Stories of owning and dwelling: a plantation hilltop near Boston and a car park near Torquay

I’ve just finished reading a book entitled Trespassing – an inquiry into the private ownership of land by the North American nature writer John Hanson Mitchell. The book was first published in 1998  and over its 300 pages explores Nashobah Plantation, a sixteen square mile rural hilltop estate 35 miles west of Boston, Mass. Mitchell’s is a search for the essence of this area, though consideration of the ‘interactive effects’ of its ownership history over the 350 years since it was ‘granted’ to a local Indian tribe on the occasion of their Christianisation.   He chronicles the decline of Indian ownership and the means and stages by which – through subdivision – the hilltop passed into the ownership of various reclusive orchard owners, arable farmers, developers, public utilities and recreational trusts. What is striking about Mitchell’s approach though is how he weaves himself, and those who he meets during licit and trespassing excursions, into this story.

By ‘interactive effects’ I mean how that succession of ownership was something made by (i.e. brought about by) actors in the story, but also how the rights and expectations conferred by ownership status acted back upon those actors – shaping their performance of notions of ownership, stewardship and territoriality over their portions of this hilltop. Whilst conceptualisation in terms of performativity is my overlay here – it is what Mitchell’s book effectively portrays in its attentive examination of this place and its layers.

The final parcel of Indian owned local land was sold to white settlers in 1736 by Sarah Doublet, the last living member of her tribe and throughout his book Mitchell weaves in and out of the image of that event and the ways in which it might be interrogated. He closes his book with the following reflection on the limits of an archive-only reading of this place and this act of ownership transfer:

“And we who are, by reason of English Law, the inheritors of this corner of the Western world do not know the full story of those who were the people of this place. We know only that she, Sarah Doublet, relict widow of said Thomas Doublet,  in consideration of the sum of five hundred pounds in bills of credit paid to her by Elnathan Jones, Gentleman, and Ephraim Jones, did fully and absolutely, give, grant, bargain, sell alien, convey, and confirm unto them and their heirs and assigns forever in equal shares, a certain tract of land.

We know only that if we go to brightly lit local town offices, as I sometimes do, we will be directed to a computer, and instructed to enter the name and street address of a certain tract of land in which we have an interest, and that there, on a clean, cold screen, we will see written certain facts and figures, the book, the page, and number, inscribed in the state archives, a record, a map, an accounting of structures, of square footage of those structures, of acreage within said boundaries, of taxes owed, and taxes paid, and then we will be instructed to unfold a large blueprint map and there, in straight lines, and inscribed with numbers and angles, we will see the place that was Nashobah, where this Sarah and her people once lived.” (290-1)

Mitchell is reflecting here on the fact that the ‘historical record’ (such as it exists) is a trail of land grants, transfers and related ownership and taxation records. These show how title (i.e. ownership) to the hilltop, and its parcels, devolved over time but other than providing names, they can give little insight into the human stories (whether of exchange or of use) that sit behind those documents.

Mitchell  bridges this deficit through an evocative medley of wise conjecture, interviews with long-standing residents, probing present territoriality via recreational trespass (‘cross-lot walking’ as he calls it) and at every turn an embodied celebration of the scenery.

The points that he makes in the paragraphs quoted above about the limits of the archive are all sound and important, but as a nature writer his main aim in his book is actually to flag the constitutive relevance of the ‘alien’ lawscape. He is showing his primary audience that this landscape cannot be understood without regard to the abstract imprint of law and its notions of property upon the land.  Whilst I – as a lawyer – instead counter-read his book as a refreshing example of how there is more to ownership than the legal dimension.

Mitchell and I would in default, approach this place from different disciplinary (and discursive) angles, but we happily meet in the middle, and that’s the point both he and I would want to make. To characterise landscape as dwelt place you need to meld the land, the laws and the people (the material, the discursive and the social if you wish).

In breaks during reading Mitchell’s book I have wandered the suburban fringe lanes on my doorstep here in my mother’s home town. These are narrow, high banked, rich red earth lanes with thick vegetation curling back over to form dense tunnels. Walking down them feels timeless, only the drone of traffic on the nearby ring-road breaks the revere. But wandering these lanes, and the way that they cut-through the later-built settlements in a way that would make no sense if those settlements had been built first, chimes to the enduring power of ancient trackways (and their attendant use-rights) to continue to shape the landscape as it urbanises.

