclear Bunkers – The Passive Defence of the Western World During the Cold War, Barnsley: Pen & Sword Military Classics.

Orton, J. (nd) Jason Orton Website, available at: http://www.jasonorton.com/web/index.html.


Drawing a square upon the ground: the complexity of memory in a changing environment


Guest blog by Annie Harrison.

This article draws on the work Annie is doing for her MA by Research in Art Practice at MIRIAD, Manchester Metropolitan University and an associated artists’ residency at Lime, an arts and health organization. Annie also works as a Project Assistant in the School of Medicine at the University of Manchester.

My art practice is concerned with place and memory.  Both contribute to our sense of belonging, which in its turn plays a part in social cohesion.  I am particularly interested in how memory is affected by the loss of place, and how the visual arts can aid memory in a rapidly changing urban environment.  In my MA, I am researching the site of the recently redeveloped Central Manchester Hospitals and working with hospital staff to recover what the Swiss artist Christian Boltanski calls ‘small memories’, the memories of ordinary people.

Dickens knew all…

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New uses for old bunkers #6: re-burying rare industrial metals inside Swiss mountains

Now here’s a weird conjunction of themes that I wasn’t expecting to stumbled upon: an excuse to combine metal theft and the evolving life of bunkers in one place…

Yesterday I took a break from tracing the afterlife of defensive shelters, and blogged about metal theft and the world price of copper. Today I stumble upon the following – companies offering underground and other bunker-like storage facilities to enable investors to securely hoard stocks of ‘rare earths and precious industrial metals’, including vaults deep inside the Swiss Alps:



The video speaks for itself really, but just to underpin the point, here’s a quote from another metal broker/storage company (this one’s Panamanian registered but also provides its storage in secure Swiss compunds):

“Physical ownership of rare strategic metals like Tellurium, Hafnium, Tantalum, Indium and the precious industrial metal Silver, is one of the best ways to preserve your wealth during the current economic crisis. Together with one of the largest metal traders in the world, Haines & Massen (since 1948) we have selected specific rare technical metals used in 80% of industry, including production of the new CIGS (Copper, Indium, Gallium, Diselenide) PV thin-film solar cells. These rare industrial metals are steadily increasing in value because of an extreme supply and demand situation created by China’s monopoly of rare earth and technical metals. You will benefit from the rapid growth of the world’s developing economies that are consuming massive amounts of these rare earth, technical metals, and driving up their value. Developed industrial powerhouses like the USA, Japan, Germany, and Korea etc., are also in need of ever-increasing amounts of technical metals. Chinese rare industrial metal exports are not meeting current global demand. New mining operations around the world are rushing to try and contribute to the global supply of rare industrial, technical metals. If and when these startups ever do come on line, they will not be able to meet an exponentially growing demand. This supply and demand scenario will only insure that the metals will increase in value each year and further enhance the value of your SMA metal assets. Swiss Metal Assets S.A. (SMA) and Schweizerische Metallhandels A.G. have been helping Europeans and Americans protect their wealth in Switzerland since 2005. Your allocated metals will be stored in a high security vault system within the Duty Free zone outside of Zurich, established in 1923. This is your opportunity to counteract the negative effects of inflation and devaluation on paper currency by buying Rare Earth Metals.” (from http://www.swissmetalassets.com/)

In case you’re wondering – no, I’m not working on a commission or offering investment advice…

I’m just struck by the irony of going to great lengths to extract metals from deep underground and then paying to securely burying them back in the depths of the Earth.

Neat graphs, underlying patterns: updating ‘Assets Under Attack’ to address the ‘double-hump’ in metal theft

Earlier this month I was invited to join a Canadian radio debate on CBC’s current affairs programme, The Current. I was to speak on the ‘international’ dimension of metal theft: both in terms of causes and policy responses around the world. My contribution would have drawn on my 2008 article Assets under attack: the dark side of the global recycling market (Bennett 2008a & b), but the feature was curtailed at the last minute, my international contribution axed and I was stood down, unneeded.

