New uses for old bunkers #15: down the escape hatch – men, shelters and retreat
July 13, 2012 Leave a comment
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.
Gender, Place & Culture pp. 1-17 | DOI: 10.1080/0966369X.2012.701197 (free access via http://www.tandfonline.com/eprint/urKfA4GJ8erFGDzVkjfc/full)