New uses for old bunkers #10 – Embleton – they go and do it in that old pillbox
June 16, 2012 Leave a comment
It was going to happen sooner or later. This NUFOB series couldn’t stick with the genteel, art-inspired re-uses of bunkers forever. For balance there needs to be this tangent. The co-option of the bunker in aid of basic biological urges, away from prying eyes. A sheltered, damp and musty place for an illicit congress, rest or relief.
Perhaps I can segue into position by invoking The Halt’s recent haiku:
“A sunken pill-box, / looming in the withered light, / bids me make my bed.” (The Halt 2012)
But what I’m really focussed on here is bunker-as-toilet. At a recent conference I was approached by someone who had heard me give a paper on bunkers the day before:
“Ah, you’re the bunker guy. It was interesting what you had to say yesterday. When I was growing up in Suffolk there were abandoned bunkers everywhere. But they were cold, damp smelly places. You wouldn’t want to go inside. I was scared by them. People used to wee in them. But, not me, of course…”
To illustrate my theme here I pick out Embleton in Northumberland and its coastal pillboxes, not because this place is anymore exposed to the co-option of abandoned bunkers as toilets or teenage drinking dens than anywhere else, but just because I’ve been there and have a trail of material that I can draw on to give a site specific depiction of this type of bunker-dwelling.
Let’s start with a 2008 report for the local council which cryptically outlined potential threats to the Conservation Area value of the village thus:
“An appropriate solution to the vacant pillboxes, which are open to misuse, should be found, especially that to the south.” (NECT 2008: 37)
And then a 2009 report for the National Trust which put it more explicitly:
“The amenity value of the coast has less attractive consequences for pillboxes. The evidence from inside them suggests that those which are still accessible, particularly towards Embleton, are used for evening drinking amongst teenagers and somewhere to dump dog waste and nappy changing bags.” (Archaeo-Environment Ltd, 2009: 24).
The report includes a photo of a litter strewn pillbox interior, and I think the pillbox shown there is one I clambered into when I visited in 2010. There was some litter there then, and I recall having to gingerly step through a puddle of broken glass at the entrance. Once inside it was quite cosy. You wouldn’t want to bunk down on the floor, but yes – it would be fun as a teenager to hang out in there, away from adults’ prying eyes.
Leader (2011) captures something of this arena of bunker after-use when he writes:
“…the bunkers have lost the symbolic value that they once had: that of modernist precision, of imperialism, of protest and of military hindrance. These spaces have not only become uninhabited by people, but by symbolic value itself. They have become odd liminal spaces filled with graffiti, piss, litter, condoms. But where we would expect these transformations to signify some kind of mortification and death… [they actually testify to]…a strange kind of life perhaps, and one we might wish to avoid, but life all the same. Piss, excrement, condoms, obscene graffiti all testify to presence not absence, the side of human life that gravitates to the points where symbolic value has been extinguished or undermined.”
I think I’m happy to follow Leader up to the final sentence. But surely excrement and litter are themselves symbolic – with a rich resonance in the art of the abject. And also, if we think of bunkers as solely concrete in their ‘prime’ we miss sight of the organic life (and indeed the organs) of those who dwelt within them during that previous era. Even then there were people there drinking, sleeping, sheltering and attending to basic bodily needs with nervous regard to the hostile ‘other’ beyond the casemate.
Archaeo-Environment Ltd (2009) Historic Environment Survey for the National Trust Properties on the Northumberland Coast – General Background Report and Management Recommendations (a report for the National Trust, ref: Report No: 0058/8-09). Available at: http://www.aenvironment.co.uk/File_transfers/Northumberland%20Coast/0058-8_Final%20General%20Report.pdf
Leader, D. (2011) ‘The Architecture of Life’ in Dillon, B. Ruins – Documents of Contemporary Art, Whitechapel Gallery: London.
NECT (North of England Civic Trust) (2008) Embleton Conservation Area – character appraisal and management matters – designation report, for Alnwick District Council. Available at: www.northumberland.gov.uk
The Halt (2012) Felixstowe to Lowestoft: a walk in 23 haiku. 97 miles, 3 days, no sleep, tweet 1 of 15 June: @thehalt