But the invitation had got me looking back at the ‘state of the world’ picture presented in my 2008 article and starting to update it. So, here I present some sketched findings – by way of an update to that 2008 picture.

Metal graphs

Shortly after my original paper was published the world hit the September 2008 financial crisis. The World economy faltered and metal prices (along with most other indices of economic health) took a tumble. It seemed that the metal price bubble had burst. I thus turned my attention to other projects, until last Autumn’s public furore about brass plaque thefts from war memorials here in the UK attracted my attention back to metal theft as an intriguing (and objectionable) phenomenon.

They say a picture’s worth a thousand words – and in the case of metal theft this is particularly true. Here’s a graph from the London Metal Exchange showing the cash buyer price for copper between January 2004 and May 2012. The price is US$ per tonne.

[Graph from LME 2012]

The bubble I was writing about in early 2008 is the first three-peak mountain. The dip is the ‘credit crunch’. The (even higher) peak to the right is the current bubble. And it’s even higher than the (then) ‘highest ever’ that I was writing about in 2008.

The 2004-2012 fortunes, need to be seen in a longer-term context. Here, spread over a 20 year period the ‘hike’ of the past six years is even more marked.

[Graph from Quercia 2011]

Or, for those who are less pictorially inclined, here’s another way of presenting the message: since 2001 the price of copper has increased 500%.

My article addressed both copper and lead. If we look at the fate of the cash buyer price for lead we see a similar (but not identical) ‘double-hump’ for the same period. The difference is that the post-2008 recovery for lead is less aggressive (but still remarkably buoyant at a time of supposed once-in-a-lifetime World economic woes).

[Graph from LME 2012]

And what of the correlation of price to metal theft levels as glimpsed via consequent insurance claims resulting from it? Well, again the picture can do the talking here too (the data is from Ecclesiastical, the UK’s main insurer of church premises):

[Source: http://www.churchbuild.co.uk/2011/07/metal-theft-church-buildings/%5D

What I think we see in the 2007-08 phase is a clear correlation between the lead market price and  the rate of claims. But after 2008 the relationship is less clearly aligned – possibly indicating that either church security measures are now more effective and/or that the lower recovery of lead prices (compared to the recovery for copper) makes copper a more attractive element to target: that lead theft is becoming relatively less attractive. Alternatively it might indicate that insurers are better able to deter claims from victims of metal theft. Remember here that lead theft is focussed towards a more specific set of targets: primarily churches and schools, premises which are owned by relatively sophisticated and co-ordinated institutions, and served by a small number of ‘public sector’ focussed insurers.

But copper is far more ubiquitous as a building element – found (almost) everywhere as pipes and cabling. High profile campaigns have alerted the public (and legislators) to the infrastructural impact on the railways and power distribution networks, but even with these assets now (relatively speaking) better protected, there are still plenty of other ‘easy’ targets for mundane (but dangerous) copper theft.

A graph considering the claims/price relationship for copper for the post 2008 hump has recently been issued based on National Insurance Claims Fraud Bureau data on US copper theft related insurance claims.

[Source: http://www.supercircuits.com]

If we take insurance claims as a proxy for levels of copper theft from the built environment, a steady rise in claims, would suggest an underlying rise in metal theft (reflecting a price/crime relationship).

Metal markets

In my 2008 Article I explored the contribution of Chinese demand to driving the 2006-08 price hump (particularly as regards copper).  I also highlighted the role of the rising automotive market in the Indian sub-continent (lead being needed for car batteries). So, do these influences stand post-2008?

There is still little in the way of academic analysis devoted to this or any other aspect of the metal theft phenomenon. But an interim report in November 2011 by Pol-Primett, Metal theft: An emerging threat to Europe’s economic security? (Quercia 2012) helpfully draws together some of the available economic data on the state of the world copper supply market.