And what of this town’s urban-fringe farmers? How would they compare to the reclusive stewards of property and self-contained freedom that Mitchell encountered on his travels? Presumably they are used to public access, they have no choice where public rights of way cut across their land (a legacy effect alien to Mitchell’s wander zone). Perhaps these farmers are content to bide their time – to await the subtle creep of urban development beyond the confines of the townscape into this  supposedly greenbelt hinterland. The focus of new development (out of town shopping centre, business park, new road scheme) has all been in this area in recent years.

At times whilst reading Mitchell’s book I have looked up, and out through the net curtains of my mother’s home at the expanse of roughly concreted parking bays, elderly ‘lock-up’ garages, unadopted side lane and expansive municipal gassed bank beyond that lie at the rear of her 1970’s terrace house. She has often regaled me with anxious stories about that land, its ambiguous status and uses. For, when these houses and the ‘facilities’ at the rear were originally built they formed part of a unified development scheme – a ‘council estate’ in which the houses, the paths, the roadway and the garage land were all built and owned by the local council. The council mended the road, painted the railings, leased the garages and parking places to its tenants. It also cut the grass on the expanses of communal embankments.

But then along came ‘right to buy’. Some of the houses in this terrace where taken into private ownership and the council’s unity of control (and responsibility) was lost. Subsequently the cash strapped council divested its remaining ownership of houses and ancillary land and facilities here to a ‘housing association’. The result: ambiguity and inattention. The unadopted alley is not tended by the council, the railings sit unpainted, the garages have fallen into disuse and the parking spaces are appropriated daily by staff from the local hospital, driven here by a desire to avoid the expense of the hospital’s now imposed ‘pay and display’ charges and the subsequent permit-only parking restrictions introduced by the council to deal with the knock-on parking burden inflicted upon the local streets.

But the orphan status of this ‘back of the houses’ zone leads to little prospect of enforcement of parking restrictions in this place. This is not ‘highway’ (therefore it falls outside of the council’s remit), and it is no-longer council land. Some of it is housing association land, but they have no incentive to intervene. Via ‘right to buy’ some of the parking spaces are now private – but with little prospect for protection of that privacy short of verbal or physical confrontation with the hospital parkers, pre-occupying the space with your own car or appealing to their better nature via home-made ‘disabled parking space’ signs which approximately ape the stylistics and words of official signage.

If I ever wrote a book about this place, in the spirit of Mitchell’s approach, my mother’s views would get a good outing. But I’d need also to speak to the farmers who once owned this land, the council’s housing department officials who proudly made this poured-concrete estate amidst communal grassland, the right-to-buyers who proudly bought-out their places, the succession of housing associations who have owned the remnants and the opportunistic hospital staff and tradesmen who walk proudly each morning from their cars, pleased in the knowledge that they have once again ‘beaten the system’; that their skill and local knowledge has found them this secret – free of charge – parking place. A place unknown to everyone else.

Except for my mother, her neighbours and everyone in the past who has ever dwelt here.

Mitchell, J.H. (1998) Trespassing – an inquiry into the private ownership of land, Perseus: Reading, Mass.

Through walls with wifi, Georges Perec and the IDF

“What happens behind the flats’ heavy doors can most often be perceived only through those fragmented echoes, those splinters, remnants, shadows, those first moves or incidents or accidents that happen in what are called the ‘common areas’” (Perec, 1978: 23)

Wandering through walls

I’m back in Torquay again on family business, back in that strange situation of being somewhere I once knew well, but which now feels a slightly strange place; a place which operates life differently to how I’ve become used to living it. This is a slower place (not that Sheffield is particularly fast). Here things follow slightly different rules and orientate around different hubs.

This is an old-world of ornaments, dusting and sweeping, net curtains, the ritual exchange of greetings cards and close observance of the ailments and decline of acquaintances. It is also a world largely bereft of wifi.

With the twitchiness of electro-withdrawal I went for a preoccupied walk around the local neighbourhood. My aim and preoccupation? Wifi squatting in order to download a suddenly longed for e-book.

I walked the streets searching for unsecured wifi signals bleeding out from the homes I slowly walked past. Eventually I found one and attended to my business. Most of the signals I detected were secured, and most retained their ‘out of the packet’ abstract machine names for their private networks. But a few had been personalised, giving a glimpse into each home’s deportment. From proud declaration of the identity of a family domain (‘The Bakers’) to compression of the postal address (‘the Laurels’) or a sign of a personal attachment or domestic-technical dominance (‘Mike’s). I’ve seen a fair few wifi names on my recent travels – and ‘The Wank Network’ takes the biscuit (so to speak). Yes, most of these networks are private – but whether or not they realise this their network names are broadcasting for all to read.