The world copper price reflects changes in the world economy – but also events and pressures within the copper industry itself. Thus the 2010 price spike was at least in part due to the effects of the Chilean earthquake in February 2010 and its disruption of copper mining in that region. For these reasons the future fate of copper prices is difficult to predict. But these factors (the world-economy generic and the copper industry specific) rejoin in the interaction of project finance markets, confidence to develop new extractive capacity and prospects of production expansion. With the finance markets drying up, it has become harder to bring more productive capacity on stream. Thus world copper mining production capacity was forecast to grow no more than 3% in 2011. Quoting from the International Copper Study Group (ICSG) Global Copper Scrap Report 2010  the Pol-Primett report also notes that:

“The discovery rate of large copper mines as Oyu Tolgoi in Mongolia (300 kt-cu per year of mine capacity at least) is falling and the expected contributions of mine capacity expansions are expected mainly in small and not in big mines in production.” (14)

This should be contrasted with the relatively subdued world price of copper sustained during the period 1966 to 2004, which has been attributed by a number of studies to excessive global copper supply (in relation demand) due to vigorous expansion of copper mine capacity during that period.

In short, there is not much scope for a dramatic increase in global copper production for the foreseeable future, therefore copper prices are likely to remain high. And nothing has changed to alter the sobering quote, used in Assets Under Attack, that Chinese demand can but rise – for “currently the US consumes 50 pounds of copper per capita each year, while China is using only one pound.” (Goldworld, 2008)

This prediction of an ongoing contribution of Chinese developmental demand is backed by Egbert Tölle’s report for the European Commission on Natural resources, secondary raw materials and waste (Tölle 2007). The economic boom in China explains a third of the worldwide increase in the demand for raw materials. For example that China’s metal commodities imports have multiplied by a factor of 4 to 10 over the past decade”. And the world supply situation, according to Tölle, is further exacerbated by the fact that China restricts the export of raw materials, including taxes between 10 and 15 percent on the export of copper of various forms.

It is perhaps not surprising, given that China’s demand is 1 million tonnes greater than its home-produced copper supply, that it would seek to keep as much of that indigenous copper as possible, in order to meet the need for – in particular – a rapidly increasing demand for automotive, electronic goods, and electrical wiring.

The net result of the world suddenly finding itself with a supply/demand imbalance and the resurgence of world copper prices not seen since the early 1960s, is that the shortfall in ‘virgin’ copper triggered an increased focus upon secondary sources – i.e. recycling copper already in the man-made environment. This, in turn, has triggered criminals to pillage copper, and other metals, from the built environment before they have actually reached the end of their current working life.

My concern here is with metal prices and their relationship to metal theft. But it is interesting appreciate that many commodities are also soaring in price. The following graph caught my attention in this regard:


Looking at this graph I was tempted to add a flippant comment to the effect that “it helps explain why we are not seeing a wave of cattle rustling”, but a few moments thought reminded me that actually we have seen a resurgence of rustling in recent years. In the UK theft of sheep are – apparently – on the increase. An article in the Daily Mirror reported that 30,000 sheep had been stolen in the UK in the first eight months of 2011, at an estimated cost of £5 Million (White 2011). The logistics of stealing a herd of sheep implies that this is not an opportunistic crime, but rather one of relatively sophisticated gangs, aware of the value of these assets as commodities, and having confidence in an ability to integrate these ‘raw materials’ back into the legitimate consumption chain via willing production interfaces (in the case of sheep: abattoirs, in the case of metal theft: scrap yards). The inherent ‘rationality’ is attested to by an NFU Mutual representative interviewed by the Daily Mirror, who characterised the evolution of ‘stealing from farms’ thus:

“In the last decade, ­livestock rustling has been at historically low levels, while farm thieves concentrated on stealing quad bikes, tractors and power tools. High meat prices and improved security appear to be leading to a resurgence in livestock rustling.”