Anyway, this wandering cyber-snooping got me thinking about the ways in which we travel through walls, whether in making assumptions from a handful of external signifiers or via more sophisticated techniques and technologies. What therefore follows is a rumination on ways of going through walls.

Seeing through walls

“I put a picture up on a wall. Then I forget there is a wall. I no longer know what there is behind this wall, I no longer know what a wall is. I no longer know that in my apartment there are walls, and if there weren’t any walls there would be no apartment.” (39)

So writes Georges Perec in his 1974 essay Species of Spaces. Perec notes how by this adornment and functional obfuscation, the apartment wall’s function as a delimiter of place, of private and public, of ‘my’ private and someone else’s private is forgotten, rendered invisible. But it still operates.

I’m not a great fiction reader, but Perec’s essay has encouraged me to read some of his ‘novel’ Life: A User’s Manual (1978), a 600 page project in which Perec sought to remove the front wall from a Parisian apartment block and describe the image of each denizen, frozen in one moment on one day. I say ‘describe the image’ because Perec’s style is wilfully visual, his is storytelling as surveying. The reader is given depictive lists of the material content, arrangement and proportions of each room, and the rooms take on as much identity as their glimpsed inhabitants. Through this we get some sense of the independent lives of the building, the rooms and their material things.

So, in his novel Perec takes us via imagination (and a sense of the familiar) into these private, indoor spaces. Through his words we ‘see’ through the walls, but they are still there. The constellation holds. These places are not destroyed by this observation.

Walking through walls

But what of techniques that could physically take us (or others) through those walls? Here we encounter ‘home invasion’, a specific offence in the U.S.  A crime born of simply invading a home. In contrast English Law enquires into the purpose and acts of the trespasser before finding a criminal offence, whether via theft (burglary) or – now in England at least – the squatting of domestic premises.

Before they graduated to murder, the Manson ‘family’ relished a lesser form of house invasion – they would break into houses solely for the purpose of rearranging the furniture there, thrilling in expectation that that subtle intrusion would upset the comforting certainties of the residents’ dwelling there.

For Hannah Arendt violation of the private sanctity of the home was a fundamental breach in the fabric of civilised, democratic life. Physical incursion into a home speaks to a fundamental violation, a deeply unsettling act at the heartland of identity and comfort. Home invasion laws seek to acknowledge this intangible ‘essence of privacy and home’. An essence we can find embodied in Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights and its (qualified) respect for a quiet enjoyment of “home and family life.”

Which brings me to the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and its practice of ‘walking through walls’ when conducting ‘security operations’ in Palestinian townships, as investigated by ‘forensic architect’ Eyal Weizman in Hollow Land (2007), his masterful study of the architectural dimensions of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Weizman captures the normative destabilising effect of the IDF’s action by quoting one Palestinian resident thus:

“Imagine it – you’re sitting in your living room, which you know so well…And suddenly, that wall disappears with a deafening roar, the room fills with dust and debris, and through the wall pours one soldier after the another screaming orders. You have no idea if they’re after you, if they have come to take over your home, or if your house just lies on their route to somewhere else…[and pointing to another wall now covered by a bookcase, she adds] and this is where they left. They blew up the wall and continued to our neighbour’s house”. (195)

Weizman shows how those responsible for innovating the IDF’s urban warfare tactics found inspiration in Post-Structuralist thinking, turning Deleuze & Guattari’s notions of nomadism, smooth space and the rhizomatic action to a state’s advantage. Even social constructionism was co-opted, as one of the IDF’s strategists put it:

“This space that you look at, this room…is nothing but your interpretation of it…we interpret the alley as a place forbidden to pass through, and the window as a place forbidden to look through, because weapons await us in the alley, and a booby trap awaits us behind the doors…this is why we opted for the method of walking through walls…like a worm that eats its way forward, emerging at points and then disappearing…” (Weizman, 2007: 198-199)

Reading these testimonies of walking through walls reminded me of passages on floodwater ingress, in particular one that I’ve read recently in an account of the 1952 ‘great’ flood of the North Devon village of Lynmouth:

“The front door had been bolted and barred to withstand the pressure of the water. The fact that it was appearing around the back, showed that it was surrounding the cottages but no real alarm was felt until suddenly the front door, forced by a tree or boulder, crashed open to admit a waist-deep wave. As if to synchronize, the back door flew inwards and two surges of water met in the kitchen. There was no electric power and all witnesses agree on the feeling of impotence without light, and the deafening noise which intensified within minutes.” (Delderfield 1981: 31-32)

Whether by military action or floodtide, in each case the ‘privacy’ of the home was violated by a violent incursion from the outside, each forcing its way, ignoring (or assailing) the conventional forms of entry and/or exclusion. In each case the home was contaminated (materially and symbolically) by the arrival of things alien to it. In each case ‘home’ was invaded and despoilt.

I will now step back out into the street and see if that wifi hotspot is still unsecured. If it is you will be able to read this meditation on the fragility of walls and of their permeability…

Delderfield, E.R. (1981) The Lynmouth Flood Disaster, ERD Publications: Exmouth.

Perec, G. (1974) The Species of Space, Penguin: London

Perec, G (1978) Life, A User’s Manual, Vintage: London

Weizman, E. (2007) Hollow Land – Israel’s Architecture of Occupation, Verso: London

Rock, Paper, Scissors – writing lines on stone

“Dinorwig Quarry

slates’s massive broken hands

spread on a mountainside

but I cannot read the lines

in slate’s palms

[…]

great inclines

millions of hand

– placed slates hand

– touched slates

                  slates order

                  bulges buckles bursts

                  rubble

[…]

rockclimbers downwards

from a dream’s surface

first into a hole

called The Lost World

then into a Hades

called Heaven’s Walls”

These evocative lines are taken from Mark Goodwin’s haunting poem, In Slate’s Hands which weaves the ghosts of slate working lives, the materialities of what remains at this colossal abandoned site and the new uses and enthusiastic energies brought to this ruinscape by climbers and other explorers. There’s now a on-site recording of Mark reading his poem on site:

I stumbled upon Mark’s poem at the back of a borrowed copy of Ground Up’s stunning new climbing guide, Llanberis Slate (2011) – flicking through after wandering the site as part of my tour of North Wales quarry-climb sites with the British Mountaineering Council.

I’m not a climber, but I’m doing a research project in collaboration with the BMC looking at the enthusiasm of those who access such places, and the anxieties of those who own them. All my recent quarry / climb site touring will be the subject of reports and academic articles in due course. But in this blog I want to sketch out some thoughts on the ways in which different activities and perspectives each ‘write’ lines onto crags and quarry faces.

Rock

Mark’s poem captures the texture of the slate, and its planar essence. These shards of discarded rock are quintessentially linear, and thus seem to speak to something human and ‘made’ (deceptively – because the squareness and flatness is an inherent, natural quality of this rock). The place, its rubble and its quarried faces are an empire of shadow lines and grey-blue geometric angles. There is something text-like about these features. Something readable…

Paper

Investigating how enthusiasts come to such places, and how they come to know what to do when they get there is part of my project. Accordingly I found the climbing guide a fascinating read. The specialist terminology, the in-jokes, the explaination of how to use this place.

And in particular, the way in which the rock is read as a prospect. How the climber seeks out a viable route by reading the rockface. It is then climbed and that accomplishment then named and translated into a mapped route. I found page after page of photo-montage within the guide book. Grey quarry walls now animated by superimposed lines of do-ability and challenge. Virtual lines written by enthusiasm onto the rock.

It’s the virtual nature of this inscription that captures my attention most. Even if the routes are bolted, there will be little physically presented on site to depict the route. Almost all of the existence of these routes is virtual – existing in a blend of ‘local knowledge’, orally passed down (or across) or codified into climbing guides.

Scissors

There are many ways that owners (whether anxious, tolerant or enthusiastic about climibing and other after-uses of their sites) subtly write their will onto their land. I will analyse most of this elsewhere, but here I want to follow the theme of the virtual nature of this inscription. To do so I will switch to another site visited on my North Wales road-trip: the limestone crags of the Orme headland at Llandudno. The crags comprise an extensive linear climbing terrain that is segmented between ‘permitted’ and ‘unpermitted’ climbing zones due to geological weaknesses and concerns about proximity to nesting birds, public highways and passers by. But these restrictions are mapped virtually – by reference to the climbing guides.

On the ground there are few indications of which segments are permitted for climbing and which are not. The calibration of the segmentation embodied in legal agreements and thereafter in climbing guides is found only in physical traces, an indexical sign at the entrance (directing the would-be climber to his community’s guidebooks) and municipal hieroglyphics of stud and distance markers lingering on pavement curbs.