Crimes like metal theft (and sheep rustling) are anomalous. They lack the ‘glamour’ of what we might think of traditionally as either ‘organised’ crime or ‘international’ crime, yet they are show by the above to be very much a reflection of truly global systems, and whilst each event of theft may be localized in its event-space, and low value in terms of the assets taken, aggregated to national and international level (and having regard to the disproportionate cost caused by damage and disruption to infrastructure in the case of metal theft) they are truly significant, for metal theft is now estimated to cost the UK a staggering £770million p.a. (HoC 2012).

Too neat?

By background and inclination I’m a qualitative researcher. This means that I prefer the realm of words, to that of numbers. But I find that I am in awe of the graphical presentation of these statistics. I can understand a picture better than a calculation of standard deviation or some other numerical way of portraying what the graph effortlessly shows me. I also have a healthy distrust for any situation that claims to portray reality neatly. My research training told me that most cause and effect relationships I would ever encounter in social research would be spurious. Social reality is too complex (and messy) to capture in numbers and on charts. So, looking at the graphs presented here I find myself captivated by their neatness, the closeness of the correlation between apparent ‘causes’ and ‘effects’. I know these parallel lines don’t prove causation – but in my gut it all feels incontrovertible. Early on in Assets Under Attack I quoted The British Transport Police’s Deputy Chief Constable, who interviewed in The Guardian in May 2007 had stated:

“You have only got to look at the rising copper price on the metal market and the theft of copper matches that rise almost entirely.”

It still seems too neat – but nothing I’ve found contradicts this ‘common sense’ reaction to the data. But, I’m not a statistician or an empirical criminologist (I’m just an environmental lawyer cum urban geographer cum many other things). So, it was reassuring to see the appearance of a ‘proper’ study by some statistically inclined quantitative researchers at the Jill Dando Institute of Crime Science, at University College, London. In their study of the relationship between levels of railway cable theft and copper price movements, Sidebottom et al (2011) found a sober, statistically reliable, correlation between these two variables. So, there is now sound ‘science’ confirming what the more qualitatively inclined have ‘felt’ all along. The correspondence between theft and price is genuine.

And armed with that correlation, we can shed interpretative light on the risky human reality of the local events of plunder. For it, for example, helps to explain why a scavenger stands hacking at a section of railway signalling cable, risking his life and the comfort of many thousands travelling on the line, somewhere in remote barren depths of South Yorkshire. It can explain an individual’s actions by reference to sweeping abstract global forces and materialities, expressed through the lure of turning copper into cash in a black economy transaction later that evening. Not many areas of research into the built environment require such lurches of scale in the interpretative process.


Bennett, L. (2008a) ‘Assets Under Attack: metal theft, the built environment and the dark side of the global recycling market’, Environmental Law & Management, 20 (4), 176-188. Available at: http://shura.shu.ac.uk/683/

Bennett, L. (2008b) ‘Metal theft – anatomy of a resource crime’ (unpublished) companion paper to ‘Assets Under Attack’. Available at http://shura.shu.ac.uk/4125/

Goldworld (2008) Copper fundamentals still bullish – an investment report, at www.goldworld.com

HoC (2012) Metal Theft – Commons Library Note, House of Commons: London http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN06150

LME (2012) London Metals Exchange website: http://www.lme.com/non-ferrous/index.asp

Quercia, P. et al (2011) Metal theft: An emerging threat to Europe’s economic security? Pol-Primett: http://www.agenforitalia.it/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=28:pol-primett&catid=2:projects

Tölle, E. (2007) Ad hoc group 10 Natural resources, secondary raw materials and waste, European Commission, Enterprise http://ec.europa.eu/enterprise/policies/sustainable-business/files/environment/hlg/june_07/e_toelle_en.pdf

Sidebottom, A. et al (2011) ‘Theft in Price-Volatile Markets: On the relationship between copper price and copper theft’ Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 48 (3), 396-418.

White, S. (2011)Dramatic rise in sheep rustling costing farmers £5million a year’, The Daily Mirror, 3 October  http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/weird-news/dramatic-rise-in-sheep-rustling-costing-82837