Subtle stuff then, these demarcations of ‘there, but not here’.

Link for details of Ground Up’s Llanberis Slate climbing guide (2011):

http://www.ukclimbing.com/forums/t.php?t=482135

Mark Goodwin, has now uploaded a field recording of a recital of In Slate’s Hands to Soundcloud:

http://soundcloud.com/kramawoodgin/in-slates-hands?utm_source=soundcloud&utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=twitter&utm_content=http://soundcloud.com/kramawoodgin/in-slates-hands

NB: there are other climbing/quarrying related blog posts by me at https://lukebennett13.wordpress.com/category/cliffs-crags-and-crevasses/, these cover such delights as parapets, bus rides to climbing centres, exploding mountains, bannister sliding, invisible urban quarries, weaseling and the myriad uses of hilltops and mountain tunnels.

New uses for old bunkers #16: a post about a book about a film about a journey to a bunker

This NUFOB# series is ploughing a psychological furrow at the moment – looking at the reverberation of bunkers and bunker imagery in a variety of manifestations. It won’t last forever, a more detached perspective will reappear soon, but here I’m staying in that moody place, and will be looking at the resonance of abandoned bunkers as places of mythic pilgrimage.

To do so I’m going to focus upon Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 file, Stalker and Geoff Dyer’s recent book Zona (2012) which I’ve just finished reading. Dyer’s book is a dreamy reflection upon how Tarkovsky’s film has weaved through his life and thoughts since he first saw it in the early 1980s. I will be doing likewise, linking Stalker, the roots of my bunker-awareness and interest in melancholic male wandering.

Dyer’s book is subtitled ‘A book about a film about a journey to a room’. And that neatly sums up what he has achieved. Except, that the room that the questers finally reach at the heart of the post apocalyptic ‘Zone’ is actually a bunker (one of the questers refers to it – in translation at least – as ‘Bunker 4’). Whether this large room is a bunker for containing the unspecified abnormality within, or protecting it from the normality that lies outside is never made clear. But the journey of the raggerdy middle aged questers is to this place. Everything builds up to the arrival there, and it is where the questers hope that everything will make sense.

 

 

I have only seen Stalker all the way through – in a single sitting – on one occasion. That was in the early 1980s, on TV. I was 12 and staying at my dad’s house. I remember thinking that this film was very strange. Much of it is in black and white and consists of three threadbare men shuffling their way towards ‘The Zone’. There are occasional tension points. But much of it is chilling for the absence of clarity about what is happening. Think Alien crossed with Waiting for Godot crossed with the melancholy spirit of a terminally slowed down Joy Division. In the rain.

One image stuck in my mind. The three characters clambering through a derelict factory in sodden clothing, looking small, frail, lost, abject against the backdrop of gnarled girders, corroding silos and pools of indeterminant industrial dross.

It was their dejected questing that struck me most – the travel – rather than the arrival. I think that frame, plus a few others, were the early seed for my interest in urban exploration and wandering. Other formative punctum were images of derelict Liverpool (it seemed always to be Liverpool) in circulation in gritty early 1980s TV dramas like Boys for the Blackstuff. Emasculated ex-labourers now picking over the carcass of former worksites (for a more light hearted version of this trope see the canal scene at the start of The Full Monty: an early instance of metal theft on film).

Then closer to home, there were my drawings aged five of complex interconnecting bunker-like complexes. A page wide array of tunnels, turrets and technicality. In those days ‘cuttaways’ were a common feature of print media, they seem less prevalent now. But then there seemed to be drawings and plans everywhere interpreting how things looked inside.

And there was a recurrent early childhood dream of a complex mechanical enfolding – an ambulant crush-monster that seemed to have some connection to a zebra crossing. Later-on a feverish dream one night of corroded tank cockpits the day before I was due to visit Salisbury Plain firing range with my dad. That visit didn’t happen, or if it did it didn’t leave much impression. But that dream-image lingered.

And then, me aged about six listening to my dad’s amateur dramatics group practising lines from a play he’d written for them. It was a play about the end of the world. The reason for that ending was unspecified, but the line that stuck in my young mind was “we ate Mrs Jones’ crackling yesterday”.

An innocuous line on one level – but only if you take Mrs Jones to have been the cook, rather than the cooked…

New uses for old bunkers #15: down the escape hatch – men, shelters and retreat

In this post I (sort of) summarise my article on gender and bunkerology, now pre-published on-line for the journal Gender, Place and Culture (Bennett 2012). I say ‘sort of’ because my GPC article considers a number of angles by which gender might be said to intrude into the differential lure of the bunker. In my article I signal early on that I don’t like the idea of ‘bunkerology = male’ but empirically I accept that there is some evidence that it mainly is. My article is an analysis of that unease.

Here I want to focus on just one angle – that of the bunker as gendered escapism: the shelter as a place of characteristically male hermitic (and hermetic) withdrawal. In doing so I will supplement my article (which was mostly written two years ago) with reflection upon outings of that male shelter-seeking trope that I’ve spotted in a number of films and TV shows I’ve watched since.

But before I do so, here’s the abstract for my GPC article, to give an idea of the various angles that I explore there:

“This article enquires into the motivations of ‘bunkerologists’ – a term coined for analytic convenience by the author to describe those who research, explore and survey 20th century military bunkers as a hobby. Specifically, it considers the gendered dimension of this predominantly male pastime. In doing so, the paper examines the role of a range of cultural influences, including signification of militarism, inter-generational initiation and remembrance around themes of defence and labour, human-technology relations, conquest, and hermitic escapism. These factors all appear to have roles to play in disposing individuals towards participation in this practice. The analysis finds the source of many of these influences within a particular mode of English male socialisation, and masculinities related to it, prevalent in the late 20th century, This analysis is grounded in an auto-ethnographic exploration of the biographical roots of the author’s own choice of this research topic and the effect of the research upon him and his family. Whilst the subject matter of the study may be regarded as somewhat arcane, the analysis of the role of socialisation within routes to participation in this predominantly masculine pastime may help to illuminate the motivational frameworks of other rarely studied, and seemingly introverted, ‘male’ hobbies like train spotting, stamp collecting and sport fishing (angling).”

Having done that, I’m now going to drill into the ‘male escapism’ angle. Here’s a quote from the relevant part of my GPC article:

“And what of the bunkerologists who appear to want to live in a bunker? Here we connect with the survivalist and the hermit, and need to start viewing the bunker as a shed. Arnot (2001) describes a Managing Director of a wire and cable making firm who owns a ROC Post, acquired for “the price of a small, second hand car”, over an hour away from his home. He visits it at weekends to enjoy his possession, cutting the grass, admiring the view and reflecting on his childhood experience of growing up during the Cold War. Here, a ROC Post appears to function – with an apocalyptic twist – as a beach hut, a country retreat, a cabin in the woods.

The lure of the bunker appears to tap into a primal instinct to seek and know places of shelter. For Bachelard (1969), there is something fundamental embedded within the human psyche, creating a deep meaning-making connection to places of shelter and dwelling. ROC Posts (like all forms of nuclear shelter) present themselves as spaces of dwelling. Each ROC Post comprises an access hatch, a toilet and one small rectangular underground room, built to a standard utilitarian design, with minimal furnishing – a toilet, a bunk bed, a desk and some chairs. Some ROC Post explorers are particularly ‘house proud’ about the sites that they visit. One bunkerologist is particularly keen in his accounts to emphasise the ‘left as found’ aspect: “I gave the post a quick tidy before I left, gave the floor a sweep, made the beds, took the chairs off the bed and put them out on the floor around the table. I “re-locked” the hatch the way I found it.” (X13)

Here are grown men (invariably they appear to be men and in their 30s-50s), re-making beds and realigning furniture in damp, dank underground chambers. In a handful of noted instances the participants have taken steps to renovate a bunker, either with the permission of the owner, or by buying it. These are restorationists, not subverters of place. These are den seekers, and they are protective of the information that might otherwise render access to those who would hurt these places.

Here we can theorise the bunker as shed. In 2002 Thorburn presented a study of Men and Sheds, interviewing proud shed owners and setting out a brief interview accounting for the motivations of each particular (male) denizen. The book was published as a quirky amusement – an ode to English male eccentricity – rather than a formal academic treatise, but it set some hares running (and was followed by more of the same in Jones (2004)). Joan Smith (2002) writing of it in The Independent in an article entitled ‘Beware men with sheds’, described the male fascination with sheds as a “widespread male fantasy”, one that has proved to be particularly strong in its appeal amongst male writers like Ernest Hemmingway, Roald Dahl and Dylan Thomas. Smith writes pithily of her encounter with the sheddism buried within masculinity: “I spent years trying to find a man with an internal life and ended up with a series of blokes with sheds”.

I find Smith’s portrayal of sheddism as an excuse for a properly lived life grating. It exudes a crude essentialism, equating the feminine as ‘strong’ and the male as ‘defective’. As Raven (1999) puts it, “There is nothing political, progressive or even vaguely amusing about the way women talk about men as if they were faulty appliances”. Smith’s approach rules out the prospect of women being able to have a valid shed-life (and according to www.readersheds.com many do).

However, ignoring the invective, Smith appears onto something when she concludes: “The point of a shed is that it is not a domestic space. It is a refuge, embodying fantasies of impermanence, making do, the frontier spirit. It also provides an escape from women.” and adds that, “…sheds reveal their symbolic function, as an embodiment of the clutter that fills a certain type of masculine mind” – and that that mind is happiest when absorbed in [in her words] “useless projects” and “surrounded by virtual strangers”.

Applying Smith, the bunker is another form of shed, another escape fantasy, and bunkerology and its books and internet forums, a virtual community where this ‘type’ of male can accrue knowledge and status in a social world that makes sense, and provides fulfilment to him. However, we should see these places as an alternative domestic sphere (rather than an anti-domestic space), for the ‘home making’ behaviours witnessed in dens, sheds and bunkers are re-creations of a certain stripped down space for living. They are inherently domestic, for they foreground the core functional needs and services of domesticity – the chemical toilet, the utilitarian (or improvised) furniture and the basic provision of eating, illumination and ventilation.

If the nuclear bunker is the ultimate symbol of retreat from the world, then those who seek out bunkers (particularly if they desire to reside in them) must (by Smith’s analysis) have significant issues with women and/or the complexities of ‘ordinary’ social and domestic life. In this regard it is worth considering the auction held in 2001 which attracted 49 bidders seeking to secure the right to spend the festive fortnight locked alone in a Cold War command bunker in Essex tucking into a Yuletide spread of cold baked beans, cold Spam and a glass of water. The winner, a 30 year old financial services worker, declared that he was fed up with Christmas, a season that always found him bickering with his family and that he “just wanted to get away from it all” (BBC 2001a). He displayed classic sheddism by announcing: “I have got plenty of books, I’m going to play chess against myself and I’ve got a writing pad so I might write my own novel” (BBC 2001 a). However, he left the bunker after only four days. A spokesman explained that playing chess against himself had got rather boring, he had realised that Christmas socialising wasn’t such a bad idea after all – and that, on leaving, he was going for a pint with his dad (BBC 2001 b).”

In my GPC article I then go on to look at instances where this shelter-seeking behaviour appears to have gone awry, bunker hunting intertwined with events of male anxiety, depression or psychosis. And here is where the films/TV programmes come in, for in them male shelter-seeking behaviour is presented as a metaphor for (and/or physical expression of) mental breakdown.

The 2011 film Take Shelter, presents a fictional study of a middle-aged man’s increasingly obsessive construction of a storm shelter for the protection of his family against a coming storm that only he receives premonitions of. The building tension of this man’s struggle with his sanity and crumbling job and family relationships is very powerfully presented. The effect is somewhat marred though by the film’s ending (I will stay vague here – if you’ve seen the film you will know what I mean). 

 

A similar invocation of this trope (interest in shelters = signs of a male breakdown) arises in a 2004 (Series 4) episode of Six Feet Under. In the episode (helpfully titled ‘The Bomb Shelter’) an elderly man becomes increasingly obsessed with restoring and re-stocking the 1950’s atom bomb shelter in his house’s basement, much to the frustration of his increasingly concerned female partner who wishes that he would instead direct his thoughts and energies towards repairing the growing cracks in their relationship.

But I’ve left the bleakest occurrence of bunker-love until last. In The Road (2009) the wandering father and son are delighted to stumble upon a vacant domestic shelter, stocked with survival rations and the home comforts that they have been denied whilst they roamed the post-apocalyptic ruinscape. Yet, their short sojourn in this longed for sanctury tells us something of the betrayal of the shelter, its weakness and vulnerability. After a sumptuous (tinned) meal, the father and son settle down to sleep in their protective underground capsule. But soon their slumbers are disturbed by sounds at ground level above. Someone (or something) is up there. It quickly dawns on these denizens that this shelter could easily become their tomb were they to become barricaded in (a duality that is also invoked at a point in Take Shelter). The next morning they quickly flee the bunker and return to the road.

They, and we, are left with the realisation that it is actually the open (and the ability to keep moving) rather than spaces of confinement that provide the best prospects for survival. Shelter is not always safety.

 
 
Bennett, Luke (2012) Who goes there? Accounting for gender in the urge to explore abandoned military bunkers
Gender, Place & Culture pp. 1-17 | DOI: 10.1080/0966369X.2012.701197 (free access via http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/urKfA4GJ8erFGDzVkjfc/full)

New uses for old bunkers #14: Gordon Brown’s last days in the bunker

In my 2011 article exploring the links between the metaphorical and material invocation of bunkers for Culture & Organization (Bennett 2011) I briefly drew attention to the ways in which the hostile print media hinted at parallels to Adolf Hitler’s last days in his Berlin bunker in their depictions of the end of Gordon Brown’s Prime Ministership. In allusions to Brown’s fatigue, stumbling with words and involuntary facial twitches the beleagured PM was cast as a physical embodiment of his crumbling regime. And Downing Street became portrayed as Brown’s ‘Bunker’.

An article in the Daily Telegraph, dated 5th June 2009 asked ‘Will Brown’s bunker mentaility finally destroy him?’ whilst a Daily Mail piece written on the day of Brown’s eventual resignation (13 May 2010) co-opted a photo essay by Martin Argles (originally commissioned for the left leaning The Guardian) of Brown’s last day in office, and gave it a bunker twist under the captioned : ‘The final moments in the bunker as Gordon Brown and Labour allies say farewell to No10’.

And there are many more ‘Brown’s bunker’ allusions that could be listed here. But the following video (one of a variety of ‘mash-ups’ using fraught clips from the film Downfall to parody a variety of current affairs issues), best captures this potent bunker-trope at work. In the juxtaposition of images of Hitler’s final days and the language and pre-occupations of the last days of Brown’s rule we see this bunker image being mobilised, as it often is, for political ends.

And its not just Brown – the bunker seems to frequently surface in the portrayal of the fall of vilified leaders: but perhaps with a recent twist. The ranting from secret bunkers in the regimes last days gives way to every fallen dictator seeming to end up found in a dank improvised bunker-substitute (Gaddafi in a storm drain; Saddam Hussein in a hole; Osama Bin Laden in his mundane compound); and their final final-hours absence from their abandoned glittering fortified palaces and command centres is foregrounded in the victor’s narrative.

Bennett, Luke (2011). The Bunker: metaphor, materiality & management. Culture and Organization, 17 (2), 155-173. Link to published version:: 10.1080/14759551.2011.544894 (free access via http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/SMXzGcBiERc2MHpZAabc/full)

Floating in space – a response to ‘Mars is indeed a place”

I’ve just been re-reading Hondartza Fraga’s mesmerising blog essay ‘Mars is Indeed a Place’ and wanted to set up a recommendation link to it, but inspired by Hondartza’s piece I also wanted to add some images of space, exploration and floating which I’ve always found very potent and which her piece reminded me of.

So, here’s the link to Hondartza’s blog essay:

http://dartzee.wordpress.com/2012/07/01/mars-is-indeed-a-place/

And specifically here is the ‘floating’ meditative video clip there that started off my chain of association:

 

Here are the images and sources that Hordartza’s work brought to mind.

First, a 1972 image from Nasa’s archive as digitised by photographer Michael Light (great name) in his 1999 book Full Moon.

There is a slideshow of 50 of Light’s book’s images at:

http://www.michaellight.net/workFullMoon.html

There is a haunting loneliness to nearly all of them. Space as big, dark. cold and…alien. Humans as small, frail and in awe. Bit like here:

And then I wanted to add this 1903 image of Shackleton’s stranded crew waving to their colleagues as they row off in search of rescue:

And finally (if anyone really wants to get deeply into the idea of floating in space):

 

The above is a trailer for First Orbit a real time reconstruction of Yuri Gagarin’s first human step into space. The full film is available to watch via free download at:

http://www.youtube.com/movie?feature=relmfu&v=RKs6ikmrLgg

I’m not going to write anything further in this post. For once, I’d like to leave the images and sources to speak for themselves…

…well, maybe just one quotation:

“If there were no railway to overcome distances, my child would never have left his home town, and I should not need the telephone in order to hear his voice. If there were no sea travel, my friend would not have embarked on his voyage, and I should not need the telegraph service in order to allay my anxiety about him.” (32)

Sigmund Freud (2004 [1930]) Civilisation and its Discontents, Penguin: London